Posts Tagged With: Asia

Trekking in Myanmar

There are few countries in the world that are changing as rapidly as Myanmar. Ever since the military junta started the transition to quasi-democracy in 2010 the country has been transformed. Friends of ours who lived in Yangon from 2010 – 2013 reported that at that time there were no ATMs in the whole country and smartphones were something that only existed in other parts of the world. Now these are becoming just as ubiquitous as everywhere else.  The other effect of Myanmar shaking off its self-imposed shackles has been a sharp increase in the number of tourists coming to the country. Myanmar is now what Cambodia was like fifteen years ago; the up and coming destination in South East Asia. Although travelling there is still a unique experience, the natural inclination is to feel like you’re a little late to the party. However, it is still possible to see the more traditional side of Myanmar. You just have to put on your hiking boots and get out into the countryside.

One of the most popular trekking destinations in the country is the town of Kalaw, on the southern edge of Shan State. There are about ten different trekking companies in town. We chose to go with Uncle Sam’s, which is the oldest and most well-established of the ten. Uncle Sam himself is now a rather old man but in 1989 it was he who pioneered the idea of trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake. Back then, there must have only been a few intrepid travellers. Now though it’s boom time. Several groups make the trip every day, choosing between two and three day options. We decided to go for the two day trek and were joined by two German ladies and a Canadian man. On the first morning, we were driven to the village of Larmine where we began our trek. We instantly felt like we’d been transported back in time about 100 years. The villagers were using oxen to plow the fields and their carts didn’t even have tyres on the wheels. Clearly, Apple and Samsung hadn’t made it this far yet. The other striking thing was the breathtakingly beautiful landscape. Gently undulating hills and patchwork fields proliferated as far as the eye could see. Our track crossed over a railway line. It was so overgrown and in such a state of disrepair that it couldn’t possibly be in use. Of course I was wrong. Ten minutes later a train came puffing and straining along the track at a snail’s pace. If it was racing us to Inle, then we surely would have won.

Our first stop was at a Pa O tribe village where we witnessed an old lady weaving the elaborate traditional garments which the tribes sell at markets. Later, we continued to a second village where Su, our guide, cooked us a mouth-watering lunch on just an open fire. The afternoon  was a bit more challenging as the sun got higher and the terrain became rockier. The views over the Shan hills were more than adequate reward for our exertion though. Finally, we arrived at the village where we would spend the night and had some extremely welcome cold Myanmar beer. Once again, Su worked some miraculous culinary alchemy with incredibly meagre resources. By 9pm, we were all in “bed” (thin nobbly mattresses on a wooden floor). The livestock slept under the house below us. Needless to say, it wasn’t the most comfortable night’s sleep and it was a relief when Su woke us with glasses of hot ginger tea, which she had bizarrely filled with salt. She couldn’t get everything right I guess.

The morning of Day 2 was my favourite part of the trek. A cloak of mist hung low over the valley we were in and the dew was still falling. We walked across moorland which was surprisingly reminiscent of North Yorkshire and into a forest. The trail was winding its way up through the trees when, all of a sudden, the sun started to appear through the mist. It reminded me of the scene in “Lord of the Rings” when the White Wizard appears to Gimli, Aragorn and Legolas in the forest!

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Soon the trail met the road and we were able to look down on the clouds which were still hanging over the valley.  Pick-up trucks full of saffron clad monks roared past us. Later we would encounter them all chopping up a fallen “holy” tree for firewood. Some of them must have been as young as ten but not a single one of them was complaining about the hard physical labour. After a final refreshment stop, it was all downhill to the village of Tone Le were our trek finished.  From there, we were taken by boat onto Inle Lake where we saw the floating gardens and marvelled at the famous standing rowers. If I tried that, I would most definitely end up in the water. Eventually, the boat docked at the town of Nyaungshwe where we made our way to our hotels and much needed hot showers.

Before going to Myanmar this trek had been one of the things that I had most looked forward to. So, did it live up to my expectations? Absolutely. Away from the hustle and bustle of the big cities, Myanmar is a staggeringly beautiful country. It was also a real eye-opener to see people still living without basic amenities such as running water or electric light, things that we take for granted in the developed world. Despite these handicaps though, the people seemed genuinely happy. In the next ten to twenty years this will probably all change and the and the villagers will embrace the progress of the modern world. However, I’m glad to say that I saw it now, before these traditional ways of life start to disappear forever.

TRAVEL TIPS

I cannot recommend Uncle Sam’s highly enough. Su, our guide, spoke excellent English, was very knowledgeable and was an outstanding cook. The price of the trek depends on the number of people in the group. As there were five of us, it cost us 40,000 Kyats each. You can find the Uncle Sam’s office in Kalaw. It’s opposite the Nepalese restaurant, which is imaginatively named “Everest.”

