Bangkok, Buddhas & Buckets

Standard

First night in Bangkok was interesting to say the least. The gueshouse was in the middle of nowhere and there was only one (lovely smelling) bathroom/toilet between about 20 people. Soph and I moved to a cozy backbacker hostel a few roads away from the infamous Khao San Road the following night. We knew we wanted to be near but not on the road itself. It turned out to be one of the best hostels we’ve stayed in so far. Infact it’s so good that we’ll be heading back for a night after Bali!
Headed to the Khao San for a late afternoon Chang beer. Yes, three years at uni without beer and I spend 2 weeks in S.E. Asia and I’m converted.

There were backpackers everywhere and it was a great way to meet people. We headed out and saw a Buddhist temple not far from our hostel. It was so quiet and peaceful, we were the only tourists there!

image

Had quite possibly the best thai green curry of my life from a street stall. Could eat this quite happily every day. Obviously Khao San itself is completely westernised. If you wanted Maccy D’s for dinner you wouldn’t struggle. Lived the atmosphere though, especially at night.

We headed to RCA, a strip of bigger clubs in a different part of the city. Met people from all over the world. Was great to experience Bangkok nightlife, always a good sign when a lot of thais are around too!

We visited Bangkok’s huge weekend outdoor markets the following day. They were amazing! Huge selection of clothes stalls, food, electricals etc. It was pretty decent stuff as well compared to most markets!

After a final night on Khao San road we visited the grand palace on our last morning. The buildings were beautiful, colourful mosaics and shimmering gold.  Shame it was ‘Real Feel’ 45 degrees.

That evening we took the oh-so-long but oh-so-worth it journey by land and sea to Koh Phi Phi. Although not quite up to Malaysia standards the over night buses here are pretty good with (freezing) air con and almost fully reclining seats.

We arrived near Krabi at around 10am (left Bangkok at 7pm the previous evening). Instead of getting a ferry across there and then we had to wait for two hours in a stop point. Here they promptly put ‘The Beach’ on the dvd player. This was without a doubt a daily occurence to somehow make up for the fact you are arriving in paradise 4 hours later than you thought. By this point we were no longer surprised that the ferry was due to arrive in Phi Phi at 3:30pm.

Phi Phi was quite accurately described in The Lonely Planet guide. Beauty can indeed be a burden. I loved the fact that the stunning beach was completely transformed at night to make way for fire breathers, fire jugglers and buckets. Lots and lots of colourful buckets filled with miscellaneous alcohol. But the next morning it was straight back to peaceful idyllic postcard perfect paradise.

Couldve stayed here weeks if you could possibly live on three hours sleep a night. Our hostel was right on the beach. Which was brilliant unless you (stupidly) decided to try and sleep before 4am. The bass shook the bunkbeds until dawn but we never complained.  On our last full day we did a boat trip to ‘Maya Bay’ ( The Beach beach), monkey island (self explanatory) and Phi Phi Ley for snorkelling. Saw lots of colourful fish and then after dark swam with glowing plankton. Well worth the money, the beaches are beautiful although cant I imagine what they’re like in high season!

image

image

Here we treated ourselves to a double room with ensuite (oh hey!). Caught up on sleep and spent two incredible days on Railay beach a short boat ride away. It was stunning.

Spent a few hours in Krabi town this evening to browse the night markets. Grazed on lots of yummy thai food before heading back to pack (without a doubt my least favourite part of travelling).

Advertisements

Highlands, Hawker stalls & Happy birthday!

Standard

We left Melaka for the Cameron Highlands, a cool break from city life. The town of Tanah Rata reminded me of both Lake District summers and ski resorts (albeit without the snow). You can tell the town has been completely transformed by the tourism industry. Tour operators, a Starbucks (sorry not sorry) and shops selling strawberry-related everything.

