Wandering WordSmith

Joined February 2017
  • Day156

    Dives, Delights, Dragons &... Done

    July 29, 2017 in Indonesia

    Yoga teacher: "Relax your mind and body, allow the calm to wash over you as we go into the salutation." I'm at a yoga studio in Ubud, Bali's alternative centre. I'm attempting a spot of the popular pastime along with a load of other novices. It's way harder than it looks, my body just doesn't want to go in the direction it's supposed to. Although once you get the hang of it, it's quite nice and relaxing. The centre also offered a number of other more 'outlandish' activities. One was shamanic meditation 🤔 - I looked through the window to the studio and people were on the floor shouting and wriggling about, it appeared more like some sort of cult, but whatever works for them I guess.

    Ubud is a lovely little place, pretty touristy but also very quaint with a hippy vibe and lots of interesting spots. I visited the famous monkey forest, a beautiful green space with towering trees made for the hundreds of monkeys who live there. They are just as cheeky as ever, climbing up on people uninvited and stealing whatever they can see - classic. 🐒

    After Ubud, I went to explore Nusa Lenbongan, a small scenic island off the coast of Bali. I did a drift dive here and it was great, you just fly along underwater with the current and fishes, bit scary initially but good fun once you get used to it. After Nusa I took a bumpy boat to Gili Trawangan or Gili T has everyone calls it. By day it's a beautiful island with stunning beaches and snorkelling galore. By night bars emerge with varying qualities of live music and drunk patrons dance to the wee hours in the street, whilst agitatied looking horses are sadly forced to pull lazy punters along the seafront. On the calmer side of the island, curious visitors sit on the soft sands spacing out to repetitive beats on readily available magic mushrooms touted by the locals, before entering back into the nightlife fray a few hours later.

    It was time to wrap up the trip and for the last few days I headed for Komodo island one of only three places you can find wild Komodo Dragons. A three night boat trip awaited me and I have to admit I was quite nervous as I'd heard the sea could get really choppy here and the boats aren't exactly known for 'quality'. There have even been stories of them sinking occasionally! Luckily we had very calm and sunny weather so it was really pleasant. One night in the middle of the ocean you could see thousands of stars which was beautiful. Over the three days we stopped at stunning turquoise beaches, went snorkelling in crystal waters, sunbathed on the deck and played games on the boat. Finally we arrived in the Komodo national park.

    Enter the Dragon... one of the last remaining animals that was also around in the dinosaur era. They are terrifying looking but also awesome to see. There was a massive one about two and half metres long. It actually looked like a prehistoric beast and the guide explained that they bite their prey with poison and then pop back a day or so later to eat the dead animal - lovely! We roamed around the park for a while admiring them and watching them skulk around before setting back on the boat to the final stop at the edge of Flores.

    I spent the last couple of days on the mainland and undertook another breathtaking dive around Komodo island. I don't think I've ever seen so much colourful marine life in one place - sharks, rays, eels and turtles along with hundreds of tropical fish; definitely the best dive of the trip. I headed back to Bali in a plane that genuinely looked more like a childs toy, but thankfully it made it across the ocean safely. For my last days in Indonesia I attempted to surf in the rough seas, almost dislocating my leg in the process and spending more time underwater than 'ripping up' the wave. I gave up after a while and sat on the beach watching the pros. 🏄

    So that's it, almost six months of being on the road and it's done. I'm back to where it began in Bangkok to catch the flight home. Eight countries, countless bus and boat journeys, endless hostels and different characters to meet and greet. A few highlights were getting my ass royally kicked in Thailand with the Thai boxers, marvelling at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the entire cultural experience of stunning Myanmar, learning to dive, meditate and swim in crystal waters, playing with elephants, sampling delicious Asian cuisine and watching ocean sunsets under palm trees amongst a whole lot more.

    It will be nice not to live out of backpack but I know I'll miss this life, and may not be long before I head off somewhere again.

    Untiil next time...

    Wandering WordSmith. 🌏🌍🌎 ✈✈✈
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  • Day144

    Yogyakarta & a couple of volcanoes

    July 17, 2017 in Indonesia

    From Singapore to Indonesia, quite the country contrast. Gleaming buildings have made way for dusty and crowded streets and the more typical SE Asia vibe, but with a charm not found in modern cities. I arrived in the bustling city of Yogyarkarta, Java and checked in. The main thing to do here is visit Borabador which is another giant temple - I've seen a lot of temples but this one was certainly up there - it's similar to Angkor Wat and looked very impressive in the morning sun.

