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Ski La Plagne
Our destinations in Asia
We will try and update the text while travelling.
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15/11 Arrived in Singapore at about 9pm and the city/country/island is full of bright lights and Christmas decorations.
16/11 Spent the day exploring Singapore on foot. We walked to the harbour and admired the Merlion statue - half lion, half fish - the symbol of Singapore. We crossed the pretty Anderson bridge and walked along the colourful riverside cafes of Boat Quay. We continued walking into chinatown where there are no skyscrapers but beautiful temples decorated with dragons and filled with incense. We explored Sri Mariamman temple, the oldest Hindu temple of Singapore. Above the entrance is an amazingly ornate tower decorated with hundreds of figures. We found a street full of foodstalls each selling a different chinese dish, only one selling chicken so Hilary headed straight to that.
Close to our hostel is a large modern shopping mall and Luk spent a while investigating the computer shops.
17/11 We walked to the Arab quarter, the centerpiece of which is a pedestrianised street lined with palm trees and dominated by the golden domed Sultan Mosque. We had to remove our shoes and put on dark green robes to be able to enter the mosque. After that we walked to little India, probably the only dirty place in Singapore with people sleeping on pavements. The streets were crowded with gaudy shops selling gold jewellery or bright silky material. The streets are adorned with 'Happy Deepanvali' decorations. We escaped to a quiet clean restaurant where ate a cheap chicken biryani served on a big banana leaf (from which Luk ate with his hands copying the people beside us). Next we explored the Indian market where we bought a durian fruit. We had been advised to try this by an australian fruit farmer who described the taste as being similar to strawberry cheesecake. He was right but unfortunately this was totally overrided by the strong taste of onion. After a couple of bites we offered it to local people who all refused to take it, so we gave it back to the laughing stall owner. The fruit itself resembles a green hedgehog and has such a strong stench it is banned on public transport and in hotels. It is an acquired taste and you either love it or hate it.
That evening we took a train and a bus to the night safari zoo. Many animals are only active at night so it makes sense to go and see them at night. We took a guided tram ride round the zoo and then walked around. Most of the enclosures are naturally made using water or plants rather then cages. We saw many lively otters and different species of cat inluding the clouded leopard as well as many antelopes and hyenas.
18/11 Attended Saint Andrew's Cathedral and were depressed by a sermon about the end of the world, persecution of christians and Singapore being swallowed up by an earthquake. Spent the rest of the day in shopping malls and walking around Clarke Quay.
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19/11 Five hour bus ride from Singapore to Melaka in Malaysia. A bridge attaches the two countries and we passed beautiful dark green countryside in Malaysia. We thought we had left shopping malls behind in Singapore but our hostel in Melaka is right next to one. Our hostel is pleasant and homely and run by muslims so we can't wear shoes inside or bring in ham or chinese food.
20/11Rather hot and sticky walking around Melaka. We visited the remains of a 16th century Portuguese fort. After the Portuguese, Malaysia was taken over by the Dutch who left a bright red church and 'stadthuys' (town hall). A small musuem taught us all about Malaysian independence from the British which took place in 1957. We explored old narrow streets full of antiques shops and chinese temples. We discovered a shop selling tiny shoes for bound feet, a gruesome tradition that carried on well into the 20th century. We took a trickshaw back to our hostel.
21/11 Not a great deal more to see in Melaka so we took a bus to Kuala Lumpur. Once there we headed for the Petronas Towers, the tallest buildings in the world. Only a certain number of tourists are allowed to go up each day and we arrived too late today.
The Malaysian King died today so the country is in mourning for a week.
22/11 We were walking around the city sights, when we came to the main square there were lots of people and policemen gathering. Quite an experience watching the funeral procession of the Malaysian King. The procession was full of yellow umbrellas (for the sun) and the coffin draped in yellow cloth, yellow is the royal colour and it is strange to see it at a funeral. There were military bands and the navy marching through the streets. Hilary was interviewed by a local TV crew asking how the funeral compared to a similar event in England. She didn't really want to say it would be a lot bigger as there were surprisingly few people, so she said it was very impressive. We watched as the procession ended outside the magnificent law courts and the coffin placed into a yellow van, the hearse. The king was 75 when he died and we saw his young queen, his fourth wife barely 30 years old, in the Rolls Royce behind the hearse.
In the evening Luk went to see a play performed by a chinese actress above the restaurant where we had our dinner. It was about the life of a wealthy chinese woman around 1950 in Signapore. The acting was very expressive.