We decided that a tour would be the easiest option to see all that the Highlands had to offer so the following day we headed on ‘adventure tour 1’ as persuaded by an eccentric, friendly Malaysian man named Mr Ray (and his cat). Unfortunately Mr Ray himself was not available to take us but we paid around £8 each for a tour of the tea plantations, tea factory, the highest point in the highlands, a stawberry farm and ‘the mossy forest’. The latter involving the six of us walking off the main trail for a good half an hour before deciding it probably didn’t loop back around to the entrance as we first thought. It was great though!

image

The view from the lookout tower at the highest peak rivalled that of Lipton’s seat in Sri Lanka, beautiful. 

image

The strawberries were well worth paying almost Waitrose prices for and I’ll never get bored of tea plantations, I’d missed telly-tubby land!

image

image

We ended up leaving the Cameron Highlands a day early due to our rooms smelling like damp, rotting cabbages and mouldy feet. The journey to Penang was interesting. Our driver felt the need to accelerate into every bend and double overtake vehicals causing us to slide from side to side for 4hrs with one eye shut. Had to see the funny side though, or you’d cry right? There was me thinking we’d escaped super crazy driving…!

Penang is an island to the west of the country connected to the mainland by a bridge (22nd longest bridge in the world apparently). We spent five nights here and all agreed it was a great place. I’m a sucker for food as you’ll already know so was already excited about visiting ‘hawker stall city’ and ‘the food capital of Malaysia’. Our hostel was great. For a fiver a night we had powerful hot showers, wifi, tv/dvd communal area, FREE COFFEE and an excellent location.

Saw some sights and visited the fort and museum, headed to the beach for the day at Batu Ferringhi, watched Captain America at a sofa/beanbag cinema and tried lots of new food. Special mentions go to peanut pancakes for breakie and ‘Char Koay Teow’ a prawn, garlic noodle dish.  It was Sophie’s birthday on 15th so we went to Pizza Hut (guilty) and then hunted out a reggae bar. So this is where all the backpackers had been hiding! Pretty chilled night of Bob Marley, shisha and writing our names on the tables/walls. We’ll have plenty of time to celebrate more in Bangkok and the Thai islands I’m sure.

Before heading to the airport we stopped at the Snake Temple. An actual temple with actual snakes just chilling everywhere. They were all very docile/asleep though. The adjoining snake farm was more impressive. May or may not have watched a live mouse getting fed to a venomous snake. It was disturbing but you couldn’t help but watch!

Anyways, we’ve just arrived in Bangkok so will post more in a few days 🙂

Menara tower, Mee goreng & Melaka

Standard

If you hadn’t guessed already, this is my first post-Lanka blog post from Malaysia (another ‘m’!). We left Colombo early on Monday morning. Cousin Sophie’s flight was due into KL international a few hours after ours so I stuck around whilst the others went  to the hostel. KL arrivals hall has an interactive world map to watch all incoming flights in real-time, pretty awesome.  Made a very last minute ‘PRICE’ sign and watched as Love Actually-like scenes unfolded as families and friends reunited.

Wahoo! This has been a long time coming but we’re finally off on our travels. Got a bus to KL central and walked to the hostel. Aircon, wifi, a chillout area and free breakfast for a fiver a night?! Hello. K.L. is super modern. The buses, trains and monorail all have aircon and most stations have wifi. It was noticeably clean too and felt much more city-like than Colombo. We got the monorail to the Petronas Towers to see them lit up like chandeliers at night.

image

We’d heard that it was best to climb the Menara tower as the observation deck was higher than the bridge on the towers and you can instead see the towers from there.

In the morning we got the train to the Batu Caves, an ancient set of caves and Hindu temple. The caves themselves were absolutely huge. At the foot of the steps there is the largest standing statue of the Hindu god, Murugan.

image

Got the monorail (awesome and of course air conditioned) to Chinatown for lunch. Still getting to grips with Malaysian food but have had Mee Goreng, a noodle dish derived from Chinese cuisine and Curry Mee (spicy curry noodle soup with coconut milk, veg, chilli, tofu or meat).

image

In the evening we went up Menara towers, recommended for a better view than the Petronas towers (and it turns out tickets for the twin towers were sold out anyway). Was a pretty amazing 360° view. Felt much more real than looking down from the empire statw building.  We could see Petronas towers, china town and the Baru caves and watched the sunset.

image

Sophie and I went to K.L. Bird Park the following morning. Have never seen so many peacocks in my life! Even more than on safari in Sri Lanka. Saw one perform it’s mating ritual with feathers up and shaking, wow! It was a free-flying bird canopy so you could get extremely close to the birds. Saw many other species, am over peacocks now though!

image

image

Went to Melaka for one night, an interesting city in the south. Can’t say I recommend the river boat cruise… and the whole place was a big mismatch of tourist-tacky/wanna-be-cultural. May have just got a bad impression, the riverside itself was nice for a drink though!

