Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, South Africa and Zanzibar 2014

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                                                                             Our Itinerary

Wed 24/09/2014 Sydney 9.50am to Joburg 4.15pm
Thurs 25/09/2014 Joburg 10.40am to Bulawayo 12.05  Overnight train to Victoria Falls
Fri 26/09/2014 Victoria Falls
Sat 27/09/2014 Livingston
Sun 28/09/2014 Livingston
Mon 29/09/2014 Livingston to Lusaka
Tues 30/09/2014 Lusaka to Kapiri Mposhi 16.00 Tanzara train
Wed 1/10/2014 Tanzara train through Zambia
Thurs 2/10/2014 Tanzara train through Tanzania
Fri 3/10/2014 Tanzara train Dar Es Salaam to Zanzibar
Sat 4/10/2014 Zanzibar
Sun 5/10/2014 Zanzibar
Mon 6/10/2014 Zanzibar
Tues 7/10/2014 Zanzibar
Wed 8/10/2014 Zanzibar
Thurs 9/10/2014 Zanzibar 5.35am to Joburg 11.50am
Fri 10/10/2014 Joburg 6.15pm
Sat 11/10/2014 Sydney 3.05pm

Tuesday 23rd September, 2014        Newcastle to Sydney

At the dollies’ house at 5.30am then bring them home about seven o’clock. Mark goes into work – has a lot to get through before we leave on the train to Sydney this afternoon. It’s school holidays so Abi isn’t at preschool. I take them to Gregson Park for an hour then to Woolworths to pick up some food for the train and the plane – potato chips and mandarins. Abi wants to see Pa so we drive into JSA but he’s out meeting someone.

Back home Elkie wants to climb the stairs as usual and Abi has the ipad up in Angie’s room with the door shut. I hear a big bang and she yells out – ‘ebwryfing’s fine up here Ma’. I ask her what the noise was and she says it was Elkie’s high chair. I ask her if she’s been climbing on it – ‘No Ma. It just felled over’ – so cute.

Lauren picks them up about 1.30pm and I get stuck into the housework ready for Al who’s minding the house and our cats while we’re away. Mark comes home about three o’clock and helps with the final packing. We drive both cars to Lauren’s to park in their driveway. We have last minute kisses and cuddles before they drive us to Broadmeadow Station at 4pm. So hard to leave our three beautiful girls. Just hope Lauren is okay.

Arrive at Central Station about seven o’clock then catch another train to St James. From here we cross Hyde Park to Jillian’s then the three of us walk up to the Fitzroy for too many drinks – a good night. Mark and I sleep on the lounge because Tam and Isaac are still living here after their time in Laos. Woken by a cat walking on us and the other one going ballistic on the carpet – pretty funny.

Wednesday 24th September, 2014         Sydney to Johannesburg

Wake at 5.30am – say goodbye to Isaac who’s going for his usual early morning bike ride but Jillian and Tam are still in bed by the time we leave at 6.15am. Walking across Hyde Park this early is really lovely then we catch the airport train to the international terminal. It’s quick checking in our bags but immigration takes a while – lots of passengers going through.

I line up at the Tourist Refund Scheme to get money back for our camera and video camera that we bought a few weeks ago after both of them died while we were in Bali in May. At McDonalds we have breakfast while watching heaps of planes landing and taking off – always busy at this time of day. While Mark minds the bags I wander off to buy two bottles of duty free Bacardi and look at watches for ages but decide I like mine more than any of them and I don’t need one anyway. A nice way to pass the time, though.

We ring Lauren – Abi tells us that she had ‘the most tewible dweam in the whole world’ – all her preschool girlfriends had Elsa capes on but she didn’t have one – a nightmare for a three year old dolly. Lauren is taking them to Westfield today for a Frozen concert so Abi is really excited – Pelkie is too little to know yet. I ring Jackie, my darling sister – she doesn’t like us going away since Mum and Dad aren’t here anymore – I know how she feels. I miss ringing them like I always did at the last minute and at every stop along the way. No matter how happy I am, there’s always a sadness here deep in my heart – my little one and my beautiful mum and dad.

We board at 9.30am and take off a bit late at ten thirty. Because we’re with Qantas for a change we’ve got a bit more leg room than on the budget planes we’ve been travelling on for the last few years. But then Mark’s headrest keeps falling off and the same thing happens to the guy sitting in front of him. Maybe the budget panes aren’t that bad after all. The air steward is really funny but can’t fix them as they don’t have a Phillips-head screw-driver on board – ha ha.

Mark is in an aisle seat while I’m in the middle with a nice young black guy next to the window. I don’t get to talk to him as he has music earphones in the whole trip. We do share chocolates and mandarins though. Lunch is really nice with a champagne for Mark and a Bacardi for me – both pop a Temazapam to get some sleep. No luck probably because it’s a daytime flight and we’re not tired anyway. We do get the odd snooze but that’s it for the whole trip. But because it’s Qantas we have individual television screens so we both watch movies and tv shows to pass the time.

After eight hours we can see thick white ice floating down below us – very spectacular as we’re flying close to Antarctica. A lot of other people are up the back of the plane to look out the windows near the toilets and I chat for ages to a young South African boy called Frankie.

After fourteen hours we land at Johannesburg’s Tambo Airport at 4pm South Africa time. The landing is very rocky which makes both of us sick on the stomach and I’ve got a headache. First time I’ve ever felt air sick but it disappears within minutes. The terminal is a new one since we were here in 2007 – built in a sort of spiral around a central three storey hole. Mark gets money from an ATM (10 ZAR – Rand – to 1AUD) while I confirm tickets for our Bulawayo flight tomorrow.

Now we hang out near the Information Desk as I received an email from Mbizi Backpackers yesterday to say that someone will meet us here at 5 o’clock. We decided to book a cheap place (Mbizi Backpackers) near the airport as we’re leaving tomorrow morning on another flight. Lots of people are standing around holding up boards with passengers’ names on them so I do a continual circuit seeing if anyone has our names written down. Considering the groovy website and the Mbizi name, I’m looking for a trendy black guy with long dreds

But after half an hour I ask the lady on the desk if anyone is here from Mbizi. A young white guy standing right next to me pipes up, ‘thet’s me’ – wtf? How was he ever going to find us and vice versa. He tells us to follow him to the carpark where a pock-faced man called Patrick is waiting in an old car. Apparently the boy is Kevin, his son, who Patrick is training up to look after the backpackers so he and his girlfriend can go on a holiday. Kevin looks unimpressed to say the least – looks like a spoilt preppie type who probably lives with Mummy. So much for getting picked up by a Bob Marley look-alike.

And the drive from the airport reminds us of how much we hated Johannesburg last time. Even here on the outskirts, it’s an ugly, boring, dry city with a shanty town of poor black people just near the airport. Along the way we also see black locals selling badly-made wooden tables and chairs and old tyres fashioned into animal shapes.

Patrick talks the whole way telling us how much he hates the Nigerians – ‘all bastards’ – because he’s been caught with them booking rooms at the backpackers then never turning up. What happens is they pay the 10% deposit so they get a printout to show immigration that they’ve got somewhere to stay but then piss off as soon as they land. Even so, it’s a bit hard to feel sorry for Patrick. ‘I can’t like him’ as Abi used to say.

The backpackers is in the suburb of Boxsburg (even hate the name) and really just a house with a tall electrified fence and on a wide, empty main road. Inside, though, we like it a lot better – painted in the brightest colours – every room different. Our orange bedroom is comfy and the toilet and bathroom is just across the hallway. Patrick shows us where we can make breakfast in the morning and takes us out to the bar/chill-out area in the back. But first we’re starving and, predictably, they don’t serve food here – a crappy place – so we have to walk a mile away to a daggy complex of rundown shops to buy Chinese. The woman serving us is a cranky slllll…ut (as Lauren would say) and the Pinball place across the road has a sign that says ‘No Dangerous Weapons, No Firearms, No Drugs’. Seriously, who’d live in this shithole of a country?

Back at Mbizi we eat out near the bar – food is ok but doesn’t taste like Chinese what the hell is that all about? Mark stays up to have a few beers with Patrick and a few other backpackers but I’m too tired to drink and go to bed. After a good sleep I wake thinking it’s morning but it’s still only 11.30pm – jet lag! Both wake again at 1am – bonk – then again (not the bonk bit) at 5am to the noise of other people leaving.

Thursday 25th September, 2014       Johannesburg to Bulawayo to Victoria Falls

Today is the first real day of our holiday and the adventure starts with a morning flight to Bulawayo in Zimbabwe – formerly called Rhodesia. At six o’clock we have showers and Mark makes breakfast of tea, coffee and toast. The weather is beautiful without a cloud in the sky so we sit in the sun outside. Here we get a text from Lauren showing us a video of Abi singing ‘Let It Go’ on the stage at Westfield. We’re sooooo proud and both cry. Our dear little one. She looked nervous but she sang it right through.

Last night Mark had arranged with Patrick for someone to pick us up at 8.15am to take us to the airport. It’s nice waiting in the sun in the front garden but we finally realise our lift isn’t coming and ring Patrick on his mobile. He stumbles out the door still half asleep – not a good look – and rings his driver. ‘They’re all bloody hopeless’, he says.

In fifteen minutes a taxi pulls up at the gate and we’re soon speeding towards the airport with Matthew, a lovely black man, who tells us that he’s taking over from his friend who couldn’t make it for some reason. He tells us that his twenty-three year old brother was car-jacked and murdered two weeks ago. The police haven’t caught the guys who did it. Very typical of Johannesburg which has the honour of being called the ‘murder capital’ of the world.

At nine o’clock Matthew drops us at Tambo’s departures drop-off area. After checking in our bags and passing through immigration, we wander around the shops then have an orange juice and a coffee. As we noticed last time we were here, it’s black people doing the selling and waiting on tables while the white people are on the cash registers – I don’t think we’re imagining this.

A minibus takes us to our South African Airways plane which is sitting out on the hot tarmac – a friendly group of people. Most of the black men are wearing cheap, daggy suits and the ladies are wearing nylon wigs – must be very hot and a possible reason for the body odour – NOT being racist, just a fact. At 10.50am we take off for the short one hour flight. Lovely hostesses serve us chicken and pasta salad and drinks. There are spare seats so we both grab a window seat to watch the scenery below. Not that there’s much to see, just an endless expanse of dry brown land with a few green farms just out of Johannesburg.

We land at Bulawayo’s tiny airport at noon where we pay US $30 each for visas. We don’t need to get any cash as Zimbabwe uses US dollars which we’ve brought with us. I ask some airport staff about getting into town as we can’t see any taxis outside. They give us blank looks like they’ve never been asked that question in their lives – ha ha. Apparently there aren’t any buses either but Patricia, who works at the airport, says she’ll drive us. Just love it! Definitely in Africa!

Patricia is a plump, pretty Zimbabwean lady who never shuts up and tells us her whole life story on the thirty minute drive into town. She’s divorced and lives with her sister who minds her children. The road is flat and straight with barely another car and we like the look of Bulawayo from the start. The wide streets are lined with Jacarandas luckily blooming their purple flowers right now. There are some nice houses on the outskirts and lots of large stone British buildings in the centre. Even here the main streets are shaded by Jacarandas and we pass pretty parks and markets. There are lots of people around so it has a good vibe.

We’re catching the overnight train to Victoria Falls tonight so we need to get to the station to buy our tickets before we can do any sight seeing. Patricia drives us straight there and insists on coming in with us. We’re glad she does because the guys at the desk can’t speak much English and there seems to be a problem. After much talking between them, Patricia tells us that there isn’t a first class tonight, which we don’t care about, but that we can’t buy tickets yet because the train has just come in from Victoria Falls. Not sure why we can’t just get our tickets now but they keep promising her, ‘very soon’.

In the meantime we put our big packs in storage then wait another half an hour before they give her the nod. She also explains to them that we want to buy the whole carriage as second class holds four bunks and we’d rather be on our own. It takes a while for them to understand what we mean but soon we hand over the super-cheap sum of $30US. Not bad for a twelve hour trip with our own bunks. Patricia gives us big cuddles as a celebration and we give her toy koalas for her little boys.

Now she drops us in town before she heads back to the airport. We’re starving so we eat pizza in a sort of open-sided food hall packed with locals. All the women are wearing the awful nylon wigs and most of them have huge bums that stick right out – just an observation. In the streets men are selling spotty bananas – yes, Jule and Steve – from rough carts. It’s very busy but a nice sized city reminding us of big country towns at home with their wide streets and colonial buildings.

At the market I buy a pair of wooden ear-rings then we wander around a craft shop. Outside we catch a taxi to a restaurant we’ve read about in the Lonely Planet called 26 On Park. Oh, this is lovely. A long shaded driveway leads to a lovely old home with a wide green lawn surrounded by flowering gardens. There is a deep verandah with tables and chairs but we choose a table under the trees – cooler here.

