Posts Tagged With: travel

Spending Christmas with the Pandas in Chengdu

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by choice when researching a trip to China. There are sprawling megacities, soaring mountains, arid deserts and ancient ruins. Where does one start? Clearly, we were always going to Beijing and Hong Kong. Janey spent ten years working as an archaeologist so a visit to Xi’an to see the fabled Terracotta Warriors was also essential. Other than these three places, my attention kept getting drawn to Sichuan province. Why Sichuan? Well, the scenery looked stunning for a start. It was also reputedly home to one of the best, and spiciest, regional cuisines in China. Most of all though, it was about pandas. Sichuan is the best place in China to see one of my very favourite animals. Going to China and not seeing them would have been unthinkable, like not drinking beer in Germany or missing Macchu Pacchu in Peru. We had to go to Sichuan.

Sichuan Map
On December 23rd 2015, we boarded a domestic flight from Beijing to Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan province. It was one of the more traumatic flights I’ve experienced. Honestly, I’ve got no idea how the man in front of us could spend an entire three hour flight hawking up phlegm. This is exactly what happened though. As it was an evening departure from Beijing, it was gone midnight by the time we arrived in Chengdu. My rucksack did not arrive with us. After the hassle that I’d had at immigration in Beijing, I was beginning to get suspicious. Were these things happening because we were going to Tibet? We would spend the whole of December 24th in the hostel waiting for word of where the bag was. This meant that we missed out on going to see the Giant Buddha in Leshan. Here’s a picture that I didn’t take of it. It’s fair to say that we’ve had better Christmas Eves.

Leshan Giant Buddha
Christmas morning dawned and my rucksack still hadn’t appeared. However, we were both determined to make the most of the day. This was the main reason for our visit to Chengdu. The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding (or Chengdu Panda Base for short) was set up in 1987 to help combat the sharp decline in panda numbers in the wild. As the name implies, the base has a very successful breeding programme and can share some of the credit for the fact that panda numbers are now increasing again. As the base is located about an hour outside of the city, we organised transport through the hostel and got driven out there with two German girls. Driving out of the city, I felt my spirits plummet. The pollution was horrendous and the outskirts looked indescribably bleak. How on earth could the poor pandas survive if they had to breath this dirty air?
We pulled up at the centre just before 9:00 and made our way in. At this point, our driver spoke to us for the first time. In halting, broken English he pointed at a number on the map and said “Here. Baby. Pandas.” Janey immediately went into some sort of involuntary convulsions. We walked a little way into the park, rounded a corner and there they were! My previously low mood was cured instantaneously. There were about ten pandas prostrated on a platform, munching on vast quantities of bamboo. We stayed there for well over half an hour, mesmerised by how docile and content they were. No wonder pandas are supposedly sexually reticent, they are obviously too busy eating all the time.

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Next was the main event of the morning; the baby pandas. The highlight was seeing one little panda continually trying to climb up a tree. He didn’t quite have enough strength in his legs and kept sliding back down and landing on his backside, He would then go back and try again and achieve exactly the same result. At this point, I thought Janey would either combust or enrol on a rapid Sichuanese and zoology course in an attempt to get a job as a keeper.

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Later, we encountered the red pandas. These are much less well known than their black and white counterparts. They are also considerably smaller and considerably more aggressive. I particularly enjoyed watching one of them trying to take on a peacock who was trying to steal his food. It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog. Red pandas presumably know this mantra and live their lives by it.
By late morning the park was getting crowded and it was time to go back to the city. Unfortunately, we then had to spend Christmas Day afternoon shopping for new clothes, as my bag still hadn’t shown up. However, it’s certainly not hyperbole or exaggeration to say that the pandas saved our Christmas that year.

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TRAVEL TIPS
For more information about the Chengdu Panda Base, this is the English version of their website http://www.panda.org.cn/english/

Categories: China, Panda Centre, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How I learned to stop worrying and love Beijing

I don’t think I’ve ever gone to a country with as many mixed feelings as when I travelled to China in December 2015. On the one hand, I wanted to walk on the Great Wall, taste authentic Chinese food, and most of all, I wanted to see pandas. Conversely though, I was nervous about the pollution and I’d heard all the tales of people spitting on the street and supposedly having no manners. Furthermore, at the back of my mind, there was always the nagging dread that I wouldn’t be allowed into the country, as we’d arranged to go to Tibet, with a Tibetan tour agency. Therefore, on the day of our flight from Seoul, I was a bag of nerves. We were going to be in China for three weeks. What if all the horror stories were true? I needn’t have worried. Beijing turned out to be a fantastic city.