Then onto the Cameron Highlands and Penang, second post to follow before Bangkok!

Beach, Boogie & Bye

Standard

The countdown timer on my phone now says ’90 days since Sri Lanka’. Three months to the day since I sat down in my plane seat and thought to myself ‘Do I really want to do this?’. It was of course a bit late to change my mind by that point. The spontaneous decision to sign up and pay my deposit has turned out to be one of the best I’ve ever made.

I cannot emphasise enough the welcome we received from our homestay family. Amma and Tata treat us all like their own children and make volunteers feel at home from the day they arrive.  This made a huge difference in the first few days and helped us all settle into the culture and country.

The projects that I have worked on and coordinated for the last three months have all had their ups and downs. If someone had told me three months ago that I’d look forward to my teaching projects just as much as the psychology ones I would’ve laughed in their face. Turns out teaching English to a group of 16-23yr olds is great and as they’re so eager to learn it is easier than teaching young children. You can joke around and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed teaching them.

The special needs projects, one home in particular, have been amazing since day one. Having the opportunity to work once a week with the same group of men on both outdoor activities and arts and crafts has been great. Men who previously never joined in are now participating fully and encouraging others. No,  I’m not saying that’s all down to us but I can at least be sure that we made a small difference. We have taught them songs and dances that they now begin to do before we have even started and the residents and staff seem genuinly pleased to have us. I’ll miss this project more than any other and it’ll be emotional walking out the gate for the last time on Friday.

I learnt yesterday that students from the factory workers placement still ask about me despite not teaching there since week four. I miss factory workers! If I had stayed there I wouldn’t have had the experience of teaching at the local primary school though.

Most of the volunteers went back to Hikkaduwa for the final weekend. I hadn’t realised quite how much I’d missed it since January. It’s more built up than other beaches we’ve visited but I love the surfy vibe. I think I need to move nearer the sea, it makes me ten times happier! Of course the sun has a big impact as well but both that’s true in Cornwall too….!

Everyone went out on Friday night, drinks, dancing, 3am rottis and then a cheeky dip in the sea…perfection!
Spent most of Saturday on the beach and browsing the shops before a lovely meal out with the girls. Fed wild giant sea turtles on Sunday morning, amazing! I could’ve stayed in Hikki for a week quite happily. The waves wernt too great for beginner surfing but they were fun to swim in.

Had a great celebration/certificate giving night on Monday with all the vokunteers and SLV staff.  Sad to say the first of many goodbyes to some of the coordinators. We have a final saree party tonight with all the Homagama volunteers. I’m making the most of Sri Lankan cuisine today by having rice & curry for breakfast lunch and dinner, wish me luck!

I’m so sad to be leaving this beautiful country but I’m so excited to see my cousin Soph on Monday and begin S.E. Asia travels.. next stop Kuala Lumpa!

image

Culture, Climbing & Champagne

Standard

Thirteen people in a minibus the weekend before last straight after Friday projects all the way to Sigiriya. Was quite looking forward to it as it’s one of the only places I’d visited in 2011. We arrived in time to nip across the road for hoppas and kottu.  Had a shower and soon realised the hose was more powerful so used that instead. Earlier on the tank to some rooms has run out of water, half way through people’s showers, nice! Can’t really complain when youre paying a fiver a night though.

