Tag Archives: #happydays

A Near Perfect Day

I woke under canvas to the sound of waves, waves lapping the golden sands of Pantai Gantra, on the coast of Java, South of Malang. I woke to the sound of waves… and chickens, scratching, clucking and cock a doodling the new day in.

Having washed in a bucket, done some yoga stretches on the beach as the sun warmed up and breakfasted on fruit in my tent with my book, I was ready to start the day – exploring the bays and beaches while assessing some adventurous teens doing their Silver International Award expedition.

Each beach visited was a delight; golden sands, blue waves, distant emerald islands greeting my view. Shores were explored and shells collected, creative projects imagined and discussed, and the moment enjoyed. I learnt how to ‘pop’ a leaf, providing myself with plenty of amusement as I watched the group realise where the sound came from, and then learn the trick for themselves.

When we reached Tigga Warna Beach we went snorkelling. The group’s delight at being able to explore the reef and witness the colourful fish that live there was memorably illustrated by the squeaks emitted through their snorkels and the excited chattering that happened when they surfaced.

Later, we waded across an estuary to a mangrove conservation area and sought a beach on the other side of the bay. Uncertainty nearly forced the group back but the spirit of adventure prevailed and they found their way to Turtle Beach. Although there were no turtles there at that time of day the flush of success caused them to go further afield and find another beach on the other side of the promontory we were on. It was entirely deserted with not a footprint in sight; we were the first there for some time. Much fun was had wave jumping on this pristine secret before time and tide forced us all back to the campsite.

That evening I joined the other assessors for a B-B-Q on the beach. A huge tuna had been purchased at the fish market that day and was grilled in foil with butter and lemon as the sun went down. Having feasted on mouth-watering chunks of tuna and a shandy, I lay back to the sound of waves again and studied the star-studded dome above, seeking a shooting star while reflecting on the near perfection of my day.

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Friends, Fire, Food etc.

Last Christmas my best friend (The Wife) and I decided to embark upon an Aussie Road Trip; a classic journey across the South of Australia from Melbourne to Adelaide to Sydney. It was in keeping with our seasonal tradition of leaving the festivities far behind us and embarking on an adventure instead, and this one certainly embraced some of Australia’s epic quirkiness.

Friends

We met up from our distant bases in Melbourne, a city I never quite manage to explore. We drank wine, caught up on all our news, consumed glorious Mexican food and giant cocktails and met up with a mutual friend neither of us had seen for years at the Stables Café at Como House:http://www.thestablesofcomo.com.au/#!home/mainPage It is always nice to see old friends and it’s even nicer to know that when you see them you can pick up where you left off as though it were only days rather than years since you saw them last. While there was near enough a decade of catching up to do with our Melbourne friend it was a very pleasant afternoon where conversation and laughter flowed easily. Time passed all too quickly and before we knew it was time to go our separate ways and start our road trip.

Melbourne to Adelaide is a 750 km drive, which we completed in a day, in order to visit one of the wife’s friends from her time in the US. We managed the trip in about eight hours, with plenty of stops and little difficulty. Our biggest problem was the sat nav, promptly nicknamed The Bitch, who would insist on taking us the long way round when we wanted an alternative route. As neither of us are strangers to maps we sometimes navigated from the road atlas I’d bought and she really couldn’t cope. Long stretches of entertainment arose from watching her recalculate the route, time and again, only for us to ignore her.

We stayed in Moanah, a beach suburb to the east of Adelaide, and spent a chilled out day visiting the beach in the morning then hitting the near-by Maclaren Vale in the afternoon, visiting a few of the cellar doors along the way. Our favourite by far was Chapel Hill Winery: http://www.chapelhillwine.com.au/ It provided us with a couple of very nice Rose (and we don’t like Rose) and a beautiful red that we managed to save until the last night of our trip. We even managed fish and chips on the beach that evening although the Wife and I privately agreed that British fish and chips are better! It was a very sociable and relaxing time, gaining a little glimpse of a happy Aussie family lifestyle, a far cry from our usual routines and very much needed by us both.

Fire

I’d watched fire reports on the TV while waiting for The Wife to arrive in Melbourne so I was aware of the situation South Australia was facing. Months of hot weather (we’d just missed a heat wave in Melbourne), tinder dry forests and lightening storms are typical fire hazards at that time of year. But on checking our route I was relived to see that the fires were north of us, so we were going to be able to follow our plan.

Having enjoyed the hospitality of friends The Wife and I set off on our adventure proper. We were heading East again, back towards Melbourne but via The Great Ocean Road: http://www.visitvictoria.com/Regions/great-ocean-road This was a second visit for both of us – on separate occasions – but as we’d seen different things we took great pleasure in stopping off and showing one another the features we remembered: the Giant Koala and Crab roadside attractions, Umberston Sinkhole at Mt. Gambier, and discover sights neither of us had seen before, like the Blue Lake and the Land Rover on a pole in the middle of nowhere! Christmas Eve was spent sight seeing the iconic views along the Great Ocean Road and stopping at every viewpoint for cheeky selfies, wearing hers and hers Christmas T-Shirts, simply because it was funny. It was a very hot and exhausting day and we pushed on to Lorne little realising that the road was closing behind us due to massive bush fires caused by lighting strikes in the Great Ottoway National Park above us. We innocently enjoyed a lovely Greek meal at a restaurant just across the road from our hotel: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Ipsos-Restaurant/772249959543934 and turned in, sun exhausted, ready for a relaxed, beachy Christmas Day.

The day dawned normally enough. We wandered down to the beach and breakfasted in the shade watching families laugh and play and swim in typical Aussie Christmas Day fashion. When we got too hot we returned to the hotel and chilled out. Our plan was to lunch on some good cheese, bread and olives we’d purchased on the road, drink some Mclaren Vale fizz we’d purchased for the occasion, and when it was cooler, head back to the beach to watch the full moon rise. We were not completely oblivious to the plight of the people back along the coast from us. When getting coffee that morning we had overheard locals discussing fires in the vicinity but had not appreciated just how close they were. At lunch we’d commented on a huge smoke cloud towering above us. Then, as we lounged in the shade that afternoon, recovering from our delicious, boozy lunch a helicopter landed in the grounds of the hotel. A man, who looked like a journalist, was met by staff, and ran inside. The helicopter waited, and so did we. By and by the hotel manager approached us and other guests and announced that Lorne was now under recommended evacuation as the fires were very close. The Wife and I were both far too under the influence to drive so, as the hotel was actually the local evacuation point anyway, we elected to stay. If the worst came to the worst we were to cross 500m to the beach and sit in the ocean to keep safe, which was kinda our plan in the first place.

All joking aside, this was a serious situation and a great many people lost their homes as a result of the fires. We were well cared for by the remaining hotel staff, with a free dinner thrown in for all those who had stayed, or who had evacuated from the further reaches of the town. We joined an Australian couple who seemed to attract this kind of drama on a regular basis, judging by the stories they told us of other holidays that had involved natural disasters. We drank, we laughed, we tried not to imagine the worst. The staff briefed us on what would happen if the direction of the wind changed and we had to evacuate over night. We retired to bed, wet towels and air con at the ready.