The owner is Greg Friend who comes out to chat with us. He’s a white guy – haven’t seen any others since we flew in – and he gives us a history of the house which was built by Cecil Rhodes. He also talks about the history of Bulawayo and how screwed up the country is thanks to Robert Mugabe. He became president 1980 as the Zimbabwe’s first black leader. This might sound a good thing but he took over all white-owned commercial farms handing them over to the landless black Zimbabweans. But they had no idea about farming and just sold everything off so that there’s only one white farmer left around Bulawayo where before 1980 there were hundreds. It’s why the formerly agriculture-based economy collapsed and hasn’t recovered.

We spend the rest of the afternoon drinking lime sodas for me and about a hundred Hansa beers for Mark. He actually drinks them out of Hansa and has to swap to Mozambique Beer. For a while I hang out reading on a lounge inside and we use the wifi to get onto Facebook. Two obese ladies turn up in a taxi and order huge desserts and laugh their heads off.

Later we have dinner on the verandah as the sun starts to set through the trees. The food is excellent and we pay a lot (US $46) – fish, chips and salad for me and t-bone steak and vegetables for Mark. Bob Marley is playing somewhere inside and ‘No Woman No Cry’ makes me cry for my little one. I think it’s why I always like to be on the move. If I stop to think I get sad – can’t go there.

At six o’clock we get a taxi back to the station. It’s dark driving through town and I feel better and very excited to be catching the train.

At the station Mark gets our bags out of storage then we find our cabin. Very basic but we love it. Local people are walking along the platform carrying bags on their heads to the other end of the train and I chat with a guy who seems to be in the next carriage.

I’m feeling really tired so Mark makes up the bunks and we pull out our blankets and pillows that we always bring with us. Leaving Bulawayo is excellent with the open window keeping us cool and watching the town slip behind us. The train is definitely worse for wear though and is so noisy we can barely hear each other talk.

Despite the racket, we fall asleep pretty quickly but then we’re woken at 8.30pm by someone banging on the door – ‘tickets please’. The ticket guy is also accompanied by a funny guy hiring extra pillows, sheets and blankets so we pay for one set – only US$4.

We also ask about buying water as we’ve only got about a third of a small bottle left between us. Again we get a bewildered look and ‘water? No’. wtf? Hasn’t anyone ever wanted to buy water on this twelve hour trip? A definite opportunity here for someone to make a bit of money. And anyway, holy shit, we’re going to be dying of thirst by morning.

I take the top bunk because the lower one is wider for Mark. The temperature drops in the night but we’re cosy with all our blankets. I get up a couple of times to use the horrid loo. No water in the taps and I’m a bit scared that someone will grab me and throw me out the open doorway. I should wake Mark but he’s taken a sleeping pill and wearing ear plugs.

Later I wake up and can’t get back to sleep so I read by torchlight. We do have little lights above each bunk but predictably they don’t work.

Friday 26th September, 2014        Victoria Falls

We’re both awake at 5.30am so I squeeze in with Mark – more bonking – not easy on a rattley train.  The sun is just coming up and we’re pulling into the small station at Dete. We’re due to arrive in Victoria Falls in about an hour so we start getting our stuff organized. After half an hour we pull out of Dete only to return ten minutes later. The word goes out that we’ll be here till 9am as there’s a derailment just ahead.

No worries – we chat with a lovely black lady called Sylvia who is carrying her nine month old baby Cassandra on her back and a French guy called Floyd in the next cabin. Our water is gone but there isn’t anything to buy at the station. We ask if there’s a shop in town but they say ‘no’ – anyway we’re not game to walk over to the houses in case the train leaves.

Soon we leave Dete again, returning half an hour later. Apparently we’re just being shunted from one track to another so other trains can pass going in the opposite direction. The word now is that we won’t be getting to Victoria Falls till three o’clock this afternoon – eight hours late! Oh well, we’ve got plenty of time up our sleeves so there’s no great hurry to get there.

We sleep, read and talk to Floyd until we leave Dete for the last time. The scenery is constant – dry brown grass and spindly trees, round grass huts with pointy thatched roofs, cows pulling carts, antelopes and Mark even sees a group of people dancing in feathers and skins in the middle of nowhere. We see signs for elephants but only see some poo on the side of the track. Without any water my mouth is definitely tasting like elephant dung.

Later we stop at a station where we’re told to close the windows because the baboons will jump in and steal whatever they can get their little hands on.

Here we also say goodbye to Sylvia and where we see a tiny kiosk up on the embankment. They don’t sell water and the only liquids Mark can buy are two bottles of coke. No use to him with his diabetes though. I wander over to some village houses for a look where I see a local lady rushing towards me calling out ‘you want mineral water?’ – very happy to see that she’s carrying bottles of cold water in a bucket. We grab a couple each and I give the cokes to two young girls from the train.

At 2.45pm we pull into Victoria Falls, almost eight hours behind schedule. The station is cute with the grand colonial Victoria Falls Hotel just across the road. Seeing warthogs grazing around the grounds reminds us of Swaziland. We’d love to stay here but it’s way out of our budget. Anyway we know there are a few good backpacker places here with Shoestrings at the top of our list. Floyd from the train is planning to stay there tonight as well.

An old man is waiting on the platform and asks if we want a taxi. The main township isn’t far but our packs are too heavy so we jump in. We like the look of a couple of big hotels – very ‘African’ with soaring thatched roofs – but the shopping area is pretty ugly and the rest just souvenir shops. Every second place is a tourist agency advertising safaris, walking with the lions, helicopter rides, sunset cruises, rafting … You could spend a fortune in this place because nothing here is cheap.

Anyway, we jump out at Shoestrings only to be told that they only have dorm rooms left. We decide to try somewhere else first so we stop at the Victoria Falls Rest Camp where Julie and Steve stayed with Intrepid. Apparently this is popular with tour groups and they’re booked out as well.

Now our driver says he knows a better place – very clean and cheap. We drive way out of town to pull into a messy driveway with religious scenes and slogans painted all over the walls of the guesthouse. We don’t like the look of the white owner but say we’ll look at a room until he tells us it will be US $80 – no way!! ‘I can come down’ he whines – fuck off!!

It looks like a dorm at Shoestrings will have to do unless we can get a room at the Victoria Falls Backpackers. It’s a bit out of town but then town looks like a shit-hole anyway so we don’t need to be in walking distance. And joy of joys, they have a room and this place is lovely – very compact with cute cabins, an open-air kitchen, a chill out area and a pool. We’re soooo hot and can’t wait to get into the water.

A guy called John greets us and I ask about sunset cruises for today. He says we’ll need to be ready to get picked up at four o’clock so we’ll have to hurry. He now shows us the Zebra Room – very cute with a few even cuter outside bathrooms to choose from. Someone has gone to lots of effort to decorate the whole place and we feel very ‘on safari’. The reception is in a round hut with a tall pointed roof and just outside our room is a low stone wall surrounding a fire pit. And our room has two fans with mosquito nets – no air-con so we need to get in the pool fast. Yes I’m very happy. The water is perfect but we don’t stay in long as I want to wash my hair before we leave.

Right on four we meet a small van outside with only one other passenger – a strange little Australian guy wearing a hat and a scarf in this sweltering heat.  He’s a sort of Aussie version of Mr Bean and we feel sorry for him. We drive for about fifteen minutes further out of town to the edge of the Zambezi River where a small group of dancers are waiting to greet us. They’re all garbed out in grass skirts and playing traditional instruments. We get dragged in for a dance and photos – fun!

On the wooden wharf we have to pay US$10 each entry fee to the national park to add to the US $40 each for the cruise. But then we get any drinks we want and food as well – pretty cheap especially if we see some animals. The boat is wide and flat bottomed with plenty of cane tables and chairs. Mark and I grab a table right at the front next to the water where we’re presented with ‘welcome drinks’ – a lovely red and yellow colour and tastes good. Eventually the rest of the guests arrive – about thirty people in all – a table of French idiots, a big group of elderly Japanese (all little) and a lovely Canadian lady called Cheryl. She sits with us and is heaps of fun.

Besides the tourists, there’s a staff of eight including the captain who gives us a welcome talk before we set off. A few other boats are out on the water already – a couple of bigger two storey ones and some very little ones. Mark soon spots a white water bird and we imagine that this will be the extent of the wildlife.

But then suddenly we’re speeding towards the south bank where we can see an elephant down by the water. Now we’re speeding off in the other direction – hippos this time. A family of four with a couple of bubbas. Then we head towards the falls where more hippos are bobbing around. But the highlight is an elephant who comes down from the Zambian side and swims right across the river in front of us – great excitement!

Meanwhile we’ve been having free drinks and served lovely finger food. As the sun sets in a golden sky we have cups of tea and hot scones. I feel very Agatha Christie!

Before we disembark we have a ‘thank you’ talk from the captain who hints that we might like to give a donation for the crew – another $10. We talk to the funny Aussie guy on the way back then get dropped off at the Rest Camp in the dark. We want to have dinner at In Da Belly Restaurant which is inside the Camp and recommended by Lonely Planet. It’s a nice open-sided place with the usual thatched roof but horrible orange plastic chairs inside – a definite design flaw, ha ha.

The whole place is filled with tour groups which makes us glad to be on our own. For $18 we have a horrible crocodile curry (Mark) and tomato soup (me) with two beers and a coke. While we wait for our food we use their wifi and see photos of our girls at Oakdale Farm.

At the main gate we ask about getting a taxi so one of the guys takes off on a pushbike into town to find one for us. Both exhausted, we’re in bed by 8 o’clock. We wake at 2.30am so I ring Lauren – 10.30am at home.

Saturday 27th September, 2014         Victoria Falls to Livingstone

I can’t get back to sleep after talking to Lauren so I read till 5.30am then wide wake again an hour later. Mark has been up already – showered and shaved and looks especially handsome.

Before breakfast we ask John at the desk about booking a helicopter ride later today and about getting to the Falls this morning. He organizes a flight for 2 o’clock costing US$130 each. This is very extravagant for us but we’ve never been in a helicopter and this is probably one of the best places in the world to do it. And it’s on our ‘bucket list’ as well.

Now for breakfast around the fire pit. There aren’t many people around as most have already left for safaris etc. We order tea, coffee, toast, tomatoes and eggs and talk to Dennis the white owner. He’s an engineer and was born here in Zimbabwe. He’s rightfully worried about the economy and the political situation.

To put it mildly, the country is fucked. There’s rampant inflation, critical food and fuel shortages as well as terrible poverty and unemployment. And with dickheads like Mugabe running it there won’t be any relief from more political troubles. Makes our politicians look okay – jokes, but okay.

Later Dennis introduces us to Dufus, a strange long necked figure carved out of wood and supposed to be Dennis himself. He takes photos of us with our camera and asks us to put it up on you tube or something – not!

Now, because we’ll be leaving for Zambia this afternoon, we have to check out of our room and leave our packs near reception. John calls us a taxi and now we’re off for Victoria Falls!

At the entrance we pull into a car park lined with market stalls selling the same, same wooden giraffes, elephants etc. A group of men in animal skins and carrying spears are doing a native dance and baboons are going mental bonking each other in the trees opposite.

Mark pays the US$30 entry fee each then we read some of the info and maps on the walls inside. Now we set off through the trees where we can hear the roar of the Falls. Our first glimpse is amazing with even better views as we walk to all sixteen viewpoints along a network of paths that allows us to see them from every angle. The Falls are an incredible 1708 metres wide – the world’s largest curtain of falling water.

The paths are through a true rainforest with the heat and humidity intense. We’re both wet caused by the ‘rain’ sprayed from the Falls twenty four hours a day even in the dry season. It’s almost the dry season now so it must be extra amazing during the wet months from February to May. But apparently because there’s so much water crashing over the edge, the spray is so thick you can’t even see the Falls.

On opposite bank of the Zambezi are the Zambian viewpoints but we’ve read that we can see most of the Falls from the Zimbabwean side so we probably won’t bother. In some sections the sunlight passing through the spray creates beautiful rainbows and we can see people way, way down below doing the very popular white water rafting trips. It’s supposed to be very dangerous here so we’re glad to have the excuse of leaving this afternoon.

Back near the entrance we find a tall statue – Mark says ‘Dr. Livingstone, I presume.’  This is what Henry Stanley said to David Livingstone after he’d been searching for him for four years. Info is that Livingstone disappeared while looking for the source of the Nile – he didn’t find it, by the way. But what he did find was Victoria Falls which is why his statue is here – get it?

Near the main gate we sit in the open-sided Rainforest Café for cold soda waters then find a taxi in the car park opposite to take us back into town. We want to check out the main township but we don’t think we’ll be there too long – looks small and very touristy.