Up bright and early for Sigiriya rock, a huge ancient rock fortress surrounded by old water gardens. It was strange being back there without the family and the rock actually looked bigger than I remembered! Around half way up there are spiral staircases bolted to the aide of the rock that lead up to a viewing area for the famous cave paintings on the side of the rock face.

image

image

There were a few annoying guides on the way up literally trying to carry foreigners up the steps… we did Adam’s Peak last weekend thank you very much. Charlotte made use of the word ‘eppa!’ meaning ‘stop’ in a real-life situation for the first time. Some poor middle aged tourists who were completely capable of the climb were stuck with a man under each elbow and would probably be asked to pay for the pleasure.

Apart from that Sigiriya was great, had a few group photos on the top and then headed back down for some much needed lunch. In the afternoon we went to Dambulla cave temples, another ancient cultural site I had visited back in 2011. If you haven’t seen many Buddhist temples/ancient ruins these are an incredible example.

image

Must admit,  after a second visit I was just as excited to see the monkeys playing around outside! After this we got back in the minibus for the 1.5hr journey to our guesthouse near the ancient city of Polonorruwa. Six of us headed out for street food for dinner after having a pretty big lunch.  Luckily our minibus driver saw us on the way and drove us into town. Hoppas anyone?! How on earth am I going to survive without them when I leave? Will be trying as much street food as possible whilst travelling that’s for sure.

Sunday morning the owner of the hotel took us to his friends who hired out bikea for cycling around the ancient city. I hadn’t ridden a bike in at least 4 years and don’t actually own one anymore. It was great though! It made me miss cycling a lot, although glad we didn’t cycle much on the crazy Sri Lankan roads! It was nice being able to see more of the city than if you were on foot. 

image

image

Stopped half way for a cheeky king coconut.

This weekend five of us stayed in Colombo for the weekend and attended  a garden party at the residence of The British High Commissioner (lovely man by the way!). It was pretty surreal but the music included a rendition of ‘Bring Him Home’, that was me sold. Then out in the garden, luckily the torrential downpour had stopped, we had ‘heavy snacks’ including the best vegetable spring rolls ever. Oh and my first glass of wine of 2014 (the wine mojitos definitely didn’t count).

Afterwards we went for a drink at Sky Lounge, a great rooftop bar on top of the Kingsbury Hotel, may have paid more for a drink as my hotel room for the night but it was the only drink we had to buy so swings and roundabouts.  We somehow managed to make friends with a millionaire (billionnaire?) with his own driver who took us to a club and bought us a silly amount of champagne and then breakfast at a 5* hotel…. yay!

The following day Charlotte and I went to Sri Lanka’s answer to the National History Museum and then pedaloed in the lake, very romantic. Saturday evening ten of us went to ‘the Mango Tree’ a lovely Indian restaurant. The evening/night was a repeat of Friday minus the garden party and breakfast, again limitless free champagne.  Sunday was very chilled and spent the day wondering from one food establishment to the other (Odel and Barefoot), perfectly chilled 🙂

Food Glorious Food

Standard

For those of you who know me well you’ll be aware that I like food. A lot. So this blog post will give you a little taste (pun definitely intended) of Sri Lanka in food form.

Starting with the obvious, rice & curry is staple. Three times a day is completely normal in Sri Lanka. The vast majority of volunteers draw the line at breakfast but I have been having rice & curry twice a day a few times a week. If you’re hungry and busy, trust me you need it! 

I thought I’d be sick of this after a few weeks but honestly, ten weeks on and I still look forward to Amma’s curry when I’ve been away at the weekend.  Another thing to mention is the variety. We can have ten rice & curry meals and they’ll all be the different.

A personal favourite of mine and many fellow volunteers is Amma’s infamous pumpkin curry. Slightly milder than some others but not sweet like some of the fruit based dishes. I’m really going to miss Amma’s cooking, especially whilst I’m still travelling Asia.

We also have a great mix of accompanying dishes such as spicy soya balls, coconut sambal, egg salad and dahl. I am salivating just writing this…needless to say I love pretty much all of it!