Much to The Wife’s annoyance I slept like a log that night. She slept fitfully and put the air con on when the room started to smell smoky. The worst did not happen but when we checked out we saw people asleep on sofas and a very worn out looking staff. The weather was grey and damp and the road was open so we set off again, relived that the fires had not reached us and sorry for all those affected by the disaster. As we departed we were told we’d experienced a typical Aussie Christmas – not the BBQ on the beach and the outdoor lifestyle but the on going threats of drought, fire and loss.

Fairy Penguins

Phillip Island, to the East of Melbourne, was our next destination. Specifically, the Penguin Parade, having booked a guided safari to see cute little fairy penguins return to their burrows in the evening. http://www.visitphillipisland.com/ Having arrived early afternoon we whiled away the time with a leisurely lunch on Churchill Island, visiting the koala sanctuary and Cowes beach before heading off to join the safari at dusk. We had front row seats on the beach to watch nervous groups of penguins run the gauntlet of gulls and kangaroos on the beach to find their well-worn paths home. We then followed the boardwalks, watching them scuttle along, almost blindly, as their homing instincts are remarkably faulty; listening to the youngsters squawk and twitter as they waited for their parents. It was adorable, and far too brief an experience.

Food

One of the main focuses of this trip was food. Frankly, no get together with The Wife is complete unless food and drink is involved. My larder is rather restricted in Indonesia and I was looking forward to enjoying wine and cheese and more familiar, western dishes that I can’t get in Surabaya. From Mexican in Melbourne to massive Thai inhalation in Mt. Gambier, http://www.wildginger.com.au/ cellar door visits and stop offs at cheese emporiums and random towns for lunch, we managed a great variety of epicurean delights.

Our next significant destination was Beechworth, an historic little village in the heart of the Victorian wine and cheese region. We stayed at the Foxgloves Bed and Breakfast, http://www.foxgloves.com.au/ hosted by the formidable Sheila, a South African émigré with a sharp wit and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the area. Her husband John also made the most amazing cakes, to be consumed with afternoon tea on the quiet, bee filled terrace. The house was artfully adorned with curios from the abundant shops in the area and breakfast brought all the guests together to enjoy a huge feast around a round table, liberally oiled with excellent conversation.

Beechworth is a little like the picture perfect village of Sandford in Hot Fuzz; superficially a lovely little community concealing a hotbed of gossip and scandal (if Sheila was to be believed) but it does have some excellent boutiques and foodie havens. We enjoyed craft beer and pizza at https://bridgeroadbrewers.com.au/pizzeria-bar/ wine, cheese, olives, honey and loads more during our stay, loading up on supplies for New Year while we were at it. [In homage to our Aussie friends and love of Aussie movies we even bought cherries in Bonny Doon along the way.] We ate, drank and chilled to our hearts content.

The final meal worthy of note was in Katoomba, where we spent New Year’s Eve. http://www.bluemts.com.au/info/towns/katoomba/ Having visited the Three Sisters and gazed across the Blue Mountains we were, of course, in search of our next meal. It came in the form of delicious Malaysian cuisine at the Unique Patisserie: https://www.facebook.com/UniquePatisserie It was so good we ate there two nights in a row, and I also indulged in huge, hedgehog shaped meringues, the likes of which I haven’t enjoyed in years.

New Year came in with a whimper (I believe I was actually asleep), we acknowledged it with more fizz and cheese and that was it, our journey was done. The Wife had to return to Hong Kong and I was off to discover the delights of Perth.

It was an adventure filled with friends, fire, fairy penguins, food and, most importantly, fun!

 

 

A Sunrise Trek of Mt. Batur, Bali

I miss mountains. I miss hikes and fresh air and the thrill (and chill) of high places. So when I realised I had a long weekend ahead of me at the beginning of March I decided to do something about it.

Bali is only a 40 minute flight away from Surabaya so I resolved to do a sunrise trek among Bali’s volcanoes in order to sooth my soul.

Gunung Batur is 1717m, one of several volcanic cones in what seems like a giant dish with water in its bottom. It was formed in an eruption in 1917 and has been active as recently as 1994. There are lots of tours there so once I’d arrived at my lovely hotel in Ubud (The Saren Indah, highly recommended for a relaxing break), I asked them to sign me up (I’m getting lazy in my travel habits out here), and then relaxed for the rest of the day, in preparation for my efforts.

Pick-up was 2am. I’d indulged in lovely Balinese cuisine and a glass of wine before going to bed early, managing about four hours of sleep before my alarm went off. I rolled out of bed, pulled on my hiking gear and grabbed my new, lightweight rucksack. The car arrived and in I climbed, the first of three pick-ups around Ubud. Then we drove for about an hour in dozy silence, up towards the start of our trek at Toya Bungkah. But first, we stopped off at a little place that provided us with banana pancakes and coffee, and our ‘second breakfast’ for the summit (ultimately banana sandwiches and a boiled egg). Then we drove a further 15 minutes to meet our guide.

As I said, there are lots of tours, so it was no surprise to draw up to a huge car park filled with tired looking hikers gripping bottles of water and flash lights. We were organised into groups of four, given a flashlight if we didn’t have one (I’d remembered my head torch, naturally!) and sent on our way.

Our guide was, appropriately enough, named Dante, as in Dante’s Peak. The irony did not escape our group. He set a cracking pace, which was fine to begin with, but the route quickly became steep and is, by alternates, rocky or sandy. I was quickly reminded that I am not as young or fit as I was. Two months of battling an ear infection had stopped my gym visits early in January, so I quickly got out of breath compared to my younger, fitter companions. Additionally, although the ear infection was no longer rife, the aftermath of slight deafness continued, and I found myself feeling a bit dizzy the higher we climbed, which was a concern when I repeatedly stumbled. Dante, however, kept us going and made frequent rest stops.

Each rest gave us a wonderful nighttime view across Bali. The silhouette of Gunung Abang opposite us on the other side of the lake dominated the landscape, matched only by banks of cloud that regularly lit up with orange lightning. The sky was clear and the stars were out in abundance, lighting our way.

At one point we had a long rest while our guides prayed at a shrine before the steepest ascent to the summit. Bali is a Hindu country, although Balinese Hinduism is a unique blend of beliefs. They believe that spirits are everywhere and good spirits dwell in mountains and bring prosperity to people. Sadly, some groups were ignorant of local customs and failed to wait quietly while their guide prayed. It always disappoints me when people ignore local customs, as it takes very little to learn about and appreciate other people’s cultures and beliefs.

Mt. Batur is always busy, but especially so at weekends when groups of students are able to complete the walk. One thing that kept me moving against all the odds was the desire to get way from the shouting, music playing hordes and breath in the space and silence of the volcano. I’d positioned myself at the front of our group, knowing the slowest should set the pace, but I could feel the youngsters stepping on my heels behind me, perhaps not as used to walking in groups as I am. Still, I slogged on, determined to out pace them. It was more easily said than done, I can tell you.