China doesn’t really do gentle introductions but our first couple of hours in Beijing were pretty full on. The first problem was at the airport. My passport seemed to set off some sort of check and the border guard and his supervisor spent around ten minutes looking at it and making phone calls. I had my Chinese tourist visa so all I could think of was that they’d realised I was going to Tibet and they’d decided not to let me in for that reason. After what seemed like an eternity though, I was eventually allowed in to the People’s Republic of China. We left the airport and got our first view of the dreaded haze. It was even worse than we had expected. Apparently, that week the pollution had been so bad, there had been a red alert, which is almost unprecedented even in Beijing. Next, we got completely and utterly lost, whilst trying to find our hostel. Eventually we did find a hostel, but it was the wrong one. This was when things started to turn for the better though. A guy who was working at the hostel we’d arrived at went completely out of his way to walk over a mile to the correct hostel with us. He even carried one of Janey’s many bags. When we got there, I offered to buy him a beer to say thank you. He wouldn’t hear of it. He had just wanted to help. It was an incredibly kind gesture and it made us think that the negative reputation that the Chinese have in many other Asian countries isn’t entirely accurate.

After buying dust masks, the next day we set out to explore the city. Our first port of call was the wonderfully named Temple of Heaven. This is located at the centre of a large municipal park. Walking through the park, we saw groups of old ladies doing Tai Chi and a bunch of middle aged people playing a game of keepy-uppies with what looked like a large shuttlecock. Some of them were extremely skilful and none of them seemed remotely bothered by the smog, it was just a fact of life in Beijing. The Temple itself was spectacular and certainly worth a visit.

Later, we visited another spectacular site. The Birds Nest Stadium and the Aquatics Cube were the venues for the athletics and swimming events at the 2008 Summer Olympics. We’d timed our visit to be there when it was dark, as at night both buildings are illuminated. The effect is mesmerising. Finally, we finished off our first full day by exploring some hutongs. These are a type of narrow street or alleyway, where you can find some excellent shops, cafes and restaurants. They were extremely cool and you could spend hours wandering around and getting happily lost in them.

Day three was the highlight of our time in Beijing. We booked a trip from the hostel to go to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China. Everyone has seen the Great Wall on television, and in books but nothing prepares you for actually being there. There are not enough superlatives in English, Chinese or any other language to describe just how awe-inspiring a sight it is. I’ve been to Macchu Picchu, the Taj Mahal and Angkor Wat and the Great Wall was the equal of all of them. We took a cable car to get us up to the wall and then went for a walk. Mutianyu is easily accessible from Beijing but is isn’t the most touristy section of the wall. That “honour” goes to Badaling. Because of this, and the fact that we were there in mid-December, there were surprisingly few other tourists on the wall. Overnight, there had been a light dusting of snow, which made the wall look even more stunning. The only downside was that the smog was still visible, more than 60 kilometres outside the city limits. We walked for around an hour tolerating some steep sections, slippery underfoot conditions and one extremely persistent salesman, until we reached the end of the walkable part of the Mutianyu section. Beyond this, the wall is in a ruined state and it wouldn’t have been safe to have gone any further. Interestingly, at this point a lot of people had tied little red bits of plastic in a tree, presumably as some sort of offering designed to bring good luck. It wasn’t the most environmentally sound offering but it still looked pretty cool. To put the seal on a truly memorable day, when we descended from the wall, we ate one of the best meals we would have in all our time in China.

We’d been to the symbol of China. On Day four, we had to go the centre of the Chinese Universe; Tiananmen Square. For many Westerners, Tiananmen conjures up uncomfortable images of the massacre of innocent civilians in 1989. Not going there though would be like visiting Paris and not going to the Eiffel Tower though. We had to see it. From the moment we emerged from the subway, the high security presence was evident. We had to go through metal detectors to gain access to the square and then once on the square, there were large numbers of troops, ready to accost any potential troublemakers or dissenters. From one end of the square the smiling face of Chairman Mao looks down onto the people below from Tiananmen gate. I’m glad that we went there to see it, but it wasn’t always a comfortable experience. It was a reminder that after more than fifty years of Communism, China is still an extremely repressive place and there is little sign of that changing in the near future.