Street food is a big part of Sri Lanka. I’ve made an effort to try as much as possible since arriving in January but I definitely have my favourites now. Hoppas (rice flour and water), cooked like pancakes in a rounded edge pan. I first tasted hoppas back in 2011 and loved them. They are served around 5pm onwards and usually come with a chilli or garlic based sauce. My favourite type of hoppas are egg hoppas though,  where an eggbis simply broken into the mix and cooked into the batter. So you end up with something in between an omelette and a pancake. They are incredible and I live on them at weekends (much cheaper than sit down meals especially if you want western food).

image

The best egg hoppa I’ve ever had in Tangalle!

Rottis are slightly more bread like and freshly made taste great. Theyre still flat and are very versatile (sweet with chocolate/fruit etc or savoury ones with egg/meat/veg).

Kottu is chopped up rotti re-fried with herbs/spices, and finely chopped vegetables etc. Pretty hit and miss taste and spice level wise but it can be very good!

Waday are another favourite,  they are lentils, onions, chilli and potato (?), mixed together and fried in hot oil… very healthy. Much nicer when served fresh but a nice snack all the same. 

Chickpeas and roated peanuts served with spices are also common. Much to my surprise (and delight), street vendors selling popcorn are a thing here…. YES! One snack from home I don’t have to miss!

The fruit here is great, many-a-weekend ive split a pineapple for breakfast on the beach, nothing beats it!  The sweet small bananas here too are worth a mention, ten times better than their cousins served in uk supermarkets.

All in all… Sri Lankan food is brilliant. I know I’ll crave it when I’m home, especially when eating processed English/Indian curry from a jar…. yuck! I’m also going to miss eating it with my hands, im sure il be eating rice and curry (behind closed doors) without cutlery for a while!

Steps, Spooning & Sunday Jazz

Standard

We’d put it off long enough and had heard many-a-story but this week Homagama finally decided to take the plunge and climb Adam’s Peak!

‘Sri Pada’  or Adam’s Peak is a famous pilgrimage site in Sri Lanka. We had heard both good and bad about the climb from other volunteers so I think it’s fair to say that most of us felt a mixture of excitement and dread. The week previously, volunteers had only just reached the summit in time for sunrise due to massive temple queues. So we set off in plenty of time (10:30pm!).

Yes, in hindsight this was far too early but after the previous week we didn’t want to risk it. The climb is all steps, 5200 of them in total. We agreed to all go at our own pace and separated into smaller groups. I was very thankful for the numerous tea/coffee/food stops on the way up! There were hundreds of Sri Lankans making the climb, many in family groups and some very elderly and disabled. As it’s known as a pilgramage several climbed the whole thing barefoot. So we definitely stood out from the crowd in our trainers and rucksacks!

Once we realised quite how early we were we stopped at a couple of tea shops (the last one for over an hour until we got kicked out!). Apparently the maximum stop time at the last tea shop is ten mins… ooops!

So after one final push we reached a big open ledge before the last climb. We decided to put on all our layers, wooly hats for 25p and everything. Then we lay down and spooned for a while to pass the time! Finally at around 4:30am we deemed it late enough to go up the final steps to the top of the peak, we’d done it! Used quite possibly the worst squat toilet I’ve ever encountered and rang the bell at the peak.

Security kept trying to move us on and back down the mountain but of course everyone was keen to stick around for sunrise. We found a viewpoint slightly below the top and stayed there. Well worth the wait the views were absolutely stunning and there was a collective ‘ooooo’ when the sun finally rose.

Hadn’t quite considered the long walk down beforehand. Turns out walking down 5200 steps on no sleep is way worse than walking up them. My knees were shaking after every single step and by the end we all felt very weak. Felt a massive sense of achievement when we finally reached the bottom though. Had a celebratory ‘omelet with chips omelet’ on the way back and the dog who had followed a group all the way up and back had joined us for breakie too!

Headed to Aluthgama a small beach resort close to Bentota on the Saturday. We arrived just in time for a very quick swim in the sea (amazing), curry and much needed zzz. On the Sunday we spent an hour at the completely deserted beach before heading back to Colombo for a late lunch, wine mojito and Sunday jazz at Barefoot cafe for Vicky’s birthday, bliss! 

image

image

image