We arrived at the summit in good time; it was still dark and clear when we arrived at the already crowded lookout. The sunrise wasn’t far behind us. The sky quickly took on a lighter glow behind Abang and the cloud-banks surrounding it. As the light increased, so did the cloud as heat and cold met. So the sunrise wasn’t a spectacular as I could have hoped. But never mind. I was high up (1717m); I was cold (such a nice feeling after constant heat and humidity – I even got to wear my favourite Rab feather down jacket and enjoy a hot chocolate from the food station near the top!); I had space around me, even though the top was crowded with snap happy student groups. I was happy to be there.

Once the day had well and truly begun and we’d been at the top for nearly an hour, we turned around and made our way back. The steep top was quickly managed, as it was mostly sand and therefore quick to descend using the ‘dig your heels in and slide’ method. We stopped briefly at the crater, active in 1994, and gazed at the still blackened landscape below it. We felt steam rising from fissures in the ground and dodged tourist savvy monkeys, greedy for anything they could get their hands on.

About half way down we diverted from the original route and took what could pass for a road to the bottom. It was certainly accessible to traffic as we dodged motorbikes laden with passengers and goods. It was also a good deal easier to walk after the rocky slog we had endured on the way up.

Dante discovered I was an English teacher, and, while teaching me some Indonesian phrases such as ‘kaki ku kaku’ meaning ‘my legs are stiff’, he grilled me in English grammar, and the finer definitions between maybe and probably (amongst other things)!

Soon enough we were back at the car park fulfilling the ‘two hours up-two hours down’ prophesy every one had warned me about. Reunited with our driver we were quickly on our way, although the drive home seemed to take forever and I was desperate to get back and take a shower after my exertions. I had sensibly booked a massage for later that afternoon and, I have to say, it helped work out the stiffness really well. Of course I was still rather sore for a good couple of days afterwards, but it was definitely worth every step. I had got my mountains fix, with added stars and lightning clouds and a tiny bit of sunrise, to make everything well in my world.

 

 

 

All Good Things Must Come to an End

Ten weeks of travelling. Three countries, 15 cities, and four islands visited. More photos (and selfies) than I can be bothered to count. And now it is all coming to an end. Soon, I will be repacking my rucksack for the last time, stripped of ancient, travel wrecked clothing and rammed with more keepsakes than I meant to buy. Heading to yet another new destination, but this time with the intention to live there, not just to travel.

While I have tried to blog, Instagram, Facebook, Tweet and review my adventures to create some sort of lasting record for myself and others, there’s just been so much to take in I know I’ve barely scratched the surface. With time, I’m sure more memories will emerge but for now, I just want to share some of my highlights, for the sake of posterity:

  1. Flying over downtown Yangon and the Shwedagon Pagoda for the first time as I left Myanmar for the last time.
  2. Spending a day learning how to care for elephants in Chiang Mai http://www.pataraelephantfarm.com
  3. Cycling around Sukhothai and Si Sanchanalai in Thailand.
  4. Taking the train in Thailand from north to south.
  5. Discovering Phuket Old Town is similar to Georgetown, and they’re both a bit like Hoi An. But that I actually like Hoi An the most.
  6. The utter decadence of the Renaissance Phuket Resort and Spa and their amazing buffet breakfasts. http://www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/hktbr-renaissance-phuket-resort-and-spa/
  7. Enjoying a variety of performances. From Phuket Simon Cabaret http://www.phuket-simoncabaret.com/ to Phare, The Cambodian Circus in Siem Reap http://pharecambodiancircus.rezgo.com/ and the AO Show in Ho Chi Min City http://www.aoshowsaigon.com/. All brilliant in their own way although my heart belongs to AO.
  8. Whizzing around Angkor, temple running, in a tuk-tuk.
  9. Rattling along on the Bamboo Train, Battambang, in the rain with my arms outstretched yelling ‘Wooo-hoooo’ as we picked up speed.
  10. Watching bats flock like starlings in the sunset skies near Battambang at the end of a great day sight-seeing.
  11. Trekking in the jungle around Dalat. http://www.ptv-vietnam.com/product.php?rid=7
  12. Conquering my fear of motorbikes and getting on the back of a motorbike taxi to visit a lovely tropical beach near Hoi An, Vietnam.
  13. Doing a posh cruise on the Dragon Legend II around the less busy area of Bai Tu Long Bay in Halong Bay and spending the night on the boat eating, drinking and laughing. http://www.indochina-junk.com/dragon-legend-cruise/
  14. Visiting some pretty amazing UNESCO sites in Vietnam including My Son, Hue, Hoi An and Halong Bay.
  15. Enjoying all the food porn – from street food and amazing seafood in Thailand, new tropical fruits such as rambutan, national dishes from all around Cambodia and Vietnam, trying weasel coffee and egg coffee, and tasting my first fried crickets.
  16. Doing lots of accidental tourism and taking a few chances along the way, all of which turned out really well.
  17. Taking indulgent selfies anywhere I fancied. I’ve made a slideshow of them so I can cheer myself up when I need to!
  18. Treating myself to a posh hotel and spa stay in Hanoi to rejuvenate at the end of it all. http://www.hanoilasiestahotel.com/
  19. All the amazing people I met along the way – locals, friends and fellow travellers who’ve chatted, laughed, shared stories and tips and made my journey all the more interesting.
  20. Most of all, I have enjoyed the challenge of finding my way around SE Asia on my own; living in the present; being self reliant and doing exactly as I pleased.

Of course, there were disappointments too, but I have to say, that once again, I have been extremely fortunate in my travels and look forward to my further adventures with great anticipation.

From sunrise to sunset

‘It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, … and I’m feeling good’

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As I watched the sunrise behind Angkor Wat to mark the summer solstice of 2015 I got to thinking about the significance of the sun rising and setting and the beautiful versions I had witnessed.

In every culture, the sunrise and sunset holds significance. The dawn is a symbol of new beginnings and something I have become more keenly attuned to in recent years, making sunrise my favourite time of day. The dusk offers us closure, and it can be a fearful time when darkness and trouble closes about us. To my mind, it is an opportunity to reflect, and prepare for the new day.

Unfortunately, the promise of a sunrise or sunset in an exotic place can often be like the promise of the New Year, with all the potential and all the anti-climax that goes with it. I have been fortunate enough to witness some amazing dawns and dusks on my travels. And also, some damp squibs.

My greatest disappointment was probably at Uluru. I’d been aching to visit such a mythical, spiritual place for years and when I finally go there, on a beautiful day, I wasn’t disappointed. However, the beauty of the day didn’t encourage a beautiful sunset and the sun went down without the spectacular show of colour I had dreamt of. Just a slow dimming of the sky from blue to white to black and a greying of the famous Rock. Clearly, the spirits were not looking favourably upon us that evening. ‘Never mind’ I thought, ‘the sunrise will be better’. And it was, as the Rock achieved a warming glow, yet I still felt a little cheated of the colours I had dreamt of.

sunset oz      sunrise oz

A better example was the sunset and sunrise over the Sahara desert in Morocco. Maybe, because it was almost the New Year, the day decided to celebrate with us. Or, more realistically, perhaps there were more molecules in the air, serving to scatter the light and offer us the exotic golds of dusk and vivid pinks and oranges of dawn that sat beautifully above the orange sand.