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Categories: Asia, Myanmar, Trekking in Myanmar | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Twelve reasons to love Vietnam

  • There is no such thing as a load that is too big to be carried on the back of a bicycle or scooter. Pigs, patio chairs, lawnmowers; they can all fit on the back of a tiny Honda cub. It’s also not that uncommon to see entire families of five or six people on the one moped.
  • Standard traffic rules don’t seem to apply in Vietnam. When approaching a crossroads, you shouldn’t slow down, you should continue at exactly the same speed and honk your horn. It’s everyone else’s responsibility to get out of YOUR way.

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  • Being on the back of one those speeding motorcycles is simultaneously the most terrifying and most exhilarating moment of your life, up to that point.
  • Pavements are definitely not for walking on. They are where business is done. Entire shops and restaurants are situated on tiny patches of pavement. If you want to walk, you’re going to have to take your chances in the road.
  • Speaking of the street hawkers, there is literally no dish that the Vietnamese cannot prepare in a wok whilst crouched down on the street. Ask them politely enough and they’d probably be able to whip you up an entire Sunday roast.
  • Sticking with the food. It is SENSATIONAL. Easily some of the best that South East Asia has to offer and surely there’s no higher compliment than that. Any cuisine that can make both tofu and cucumber taste good must truly be one of the world’s finest.
  • The coffee is pretty bloody awesome as well. In Hanoi, don’t be alarmed if you get egg in your coffee. The Vietnamese are just so good at this kind of thing that they actually make egg coffee work.
  • If you happen to like a beer or two, than Vietnam is the place for you. It has absurdly low prices. In Hanoi, I got two pints for eighty-three pence. TWO PINTS FOR EIGHTY-THREE PENCE! It’s probably a good job I don’t live there.
  • The Vietnamese appear to be rather fond of a drink themselves. We went cycling in the countryside round Hoi An one Saturday morning and passed a couple of wedding parties. Everyone was leathered and the karaoke had already started. It wasn’t even midday.
  • We went on a Halong Bay cruise. Some of us jumped off the top deck of the boat into the water. The captain went absolutely mental. Five minutes later the other crew members were throwing beers down to us, that we drank in the bath like waters of one of the world’s most beautiful bays.092
  • Every hour is happy hour, not just in bars and restaurants, but also at market stalls. Happy hour can also be extended from a 10pm finish until a 3am finish if enough people are buying cocktails.
  • The real highlight of Vietnam though is the people themselves. They are friendly and innovative (especially when it comes to making money) and they have some of the best standards of customer service that I have encountered anywhere in the world. They’ll go out of their way to ensure that your stay in Vietnam is a memorable one. And they’ll succeed.

TRAVEL TIPS

Two places that we stayed at in Vietnam are worthy of the highest praise and recommendation. Finnegans, in Hanoi, was one of the best hotels that we’ve stayed at in Asia. It’s got a great location in the heart of the old town in Hanoi, and the staff are absolutely outstanding. When we took a taxi to the train station to take us to Hue, one of the hotel staff followed us on his motorbike just so he could show us to our beds on the train. http://hanoifinneganshotel.com/

Just as impressive was the Tea Gardens homestay in Hoi An. Thanh, the lady that runs the place (pictured above)is absolutely lovely. No favour was too much to ask and every question was met with a smile. Furthermore, for the price, the room was seriously luxurious. http://teagardenhomestay.com/

 

Categories: 12 reasons to love Vietnam, Asia, Vietnam | Tags: , , , , | 8 Comments

The top 5 places to visit in Kyoto

It isn’t easy planning a trip to Japan. The land of the rising sun has an incredible range of options for tourists. You could go skiing in Hokkaido, shopping in Tokyo or scuba diving in Okinawa. Pretty much every city has a wealth of cultural options, outstanding local cuisine and lots of opportunities to party hard. With this much to choose from, how do you decide where to go? One city features on nearly every tourist’s itinerary though; the truly outstanding Kyoto.

Kyoto was the capital of Japan until it was usurped by Tokyo in 1868. In many ways though, Kyoto is still the cultural capital. Whereas the vast concrete jungle of Tokyo can sometimes feel a bit soulless, Kyoto is everything you imagine Japan to be before you go there. From the geisha district of Gion, to smoky little izikaya bars, to the many temples and shrines that are dotted around the city, Kyoto has something to offer everyone. The fact that the city is absolutely beautiful doesn’t hurt either! We weren’t too bothered about spotting Geishas, so for us the main attractions were the temples and shrines and we certainly weren’t disappointed. Here are what I think are the top 5 best places to visit in Kyoto.

5) Sanjusangen-do (the one with the 1001 Buddha statues)

Sanjusangen-do is a long wooden temple, located in the East of the city. It’s not that spectacular from the outside. The inside though is an incredible spectacle. 1001 Buddha statues stand to attention, guarded by some truly bad-ass looking warriors. It’s a really incredible sight and well worth the entrance fee, even though you’re not allowed to take photos inside.

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4) Kiyomizu-dera (the one that hangs over a valley)

Kiyomizu-dera is one of Kyoto’s most famous and popular attractions. The temple itself juts out over a valley, meaning that the best photos are actually taken from the hill opposite the temple. From the bus stop on the main road, you have to walk up a very steep hill, which is lined with shops and restaurants selling all kinds of snacks and souvenirs. Be warned though, we went on a Sunday afternoon and it was absolute bedlam! I’ve rarely seen so many tourists trying to crowd into one place. For this reason, Kiyomizu-dera is probably best visited early in the morning.

