Friday, 28 November 2008

How does it feel to be a millionaire?

I'm officially a (dong) millionaire today. Went down to the money changers to get dong today - 2 years later, same ol' place. Wow. Havent been down to United Square in a while, but it really hasn't changed much - they prettified the fountain though, the lights and all. Starbucks is still there, but too bad i didn't have enough time to drop by for a drink. Rushed down to town after to get timbers boot sauce, but apparently the one at Taka closed down. Thanks in part to me waking up at 6 today, just knocked out after the whole month of exams. Its a great feeling, just crashing out after a good hot shower, locking + chaining the door and, thinking, ok, im gonna wake up when im gonna wake up.

These few days of R and R have been really great. Treating myself to a languid lunch/dinner and then going back to conquer Rome through the night with a nice drink by my side - ok i admit im a bit hooked on Rome: Total War. Currently on Carthage and rewriting history by booting the Italians out of Italy. And staging secret amphibious landings on the Aegean sea (complete with war elephants, sacred band phalanxes and onagers - all ready to take a city=).

Oh, and i got my Theroux - the Great railway bazaar from Border's today. Heard this one was good, and it reminds me a lot of my train journeys as well - im actually growing to be a bit of a train freak myself, too. So, Vietnam in a week or so. Haha. That fast. Its almost as if i haven't even really prepared for it yet. Seriously, India is still very much on my mind - i've promised myself i'll go back soon, even if there really were some parts that drove me crazy =) It really depends on your mood, really - like you could wake up feeling on top of the world and greet every scammer with joy and fight the crowds and side step cows, but when you're down, India has a way of getting to you. I remember those days where i was the only foreigner in town, it gets to you sometimes, slugging back 4 flights of stairs to the mouldy room with flaky paint in the evening. You just suddenly feel so alone, and bored that you just want out at times.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Memories of Vientiane

The Joe Guesthouse. 5 USD, right by the Mekong. Rooms were a bit dark and depressing though. But still, met some great people there.













Pha That Luang.













Laos parliament house.












Talat Sao Mall - a bit of an incongrui-ty in Vientiane.









Walking down Thanon Lane Xang, the main avenue that leads to the Patuxai (victory gate).



A beerlao by the Mekong under the moonlight.









Leaving Vientiane - waiting for the bus at the Joe to Vang Vieng.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

If i had to make lists,

Almost over... Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday 1900. whew. 2 papers to go, Media effects which is alot, but certainly more humane than cultural studies, and then forensics. Im almost smiling now. Well, actually i am. After the 3 killer papers and then chilling out over the weekend, finally getting some decent sleep (at night too...).

Looking at those Varanasi pics it's really one of my favourites ever. If i had to make lists it would read:
  1. Pokhara, Nepal
  2. Annapurna Base Camp, Nepal
  3. Varanasi, India
  4. Ban Nam Goy - a population 80 village, Laos
  5. Chennai, India - i am a Chennaiker at heart =)
  6. Rangoon, Burma - driving to Kyaiktiyo in the pre-dawn light, stopping by endless fields of paddy to watch the most amazing sunrise, ever. Ok, this brings me. I will go back to Burma, soon.
  7. Amritsar, India - and the India-Pakistan border Attari-Wagah.
  8. Taipei, Taiwan ROC
  9. Siem Reap (for the Angkor temples), Cambodia
  10. Udon Thani, Thailand - Thaksin rally and everyday Isan life, very friendly people

Actually all the places i've been to just took my breath away, but these are the few that really made me go, "wow, so im here". And then pause to catch breath and smile to myself. It must be a dream.

And the just forgettable:

  1. Sauraha/Royal Chitwan, Nepal
  2. New Delhi, India - even walking down the legendary Chandni Chowk failed. Fled after 3 or 4 days, purpose of stay was just to catch the train. The one exception, though, was Humayun's tomb - amazing, this architectural predecessor to the Taj.
  3. Agra, India - the town, that is. Taj Ganj specifically. Bleuch. And it poured like mad and did i mention i fell into an Indian gutter.

Oh yea, and just for fun and out of boredom (10 principles for communication campaigns... ho hum), i calculated the distance my trusty 3 year old pair of leather Timberlands have carried me, taking the brunt of injuries such as rusty nails and spilled hot chai. 29,659 km. woo hoo. and walking on...

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Varanasi!

Finally made it to Varanasi! after all i've read and heard about it - it was one of the places that made me think, ok, i have to go to India. It felt amazing that afternoon arriving in Varanasi after the very long train ride - looking out at the mother Ganga in the afternoon sun and going, well, im here, at last =)



Stepping outside the Shanti Guesthouse. First day, walking down the snaking alleys and maze of side streets and side streets of side streets in Varanasi, down to the ghats. We switched guesthouses like 3 times, but finally still, irony irony, wound up at the Shanti - some of the other options were just too sterile/characterless/soulless compared to the Shanti's flaky, moldy walls and shoddy rooms (plus the four floor climb to my room) - the rooftop restaurant, of course, the place to be in Varanasi where we hung out and talked languidly over late breakfasts of toast with beans and eggs, muesli, cold coffee, hot chocolate (first time in India... bit of a sense of home to us all, i guess. And yes, after all the curry (North) and thaali in South India) following an early morning stroll down to the ghats, and just relaxed and shared stories before going for an afternoon siesta, waking up when the day cools at around 4, popping out again to the ghats, catching the Ganga puja ceremony at 7 when the great mother Ganga is put to rest for the night, which involves priests of Shiva chanting, blowing on the conch shell as a symbol of the deity, tolling of bells, chandeliers of fire and throngs of pilgrims. And being sandwiched in it all in the sweltering heat listening as the chants intensify and the bells toll, looking out into the darkness that is the river Ganga.



Ahh... i realise how much i miss India... Varanasi, Amritsar, Chennai, and around Tamil Nadu especially, where i spent long periods of time walking the streets amongst the crowds without seeing a foreign face for days, and stopping by the makeshift stalls to buy chai, stand around and just people watch with other people.


I can remember my last proper cup of chai in India - the breakfast brew at 7 in the morning before catching a cyclerickshaw to "Paul Travels" headquarters (a small provisions shop with the owner frying wafer thin ommelettes as free brekkie (promised on the ticket) and watery chai with travellers milling around) for the bus to Sunauli-Belahiya. Then the long ride into Nepal.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

I wish all this could be over soon

Sigh. Its been a long time. At least it feels like a long time, drowning under piles of work and the exams as usual, with tonnes of readings to clear. And i absolutely love the readings on postmodernists constructions of identity. And feminism, of course. Oh, and communication history too, an absolutely unnecessarily verbose volume by Ev Rogers.

I wish all these could be over soon. In 14 days. Not too long but i'm already dying on another of my long nights up here in my loft. Miss those days on the road already, the freedom of it all, waking up and smelling the diesel fumes from the belching buses at the sandy bus depot, headed for another city, another small town, another place. Grabbing breakfast on the go. Spilling freshly brewed, potent coffee down the front of my jacket and checking out the food stalls around the bus station for the usual staple of bananas, 3-minute-noodles, bread etc amongst the more unusual preserved birds, unidentifiable sauces, weird meat cooking on the grill... Life on the road.

Sometimes you just feel that you got to be on the road again. This is one of those times, with Seger in the headphones screaming "to the mountain's where im going to..." And mellowing to the bossa nova tunes Lisa Ono, which so brings back memories of those nights i've spent alone in my room, mulling over what to pack for tomorrow's departure, all the stuff laid out on the bed, with my maps, guidebooks, air tickets, passport and all strewn around, the Bossa Americana CD playing on repeat in the background (i'm such an organised person, i know - i used to plan everything but in the end follow nothing. Now i don't plan). That was before Burma. Its like all the emotions before leaving on my first, ever, trip come rushing back now, listening to the same songs - the mixture of excitement, anticipation, happiness, freedom, and that bit of fear, laced with nostalgia. Now i suddenly feel the urge to go out after the exams to go sit at the cafe i used to camp in 2 years ago, planning my trips over a tall coffee which i can make last for 6 hours. Perhaps i'll do that, in 14 days, after the exams are over. And probably grab a new Lisa Ono CD too.