    I had a quick look around the city, not much to see really but welcoming enough - someone in the hostel had been here for over a week, I wondered what they had done! I went to see a silver market but it was more of a street dotted with a few silver shops. Admittly it was very cheap and I tried to find a silver ring but zero would fit me - curse my Western-sized hands! 🖑🖐

    In the evening a few people from the hostel went to visit another nice temple - Prahma Dem, getting there was an experience. It was about half an hour away so we decided to catch a local bus for next to nothing and the conditions were to put it mildly... cramped. The bus stops were really strange too - elevated above the ground and just packed with people which you had to maneuver around while they were trying to buy tickets and get on, the system was pretty chaotic but we made it. A very angry Scottish girl was super pissed off, complaining about everything whether it was too much walking, the tourists, the locals, the heat, the food etc - maybe stay at home next time love!

    After Yogi as the locals call it, I took a tour to see Mount Bromo and Mount Igen. Two famous volcanoes in Java. Bromo has incredible views and looks like the surface of Mars as the sun rises. You can go right to the rim of crater to see the smoke and hear it bubbling away. It sounds like a million kettles all boiling at once. Igen on the other hand is a little more difficult to ascend to. Up at 3 AM we start to hike up the mountain, It's raining a bit too which makes it slippery. A couple of hours later we start to climb down towards the bottom. Igen is famous for spurting sulphuric blue flames out of it's crater and the only way to see it is in the dark. We had to wear gas masks to filter the sulphur. Making our way down the volcano we passed the miners who extract the sulphur - they're up and down it like yo-yo's but don't live long breathing in the sulphur so regularly. We glimpsed the blue fire which looks a lot like someone has just turned on a giant gas hob, it's not easy to see but when the smoke clears it's an amazing natural phenomenon. Igen's crater also has a beautiful blue lake which is the most acidic in the world. It looks stunning from the top but if you fell in you'd be dissolved. ☠☠☠

    The tour included a boat from Java to Bali where you could move on from there. I opted to head for Seminyak a popular beach town - if a little expensive. On the way I witnessed a horrific scene. A local man had crashed a motorbike and was laying in the road, blood coming out of his head and clearly no longer alive! If he'd been wearing a helmet it may have been a different story! Not a good thing to see when you look out the bus window! RIP ☹

    I arrived in Seminyak and the next day a couple of us went down to the beach where we were consistently harassed by sellers - one guy was understandly renting sun beds and surfboards whilst another was trying to make me buy a taser stun gun of all things - just what you need at the beach! In the evening we went to a bar that was horror themed. It was pretty cool, they served cocktails in blood bags. Sadly I witnessed another negative - this time a petty crime. A motorbike rode up on the side of the road and ripped a girls handbag off her, no sooner had she noticed, they'd disappeared in a cloud of dust down the road luckily she wasn't hurt. On a happier note we had a fantastic pizza that evening! 🍕

    I'm trying to get an uber to Ubud now, seems impossible. The guy keeps cancelling on me. Bali has banned the use of taxi apps. I think the local mafia have something to do with it so they get a cut, so the taxi apps try and operate in secret. I gave up and got a local cab. It was pouring with rain when I arrived there but the hostel was nice.
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  • Day135

    A quick stop in Singapore

    July 8, 2017 in Singapore

    I think I'm in in some sort of utopia, or maybe it's a dystopia depending on who you ask, it's certainly like something out of a novel. I landed in Singapore and immediately sensed the 'perfect' environment. Everything is clean, there is literally no rubbish anywhere, no graffiti, no paper, no gum, no mess at all. On the train to the city I noticed that you'd be subject to a 500 dollar fine if you ate or drank anything on public transport - subsequently the train is spotless, it makes London Underground look a shambles but becuase I'm not used to it, it's also slightly weird to see a place so 'perfect'.

    Singapore is next door to Malaysia and I'd heard it was an interesting place. It's not disappointing - it's a very rich city which is opposite to most places I've been on this trip and comprised of lots of Asian and Western influences. Officially the language is English but Chinese and other Asian dialects are also widely spoken. There's a lot to see in three days or so and I started with the Gardens by the Bay: a stunning public green space in the city centre. It's got these amazing man-made trees which somehow produce oxygen and look amazing in the night all lit up. The gardens are beautiful, I spent a half day just wandering around the area. Parodoxally there's a McDonald's here which kind of takes away the atmosphere a little, but it's tucked out the way, so not too bad. I confess I did pay a lunch time visit. 🍔

    Also in the Gardens are two massive undercover glass domes - one is a cloud forest with the world's largest indoor waterfall and the other is a flower dome which had many varieties of plants and flowers from every continent. The cloud forest mimics natural cloud forests from around the world - apparently it's the only place that has all the different varieties from across the globe, it was very cool.