23/11 Got up early to get tickets to go up the Petronas Towers. Tourists can only go halfway up to the skybridge, linking the two towers, on the 42nd floor. The view wasn't that spectacular although we could see the mountains around Kuala Lumpur. Even at the 42nd floor we were higher then most other buildings in the city. The towers are 452m high but there are only 88 floors.
In the afternoon a five hour bus journey brought us to the Cameron Highlands along very windy roads. It was pouring with rain when we got there, so we couldn't really see the scenery.
24/11 Despite being the wet season it doesn't rain in the mornings, so we were able to do some walking through the rainforest. We walked one and a half hours through dense forest along a slippery trail, climbing over or under several tree trunks that had fallen across the path. Luk nearly stepped on a giant millipede. We came out of the forest close to a pretty chinese temple in the hills. It was another hours walk along the road to the BOH tea plantation. We passed incredibly pretty scenery, rolling hills covered with tea plants neatly formed into irregular hedges. It was very misty, then it started to pour down with rain and we finally arrived at the tea factory. After a refreshing cup of fruit tea we toured the factory and learnt all about the tea making process. We didn't really fancy the long walk home through the rain so hitched a lift with a group of dutch air stewardesses.
25-26/11 Walked for three hours through another part of the forest and found a waterfall but unfortunately it was in a disgusting state. Thick brown water filled with plastic bags, bottles and other rubbish. Amazingly Luk spotted a long black snake swim across the river onto the other side. Next day we visited an impressive chinese temple, then took the bus to Penang.
27/11Penang is dirty, noisy with smelly open drains, prostitutes and rats. In the evening we discovered a chinese opera showing for free at the local temple. Very pretty with bright costumes and make-up but we didn't understand a word although the local people found it very funny. After about 20 minutes all the backpackers in the audience discovered the free noodles at the back, which we made the most of.
28/11Attended a free yoga lesson on the grass by the sea. We were watched by some homeless guys who then joined in. The lesson included relaxation techniques, massage and lots of stretching. Afterwards we took the funicular railway to the top of Penang hill. Not much to see up there except some playfull monkies.
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29/11 Ten hour bus journey into Thailand. We've booked an advanced diving course to start tomorrow.
30/11 Spent the whole day on a traditional Thai longtail boat (propelled by a car engine). The scenery is beautiful with huge rocky islands jutting out of the sea. We can see the island where 'The Beach' was filmed. Our first dive was peak performance buoyancy where we learned to become 'weightless' under water. In our second dive we had to identify fish and coral and write down the names on an underwater slate. That was a lot more enjoyable as it was all very pretty. Hilary is now covered in itchy red spots, an allergic reaction to sea lice and it's driving her crazy.
1-3/12Our first dive of the day was disappointing, it was meant to be our deep (30m)dive but we only went to 20m. We were tested on the effects of nitrogen narcosis, we had to do the times tables under water. The next dive was underwater navigation and we had to navigate a square using a compass and natural features as well as estimating distance by fin kicks. On the last dive we got to use an underwater camcorder. We now have a video of what we saw although the colours are not as good as in real life. Having completed some homework we are now advanced divers.
We've discovered a beautiful beach, a bay framed by limestone cliffs, white sand, palm trees and cool, calm sea water. We are staying in a cabin only 10 minutes walk from the beach. In the late afternoon we can watch climbers scaling the cliffs and people practising yoga on the beach, as well as people playing with hula hoops or juggling or drums. A real backpacker haven. We visited another beach, just the other side of the headland, and although the beach is nicer there are far more tourists and it's a lot more expensive. One day we hired a tandem kayak and found a couple of other deserted beaches. The food in Thailand has so far been delicious, especially the stir fries.
Finally managed to drag ourselves away from the beach and headed to Khao Sok National Park, mostly jungle and limestone mountains. We did a tour that took us to a huge lake created by a dam, submerging a whole village in 80m of water. The view of the cliffs was superb. We walked through the jungle,across 8 or 9 streams up to our waists in water, listening out for the whoops of the gibbons but not glimpsing any. We spent one and a half hours walking, climbing and swimming through a huge caves, rather nerve racking when the guide pointed out the huge spiders to us. We saw hundreds of sleeping bats and even a two meter long snake. The next day we did a long and tiring walk ourselves through the bamboo jungle, seeing a nice waterfall and swimming in the waterhole. If we stopped walking for just a couple of seconds, a leech would locate us and start climbing our boots but our insect repellent stopped any attaching to us.