From Tiananmen, we went to the Forbidden City. For most tourists, this is one of the highlights of their visit to Beijing but I was disappointed. Perhaps, I was still feeling subdued after the police state feeling of Tiananmen but it didn’t really enthral me at all. Yes, the buildings are spectacular, but it was extremely overcrowded and we were often jostled out of the way by domestic tourists, who didn’t want to wait a few seconds longer to get the photo that they wanted. My mood was lifted back up by walking through some really trendy hutongs to get to the Drum Tower. There, we witnessed a powerful and visceral drumming performance. It was certainly one of the more impressive live music performances that I’ve seen on my travels, although an Indonesian Guns N Roses covers band may run it quite close.

After the Drum Show, we had to go back to the hostel and pack our bags for our internal flight to Chengdu. Just like that, our four days in Beijing were over. I was worried when we went there but I had certainly learned to love it. In fact, the highest compliment that I can pay it is that I preferred it to Tokyo or Seoul (not Hong Kong though, no big city in that region beats Hong Kong) and I’m amazed to say it; I’d love to go back again sometime.

TRAVEL TIPS

We stayed at Beijing Saga International Youth Hostel. I would recommend it very highly. The staff all worked incredibly long hours but were extremely friendly and had great customer service skills. They also spoke impeccable English. Furthermore, there’s a bar which is great for meeting other travellers and it has an English menu, with a mixture of Chinese and Western dishes.  http://www.sagayouthhostelbeijing.cn/

Categories: Beijing, China, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Five things you should do in Seoul

If you’re planning a visit to Seoul, there a couple of things that you should know before you go.

  • It’s absolutely MASSIVE.646
  • It’s really difficult to navigate your way around. The subway system is extensive but there are very few signposts pointing out the way to the various tourist attractions.

Put these two things together and the result is that you won’t manage to fit in nearly as much as you think you will. Therefore, I’ve selected five things that I think you really should do whilst you’re in Seoul.

5 – Gyeongbokgung Palace

There are several former royal palaces in Seoul but the biggest and grandest is Gyeongbokgung. If you arrive at the right time, you can see the changing of the guard ceremony. Even if you don’t time it right, you can still get pictures with the traditionally dressed guards before wandering around the palace grounds. The view of the palace, with the mountains behind, when you walk through the main gate, is extremely impressive.

How to get there: Gyeongbokgung station is on Subway Line 3.

4 – Insadong

Insadong is (or is trying to be) to Seoul what Gion is to Kyoto or the Hutongs are in Beijing. In a city where antiquity definitely takes a back seat to modernity, Insadong is a place where you can still find pockets of traditional Korean culture. There are lots of quirky little shops and art galleries to explore. The main attraction is the traditional tearooms and restaurants, where you can get authentic Korean food. We paid 12,000 KRW each for Bibimpbap (rice topped with sautéed vegetables), pajeon (a delicious savoury pancake) and all the accompanying side dishes, including the ubiquitous kimchi. The restaurants in Insadong certainly aren’t cheap, but the food is some of the best in Seoul. Be careful about ordering a kimchi and pork broth though. I’d lived in Asia for two and a half years before eating this and I was completely unprepared for the atomic spice hit that I got. I think my lips stopped stinging about eight hours later.

How to get there: Anguk station is also on Subway Line 3. Insadongil (the main street in Insadong) is a two minute walk from the station. It’s also possible to walk from Gyeongbokgung.

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3 – Escape the city for a day

According to Rough Guides “the vast majority of tourists to Korea get no further than Seoul.” Considering the compact size of the country and its excellent rail network, it seems like a lot of tourists are missing an opportunity. With the exception of Jeju Island, pretty much everywhere in South Korea is accessible in a day trip from Seoul. The most popular trip is to the DMZ, which is the no man’s land dividing the two Koreas. Unfortunately for us, our attempts to go there were about as successful as the supreme leader’s diet. We were reliably told by various sources that we could book DMZ tours four days in advance. However, when we arrived in Seoul, we discovered that all the days we wanted were booked up. If you really want to go I’d recommend booking a couple of weeks in advance. Alternative day trips close to Seoul include Bukhansan, reputedly the world’s busiest National Park, and Suwon Fortress. If you can spare a couple of days though, do what we did and go to one of the many ski resorts that are within a couple of hours of Seoul. Alpensia and Yongpyong, where we skied, are due to host the downhill events in the 2018 Winter Olympics. So we were kind of blazing a trail for the pros.

How to get there: There are buses to Yongpyong ski resort every morning from outside Seoul Olympic stadium. We booked our three day ski trip with a company called Sally Tours, whom I’d highly recommend. They also do DMZ tours.