    Looming over the Gardens is the magnificent Marina Bay Sands hotel and leisure complex - this colossal building looks like some sort of outerspace or alien spacecraft. Perched on top of three giant buildings is a huge boat-like structure which houses an enormous infinity pool for the guests lucky enough to stay here. You have to pay to go to the official viewing deck but I met someone who said just go up to the top of the first building, so I walked into the hotel lobby to the elevator. I found the view next to the infinity pool and no-one seemed to care as long as you didn't enter the hotel pool. A guard made sure of that - he sat by a barrier which gave a glimpse of the pool and watched all of us peasent non-guests like a hawk. The views overlooking the bay and Singapore harbour are awesome though. Unchallenged, I came back for a second view in the evening too - what a rebel! 😈

    The following day I went to the main shopping street but soon got bored as the prices were astronomical and I'm not really in the market for a 3000 dollar Gucci handbag, so I headed back to the marina and walked around a bit more exploring the area. After that I went to the freakily shaped science and art museum - there were two exhibitions on, one on human advances and one on future and art. The human one was fascinating but the second exhibition was very interactive and had way too many kids; may as well have been a crèche. In the evening I watched the light show in the Gardens where all the man-made trees light up - it was quite good but the show at the marina was even better. Water and light were used together to form patterns and imagery. It was pretty impressive and free - bonus!

    The next day I wandered around the Chinatown area which is probably the only part of Singapore that looks slightly shabby - it's still impossibly clean though. There's some great food there too, so I indulged in the cheap eats. In the evening I caught up with a couple of guys I'd met in Malaysia and we went to Singapore night safari, the queue was ridiculous but the safari was really cool. You got on these mini trains and could stop off and explore the different areas. Most of the punters lazily stayed on the train but we got off to have a closer look at the animals, there were lions, elephants, tigers, massive bats, giraffes, and all sorts of other nocturnal animals - it was great seeing them in the dark and I was pleased to see the zoo was well run with nice large and natural enclosures for the animals - Singapore does it right.

    I'm off to Indonesia now - the final country on this trip, I can't believe it. Hope it's a good one! 🤞
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  • Day129

    "Why don't you just explain the hostel terms to me at the same time? It will save you having to do it twice" I said. Futile - the receptionist gave a blank expression and instead repeated exactly the same spiel to me as the person checking in beforehand. It was more or less word for word - he might as well have been a robot! 🤖 Anyway Penang, Malaysia's second largest city doesn't seem particularly big when you first get there. I arrived in Georgetown, a chic little spot with a chilled vibe. After the android had checked me in, I was amazed to see that the hostel bunk bed system was a three tier high one - insane. Thankfully I was not on the top. If you were to fall off that you would probably break a few bones or worse die. It was ridiculous - another classic SE Asia health and safety farce.

    I ventured out to Georgetown for a mooch about - it's a lovely little place full of coffee shops, souvenirs and art. It's also quite famous for street paintings on the wall so I went and seeked out some - the popular ones were surrounded by Chinese tourists who, instead of looking at the art, decided they would be 'part of the art'. One fully grown man must of taken ten silly poses next to a painting while others waited patiently to take a photo - I quickly snapped one before the next person took up their hilarious position. They sure love a funny photo.

    In the afternoon me and another lad from the hostel took a cab out of Georgetown. We were told there was a snake temple nearby Penang Hill so decided to take a look. Lies! Snake Temple was NOT anywhere remotely near Penang Hill, plus it was pretty crap too - after wasting the 30 odd minutes it took to get there, the few snakes inside didn't seem real (couldnt tell) and the obvious real ones were sadly caged in pretty poor conditions - we wern't fans so left fairly quickly.

    We headed towards Penang Hill but on the way stopped at a pretty impressive temple: Kek Lok Si, it was huge and gave some good views, it had the various Hindu shrines but also a lot of little shops which seemed unnecessary in a temple. We also tried the local famous food; Laska which looked like brown slop but actually tasted pretty good, really not sure what was in it, but the number of local people dining there suggested it was a good spot. After that we made our way to Penang Hill. It's really high and you get a train up. The view from the top is outstanding and you can see pretty much see all of Penang - it's actually quite a large city. Unfortuntley we then had to wait in a queue for over an hour to get back down. Everyone else decided they would also leave at the same time - I would have walked, but it was dark by now and I thought I'd rather not end up in a heap at the bottom of the hill.

    I boarded a car ferry over to Penang's mainland where the bus station was - it played ludicrously loud music all the way which wasn't pleasant at all. Not even the locals seemed to be enjoying it. Got the bus and headed for the island of Langkawi - arrived and immediately regretted my accommodation decision - mainly local families and in the middle of nowhere. I stayed one night and changed to a better located place the following morning. It was also raining which didn't help.

    The next day it continued to rain in the morning so didn't do much, walked around the local area a little. In the afternoon the rain stopped so a few of us hired mopeds and went with a crazy guy who worked at the hostel. He took us to a couple of nice spots but would insist on riding off at the speed of light on his superbike while we pootled along behind on our mopeds. Then he would wait about half a mile down the road for us to catch up - seemed pointless! That evening the sun also decided to make an appearance, so we were treated to a sunset on the beach was very nice.