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My favourite experiences (so far) were probably in Myanmar. Maybe it is the eternal layer of dust in the sky that fractures the light so beautifully but both sunsets I witnessed, in Mandalay and Bagan, were so powerful I could feel the heat of the red sky on my face for sometime afterwards. As for the sun rise over Bagan… words can’t really describe the way the light slowly grew through the mist of the early morning over all those half ruined pagodas. It was breathtaking.

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Sadly, the sunrise and sunset I saw in Cambodia were not really ones to write home about (hence the tangent!) but they were still an opportunity to reflect. Cloudy weather tempered the possibility of spectacular colour and light, yet the stillness of the hour, the gentle murmur of voices and the soft light, seemingly painted by the wings of birds wheeling through the air, still made for a reverential sight. I realised that I really don’t have a worry in the world, the darkness holds no fears for me now, and I appreciate that each day doesn’t have to be spectacular to be worthwhile. They are all a new beginning and a chance to live, full of light and promise.

Elephant Tears – learning why elephants cry

A melancholy brown eye stares at you from the grey, wrinkled face, fringed with luscious eyelashes. A tear stain reaches down the trunk of the poor, sad creature and you feel compelled to reach out and help.

A familiar image? It’s certainly one that has been used to generate much needed support for the dwindling elephant community on this earth. But is it the truth?

In my lifetime, in the last forty years, elephant numbers in Thailand have almost halved. That, in itself, is a travesty. What’s worse is that those that are left are often ill treated, broken, and abused in order to entertain tourists and the like. Anthropomorphically, they certainly have a reason to cry.

Elephants are complex, social creatures that need space, and variety in their diets and routines, not a concrete box and three shows a day. And that’s where Patara Elephant Camp is different. It is not a visitor center, a circus, or a place to watch elephants play football. It is a safe haven for rescued elephants, run by a Thai family who have taken in these poor creatures and supported their recovery. They are not ‘Conservationists’. (I use the capitalisation and inverted commas deliberately here because there’s conservation and ‘Conservation’ and Patara do not wish to be associated with the media circus surrounding elephants.) Neither are they activists, they are not trying to fight the good fight. They simply see elephants as part of their global family and have chosen to dedicate their lives to enabling these creatures to become happy and healthy through rehabilitation. They also have a reproduction programme that has successfully supported several offspring, with five more due by the end of 2015.

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My day with this elephant family started with a meet and greet by two mothers and their offspring. We were encouraged to stroke and pat them as they consumed sugar cane, cut up for them by their handlers. This wasn’t part of our day but a bonus while we waited for other people to arrive. In spite of our gushing interference, the elephants and their babies continued to eat and drink steadily, barely pausing between trunk-fulls of food.

Soon, we were called together for ‘the talk’ where the philosophy of Patara was presented to us and we started to learn about elephant care and how to make friends with the elephants we were to look after that day. Initially I thought it was a bit late for that lesson, having been let loose on the group earlier, but as the host explained I realised what an amazing job Patara do in rehabilitating these creatures to the extent that strangers can approach them and touch them without cause for concern.

Elephants are wild animals, but, like humans they show their emotions through body language. An angry elephant would have held its ears wide, away from its head, whilst happy elephants, like the ones we met, flap their ears every so often and flick their tails every once in a while. The best way to ensure an elephant stays happy, and becomes your friend, is to feed it.

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Elephants eat all the time. Wouldn’t you if you had to heave tons of body weight around with you for eighteen hours a day? This is the average time an elephant is on its feet. Even when they are meant to be resting they only sleep for forty-five minutes then get up, eat and play before settling down again. Interestingly, elephants lie down to sleep. A test to check that they are healthy is to check that both sides of their body are muddy. If they’re not then something is wrong with the clean side. If they sleep standing up it is because they are scared to lie down because they won’t get up again, so they rest against a tree, and that means something is really wrong.

So I fed my companion for the day, fourteen year old Manoi, and met her two year old, Passar. Manoi was also pregnant with baby number two. Elephants gestate for up to twenty-four months. Through observation, the camp has learnt that babies can arrive any time between nineteen and twenty-four months. They’ve also learnt that if they arrive between nineteen and twenty-two months they’re likely to be female, with the males being a little slower to appear! Manoi was only five months pregnant, poor thing. She still has a long way to go.

Feeding an elephant was a little like putting my hand into a gooey vice. I had to say ‘Bon, Manoi’ to ask her to raise her trunk and open her mouth, then I placed the small banana or sugar cane in as far as I could. Elephants have no front teeth and barely any lips therefore if I withdrew my hand too fast the food would drop from her mouth and I ran the risk of appearing to tease her with it, SOMETHING YOU SHOULD NEVER DO TO AN ELEPHANT, so I ended up having my hand repeatedly clamped in her soft but strong jaw and had to tug to release it! Every time I got my hand back I patted her trunk and said ‘De De Manoi’ which means ‘good girl.’

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Manoi and I made friends quite fast; at least, I think we did. The basket of food disappeared very quickly and if I stood in the wrong place her ears would dust me when she flapped them. Passar preferred to stay with her Dad and pose for photos with other members of the group, only choosing to join us later.

Another test of their health is the state of their dung. In true Gillian McKeith style we inspected the poo of our elephants. Size, consistency, and water retention are all considered. You can tell an elephant’s age by the fibrous structure as older elephants chew less so their poo is more straw like than a youngster’s, and you can also tell if they have drunk enough water by squeezing the dung to see if water comes out. If it’s dry then the elephant hasn’t drunk enough, which is another sign that something’s wrong. Elephants drink gallons as well as eating all the time and as a result they poo and wee almost every hour, if they’re healthy. Believe me when I tell you, ours were VERY healthy!

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A further test of their drinking habits is to check that they are sweating. Gross? Well no, not when you learn that elephant’s sweat glands are in their feet so they only sweat around their toenails. A nice sweat stain around each nail is all you need to look for to check if an elephant is fit and well.

Both Manoi and Passar were quite healthy. In fact, as we learnt the signs, it was increasingly clear that all our elephants were happy and healthy. For a small camp like Patara, who have sixty elephants and approximately 150 acres of land, that is a credit to them as many of the older elephants came to them after less salubrious starts to life.

With the feeding and health checks successfully completed, the next part of the day was the trek, a bit like taking your dog for a walk, only the elephants took us. I have ridden an elephant before, on Koh Samui, where I used a chair on its back and rode bareback on its neck. A seat can cause all sorts of problems for an elephant. I hadn’t known this when I did it and I certainly wouldn’t do it again now I do. The correct, most comfortable, place to ride an elephant is right up against the back of their heads on their necks, with your knees tucked up on the top of their ears and your feet dangling behind them. When I say comfortable, I mean comfortable for the elephant, because I suffered from acute cramp in my hips and knees after a while! It is quite secure though, as long as you trust the elephant and counterbalance yourself as they move so that you don’t fall off. Manoi had a rope around her shoulders to hold onto if I felt worried, and when descending steep slopes on a tall elephant I did feel worried.