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2 – Namsam Park and N-Seoul Tower

Namsam Park is an oasis of greenery in the midst of a concrete jungle. The park is pleasant to walk around but the main attraction is the N-Seoul Tower, which gives spectacular views of Seoul’s vast urban sprawl. From Seoul station, it is a ten minute walk to the park entrance. You can then walk up to the top of the hill, where the tower is located. Alternatively, if you’re pregnant, have mobility issues or you’re just plain lazy, there’s a cable car that does the same trip. To walk from the park entrance to the tower, it should take around 45 minutes to an hour. It gets pretty steep in parts so be prepared to get a bit hot and sweaty. Once you get to the top, there’s a plaza area where there are dancers and cultural performances. My favourite was a sword fighting demonstration. There are also a number of shops, including a Teddy Bear Museum, which absolutely delighted Janey. You can then pay 10,000 KRW to go to the top of the tower. This seems steep but the views are definitely worth the admission fee. I also liked the window displays, which showed how far various domestic and world cities are from Seoul. The fact that Pyongyang is closer to Seoul then Busan is seemed to underline the absurdity of the division between the two Koreas. Namsan and the Tower make a great afternoon out and I think it would be particularly appealing to anyone travelling with children.

How to get there: Seoul station is on Subway Lines 4 & 5. Walk out of the main exit and follow the signs for Namsam Park.

1 – Great Taekwondo Demonstration

Taekwondo is Korea’s national sport and one of the world’s most popular martial arts. It is unsurprising therefore, that Kukkiwon, the world taekwondo headquarters is based in Seoul. Every weeknight from 5 – 6 pm, tourists can go and watch a one hour demonstration performance. I love martial arts so I was always going to go. It’s testament to how incredible the show was that Janey, who isn’t really a fan of pugilism, enjoyed it nearly as much as I did. Mixed gender teams of young martial artists demonstrate an incredible repertoire of kicks jumps and throws, showing incredible grace and agility in the process. Interspersed with this, there are a few traditional dance segments, which I think are designed to show how taekwondo forms an intrinsic part of Korean culture. The best part of the performance is when the martial artists break blocks of wood with flying kicks and flips. At the end, audience members are invited up on stage to have a go at breaking one of the wooden blocks. There was no way I was missing that opportunity. I thought I was going to end up flat on my arse but somehow I did it. The kick was true and the wood broke into two pieces. The fact that the wood was almost certainly balsa is entirely irrelevant. At that moment, I felt like Bruce Lee.  It was the perfect ending to a truly memorable experience. Surprisingly, there were only about thirty people in the audience for the demonstration. It might not be one if Seoul’s best known or most popular attractions but, for me, it was definitely the best.

How to get there: Take Subway Line 2 to either Gangnam (yes that Gangnam) or Yeoksam. Kukkiwon is roughly equidistant between the two.

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Categories: Asia, Seoul, South Korea | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Ten things to do in Myanmar

Myanmar has an incredible amount to offer to travellers. Ancient cities, unspoilt countryside and some pristine beaches all combine to make it one of Asia’s most exciting destinations. However, it is also a fairly big country with very poor infrastructure. As most visitors only have around 2-3 weeks there, it’s unrealistic to think that you can see all of the country in that time. Personally, I would have loved to have seen Tsipaw, Ngapali Beach and the Mergui Archipelago but it wasn’t possible in my two week timeframe. Based on the experiences that I did have though, I ‘ve put together this list of ten things I think you should do in Myanmar.

10) Yangon Circular Train

The name is a bit of a giveaway for this one. There is a local commuter train that takes a circuitous three hour loop through Yangon’s suburbs and into the surrounding countryside. The attraction is that you see a real picture of daily life in the city, which obviously makes for some brilliant photo opportunities. However, I wouldn’t recommend doing the whole three hour loop, as we did. After a while it starts to get a bit monotonous and it certainly isn’t comfortable. Alternatively, get on the train, travel a few stops and take a few pictures, then get off and take a taxi back to central Yangon.

 

9) Red Mountain Winery

They make wine in Myanmar? Really?! Yes, that was my reaction as well when I first heard about it. It’s true though. Around ten to fifteen years ago, some French and German winemakers set up some vineyards near Inle Lake. Red Mountain, the French owned winery, is just a 40 minute bike ride from Nyaungshwe, on the shores of Inle Lake. What you can do is taste the wine (3000 Kyat will buy you tasters of five of the most popular wines) and enjoy a delicious meal in a stunning setting. We treated ourselves to three courses, a taster set and an extra glass each and it still only come to around 12,000 Kyat each! Don’t expect that much from the wine but it’s perfectly palatable and well worth the ride out of town.