Our cabin was full of spiders, slugs and flying insects but nothing prepared us for the scorpion we discovered on the bed. We had just packed up to leave when it ran across the bed and hid under the sheet, as if it's been there all along! We were glad to be leaving for Bangkok.
12-13/12 An overnight journey on the sleeper train to Bangkok and we have found a cell like room in a hostal. Bangkok is how we expected, very busy, noisy and dirty with many backpackers and stalls selling things. A man convinced us to go on a tour, which was really just a ploy to try and get us to spend money on worthless jewels and over priced silk clothes - an absolutley typical scam that many travellers fall for - but we had read our guide book which warns us of these people.
We walked around the beautiful Grand Palace. Lots of gold temples and ornate statues. We saw the Emerald Buddha in one temple (made of jade, not emerald), and were surprised to see it was wearing it's winter golden robes, when it's still so hot.
13-16/12 Short journey to the former capital of Ayuttaya, smaller and quieter then Bangkok. The town is full of the ruins (some restored) of 14th century temples and thousands of buddha statues. It was fascinating to explore these sites. Some buddha statues had their heads chopped off by invading Burmese. Others have been restored and are very impressive. Most of the temples and shrines were built using red brick. At one site, we were interviewed by several school children who were sent out by their teachers to practice their english.
17-20/12 Another overnight train journey to Chaing Mai in the northern mountains of Thailand. We did a three day trekking tour of Doi Inthanon National Park. It was a very well organised trek, the walking mostly through forest and fields through grass as tall as us. The trek involved a rather bumpy but good fun elephant ride. Hilary has never seen elephants outside of a zoo, and found them huge. Luk helped wash one in the river. The elephant we rode kept on bracking off branches with his trunk and using them to scratch behind his ears.
We floated down the river on bamboo rafts, that Luk steered with a long pole, and we all got soaking wet in the process. Both nights we stayed in hilltribe villages. The first night we stayed in a tiny Maew village, very basic, no electricity and the only running water was through a hose. It was also very cold so we huddled round the campfire and watched the stars and the fireflies while listening the our 25 year old guide tell us about his teenage years spent as a buddhist monk living in a temple. The next night we stayed in a larger karen village, where 300 people live and there is light and showers in the wooden huts. Their clothes are a funny mixture of traditional and modern. They are Christians so we attended a church service, sitting on the floor of a tiny wooden chapel that doubled as a dance hall for the local teenage girls to practice their disco dancing routine once mass had finished.
21/12 Spent the day deciding what to do - we will stay in Chaing Mai for Christmas and go to Laos immediately afterwards. We also relaxed with a Thai massage, performed by blind people. Hilary enjoyed it, but Luk found it an hour of 'sheer torture' and is now aching far more then he did before.
22-23/12 Luk was ill with an upset stomach today so couldn't attend the Thai cookery course we had booked. Hilary went on her own and had a great time, cooking seven dishes including Thai green curry and water chestnuts in coconut milk, all very tasty and spicey. There were 16 or so people in the class, but it was well organised and the Thai chefs made it a lot of fun.
24/12 Second day of the cookery course which we both attended. We made several stir frys and Thai red curry, all delicious and we were rather full up after eating all of it. In the evening, we enjoyed a few drinks with all the Japenese people who are in our hostel. They were very drunk and having much fun. After that, we attended a midnight mass at a large Christian church, mainly attended by ex pats. The mass was candle lit with lots of carols.
25/12 After a leisurely brunch in a posh cafe, we took the bus to a Buddist temple at the top of the hill outside Chiang Mai. There was a lovely view of the city and the temple was very beautiful. That evening, we had a traditional Christmas dinner at an Irish pub, where many British people were celebrating.
Bus journey to Chaing Khong, next to the border with Laos where we have to go as our Thai visas run out soon. We could see Laos across the Mekong River from our hostel.
27/12 Crossed the river into Laos where we had bought tickets for the boat to take us to Pakbeng. But just because we had tickets doesn't gaurantee a seat, and sixty or so tourists piled onto a wooden barge, squeezing onto benches and even on the roof. About half the tourists got off in protest, saying the boat was far to overloaded and would probably sink (probably true) and demanded another boat. We were grateful to them because it left us with more space. Even so, it was an incredibly uncomfortable six hour journey, no stops and practically nowhere to stand up. It meant that we didn't really appreciate the beauty of the mountains of the Mekong valley, as our seats faced inwards. But we were relieved we didn't take the fast boat, flimsy speed boats that shoot down the river at three times our speed, narrowly missing rocks and rapids. The travellers who take this boat sit huddled up unable to move with crash helmets, life jackets and ear plugs. A serious accident occurs every week according to our guide book.
