Thursday, 27 December 2007

And #1 goes to...

This is really interesting. The 53 places to go to in 2008 by the International Herald Tribune.

And guess which country gets number 1 billing.

Wednesday, 26 December 2007

Found: A secret beach

On Boxing day at the most unexpected of places.

A long stretch of fine white sand, sprinkled with multi-coloured stones polished smooth by the crashing waves and fragments of coral, swept up the beach by the tides, with the odd crab scuttling over them. And the best part - it was empty, save for a few village boys who ran out to the surf at noon to escape the midday heat.

The place - the eastern coast of Johor in Malaysia, a beach called Batu Layar. I secretly wished it was a nameless beach, mine to remember and cherish forever, one of those fortuitous finds while driving down the very scenic and peaceful coastal roads of the Johorian coast, passing by idyllic kampungs (villages) and swaving coconut fronds in the salty sea breeze.

There were a few deserted looking beach bungalows, and a resort somewhere nearby. Most people seem to give this place a miss in favour of nearby Desaru, which i feel is severely overrated and has some seriously scruffy beaches now.

Another great beach getaway, although a bit more commercialised (in infrastructure terms only) but boasting some great, crystal clear waters with an abundance of marine life like fishes, corals, sea cucumbers and sea urchins - in the shallows no less, you can just wade in and explore, is Pulau Tinggi, in the waters around the Pahang/Johor boundary, again skipped in favour of the more touristy Pulau Tioman nearby.

Tuesday, 25 December 2007

Destination Laos: Part 2 Friendship Bridge

Caught the earliest bus from the BKS (Bor Kor Sor - acronym for some government owned transport company) station to Vientiane. Udon Thani did seem more appealing by day, but it still felt like the Air America base of old - very like Johor Bahru ( "affectionately" JB) in Malaysia, just sandier and colder. Classic border town feel to it, but authentic in its ruggedness and unpretentiousness.

Unexpectedly cold morning in Udon Thani, but still a fun day out zipping around Udon on a moto and later a Skylab, albeit a little cold.

Touched by the kindness of a stranger at the BKS station. This Thai lady who lives in Seremban, Malaysia and spoke fluent Mandarin offered to pay my fare of 80 baht when i didn't have enough baht on me and they did not take dollars, what with the money changers all closed this early in the morning, i was fretting about not being able to board and having to spend another (boring) day in Udon Thani. Paid her back later, but it really was a heart warming experience.

Up to that point ill admit i was a little disappointed with this trip, this part of the world where the ticketing system necessitates you to hand over your passport, take a seat, and wait for your name to be gruffly called before you could buy a ticket, and this whole procedure figured out by observing people and trial and terror processes with my limited Thai and the ticket clerk's grunted replies and his obvious I-havent-had-my-coffee-this-morning-so-bugger-off mood. But its these little moments, these acts of kindness by people you have never seen before and probably will never see again that makes me feel that life can be so simple and beautiful, and that i want to travel as long as my legs can still carry me.

That aside i crossed the border at Nong Khai without any further incident on the uber comfortable Thai-Lao bus, with carpeted flooring and big comfortable seats to sink into. The clearance was a bit on the slow side on the Laotian border, but what the hell. I was grinning to myself like an idiot, having somehow managed to bumble my way here, and right on schedule too.

Monday, 24 December 2007

Destination Laos: Part 1 City of Angels

City of Angels. Bangkok. But it wasn't all that appealing and romantic to me, as anyone who has to transit from the new BKK (Suvarnabhumi(Su-vanna-poom) airport) to the old BKK, now DMK, Don Mueng in record time would readily attest to. Throw in having to carry a backpack, being fleeced by unscrupulous taxi touts, less than 3 hours of sleep the night before, and you have a nightmare in the making.

Which summed up my day. Wasn't, exactly, having the best of days when i wrote this down waiting for the flight at the venerable DMK, so i guess ill leave out some parts. The day itself was a blur of crossing immigration posts, getting on planes and getting off them.

Am actually flying into Thailand (Udon Thani) and not Vientiane itself because i, being a cheapskate, am looking at shaving some 200 Singapore dollars off the air ticket.

The only thing that was the cause of some excitement that day was seeing David Gemmell's third instalment of the Troy trilogy hitting the shelves at the bookstore at Changi airport. Have been waiting for the third part for some time after they announced his wife would continue his work following his death.

The days travelling ended at Pakalang Mansions in Udon Thani. After all the quirky places i've stayed in, this was absolute luxury at 290 baht. Aircon, cable TV, big queen sized bed and even a writing desk. Just that no one spoke English at the place and it was rather difficult to converse. I mean its downright ridiculous to expect people to speak English everywhere you go, and since i did not speak Thai, (i do now, survival Thai at least - as you will after a few days in Udon Thani), it was rather difficut to understand each other.

The first thing that struck me about Udon Thani was the cold, and the absence of any foreigners at all. I had at first walked out of the airport and into the main streets, expecting a horde of tuk tuks and taxi touts, but nope. None to be seen. Hitch-hiking didn't seem like a viable option too, so in the end i had to grudgingly trudge back to the airport and put myself at the mercy of the airport taxis.

Friday, 21 December 2007

Duong Lam, Vietnam

Very evocative and nostsalgia-inducing painting done by Npt113, posted on DeviantArt.

To make a light pack lighter

This is going to serve as a reminder to self of some stuff i brought but did not need and some stuff i needed but didn't bring.

My excess baggage: Too many shirts - could/would always pick up a few fresh shirts at destination. The third pair of pants was a bit unnecessary too. And the Periplus map, which only covered big cities in decent detail - Lonely Planet is a more compact, accessible and detailed option.

Stuff i needed: A good paperback book to read on those long bus peregrinations, and at the airport. Reading the guidebook for like the upteenth time does get a bit boring.

Thursday, 20 December 2007

4,846 km later

Just got back from the Lao PDR. And i must gush about it - one of the best places i've ever been in my life, the whole travel experience was just very authentic once you got off "Highway" 13, and even along it it was great, the people so amazing and friendly, and the country just beautiful with the many forests, mountains, lakes and rivers awaiting you to discover, so many serendipitous spots that could enthrall you for days and make you not want to leave, so many secret Edens and paradise-like clearings with sunlight streaming in from the canopy of leaves that make you feel just very blessed to be alive.

Ill try to document my travels as is, that is to just repost what i scribbled down on the road in my now very dog-earred and tattered notebook, to capture the spirit of travel, the moments themselves.

I think this has been the most beautiful journey in my life - it has also reinforced my belief that backpacking can be beneficial to both the backpacker and the place he/she is travelling in, responsible, and ethical. Along the way i tried to give my money to local communities as much as possible, ie buying directly from the producer, staying at family run guesthouses, and also through participating in community-based programs like village homestays and eco-trekking, both which were particularly memorable and beautiful experiences. Buying books from Big Brother Mouse outlets around Laos, a charitable organisation which publishes children's books which are educational and fun to read, to distribute to kids along my travels was another way to help local communities as much as i could while travelling.