8) Experience a festival

This shouldn’t be too difficult in Myanmar. They seem to happen all the time! The day after we arrived in Yangon it was a full moon festival. In Kalaw, we saw a fire festival. At Inle 3000 monks and nuns were heading to a temple on the lake for an almsgiving ceremony. In Popa, we saw young girls and boys all finely dressed up in preparation for entry into the novitiate. If you do see one of these festivals, you probably won’t have a clue what’s going on. Don’t worry about that though. Just sit back and enjoy the craziness.

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7) Sunset at U Bein Bridge

U Bein is a teak wood bridge that stretches across the Ayerwady River, near the town of Annapura, about 20 kilometres outside of Mandalay. The picture of local people walking across at sunset is one of Myanmar’s most iconic images, right up there with the balloons over Bagan. For 12,000 Kyat you can pay a local boatman to take you out into the middle of the river, from where you can get the best photos. Yes it’s clichéd. Yes it’s crowded, but the classics are the classics for a reason. The photos are amazing.

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6) Innwa

Myanmar seems to have had an incredible number of capital cities in its tumultuous history. The one that served as the capital for the longest though was Innwa, until it was devastated by a massive earthquake in 1839. Today, you can visit the ruins of the city, which are situated on a bend in the Ayerwady River, not too far from Mandalay. It’s actually possible to combine Innwa, U Bein and Sagaing into a single day trip. The ruins are probably small enough to walk around if you can endure the heat. The thing to do in Innwa though is to hire a horse drawn cart to take you around the ruins, for 10,000 Kyat. It takes about an hour and a half in total and you can stop and take as many photos as you like. Be prepared for some extremely persistent salespeople though. One lady actually jumped on her bicycle and followed our cart until we eventually felt so guilty that we had to buy something from her!

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5) Mandalay to Bagan ferry

Travel in Myanmar isn’t easy. It’s still an incredibly poor country and the roads are not in great shape. Overnight trains are supposed to be unspeakably horrific and domestic airlines have rather dubious safety records. So just once, why not treat yourself and travel in a more luxurious way? That’s what we did when we took the ferry from Mandalay to Bagan. It was $42 as opposed to $18 on the bus. I can assure you that it was worth every cent of those extra $24 though. You get two meals and you can order beer, tea or coffee on board. If you like, you can sit up on deck and take in the views. You could snooze the journey away. Or you could do what I did and read pretty much all of George Orwell’s “Burmese Days” in the country where it was set. Truly idyllic.

4) Bagan

I wrote about Bagan in more detail here so this is the concise version. There are hundreds of temples and pagodas spread out over a massive plain. They are all pretty impressive in their own right but throw in the spectacular sunrises and the balloon rides (presuming you’re as rich as a Russian oligarch) and you can see what makes Bagan so special.

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3) Inle Lake

Bagan’s main rival for the most popular tourist destination in Myanmar is Inle Lake. Located in Shan State, Inle can justifiably claim to be one of the most beautiful and unique places in South East Asia. The way the locals live their lives on the lake is fascinating. From the standing rowers, to the floating gardens and the stilt houses, the views are constantly captivating. It’s also a great place to just go and relax for a few days. I spent my birthday there. I certainly wasn’t disappointed.

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2) Kalaw trekking

What could be even better than Inle Lake? Trekking there from Kalaw of course. For me, this was the highlight of my time in Myanmar. The countryside is incredibly picturesque, the trek isn’t too challenging and you get to witness a way of life that is seemingly the same as it has always been. I’ve done quite a few treks in South East Asia. This was my favourite one. Read more about it here.

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1) Shwedagon Pagoda

If any one place could be called the cultural and spiritual centre of Myanmar, it’s Shwedagon. This enormous golden pagoda is located in the heart of Yangon and attracts pilgrims and visitors from all over the country. The best time to visit is late afternoon for two reasons. Firstly, you have to go barefooted. If you do this in the middle of the day, you will burn your feet pretty badly. Secondly, at dusk (around 6:20 on the day we went there) the lights are switched on and the pagoda appears to change colour. The effect is absolutely spectacular. It’s one of the most impressive religious buildings I’ve ever been to.

