An extravagant love story

Built as a mausoleum for his third wife, the love of his life, who died whilst giving birth to his 14th child, Emperor Shah Jahan’s Taj Mahal was destined to be a highlight of our trip to India. There are some things that you have to see for yourself because photos just don’t do them justice, the Taj Mahal is one of those things. Upon entering the walled defences, the first glimpse of the magnificent, shiny marble building is breathtaking. Not only was it a work of love (twenty two years in the making), it is a work of art and genious, symmetrical in as many ways as possible. There was even meant to be a matching black marble Taj Mahal on the opposite side of the river for the king to be buried in, but his son decided his dad was being a fool spending too much money, and instead placed him next to the queen inside the white Taj, destroying the symmetry of it all.
We may not have got up early enough to see the Taj at sunrise but I still think it was worth the early start since as we were leaving (9am-ish) the sun was already becoming fiendishly hot and the crowds were beginning to swarm!
Several hours later we were back in Delhi, this time in the suburb of New Delhi which was a world away from the Old Delhi we had experienced two days ago. Suddenly there was order, wide roads and pavements, well kept parks and fancy buildings. Finally we could see the influence of the good old Brits and their empiring days.
We boarded our train bound for Amiritsar and found something that the Indians do far better than the Brits. Our ten pound, five hour train journey included being served with a whole manner of free meals from afternoon tea, dinner and ice-cream. It felt like we were travelling in style, I think British rail should take note!

Cambodian countryside

A combination of us feeling ‘templed out’ and the temples yet to be seen being too far away, and thus too expensive to get to, saw us hanging around in cafes and internet places once again today. Between our extensive ‘research’ on restaurants, cafes, internet shops and hotels (we are now on our third in Siem Reap) we could probably, by now, compile our own version of the Lonely Planet for this area.
The highlight of the day was a pre sunset quad biking trip through the Cambodian countryside. As we vroomed our way along dirt roads, seeking out the puddles for that mud splattered look (until I burnt my leg on engine splash back! – Si), we found ourselves attracting quite a lot of attention from the local villagers. In fact a bit of skillful, one-handed driving was called for to steer around whilst waving to the children who came running out into the road to shout hello. It was nice to see the children showing so much interest in us and I soon realised that their enthusiasm was partly (entirely?) fuelled by the lead quad-biker handing out sweets!
Just as we were getting the hang of child waving/swerving through the villages, the road opened out to reveal the countryside proper. Suddenly we were surrounded by acres of swampy green fields – rice paddy fields. It being almost sunset by now and therefore the end of the working day, this turned out to be the busiest stretch of road as lots of workers young and old, their bikes, tractors and cows were obviously making their way home.
Another sunset bagged and we began making our way home. Trying to navigate around the cows and ‘hello’ shouting children was even more tricky in the dark, plus now we also had to try to avoid running over the many frogs jumping across the road.
Our last supper in Siem Reap was a Cambodian BBQ, basically a DIY meal consisting of a clay pot of burning coals placed in the middle of your table alongside your choice of raw snake, ostrich, crocodile or kangeroo which you cook yourself. Very tasty but a bit too much like hard work.

It’s all about the journey

Sometimes the journey is just as good as the destination, which is probably just as well in this case as our journey from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang in Laos will haven taken two and a half days by the time we’re done. Today began with our crossing the border from Thailand into Laos via a short boat ride across the river. We then learned why it was necessary to have two hours allocated to the debaucle that was Laos Immigration Control!
Finally we were ready to board the slow boat to Luang Prabang (we took some advice from the guidebook and passed on the fast boat; it goes twice as fast but is ten times as dangerous – we waved off the helmet and life jacket wearing passengers not in the least bit envious!) The boat was actually a houseboat belonging to a Laos family who seemed to make their living from ferrying people up the river on board their home. It maybe wasn’t the most salubriuos of accomodations for the journey but we had a seat each and space to spread out. Any shortcomings were more than made up by the glorious scenery as we meandered our way down the Mekong river through rural Laos. We passed and stopped at several villages, characterised by wooden huts with thatched roofs, smiling locals, and the sound of laughter as happy children jumped and splashed around (naked) in the river. We arrived in Pak Beng, our home for tonight, feeling glad that we had ignored the advice of the man who tried to tell us that the boat was full and that we’d be more ‘comfortable’ on a mini bus for ten hours.
Pak Beng is a small town with one street of guesthouses and restaurants which surely must have popped up as a result of boat loads of tourists arriving every night and leaving again the next morning.
We thought we’d better try some traditional Laos food tonight – think a plate of minced up meat with lemongrass flavour… We’re looking forward to croissants for breakfast from the French bakery.