    In the morning I took the island hopping tour around Langkawi. It started off well - the sun was out, the views were great and the islands were fun to motor through. We passed the pregnant lady island, so called because it's shaped a little like a pregnant women - makes sense. We stopped at the next island and walked around a bit, there was a nice lake to wander around but it went downhill from there. The heavens opened and it poured with rain, I was also really hungry so bought a burger, waited about 15 minutes for it to cook and was walking down the jetty towards the boat when I see a flash of fur pass me. A rather large monkey stops and hisses aggressively me, looks at my burger and swipes at it. I consider trying to fight it off for a split second but then think better of it (didnt want to get bitten) and decide to reluctantly release the burger. The monkey snatches it up and runs off with my meal. Soaking wet and annoyed I return to the boat burgerless. 😭🍔

    The boat powers off to the next place - it stops raining a bit and we reach an opening with loads of eagles circulating the area - they are cool to see, swooping around majestically. I think the boat drivers must feed them here as I'm not sure why they are all just located in one spot, but it's great to see them. We head to the final place another scenic island and watch a bunch of Asian girls in expensive, full length gown dresses taking selfies in the sea - perplexing. Back on the main island I hunt out some food - we find a KFC and greedily scoff it down, makes up for the lost burger a bit I suppose. 🍗
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  • Day123

    I feel like I've landed into civilisation again. Kuala Lumpur or as the cool kids call it 'KL' is an awesome fusion of East meets West. After Myanmar it's quite shocking to see huge high rise buildings, well maintained roads and more advanced infrastructures, as well as some actual traffic rules.🚦 KL has a really strong Indian presence too; my hostel was located next to an Indian temple which always seemed to be a hive of activity. I also ate Indian food most evenings as that's what I could mainly find in the vicinity - a little taste of another place on the to-go-to list.

    In the morning I wandered around the city, Chinatown area and an old colonial district with a cricket field - I'm not sure the Malaysians even know what cricket is do they? In the afternoon I went to see the famous Petronas Towers. They are really cool. The tallest twin towers in the world - extremely futuristic and impressive.

    The following day I went to Batu Cave, situated a little out of town. It's a big cave with an enormous Hindu statue outside it (one of the tallest in the world) and a massive staircase that you climb to get to it. The cave was alright but it was clearly under construction or being renovated which took away the awe a bit. There were loads of monkeys here again too getting in the way of the workmen and climbing over the cement. I also went into a smaller Hindu cave that had some pretty poorly designed statues and an inexplicable staircase climb that offered literally nothing at the top. Nothing at all! I, and others were looking around trying to see if we missed something but no - totally pointless unless you count the exercise. Although a few people still took pictures up there in front of what?... I don't know. Anything for a selfie.🤳

    In the evening I went back to the Petronas Towers to check them out in the dark. They are even more impressive against the night sky - like two giant silver rockets awaiting launch. After that I went with a few others to a place called the Heli Pad, it's a helicopter landing site in the day but they turn it into a bar overlooking the city at night - stunning, you can see the twin towers as well as the KL tower which changes colour and flashes every half hour or so.

    After KL, I took a bus to the Cameron Highlands - a beautiful green hill station famous for producing tea. It's not unlike parts of the English countryside to be honest but perhaps higher than most parts and a bit hotter. My hostel was literally staffed by volunteers one girl was there for just two days then left - anyone could wander in, it was a bit of a shambles but pleasant enough. I tried some of the famous tea too, it was pretty good. The guy doing the tour did not look like someone who was interested in tea and nature. He looked more like a guy that would kill you if you so much lightly brushed passed him, but turns out he was just a gentle giant passionate about flowers - never judge a book by its cover right!

    The tour took us to a mossy forest too where the big scary man explained all about the plants and fauna in great detail - like a weird gardening programme. We then went to a strawberry farm (told you it was like England) and had some fresh juice which was very tasty. In the afternoon I went for a hike through the forest. There's about ten trails here but I've no idea which one I did as the signage wasn't exactly helpful. In the evening I went to what appeared to be the only bar in town and played a bit of pool. A drunk Canadian guy challenged me, I lost unfortunately and he made me down a horrible shot as a forfeit.

    An early bus to the city of Penang now awaits in the morning.
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  • Day117

    This driver literally thinks he's Lewis Hamilton! We are tearing up the hill on the way to a place called Pwi Oo Lin in a car definitely not designed to take corners at this speed. The driver is grinning and you can see his red teeth from all the chewing of beetlenut tobacco he does - it's a massive thing here to chew it, so many people have very stained teeth, my dentist would have a fit! They look like vampires, It's that obvious and they spit it out on the floor everywhere - delightful! 😝

    Thankfully we make it in one piece. We check in and decide to hire bikes for a quick explore of the town - it tips with rain so we abandon said exploring and see if we can find a pool table, instead we end up at a really local joint where we play snooker with the patrons much to their amusement, before getting soaked again on the ride back.