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3) Kinkakuji (the golden temple)

If Kiyomizu-dera is one of the most famous attractions in Kyoto, then Kinkakuji is one of the most famous in all of Japan. This is the mythical sounding golden temple. Even if you’ve never even thought of going to Japan, there’s a good chance you’ll have seen a picture of this place. The temple sits on the edge of a lake, and on a clear day the image of the temple is reflected in the water. It looks spectacular and is well worthy of its exalted reputation. On a slightly unrelated note, it also had one of the best badly written English signs I’ve ever seen!

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2) Fushimi-Inari (the one with all the orange pillars)

Unlike the other places on the list, Fushimi-Inari is a shrine rather than a temple. The reason for its fame and popularity is the four kilometre path, which leads to the shrine at the top of the hill. More than 10,000 “tori” gates line the pathways, giving the impression of being inside a tunnel. It’s really atmospheric and totally unique. The four kilometres up and then down are also great exercise and a good way of working off all the previous night’s excess sake and yakitori chicken consumption.

1) Ginkakuji (the silver temple)

It’s rare that silver is better than gold, but in Kyoto it is. Ginkakuji was built in the same style as its more famous relation. The builders didn’t just succeed in paying homage to Kinkakuji though. They went and made somewhere even better, and it’s undoubtedly my favourite place in to visit in Kyoto. The temple is approached by walking along the evocatively named “Philosophers Path,” which follows the side of a canal that skirts the hills on the eastern fringe of the city. The path is beautiful in its own right, but what lies at the end of it is absolutely stunning. The temple is surrounded by a perfectly maintained Zen garden. A circuitous path takes visitors all around the garden, and offers views of the temple from a variety of different angles. What’s great about Ginkakuji is it’s not nearly as crowded as any of the other temples, meaning that you can experience moments of pure solitude and tranquility. Believe me, that is extremely difficult to manage in Japan! I’ve lived in Asia for nearly two years. I also have a fiancée that could never get tired of visiting temples so I’ve visited an incredible number of them over that time. Ginkakuji was right up there with the very best.

TRAVEL TIPS

With the exception of Fushimi-Inari, you could fit all of these places into one long day if you wanted. To do so, you’ll need a one day bus pass which offers you unlimited travel on all city buses, and is excellent value at just 500 Yen. That’s about £2:60 or $4 USD.

Categories: Asia, Japan, Kyoto | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Another side of Penang

As evocative nicknames go, Penang’s claim to be the “Pearl of the Orient” takes some beating. But is it accurate? That name conjures up images of pristine beaches and wild untamed jungles. There’s a lot to love about Penang, mainly the outstanding food and a wealth of cultural attractions, but unspoilt it most certainly is not. The entire East side of the island has been massively overdeveloped. This has led to subsequent environmental problems, including landslides, traffic congestion and air pollution. Not what one would imagine the Pearl of the Orient to be like! The West side of the island is an entirely different proposition though. There, high rise condos are replaced by traditional fishing villages. Glitzy shopping malls are nowhere to seen. Instead, paddy fields and mangrove forests dominate the landscape. It’s like travelling back to a time when Penang’s claim to be the Pearl of the Orient was justified.DSCF6038

Prior to this January, I’d lived in Penang for a year and a half but hadn’t yet visited the less explored side of the island. This was until a colleague recommended a company called Explore Balik Pulau who conduct guided cycling tours around that area. As my brother, also a cycling enthusiast, was coming to visit, this seemed like the perfect opportunity. To get to Balik Pulau we first had to drive to Teluk Bahang at the northwest tip of the island and then turn inland. The road from there to Balik Pulau is high and winding and not for the faint of stomach! I felt rather queezy by the time we arrived. The Explore Balik Pulau office is located on the main road, between the village of Sungai Pinang and the town of Balik Pulau. We began our tour from there and first cycled to a traditional Malay stilt village. Our guide, Eddie Chew, explained that in days gone by that if one of the villagers had wanted to move house, they would do exactly that! They would uproot the house from where it stood and the entire community would lend a helping hand to move it.

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From the stilt village we cycled along the banks of a small river, where beef cattle were grazing, until we reached a Chinese fishing village. There wasn’t a lot to see here apart from a charming little Taoist temple. However, the main point of interest was just how different life is from the other side of the island. It’s highly unlikely that the residents of Georgetown could leave their front doors wide open when they go out! The fishermen also seemed to use very basic boats and tools. This was subsistence living, not big industry fishing.

After a short time in the village we got back on the bikes and continued cycling. Penang can sometimes seem like quite a large island. Our next destination showed us that this certainly isn’t the case. Eddie led us to a point on the coast where we could see the northern tip of the island in one direction, and the southern tip in another. The sea seemed quite choppy so we didn’t stray too close to the edge. You wouldn’t want to get swept out to sea here. The closest landmass is Sumatra, two hundred kilometres away to the west.