Country 9: Thailand

Today we had a second experience of our new favourite airline, Air Asia (what other airline provides shuttle buses to the airport for 1.5p?). This time the destination was Krabi in Thailand. We had been advised to check out Railays beach and so didn’t even stop to give Krabi a cursory glance as we jumped on a bus to Ao Nang, the jumping off point to Railays beach.
As it turned out Ao Nang is a bit of a tourist hot-spot and so was filled with ‘farangs’ (white people). We might not get to experience true, authentic Thai culture just yet but the competition for tourist money meant that we can stay in relative luxury and eat like kings for bargain prices, already we’re thinking we’re going to like Thailand.
By the time we had our beach clobber on and were ready to catch a boat to Railays it was getting late so we were considering delaying our trip until tomorrow. Watching the daytrippers return and have to exit their boats half way out to sea and come back soaked sealed the deal.
So we found ourselves walking along Ao Nang beach looking for a shady spot to settle in with our books. Before we could reach that spot we met ‘Oi’ a friendly Thai massuese who was keen to give us massages. I didn’t need much persuading and for 2 quid who could refuse. Some pineapple on lolly sticks secured the deal and I left Si to his pineapple and book while I indulged in a little R and R. One hour and one glorious massage later I rejoined Si on the beach feeling like a new woman with all my stresses and strains eased away! I’m feeling an obligation to do my bit for the Thai economy by having one of these every day…

It’s a hard life…

Today was all about chilling out on the beach. Long beach may not actually be that long and it may not be the most deserted beach but it is still a pretty perfect place to spend the day. So we found ourselves a spot under an umbrella, lathered on the sun-cream and just soaked up the sun, read, soaked up the sun some more and soaked ourselves in the sea every now and then to cool off. Occasionally we moved ourselves to go and satiate our tummies somewhere (found a new favourite drink; fruit shakes, basically just ice blended with fruit but so yum, especially in this heat).
And of course we indulged in a bit of our new favourite beach hobby; snorkelling. The water here is a perfect clear turquouise and there are two excellent snorkelling spots on this beach, one at each end. There is such a huge variety of pretty, muti-coloured fish to see as well as the interesting coral that you can easily spend ages just swimming around and marvelling at it all (unfortunately, the resulting snorkel face is not such a good look!).
Si helped me to find a Nemo so I was happy and of course he’s got his new favourite hobby; underwater photography so he’s happy. All in all, everyone’s happy and it was a pretty perfect day (just in case you are not jealous enough; we enjoyed beer / cocktails on the beach after sun-down…. Mmm 🙂

The Batu Caves

We have seen so many caves on this trip already that we almost gave the Batu caves, on the outskirts of town, a miss. Good job we didn’t though, nevermind stalagtites and stalagmites, these caves have something completely different to offer. They have become a Hindu shrine and as we drew close in the taxi we could see the huge gold Hindu statue reaching up into the sky.
To get to the main Cathedral cave you have to climb 272 steps which in this heat is quite a climb but it’s ok as there are several well-fed monkeys hanging around the steps to entertain you on the way. At the top and in the cave it is hard to notice any cave like features among the Hindu shrines and statues but once again it is the monkeys that steal the show.
Unfortunately I don’t know enough about the Hindu religion (I know I should being a teacher!) but the myriad of colourful and interesting statues of the many gods certainly do inspire me to want to learn more. Like the huge green monkey/tiger/human god statue. Not surprisingly Si was very interested in the statue of the half cow, half topless woman god.
The next cave was a Hindu art gallery and the best word to describe that would be unnatural! There was not much regard shown here for the ancient cave formations since they were painted in bright rainbow colours which complemented the colourful Hindu art work beautifully! Through the back of the cave we were surprised to find an almost impromptu reptile zoo with snakes, turtles and mini crocodiles. We weren’t really sure about the environmental / conservation policies here, especially since outside there were a couple of monkeys being kept in a cage whilst being taunted by one of the free monkeys leaping about on top of the cage!

Hopping around KL

Once again our day began with a visit to the Petronas Towers in an attempt to get up to the skybridge. But despite us being much earlier today (well it was before ten am!) we were still too late to get a ticket (turns out there are only one thousand given out each day and people start queueing at eight am! Not sure we are THAT keen!)
We may have mentioned that it is hot here but just to paint a picture, it is so hot that merely walking down the street and around the corner from one sight to the next leaves you hot, sweaty and exhausted. The only solution was to do the lazy touristy thing and jump on the KL Hop on Hop off bus. It probably took a lot longer than walking by the time the bus navigated the congested traffic of KL but the air conditioned comfort made it so worth it.
We hopped off at many sights from Freedom square (with KL’s answer to Big Ben), parliament house, the National Palace (reminiscent of Buckingham Palace where you peer in the gate but the most interesting thing to look at are the armed guards on horse back!) a colourful Hindu temple, the National Mosque (impressively simple inside but with the capacity to accomodate 15,000 praying muslims at any one sitting. Wow.) And lastly Central market where we practised our bartering and bought some more things we shouldn’t have.