Passar is too young to ride. She simply walked with her Mum. Or rather, rushed off into the undergrowth, bulldozed every tree she saw then ricocheted back onto the track on her knees right under her mum’s feet! Apparently, this is ‘play’ and the sign of a happy elephant. I was inclined to call her a liability, like a bulldozer with no driver and no brakes is a liability, and she caused many hair raising moments for us all, whilst also being the most adorable thing I have ever seen!

After about an hour, we came to a waterfall, where our elephants were to have their bath. Elephant’s skin is very thick and hairy, and of course, they get dusty every day, so they must be kept clean on a daily basis, just like us. We all had lunch first, and then it was bath time. Let me tell you that cleaning an elephant is not all about splashing and laughing and having your photo taken. There is an element of that of course, but actually, it’s bloody hard work! While Pon, her handler, used a wicker bowl to splash Manoi as she lay down in the pool I was handed a scrubbing brush and told to scrub. I clambered onto her back and worked over her head, back and shoulders, then slipped into the water as she rose so that I could do her flanks, scrubbing hard for a good fifteen minutes to ensure all her skin was clean. Then I had to keep throwing water at her to rinse her down. I actually bathed an elephant, and it was amazing!

Eventually, we had to return to the camp. I was exhausted, but jubilant. The trek through the forest had been brilliant, the weather overcast but not raining and not too hot, the insects had whined but not bitten and the hills had worn cloud caps that created an otherworldly feel. It was probably one of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had. Patara do a great job of caring for their elephants and their guests. Their philosophy, that we are one global family and we should treat everyone and everything as such, is born of Buddhism and a lesson we should all remember.

So, why do elephants cry? It is not, as is sometimes suggested by charitable campaigns, because they are sad. In fact, if the tears stop, you should start to worry. An elephant has no tear ducts so continuously weeps to keep the eye healthy. Equal tear stains on an elephant’s face indicate that all is well rather than misery or mistreatment. So next time you see an elephant in Thailand, or anywhere, check the signs: flapping ears and tail, dusty sides, tearstained eyes and sweaty toenails (I’ll let you off inspecting the dung). It sounds disgusting to us but it means nirvana for elephants.

Thankyou for your cooperation Japan

“Everything will go smoothly. You are a lucky lady.” I was told, not for the last time, by my fortune telling friend. The Japanese are very interested in fate and fortune so it was no surprise that I had my fortune told at the Tokyo National Museum on my first afternoon in Japan.

I used to be very into that sort of thing: palm reading on Blackpool Pier, horoscopes and the like, but of late I have come to understand that I make my own luck. My fate is still my fate, but I can influence it in one way or another. Still, the sentiment could do me no harm on the eve of my very big adventure around Japan.

My good fortune had begun the minute I stepped off the plane. I was collected from the airport by an English-speaking driver who took me the ‘long way’ to the hotel, giving me a quick guided tour (for free) that helped me orientate myself in that vast city. The following day I met a guide who became a friend, who showed me around the city in all its glory. I got into the cat café just before they got full and started turning people away. I saw two traditional wedding parties at the Meiji-Jingu shrine, which is rare. I managed to get a ticket to watch an act of Kabuki that evening, which was very lucky considering it was Golden Week, a very busy holiday in Japan. I even successfully navigated the chaotic looking transport system with surprising ease; I tended to arrive just in time for the next train and I didn’t get lost!

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My greatest difficulty was finding somewhere to eat in the evenings but after a few attempts, I’d just walk into a place and eat whatever was on offer. In this way, I got to meet some very interesting characters, like the waiter who credited Sarah Jessica Parker as his English teacher, and ate some very delicious food, even if I did have very little idea what it was I was eating. Lucky really!

My use of the Shinkansen also went well. Advanced bookings were made with ease; all the stations were clearly signposted and the trains were on time, clean and comfortable. My only problem was motion sickness from the smoothness of the ride and my tendency to gaze out of the window at the passing landscapes. Luckily, I found my old sea bands in one of the pockets of my rucksack, forgotten since Peru I think, and used them for the other journeys with great success.

My exploration of Kyoto sometimes revolved around my tendency towards accidental tourism. I hadn’t really researched it properly so I would just pick a name from the guides I had with me and go. That way I got to see the 1001 kannons at Sanjusangendo, an amazing building containing 1001 (obviously) carved statues of kannon; 11 headed, 1000 armed, thousand eyed bodhisattva, that I hadn’t even known existed 30 minutes before. I tended to arrive at temples or gardens just in time to view them before they shut and even if I got to places early, before the hordes, I often discovered amazing treasures I hadn’t anticipated, like the cloud dragon on the ceiling of part of the Tenryu-ji Temple in Arashiyama, which watches you wherever you are in the room.

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Places rarely disappointed me. In fact, the things I knew nothing about were often better than the sights I wanted to see. A case in point was the iconic Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. I got there early, just before the hordes, and was able to experience some of its otherworldliness; something that was quickly lost with the mass arrival of coach tours. Instead, I felt the true magic of the place at Gio-ji Shrine, a moss-strewn haven of Buddhist/Shintoist tranquility that made me believe Rivendell could be a real place. It’s not an easy place to find, but sharp eyes, a good sense of direction and competent map reading skills ensured I found it. Or maybe I just got lucky!

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I certainly felt like I had something on my side in Hakone. Glorious weather and a happy afternoon playing in the Hakone Open Air Museum (I tend to become very childish when surrounded by art in nature) had made me count my blessings the day before. Free cheesecake for visiting Woody’s, the café next door to it, a gloriously kitsch café decorated with Toy Story memorabilia and playing the Frozen soundtrack in Japanese in the back ground, twice in one day, was certainly a lucky moment. I wasn’t sure my luck was holding though.

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The following day my unplanned wanderings met some roadblocks. All I wanted to do was see Mt. Fuji. The ropeway (what we could consider a cable car) route to a classic scenic view of Mt. Fuji was closed due to level 2 (out of 5) volcanic activity so I had to retrace my steps and battle with the rather confusing transport system until I reached Moto-Hakone. Convinced I had missed the only possible view of Fuji I walked along the Old Tokaido road and discovered a lovely tea house that served a tasty amazake rice drink instead. Then I caught the bus back to Moto-Hakone to try and find the second scenic viewpoint on the map. Having wasted my morning going in the wrong direction and sitting in traffic jams, I didn’t hold out much hope that I’d see the iconic mountain. So, I stopped for a street snack of corn on the cob and wandered moodily beside Lake Ashi. Then, low and behold, I rounded a corner and there was Mt. Fuji, peeking out at me from behind a fluffy wrap of clouds. As I watched, she emerged more fully and from then on, wherever I looked from, there she was, getting clearer and clearer as the afternoon progressed. I spent a long time just sitting and staring at the view, marveling at the famous shape and snowy streaks I had previously seen in paintings and drawings. Now, I was seeing them for myself. Truly a fortunate moment.