    We stopped in Pwi Oo Lin to catch the train to Hsipaw, my last spot in Myanmar. It's a seven hour train journey so I opt for the first class seats which turn out to be about two pounds extra - worth it! The train is great, there are the usual people jumping on and off selling stuff and a few backpackers scattered around. We go over a famous (and very steep bridge) which is a little nervy, but the scenery is stunning. It's like what you'd imagine a rickety pass to be...rickety.

    We arrive in Hsipaw and transfer to the hostel. I hire a bike with a couple of people and explore around a little - there's the various temples and things to check out plus a wooden monastery. The main thing to do here though is trekking again. I'd heard of a very well reviewed tour run by a guy who calls himself Mr Bike for whatever reason. Everyone is a 'Mr Something' here, I saw signs for Mr Charles, Mr Book, Mr Shake etc. We manage to sign up to go with him the next day.

    Mr Bike is quite a character, very fun and informative. This is a much tougher trek than before though so it's good he kept us entertained. On day one we walked uphill for what seemed like hours. The scenery is some of the best I've seen here mind but it's bloody hot! We arrive in the middle of the forest and get to spend the night in a tree house under the stars. It's pitch black so you can see loads which is really nice. In the morning we set off again, this time attempting to go down the hill, most of us fall over as it's ridiculously slippery. Covered in mud, we head deep into the jungle which is really cool. No-one else is around and we're surrounded by the sights and sounds and the canopy of trees. After the walk we arrive near a river and jump in for a refreshing wash. Mr Bike informs us that we'll be sleeping in hammocks strung up between the trees. They are actually super comfy although we are quite exposed to our lovely mosquito friends. Unfortunately it rains later in the night and we all have to transfer to a large tent - shame, I was enjoying the hammock.

    The final morning, we walk for half hour to a calmer part of the river, annoyingly my flip flop breaks on the way. They've done a good turn to be fair - RIP. We're going tubing down the river, I'm pleased as I barely tubed in Laos, more got a bit wet and went to a bar, so this makes up for it. We all float leisurely down the river. Occasionally it turns quite rapid and it's no longer calm but more like a water park ride - good fun. The river calms again and we reach our final destination for lunch - speciality Shan noodles. We just appear to be in this women's house as there are kids running around and loads of family pictures on the wall. Inexplicably there is also a large picture of the popstar Avril Lavigne! It's just randomly there inserted next to the family photos - so weird! 🤔

    I spent the last day in Hsipaw sorting a few bits out and chatting to people in the hostel - I then took a 14 hour bus from Hsipaw back to Yangon and I'm the only foreigner on it, they are playing a terrible movie really loudly. After the dinner stop they thankfully turn off the TV and I manage to sleep a bit, except the guy in front reclines his chair almost perpendicular squashing my long 'non Asian' legs. The chair goes back stupidly far, it's practically a bed! 🛌 I recline mine too and attempt some more limited shut eye.

    So it's goodbye to Myanmar for now, I really liked it and am glad I could see it while it remains relatively authentic and before it gets too popular. It's only going to get more touristy as there is lots to see and do here.

    Now to West Malaysia for a quick look around...
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  • Day112

    Trek pt 2 & Inle Lake and Mandalay

    June 15, 2017 in Myanmar

    ...Day two:

    I'm awoken from slumber by bashing pots and pans, surprisingly slept well despite the potential for hazarddess spiders and the like. After breakfast we continue the trek across the fields pausing so often to admire the views. We walk down a railway track and I feel like I'm in the film 'Stand by me' - children pass us, holding hands and delicately balancing on the track beams - looks like something out of the 1930s. We reach our second village and have a bucket shower which has a ludicrously low wall - it may as well not be there as leaves little to the imagination.

    The following day we set off for the final walk to Inle Lake, it comes into view as we're walking across rich and thick red soil with farmers toiling in the fields. We say goodbye to our crazy tour guide. He gives us his cursory mad laugh and rides off. The rest of the day is spent on a boat tour around Inle Lake. It's a town on water - instead of walking or driving, children paddle in boats to school, old women sit in wooden rafts and motorised boats ferry folk to their respective destinations. The entire place is filled with buildings on large stilts with canals everywhere - bizarre but really cool at the same time. 🚣

    We stop off at various highlights including the silk factory where they weave intricate patterned material in what looks like the most painstaking process - very talented but pretty laborious. We also watch the fisherman in the middle of the lake. They cleverly paddle their boats with one foot while simultaneously managing to fish in the water with a large net. It's an awesome site against the surrounding scenery.