As it happens, we’re right. Just shop after shop selling souvenirs and tours but nice enough anyway. We find Mama Africa in a little dusty side street which is a restaurant we’ve seen recommended somewhere. It’s a colourful, laid back place and very ‘African’. We sit on a side verandah overlooking the little outdoor area. The temperature outside is stinking hot but it’s nice and cool in here. And the food is great – a spicy African hotpot for Mark and a club sandwich and salad for me.

Now we catch another taxi back to the backpackers where we set ourselves up in hammocks under the trees. We read, doze and have cold drinks for a couple of hours while we wait for our helicopter guy to pick us up. At two o’clock he’s on time and we meet another passenger called Greg, a very serious, macho looking guy in safari clothes who looks like he wrestles wild animals for a living.

We drive for about twenty minutes out of town through the dry savanna that we’ve become used to seeing by now. We bump our way along rough dirt tracks to the heliport which we’re hoping isn’t an old shack in the bush run by a couple of black guys. No offence but Mark said if it’s a black pilot he’s not going. We’re both worried about the flight no matter who’s flying it and we mouth ‘I’m scared’ to each other.

Very relieved to see that the heliport is new and impressive which should probably mean that the helicopter is also new and well maintained.  We’re also relieved that the guys running the show are white and so is the pilot – British actually. Again no offence to black people but safety doesn’t seem to be a high priority in most third world countries and we don’t want to die just yet.

Inside we’re greeted by a sweet girl who gives us forms to fill in – you know, scary things like ‘next of kin’ – wtf? We also meet Sally and Elizabeth who’ll be our flying companions. Glad to hear that they’re helicopter virgins as well and look suitably as nervous as we are. One guy comes to whisper that we’ve all been up-graded to a twenty two minute flight but not to tell the people waiting for the next one. I’m not sure if getting an extended time is a good thing or not.

We‘re given safety instructions and told to run in a sort of squatting position to the chopper that’s revving up on the helipad. We all put on headphones so we can hear our driver who introduces himself as Ben. Funny to find out that macho Greg is also a helicopter virgin and looks shit scared – ha ha.

The lift-off is surprisingly smooth and we’re soon flying over the town and the Falls. It’s the only way to really understand the amazing river system.

Looking downstream we can see the zigzag of the gorges and upstream the wide Zambezi River as it meanders towards the huge drop. The river itself is dotted with hundreds of islands and we can see elephants in the national park.

The flight takes us over the Falls several times in both directions. The pilot banks the helicopter as we circle so we can see right into the chasm. It’s all very interesting but I start to get bored and still a bit worried about crashing so I’m glad when it’s time to head back.

Sally and Elizabeth return to town with us and we drop them off first. Next we drive way out of town in the opposite direction to take Greg to his lodge – a very creepy safari looking place perched on a hill sitting in the middle of nowhere.

Back in town we ask our friendly driver to stop at an ATM then on to the Victoria Falls Hotel where we plan to have high tea – one of the must-do things here.

The hotel is a grand Edwardian place built in the early 1900’s when Cecil Rhodes famously attempted to link Cape Town to Cairo by rail. The entrance is surrounded by tropical gardens, lily ponds and century-old shade trees. And there are warthogs grazing around just outside the main door. Here we’re greeted by a tall, black doorman wearing badges all over his jacket. He’s a natural comedian and promises to store our bags and arrange transport to take us to Livingstone in an hour.

Now we follow him to the Stanley Terrace overlooking a wide lawn with a panoramic view of the Victoria Falls Bridge. And the high tea is perfect – only $30 for the two of us. We have bite-sized sandwiches, an assortment of little cakes and tarts and, of course, scones with jam and cream. I cock my little pinky finger to drink my tea – another Agatha Christie moment.

Afterwards we walk around the gardens then check out the hotel itself. In the lounge area a local man wearing a white suit is playing a grand piano to add to the posh atmosphere. The décor is very traditionally English with brocade lounges, fringed lamps, potted palms and animal heads on the walls.

Outside we’re met by a sweet man called Oliver who will drive us to the border. Passing through the outskirts of town we now come to the famous Victoria Falls Bridge which crosses the Zambezi River just below the Falls. As the river itself is the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia, the bridge links the two countries and has border posts on the approaches at both ends.

First we go through immigration at the Zimbabwe post where we’re tested for the Ebola virus that’s currently sweeping through West Africa. It’s already killed thousands of people so all African countries are on high alert. One of the symptoms is a temperature so we all get zapped by a sort of laser on our foreheads to see if we’ve got a fever. All clear so we jump back in the van with Oliver to cross the bridge.

On the Zambia side we have to go through their immigration which also means paying $50 US each for visas. Here Oliver hands us over to Nyambe who says ‘You can call me God’. We move our packs into our new van as a warthog wanders across the border.

God is another funny guy and keeps us laughing all the way to Livingstone which is only about a fifteen minute drive. On the way he stops so we can walk down to the Zambezi which is looking lovely as the sun drops towards the horizon.

Arriving in Livingstone we can see that’s it’s a much nicer town than Victoria Falls. The main street is extra wide with a few attractive Edwardian buildings lining the road. We head straight for the Jolly Boys Backpackers where I’d booked a room this morning. It’s a ‘jolly’ looking place behind a tall, bright yellow brick fence. Guards on the gate let us through into a pretty leafy area. This leads to the pool which has sun lounges and wooden picnic tables under shady trees. This is amazing! There’s also a bar where we can buy food and a couple of chill-out areas where young backpackers are lounging around on floor cushions. Everyone is on their ipads which means wifi! The reception is colourful with two young girls booking people in – very glad that we booked ahead.

Our room – the Rhino Room – is excellent – very African with our own bathroom and a verandah outside – perfect except for the single beds and no way can we push them together.

Now Mark wanders downtown to find an ATM while I transfer photos from the camera to the laptop. We can’t be bothered going anywhere tonight so we order food from the bar and, of course, lots of drinks. All very nice except for the never-ending Jesus music and sermons that are blaring all over town – shut the fuck up!!

Hang out getting pissed in the chill-out pit then bed at 8 – a great day!!

Sunday 28th September, 2014      Livingstone

Wake at 2.30am – still out of whack with sleeping times – then fall asleep till eight o’clock. Mark has been up since 6.30am – showered and reading in bed. We eat breakfast – baked beans and cheese on toast, tea and coffee – sitting at one of the long picnic tables then hang out on cushions on the verandah. We manage to upload lots more photos onto Facebook and see pictures of Lauren and our bubbas – they make us soooo happy.

The girls at the desk tell us how to get to the bus station as we want to book tickets for Lusaka tomorrow. We also book a safari for 2.30pm since we’ve decided to stay here again tonight.

Now we head off past the church – still singing and broadcasting sermons at full blast – while lots of people in their Sunday best are milling around outside. And, because it’s Sunday, the streets are quiet and all the shops and businesses closed. It’s more lively near the bus station with lots of stalls selling drinks and food for the passengers. Mark lines up to book two Business Class tickets for Lusaka at eight in the morning. The Business Class tickets are $25 for the two of us for the six and a half hour trip.

From here we walk past the market selling fruit and vegetables, dried fish, blankets, horrible clothes as well as the awful nylon wigs all the ladies wear. We notice that every second shop is an auto repair place – not surprised considering the state of the cars.

At a supermarket across from the backpackers we buy drinks, chips and a Magnum that’s so melted I literally have to drink it from the pack.

Back at Jolly Boys we spy Floyd from the Bulawayo train and give him a wide berth. He’s holding fort with some other poor backpackers – will talk their ears off. We rest in the cool of our room after the long hot walk then lie around on the verandah cushions to order lunch – chicken wraps. We’re still hot so we have a swim in the lovely pool then get ready for our safari.

At 2.30pm we’re met by a smiling man called Oliver who takes us to our open-sided ‘safari’ truck. Luckily we’re the only passengers so we pick good seats which will give us the best views of all the ‘wild amiyals’, as Abi would say. We fly out of town getting almost blown out of the truck then turn off after five kilometers. We stop first at a lovely resort right on the Zambezi River where we follow Oliver upstairs to pay for the safari. Now we’re on our way to the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, itself running alongside the river. Because it’s only sixty six square kilometers there aren’t any predators – big cats, that is – because they’d eat all the other animals.

Oliver tells us all this at the entrance gate and promises he’ll do his best to find us lots of animals. Firstly we see a family of warthogs then antelope, impala, bush bucks, baboons, zebra, giraffe and elephants. Oliver tells us that a few years ago in Zimbabwe, someone poisoned a waterhole and four hundred elephants died. Their tusks were hacked off and loaded onto trucks before anyone knew about it.

He also tells us that because there aren’t any predators in the park, the animals are really relaxed so we can get very close to them – manage to get some great photos. Later he stops at the river where we walk down to the edge to see a hippo just disappearing under the water. It’s a lovely time of day to be here.

We also stop at a little cemetery which was the original site of Livingstone. People were dying in droves from what they called ‘black river fever’ which we now know was malaria. It’s why they moved the town away from the river in 1905 to where it is today. In those days the country was called Northern Rhodesia eventually becoming the Republic of Zambia on 24 October 1964 – just a bit of interesting info for me to remember.

Now Oliver tells us that he can take us to see some rhinos. He’s not really supposed to but because there’s only two of us he can sneak us in. We’ll have to give the guards a tip but this is too good to pass up. We drive for a few kilometers to a sort of checkpoint where rangers wearing full camouflage are lounging around a hut where they obviously have turns of sleeping. There are three guards watching over the rhinos 24/7 while the others ‘live’ here. Oliver tells us that the Chinese send poachers in to kill the rhino to get their horns that they think gives them super sexual powers – fuckers!

We pick up one of the rangers who’s carrying a rifle and drive for about twenty minutes to a remote place to meet three other guards. They’re also wearing the full camouflage and carrying rifles. On sunset we follow them in single file through the long grass till we get to the rhinos. There are three here grazing, oh so close. We can’t believe we’re seeing this!

One of the guards whispers that the big one is a mum called Louise and the two babies are her daughters, Light and Hope – so cute! Apparently the park was given four rhinos a few years back but the poachers killed them within weeks so now they have this super tight security. Now there are nine in all so it’s obviously working.

Back at the truck we line up for photos with the guards – so funny making us all laugh. We give them a $20 tip to share and they’re stoked. Heading back Oliver stops on the side of the main road where we can see lots of broken glass. He and the ranger get out to check for blood in case it’s been caused by a vehicle hitting an animal.

As we drive through the park the sun is almost set – very surreal. We feel super high after our unexpectedly amazing time here.

Back in Livingstone at dusk we see lots of locals coming back from church – is this all these people ever do? – and it’s dark by the time we pull into Jolly Boys. We give Oliver an extra $10 for being such a lovely guide – he’s very happy.

Dinner again by the pool – a barbeque happening tonight.  Steak, chips and salad – is all good but the guy on the barbeque has cremated the steak and we can barely swallow it. We upload more photos and see Floyd in the same spot and still chewing the ears off the same people. Two German girls next to us are freaking out about a huge spider that they saw over near the kitchen. I go over for a look and can barely see it – don’t think they’d handle Australia’s creepy crawlies.

Oh, and the church music is blaring again – bed at 9.30am.

Monday 29th September, 2014        Livingstone to Lusaka

No need for alarms when we’re on holidays – awake at 5.30am. More bonking, showers and packing then breakfast at seven o’clock outside near the pool. Mark has a healthy yoghurt, muesli and banana while I have scrambled eggs and bacon. I get a call from Lauren – Josh has been a prick and she’s a mess. Fucking great! I talk to her for ages and she seems a bit better but I feel helpless. I’m so worried and wish we could go home earlier but I know we won’t. She can talk to Doug and hopefully he can help her sort it out – won’t hold my breath – another fucking useless prick.

We catch a taxi to the bus station which is typically chaotic with lots of buses lined up and ready to go.  Some have their itinerary printed on a piece of cardboard taped to the side so we grab seats on our Lusaka bound bus before wandering round the market. We’re travelling with Shalom Bus Service and it looks in pretty good condition. Apparently the trains to Lusaka are unreliable and the rail line is dodgy so buses are the recommended way to go.

We’re supposed to leave at eight o’clock so we jump into our front row seats. We’ll have good views the whole way. The bus is full so it’s a bit smelly (body odour) but should improve once the air-con starts up – or will that just blow it around? For the thirty minutes before leaving we have to put up with a psycho preacher who’s screaming out verses from the bible as he marches up and down the aisle – wtf? After he finishes each of his rants all the God-fearing passengers pronounce with great enthusiasm, ‘amen’ – fucking brilliant! We hope he doesn’t do this for the whole trip and fortunately he gets out as we start to move and jumps onto another bus.