For the next leg of the journey we cycled back inland to a mangrove forest, where we got off the bikes and took a short walk. Then it was onwards to the best part of the trip; the paddy fields. It was absolutely surreal to think that this was the same island as the concrete jungle to the East. Along the road we stopped for refreshment. A local Malay woman had set up stall under a tree in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. There she sold fresh coconut and sugar cane juice for 1 ringgit a cup. Not only was this ridiculously cheap but it was also wonderfully refreshing and sustained us for the final leg of the journey. As we left her stall, the sun was beginning to set over the paddy fields making for some spectacular views. Some local kids seemed beguiled by our presence. In Tanjung Bungah or Batu Ferringhi a white face wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow. This was another reminder of just how different the west side of the island is.

It was a short ride from the paddy fields back to the office. In total we had cycled fourteen kilometres and seen a great variety of different places. What I enjoyed the most about the tour was the sense that this was a side of Penang that very few tourists, or even locals, actually see. To be honest, I hope it stays that way.

TRAVEL TIPS

The tour was extremely cheap at just 30 RM per person. You can contact Explore Balik Pulau via their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/explorebalikpulau?fref=ts or by calling them on +60 16 452 2100

Categories: Asia, Balik Pulau cycling, Malaysia, Penang | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Skiing in Niseko

Ask most non-skiers where they think the best ski resorts in the world are, the chances are they’ll say Switzerland or France. Some might suggest the Canadian Rockies. Hardly any will mention Japan. However, surprisingly to many, the land of the rising sun is one of the world’s very best skiing and snowboarding destinations. Japan receives an incredible 5.5 metres (18 feet) of snow a year, nearly all of which is fresh powder. If you’re into winter sports, that’s the stuff that dreams are made of. There are also over five hundred different ski resorts to choose from. One stands head and shoulders above the others though; Japan’s answer to Whistler, the truly majestic Niseko.

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Janey and I were lucky enough to spend four days in Niseko over Christmas, the centrepiece of our three week holiday to Japan. From the moment we arrived there, we fell in love with the place. That was despite having to endure a blizzard on the way from the bus station to our lodge. We later found out that we could have organised a pick up! The lodge itself was a large part of what made our stay in Niseko so memorable. Sat by a roaring log fire, with a cup of hot mulled wine, whilst the snowstorms raged outside, it felt like heaven on earth to me.

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Our first day of skiing, on Christmas Eve, was a frustrating one. It had been twenty months since our previous trip to the Sierra Nevada in Spain. Where had all the progress gone? I couldn’t seem to even change direction without falling over! The only consolation was that falling into the powder snow, felt like falling into the softest pillow you could ever imagine. December 24th was spent in Gran Hirafu, the largest of the four connected resorts that make up Niseko United. On Christmas Day, we went to Annupuri, which was much quieter and far closer to our lodge. I started tentatively at first, but bit my bit my confidence started to grow. I was doing entire runs without falling over! Then, on about my fourth run, I just let it go. I was skiing with complete confidence and freedom. The feeling of liberation was incredible. On the final run before lunch, we then got an amazing surprise Christmas present. For the first time in three days, the clouds cleared, and were treated to some absolutely mesmerising views of Mount Niseko.

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When I woke up on Boxing Day, every muscle in my body ached. My lower back was stiff and walking downstairs was a bit of an ordeal. Even though it was our last day, I couldn’t find any motivation. That was until Alan, the lodge manager, told me “there’s not many times in your life when you’ll ski on sixty centimetres of fresh snow.” SIXTY CENTIMETRES?!?! Was that really how much had fallen overnight?! Apparently it was and remarkably all my aches and pains disappeared rather rapidly. Within half an hour we were back out on the slopes for one of the best days of my life so far. In the morning, we sessioned the green runs four times, to refine our techniques, in preparation for taking on a red run. This had been my aim at the start of the three days. Now it was time to make it happen. When we stepped out of the gondola, at the top of the red run, the conditions were atrocious. Visibility was about two metres, the temperature was about minus ten, and the winds meant business. Getting to the bottom in one piece was going to be a bit of a test! Amazingly, we proved to be up to the challenge. It took about half an hour as we had to frequently stop to check that we were going in the correct direction. However, in the end we made it to the bottom without falling once. This was utterly exhilarating and a proud achievement. So we did it again for good measure, this time in slightly more clement conditions.

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The only thing that could top that morning was what was to come later in the day; night skiing. If there is one problem with Niseko, it’s that the majority of time the visibility isn’t good. The Siberian winds and eighteen feet of snow might have something to do with that. However, once the afternoon light fades, the floodlights are switched on, and the effect is just magical. Visibility is perfect, and to make it even better, the slopes are practically empty. Skiing through thick powder, on an almost empty piste in what felt like the middle of the night, is one of the best things I’ve ever done. We rounded off the day with a trip to the natural onsen (a volcanic hot spring) and some hot sake. Life really doesn’t get much better.