Ironically, my best view of Fuji-san came on my final train journey back to Tokyo. I managed to look up from my book at the perfect moment to see her, in almost cloudless glory, right there next to me. I glanced around the cabin to realise that no one else had noticed, I had her all to myself, and I truly considered myself blessed at that moment.

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In Hiroshima I discovered my hotel was right next to the Peace Park. I simply walked a short way along the river to visit the museum and visit the A-Bomb Dome. That evening I found a great little place to eat okonomiyaki, a Hiroshima specialty that is essentially a noodle pancake with layers of cabbage and seafood, and even better, got a seat at the bar where they were cooked right before me, so I could watch the chefs at work. Brilliant!

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My visit to Mimojima also went well. My journey to the Island was simplified by a brilliant visual breakdown provided by my hotel (lucky I asked), I walked a lovely mountain trail and saw great views of the Inland Sea before the rain came, and as I got to the bottom of the mountain the tide started to come in so I could get a clearer sense of the floating Torii Gate it is so famous for. When I’d arrived that morning the tide was out, so it, and my luck, turned while I was on the mountain. Or it may have had something to do with the lucky white cat offering I purchased at the shrine at the top of Mt. Misen!

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Even when my luck seemed to run out with the heavy rain in Osaka, I did manage to see the more Bladerunner style aspects of the town that I’d actually been disappointed not to find in Tokyo. Blazing neon, narrow streets and oily reflections on the stones evoked the futuristic feel I’d imagined before I visited, and thought I wouldn’t see as I got to know the real Japan.

By the time I returned to Tokyo I think I had exhausted my run of good fortune, and while nothing went wrong I had stopped finding surprises around every corner, or maybe I’d just become more used to them. But before you roll your eyes, I will say I don’t believe I actually got around Japan simply on luck. I had the support of a very good tour company whose arrangements for a self-guided tour suited me down to the ground. I also believe that the Japanese culture has evolved to enable anyone with a bit of common sense to take advantage of its fluent, organized and logical society and participate in its efficient way of life. Signs may be small and rarely translated but most of them rely on symbols that anyone can interpret. Measurements are given in time and distance so you can estimate how far you have to go. Things are logical and consistent if you think about them. I also know that travelling solo allows me to do things my way but allows me to stop, watch and learn and then go with the flow when things occur unexpectedly, so I never feel like I’ve missed out but that, actually, my adventures are bonuses instead.

So, thank you for your co-operation Japan, I came to love your quiet, well-mannered ways and found everything I wanted and more during my trip. I might not believe in luck but I do consider myself a very lucky lady.

Ryokans and Onsen – traditional Japanese spas

I sat, crossed legged, on a thin cotton cushion in shades of green that echoed the trees on the mountain outside; on a tatami rush floor; writing my blog at a low wooden table, with a Japanese tea set to my left. My walls were wood and paper; all my doors and windows were sliding, and my bed, when I made it, was a futon on the floor. I was wrapped in an enormous cotton yukata (an informal kimono) which reminded me of beech bark and blossom. All I could hear was the rush of the stream directly outside my window.

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Staying in one of the oldest spa ryokans in Hakone was a relaxing experience. Ichinoyu Honkan was founded in 1630 in the Edo period when Tokugawa Shoguns ruled Japan. The Hakone area was a popular resting post for warriors, where they could relax in natural spring waters to recuperate after battle. This particular ryokan has its own onsen hot springs to relax in, which were great after a day exploring the Hakone National Park.

The Japanese onsen experience is very relaxing when you know what you’re doing but for a first timer it is fraught with potential dangers. The etiquette of communal bathing is a minefield of offence for the uninitiated, although I find it’s ritualistic nature quite soothing.

Traditional onsen are communal. Years of playing hockey and going to the gym have made me immune to any embarrassment about nakedness in communal facilities. In fact, as a child I was nicknamed ‘the nutty nudist’ because I’d take my swimming costume off to go paddling at the beach! While I was aware of sideways glances, I like to think the locals were evaluating my mismatched tan lines rather than judging my muffin roll!

The correct way to then use these facilities is to rinse yourself off with warm water away from the main spa, as it is only polite, and hygienic, to rinse yourself off before entering the pure waters. Then, you can soak in the spring-fed tub for as long as you like (the water is hot and only bearable for a relatively short time) soothing way the day’s stresses and strains. Don’t ‘wash’ in the spring though. Save that for your return to the washing area, where you can avail yourself of the soaps and shampoos provided and scrub yourself down while sitting on a low wooden stool, being careful not to splash others in the process. Then, you can return to the spa tub for a further soak. (In the second ryokan I stayed in they had an outdoor tub that I made very good use of!) When you have had enough relaxation, gazing at the mountain scenery or listening to the hypnotic flow of the spring water, remove yourself from the spa area, wipe yourself down so you do not reenter the changing area sopping wet, and you’re done!

I think I got it right! The best way to learn is to do what the locals do but in an onsen I can’t sit and watch without considerable discomfort to all! Side glances in windows and carefull listening whilst averting ones eyes allowed me a sense of what to do, and often, I’d have the place to myself so I could just relax and enjoy it without causing offence.

The almost ritualistic nature of the experience means that, if you do it properly, it is quite time consuming and hypnotic. I find the same can be said when tackling traditional Japanese meals. Some of the best food I ate was made at the ryokan I stayed in. And I can safely say that I have never been so full on what appears (at first) to be such small servings of food. Often I would spend a full 30 minutes steadily grazing from the ever increasing range of tiny dishes placed before me, forcing myself to think about what I was eating and therefore enjoy it all the more. It almost became a meditation that brought me great satisfaction.

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A traditional Japanese meal is a bit like tapas, in that there are lots of tasty morsels on lots of different plates, spread out across the meal. The difference is that a lot of it is raw, steamed or lightly fried, it can all be eaten with rice and at least one dish is cooked in a small pot on the table, simmering away until the tea light beneath it goes out and steam is rising from the lid.

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I enjoyed Hida beef cooked in this manner; fish head soup (with the head and eye of a large fish staring at me while I ate it); a kind of Japanese bacon omelette; fish tempura; sashimi; bean salads; Kyoto pickles (I love pickles!) and homemade tofu. I’ve never really understood the point of tofu, and it’s incredibly difficult to eat with chopsticks as it disintegrates so easily, but the homemade variety made using local spring water was some of the creamiest and tastiest I tried. I was even given dessert, although I rarely managed the green tea mousse or sorbet that I was offered. Of course, all of this is washed down with lashings of tea. (You thought I was going to say ginger beer didn’t you? Oddly enough the Japanese love ginger beer, it’s on practically every menu, but it’s not a traditional beverage!)