Driving through town we see how much busier it is today – lots of people with everything starting to open for business. Like in Zimbabwe, we haven’t seen any white people except the odd traveler so I don’t know if any live here at all.

The rest of the trip – 482 kilometres – is mainly through open countryside – the same brown dry landscape we’ve seen the whole trip. Now and again we see thatched roofed mud brick homes and people sitting on the side of the road selling vegetables or firewood.

The bus stops to pick up and drop off passengers in the small towns of Zimba, Kalomo, Choma and Batoka – mainly women with babies strapped to their backs. Other women carry things on their heads and at one stop our driver buys a live chicken through the bus window.

And while all this is happening we have very loud gospel music and videos playing on the screen right above our heads. It never lets up for seven whole hours! And every town is full of churches and Christian signs of some sort – St Mary’s Hospital, St Christopher’s School etc. Hate Christianity!!

The best thing is that the road is surprisingly good and our driver is very safe but the air-con isn’t working properly and it’s stinking hot. Of course, this means that the body odour is rife and is getting worse as the day wears on. It seems that deodorant isn’t a part of life here in Africa.

We pass lots of people just sitting in groups under trees, herds of tiny goats, cows crossing the road and trucks packed with people standing up in the back. With the beautiful weather, we really enjoy the whole trip.

At 3.30pm we finally reach Lusaka and the craziest bus station we’ve experienced for a long time. Men are swarming all over the passengers as we  get off – some are taxi drivers after a fare and others try to grab our bags from under the bus to put them on their trolleys. Mark fights them off and we run the gauntlet with a taxi driver we’ve agreed to go with.

Outside is still the busiest place we’ve seen on the trip so far. Apparently, Lusaka has become something of a boom town with new buildings going up everywhere with many chain stores and shopping mall springing up all over the sprawling suburbs. The capital was moved to Lusaka from Livingstone in 1935 because of its more central location and its position on the main rail and road links. It really does have an optimistic air of a town on the rise, the perfect example of what economic liberalisation has done for Zambia compared to the mess in Zimbabwe.

And in the eyes of rural Zambians, Lusaka is the glittering capital which still persuades many village people to migrate to the city in search of jobs and dreams. Tragically over sixty per cent of the country’s two million population are unemployed, but with surprisingly few beggars or major theft and most people try to make an honest living selling their wares or services.

But back to the diary. The place we’ve chosen to stay is the very unoriginally named Lusaka Backpackers and is close by. Once we get away from the main streets, we find ourselves in a leafy, quiet area with tree-lined laneways. And the backpackers is nice with a pool and a simple bar under a bamboo shelter. It’s nowhere near as appealing as Jolly Boys but we’re only here for one night.

The guy on the desk is helpful and we ask him about using their computer. Just as we came into Lusaka, Mark had noticed a billboard advertising cheap flights to Dar Es Salaam. He’s not overly fussed on the train trip so we spend an hour looking up different airlines but with no luck. We’d needed to have booked weeks ago to get the cheap deals. Anyway, I want to do the train thing and we’re both happy that we looked into it anyway. It might have been nice to have extra days in Zanzibar but I think we’d kick ourselves later for bailing out on the overland journey.

And talking of the train, the guy on the desk tells us that we have to book at Tanzara House tomorrow morning as it’s too late today. If we can’t get train tickets we’ll end up having to fly anyway – very confusing but exciting. Love travelling like this.

Our room is a little log cabin in the back yard – simple to say the least with two tiny windows and a slate floor. We have single beds again – this time with black mosquito nets hanging from bamboo contraptions attached to the ceiling. The showers and toilets are just a stone’s throw across the grass with outdoor basins to clean our teeth. Not too bad for $40 a night

It’s getting dark by now and we plan to have drinks/dinner at the posh Taj Pamodzi Hotel in the heart of Lusaka’s business and government district. So all poshed up ourselves, we find a taxi driver outside in the laneway. His name is Patrick and he’s a real sweetie – very happy and chatty. He’s impressed that we’re going to the Taj so our expectations are pretty high.

And, of course, whenever that happens you’re sure to be disappointed. Even though it is part of the famous Taj chain of hotels it isn’t one of the magnificent historic buildings like the Taj in Bombay where we had cocktails in 2005. This Taj was probably built in the eighties with typical eighties décor – now just daggy but in a way we like it. Set amongst tropical gardens, the entrance has the usual circular driveway and we pull up like royalty. Inside we wander around checking out the two restaurants then head straight for the Marula Bar.

There doesn’t seem to be a ‘happy hour’ but two white wines each only cost $20. The lounges are all taken with middle class Zambians – mostly business people – and a few European couples. For dinner we choose the fanciest restaurant with white linen tablecloths and the waiters in white uniforms. It has a soaring thatched ceiling and open on one side to the pool and gardens. And we even have a band all decked out in red uniforms. I form a crush on the singer who is a dignified, older man wearing a sort of Canadian Rockies hat. He also has a wooden arm with the wooden hand sticking out the end of his sleeve. He’s strangely appealing with a very high voice and he smiles through every song. They make me think of my beautiful Mum and Dad – ‘Irene Good Night’, ‘The Cucaracha’ and everyone’s favourite African song, ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’. I love it and sing along – the two wines have gone to my head already. Poor Mark.

The food is very good – we have calamari for an entree then Mark orders a huge rump steak with olive mash for a main while I have spinach and cheese cannelloni. Dessert is a chocolate pudding with ice cream presented perfectly as a posh restaurant should. And now we’re totally stuffed!

While Mark is trying to pay the bill with his credit card – machine doesn’t work – I chat with the singer and the drummer who are outside having a fag. They’re soooo nice and tell me how religious most Zambians are – you reckon??!!

We finally pay at another counter, the grand sum of $58 – so cheap! Outside we try to ring Patrick but we can’t get through so we walk out onto the main road. Doesn’t take long to get another taxi and we’re back in our little hut by ten o’clock.

Our plan for tomorrow is to get a bus from here in Lusaka to Kapiri Mposhi about three hours away where we’ll hopefully board the three day train to Dar Es Salaam. It will all depend on whether we can get tickets in the morning.

Tuesday 30th September, 2014       Lusaka to Kapiri Mposhi to Tanzara train

My darling crawls into bed with me at six o’clock – bonking then shower together – a good start to the day. I wash and dry my hair then we order breakfast from a tiny lady in the funny little kitchen. She’s wearing a white coat and a tall chef’s hat – hilarious. We have to pay her but she doesn’t have any money to give us change.

We wait by the pool till she brings out rubbery eggs for me with a side of chili sauce – ‘sorry, no tomato’. Mark’s breakfast of muesli, fruit and yoghurt is better but our tea and coffee come out much later – cold and in chipped cups – cute.

The weather is perfect again with clear blue skies and already getting hot. We find Patrick outside in the laneway and ask him to drive us to Tanzara House to buy our train tickets. He stops first at the very modern Levy Shopping Centre so Mark can find an ATM. Tickets have to be bought in cash.

Now we drive past the mad bus station through clogged streets and the endless road works. At Tanzara House, Patrick waits in his car while we try to find someone, anyone. We knock on all the doors but no answer. We go back downstairs to ask the man on the desk. ‘Lady not here, come soon. You wait’.

Finally two men arrive and tell us that the lady who books the tickets isn’t here because her kids are sick. Apparently no-one else can sell us tickets – wtf? One of them finally rings her and she says that she’ll come in. We wait for an hour, sitting on a ripped lounge in the shabby hallway till she turns up at ten o’clock. A bit of a shemozzle but no worries!

And the good news is that we can get sleeper tickets – first class at $60 each – super cheap for three days and two nights. She’s actually quite impressed with us because Zambia’s vice President is a white man called Guy Scott – she wonders if we’re possibly related? (By the way, by the time I’ve typed up this diary, Guy Scott is now the acting President after the sudden death of Michael Sata, on 28 October 2014 just weeks after we were there). She also tells us that we should get a bus to Kapiri as soon as we can as they usually take a lot longer than the supposed three hours.

So now Patrick races us back to the guesthouse where we quickly pack. Off again, we stop at the shopping centre to stock up on food. In a sort of Woolworths, we buy fresh sandwiches and salads for the bus as well as drinks and chips for the train. The people here are lovely and I keep bumping into a nice man who lets me get in front of him at the check-out.

The bus station is even more chaotic than yesterday if that’s possible. Touts rush us to buy tickets for their particular bus but luckily we’re used to this and don’t get frazzled. We try a couple of different companies but finally get a bus that they assure us is ‘leaving now’ – a fib for sure. Anyway, we make a dash for the bus that, naturally, doesn’t leave for half an hour.

Most of the seats are already taken so Mark is sitting up the front while I’m down the back next to a shy young girl. I’m lucky to have a young woman with a fat baby boy on her lap sitting just across the aisle and there are lots of other little ones who are all sneaking looks at me.

And like yesterday we’ve got a religious nut with us – a woman this time – standing in the middle of the aisle preaching more Jesus stuff. It’s made even more chaotic as hawkers squeeze past her yelling out whatever they’re selling – drinks, food, mobile phones, school books and shaving machines.

Off at last, it takes us over an hour to get out of Lusaka because of all the road works. Gospel music is playing again but not as loud today. With no air-conditioning it’s very hot even with the windows open.

Being in an aisle seat I keep myself occupied with checking everyone out around me. The ladies are either wearing the dreaded nylon wigs or have plaited their hair in corn rows. The men usually have shaved heads but some just keep it cropped really short. The lady opposite breast feeds her little boy a few times and just leaves her boob hanging out afterwards. I ask how old he is – ‘one year’, she says. I give him one of the toy koalas we’ve brought with us and he soon comes over to play with the strap on my bag – dear little one.

All the way we need to stop at a series of police check points – we can’t work out why. We see people burning off the grass alongside the road as well as the usual mud brick and thatched homes, people selling wares under trees and little dusty villages. An accident between two old vans slows us down but no-one seems to be badly hurt.

After a couple of hours the bus stops in a small town so we can use the toilets and buy something to eat. We’re starting to get worried about reaching Kapiri Mposhi in time to catch the train. If we miss it today there isn’t another one till Friday – oh shit!

A Polish man who’s been on the bus with his wife and two male friends asks me if I know how far we have to go because they’re also booked on the train. I find the conductor who tells us that we’ll be there in forty five minutes.

We finally arrive at 3.30pm – almost five hours since we boarded the bus. Never trust timetables in these places. The Kapiri bus station is much smaller than Lusaka but we still get swarmed as we get off the bus. We’re in a desperate hurry as the train is supposed to leave at 4pm and we’re not sure how long it will take to get to the station. No worries – we’re there in five minutes and the train hasn’t left. The taxi driver and his mate insist on carrying our bags even though Mark tries to wrestle them away.

The train is very long. Apparently, it consists of three first class sleepers, three second class sleepers, three third class seats cars, a second class seats car, a restaurant car, a bar car, a first class lounge car and a couple of baggage vans – yes, very long.

It’s optimistically named the Mukuba Express – not sure how ‘express’ it is because I’ve read that it’s always running at least half a day late. We’ll see what happens with our trip. And The Man In Seat 61 website gives more info – ‘the Tanzara line is 1,860km long and was only opened in 1976, built with Chinese funding and assistance.’

On the platform, Mark finds the carriage marked on our tickets. Standing next to the doorway we’re met by Marjorie, our first class hostess dressed in a pale blue railway uniform. She’s a strange looking young woman, very made up and looks a bit like a tranny. I love her immediately.

Marjorie shows us to our first class sleeper cabin. It’s shabby and basic with two double bunks on either side compared to three on either side in second class. The only problem with first class is that men and women have to be segregated. This isn’t in the plan.

Now we meet a young couple called Maggie and Terry who also don’t want to be separated. We’ve decided that the four of us will bunk in together which shouldn’t be a problem. Marjorie is okay with it but then says we can have a cabin each as some people haven’t turned up.

By now it’s four o’clock when we’re supposed to leave and guess what? – we do! Watching the scenery as we pull out of Kapiri we feel that we’re on a true adventure. Till 6.30pm we read and snooze then Marjorie shows us that we can lock the door to our cabin which means we can ‘go out’ for dinner.

The train jumps sideways and up and down so it’s a very wobbly walk through two other sleeper carriages, the bar car, then three more seats-only carriages to get to the dining car. It’s as basic as our cabin, with about ten small tables on either side of the aisle and open windows letting in the night air cooling us down after the hot day. The food is super cheap and tasty – a beef stewy thing for me and a chicken stew for Mark both with white rice, tomato and a spinach mash.

Maggie and Terry turn up so we plan to meet in the bar afterwards. I stagger back to our cabin to dig out my duty free Bacardi then stagger back to the bar. The guy behind the grungy bar is busy talking to a couple of other guys leaning on the counter while playing very loud music.