Friday, 31 October 2008

Rooftop

It feels kinda crazy, sitting at the rooftop of some building at this time in the morning, looking out at the lights across at the Jurong island refinery, and the fires from the refineries lighting up the skyline at regular intervals. With a coffee in hand, blogging, and rushing my term paper for tomorrow. Talk about crazy. But so far this is my favourite spot for some personal space to just sit back, reflect, and stare out at the night sky and the twinkling lights when i get bored. Its a nice place, a small rooftop space with benches and potted plants, and no one at all at this time in the morning. Kinda like my loft - not too big to feel impersonal and intimidate - i never liked huge spaces, especially at night, trying to do my stuff alone. Always more for the cosy, personal space feel - hence me colonising this little space where it feels that im all alone, looking out towards the night, the little lights in the distance at Jurong, the refinery, the future...

I don't know, but to me, tomorrow is always beautiful - it is always a promise, a fresh start, where everything takes care of itself as it unfurls. Just do as best i can, and let things be. Everything sorts itself out in the end. To quote, i think previous bit was in the Dharma Bums, and now Chozanshi, only a fool worries about what he has no control over. Let tomorrow come, and let tomorrow be. Thats why i always go to sleep at peace and happy however screwed up my day was, knowing that whatever tomorrow brings, will be, and knowing that if i have done my all, there is nothing else i can do but accept and find joy in what transpires. Que sera, sera. Whatever will be, will be.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Hong Kong - Llhasa

Call me greedy, but heh, getting excited about next year's planned mega trip from Hong Kong to Llhasa, and then out from Nepal Kathmandu. Ought to be amazing. Then its most of Asia "done" for me save for Great Mother Russia and the 'Stans. Oh yea, and Japan and Korea of course - just don't feel the pressing need to join the hordes of package tourists there yet on 5 day 4 night packages. Not to mention its hellishly expensive too (actually that might be the main reason).

The HK-Llhasa is still between the conceptualisation-planning stages, but it should be a go, i think, thats if i can get the Chinese visa from Hong Kong (and the Tibet permit, of course). The least i'd do is probably go around China, sort of going back to the "homeland", i guess. It's surprising how many Chinese have never been to China - i'm one of them myself and even if i don't feel any strong kindship ties with the homeland, it would still be nice to go back to where my ancestors came from, and see what it's like for myself.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Lips of an Angel

Inexplicably, my song for Kathmandu is Hinder's Lips of an Angel, the song playing in the wet Thamel night, navigating the narrow, crowded streets in the nightly drizzles, the bars and restaurants and bakeries, the bookshops, souvenir shops, trekking shops, Tibetan shops... all a blur of lights, people and sound in the rain. Beautiful. And being broke (well almost) staying in cheap rooms and carefully budgeting my money - part of the fun of which was taking long walks to surrounding sights in the Kathmandu valley and finding innovative ways to skirt the ticket counter.

Thamel has really gone upmarket though, that its almost sad-funny (and builds camarederie) when you walk past the really posh looking restaurants with their doormen and the impeccably clean glass facades -and theres no one inside. In the monsoon, the only people here are backpackers, who gather in the small alleys off the main street at the hole-in-the-wall juice shops and Tibetan restaurants for that cheap smoothie or momos, and who all seem to enjoy the Thamel bakeries' 50% off breads offer at 8 p.m.

I kept to 2 meals a day, breakfast at the rooftop at Helena's - at 90 NRs (1.5 USD) for eggs, toast with butter and jam, excellent sauted potatoes, a grilled tomato and tea/coffee. Quite a steal. Then i'd walk all the way out of town into the Kathmandu valley to visit the sights, often as there's nothing in the way of transport due to the frequent bandhas (strikes) over the president issue and the fuel price increase/student discount issue. These are pretty much a fact of life in Nepal, and as the Himalayan Times sum it up perfectly, quoting a student leader, "if we don't burn tyres, no one will listen to us." Talk about diplomacy and dialogue. The common response of the Nepalis is usually, what to do, Kathmandu, accompanied with a little head wobble and a shrug.

And so i walked, out of Thamel, into the old, medieval, fabled city, marked by the regal Durbar Square in its heart, past the Rani Pokhari (Queen's pool) and the fantastic gardens of the Kaiser Mahal on days, out of town into the Kathmandu valley, where the buildings thin out, and roads become more pot-holed and uneven, forming pools of muddy brown water after the nightly rains. And sharing the road with the Nepalis from all walks of life, porters carrying huge, impossible loads on carts and on their backs, women balancing urns of milk on their head, children in fresh school uniforms running off to school, youths enjoying a cup of hot chiya (tea) seated around an ancient square, a tole that marks most of the intersections of Kathmandu's streets, playing badminton, the odd saddhu, the saffron robed Tibetan monks... I enjoyed these walks immensely, disappearing into a Nepal that felt so ancient with tradition and its architectural quirks and splendour, yet so alive and breathing, and welcoming.


*As usual, pics coming up soon - i have yet to sort through my 5 CDs and 2 DVDs worth of photos taken on this trip - so far im only about halfway through it...

Saturday, 18 October 2008

0430

A moment of morbidity at 4 in the morning prompted me to recount my travel near-deaths; well, thats pushing it, but you get the idea. The times when you feel that, hey i dont know if i can make it this time. Maybe its the end for me. The time when what separates life, and death is the thin line that becomes so clear to you in that instant.

Those times which, thankfully, are not too numerous to remember,

1. Angkor, Cambodia - climbing up one of those huge stone temples outside the main complex along the Grand Circuit, where almost vertical steps cut into the rock crumble and blend into each other, worn smooth by time. Ta Keo takes the cake for being the impossible-st temple to climb up to. A crazy, intimidating stone spire that rises from the centre of the complex, supposedly abandoned after it was struck by lightning. The uncompleted work, as if suddenly abandoned, cast an eerie pall over the temple, even in the midday sun.

2. Vang Vieng, Laos - getting lost in a cliffside cave somewhere in the karst mountains around town. Without a torch.

3. Luang Nam Tha, Laos - dumped by sawngthaew at night in an unnamed, dark and silent road out of town, with all the shops and residences closed, shutters down, and silence all round except for the howling of dogs, and cats screeching eerily.

4. India - the madman's tour of Mahabalipuram. Its a long story, worth a post on its own - ill get to that soon once i settle my exams. Yes, its that time of the year again, before i head off.

5. on the Annapurna Base Camp trail, Nepal - crossing a frozen waterfall horizontally hanging off the cliff side. Actually, that was nothing compared to going down into the South Annapurna glacier, an almost 90 degree, sheer rock face of thousands of millions of sharp, jagged rock fragments. And walking along the glacier on the Fang (mountain) approach march before, climbing back up again. The glacier was another world totally - underground caves and eerie, green unearthly pools of still water, and the rumble of distant rockfall and avalanches.

6. Chitrasali, Nepal - The worst of the lot. It nearly spelt the end of my academic life when due to time zone miscaluculations, guaranteed power outtages in the afternoon and crawling, sporadic internet in the Terai plains of Nepal, i very nearly, and i mean very nearly, missed my subject registration exercise for the new academic year.

Friday, 17 October 2008

Amrit Sarovar - the pool of nectar

Amritsar. The Golden temple.

In the northern Indian state of Punjab, another of my favourites, a very welcome respite from stepping off the plane from Tamil Nadu's tranquil, palm lined country roads into the New Delhi chaos that still persists at 3 a.m. in the morning. I had stayed at this really freaky place and made up my mind that night, making sure all the doors and windows were locked and tight, to get my tickets from the New Delhi railway station the next day and make an early exit. The buying tickets bit was easy enough - thanks to the International Tourist Bureau , a "nice and spacious office" on the second floor - and after minutes of filling in forms for the trains i wanted and playing couch shuffle waiting for my turn at the counters, i managed to end up with all the tickets i'd ever need for this India trip - in total around 55 dollars of tickets. This is by far the bit of Indian bureaucracy i'm most impressed with, other than the State Bank of India experience in Chennai of course, which made me feel so like a native Chennaiker - yea and i do support the Super Kings in the IPL. One surefire way to make friends (and influence people) in India - talk about cricket and how fantastic Tendulkar is etc...