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Leaving Niseko the next day was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I’ve caught the skiing bug badly. Our first trip to Sierra Nevada planted the seed. Niseko made it blossom into a true and burning love! I now think regularly about different places we could ski in around the planet. Mongolia, Serbia and Chile are some of the more random ones I’ve come up with. One thing is for certain though; wherever we go next, it will be almost impossible for it to match up with Niseko.

TRAVEL TIPS

Annupuri Oasis Lodge is one of the best places I’ve ever stayed in. I’d choose to stay there over any five star hotel. Visit their website at http://www.annupurioasislodge.com/

Categories: Asia, Japan, Skiing in Niseko | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Operation Snow Monkey

Japan; the land of the rising sun. Home to sushi, sumo and samurai. It’s one of the most evocative and distinct destinations on earth. Prior to last December, I’d wanted to go there for years. Our three week Christmas holiday gave me the perfect opportunity. Janey, my better half, was somewhat sceptical though. Understandably, she was concerned about the financial impact of three weeks in one of Asia’s most expensive countries. I had to do something to persuade her. Thus, Operation Snow Monkey was born.

During my research about Japan, I’d found out about a group of Japanese long-tailed monkeys who live near Kambayashi onsen in Nagano prefecture. Their claim to fame is that they escape the bitter winter cold by bathing in the onsen, a natural volcanic hot spring. They’re also exceptionally cute. And Janey has a big weakness for cute fluffy things. Part one of Operation Snow Monkey involved “accidentally” leaving my phone lying around or my laptop screen open, with pictures of cute snow monkeys on them. “Who are they?” Janey asked. “They’re called snow monkeys, they live in Japan” I casually declared. The seed was planted. After a few days of this, the build up was over and I went for the winning shot. “You know if we went to Japan at Christmas, you could see the snow monkeys…………..” SUCCESS!! We were going to Japan!

The day after our flight arrived in Nagoya, we stepped off a train in Nagano, right into some of the foulest winter weather imaginable. It was cold, wet sleet. By the time we had walked the short distance to our hostel we were freezing, miserable and soaked to the skin. Had it all been a big mistake coming to Japan in the winter? The next day assuaged our doubts spectacularly.

After a morning spent visiting Nagano’s stunning Zenko-ji temple, we boarded a bus to take us to the monkey park. Throughout the journey the snow was coming down really hard and the bus even had to stop to put snow chains on the wheels. Then, all of a sudden, we were deposited by the side of the road in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. From the road, a track meandered up through snow covered pine forest towards the monkey park. Our guidebook understated the length of the walk (it took us forty minutes rather than twenty) but overstated the difficulty level. It’s actually an easy stroll, as long as you have strong footwear.

During the walk a full scale blizzard started. At one point it was blowing horizontally into our faces. We were going to have to work to see these monkeys. It was well worth it in the end though. The onsen, despite being a bit of a tourist trap, was a truly unique place. Some of the mother monkeys clutched their tiny offspring to their bosoms for warmth, while others sat in the water, enjoying the searing heat. Occasionally, a fight would break out but for the most part, the monkeys seemed gloriously content in their little oasis from the cold. All the while the blizzard raged around us, making the visit even more memorable.

On our walk back to the road, night was beginning to fall, giving the forest an almost ethereal nature. At times it felt like we were walking through Narnia! A cup of hot sake, in the café at the bottom, warmed our bones and put the seal on a truly unforgettable experience.

Over the next three weeks, Japan completely exceeded our expectations. The visit to the monkey park remained one of the very best days though. Operation Snow Monkey was a complete success!

TRAVEL TIPS

We took a bus from Nagano station to the monkey park. It took us about one hour and cost 1300 Yen. These leave pretty frequently throughout the day. Be careful not to miss the last bus back from the monkey park though! This departed at 5:30pm.

Categories: Asia, Japan, Snow Monkeys | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Climbing Mount Rinjani

When I was a young boy my parents always used to take my siblings and I walking. Every bank holiday weekend, when our classmates were going to the seaside or to a theme park, we were tramping up and down the hills of the Lake District or Snowdonia. Needless to say, at the time we hated it. However, over the years, this fostered a love of the great outdoors that still persists to this day. By the time I was fifteen, I’d climbed all the three peaks of Britain. However, until last year, my love for walking had gone cold for a long time. That was until I climbed Mount Kinabalu and it completely reawakened my enthusiasm. New challenges needed to be sought. A colleague suggested Indonesia’s Mount Rinjani, reputedly even more spectacular than Kinabalu. In no time at all, flights were booked and a reservation was made. We were going trekking up an active volcano!

Situated on the island of Lombok, Rinjani is Indonesia’s second highest volcano, no mean feat in a country that has over a hundred of them. The summit of the volcano stands at 3726 metres. However, the main reason for Rinjani’s popularity is not the summit, but a spectacular crater lake, with the volcano’s new cone rising out of the centre. There are a plethora of trekking options available, ranging from one day to four days. We booked a three day, two night trek, which gives the option whether to go the summit or not.