We spend the next couple of hours getting to know Terry and Maggie. She’s from New York and Terry comes from London – really good company especially Maggie who has the gift of the gab but not annoying like a lot of Americans. They’ve been travelling for a month through South Africa and Zambia so they have a lot of stories already.

I absolutely love this night and I love this train. Sitting in the bar next to the open window trundling through Zambia makes me sooo happy. We head back to our cabin at 9.30pm and check out the toilets. I don’t want to imagine what the third class toilets are like because first class has a lot to be desired. No running water anywhere but just a huge plastic drum of water next to the pan (so big we have to squeeze in through the door). A plastic bottle with the top chopped off is used as a scoop to wash the wee wees and poopedys down onto the tracks.

Into our cosy bunks at 10pm after taking a Triazapam each – we might need it with all the noise the train is making. Another brilliant day!

Wednesday 1st October, 2014               Tanzara train through Zambia

I wake at six o’clock, put on makeup and use the horrid toilet. Mark sleeps till seven then has a ‘shower’ which translates to finding a tap with water. I can’t find my favourite red glasses and think I must have left them in the bar last night – will probably never see them again. No worries because I’ve brought along a spare.

After cleaning our teeth with bottled water we head for the dining car for breakfast. In the next carriage we stop to say hi to the four Polish people who’d been on our bus yesterday from Lusaka. They seem to have brought along all their own food and are having breakfast in their cabin.

In the dining car we both order a ‘Full Breakfast’ for 15 Kwacha ($3) each. Two overly cooked eggs, two slices of toast, beans with tomato and a sausage (I’m so hungry I could eat a sausage on a Zambian train) plus tea and coffee.

The waitress has zero people skills – slams down the menu, salt etc – no smiles and reminds us of Helga the waitress who hated us in China when were on an overnight train with Jillian and Eddie in 2006. But this little waitress gives everyone the same treatment – needs to go to hospitality school or maybe her life is just shit.

Back to our cabin we lounge around all morning watching the world go by. We stop for hours at a small station where the local ladies walk beside the track selling drinks, peanuts and bananas all carried on their heads. Ragged little ones play on the tracks and we think how lucky our little bubbas are at home. Some little girls only about six years old have a baby strapped to their back – must be a baby brother or sister.

At another station a lot of women are walking past the train carrying bundles of sticks on their heads and others balancing plastic dishes filled with rice or grain of some kind. One lady is selling live chickens and someone near us buys two from their window.

At one stage we hear a commotion and everyone has their head out the train watching two women have a punch-up. One seems to be very drunk and the other looks like she’s trying to drag her home. A crowd soon surrounds them and a couple of men try to carry the drunk one but she gives them a left hook as well – funny at first but tragic really, poor lady.

Later Marjorie comes in for a chat then we go to sit in her empty cabin. She shows me photos of her eight year old daughter, Marie. Marjorie had married a man from the Congo but when he wanted to take a second wife, she left him. We swap Facebook addresses and Mark comes in to take photos of us all.

Now we read, sleep and I take heaps of photos and videos – so many amazing things to see especially at each station. At 11.30am, Marjorie comes in to say goodbye as we’re about to arrive at the border at Nakonde. We have to leave the Mukaba Express and get on the Kilamanjaro which will take us through Tanzania to Dar Es Salaam on the coast. This supposedly will be another day and night – thinking positive. We’re already three hours late getting here so it doesn’t look good for a 3.25pm arrival tomorrow in Dar according to the timetable – love how precise they are.

We’ve already packed our gear – I found my red glasses – and ready to get out at Nakonde to jump straight onto the Kilamanjaro – just kidding because, surprise surprise, it isn’t here yet! We’re hanging out on the platform with Maggie and Terry and the Polish crew not knowing where to go.

A man wearing jeans and a red shirt keeps telling us to follow him but he’s not wearing a railway uniform so we don’t trust him. He becomes angry with me – ‘you go over there with those people’ he says in disgust as he points to the big cement station where the local people have to wait.

‘You don’t remember me from the train?’ – he scowls in disbelief but sorry I don’t because we met so many people. Finally we realise that he does work for the railway and let him take us to a separate building with a few bench seats. This is apparently where we ‘white people’ are to wait for the train. Soon two local ladies arrive from immigration to stamp our passports out of Zambia.

Meanwhile Maggie and I are both tending to matching wounds on our left forearm where a piece of tin sticking out of the gate ripped into us. Maggie has medicated wipes and I remind myself to add them to our travel list.

Now Mark and I mind all the bags while Maggie and Terry go for a walk. The train won’t be arriving any time soon so we’ve got plenty of time to explore. An hour later we swap and Mark and I set off past the station. A row of very basic tiny businesses with hand painted signs lead down to the dirt track behind the main building. A hairdresser, a bottle shop, a grocer and a restaurant are primitive to say the least but probably very modern here.

We pass mud-brick family homes along red dirt paths before coming across a sprawling market. It’s nothing like the markets of Asia – very dry, dusty and hot without any shade at all and not a blade of grass to be seen. Most of the ladies are shading themselves with hand held umbrellas and I wish I had one too.

One woman is stirring a big pot of boiling entrails but quickly covers it with a lid when I ask to take a photo. In face no-one here wants their photo taken so I just click away with my camera down near my hip.

More ladies are selling peanuts, dries fish, tomatoes, cabbages, red onions, eggs, potatoes and horrible clothes that have to be wrapped in plastic because of all the dust. We don’t buy anything.

Back at the station waiting room, Marjorie comes over for a chat. She has her friend, Eunice, with her who I’ve already met in our carriage. Marjorie has been cleaning our old train ready for the return journey to Kapiri once the Tanzania train gets here. She tells us that she’s heard that it will arrive about 3 or 4 or 5 – very helpful!

Mark lies down on the cement floor to try to cool down and have a sleep. Meanwhile I write in the diary then wander outside. I meet a young mother with a cute toddler so I go back to get my bag so I can give him a toy koala. Later two men turn up with Ebola testing lasers. This time we have to open our mouths very wide so they can point the laser at the back of our throats. A sign on the wall describes the symptoms of Ebola in pictures – fever, headache, red eyes, stomach cramps, vomiting, farting, etc

The Kilamanjaro finally pulls in at 4.30pm and the guy in the red shirt comes to get us. When he thinks I can’t hear, he asks Mark, ‘Is she your wife? I think maybe she is hard woman’ – ha ha. But even though we board at 4.30pm we don’t leave till 5.30pm – lots of shunting and loading on water and supplies. By the way, we’re now nine hours behind schedule.

Like our last train, it seems that we’ll have our own cabin and so will Maggie and Terry. A few minutes after pulling out of Nakombe, we stop at Tunduma Station which is on the Tanzanian side of the border. Here we have to fill in forms, hand in our passports and pay $50 each for visas.

It’s dark by the time we leave but there’s been lots to see at the station. Soon one of the train guys comes along to tell us that we’ll have to share with Maggie and Terry as more people have arrived. No problem really and we’re soon settled in.

We all have dinner together in the dining car which is much the same as the Mukabar. The new waitress isn’t much better and just leans on the table and stares at us like we already know what’s on the menu. She brings a dish and a jug of soapy water for everyone to wash their hands – I like this idea. Food is good – chicken, chips and a coleslaw looking thing. Drinks with our mates till 10.30pm then bed with a Triazapam each – sleep really well.

Thursday 2nd October, 2014        Tanzara train through Tanzania

I wake at six to use the toilet then jump back into bed till eight o’clock. Mark and I clean our teeth then wander down to the dining car with Maggie and Terry. Today breakfast consists of toast, an omelet and two tiny cold frankfurts with tea and coffee as usual.

We decide to have turns of using our compartment so Mark and I go first. We have a sort of wash with baby wipes but then Mark finds a tap with water coming out of it – luxury! We change into clean clothes then swap with Maggie and Terry.

Again today we love looking out the window as the train trundles along. Sometimes we don’t appear to be going any faster than walking pace as we slowly creep and crawl over the Southern Highlands but at other times we really hurtle along. There seems to be a lot of damaged railway wagons alongside the track, presumably the result of previous derailments and crashes.

Later we hang out in the first class car – sounds very grand but it’s just as seedy as the rest of the train including a few threadbare lounges with broken springs and stinking of body odour. This might be bearable but it’s full of men watching a very loud, very violent video so we head back to our bunks to read.

Maggie and Terry read books from their ipads while Mark and I have our usual paperbacks – a generation thing. We’ve brought our favourite page-turner murder mysteries – all good ones this trip – then dump each book when we’re finished for someone else to read.

One that I won’t dump, because I want to keep it, is Swahili For The Broken Hearted by Peter Moore – specially bought for this trip as it covers his journey from Cape Town to Cairo – he even catches this exact train! Also very appropriate as we’re heading for Zanzibar – very Swahili!!

The countryside has changed today from the brown barren landscape of last week to green hills and trees. We even pass through a number of tunnels but still stop at every station for an eternity. Here we enjoy hawkers selling their usual wares and Mark buys bananas and peanuts from a lady with a baby on her back.

Despite the change in vegetation, we still see the same mud huts, vegetable gardens and herds of pigs and goats. Children wield sticks to herd the family cows and always give a big wave – not much other excitement for them I imagine.

Lunch for Mark is beef and rice while I have chicken and rice – 4,000 TZS (Tanzanian Shillings). Sounds a lot but the exchange rate is !AUD to 1,500 TZS so it actually costs around $2.50. After lunch we upload photos onto our laptop in the bar – more blaring music and stinking hot. Miraculously on the way back to our compartment we pass a door where we can hear what sounds to be someone having a shower. We check it out later and can’t wait to get in. This is heaven after sweltering like pigs for the last two days.

Afterwards I chat to Eunice (Marjorie’s friend) who tells me that she’s heard that there’s been an accident near Dar and we might have to get off and go the rest of the way on buses. Oh God, what a nightmare! By this time the train, which was already very long, has almost doubled in length as we’ve picked up lots more carriages along the way. There are now hundreds of people and getting everyone on to buses would be chaos.

Okay, so now it’s mid-afternoon and according to the schedule we should be just about be pulling into Dar. We know we’re waaaay late but are still hoping that the derailment rumour is wrong and we’ll get there sometime tonight.

Maggie and Terry spend the rest of the afternoon in the bar so Mark and I have the compartment to ourselves. Buy more peanuts and bananas out the window and read and doze. Outside is very green with date palms, banana trees and even bamboo. Surely we must be getting close.

At six o’clock we still haven’t heard anything so we head for the bar which is now over-flowing with drunks and loud music. What a scream but could be a bit scary if someone got out of control so we move to the dining car with Maggie and Terry.

Maggie has a satellite phone which she needs to stick out the window and point to the stars. She sends a text to her Dad in New York to track where we are. Unbelievably he replies that we’re only half way from the border to the coast! We ask the waitress and she says ‘tomorrow morning’ but another guy says ‘no, tweleb o’clock’.

The only thing is to get pissed then have a good night’s sleep.

Friday 3rd October, 2014     Tanzara train through Tanzania to Dar Es Salaam then Ferry to Zanzibar

At 6am we’re all woken by a lady who wants our pillows and bedding. This is a good sign. No way to find out the update on the derailment so we all decide to just get dressed and pack ready to go. Mark and I clean our teeth then have another cold shower – heaven again.

At the next station one of the train staff tells us that we’ll have to change trains and pay an extra 18,000TZS each – ah, we don’t think so! Maggie then gets other news that the train swapping thing is an hour away and then it’s only another hour to Dar – whatever!

Anyway we don’t even leave this station till 8.30am but finally stop half an hour later where we can see the collapsed bridge ahead of us. This is not a good place to disembark. A narrow rocky path runs next to the rails with bushy banks running steeply downhill.

Because the land falls away so quickly, it’s a long drop from the train steps to the ground so we all help each other. The nice thing is that everyone is smiling despite struggling to carry all the shit we’ve all got with us – backpacks for us tourists and for the locals, sacks, chickens, bunches of bananas and bags of vegetables. Most ladies also seem to be carrying a baby on their back as well as balancing a sack of something on their head.

In single file we scramble down the hill where we come across the burnt-out derailed carriages at the foot of the ravine. Apparently they’d been carrying sulphur which caught alight as the train hit the bottom. Far into the distance we can see people, who’ve already passed the derailment, walking along the track towards what we hope is the waiting train. It’s an amazing sight!

We only walk about a hundred metres along the ravine before climbing back up the embankment. Going up takes much longer as everyone struggles with their load.

At last up on the tracks again we follow the rails towards the not-waiting train. From here we can see that a lot of people have set up camp trying to make some sort of shade out of anything they can find.

Of course, it’s about a hundred degrees by now with the sun at full blast. Mark thinks that a couple of low straggly bushes near us might make a good place to shelter if he spreads my sarong over the top but the land slopes away very steeply so it doesn’t work. Other people, though, like his idea and some are sitting under jackets in the long grass.