New Delhi! the old town around Jama Masjid

























I went (escaped) up north to Amritsar on the evening Shatabdi, squashed between a rotund Sikh and a prosperous-looking Indian businessman, on second class A/C so i shan't complain too much. The service was awesome anyway - being served tea the moment we got in and all the way to supper when we were almost in Amritsar. The train, however, was delayed due to some "technical fault" - basically euphemism for we don't know whats going on, so we had tea in the train while it still was in the station - kinda weird, actually. But other than that, a pretty uneventful ride into Amritsar, where in stark contrast - that is so typical of Indian travel - i shared a crazed, chai-fuelled autorickshaw ride into the old town around the golden temple with an Irish couple on honeymoon, our bags almost bouncing off the rear as he took off towards the destination, cutting through side streets and screaming down alleys barely wider than his rickshaw.

The Golden Temple, Sikkhism's holiest shrine, was beautiful. One of my fondest memories was everyone getting to their feet, standing around the Golden Temple, in the fast fading evening light as prayers are recited in the Golden temple, electronic speakers carrying it through the entire courtyard. And the scent of imminent rain in the breeze, raking ripples across the now dark surface of the pool of holy water, the Amrit Sarovar, surrounding the Golden temple, light drops of rain touching our faces.

























Wednesday, 15 October 2008

The Taj Mahal

Some of my favourite pics:











Wednesday, 1 October 2008

SIN-HAN, SGN-SIN

Got my tickets today! And judging by the Chinatown crowds, apparently half of the island's population had the same idea to go to the travel agents today, seeing its a convenient mid-week public holiday.

And i saved around 50 dollars for waking up early - the 0900 flight after Christmas was like 25% cheaper than the 5 o clock?? I wonder why. The new trick seems to be making you pay for checking in luggage, instead of it being included in ticket price. Anyway, 370 S$ for the 2 flights into Hanoi and out from Saigon, i reckon i got a decent deal. Throw in cheap insurance and i'm all set.

No Daffy Duck this time out to hand out secret maps; i'm disappointed. Really.

Rainy nights

I love these rainy nights, sitting in my room by the window and listening to the rain pour down, and feeling so cut off from the world, so alone and so free, where nothing else really troubled me any more. The rain slowing to a drizzle, accompanied, at this time, 3:30 in the a.m., by the sound of crickets (i know, its supposed to be a garden campus - we even have funny looking white birds and the occasional wild boar/pangolin), and the ****ing birds honking at regular intervals. Ok, actually, its quite therepeutic, when i have tomorrow off and am just languidly looking through my notes - Barthes' semiology - while reading my borrowed copy of the Da Vinci Code. Ignoring the fact that i'm actually ashamed to be caught reading it now (a bit outdated, i know, and hypocritical considering i thought it was just another mystery novel when it first hit the shelves (and i never read mystery) and that i cannot put it down now), i actually cant tell now, after a grand 4 hours of doing both at the same time, that which belongs to which. For example - did Barthes analyse the sacred feminine in modern myths or was Langdon the one who.... And the worst bit yet - I quoted Jacques Sauniere for some semiotic theory. This is looking very bad...

I hence resolve to finish reading the book before going back to my work. There, how's that for willpower and determination.

Going to get my tickets for Vietnam tomorrow - same old place, and i can feel the excitement building in me again. It's gonna be another trip, another journey, and one that i have planned to do almost 2 years ago, as a high school kid poring over maps and guidebooks borrowed from the library.

Decided to push this trip to the 4th of December - so i hopefully get to do my registration exercise first (fingers crossed - and don't get me started on why can't they give us the specific dates earlier), this time older and wiser after the ambulance incident at Chitrasali. Definitely not one i would forget. And probably the best reminder ever to - check your email regularly! and pray hard in a town that has frequent, guaranteed power outtages and crawling internet. And that is in the middle of nowhere on the sprawling Terai plains of Nepal. Lovely.

The rain outside, and the solitude and quiet i so enjoy in the early hours of the morning actually stirs memories of Nepal. Kathmandu, where in the evenings, the skies would just open, deluging Thamel and turning it into a foggy sea of rain and misted lights from the cars and neon signs of bars, restaurants and bakeries.

I also think of Pokhara, sitting in the cosy, hole-in-the-wall Tibetan kitchen eating momos with soup while it rained heavily outside, a torrential downpour that drew us all to under the leaking wooden awning to gaze out in wonder at the pouring skies and the gushing river the streets have become, the herd of buffaloes wading down the street across the tiny shopfront making it all the more surreal and unbelievable. It was my third day in Nepal, and if i could possibly fall more in love with her than i already was, i would, i had.

Monday, 29 September 2008

Shantaram

Looking at the dog-eared, weather-beaten copy of Gregory David Robert's Shantaram i have on my travel shelf (bought in Varanasi for 450 Rs), alongst other memorabilia like my bottle of Lao rice whiskey and a Cambodian krama (silk scarf) draped over my assortment of worn guidebooks and travel literature, i never fail to be reminded of India. The many places i have been to - colonial Madras, cultured yet humble, the sea wind, laden with salt, blowing in from the Bay of Bengal in French-flavoured Pondicherry, sitting by the beachside promenade on the evenings and joining the hundreds who come out to take a stroll and enjoy the evening breeze, the light fading fast across the ocean, and later joining the queue for a 10 rupee bowl of bread with potato curry at the line of makeshift stalls opposite a huge statue of the Mahatma, Ghandiji. And sun-drenched Mahabalipuram, visiting the famous stone carvings at the Five Rathas and the Shore temple on a rented bicycle, later road tripping to nearby Tirukalikundram where Dravidian temples rise colourfully amongst verdant paddy fields and the organised chaos of concrete dwellings, telephone wires, heaps of rubbish, wandering cows and crazed traffic. And Delhi, Amritsar, Attari-Wagah, Agra, Varanasi... All those memories, those places i have been to, those days of my life i have spent there...

I feel a strong affinity to these places - where i feel at once so much a stranger, sticking out like a sore thumb, yet so much at home, and especially now, missing these places where i've spent time, made friends, laughed, been squeezed like sardines on buses zooming across the expansive, lonely Indian countryside, chased trains, slept at railway stations.... It's like Gregory Robert's Bombay, the effect India has on me. My India. It feels at once so much like home and so new, so exciting, so enthralling. I will, in fact i think i have to go back to India one day. Its gonna be like going home. I miss India, barely 3 months after crossing the border at Sunauli to Nepal, another country which i absolutely loved and will always remember with fond memories.

Friday, 26 September 2008

Whimsical


Dreaming of Africa. The river Nile separating Uganda and Sudan


Is the list of places i have down in my mind that i will go to, in the near future, if possible - one thing the India trip taught me was that everything is a possibility, don't rule it out just yet. Going to India was pretty much a last minute, spur of the moment decision - basically looking at some books and going, hmm, this is nice, i think i'd go. Then finding cheap flights (to Chennai), and it was all systems go.

  • The African coast, down the eastern seaboard from Sudan to Mozambique.
  • South America, going from Panama all the way down to Argentina.
  • The Trans-Siberian express. Longest railway in the world, zipping from Beijing through Mongolia and Siberia to St. Petersburg.

  • Travelling the Silk Roads, going from south western China through the Central Asian 'stans to Iran to Turkey and Europe.


Does it happen to just me, or does looking at a globe inspire great feelings of wanderlust and anticipation of adventures ahead?

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Heaven is a place on earth... Pokhara

I love Pokhara. Its one of my favourite places on earth. A small alpine town by a mirror-flat lake in the mountains, where on crisp, clear mornings, entire mountain panoramas - Macchapucchare, Annapurna South and One, can be glimpsed in the horizon, seemingly at the edge of the town, at the end of a small, potholed road, which you would follow, on sunny mornings. And in the lake, a perfect reflection seen, if you're lucky enough.

I even had an address in Pokhara, at Lakeside 6, my room in the Rustika Guesthouse where i stayed for almost a month, getting to know my neighbours and going for walks in the morning around the lake, breathing the fresh morning air from the mountains, looking out into the calm, mirror-flat waters of the Phewa Tal, innumerable ripples drawn on them by the morning breeze, ruffling the evergreens that line the lake. Beyond was the hills, the evergreen forest leading all the way up, a rough cut trail in its midst, to the World Peace Pagoda, sitting serenely on top. Over the next few days we rented a boat and rowed out to the trailhead across the lake, and hiked up to the hilltop pagoda. It was beautiful, peaceful, looking down at the idyllic town by the lake. As if nothing in the world mattered anymore.