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As a methodical eater with no sense of smell and a limited palette I normally eat one thing at a time without adding anything so that I can appreciate the texture and what little taste I can identify. But I couldn’t do that in Japan, as morsels that should be enjoyed hot would be cold by the time I got to them, if I tried to eat all the raw delicacies first (as I would normally do). So I found myself switching between pickles, exquisitely fresh, tiny squid, tofu and miso covered rice, using soy and wasabi (but not much, it’s too strong for me!) and mixing it all up together with some surprisingly tasty results. Again, I watched the other customers carefully and took cues from them, learning, along the way, that I prefer light soy and miso to dark, that bamboo and pickles and seaweed comes in many delicious forms and that raw is definitely the way to go!

By the end of each meal I was ready to sleep and would fall onto my soft, warm futon in a happy food haze. Listening to the nearby river rushing past, it didn’t take me long to pass out into a deep, dreamless sleep.

My ryokan and onsen experiences were two of my greatest pleasures in Japan; pleasures I would love to repeat.

OK KL!

I’ve been trying to get to Kuala Lumpur for almost two years. Initially, it was just an exotic sounding city in South East Asia and not on my must see list. Then, when I started looking for international teaching posts, it kept coming up so I researched it a bit more. Suddenly, it sounded right up my street! So, I applied for and even interviewed for, teaching positions, but I was persistently unsuccessful. The closest I could get was Myanmar, a 2.5-hour flight away. So, close, but no cigar!

When I got to Myanmar I didn’t book KL straight away either. Singapore came first, a place I’d wanted to visit for about twelve years. Instead, I chose to book a long weekend at the end of February. But that went awry when I had to renew my passport in February in preparation for my travels later in the year. So I rearranged, and finally got there in April, escaping Myanmar’s Thingyan Festival.

And I’m so glad I did. My instincts were correct. KL is great; modern, clean, logical, friendly, everything I’d want in city living. It’s not perfect. I’d been warned by friendly Malaysians I’d met on the circular train in Yangon, months before, that it was a dangerous place for a woman alone. ‘Hold on to your bag, don’t walk about late at night.’ I took all the usual precautions and felt no more at risk than I do in London. Less, in fact, as KL is not as crowded, at least, not in April. There are still dodgy taxi drivers (mine tried to take me round the entire city to my hotel when actually it was right up the street from where we’d dropped my friend off. Luckily I have sharp eyes!); old, dirty busses, broken pavements and heavy traffic but they fade into insignificance when I consider the positives.

First and foremost, the people are lovely. Malaysia is a cultural melting pot of Malay, Chinese, Indian and, of course, expats, which creates a diverse but thriving cultural identity that lacks the pride of Singapore and the reserve of the Burmese. I had lots of chats with people, on the train, in the street, in restaurants. They engaged with me, not to practice their English but because they were interested in why I was in KL and were keen to talk about their country. Malaysia’s economic growth has been impressive over the past few years and the country’s plans for the future are huge, and they are understandably proud of that.

Kuala Lumpur radiates a cosmopolitan and laidback atmosphere that beat’s Singapore’s haughty detachment hands down. Like Myanmar, people do smile at you although, as I’ve found with all Asian countries, they’re not so great on spatial awareness! Also, they are not too bothered about rule following, which was refreshingly normal compared to the restrictions I’ve felt in both Singapore and Myanmar. The only time I was disturbed by this was on the train home from Batu Caves. I’d noticed that there were ladies only carriages so I entered one for the journey home. You couldn’t miss the pink signage and images indicating ladies only (small children excepted) yet males persistently entered the carriage and remained there. Some, on looking around, realised and moved on, others resolutely remained despite tannoy reminders and a ticket inspector (who did little about them except check their ticket). As I’ve got older I’ve come to accept that you don’t have to follow all of the rules all of the time. I’m even getting better at breaking some of the sillier ones myself (don’t laugh, those who know me well know how far I’ve come!) But for something like this, where religious and cultural sensibilities are at stake, to disregard another’s wishes seems disrespectful, and an unnecessary breaking of the rules. How hard is it to move to the next carriage and allow people to travel comfortably as they choose?

In my conversations with fellow train travellers the usual questions were used to open communications (‘Where are you from? Are you on holiday?’) but while in Myanmar they often stop there, in KL they are maintained and developed. One man, after enquiring if I came from Liverpool (like Gerrard), then told me he wished to holiday in Bournemouth, because it was cheaper than London. (I hadn’t the heart to ruin his ambition!). Another, Sam, adopted me on the train to Batu Caves, had a long conversation with me about the instability of some ASEAN countries and gave me an impromptu tour of the caves, simply because he was a good man, proud of his country and his heritage. He was on his way for his weekly blessing and I was conscious that I was delaying him well beyond his usual visit as I prevailed on his kindness.

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Another instance of this amazing kindness happened, again, at Batu Caves. Having visited the temple and climbed and descended the 272 steps, avoided the monkeys and taken the requisite photos, I felt quite peckish and entered one of the nearby cafes in search of lunch. I chose a place that offered north and south Indian cuisine and I chose a 10RM platter of curries and rice. The waiters brought me my choice, on a banana leaf, and served me steaming dhal from a stainless steel bucket. I’ve no idea what I was eating with my poppadums’ (replenished regularly until I had to say no more) but it was delicious and I suspect my face said as much. Part of the way through my meal there was a bit of a commotion as a Malaysian gentleman finished his meal and requested his bill. He pointed at me and the waiters waved a piece of paper in my direction then handed it to him. I paused, looking quizzical, and was told, first by a waiter and then by the gentleman himself that he had bought me my lunch and there was no need to pay. I was flabbergasted, and touched, made my profuse thanks and shook hands with my benefactor before he made his benign way out of the cafe. I didn’t know what else to say and I didn’t like to ask why and seem like a suspicious Westerner, as I could find no agenda to his actions. I think I was the lucky recipient of a selfless gesture, but never having experienced such genuine kindness before I was unsure how to respond except to make me feel even more affectionate in my regard for Malaysian people.

It also made me realise, once again, how lucky I am to be able to travel and interact with others on such a level. To be honest, it was the people who made the place for me. KL was a very welcome change of scene after three solid months in Myanmar. There isn’t actually a lot to see there, after the Petronas Twin Towers, KL Bird Park, Batu Caves and the Hop-on Hop-off bus tour I’d done pretty much all I needed to do for a first visit. More importantly it provided me with Westernised food and shopping and a reassurance that actually I can navigate my way around a strange city (something I’ll never master in Yangon). But my abiding pleasure came from the smiles of the people, the conversations and the generosity of spirit I encountered everywhere I went. And that wasn’t reserved just for when I was in KL. Penang made me feel the same, and my greatest regret was not thinking ahead enough to extend my stay and visit Langkawi before heading back to Yangon.

When I think about the future and the notion of settling somewhere, Malaysia seems like a very good possibility. But until that happens I’ll simply have to keep going back to visit.

Malaysian Heritage on a Plate

Disclaimer: I am not a foodie, not in the truest sense of the word. I don’t really enjoy the process of creating meals. No sense of smell and a limited palate make it difficult for me to really reveal in all the sensory delights cuisines have to offer. I can cook, and I definitely enjoy eating, but what I enjoy even more is being fed. In Penang, I was fed.