Mark finally breaks off a couple of long thin branches and strips them of leaves to use as props for the sarong. It works perfectly giving us both enough shade to hide from the sun while we squat on the rails. The Polish people now set up something similar but Maggie and Terry decide to walk back to sit under the bridge.

Later some of the male passengers are handing out cold drinks to people without water. Apparently they’ve been looting the train and a few of the train staff members are after them and a couple of minor fights break out. Luckily we have plenty of water with us for a change.

We sit here for two sweltering hours till we happily hear a ‘toot toot’ – the rescue train! It doesn’t give us much time to scramble off the tracks as we try to throw all our gear as well as Maggie and Terry’s stuff out of the way. I seriously almost get hit by the stairs that are jutting out from all the carriages. Mark drags me backwards but then I lose my balance on the embankment and start to slide down the hill on my belly. Mark grabs my hands and pulls me back up – only a few scratches but scary for a second.

Meanwhile one of Maggie’s bags had been dragged along under the train splitting it open to deposit all her undies along the track – how’s that for bad luck! We grab it all and stuff it back in so she doesn’t get embarrassed.

By now we think that she and Terry should be coming back from the bridge but we can’t see them at all. Everyone is madly throwing their gear onto the new train which could leave any minute for all we know. Mark climbs up into one of the carriages while I pass the bags up to him through an open window.

All along the tracks people are loading big bunches of bananas, live chickens and whatever else they’d been carrying on the earlier train. We still can’t see Maggie and Terry so we’ll just have to take their gear with us even if they get left behind. We can always wait for them at the station in Dar.

Finally Mark sees Terry in the distance with Maggie rushing right behind him. We wave madly out the window so they can find us. All good in the end because they’d actually walked all the way back to the old train to pinch cold water and soft drinks for the four of us.

In no time we’re all aboard and with a sudden jerk we’re off and on our way. The whole train is ‘third class only’ which we prefer for a short trip – hard-backed benches with open windows and a wide aisle. I love watching the locals, most of who are dozing after the tiring train-swapping experience.

The one hour trip is fun as we pass through Selous Game Reserve then the outskirts of the city. These outer areas look very tropical and we feel excited to be heading for the coast and Dar Es Salaam. This is Tanzania’s largest city and the country’s financial centre although it’s no longer the capital. For some reason, it lost its status as the official capital to Dodomo in 1973.

At Tanzara Station we fight our way onto the platform amongst the hundreds of other passengers disembarking. We lose Maggie and Terry but find them again outside. They plan to head straight to Zanzibar today but we’ve decided to stay here for a night and head over in the morning.

Strangely, there aren’t any taxis or tuktuks anywhere so we all walk out onto the busy road outside the station. This is chaos so we say goodbye to Maggie and Terry – we figure we’ll catch up with them in Zanzibar. Right now all we care about is escaping the heat to a hotel in the city centre. We eventually find a tuktuk to stop but the driver has never heard of Libya Street where we plan to stay and he speeds off.

Walking down to the corner where the traffic is even more hectic, we wave down another tuktuk guy to pull over and he nods that he knows where it is. Of course he doesn’t and stops three times to ask directions. Mark has already worked out where we need to go from our map and tries to tell him but our clueless driver just keeps going around in circles.

But finally we arrive in the Arab quarter and it looks amazing! This old area has been influenced by both sultans and Europeans which means a great atmosphere of chaotic markets and historic buildings.

The streets are narrow with local life being played out on the footpaths and open shop doorways. The hotel we’ve chosen from the Lonely Planet has been recently pulled down so we ask directions to the Safari Hotel. This is along a winding alleyway with a daggy, but interesting, Arabic foyer. The guys behind the desk are eager to please and $35 for a double room isn’t bad.

While Mark books in, I check out the lounge area behind the foyer. A very hairy-faced man in white robes is watching the Haj on the television – looks super-boring but he’s definitely engrossed. Dragging our bags up two flights, our room looks okay so I unpack while Mark strips off for a shower. It’s been four days since we’ve been really clean so he can’t wait.

At the same time I try to set up the camera charger and realise that we don’t have power. I race back downstairs to tell the manager. ‘Sorry, no power’, he smiles. Okay, so can we change rooms? ‘Sorry all rooms no power”. What the fuck?!

Back upstairs to pack and check out. The manager looks quite hurt that we’re leaving – does he really expect us to stay? – ha ha. We’ve decided that we might just have time to catch the last ferry to Zanzibar and tell our taxi driver to ‘step on it!’. The ferries leave from the old port area on Sokoine Drive just across the road from St Joseph’s Cathedral.

Not surprisingly, the ferry area is chaos and plagued with touts who bang on our taxi roof and swarm around us so we can barely push our way out the doors. By now we still haven’t had a shower and feel extra hot and sweaty and we’ve both got headaches. We shoo the touts away because we’ve read that we should only buy tickets directly from the ferry companies in the tall building with shiny blue windows.

Inside we find our Polish friends who are also trying to get to Zanzibar today – no sign of Maggie and Terry though. Apparently all the tickets have been sold but we can put our names on a stand-by list. If we miss this ferry we’ll have to wait until 7am tomorrow morning. This means finding another hotel here in Dar Es Salaam and we’re just not up for it.

Soon a young woman approaches handing us our tickets ($40 each) but our Polish mates have missed out. We feel a bit guilty because they were here before us but only two spare tickets are available and they need four. They’re disappointed but are sweet about it – we like them a lot.

But now we need to make a dash for the boat. Down by the water there is more chaos as we join a mass of desperate people funneling into a narrow doorway leading to the immigration area. No politeness here as everyone pushes and shoves while young men scramble a barrier to get to the front. Not sure what all the madness is all about because we doubt the boat will leave without half its passengers.

Can’t see Maggie and Terry at all and, in fact, we seem to be the only westerners here. At last inside, our bags are scanned and we board the Azam Marine Ferry.

We’ve bought First Class tickets which means that we sit in a large air-conditioned cabin at the top of the boat with big comfy seats and a television. A guy in uniform stands at the door to tell the inevitable gate-crashers to bugger off. At first we’re separated but then the kind man next to me says he’ll swap so Mark and I can sit together.

For entertainment, a Charlie Chaplin movie is playing on the tv at the front. Neither of us has ever seen a silent movie let alone a Charlie Chaplin one. It’s surprisingly good and really funny.

The side walls of the cabin are full length glass so we watch Dar Es Salaam slip by as we make our way up the coast before crossing the waters of the Indian Ocean to the Zanzibar Archipelago. The Archipelago is actually made up of three main islands (Unguja, Pemba and Mafia), plus a few smaller ones. Unguja is the biggest and is what most people talk about when they refer to Zanzibar. The capital of Unguja is Zanzibar City and the most well-known section of Zanzibar City is called Stone Town. So now we all know.

About 5.30pm we approach Unguja and here is Stone Town picturesquely spread out along the shoreline – no surprise that it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And it’s looking all gorgeous and mystical in the soft golden glow of late afternoon – exactly how we’d hoped! It’s an exotic mix of Arabic, Portuguese and British architecture and, in front, traditional dhows sailing lazily past with their iconic lateen-shaped sails.

But now at Malindi Port it’s time to disembark. I’m swept along with the crowds to be deposited on the wharf while Mark has to fight his way through a crazy mob to retrieve our backpacks under the mountain of luggage.

We know that shortly after independence in 1964, Tanganika and Zanzibar merged to form the nation of Tanzania. So it doesn’t seem to make sense that on our arrival in Zanzibar we foreigners need to show our passports and complete immigration cards, even though we did the whole border crossing thing when we entered Tanzania on the train from Zambia. No-one seems to know the reason why but at least there aren’t any fees and no need for a new visa.

Next a temperature laser is beamed on our foreheads to test for Ebola then we try to pass through customs with the usual pushers-in – not just men, everyone – seems to be the thing to do here.

Outside is more commotion so we make our way out onto the narrow road in front of the beautiful Old Dispensary. We quickly find a taxi and ask our driver to take us somewhere cheap but in the centre of Stone Town. He drives along the water’s edge and past the impressive Old Fort. Through the Portuguese Arch we veer away from the harbour to pull up at Mazsons Hotel, apparently once the home of Sheik Abdallah and one of the oldest buildings in Stone Town. In front is a peaceful garden complete with a fountain, an ornamental pond and date palms. Even better is the backdrop of a two storey Portuguese house complete with faded wooden shutters – oh, yes!

Inside we find an elaborate polished wood paneled foyer and think ‘we can’t afford this”. But Mark manages to bargain the guy down to $85 which is a lot more than we usually pay but we’re happy to have a bit of luxury after three nights on the train.

Our room is on the top (third) floor and we’re very impressed. Our window looks out onto a small square and we have a huge bed, air-con, a television, a day bed and our own bathroom.

Of course, having a hot shower is at the top of our list then we quickly change and head back outside to explore. There seems to be lots of places to eat and drink and we know we’re going to love this town.

Our first stop is Fodorhani Gardens just across from the Fort and right on the waterfront. Each evening street vendors set up their stalls, selling seafood and meat kebabs, samosas, fruit, grilled maize, Zanzibar pizzas and sugar cane juice.

Apparently it’s always packed with tourists and locals and tonight is no different. It’s an interesting place but seems a bit of a tourist trap – the seafood is overly expensive and the vendors are sleazy to say the least – ‘you will be supporting the children’ – liars!

We really can’t be bothered with this bullshit so we set off to find Mercury’s Bar named after Freddy Mercury of Queen fame. And besides that, we really, really want a drink!

Mercury’s is only a five minute walk along from the Old Fort, past the Sultan’s Palace and just after the Big Tree, on the ocean side of the road. The night is beautiful – warm and calm and we couldn’t be happier.

Inside Mercury’s, Queen music is playing and the bar walls are decorated with posters of Freddy. The menu tells us that Freddy Mercury was born here in Stone Town as Farookh Bulsara in 1946. Although he spent most of his childhood in boarding schools in India, Zanzibar is definitely claiming him all for herself.

Neither of us have ever been a huge Queen fan but Mark does occasionally like to launch into the operatic part of Bohemian Rhapsody. We sit on decking above the beach to catch the cool sea-breeze and to watch the dhows sail past – a great setting. We share a seafood pizza and a calamari salad and get stuck into beers and Bacardi.

An early night after a tiring but wonderful day. Can’t believe that this morning we were still on the train – so much has happened!

Saturday 4th October, 2014      Zanzibar

It’s 5.30am in Zanzibar. We’re woken to the sound of the call-to-prayer from the nearby mosque then fall back asleep till six to the patter of rain on the roof. Normally this would worry us but after being on the move for the last week, it’s a good excuse to lie in.

At 7.30am we’re up showering and Mark is washing our clothes, absolutely filthy after the train trip. Later on the roof we find the dining room where breakfast is part of the cost of our room. With only one other person eating, there’s more staff that guests – maybe we’re early.

Four beaming staff members wearing crisp white uniforms all stand to attention behind a long buffet table. We feel obliged to put things on our plates even though we don’t really want them. The guy on egg duty is thrilled when we ask for a Spanish omelet each. We also manage toast, cereal, watermelon, tea and coffee – we leave the pastries behind. It’s all very innocently cute.

And funnily, a television in the corner is showing an endless line of bearded, robed Arabs lining up to kiss the hand of a very old, bearded, robed Arab – don’t think we’ll be watching that in our room.

The good news is that from the balcony we can see that the clouds are breaking up with patches of blue peeping through. From here we look out over the rooftops and church spires to the sea. It looks wonderful and we can’t wait to get out there.

Our plan is to wander around to get our bearings and decide what to do depending on the weather. Back to our room, we ring Lauren at Bluey’s – she hates it as usual – then upload our recent photos onto Facebook and find gorgeous pictures of our dollies that Lauren has put up. Oh, how we miss our three girls!

But now we do what everyone else does in Stone Town – get completely lost in the maze of narrow alleyways.

Zanzibar is often described as a cultural melting pot because of all the different peoples who’ve settled here over the centuries. In one way or another they’ve all left their mark on the island – architecture, customs, food, beliefs, religion and on the people themselves. And Stone Town is where it all comes together. We wander through dark winding alleys, some lined with souvenir shops, cafes, coffee shops and other smelling of the spices the island is famous for.

Because Zanzibar is predominately Muslim, we women need to keep our knees and shoulders covered – no problem for me because I always wear long skirts or trousers anyway. Showing my legs is something I thought was a good idea to leave behind years ago.

Everywhere we walk, people call out ‘jambo’ (hello) and ‘karibu Zanzibar’. Most men wear long white robes and kufi caps – round brimless hats with a flat crown. A few wear western t-shirts and long pants but the most interesting are the Rastas with their long dreadlocks wrapped up in knitted caps in the typical Rastafarian colours of red, green and gold.