Pokhara also had these really charming stone buildings, much like cottages with their colourful frames and stunningly beautiful gardens - flowers of every colour lining window sills, balconies, and porches. The Switzerland of Asia, as they say. And not a bit wrong too. Going out of my guesthouse was a small road, lined with cafes and pop-and-mom stalls and family-run eateries - people i soon got to know really well, all of which whip up tasty, homely grub if you run low on cash or get bored of the restaurant scene on Lakeside, which is a revelation in itself.

We had great, sizzling slabs of steak cooked with rum washed down with Everest beer our first night in Pokhara, which really was quite a bit of a celebration of leaving India behind - it does get to you, after all those long weeks on the road with cows, crazed autorickshaw wallas and overpacked buses and trains. That said, the funny thing about India is that, i can't decide if i loved it or hated it, but one thing i know for sure is that i will go back, one day, soon. The dinner the first night with Dirk, the Dutchie i met in Varanasi, after winding up the hills in the pouring monsoon (it had come early), turning the mountains into pouring waterfalls and the roads into gushing rivers roaring down the edge. The bus was leaking too, not to mention - a steady dripping from the luggage racks above my seat. And all this while our backpacks were outside, strapped on top of the bus in the pouring rain, while the solitary goat inside the bus, trotting the aisle right next Dirk's seat, was nibbling at our shoes.

We longed to get to Pokhara. It seemed like heaven, after those weeks in India and the long ride up to the border at Sunauli and then Belahiya at the Nepali side, where we had spent the night, with 4 Japanese backpackers in a bedbug infested dorm room at the Nepali Guesthouse. We soon decided to spend the night getting wasted on Royal Stag whiskey with Coke at a nearby eatery, talking late into the night before slipping into bedbug-bitten sleep. Everyone was up at four in the semi darkness - cigarette buds glowing in the dark, people sharing a smoke, stumbling to the shower to wash off the terrible rash, and generally looking forward to getting on to either Pokhara or Kathmandu.

And so when we got to Pokhara, the rain slowing to a misty drizzle, we found it was heaven on earth. So beautiful, so peaceful that we fell in love with it immediately and spent much more time than we had ever intended.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Going back... Siem Reap, Cambodia














Very spartan room at the Popular Guesthouse in Siem Reap Cambodia - impeccably clean, with perks such as a coathanger and a empty paint bucket (trash can) thrown in for 3 USD a night. The 2nd floor cafe with wooden furniture and hanging plants was pretty neat too, serving late into the night. And the best part - it was walking/stumbling distance to/from Bar Street, though someone still managed to get lost after a late night drinking session. Downstairs i rented bicycles each morning, setting off to explore the Angkorian temples for nearly a week. The part i remembered, with humour, was stumbling back at 4 and waking up the next day at 8 to take the bike out to the Angkor temples (without a hangover too!) - kinda crazy, and it does say a bit about the fun + culture +adventure mix which is Siem Reap.

My song for Siem Reap - Oasis' Don't look back in anger. Blaring from the speakers at the Angkor What? pub (we were sitting right beneath it), us singing along on probably our 4th bottle of Fosters and innumerable Beerlaos and Mekong whiskeys, and later adjourning for fried noodles and tukalok (fruit shakes) at one of the roadside stalls at 4 in the morning, it was one of my fondest memories of Siem Reap, especially as its my first time travelling alone and meeting like minded people with low budgets and big backpacks. It was, to me, travelling alone for the first time, all of 17 and full of dreams and big plans to see the world, the spirit of travel, people coming together from all over, having the same aspirations to see the world and experience more instead of the reality we are presented with back home.

And so, sally can wait
She knows its too late as we're walking on by
Her soul slides away
But dont look back in anger
I heard you say

And everything will be alright

for ever, and ever, and ever... Looking out at the falling leaves in the warm, midday sunshine, the trees gently swaying in the weak, afternoon breeze where nothing else moved, where it is all so quiet, that was the feeling i got.

That everything would be alright, for ever, and ever, and ever.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Dreaming of Indochina

I will be back, in 2 and a half months time. Doesn't even seem long, feels like i've just got back from my bumper trip to India and Nepal which did quite a bit to alleviate that wanderlust. The cure, as i now know, is to go on a big trip for months on end. And then start to miss home and come back.

The coming year end trip would be more relaxing i think - actually, after India, anything is relaxing. Will try to cover Vietnam from Hanoi to Saigon in 3 weeks, probably flying on Nov 30 for nostalgia's sake - left for Laos last year at this same date, and return on the 20th next month. Its probably gonna be quite a rush, and does looks like i have to leave some parts out. Its a Sapa (hill station, trekking) vs. Nha Trang (beaches, party boats) dilemma.

Right now im just looking forward to chilling out in a Hanoi cafe and dodging motorcycle swarms. It actually does feel like so soon, i will be on the road again - almost as if my life is travel save for the brief interregnum of going back to school for one semester.

And i will have to run through getting the air tickets and insurance again - which i love, brings back memories of previous trips and the pre-trip high - travelling is my drug, yeah.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Going back - El Lazy Fish, Phnom Penh Cambodia














El Lazy Fish - to date having the dubious honour of being the most dodgy place i've stayed in - a row of wooden huts extending out into "the Lake" in central Phnom Penh, a flourescent green body of water that no one, even backpackers drunk on their 3rd bucket of Mekong whiskey, dares to swim in.

It was right smack in the heart of the action on Boeng Kak, a self contained commune of cheap guesthouses with great lakeviews (and plenty of mosquitoes, though not mentioned on the brochure), backpacker shops (selling the staple of flag patches, pirated CDs, pirated books (they even have pushcarts selling these), cheap T-shirts and the lot), backpacker cafes, cheap restaurants, travel agents, money changers, sundry shops... The Lazy Fish being bang right at the end of a dead-end alley that would have led all the way down into the lake if not for the rows of wooden bunkhouses at the end of the concrete front yard with a few chickens scratching around, divided into rooms by thin, wooden walls.

The shower. Plus fantastic lake views from the window!


Thursday, 28 August 2008

Agra - Going to the Taj Mahal

Gateway to the Taj - you can see a small part of it through the huge Mughlai style gateway. There are 4 gates to the Taj - i think this is the South gate, facing the Taj Ganj area which used to house the artisans and craftsmen from foreign lands building the Taj.

Everyone goes to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. My first glimpse of it though, was slightly disappointing. I had dumped my bag in my room in the Shanti GH after finding my way to the Taj Ganj sprawl - messy, but Paharganj still owns all - and ran the flights of stairs to the much fabled rooftop of the Shanti. And there was the Taj, milky white, in the distance, hovering over a congestion of huts, cheap guesthouses, and multi-coloured concrete buildings. But still, i put off visiting the Taj as yet - to fully appreciate it on a nicer (drier) day.

It rained heavily that day - the monsoon had come early, near the end of May. It turned the Taj Ganj's zig-zagging, trash lined streets into veritable rivers of rubbish, and completely concealed all the pot holes and huge gaping drains that characterise most of India's streets. Hence - my good deed for the day - i made an autorickshaw wallah roar in laughter by rejecting his ride and walking on into one such sinisterly concealed drain, dropping knee deep in trash water and joining the floating pieces of plastic bags and discarded food wrappers for company.

All in all, not a fun day out. I was dripping wet from the rain - and most probably smelt like the drain i had just fallen into, which is saying a lot, given the state Indian drains are normally in. It was nothing short of calamitous. Being forced to take a cold, cold shower in my room using water from the rooftop tank in the monsoon was not fun either. This was followed by having to wash all the drenched and foul-smelling clothes and boots and finding creative ways to dry them later on.

My first experience with the Indian monsoon - a very stark departure from the romanticised version you often read about. But yes, it descended without any warning, catching people on the streets, the sky breaking and sheets of water sweeping over the land in an instant, sending people running for shelter. And yet there is a certain jubilation, a certain joy in the rain that pours onto the parched earth and dusty streets after unrelenting months of summer.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Chasing trains, India

This continues the previous India post - "Kennet Lane"

Above: Indian Railways train ticket

Managed to not fall asleep on the 645 train to Agra and alight when i saw the yellow Agra Cantonment sign 3 hours later when the train pulled in (instead of being carried off all the way to Lucknow or Varanasi - which would have happened seeing they don't announce the stops, only some vague announcement about please do not go to the toilets during breaks to avoid stampedes and please don't take too long to buy your chai or we will leave without you - ok the latter isn't but i wish they did - having darn near marooned me at a few weirdly fantastic Soviet looking industrial towns complete with belching smokestacks in the middle of nowhere in central India after i hopped off to join the stampede for chai and parantha).