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On day one, our trek began from the village of Senaru. The first section of the trek was through the jungle and was actually very comfortable. The heat wasn’t too stifling and the gradient was only slight, a far cry from the steep steps of Kinabalu. After around three hours we stopped for lunch and we saw the first negative aspect of Rinjani. The picnic area was covered in rubbish. Furthermore, the lunch that the porters cooked for us, although delicious, was far more than we could possibly eat. This meant that large quantities were wasted. As trekking up Rinjani becomes more popular, the companies are going to have to try to manage their environmental impact much more carefully.

After lunch, the walk became more challenging. Once we cleared the tree line, we emerged into savannah style terrain. Here the topsoil was almost non-existent, making maintaining our footing extremely difficult. The dust that this created stung our eyes, throats and nostrils. I resorted to drastic measures and wrapped my sweat towel around my face to combat it! Finally, after about seven hours of walking, we arrived at our campsite overlooking the crater rim. The second part of the trek had been arduous and the night time temperatures were freezing. However, the views of the lake, the stars, and Bali’s Mount Agung in the distance, made all the effort worthwhile.

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On day two we had the option of getting up very early and heading for the summit, or a trek down into the crater to swim in the lake, and visit the hot springs. Having been to the summit of South East Asia’s highest mountain a couple of months earlier, we had nothing to prove to ourselves and decided to have a few hours rest in the tent. On reflection, the walk to the summit probably wasn’t much harder than what we did. The crater is deceptively deep and it took us nearly three hours, down a steep winding path to reach the shore. Swimming in the lake was adequate reward, the hot springs much less so. Like the picnic area the previous day, they were absolutely filthy with food waste and even used toilet paper. It was a shame to see such a bucolic spot so tarnished. The trek back up to the crater rim was done in the height of the midday sun and took just as long. When we finally got there we wished we’d gone to the summit! Day two didn’t finish there either. Due to our desire to get to the Gili Islands the next day, we descended to Camp 3, just below the tree line. The dustbowl was even more precarious on the way down as our shoes had no traction at all. I took one very heavy fall, and awarded myself a large number of man points for bouncing straight back up!073093

Our final day began with a 5am wake up call. Following a delicious breakfast (the quantities were too large but the quality of the food on the mountain was consistently excellent) we embarked on a fairly straightforward three and a half hour trek to the bottom. Another three hours later, we were recuperating on the stunning Gili Islands, another of Lombok’s crown jewels.

The trek was challenging, but not as brutal as Kinabalu. The scenery, particularly the crater lake, was absolutely breathtaking. The only downside was the aforementioned litter problems. If you can get over this, I’d recommend Rinjani to any walking enthusiast. As for us, we’re taking a little break from climbing mountains for a while!

TRAVEL TIPS

We booked our trek through a company called Andreas Expedition. They were friendly and well organised throughout the booking process. However, we were not very impressed with our guide. Unlike the wonderful Diona on Mount Kinabalu, he was very impatient with Janey for her lack of speed, which clouded our opinion of him and the company somewhat.

Categories: Asia, Indonesia, Mount Rinjani | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Sepilok orangutan rehabilitation centre

Reasons why orangutans are amazing

  • They’re ginger monkeys
  • They share 96.4% of their DNA with humans, the highest percentage of any animal species
  • They’re the only one of the great apes to live outside of Africa
  • They are the wild men of Borneo
  • Baby orangutans look like this….Baby orangutan
  • Big daddy alpha male orangutans look like this…..

For all these reasons, and ginger solidarity, orangutans have always been one of my favourite animals. On our recent trip to Sabah, one of the two states that comprise the Malaysian part of Borneo, I had the opportunity to see these magnificent beasts for the first time.

As it’s getting more and more difficult to see orangutans in the wild, the best bet for primate enthusiasts in Sabah is to visit the Sepilok orangutan rehabilitation centre, one of only three such facilities in the world. Situated just 45 minutes away from Sabah’s second largest city, Sandakan, the sanctuary welcomes thousands of visitors every year. The highlights of the day are the two feeding sessions, held at 10am and 2:30pm. On the morning of our visit, we arrived just in time for the 10am session, as the first orangutans were making their entrance. The orangutans swing along the ropes to the platform where they are fed bananas. The diet is deliberately monotonous, so as to encourage natural foraging behaviour, which is essential if they are ever to return to the wild. The feeding lasts for approximately twenty minutes before the orangutans decide they’ve had their fill and swing back into the forest. Watching it was a fantastic experience.

After feeding time there are a couple of options. There is a jungle trail, about 5 kilometres in length, which leads to a waterfall. As there was a high prospect of being leeched we decided to pass and visit the neighbouring Borneo Sun bear conservation centre instead. Sun bears are the world’s smallest bear species. Similarly to orangutans, they are endangered due to habitat destruction and Chinese traditional medicine. At the BSCC you can view the tiny bears from an elevated platform. These beautiful bears were so playful and docile that I was seriously worried that Janey might ask if she could take one home.