 

 

Categories: 10 things to do in Myanmar, Asia, Myanmar, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bagan

It was 5:30 am, pitch black and freezing cold. We were on a small country road in Myanmar and the lights had just failed on Janey’s rented E-Bike. This wasn’t the start we were hoping for from our trip to Bagan.

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Bagan is Myanmar’s answer to Angkor Wat. Hundreds of temples and pagodas are scattered across a vast plain in the south-west of the Mandalay region. When Tony and Maureen Wheeler travelled around South East Asia in 1975 (the trip that spawned the first Lonely Planet book) they declared Bagan to be their highlight of the entire region. For years though it was neglected due to Myanmar’s self-imposed isolation and a devastating earthquake the year after the Wheeler’s visit. Now though the secret is well and truly out. Hordes of tourists are flocking into Myanmar and Bagan is the top destination on most of their lists.

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The most popular thing to do in Bagan is watch the sun rise over the plains, thus illuminating the temples and the hot air balloons that fly over them at dawn. This was how Janey and I found ourselves in our little spot of bother. It was our first full day in Bagan and we’d set the alarm for the ungodly hour of 4:45, to ensure that we’d find a good spot to watch the sunrise. As the temples are spread out over a very large area, you need some transport to get around. Unlike Siem Reap, there are no tuk-tuk drivers waiting around for a fare at 5am. You have to go it alone. Consequently, the most popular type of transport are E-Bikes; noiseless environmentally friendly electric scooters that work on dirt tracks as well as the main roads. Surprisingly for someone who has travelled so much, I’ve never actually ridden a motorbike. There was a misadventure involving a quadbike and a wall in Ecuador, which I’ve always maintained was down to the bike locking up, but may have involved the tiniest bit of driver error but that’s all. Therefore, it was with more than a little trepidation that I got on the bike and tested it out. It was then that I made my first major error of the day. I asked the guy if he had any helmets. The look he gave me was half horrified, half pitying. “What is this halfwit thinking?” he presumably muttered to himself in Burmese. “This is Asia, we don’t do helmets here.” I was crushed. He must have taken me for some sort of Asia freshie, not the gnarled veteran of many Asian campaigns that I like to think I am.

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Nervously, we edged the bikes out onto the road, trying not to think of what my mother would say if she could see me riding without a helmet. In the middle of the night. In a country with notoriously bad roads. Everything went reasonably well at first; we got confident enough to push the speed up to a dizzying 30 kph. Then things started to unravel. We couldn’t find the temple we were looking for and then Janey’s bike light failed. As so often happens in situations like this though, a guardian angel appeared. His name was Lin Lin and he was just cruising around on his motorbike at 5am. We explained our predicament to him and instead of guiding us to the place that we had intended to go to, he took us to a much smaller pyramid. We had it all to ourselves and arrived in time to witness a truly mesmerising sunrise. Afterwards, it turned out that Lin Lin wasn’t just an altruist. He did have some paintings to sell. They were of such good quality though and he had been so kind that we bought two of them. They now hang proudly in the living room of our flat. Thanks Lin Lin!

Over the next three days, we took the E-Bikes all over Bagan and saw as many temples as possible. So now, there’s some advice I’d like to impart to anyone who is thinking of visiting Bagan. Firstly, don’t go chasing particular temples. Bagan isn’t very well signposted and if you do this you’ll just end up getting frustrated as you’ll spend a long time trying to find what you’re looking for. You may even end up with the E-Bikes stuck in thick sand as you’ve gone off track to “find a shortcut.” It’s far better just to ride around and stop whenever you see something that you like, which will be frequently. Secondly, it’s asking a lot of yourself to see sunrise and sunset in one day. Try to spread it out so you see one of each on different days. However, if your time is limited and you really have to choose, go for sunrise. The colours are better and the balloons over the temples are wonderfully photogenic.

Earlier, I said that Bagan was Myanmar’s answer to Angkor Wat. So, how does it compare to South East Asia’s most visited tourist attraction? Thee honest response is it’s great but it isn’t as good as Angkor. Part of this is due to the fact that it seems less authentic. A lot of the temples were crudely rebuilt after the earthquake, meaning that it doesn’t have the same feeling of antiquity. Furthermore, as more and more tourists flood into Myanmar, the local authorities will need to start signposting things better and providing maps that are actually accurate! However, taken on its own merits, Bagan is a highly photogenic and pretty unique place. It’s certainly worthy of its top billing in Myanmar. I’d highly recommend it.