The song Chasing Cars by Snow Patrol probably took on an ironic twist here, me chasing trains, goddamn it, that seemed determined to leave without half its passengers (just as i almost got my chai/pakoda). What follows is screaming and shouting (cheering and encouragement) from the people in the train for the people out of the train (despatched to go hunt for food) to run and grab hold of whatever they can and pull themsleves onto the train that is fast hurtling out of the station without advance notice.

The evening Shatabdi form Amritsar to New Delhi, Carriage C7

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Going back.... Sihanoukville, Cambodia

The GST guesthouse - a very palatable option run by the folks behind the bus company of the same name. 5 minutes from the sand at Sihanoukville (if you take a shortcut through a dark, tree lined path that winds up by some shacks and 2 beach bars). This place reminds me... that i feel bad clogging up the uber-clean shower area with sand. Yea, it wasn't that memorable - it was kind of characterless, like what you'd expect if folks that run a bus company decided to run a guesthouse one day. Anyway, the main draw is the sand - i can't even remember spending any amount of time in my room. I mean, given a choice between happy hour cocktails on the beach, lounging in a beach chair reading, writing, and watching the world go by, and sitting in my room watching Cambodian soaps/BBC, it was rather an obvious call.














Not very good pics - apparently there is insufficient lighting hence the exposure time has to be longer and accordingly you have to keep the camera still for a longer period of time - which i couldn't do resulting in fuzzy images....

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Going back... Kampot, Cambodia

The Kampot River View














Bought a bus ticket from Phnom Penh's central market bus station to Kampot at noon - took a few hours for the 80 km stretch to the coast, including switching from a small bus to a smaller one halfway there (and the mandatory mysterious breakdown). Kampot was pretty quiet - a small fishing village going about its own business. The bus dropped me off at some road junction - followed some guy to his guesthouse, which was this place right by the river. It wasn't too memorable, to be honest - i had this small cabin to myself in the front garden of the place, which was like a big, open house (the dorm - overrun by some very drunk Czechs so i decided to take the cabin/hut).


I remember going down to the wooden verandah/makeshift restaurant by the big house at night after putting down my bags to look out into the river in the darkness, eating my fried rice and downing a reviving bottle of Angkor beer after managing to locate the cook. Was rather enjoying the soft music on the stereo - Damien Rice (!) being quite unexpected, and looking out at the fishing boats bobbing up and down in the darkness to the tide when the Czechs decided to come in for a drink. I paid up and left.















The view at that place was great though - i took this photo from my window - just popped my head out and snapped the shot in the morning. Went up the Bokor Hill Station and managed to meet up with a few friends for drinks at the Mealy Chenda - which i later found out was the place to be, hosting the backpacker population of Kampot - for the following days before heading off to Cambodia's costa del sol of Sihanoukville.

Friday, 22 August 2008

Going back...

I like taking photos of the different rooms i've stayed in during my past years travelling. Its funny how these places can bring back memories, the feeling of living, spending the night in a new place for the first time that to me is so much a big part of travel. That, and waking up the next day, thinking, hey just where the hell am i? Or it may be just watching funny TV programmes and laugh at some of the ads - when im lucky enough to have a TV in my room. It could also be stumbling back to the guesthouse, somewhat intoxicated after a night out with friends, and tripping over the couch in the reception. That ranks among climbing the gate to find that its not locked as severe alcohol induced cases of folly and embarassment. And getting lost walking the 100 metres back to the guesthouse in Siem Reap from Bar Street, i guess.

I find that often, i have a story to tell, memories to recall for each of these places, so here goes:














The Lucky Ro, in Phnom Penh Cambodia to the left. My first room - first night travelling alone in a foreign country. I couldn't sleep - kept telling myself, damn, here i am, in Cambodia. I couldnt't believe it. That night i walked down to the riverside for dinner, through the wet market by the streets, and felt that this was amazing - this was what i wanted to do, to travel and experience the world, to see new things and learn.














The view from my window - I woke up and looked out of the window, and there i was in Cambodia, that instant - kinda shocking. The sound of motorcyles, the bustle of people going about their daily business at the Psaa Chaa (New market), the tooting of horns...
Will continue with places i called home, albeit however briefly, in Cambodia in the next posts...

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Um..

Decided to "reclaim" my blog, making small changes here and there - and still shopping around for a new template; sort of trying to revive it. (And i do realise that the "new" blogger is easier to use after my 3 month hiatus)

Will try to wrap up the Lao part, and post some new stuff on India/Nepal soon (hopefully). Its back to school for me - less modules this semester, but an ever increasing reading list. At least i love my new timetable - late Mondays and early Fridays effectively giving me a four day weekend i spend sampling the teh tarek in JB. Basically, i love going back to Malaysia - the way of life is just so different, relaxed and you feel that no one knows where you are (especially good if you have pesky project mates) - that you can just disappear, not care and do what you want to do, instead of constantly worrying about that project/proposal/term paper and escape for a while the materialism and regimentation/uniformity that just gets to you, as in all big cities.

I do love my country, for its down to earth vibes, the endearing honesty, and the fact that it is home, afterall, where i grew up... As much as i don't want to turn this into a political blog (i'm a bit of a conspiracy theorist myself), here's hoping for change for the better in Malaysia.


Monday, 18 August 2008

Going back to my first love,


Indochina. Where 2 years ago, my big trip was planned on, the trip that would take me down from Hanoi to Saigon, and then into Cambodia by boat and bus, then weaving into Thailand past the town of Siem Reap, best known for the Angkorian imitations of heaven nearby, and then to Bangkok before going to Phuket and catching a bus down to George Town, Alor Setar, and KL and then home! It seemed so implausible (and infinitely exciting) that i could travel, overland, from Hanoi back home, without catching a single flight.

I did manage to travel then, but to Cambodia only, on a limited budget, before flying home. In the following years i would like to think that i've seen a bit of this planet - journeys taking me through most of mainland Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent, doing many silly and crazy things along the way, but surviving to tell the tale (sometimes barely - like the Nepal Chitwan ambulance incident - that was almost academic suicide - almost missing the registration period for next semester's courses) .

2 years later, im realising in full the dreams of the junior college boy, daydreaming over cups of coffee and maps - making a clean sweep of Southeast Asia. Took me 2 years, yea, but i've done it. Vietnam. The original dream of road trips and backpacks and neverending days on the road and freedom. Will be there this November - December, if all goes well...

Indochina will always hold special memories for me, being my first introduction to independent travel, and the many memories and life lessons that she has taught me - at the foremost self-reliance, simplicity, and appreciation of life's little things, and humility, and love, and family.

Thank you, Indochina.

Monday, 4 August 2008

"Kennet lane, please. Egmore station."



The best souvenir i brought back from India was this CD, Hari Om, by Satyaa and Pari. Listening to it everytime brings back strong memories and recollections of India, a powerful flashback of random images, sounds and smells starting from the crowded streets of Madras, Kennet Lane, where i started my adventure in India, hopping into a classic yellow-black taxi in the sweltering Indian night, passing the crowds milling outside the airport at 9 o clock - "Kennet lane, please. Egmore station". I can still feel the excitement i felt saying those words, hopping into a taxi and speeding away amidst a sea of cars, people in colourful sarongs and saris, and the swelling crescendo of car horns all around - a fact of Indian life i soon got used to.








Jesus, Ganesha and Islam - Religious harmony in Madras

From Madras i went down Tamil Nadu's coastal roads to French flavoured Pondicherry, with her whitewashed buildings, wide, tree-lined avenues and cobblestoned streets and the seafront promenade, which you find the whole of Pondi in the morning and at dusk. Further north i stopped at Mahabalipuram, a seaside town famous for stone carvings and seafood, before heading back to Madras to catch a flight from an airport in a frenzied state of security - 2 days after the Jaipur bombings; long queues, delayed flights and baggage checks (two rounds) which bottlenecked everyone at 2 makeshift, wooden security gates cum metal detectors. Not to mention i almost missed my flight too as i forgot to get some little luggage tag which was to be stamped by security - the stern female soldier at the gate to the tarmac was adamant not to let me pass for that little indiscretion. Thank goodness i did not have to rejoin the queue to get it stamped - i would have missed the flight for sure.