Having sated my desire for Western foods in Kuala Lumpur I moved on to Penang because of its foodie culture. Situated 365 km from KL and listed as one of THE Islands to visit, explore and eat on before you die, I wanted to discover new and exciting dishes and taste new things. Malaysian food is a fusion of Chinese, Indian and Malaysian tastes and textures that are all new to me. I couldn’t find anything even remotely similar to my British experiences of these foods, and I really didn’t want to either. This was the real deal.

My first new discovery was breakfast. I set out on my first morning in search of a way to break my fast that didn’t involve airport food like the day before. Just up the jalan (street) from my hostel was a row of heritage shophouses, all kitted out as cafes. After a brief reccy and a moment’s hesitation, I chose the busiest one, which had some females eating in it. Cafés in Asia seem to be male dominated, a place to meet and set the world to rights (at least in Myanmar) and I didn’t want to blunder into an awkward situation. Of course, I was welcomed with open arms and invited to take a seat at a melamine-coated wooden table in the center of the long, thin room. The place had a faded air about it with old newspaper clippings on the wall, and scratched plastic seats, but it also felt homely. When I asked about breakfast I was told I could have toast, a boiled egg and tea or coffee. I marveled at how simple it sounded and plumped for tea. While my order was taken through to the kitchen out-back I was entertained by a gentleman on a nearby table who told me the ‘history’ of the ‘antique’ table I was seated at. Apparently a tycoon had wanted it and had bartered a price for it, only to die before he could own it. His young companion was laughing while the man told his story but I played along and we chatted for a while. It was only after he had left that I noticed one of the newspaper cuttings on the wall mentioned a tycoon in its headlines…

Another gentleman, possibly the owner, came and placed a plastic plate before me with four brown paper parcels on it. These parcels seemed to be on every table. ‘Try it’. He grunted. On further investigation I discovered that the package held a banana leaf containing a curried rice mixture and a small piece of fish. I was halfway through it when my original breakfast order arrived. Of course, it wasn’t as straightforward as I had imagined. My tea was made using condensed milk but I had gotten used to that in Myanmar. My toast was sweet, filled with butter and coconut jam, and my boiled egg was so runny it came in a cup! And it was all really nice. I added pepper and soy to the egg, dipped in my toast and managed to devour the whole lot very quickly. I didn’t quite manage to finish the nasi lemak, as I learnt to name it, and I was asked if it was too spicy. It wasn’t, but curry for breakfast, accompanied by more sweetness than I’d eaten in a month had become a bit much. I was given a quick lesson in Nasi Lemak varieties (there’s also prawn, chicken and lamb on each plate) and then I paid a whole 4RM for it (approx.. 70p or $1). Amazing!

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Breakfast.

My next experience was the Heritage on a Plate walking tour. I’d found this on TripAdvisor and booked to join a group to do a tour around the old-quarter, Georgetown, a UNESCO World Heritage site. I wish I could regale you with all the names of the different things we tried but I’m going to have to confess I couldn’t retain half of them, and my ability to grasp any ASEAN language is pretty poor. I find things really hard to pronounce, and therefore remember. But I know I enjoyed it! I certainly tried everything: mango lassi, ambarella (which is a sour and salty plum juice), Chinese fried foods including tofu, prawn, crab cakes and sausage, an Indian omelet thing (see what I mean about remembering names!) in both beef and chicken, a wonton noodle soup, pancakes and puthu. I even tried a century egg! (Eggs that are preserved in a clay/ash/quicklime coating for months until the yolk turns grey and the white becomes a sort of brown jelly. Yum!) The only thing I didn’t like was puthu. It is a dry rice pudding served with grated coconut and a special brown sugar that reminded me of molasses. Now, while I drink coconut water and eat coconut curries, since a child I have always hated it on its own. It may be a texture thing, but the whole combination was wrong! The rest of the experience however, was lovely, and gave me greater confidence to try street food and enter local eateries.

I haven’t done that so well in Myanmar. Mostly because many of the places don’t look clean and also because the food, which either seems fried or watery, looks unappetizing and beige. Additionally, on the few occasions when I have tried the traditional food, I have been very sick afterwards, while others that shared the meal with me remained perfectly well. It makes me think that there is an ingredient, maybe a spice or possibly the oil, that is habitually used, that doesn’t agree with me.

I had no such reservations in Penang though. The following day, I revisited the Tang Bistro, the starting point for the food tour and a heritage café/ hotel, to indulge my need for chocolate brownies (with ice-cream). Before that I had also had a curried lamb wrap that was simply superb and a calamansi freeze. Not so street or heritage, but very nice and an indication that anything goes regarding food here, as long as you enjoy it.

In the evening, I wandered until I found the hub of Chinatown’s street food. There, a nice vendor introduced me to the concept of choosing and cooking my own skewers of clams, tofu, chicken and mushrooms (and lots more besides) by dipping them in boiling water, then, when cooked, smothering them with satay and sweet or hot chili sauce. As a rule, I don’t generally mix sauces, if I have them at all (my limited palate means sauces make everything taste the same!) but I went with it and actually, I started to enjoy it! As an appetiser, it was good, and I devoured it on the street with relish. To pay, he counted the colour-coded sticks I handed to him and I handed over a ridiculously tiny sum for a plate full of seafood!

Moving on to another part of the street, I chose seafood fried noodles and sat at a table to wait for my meal. These are hawker stalls, meaning the table is owned by one person, who will supply you with a drink that you pay for on delivery. Then, your food will be delivered by a young hawker from whichever food stalls you’ve visited, and you’ll pay them on delivery too. The noodles were good, which I duly told the owner when he enquired! I looked for a pancake stall to finish, but was sadly unable to find one, so I walked home in the rain, full up, on about £2 worth of good food.

On another evening, I visited Little India and indulged in a chicken biryani claypot and lots of mango lassi. Delicious!

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My view while eating a tasty biryani.

On Penang Hill (really not worth a visit) I tried Char Koay Teow, which is an iconic dish of garlic, prawns, noodles, egg and cockles. It was whipped up before my eyes in a little food court at the top of the hill and was consumed just as quickly. The beauty of street food is, of course, watching the creation of your meal. Chefs have choreographed a rhythmic ballet of chopping, stirring, swirling and serving that creates art on many different levels before your eyes. It is beautiful, and mouth watering!

At Miami Beach, around Batu Ferringhi, at a tiny roadside stall, on a sliver of land between the road and the sea (there was no beach, the tide was in!), I was offered Laksa, a spicy soup with thick noodles that warmed me right up after getting drenched in an unexpected downpour in the nearby National Park.

In fact, wherever I went, a vast array of foods was available to me, and I really didn’t hold back. In fact, my only difficulty was in deciding what I wanted to eat each day. And, before you call me a pig, I should point out that portions are not large in Malaysia. Nothing is supersized here. There is enough to satisfy but not so much that you can’t walk on a little further and try something else if the fancy takes you.

It has been an education. I have been very well fed and had my enthusiasm for food renourished thanks to my Penang trip. My only regrets are not staying longer, and eating more!