TRAVEL TIPS

You have to pay $20 US to enter the Bagan Archaeological Zone. Once you’ve bought this, you’re free to travel around as much or as little as you like.

Categories: Asia, Bagan, Myanmar, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

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.”

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

Exploring the Ecuadorian Amazon

There are few places on earth that excite the imagination quite like the Amazon basin. The largest rainforest in the world covers more than two and a half million square miles and is spread across nine different countries. It also boasts an outstanding array of flora and fauna, a lot of which, including the mighty anaconda, is unique to the region. The vast jungle is also home to indigenous tribes who remain remarkably detached from the modern world. Put all of these elements together and it’s obvious why the Amazon is so beguiling for travellers and adventurers. Tours to the rainforest can easily be organised from Quito, the capital of Ecuador. The Cuyabeno National Park is located close to the Colombian border, and tourists can take four, five or six day trips into the Amazon there. Back in 2007, I took the five day tour into the jungle. Eight years on, it still remains one of my all-time favourite travel experiences.

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Day 1

The overnight bus from Quito arrived in Lago Agrio at 7:30am. This gave us two and a half hours until our transport arrived, which was about two hours and fifteen minutes too long to spend in Lago Agrio. This is not a city you’d want to hang around in. When we departed, we endured a bone shaking three hour journey to El Puente, the starting point for the tour. These were some of the worst roads I experienced in all of South America. Finally though, we arrived and were herded straight onto a canoe. A two hour journey down the river took us to the Samona jungle lodge. This journey was rather more pleasurable. Chirpy and colourful macaws sang in the trees and we also spotted three different species of monkeys. That evening, after settling into the lodge, we were taken out to the Laguna Cuyabeno where we swam and watched the sunset. At first I was sceptical. Aren’t there piranhas in the Amazon?! Don’t they like eating people?! Not according to our guide Jairo. He told us that piranhas are like sharks and will only bite you if you’re already bleeding. Good enough for me! In we jumped and swam in a lagoon in the middle of the Ecuadorian Amazon. Truly amazing.

Day 2

The second day commenced in a rather challenging manner. After breakfast, we were taken out on the motor boat and deposited a considerable distance down the river. We were then placed in traditional dugout canoes and told that we were going to paddle back to the lodge. This was difficult, especially because of the fierce sun, but also massively rewarding. Along the way, we caught fleeting glimpses of pink freshwater dolphins and the rarely seen South American Coati. The giant anaconda remained elusive though. In the evening we watched a mesmerising lightning display over the lagoon before embarking on a night hike through the forest, which was teeming with tarantulas and scorpions. Quite how our immensely knowledgeable guide, Jairo, could navigate his way through the dense dark forest so easily continues to be a source of wonder.

Day 3

Day three was the highlight of the expedition. In the morning we travelled upriver and met a local tribe, called the Sione. There we were shown how they farmed and made a living for themselves in an incredibly unforgiving environment. From the Sione, we moved onto the Cofan tribe, where we were hugely privileged to meet a Shamen. Wearing his traditional dress he talked to us about the training that he had done to become a Shamen, and the hallucinogenic drinks that the Shamen use to induce a higher state of consciousness. This was followed by a demonstration of how he heals people on the cook from our lodge. It’s debatable whether or not he cured the cook’s bad back, but it was certainly intriguing to watch. In the evening we returned to the lagoon where we went piranha fishing! They may not have attacked me whilst I was swimming, but they certainly went for the bait. I was lucky enough to catch a massive one, but certainly not brave enough to hold it! Its razor sharp teeth looked like they could cut through human bone very easily. This was no problem for Jairo who held it with ease.  He was a proper man of the jungle!

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Day 4

Our final full day began with an exhilarating three hour trek into the jungle. It was hard work but immense fun. The route took us through creeks and swamps and on a number of occasions Jairo had to hack at the foliage with his machete to find us a path. I got to fulfil an ambition by swinging from a vine, and then later in the trek we also ate ants from the bark of a tree. Not for the faint hearted! The trek did also have educational value as well, as Jairo explained to us which plants had medicinal qualities and what they could be used for. For example, many of the indigenous people believe that the milk that can be obtained from the bark of the Quinina tree can cure malaria. That evening we paddled the dugout canoes in another sadly futile attempt to find an anaconda. Our efforts to see the great snake were not rewarded. However, we did see a Toucan, the symbol of the Amazon region. Most impressively of all we were treated to the magnificent sight of a solitary vulture circling low looking for carrion. Another unforgettable moment.