New Delhi! At the Lal Qila (Red Fort)

Arriving in New Delhi at 1 in the morning was not fun - especially if you have to find a room in the labyrinth of snaking side streets that was Paharganj, the telephone and electric cables haphazardously dangling overhead successfully adding to the claustrophobic, slum-like, "i hate this place" feel. Throw in gangs of touts that drag you around literally, and numerous operators posing as "Govt. approved" tour agencies and telling you "don't worry, you are safe here. You don't go out now and find room, very dangerous here. The people, the rob you... I have room here, you see, you like, i book for you... " And invariably, these rooms cost above 10 dollars for a fleapit (shared baths). And someone tried to sell me a train ticket to Amritsar, 2nd class seater, for 57 USD. I bought it the next day at the New Delhi Railway Station, right across the street, for 12 dollars.

Hence it was no surprise that I didn't stay in New Delhi for long - well, actually long enough to fall sick and hate New Delhi even more after having some insanely sweet and deep-fried bright-orange jalebis (Jalebi Walla - Bollywood stars supposedly send their reps here to "pack")and paranthas for dinner at Chandni Chowk. Gah. Feeling sick i boarded the evening Shatabdi to Amritsar, which was excellent really - good, plush, clean reclining seats to sink into and almost too much legroom, and was even more pleasantly surprised when i was served tea, followed by dinner, dessert, and supper. Amritsar was great - generally it was less chaotic, and there were great shops along Nehru shopping complex for one to fall sick in (im not sure if the kind staff at Cafe Coffee Day remember the sickly looking young traveller who sat beside the toilet (very clean) for easy access and ordered copious amounts of hot lemon tea. I spent most of my sick days there, writing in my journal and reading. Punjab also had more than her fair share of creameries AKA "milk houses" which sold ice cream and other treats, and cafes and restaurants for road weary travellers seeking to escape the daily routine of naan, roti, chapati, dhosai and dhaal curries. It was a welcome break from the stresses (and shocks) of travel in Uttar Pradesh (affectionately UP), India's most populous (and by far most chaotic) state. And that's not even talking about the main attraction yet, the Golden Temple, Sikkhism's holiest shrine. It was lovely - and so was the Amritsar's affable and friendly turban-clad, Sikh population. I took a side trip from here to the border bravado ceremony at Attari-Wagah - one of the highlights of my trip. It was unbelievable - the theatrics and exaggerations that border on parody.

Spent a good few days around Amritsar - named after the pool of nectar (Amrit Sarovar) that surrounds the Golden Temple exploring museums and learning about Punjab's great one-eyed Sikh leader, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who greatly expanded Punjab's borders into Afghanistan. And feeling better i made the trip back to Delhi (transit only) to catch the train to Agra. My transit day in Delhi went well enough - i dropped by the Gandhi Museum at Raj Ghat and paid tribute to the great man, and hailed an autorickshaw to Humayun's tomb, set in stunningly, painstakingly revived Mughal-style gardens of the brightest greens and brilliant blue waterways that run through the garden, and the buttery yellow blooms and flowers. If you have time for only one sight in Delhi, then this is the place to be. After Delhi i took the 645 a.m. train to Agra Cantonment station, staying up to catch the rather staid football match that was the Champions League finals - and almost missed the train in the process, falling asleep during the seocnd half.

*To be continued - pics coming up soon...*

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Indian summer - its been 3 months

whew! its been 3 months. Looking back at my posts ive been struck by the fact that most of them were literary equivalents of cups of stale tea. So this little writing exercise has come to a kind of crossroads, i guess, to be honest. To continue with the pretence of writing interesting prose or to just leave it and hopefully come back another day feeling more inspired.

3 months of life has just trickled by, and i feel ive done quite alot in that time, my life changing that little, barely discernible bit, criss crossing India on trains, running after them at stations when they start chugging off before i have bought my paratha/pakoda and chai at regular stopovers, becoming quite an expert at reading tickets, waitlists and schedules... climbing into glaciers (4300m) and over frozen waterfalls and landslides in Nepal, and slacking off on teh tarek and late breakfasts and suppers (Ramlee burgers, tandoori chicken - now thats something that stirs memories of India - to be exact, weirdly, i think of eating dinner on the rooftop of the Shanti Guesthouse in the Taj Ganj at Agra, looking out at the milky dome of the Taj Mahal in the orange sunset dotted by kites flown by young boys on the rooftops of the multi coloured sprawl of houses linked by wooden planks and tarpaulins, the evening soon giving way to night, the Taj draped in it, mysterious and cool, sitting as silently and as regally as ever in the distance.)

What a 3 months those had been, now that i'm back and just going through all the photos, ticket stubs, and assorted memorabilia. I get quite a kick still, a hangover from travelling i guess, cleaning out my boots, sorting out the laundry and popping out to the photoshop to get my pics developed and waiting excitedly for them to be done...

And theres also getting ready to start the new term, checking my registered courses (the registration exercise was quite a pain to do (involving an ambulance) when you are in the middle of nowhere in Nepal and internet costs 5 USD per hours at crawling speed, moving back to dorm, buying school and cooking supplies (saving up for my year end jaunt - Iran???) - its much cheaper to cook, and also obviously much cheaper to "import" fresh from JB into Singapore each week (i do my grocery shopping in JB)...

Almost 11,000 km and back, climbing to 4,300 metres, travelling on plane, bus, autorickshaw, cyclerickshaw, foot, bicycle, train, car, motorcycle, dugout canoe, jeep, and ambulance (! - its kind of a long story). Its a new start for me i guess, somehow, my life has changed that little bit, and i can just feel it. And its not even four more months to the next trip.

Friday, 2 May 2008

Destination Laos: Part 25 "Boy you are Malaysian ah?"


Bumped into this old hippie who just sat there quietly with his Beerlao watching me and the Israeli Amid have a dinner of baguette, spring rolls, a big bag of vermicelli which we ate using his metal spoon bought from the the Chiang Mai night market - of which he had a long story to tell, and piping hot Lao coffee with milk in the night market, seated on the raised wooden platforms of the night market, which served as stalls earlier in the evening.

He whispered "Boy, you are Malaysian ah" out of the blue (we had thought he was Lao) in his raspy, sandpaper voice, from which one could hear the years of experience and travelling, which also evident in his appearance. Dressed simply in an old shirt, unbuttoned, shorts, and flipflops, he just sat down with his can of beer, smiling serenely and returning our sabaidees.


Apparently he was one of them hippies who plied the Hippie Highway from Oz to London, him making his way on a ferry from Penang Island in Malaysia bound for Madras, India, before making it to Italy overland, working when he ran out of cash. It was 4 years later before he finally went home to Malaysia.

He said he had worked as an actor in Italy, acting in stage productions. "Perlakon (Malay for actor)", he intoned when i couldn't catch him when he whispered "actor", or maybe because i was actually coming to terms with this chance encounter with a fellow Malaysian backpacker in a marketplace in Laos.


An old hippie, a fellow solo traveller, an aged vagabond, who probably have seen it all, just sitting down sipping his beer with no hurry and watching the world go by. He probably saw in me himself some 40 years ago, as i did see in him as possibly what i would be like in 40 years.

The irony of the situation (or is it fate) is that now, as i'm typing this entry, i'm headed the same way, to Madras, now Chennai, a booming industrial city from the sea port of the British colonial empire, newly independent, 40 years ago.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Destination Laos: Part 24 Caves and Waterfalls



Pak Ou Caves - disappointing, nothing special, the morning boat ride down the Mekong was fun though (2 hours going - just to see a cave!, and another one and half back), chugging down the muddy and languid waters of the Mekong, wondering if there were any monstrous catfish or head-sucking nagas (seriously, locals tell tales of drowned corpses with shrivelled heads sucked clean) prowling its depths. The water was brown, the boat didn't look all that safe, tendrils of mist still clinging on to the thickly forested mountains on both banks on a chilly December morning, with the occassional farm and people working on them. It got me thinking about the nagas quite a lot.

Above: Nagas and monstour catfish lurk (probably. A result of a wandering mind as does occur when one has to seat on a small seat for 2 hours on a boringly cold December morning.)

Saw the (in)famous speedboats headed downriver - crazy fast, but probably crazy dangerous as well. Why else do you think they hand out crash helmets to passengers in a country where attitude towards transport safety can be described as cavalier at best? It makes me wonder.


The Kuang Si waterfalls were much better - and I shall let the pictures do the talking. Caught a glimpse of the "mascot" of the park on the way back - Phan, who just ambled over to where we were and sat down for photos. He's a tiger, by the way.