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After leaving the sun bears we headed to the café for lunch. This was made extremely entertaining when one bold orang-utan, named Sisi attempted a daring, but ultimately unsuccessful, smash and grab raid on the kitchen supplies. Natural foraging behaviour I guess. Finally, it was time for the afternoon feeding session. Although we saw less orangutans this time, it was more amusing as a squad of macaques attempted their own smash and grab raid on the platform. Unfortunately, the afternoon session showed some negative aspects of the sanctuary. Many tourists seem unable to resist acting like complete imbeciles around the animals. When two inquisitive orangutans came down into our midst, they were surrounded by throngs of people flashing away and no doubt causing immense distress for the poor animals. Not cool at all.

Despite the unfortunate reasons for its formation and the stupid behaviour of some visitors, a trip to Sepilok is a superb experience and one that I’d highly recommend. After all, how many chances do you get to see the great apes in their natural habitat?

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TRAVEL TIPS

  • Entrance to the sanctuary costs 30 ringgit and covers you for both feeding sessions.
  • There are many lodges near the sanctuary. I’d recommend staying in one of these, rather than central Sandakan.
Categories: Asia, Malaysia, Orangutan centre, Sabah | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Climbing Mount Kinabalu

Mount Kinabalu is the highest mountain in South East Asia. Standing at an impressive height of 4,095 metres it towers over the rest of Borneo. Ever since I arrived in Malaysia last September, I’d wanted to climb it. Why? I don’t know. Because it’s there I guess. I’m not really much of a mountaineer. Prior to climbing Kinabalu the highest mountain that I had climbed was Ben Nevis which is a molehill in comparison, at just 1,344 metres. There was something about Kinabalu that really made me want to take on the challenge though. Therefore, in May this year, Janey and I headed to Sabah, with the intention of ascending the great peak.

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On the first morning of our two day trek, we departed from the Timpohon gate, at 9:30am. Part of what makes Kinabalu unique is that for the first day of the climb you can’t actually see the peak of the mountain, as you’re trekking through fairly dense jungle. We’d been warned to expect sweltering heat and to sweat profusely. This didn’t really transpire as the temperatures were pleasantly mild. Nor did the steep steps seem too sapping. I naively congratulated myself for the many hours spent on the cross trainer and stairmaster in preparation for the trek. This wasn’t going to be that difficult after all! However, at about the 2.5km mark we started encountering people who were gingerly making their way down the mountain. One girl told me that she was so exhausted that her legs were shaking. Maybe that confidence was slightly misplaced.

Rain has a habit of following Janey and I around. Maybe it’s because I’m from Manchester. Just after we’d stopped for lunch, it decided to make its customary appearance. This wasn’t the warm tropical rain that we’re used to in Penang. This was ice cold, torrential and it meant business. We tried to take shelter for a while but as it showed no signs of abating we ventured out for what would be the toughest part of the trek. Between 4.5 and 6 km the trail maintains its steep upward gradient. Just to make it more difficult though the steps disappear and the walkers have to navigate their way over or around some very larger boulders. The added challenge of the torrential rain made it akin to walking up a waterfall. Finally though, the tree line cleared and Laban Rata, our home for the night, appeared like a beautiful beacon of light. Soaked and miserable, we staggered into the hostel. There was only another 2.5km to go in the morning, with the prospect of more rain to come.

At first you can’t believe it. Is my alarm clock really going off at 1:30am? Then it dawns on you, it’s time to get up and attempt to summit. After trying to force down some beans on toast (seriously difficult at 2:00am) we departed Laban Rata and started our ascent to the summit. The most difficult aspect of this part of the climb is not the darkness, but the volume of climbers. Around 150 people all leave at the same time, which makes progress painstakingly slow. Eventually though, the stronger hikers get to the front and the line starts to spread out, and you can relax a little bit. Until you reach the rope. This is definitely the most dangerous point of the trek. We had to tightly grip onto a rope to enable us to inch along a very narrow ledge, with a sheer drop to the right. This torturous ordeal lasts for about fifteen minutes until you reach the final checkpoint. After that the rope continues but only as a marker to guide you across a long ridge. Strangely, for me, this was one of the easiest parts of the climb. Gone were the steps and boulders. We were just walking across smooth granite at a slight gradient. The challenge though is mental. In the approaching light, the summit is visible for a very long time before you get there, cruelly playing tricks on tired minds.

After what seemed like an eternity the ridge levelled out and we only had to scramble up a rocky crag to reach the ironically named Low’s Peak, the highest point in South East Asia. The sense of elation was overwhelming. I had done the Inca Trail some years earlier, but Kinabalu was easily the toughest physical challenge I’d ever undertaken. For that reason it’s also one of my proudest achievements.

Triumph!

Once you have finished revelling in the magnificent views, it’s time to go down. And believe me, this is just as tough as the ascent, even with a stop for second breakfast (definitely the best meal of the day) at Laban Rata. Janey, who had performed heroically up to this point given the fact that she had twisted her ankle a month beforehand, started to suffer from exhaustion. This made the descent very slow. Throughout this section, we were indebted to our wonderful guide Doina for her seemingly endless patience and indefatigability. Finally, we dragged our battered bodies back through the Timpohon gate at around 4:45pm. The whole trek had taken about 16 hours from start to finish. Was it worth the agony and several subsequent days of muscle pain? Of course it was. Every single bit of it.