    The following day a few of us hire a bicycle and explore the surroundings. We go for a tofu tour, which sounds boring but was genuinely really interesting. The guy took us around a local village and we learned how it's made, turns out there are like 40 different varieties, who'd of thought?! He gives us some tofu at the end and it's absolutely delicious - I need to figure out how to make it properly as it's alway pretty tasteless at home. He also gives us a pure sugar candy ring. More than one or two and you'd be bouncing off the walls like a hyper kid on e-numbers.

    In the evening we head to Inle winery for a few tasters of Burmese wine (not the best) and a great view. It's really windy and the sample promptly falls over. The lady brings over another chucking and we head inside for a few of the preferred glasses. The place is supposed to shut at 6.00 PM, we finally head back at around 7.30 PM in bike convoy as it's now pitch black.

    I'm off on the road to Mandalay, pretty sure that's a film or a book... anyway I arrive at around 5.00 AM and immediately we decide to go to Ubein Bridge to try and catch the sunrise. Clouds once again have other ideas but it's a nice spot nevertheless - apparently it's the longest wooden bridge in the world. We pass lots of monks on it and a few people exercising in the morning light. We potter through a couple of very local markets and the sellers look like they have seen a load of ghosts. We catch a boat across the river and wander around some temples and a few other interesting bits before heading back.

    My final day in Mandalay starts off fine. A few of us hire bicycles and cycle around the city. We go to a gold leaf making shop which unfortunately is quite underwhelming - it's just people hitting the gold to make it flat. After that we head towards the jade market. On the way my bike breaks and we spend the next 20 mins trying to fix it. I set off again and literally within ten minutes someone else's bike breaks! Hmm pattern emerging here...? Again we fiddle around and some locals come and help us. They fix the bike and it breaks again within five minutes. A couple of our group have to leave so we say goodbye and send them off with the two knackered bikes and three of us continue on to the jade market.

    Interesting fact, Myanmar is apparently responsible for producing around 90% of the world's jade. Pretty awesome, the market is mad with people buzzing about selling and bartering for jade. We watch it being, cut, cleaned and poished. It's a hive of activity. We then set off towards Mandalay hill for a sprawling view of the city. A bike breaks yet again on the way but we manage to get to to the top with a lift in a truck. The view is fantastic. We stay a while then aim to ride back down the hill. Surprise, surprise... a bike breaks! 😲 you couldn't make it up! The pedal is bent and the breaks are shot. We make it to the bottom alive and toss the bikes in the van, we give them back to the guy and tell him they're all crap, he pretends not to understand - classic get out technique. We leave it but mention the place to the hostel.
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  • Day108

    Bagan - a definite highlight. It's absolutely stunning. An ancient city with thousands of pagodas and temples dotted around the landscape. Small ones, medium ones and large ones as far as the eye can see - incredible. Despite having seen numerous temples on this trip (if you didn't know, they are quite common in SE Asia 🤓), Bagan is still a site to behold. I arrived just in time for sunrise so the taxi took us to a viewing temple - the sun was just about up when we got there but the view was still great. I got to the hostel and for a lot of the rest of the day caught up on some sleep. In the evening they organised a boat tour on the river to watch the sunset.

    I signed up for the hostel tour around Bagan the following morning. You had to rent an e-bike, basically an electronic moped that was practically silent (I want one, they are great for buzzing around!) and follow the group. It was excellent. The guide took us to a few of the main temples and explained a lot about the history of Bagan - he was pretty amusing. He also took us to a school for young monks (more like misbehaving monks based on our experience). About a hundred kids were shouting, play-fighting, throwing stuff etc - just being kids, it was quite funny. The guide was trying to teach them English and they eventually calmed down a bit and came to chat to us for a while. Their English was actually pretty good and they were well versed in basic phrases. They also knew a fair bit about football too, but after ten minutes or so they lost concentration and it all decended into chaos again and they just wanted to wrestle and take selfies. I ended up with two trying to arm-wrestle me at once while another would violently smack his mate with a plastic fan - less 'ohm', more arrgh! 🤣

    After that energy, we went back on the bikes to a little restaurant before winding our way through the temple grounds back to the hostel. In the evening we went for another sunset tour, this time to the pagoda area. You could climb up and see all around Bagan. Unfortunately clouds got in the way of an amazing sunset - a recurring problem in Myanmar but definitely a nicer 'problem' to have.

    On my final day in Bagan, I went to Mount Popa, a large temple situated on top of a hill that's an extinct volcano. It looks very impressive from afar, but when I got to the top it's a bit of a standard affair. The view of the surroundings however was really nice and there are loads of wild monkeys running about. One stole this man's cigarette much to his irritation and my amusement. On the way back we stopped at a palm sugar making place and tried a few flavours - very tasty but probably a quick route to diabetes if regularly consumed.