The park, in which the falls are located, is scenic, with benches and rest areas. Really atmospheric waterfall, spectacularly landscaped, as if one was uprooted from the tame surroundings of the park and transported into deep unexplored tropical jungle. Multitiered, cool turquoise pools fed into a river, and lush vegetation surrounding it. The only flipside to an awe-inspiring sight was the crowds. But what did i expect yea? When some place gets discovered, and some place as beautiful as this, you'd expect people to follow. Would have been amazing discovering this for yourself, say trekking through the jungle, stopping dead in your tracks and just going wow.






Tiger tiger burning bright - Phan poses for a photo

Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Thanks mummie! =P

haha, my mom just linked me to a very enlightening website on train travel in India. It's here for all you train junkies who're headed my way. Really excellent and some hard-to-find info about train travel in an amazing range of countries. To be precise, from Andorra to Zimbabwe, literally not figuratively. Plus recent pictures on what the trains and carriages really look lie. Just that the text is a bit on the small side - well at least it looks small on my laptop...

My gear is sorted - same old trusty 30 litre Deuter backpack, basically the same kit as Laos, minus a few shirts and pants, more socks and with one more money pouch (the decoy) as i'm carrying more cash now. And (hopefully) one more ATM card from my friendly local bank that i'm gonna process tomorrow.

So that leaves planning. lol. I'm going to have to start putting it out on paper real soon (7 more days!) - right now its bits and pieces swimming around, somewhere, in my mind. Roughly Chennai to Pondicherry and back, then by train to Kochi in Kerala, then a pitstop at Mangalore before continuing upwards to Margao in Goa. Detour to Hampi after that, and then back on the west coast up to Mumbai, don't know if i can fit in a sidetrip to the Ajanta caves here, we'll see. After Mumbai it's to the desert state of Rajasthan where mughals once reigned in mighty fortresses, with a pitstop at Ahmedabad before taking a bus to Udaipur then Jaisalmer. From there i'm making for Delhi, and a quick jaunt up to Attari for the border closing and maybe spending a short time at McLeod Ganj.

It already seems like a lot to cover in a month and a half. Think i might have to cut down on some sights already.... But on paper at least, after going back to Delhi i'll be heading to the Taj Mahal at Agra, then Khajuraho and Varanasi before going north and crossing the India-Nepal border at Lumbini.

Crossing into Nepal what i have in mind is going to Lumbini for a few days before making for Pokhara and possibly doing an apple pie trek there (Annapurna on the mind) - it's a toss up between this and EBC (Everest Base Camp). Pokhara to Kathmandu by bus, flying into Lukla still on the cards if doing EBC, and maybe scheduling some paragliding or white water rafting nearby. Royal Chitwan if possible, heard this one is rated quite highly by travellers. Then it's another adventure in sunny Thailand =) flying from Kathmandu to Bangkok and possibly get beached out/spend the last of my rupees/baht before getting on that plane home.

Sounds like a great time.

Destination Laos: Part 23 Misty Morning in Luang Prabang

Misty morning in Luang Prabang, looking across the Mekong Nam.

French baguette spread with Laughing Cow cheese, stuffed with canned ham, strips of carrots and cucumbers and finished off with a dollop of ketchup before it is packed tightly with a rubber band in paper and plastic bag. Breakfast, sitting on the pavement's edge right in front of the night market in the middle of Luang Prabang, next to the post office, another French colonial leftover. Watching frangipani trees shed their blooms onto the floor - no surprise its the Lao national flower (named Champa) as i later found out back home surfing the net, and the odd tuk tuk and moto going by, mostly carrying the local women going to the market this early in the morning, with rattan baskets of vegetables balanced precariously on their vehicles.

Above: Moving out of the Phakam, a nice quiet place to stay tucked in a residential suburb


I enjoy watching package tourists, from my seat on the pavement across the road from some hotels which obviously i would never afford. At about 7 a.m. the deluge of them came down hunting for food. They remind me of the follies and petty grievances of the life i all but left behind the moment i got off that plane - trying to bargain and "show who's boss" when buying a 9,000 kip baguette, for instance, and rudely shoving their cameras into everyone's faces as if they were but exhibits.

Above: Rain-drenched alley that comes to life at night as a local market selling an amazing array of food and snacks.

The reason i was up and about early that day was due to my eviction from the Phakam, as rhey were already fully booked for today. Did make a reservation at the Oudomphone for the night, the elderly owner promising me a choice of rooms 4 or 10 - either one would do perfectly, but when i got back from the caves and waterfall, they "forgot" and i went room hunting for another night, this time with company though. 2 Canadians who spoke fluent Mandarin Chinese and an Israeli fresh off the Pak Beng boat formed the rather irritable foursome who skulked through almost all the alleys of Luang Prabang and, because of "contrarian theory" decided to look at our collective guidebooks to find the top listed places to stay and give those a miss to better our chances.

It wasn't much better. In the end, we split ways, me and the Israeli heading one way off Thanon Sisavangvong while the Canadians went the other, wishing each other good luck in our increasingly futile (and desperate) bid not to sleep on the streets of Luang Prabang, pretty though it was, for the night.

Finally, 17 dollars got me the last room at a restaurant-hotel. Le Tam Tam, i think it's called. Easily the most expensive place i've ever paid for in my travels (i'm cheap). Moving out tomorrow, and pre-emptivity and a better understanding of the mad scramble at 6 when the boats pull in from the Golden Triangle made me book (and damn well doubly triple confirm it) a bed at Levady's for the next 3 nights, where walking in i bumped into the Israeli, Amid again.



Above: One of the small joys of travelling - breakfast! It's always exciting and fun to wake up, wash up and then go downstairs looking for breakfast, seeing where the local people eat and occassionally joining them for a hot cup of tea/coffee and a chat. Or just sitting on one of those little plastic toy-like stools or nearby steps and benches to sample that exotic-looking, new food that you have never seen, much less tasted before, watching the world go by, your newly adopted country going about its daily business.

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Destination Laos: Part 22 Luang Prabang at night

Finally found a room at the Phakam Guesthouse after much walking around the riverside of Luang Prabang, where an eclectic mix of quaint old shophouses, local residences and dimly-lit eateries line the Mekong river, now draped in darkness, with the quirky odd guesthouse or chi-chi restaurant sandwiched in between, or even within these enclaves, with small wooden signs leading you into a narrow alley and up random flights of steps before you find that hidden place.

The whole effect was fantastic, surreal. It didn't feel like a tourist hub (which it is) at all, but rather very intriguingly and mysteriosuly beguiling, promises of finding some hidden place, some nice restaurant or a welcoming guesthouse aroud the corner, or in the midst of the cluster of Lao homes, if you would brave the barking dogs and follow the signs that seemingly lead you on a wild goose chase. All part of the fun - the journey, not the destination indeed. Very bohemian feel to it all. No crazy traffic, no ugly concrete monsters.

Also i'm thankful that Luang Prabang is not as cold as Phonsavanh - where else in Southeast Asia can you hear Canadians complaining about the cold? Leaving the frigid frontlines of Phonsavanh behind for 12 dollar a night, artistically and tastefully decorated (i'm tempted to call it boutique) rooms at the Phakam, with swoon-worthy spacious and spotless bathrooms and "no fail hot showers" as LP promises (ok alot of alliteration and feminine rhyme going on here - i noticed its a bit of a tongue twisting effort saying the above sentence but seriously it was that impressive), it was love at first sight. Ok, strike that. It was a very welcome change from the sand, cold and more cold which you would have noticed are the main adjectives for Phonsavanh.


Went wandering around the UNESCO World Heritage listed city after dumping my stuff at the Phakam. I remembered walking right past the Museum to go like - wow. The night market was really something really unexpected. I thought Luang Prabang was another of those over-hyped, tourist packed Disneylands. Boy was i wrong.


It was amazing. Tranquil and scenic, the neat rows of tungsten lamps running through the middle of the street providing the only illumination and a nice touch of surrealism. The quiet also made it otherwordly as traders sat cross legged on the floor beside their wares, whilst visitors strolled through the street market under the stars. The food is great too - had some cold, but nevertheless very good spring rolls from a side street vendor, with a few bags of condiments thrown in and really great coffee at 5,000 kip, served fresh in a bamboo cup with a cute little blue/pink/green plastic spoon.