 

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TRAVEL TIPS

We booked our 2 day, 1 night package through a company called Sutera, who seem to have a monopoly on climbing packages and accommodation. Expect to pay about 1000RM. This seems pricey, but it includes 7 meals, 2 nights accommodation and all climbing insurance etc. Ss the official Mount Kinabalu website http://www.mountkinabalu.com/ for details.

 

 

Categories: Asia, Malaysia, Mount Kinabalu | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Palawan

I’d never really thought of going to the Philippines until earlier this year. In January we had a week off work for Chinese New Year, and the Philippines was the cheapest place to fly to from Malaysia, so we took our chance to experience a country that doesn’t feature on nearly as many backpacker itineraries as the mainland south east Asian countries, or even Indonesia. This is unfortunate as it has an incredible amount to offer, including seven thousand islands and a Latino culture that is completely unique in the region. One of the main challenges for any visitor to the Philippines is choosing which islands to go to. It is the world’s second largest archipelago and to see even a small percentage of it could take months. As we only had a week it was important that we chose well. We didn’t really want to spend any time in Manila so this ruled out Luzon, the largest island. The central Visayas range was still recovering from the devastating effects of Typhoon Haiyan, and the large southern island of Mindanao, home to the great Manny Pacquiao, was unadvisable due to problems with an insurgency. All of this limited our options somewhat. Helpfully, a colleague suggested Palawan, the long thin island just to the north east of Borneo. Despite knowing absolutely nothing about it we decided we would give it a try. It felt like we might actually be getting off the beaten track for once, something that’s nearly impossible in south east Asia these days.

When our flight touched down at Puerto Princesa airport it certainly felt like we’d achieved our objective. It looked far more like an airfield than an international airport. Some promotional literature referred to Palawan as “the last frontier.” This seemed to be quite an apt description as Puerto Princesa definitely felt like a frontier town, a place that’s only real use is as a departure point for other more beautiful or interesting destinations. For most tourists in Palawan, that destination is El Nido; a six hour journey from Puerto Princesa and reputedly one of the highlights of the Philippines. However, we were short on time so we decided to head to the sleepy sounding village of Port Barton instead. We could have paid an extortionate price to take a private jeep from the airport but that’s definitely not how I roll. It was the cheap, cramped minibus all the way! Throughout the journey I was struck by just how sparsely populated the island was, and by how little infrastructure existed. Twenty kilometres before we reached Port Barton we turned off the main road and onto a dirt track. In parts the road was under construction, in other parts it just disappeared completely. Now we certainly were off the beaten track, the track didn’t even exist!

Upon arrival in Port Barton, we were required to register at the tourist office before walking along the beach to our accommodation. There are probably more stunning beaches in the Philippines but I doubt there are many that are as relaxing. Summer Homes, our accommodation, was one of the best places I have stayed in South East Asia. It had a stunning garden setting, excellent food and extremely friendly and attentive staff. Just for good measure the sunsets were absolutely stunning. This was a place to relax hard. The only time the tranquility was broken was by monkeys playing on the corrugated iron roof of our bungalow.

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The highlight of our time in Port Barton was an island hopping trip. Our guide Dong-dong (yes that really was his name) wore the demeanour of a man who had never been stressed in his life. With his job though, what would there be to stress about? When he turned off the engine, so we could stop to snorkel, the silence was breathtaking. We are so used to noise pollution in our everyday lives that to have pure uninterrupted silence in such a glorious setting was something truly memorable. The snorkelling was also far better than the diving we had done in Krabi, a month beforehand. After viewing a stunning array of fish and coral we got back on the boat and continued to pass by islands that looked so deserted that Robinson Crusoe would probably approve. We stopped on one such pristine island where Dong-dong cooked a fabulous lunch of barbecued fish. The rest of the day was spent snorkelling, lying on the beach and meeting baby turtles. Tough life.

Far too soon our time in paradise had to come to an end. There was just the small matter of the local bus, complete with chickens inside, about thirty people on the roof, and all of Port Barton’s rubbish strapped to the rear, back to Puerto Princesa. Sometimes the journey itself is the experience!

Sitting at the airport the next day, I reflected on one travel brochure’s claim that Palawan was the island that inspired Alex Garland to write “The Beach.” This may or may not be true, but the Philippines were indeed Garland’s favourite country. If Palawan was this unspoilt now, what must it have been like when he visited in the late 1980s? I would say visit now, before it becomes more frequented, but I just got the impression that this place will never get spoilt.

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TRAVEL TIPS

As previously stated, I cannot recommend Summer Homes highly enough. Some of the cheaper rooms don’t have hot water but if you’re a hardcore traveller this shouldn’t bother you! Find info about them at www.portbarton.info/summerhomes.

Categories: Asia, Palawan, Philippines | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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