The women all wear full length, colourful kangas, Zanzibar’s traditional garment. It’s basically a long piece of material looped over the head and wrapped around their waist. Some wear the hijab, a black veil that covers the head and chest, and some even wear a niqab which is an extra bit that covers the face as well.

Of course, this all makes for brilliant photo opportunities and we take heaps of video footage as well. Down by the water we buy ice-creams and mingle with the locals in Fodorhani Gardens.

With a local map, Mark now works out how to find the Emerson Spice Hotel. I accidentally came across a photo of this place when I was searching through travellers’ blogs about Zanzibar and it looks amazing. Famous people have stayed here, like Matt Damon and Juliet Binoche, and it’s described as ‘a feast of the senses’ for people who don’t care about useless shit like minibars and televisions. I doubt we’ll be able to afford it but I just want to have a look anyway.

Zigzagging through the passageways behind the Fort, we eventually find it tucked away in a small square and looking like something out of The Arabian Nights.

The hotel was originally an old merchant’s house and once home to the last Swahili ruler of Zanzibar. But now it’s been beautifully restored by an American man called Emerson Skeens who’s lived here in Zanzibar for over twenty years.

It literally takes my breath away – built in the Swahili Arab style, it has soft, washed-out mauve/blue walls, ornately carved wooden balconies, hanging lanterns, arched windows with louvred shutters, studded Zanzibar doors, potted palms and even a handsome robed doorman standing on the steps.

In the courtyard in front, two men in kufi caps are selling vegetables on the ground and a veiled woman walks past. It’s like a film set for an old Arabian movie!

I can’t wait to see inside to check out the foyer. No disappointment here – I feel like we’ve been transported back in time to the days when Sultans ruled the island.

An English man at the desk introduces himself as Russell and is happy to show us around. We follow him up bare wooden staircases from room to room all built around a central atrium with a mosaic tile fountain at the bottom.

Russell tells us that Emerson, who sadly died in June this year, had been a film and camera fanatic, so the building and the rooms are like stage sets. Each one is completely individual, inspired by movies, books and operas but all have the same fantasy feel of exotic Africa.

No two rooms have the same interior design, either, unlike the generic five star hotels that all look exactly the fucking same no matter what country you’re in. The Kate Room has a bathroom with two huge stone baths while the Aida Suite has a lounge area, bathroom, bedroom and another room upstairs.

What all the rooms do have in common are lush fabrics, intricate latticework, vine covered balconies with open-air showers and stone baths, richly painted walls and gorgeous four-poster Swahili beds. I take lots of photos so I can drool over them later.

Back downstairs we ask Russell about the best place to go for a beach break. He recommends Pongwe on the east coast or Nungwi on the northern tip. He also tells us that while the rooms cost between $200 and $250 a night, if we turn up on Tuesday when we get back to Stone Town we can have one for only $150. Mark says we can’t pass this up – a lot more than we’ve ever paid but this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Really excited now and even happier when Russell takes us up to the open-sided roof-top restaurant.

Moe latticework up here around the roof which is lined with silk hangings and furnished with rattan chairs and wooden tables. And here is Stone Town spread out below us. We have three sixty degree views of this mystical old city and the blue waters of the Indian Ocean beyond. It’s still only eleven o’clock so we easily find a table for lunch.

Our waiter is a jolly, very black-skinned man wearing the usual white robes and kufi cap. The menu is amazing – mostly seafood and all of it looks good. Drinks first because we’re so hot – lemon sodas, iced tea and chilled hibiscus tea – then lunch of lobster salad for Mark and salt and pepper squid for me. It’s all cooked in the tiny open-air kitchen in one corner.

The food is perfect and colourfully presented on bright blue plates – very ‘tropical island’. Not like me to rave about food and I even take photos. This place has absolutely nailed it all!

On a real high now, we decide to check out some of the historic buildings and head straight for Beit El-Ajaib opposite the Fodorhani Gardens. You can’t miss it – it’s the biggest building in Stone Town.

Like most of the old buildings here it was once a sultan’s palace. Incredibly, the sultan kept wild animals chained up for display on the front lawn and had the main door made wide enough so that he could ride an elephant through it!

Not quite so outrageous today after being converted to a museum but, with a dhow in the central courtyard, it’s still very impressive. Beit El-Ajaib is also locally known as the House of Wonders for an unusual reason – Zanzibar actually had electric lighting before London and was also the first building in East Africa to have an elevator!

Outside sit a couple of old Portuguese canons used during the Anglo-Zanzibar War in 1896. And, did you know that this was the shortest war in history – only lasted two days! It was actually a question we had at trivia a few months ago – Mark was naturally the only one who knew the answer.

Nearby we visit the Sultan’s Palace, Beit El-Sahel, which today is another museum, this one dedicated to the Zanzibar royal family. The furnishings are all still here – like a time capsule. We see the biggest crystal chandeliers in the world (maybe), stained glass, Persian rugs, Zanzibar beds and antique furniture. The rooms are huge but still seem very homey. The wide verandah on the top floor looks out over the water – like a painting. We like this place.

From here we keep walking towards the port where the ferries come in. We pass the ‘Big Tree’, a massive, old landmark fig right next to the Old Dispensary. It’s a popular meeting place for locals and where tour guides wait to pounce on tourists getting off the boats. We ‘promise’ one nice man that he can take us out to an island tomorrow but I think we’re going to head for the beach instead so I hope he doesn’t wait for us.

But right now we want to visit the Old Dispensary – a grand, four storey building with decorative balconies painted white and a soft pale green. This is the first building you see as you leave the ferry and it couldn’t be more perfect – it just screams ‘Zanzibar’! It’s said to be one of the most finely decorated buildings in Stone Town, with large carved wooden balconies, stained glass windows, and neo-classical stucco adornments (guide book info meaning ‘really fancy’).

Originally intended to be a hospital for the poor, the owner died while it was still being built and his widow didn’t have the money to finish it. Later in colonial time it was sold off and the new owner decided to use the ground floor as a dispensary with the upper floors turned into apartments. It fell into disrepair in the 1970’s but thankfully restored about twenty years ago.

Inside we climb the carved, walnut staircase to the middle floor then sit on the balcony overlooking the waterfront. Two musicians wearing white robes and red kufi caps are playing traditional instruments and try to teach us a few words in Swahili. They tell that when we enter a house or shop, someone will say ‘karibu’ (welcome) and we should answer ‘ahsante’ (thank you). We give them a good tip.

Meanwhile we order lime sodas and capirinhas and watch all the action in the street below and across at the port – touts, hawkers, cars blowing horns and lots of containers being unloaded. This is the perfect end to our cultural activities for the day.

Now we return to the labyrinth of the old city looking for Mrembo, a traditional spa that I’ve read about on the net somewhere. With his good map reading skills, Mark finds it easily and I’m in love again. It looks very unpretentious, tucked in amongst tiny souvenir shops, cafes and local businesses.

Very old thick stone walls washed in a pale green with a gold coloured stone floor keep it cool as well as creating a very Arabic atmosphere. Mrembo is apparently big on natural ingredients so that only locally grown flowers, herbs and spice make up all the ingredients used in their treatments.

Inside we’re greeted by a pretty Swahili lady wearing all-white except for a baby pink wrap on the head. She asks us to sit in one of the adjacent rooms decorated with antiques, old lamps and a wooden screen. Mark decides to head back to the hotel but I book in for a half hour back massage – $25.

I’m shown to a very dark cubby-hole sized section divided off with a white carved screen. A fat lady wearing dark glasses (what’s that all about?) gives me a wonderful oil massage while traditional music is playing with the mysterious smell of Udi incense wafting around me.

I’m soooo happy but now I have to find my way back to the hotel. I set off in the right general direction and just when I think I’m lost, I actually pop out from an alleyway directly opposite Mazsons. Now we have time for showers and for me to give myself a manicure and a pedicure while we watch Sex and The City on television.

Just on sunset we set out to experience the town at night which translates to ‘finding a bar’. Leaving the hotel, we turn right for a change and come across the water on the opposite side of the promontory. It’s so nice here – very quiet and a lot cooler in the calm evening air. We wander through the foyers restaurants of gorgeous Arabic-style hotels occupying once derelict Portuguese buildings. Some are over $350 a night so we won’t be booking in. Through a pointed Islamic doorway we see a dhow out on the water with a backdrop of a pink twilight. If it sounds idyllic, well it is!

There are so many fantastic hotels around here, big and small and all with stacks of atmosphere. Darkness creates a secretive feel as we meander through the tiny streets, although we never feel nervous – maybe being a bit naïve. In no time we end up back around near Fodorhani Gardens but we head for Livingstone’s instead.

This is housed in the old British Consulate building and still has the original, wide sweeping staircase in the bar. Outside we kick off our shoes to sit at a table and chairs on the sand while we order ‘happy hour’ cocktails. This finishes in ten minutes so we order two each – margaritas for me and caipirinhas for Mark. This laid back atmosphere is what we love about travel in these exotic countries – just picture candlelit tables under trees decorated with coloured string lights, feet in the sand, good music and a stone’s throw from the water

But we can’t stay long as we’re hoping to catch a dance show at The Fort. Luckily this is only a five minute walk and next to the House of Wonders. The Fort was originally built by the Omani people to defend against the Portuguese but now it just contains a few sad little curio shops, a basic restaurant and a small amphitheatre used for performances and festivals. At the entrance we pay the small price of $10 for the show and a drink each.

We’re happy to find that the whole thing is very amateurish and doesn’t seem to be an over-priced tourist trap at all which we thought might be the case. We’re the only people here except for a few local families and a couple of German girls who we chat with before dinner. One of them has been teaching in Zanzibar for a year so she knows her way around. We ask them about the best beach place we should head for tomorrow.

The food is good. We share a seafood salad and Food de Mare pizza and order more drinks from the waitress who reeks of body odour – feel sorry for the poor little thing. The show begins with one guy playing hand-made drums while another guy sits on the ground hitting a long tin instrument. Then two ladies and two men dance while another man plays a strange, long trumpet thing. One pretty woman pulls me up to dance – fun except that I must look an idiot next to the very rhythmic Swahili ladies.

Later we walk back to Stone Town Café near our hotel. The waitress is wearing a veil so we should have realized that this is a ‘no alcohol’ place but we just order a couple of diet cokes that we sneakily top up with my Bacardi. Another hotel nearby looks amazing with an indoor swimming pool in the foyer but they don’t sell alcohol either – ‘goodbye!’

But we’re in luck with our next choice. This is the very popular Africa House Hotel in a lovely one hundred and fifty year old building. We stroll around the entry and some of the lounge areas set up with floor cushions and shishas – very Arabic! A wide deck looks out over the sea which is just a black blob at this time of night but we’ll definitely be back to watch one of Zanzibar’s glorious sunsets. Reggae music is playing and Mark dances with the bar staff. I think it’s time for him ‘to go home now!’

Sunday 5th October, 2014      Zanzibar

As usual we’re woken by the pre-dawn call of meuzzins echoing from loudspeakers in every direction. There are over fifty mosques in this small area of the island so there’s no way we could sleep through the call-to-prayer. Breakfast upstairs is the same ritual as yesterday then we pack our bags in preparation for heading to the opposite side of the island.

A taxi driver called Georgie is washing his car outside the hotel entrance and says he can take us to Pongwe for $45 – expensive but he says that the roads are very rough so it takes a long time. There isn’t any type of government-owned public transport on Zanzibar so, besides taxis, the only other option is one of the privately owned daladalas. These ramshackle trucks are a bit like the songthaews in Thailand so there’s no real timetable – when they’re full, you go!

But then we find out that today is a special holiday in Zanzibar and that everyone will be moving around the island or heading for Stone   Town. This means that getting a daladala will be almost impossible so we decide to take a taxi to Nungwi at the top of the island which will be a bit cheaper at just $30.

But typically this isn’t just a matter of jumping in and off we go. The Zanzibar police require that our taxi driver must pay a permit that has to be shown at various checkpoints along the way. We can’t seem to find out why and Mark thinks that the drivers don’t even know themselves. Probably just another corrupt money-making scheme dreamed up by the police that we’ve seen in lots of other third world countries.

So from Mazsons we bump along rutted backstreets to Georgie’s office. This is a tiny, grubby place with two old chairs and chickens scratching around the door. It looks like it might be a good day to head off to the beach because most businesses will be closed anyway because of the public holiday.

Georgie explains that this is called Eid-al-Adha which, after the famous Haj (the pilgrimage to Mecca), is the second most important celebration for Muslims. He says that it will be four joyful days when everybody is out and about celebrating. In Stone Town partying will take place in lots of open area with all the villages turning into festival venues.