Booked a tour to the Pak Ou caves followed by a trip to the Kuang Si waterfalls tomorrow, which from what i've heard from this South African dude in Phonsavanh was pretty amazing. The guy who sold me that tour - really friendly and wanted to learn some Mandarin Chinese from me. I ended up writing him his name in Chinese - Mr. Ah Loon, which he seemed really pleased with and he taught me some Laos in return - i can count from one to ten now! =)


So, first night in Luang Prabang. Hectic, finding a room at last, but fun nevertheless, and Luang Prabang really blew me away. Charmed. I haven't even seen the city by day yet - it must be stunning.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Random update 2: Neverending summer

India is right around the corner - 15 days, around 2 weeks before i will be in Chennai man, Madras. Can't believe it. On the road again, this time an almost neverending summer of 3 months - Seger's Kathmandu and my eclectic mix of travel songs (Simon and Garfunkel does bring back a lot of memories) getting me through...

2 more days to freedom - i can almost smell it =) That day i was making a list of things to do after the exams - where to eat, where to get my gear, maybe head back to my old school, meet up with a few friends i havent seen in half a year...

On the horizon - Spanish and Southeast Asian history papers - my fav! a result of flipping through the history section of Lonely Planet for like the hundreth time on those huge, kickass 12 hour rides across rural Southeast Asia. Finally seeing a tangible benefit of those long, bone rattling, butt breaking jaunts. Wednesday and Thursday evening papers, then i'm done. Free. Liberated. Emancipated. Right. =P

Monday, 14 April 2008

Random update 1

Sorry no updates for a while... Busy with exams... which will be over in exactly 241.5 hours as we speak.

Been watching the situation in Nepal, hope things will turn out ok. Also getting my pills for India - diarrhoea stopper, rehydration salts etc... A few long nights studying, aside from that surviving and just looking forward to going off in about 3 weeks.

Will have to sort out the travel insurance and money issues soon, and getting some stuff i.e. a flashlight that was confiscated by Singapore immigration and a money belt to act as a decoy, which i will stuff with many small notes and weird, fantastic stuff to make potential robbers think they've stumbled on treasure. And then, while they're bedazzled with their loot, make my getaway. Yeah =) Travelling breeds resourcefulness, no? Like a certain Irish acquaintance who went around Romania (and much of Eastern Europe) with a syringe of Ribena (which was actually HIV infected blood, really) and waved it at any shifty characters that attempted to, ahem, separate him from his possessions when camping overnight outside the city.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Destination Laos: Part 21 Luang Prabang Weed

It's a Luang Prabang specialty, and no, it's not what you're thinking.

My weed is taking hours to arrive, and when it does i'm greeted by the sight of several pieces of dried, lightly fried pieces of weed, topped with sesame seeds. They're dry, slightly rough in teture, crispy, and taste, naturally, like grass. Interesting taste, but as i was keeping an eye on the budget (running a bit low), it was my main dish and quite naturally also, i got rather sick of it halfway through the enormous platter.

Weed, in case of any disambiguation still, is just that - weed. As in seaweed, but instead, in Luang Prabang, my first dinner is foraged from the depths of the Mekong River that flows right beside the eatery - which might explain the long time they took in serving up the dish. I highly suspect a recent voyage down the Mekong under the moonlight, to ensure the freshness of ingredients used in their food. Right.

Really though, fresh is an understatement of food served in the Lao PDR - I have had instances when i ordered food only for the cook to despatch her son/daughter to run to the nearby market to get the ingredients. Wow. I know i've gushed about Lao food before, but it really is all so sep lai (very delicious) and fresh and healthy.

Saturday, 5 April 2008

Destination Laos: Part 20 Road trippin' to Luang Prabang

After a while you'd find it amazingly funny that buses in Lao generally abide by a few rules - number one of which is never fill up before picking up the passengers, even if, in this classic example (parody) the kew lot mei (bus station) was right smack beside the petrol station.

Number 2 - expect, and be prepared for a lengthy breakdown by the roadside, more often than not in the middle of nowhere, mountains on one side and wild grass and trees growing untamed on the other. While it might be a very welcome toilet break at times, the moral of the story is still to bring some food and water on board, especially after dragging yourself, semi-awake, onto the bus after spending the night drinking Beerlao. Travel in the Lao PDR involves getting up early.

Number 3 - expect loads of stops to pick up people, animals and other things along the way to, um, maximise returns.

In accordance to all 3 rules, (picking up bed frames (!!!) this time - well, at least that's new) we finally rolled into Luang Prabang in the evening, sharing a sawngthaew into the city, dropping off near the JoMa bakery, where you'll find half the backpacker population of Luang Prabang in the morning.

Friday, 4 April 2008

More songs to travel to!

Kansas - Dust in the Wind
Steppenwolf - Magic Carpet Ride
Steppenwolf - Born to be Wild
Whitesnake - Here I Go Again on My Own
Bruce Springsteen - Born to Run
Led Zeppelin - Kashmir
John Mayer - No Such Thing
John Mayer - Route 66
Status Quo - The Wanderer
Green Day - Time of Your Life
Iggy Pop - I am a Passenger
Marty Robbins - King of the Road
Bob Seger - Kathmandu
Suede - Everything will Flow
Ricky Nelson - Travelin' Man

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Meeting the Gods of Poverty in a Dream

"The timbre of their flutes were quiet and calm, without a hint of envy and, contrary to what might have been expected, seemed richer than all the amusements of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune.


We are the Gods of Poverty, but why should we be ashamed in front of those Gods of good fortune? We, and they, all of us, have our own fates.

... Settle yourself into poverty, and not lose its pleasures, the gods of poverty will be joyful along with you.


Then what is the Greatest Happiness? To be without desire, and to know what is enough, to be perfectly fair and selfless, to entrust life to life and death to death and to be content in that return.


Not to envy wealth or honour, not to loath poverty and low birth, not to be obsessed by thoughts of the differences between happiness and anger or likes and dislikes, but rather following good and bad fortune, or prosperity and decline as one meets them, and calmly enjoying oneself in the midst of creation and change: This is the Greatest Happiness under Heaven."


"I envelope the Universe by means of my mind; and by means of the universe, there is nothing that obstructs my mind. Riches and honour, good luck and calamity are elsewhere.


When you seek after such things, you may obtain them or you may not - this is not something that is guaranteed. The Greatest Happiness is within yourself. If you seek your mind wholeheartedly, you will obtain it for sure. Simply, do not seek after illusion. "
- Issai Chozanshi, The Discourses

Saturday, 29 March 2008

Destination Laos: Part 19 On the Road (again)















On the road to Luang Prabang - have heard some good things from travellers coming the other way, so i was definitely looking forward to seeing the city. Met up with the Canadian guy and Dutch girl i met in the Plain of Jars - who had so kindly went to the morning market to buy breakfast for our road trip to Luang Prabang - we had fresh, lightly sugared baguettes, oranges, bananas, and even doughnuts for the 10 plus hour trip.


The sawngthaew we shared to the outlying bus station (4km away) was 5,000 kip each, a fair price which our driver quickly agreed to. Another thing i've come to notice and love about Laos - there is little bargaining and while you are almost always quoted falang prices, it remains very reasonable and fair to both parties.


Our ageing Hyundai bus was a blast from the past - I absolutely adored it. So very 80s, retro looking, a jolly shade of light green with red, yellow and blue stripes, very psychedelic indeed. To top it off, aces had been painted on the tyre guards, with a freshly plucked bunch of bright yellow wild flowers tucked into the front number plate for good luck - not very helpful afterall as we soon had a breakdown after the engine had barely warmed up.



The whole experience was dripping with reminiscences of Kerouac's On the Road - a very road trip experience with the gang from Phonsavanh bouncing merrily along at the back of the bus, rice sacks, green beans and all, breaking out the bread and passing bananas until the engine died some way out of town, disgorging everyone to the roadside where we went for toilet breaks, stretched and then sat around along the ditches that followed the "highway" until some Einstein could managed to repair the engine - i could never figure out how they do it. Some minor touches and kicking here and there and muttered curses, and there ya go, the engine roared back to life just as we were contemplating the possibility of spending the rest of the day stranded by the roadside telling jokes and getting bored of playing new card games of which rules were invented, forgotten and changed arbirtrarily every few turns.



Left: The mountain in full bloom - bright cheery yellow flowers growing wildly by the roadside.