    Got the night bus to Kalaw (the jumping off point for treks to Inle Lake) we arrived annoyingly at 3.00AM it was supposed to be 5.30 AM. So we wandered to our hotel and slept until the morning. The following day we walked around the town and compared trekking companies. Our group settled on one due to start the next day and for the rest of the day we pottered about, had some noodles and got ready for the trek.

    Day one:

    It's tipping down with torrential rain and I'm about to start a three day trekking experience - current mood: unamused. 😒 We're in the office of the trekking company awaiting our start and eventually set off sporting our much needed rain ponchos up the hill and into the Kalaw countryside. The rain is lashing down as we ascend into the surrounding areas. We stop for lunch at a viewpoint where we can see precisely nothing owing to the cloud. After a while it clears a bit and the view is better. A woman dressed in traditional tribe clothing is having a photo shoot too on the mountain which is cool to see.

    After lunch we set off walking again, thankfully the rain has subsided and we're able to enjoy the trek. The surroundings are very scenic and our guide is hilarious. He has this weird laugh he does when you ask him a question, then sort of nervously runs away grinning slightly maniacally. Endearing and strange at the same time. We continued walking and reached our guesthouse for the night. A giant spider decided to appear in our room and we spent the next 20 minutes trying to catch it, eventually we managed to put it outside much to everyone's relief - rather not have that fall on you in the middle of the night 🕷. We ate some great homemade food and played a few games before retiring for bed and getting set for day two.

    ...to be continued
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  • Day99

    I'm in Myanmar or Burma if you prefer (it changes every so often based on the political situation) but the local people seem to favour Myanmar. I arrived in Yangon after the bus to Bangkok. Firstly the airport was impossibly pristine - not what I was expecting at all. The friendly lady checked my passport and waved me through - so far so good. I managed to grab a taxi with a guy who I met at the ATM heading the same direction too.

    Yangon is a very busy city with a lot of British Colonial influence to the buildings. Compared to the well trodden path I've been in SE Asia so far there are very few tourists here, so the feel is quite different. I can walk for an hour or so and I'm unilkey to see a Western face - it makes it feel far more authentic. The locals are very curious too and many will stop and talk to you without always trying to sell you something - unbelievable!

    On the first day I visited Shwedagon Pagoda, a beautiful temple that defines Yangon and can be seen from most areas of the city. It's made of thousands of gold leaves and carved into intricate shapes. I had to wear a longyi - basically a sort of long skirt: all the men wear them here for some reason - not many people wear anything else. Many people also like to sport tannika, a kind of sunscreen slash make-up that's bright yellow made from a certain tree bark. They just slather it on their faces. It looks a bit silly and clown-like to be honest but it works here as everyone has it. It's weirder to see the people without it.

    On the second day I went with a few people on the local circle train around the city - it's basically a three-hour train ride that circles the entire vicinity and shows you a real local insight. Well, what an experience... firstly we had to locate where the platform for tickets was - that took about half an hour of backwards and forwards with the station staff. We eventually got them and waited for another half hour. When the train pulled up it might as well of been something out of the eighteenth century. It was hilarious - decrepid, smelly, busy, noisy and slow - but it cost about 30p for the whole trip so can't really complain.

    We clamboured abroad and set off - a friendly local man decided to chat to us for ages. He was very knowledgeable about lot of things and it was nice to talk to him - he gave us all various history lessons on Myanmar and other countries and also seemed fascinated by James Bond for whatever reason. The journey itself was fairly eventful too. At every stop literally dozens of people rushed on the train shouting all sorts and yelling to sell stuff; food, toys, toiletries - you name it they sold it. It was so bizarre, it was like a market on the train. At each stop people would just throw stuff out of the window and new people would board the train balancing things on their heads or carrying various items that really didn't belong on a train. Dead crickets, grapes, lottery tickets, rice, party poppers were all on offer. Others would rush down the carriage handing items out and peddling their wares. If you were to try that in London or another Western subway system they would probably get stuck on the train due to the amount of people squashed in - it would be anarchy. We all bought some corn on the cob from a guy and sat and munched it along with the locals feeling amused and watching the city role by.

    The next day I wandered around the city a bit more and went to the market - zero foreigners again and a lot of colourful textiles and materials - mother would have loved it. I then ate some tasty noodles and headed back. On the way I stopped at Sule Pagoda, basically a temple in the middle of a roundabout. I also passed a lady who had loads of seeds and was surrounded by hundreds of pigeons - she waved and chucked a load of them into the air laughing - the birds went mental for it - I wouldn't want to be caught in that swarm.