Kuala Lumpur

Another day, another city to explore. Since the Petronas Towers is probably the most famous building in Kuala Lumpur we decided to make it our first port of call. Unfortunately our late night last night and our buffet breakfast with its many tempting offerings (we passed on the curry – not for breakfast!) meant that we were too late to get one of the free tickets up to the skybridge. So for today we had to make do with amusing ourselves in the tat, I mean tourist shop (selling every conceivable souvenir emblazoned with the towers or in the shape of the towers) and in the huge shopping mall at the base of the towers. I know it sounds like we spent a lot of our time at the moment in shopping malls but don’t worry we are not enjoying ourselves and spending lots of money on fine clothes, mainly we are just enjoying the air conditioned comfort!
We were in the mood for going up a high building today so we headed towards the KL Skytower, which is the fourth tallest communications tower in the world. We didn’t think 100 extra metres (compared to the Auckland tower) would make much difference but when we got up there it really did. It was high and everything down below looked like little dots. Even Si wasn’t tempted to do anything crazy like jump off from this height. Which was just as well since the ‘adrenalin’ entertainment in the form of a flying fox (only from the base of the tower which is at the top of a small hill) looked pretty tame. We weren’t quite sure what all the screaming was about, we could only conclude that these people obviously haven’t been to New Zealand.
As we left the tower we saw a couple of monkeys hanging around the sign that read ‘Don’t feed the monkeys’ (ah, if only they could read!). The sight of Malaysia’s answer to the kangeroo tempted us into the city rainforest walk to see if we could see anymore. Sadly the monkeys remained elusive, however we did encounter some wildlife, in the form of our arch enemies the mosquitos (is there no escape?)
On our way home we called into the Malaysia Tourist Centre and ended up trying lots of exotic Malaysian fruits, some nice, like the hairy mangosteen, some not so nice, like the rotten feet smelling durians, that are also banned from many public places, including our hotel!

Shopping in Singapore

It’s what every tourist brochure we have found tells you to do in Singapore, so today we went shopping. We began in what should have been shopping heaven for Si, Sim Lim Square, an electronics shopping mecca. Indeed his eyes were goggling at all the gadgetry on offer but alas it was quite expensive and all the shops had the same boring stuff.
Next up was a return trip to Mustapha’s in Little India. We must have been feeling in the mood for a little crazy but it was the cheap shoes that lured me there. We are hoping to go for drinks in Raffles later and I’m not sure they will let me in with my flip flops!
Cheap shoes in hand we set off to do the touristy thing around Clarke Quay (and buy yet another pair of shoes!). We found the statue of Sir Stamford Raffles, a rather dapper looking man who was responsible for creating Singapore as the international trading post it has become today.
In the evening we met up with a local, my friend Faz from university. It was fab to see her despite the fact that it reminded me that it has been almost ten years since we left uni, man we’re getting old! Anyway Faz took us to Arab street where we had a meal in a Morrocan restaurant almost at the entrance to the mosque (we made sure not to embarass Faz by trying to order a beer!). One of the most interesting aspects of Asia so far has been the food so I feel the need to describe the new things that we try. Tonight I had chicken tangine which is chicken and potatoes cooked in a clay pot and served with pitta bread. Very nice. Si had a kebab so I don’t really need to describe that.
After our meal Faz drove us up to Mount Faber for a drink overlooking the views of Sentosa Island, the city lights and the oil refinery! She then dropped us off at our hotel where she informed us with a grin that we were staying in the red light district. (I hope she was joking!)


After wrestling with the shower / toilet combo we ventured out into Little India in search of some brekie. Since we didn’t really fancy curry so early in the morning I’m ashamed to say that we ended up in that ubiquitous fast food ‘restaurant’ with the yellow arches! Don’t worry, we won’t be making a habit of it, especially since Si wasn’t too sure about the panackes and maple syrup with sausages and cheese combo – doesn’t sound quite right at any time of day does it?
Whilst wandering Little India and checking out some wonderfully colourful temples we found Racecourse Road, home of the banana leaf curry. And sure enough there were numerous restaurants advertising said curries. Vowing to come back to sample them some other time we headed back to the hostel to pick up our bags, we had a ferry to catch.
We decided to go to Bintan, firstly to see my parents who were spending the last couple of days of their holiday there but also because it is in Indonesia and so gave us an excuse to receive another stamp in our rapidly filling passports. The Angsana resort in Bintan is a little slice of paradise. Our room is luxurious, the pool area is lush and the beach is straight out of a travel brochure. We spent the day relaxing by the pool and diving in for a cool, refreshing dip now and then.
Dinner tonight consisted of freshly caught fish on the beach. Heaven. Already we never want to leave.