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Day 5

All great adventures have to come to an end, and so unfortunately did my mini adventure. I wasn’t even looking forward to getting back to Quito, let alone having to kill a few hours in Lago Agrio. In what seemed like a consolation prize, we were taken out on a final hike through the forest, before the boat journey back to El Puente. Sitting on the boat I mused on the memories of a wonderful five days. In that time I had met indigenous tribespeople, felt like an adventurer and seen an array of wildlife that, in Ecuador, could only be bettered in the Galapagos. The Amazon didn’t just meet my expectations, it exceeded them.

TRAVEL TIPS

This article was originally written eight years ago for a sadly now defunct newspaper called The Ecuador Reporter. Whilst I have made every effort to ensure that the information is still correct, I haven’t been able to find current prices. I’m happy to recommend Gulliver’s travels (http://www.gulliver.com.ec/) and Trans Esmeraldas, the bus company that I travelled from Quito to Lago Agrio with. (http://www.transportesesmeraldas.com/portal/) However, if you want specific prices you’ll have to find them for yourselves!

Categories: Ecuador, Exploring the Amazon, South America | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mountain biking down an active volcano in Ecuador

At 5897 metres above sea level Cotopaxi, in Ecuador, is one of the highest active volcanoes in the world. Visible from Quito on a clear day, the majestic monolith dominates the skyline from miles around. Its perfect cone and snow-capped peak make it the most stunningly beautiful of all Ecuador’s volcanoes. A popular challenge is to attempt to hike to the summit of Cotopaxi. Beginning from the Refugio at the height of 4800 metres, the brave climbers trudge through deep snow drifts and fight against debilitating altitude in their battle to reach the top. Whilst it is obviously massively rewarding for those who do succeed, the combination of the altitude and the notoriously unpredictable weather patterns that surround Cotopaxi mean that success is far from guaranteed. Unfortunately, many climbers return to Quito disappointed, having had their attempts thwarted. An interesting alternative for those who fancy a bit of adventure, but don’t want to go to the top of the mountain, is to mountain bike down it instead. Having already biked down Bolivia’s notorious “Death Road” a couple of months previously, this was definitely a challenge that I wanted to undertake!

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The Biking Dutchman was established in 1991 and has been running day trips down Cotopaxi ever since. It is easy to see why the company’s success has endured; the ride is utterly exhilarating. The minibuses leave Quito at 7am and make their way to the national park, eventually stopping 4500 metres up the mountain. From here the views of the mountain are breathtaking and provide wonderful photo opportunities. After a safety briefing, we tentatively began our descent. The first 8 kilometres of the ride were all downhill, on a frightening gradient, and we achieved some truly phenomenal speeds. Whilst the ride is suitable for most ability levels, I wouldn’t really recommend it to complete beginners as the bikes were basic and only had front wheel suspension. This meant that maintaining balance was a tricky proposition. I think my knuckles were white from gripping the handlebars so hard! Thankfully, I made it through this stretch with only a couple of minor falls.

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When the descent has been completed the ride slows down and takes on a more sedate nature. After the rush of going downhill and holding on for dear life, it was pleasant to actually do some pedalling and take time to appreciate the bewitching lunar landscape. The massive boulders that have been spewed from the volcano in its moments of fury make for particularly compelling viewing.

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Once we had eaten a delicious, and much needed, home-made lunch, we embarked on the final section of the ride. This took us across barren grasslands before plunging through lush pine forests. Pedalling across the grasslands and having to continually change gears was torturous. However, once we headed into the forest, all the effort seemed worthwhile. Here it was possible to really put my foot down, and get some serious speed up, flying over rocks and through puddles in the process. The speeds were comparable to further up the mountain but without the same fear factor, making this my favourite section of the ride. Finally, after four hours of hard riding, we reached the end point. Many of us felt seriously battered and bruised. None of us said that we didn’t enjoy every single minute of it.

TRAVEL TIPS

The trip is competitively priced at $55 per person. This includes lunch and transport to and from the national park. It doesn’t include the $10 entrance fee to the national park. Check out the Biking Dutchman’s website at http://www.bikingdutchman.com/

Disclaimer: This is an old article which I wrote eight years ago for a sadly now defunct paper called “The Ecuador Reporter.” I’ve updated the article so all price information is current, but please don’t blame me if anything else is out of date!

Categories: Ecuador, Mountain biking down Cotopaxi, South America, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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