    I'm heading back on the road to Bagan now, the ancient city with thousands of temples. Getting to the Yangon bus stop was ridiculous though - it was two hours away from the city, what kind of nonsense is that? Eventually got there and registered for the bus. Nearly ended up on the wrong one again thanks to a guy that directed us to a similar service. I booked the VIP bus for an extra four dollars and what a dream - it's probably the best bus experience I've had on the whole trip. The Burmese know how to manage night buses. Firstly you check in like an airport, then there is a little bus stewardess that directs you to your seat and announced the bus itinery in Burmese and broken English (not sure the need as there were no Burmese on the bus, but whatever). She then brings a little snack around for you and a towel - absolutely quality, the roads however not quite the same experience. Bumpy, twisty, loud - typical SE Asia.
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  • Day87

    Happy birthday to me 🎂🎉, I decided to head back down south to Koh Tao, I'd missed out the popular island when visiting the Thai islands before and was keen to do my open water Padi diving certification, so what better time than around my birthday.

    Getting there wasn't the most pleasent of journeys - I grabbed a flight from Chiang Mai to Bangkok then an overnight coach and boat to the island. The coach looked lovely, however unlike the Vietnamese night buses, it wasn't exactly a bed you could lay on, just a standard reclining chair, not great for nine hours. I managed about one hour of sleep. 😪

    Finally arrived on Koh Tao and settled into a hostel. The island is very beautiful and really small so easy to get around. On my birthday I visited Koh Nanhgum (an even smaller island with an amazing view and crystal clear water). In the evening a bunch of us went on the Koh Tao pub crawl (apparently it's pretty well known). It was a laugh and a good way to celebrate my ripening age. The locals were spinning and throwing fire sticks. Some tricks were pretty good but one guy in particular kept dropping his... #embarrassing

    Although I guess this trip is sort of one big present to myself - I decided to do my Padi diving course here. Koh Tao is very famous for diving (and also reasonably priced) so I signed up with one of the many centres on the island, there is at least 100, so I went with a recommended and well known place (Bans). The following day we started the course - the first day was just a couple of hours of intro and cheesy videos, then the next day we got in the swimming pool and learned the ropes. There's a lot to take in. You learn about how air is affected underwater, nitrogen levels, hand signals, equalising etc but everyone did well and the instructor was satisfied we were ready to enter the sea and not all immediately start drowning.

    Up at 6.30 AM for a spot of breakfast then straight onto the boat; we'd be in the water by 9.00 AM. The first sea dive was understandably a little nervy, but as time went on we all got used to the feeling. We had to do a few skills in the water to pass the course then continued the dive. We did another dive an hour later in similar conditions and it was a bit easier.

    The following day we went down to 18 metres (the max on this course) again much easier for the third dive. We did a few more skills including an emergency ascent and some breathing techniques to ensure you stay level in the water. The final dive was just a recreational dive and most enjoyable as there were no skills and we were just going around the area. Loads of fish and coral plus some unusual creatures. Upon surfacing, we signed the paper work and were officially certified open water divers. 👌

    I'd enjoyed the diving a lot and there was an opportunity to do the advanced course at a discount with the same instructor who I thought was excellent. I therefore decided to take it. This time there are five dives including a 30 metre one plus a navigation and night dive as mandatory. I also opted for a shipwreck dive.

    30 metres is quite a scary thought as it's a long way down, but it didn't seem too bad as the visability was good. I may have got a touch of the gas narcosis (a common condition at deeper levels) where you you feel slightly high underwater - I couldn't do the simple math problem that they use to test it, so either I had it or I'm just an idiot (maths isn't my strong suit to be fair).

    The deep dive happened to be in the shipwreck too - it was very cool. As you decended suddenly this large blurry outline started to appear and as we went lower the shipwreck comes into view. We swam around the wreck site - there are still guns on the top of it too. After that we did the navigation dive. We had to plan where to enter and exit and navigate underwater with a compass - it's quite hard but I managed the basics. I won't be steering any teams around dive sites yet though. We went over a colourful coral garden too which was pretty cool.

    The next day I had to complete three more dives, two standard ones and one night dive. The standard ones were great and by now I was a little more used to the feeling of diving. On one we swam through literally hundreds of small fish and they surrounded you. When it came to do the night dive everyone was slightly more apprehensive. There were a few special procedures to follow and obviously we had to have some lights down there. If you don't it's completely pitch black. It was one of the best dives though - you see a few different things and it's really freaky being in the water in the dark. We saw some big barracuda hunting smaller fish, a couple of purple spotted rays and various other things.

    So after that, I'm now an Advanced Open Water diver which means I can dive to 30 metres, dive shipwrecks and dive at night. Hopefully I can squeeze one more in on this trip.

    I'm heading to Myanmar next - I've heard it's definitely more challenging to travel than the typical backpacker route and it's technically the start of rainy season there, but lots of people have said positive things about it despite that - so lets see how it goes.
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