We finally arrived at the tiny village of Pakbeng, right on the river banks, and we decided to stay here a couple of days to admire the scenery and recovering our energy for the next eight hour boat journey.
28/12 We were the only tourists left in Pakbeng as all the rest took the boats this morning. The huts of the village are on wooden stilts with reed walls. They don't have electricity and the only running water is in the street and we saw several women washing themselves on the side of the street uses sarongs to cover themselves. The children were very friendly, asking us for pens. We walked along the river to a posh French owned resort, with luxery cabins and restaurant. As there were no other tourists until the evening, the staff were having a bit of a party and invited us to join in drinking 'Lao punch' - a mixture of beer, whisky and orange. We asked if there is a comfortable boat from there, there is but only for resort guests and it's very expensive to stay there.
29/12 Endured another eight hours on the boat to Luang Prabeng. The boat again was overcrowded with 15 or so local people on the roof with dogs and hens. So relieved when we got off.
30/12 Luang Prabeng is a small town set in a curve of the river, framed by huge mountains. We could enjoy the amazing view from a temple at the top of a hill right in the center of the town. There are a lot of tourists here, mainly French, and some good French run restaurants.
31/12 Visited the Royal Palace, now turned into a musuem as there is no longer a royal family. It wasn't that big but had beautiful murals and mosiac covering the walls. That evening, we celebrated the new year at a family run French restaurant. There was a display of colourful Laos dancing and costumes and music, and a buffet meal of good Laotian food. The dancers were local teenagers and together with the strange commentary in English from the French owner it was very amusing.
Most people left before midnight, so we saw in the new year with some friendly Canadians. The restaurant owners opened a bottle of champagne at midnight but this turned out to be the non alcoholic version.
1-2/1/2002 We crossed the river to the village on the other side where we saw a few old temples, one set in a cave. The next day we left Luang Prabang for a ten hour bus journey to the capital Vientiene. Despite buying bus tickets the day before and arriving at the bus station an hour and a half early, it was still a battle to get seats on the bus. The aisle was full of people and five or so tourists sat on the roof - rather dangerous considering the bumpy roads and all the sharp turns around the mountains. Again, the scenery was absolutely stunning but we were too uncomfortable to enjoy it.
3-5/1/2002 Vientiene is a very quiet, clean capital city with little traffic. There are no multi nationals, not even MacDonalds and we saw no office blocks or signs of much business. We saw few people, mostly other tourists. Very strange for a capital city. One day we visited the Arc de Triumph and a stunning golden pogada. The next day we took the local bus to the Buddha Park, some kilometers out of the city, a small park crammed full of statues of buddhas and humans and animals, of all shapes and sizes. Several young monks were there, keen to practice their english with the tourists.
6-7/1/2002 An overnight bus journey has taken us away from Laos back into Thailand. Bangkok bus station was chock a block with thousands of people even at four o'clock in the morning. We took the first bus out of there to Pattaya, a beach resort, where we thought we would spend the final days of our travels. But when we got there we realised the place is so horrible we couldn't bare to spend more than one night there. Pattaya is a resort almost entirely for western sex tourists, mostly germans and russians. Of course we have seen many sex tourists in Thailand but no where were they as obvious and gross as in Pattaya. We hoped the beach may be better, but it was even worse. The entire sandy beach was covered in deck chairs that we had to pay to sit down in, and there was no space to lie on the sand for free. The sea was a motorway for speed boats, jet skis and banana boats creating a continuous racket along with the noisy motorbikes on the road adjacent to the beach. So we had no peace to sun bathe and Luk went windsurfing instead. The next day we left for an island called Koh Chang.
8-14/1/2002 Well Koh Chang is paradise after Pattaya. We rented a hut just off the beach and it was only a few steps into the clear calm sea water. It was so peaceful and quiet and in the evening we could enjoy the sunset over the tiny green islands while sat on our terrace under the palm trees. We even had a section of the beach to ourselves. The four days we spent there we mostly sunbathed and one day we went scuba diving. The diving was excellent, visibility of up to 20m, many pretty coral and fish and a large sting ray hiding under one rock. We dived right around huge pinnacles of rock jutting straight out of the river bed. But finally after so few days on this island it was time to catch a bus back to filthy, noisy Bangkok where we spent the remainder of our money on souvenirs, ate chicken cashew nut stir fry for the last time and then took a thirteen hour plane journey back to Heathrow.