While we wait for the permit, we watch as women and children move from house to house visiting friends and relatives. Everyone is wearing their best clothes – girls in bright veils and boys in long white or cream robes and kufi caps. The little ones look so cute!

After an hour we’re ready to go and we have a new van and a new driver called Bashiri. Past the Darajani Market on the edge of Stone Town, we drive through Zanzibar Town and out into the green countryside.

The road hugs the coastline so we pass through lots of small fishing villages and the island’s largest fish market. Ducks, chickens, goats and cows – it’s a nice drive except that the rain has started and the wind has picked up as well. Everyone seems to be heading to a village festival or waiting for daladalas on the side of the road.

After an hour and several police checkpoints we pull into the very uninspiring Nungwi. This was traditionally the centre of Zanzibar’s dhow-building industry, but now it’s just a ramshackle fishing village that’s been sidelined by guesthouses, bars, shops, restaurants and backpackers.

Unlike villages on most tropical islands, this is dry and barren with rocks everywhere – looks like a building site except that nothing seems to have been repaired here for years. I take an instant dislike to the whole place except that the weather has improved – sunny and no wind on this northern tip of the island.

Bashiri drops us off at the end of a laneway near the beach where we hope to find some cheap accommodation. We decide to have lunch first on the wide verandah at Mumma Mia – carbonara and penne tomato – overlooking the sand.

While Mark mind our packs I wander off in search of a room. Right next door I like the look of Barrack Bungalows so we check in. Fifty dollars is pretty good for our own air-conditioned bedroom with Zanzibar beds and a hot-water bathroom. Our bungalow has a tall thatched roof and sits in a pretty garden overhung with coconut palms.

After settling in we wander up the beach where I buy necklaces and woven cups from Marie, a friendly young woman with a cute, four year old daughter – oh Abi, we want you little baby!

So okay, the sun is shining, the sand is white, the water is turquoise, thatched restaurants and bars line the water’s edge and I’m still not getting it – the vibe just isn’t happening for me – a nutcase, for sure!

Later we sleep and read then walk along the sand to the Copacabana for sunset drinks. The wifi isn’t working so we move back up to Barrack Restaurant where we sit at a table on the sand. But just after ordering prawns and tuna, I feel terrible on the stomach and deadly tired. I can’t eat a thing and rush back to our room to be sick while Mark has to eat it all.

Monday 6th October, 2014      Zanzibar

It’s raining! I want to get out of here today but Mark wants to stay. At Mumma Mia for breakfast we have toast with scrambled eggs, fruit, juice, tea and coffee – very ordinary! The only really good thing about Mummas is the fast wifi so we upload photos and talk to Lauren.

Then because I don’t want to be here, I take refuge in our bungalow and sleep till noon while Mark goes exploring. Coming back, he tells me to stop sulking and drags me out of bed. The rain has gone and I know he’s right anyway so we set off towards the point to have lunch at an interesting café built out over the water. It’s busy with good people-watching and good food – a seafood pizza and a Zanzibar dish to share.

Further on we meet Michael, a very tall thin young man who wants to show us his shop. We need to start buying a few gifts for home anyway so we follow him up a short, sandy laneway. He’s very happy when we spend $105 on necklaces, masks, wooden animals for the dollies, an elephant for Jack’s collection and earrings.

On the way back, Mark has a massage supposedly for $20 an hour but it’s all over in forty minutes. Meanwhile I’m back in the room reading – very lazy.

On sunset we head off for dinner and drinks. I like the look of Mang’s Bar and Restaurant – a basic place with a low thatched roof just near Michael’s shop. We really like the atmosphere with lots of interesting westerners and good music playing. The slow, steady rhythm of reggae seems to beat continuously around here and of course Bob Marley is king.

Across the wall behind the bar is a hand-painted sign reading the ubiquitous ‘Hakuna Matata’ whish we hear everywhere on the island. It literally means ‘don’t worry, be happy’ – a good philosophy that I promise to take on board just as soon as we get back to Stone Town – ha ha.

The food here is excellent as well – chicken, chips and salad for me and beef with rice for Mark. A group of Masai walk past all dressed in traditional colourful sheets and carrying long sticks – very impressive.

After waaaay to many drinks we head back towards our place but stop at another beach bar and chat with the barman – no-one else here. A trapeze thing is attached to the vaulted roof and he swings as we talk. Later two Masai men stop for a chat then it’s off to bed – a much better night.

Tuesday 7th October, 2014     Zanzibar

Up at 7.30am for a shower together then a walk along the beach before we leave. Outriggers and dhows are bobbing in the shallows and a few are being repaired on the sand. Three ladies wearing colourful kangas with scarves wrapped around their heads are each carrying a bucket and a spear. They wade out up to their thighs looking into the water for fish. I try to be friendly and take photos but they give me filthy looks and shoo me away. Yes, I hate it here.

Further along past a herd of cows on the sand we meet our Polish friends sunbaking right on the water’s edge. They’re going home tomorrow and if I were them I’d be spending it in Stone Town and not in this shit hole. But I suppose if you come from Poland you’d probably think this place is paradise. Go to Thailand!!

Back at Barraka we have breakfast – pineapple juice, watermelon, banana and pineapple with tea and coffee – on the sand because the kitchen has been demolished since yesterday. We arrange for transport back to Stone Town and we’re on our way by 9.15am.

The van’s windows are tinted so I ‘can’t see a fucking thing’ as Mum used to say when her eyesight was failing – ha, ha, she was so naughty! Okay so now I’m getting pissed off even more because I can’t take photos or video. Mark tells me to chill out – o-kaaaaay!!

On the outskirts of Zanzibar town we stop at a bank to withdraw more Tanzanian Shillings then ask to be dropped off at the Darajani Market. Like most central markets, its bustling with people selling everything you’d expect from an East Africa market – food (bread, meat, fish, spice, fruit and vegetables), clothing (kufi hats, shoes and kangas) plus the inevitable spices.

I’m soooo happy to be back here especially when we once again thread our way into the exotic labyrinth of the old city. We’re heading straight for the Emerson Spice and here it is, right in the heart of Stone Town, surrounded by the hubbub of local life and the comings and goings of the neighbouring mosque.

Russell is at a meeting but we tell the man on the desk about Russell’s offer. Luckily he’s okay with it so we follow him up four flights of stairs to the lavish Turandot Room. This is decorated in red and gold with a dark polished floor and a stone bath in the corner. A modern toilet is hidden in a small curved room with a carved wooden door. Moroccan stained glass and brass lights hang from the high ceiling and a Swahili four-poster bed is draped in a white mosquito net trimmed with gold satin. Everything reflects the opulence of what this place once was and the luxury of the lives the people led here. We’ll just pretend for a day.

And, by the way, this isn’t a reproduction, all the furniture and lights are antiques collected by Emerson from the island itself. Another great thing about the hotel is that while everything looks other-worldly, all the room are equipped with an air-conditioner, fan, great wifi and hot water – all you get in a five-star hotel except for a television which we don’t want anyway.

But what we love most about our room is the balcony. Palms and climbing plants keep it totally private as well as having a sort of carved wooden pergola complete with swing. In the corner is an outdoor shower and cement tub hand painted with flowers – we jump straight in to cool down and just to get it there anyway.

And because our room is on the third floor we have a good view of Stone Town rooftops as well as the verandahs of surrounding buildings. We’re so close that we can hear children plying and watch women squatting on the floor either cooking or washing.

Back outside we set off to look for lunch. On the way we buy a few more gifts then come across the Emerson on Hurumzi, the second and more recent hotel restored by Emerson Skeens. This is just as exotic as the Emerson Spice but more of an understated elegance – white stuccoed walls, dark polished wooden ceilings and beams, chandeliers, a black and white chequered marble floor and antique lounges covered in maroon velvet.

The friendly man at the desk takes us up a wide polished wooden staircase to the restaurant on the roof. Each level is more intriguing than the last with the top level opening into a watermelon-pink foyer sparsely decorated with antique side-tables and potted palms – I can’t believe we’re seeing this!

From here we climb a steep ladder-like staircase to the roof. I’ve read that this Tower Top Restaurant is supposed to be one of the most romantic restaurants in the world! Not sure about that but it does look brilliant!

And because Emerson on Hurumzi is the second tallest building in Stone Town, the restaurant has even better views than the Emerson Spice. From up here we can see not only the minarets of the many mosques but also Hindu temples, Christian cathedrals and churches all sitting side by side. It shows the eclectic mix of faiths that have blossomed In Stone Town because of the tolerant Swahili attitude.

With only a couple of tables and chairs, most of the area is covered in Persian rugs with floor cushions and low carved tables. The roof has the same silk tent ceiling and the kitchen is behind a low screen – can’t believe they manage to cook in this tiniest of spaces.

We sit on the floor near a funny English family – the mother has the best giggle – I love Pommies! I want to laugh at everything she says. The waiter demonstrates how to fold the napkins into funny shapes and we all have a go.

Soon our Arab host dressed in a cream robe kneels in front of us to explain the menu – all very upmarket but cheap. After lime sodas, I have a calamari salad while Mark has a tuna and beetroot salad followed by two traditional Zanzibar desserts – very sweet with honey and cardamon.

While we’re eating our desserts, our host comes over again for a chat. He explains the history of the building which was built by the British. They built it this high so they could keep an eye out for baddies on the harbour then, after freeing the slaves, the Arabs moved in – the reason why we sit on the floor.

Later we weave our way through the narrow alleyways packed with street vendors and buildings, grey and weathered, all huddled together. Different areas reveal different cultures – Shanghai’s fancy mansions, Kiponda’s old gold markets, Vuga’s European villas and the palatial towers of the sultans. The residents of historical Stone Town must have lived a life of luxury that we can only dream about.

Every building is part of Zanzibar’s colourful history – slavery, colonial rule, royalty and the spice trade. Even the famous Zanzibar doors tell the history of the house inside. When a house was built here, the door was traditionally the first part to be erected. The greater the wealth and social position of the owner, the larger and more elaborately carved his front door. I take photos of Arab and Indian doors to post in a blog on my Spice website when I get home.

Back to the Emerson Spice for another outdoor shower, a ‘snuggle’ and a read under the ceiling fan. We actually sleep till five o’clock then head for the water.

Because the Eid-al-Adha celebration is still happening, there are literally thousands of people at the Forodhani Gardens. Women and children are sitting in family groups on blankets and the playground is packed – so cute seeing tiny veiled girls lining up for rides. Kerosene lamps light up the food stalls and we say ‘sorry, already eaten’ about a hundred times. On the harbour wall, young boys do acrobatic dives into the water with crowds cheering them on.

Later we wander up to the old Post Office which has been converted into a series of trendy restaurants. A wide verandah runs the length of the top floor so we choose a table overlooking the cobbled laneway to watch all the action while we eat. We’ve chosen a tapas bar with fabulous food once again – meatballs, octopus, meat skewers, fried cheese and bread with balsamic vinegar. Drinking beer and Bacardi, we love this place.

We walk home along the water where there are even more people than before. Back at the Emerson Spice, I head for bed while Mark has a few more beers on the roof.

Stone Town is awesome!!

Wednesday 8th October, 2014     Zanzibar

Our last full day in Zanzibar. We want to make the most of it so we’re up at seven to shower (outside, of course) and pack, ready to change hotels. We want to find somewhere cheaper for our last night.

Breakfast is on the roof at eight o’clock with blue skies all around us. An interesting bunch of guests make for good people-watching and the food is predictably top quality once again – a fresh fruit platter each, mango and pineapple juices then eggs, tomato, eggplant and onion with toast and tea. The temperature is warming up already so we’re prepared for another hot day.

Downstairs we ask the man on the desk if he could recommend a cheap hotel nearby. A Swedish lady wearing a long kaftan seems to work here as well and offers us a room at Emerson on Hurumzi for $100!! Of course we’re ecstatic and jump at the chance. (More about the Swedish lady later because I already have a girl crush).

We head straight there so we don’t miss out. Here is the same guy on the desk that we met this morning. He calls to a handsome man in a white robe to show us a few rooms. Again, each one is distinct and the furnishings are all antiques. Add to this large stone baths and open air verandahs with views across the city, old Zanzibar beds, glass chandeliers and hand-painted window panes – you get the picture.

They’re all amazing but we choose the Rose Room for its gorgeous rose pink colour and the sun flowing in through the open windows which overlook the lively Peace of Love Square. Hyped up again, we set off towards the market to look for the Anglican Church.

Because the laneways are so narrow we can’t see past the overhanging rooftops. So at times we see the church spire through a crack in the buildings but then when we seem to reach where we just came from – it’s the weirdest thing.

Also strangely, the skies have suddenly opened up and we’re caught in a terrific downpour. We’re both drenched in seconds and the cobbled alleyways are already flooding. We visit a couple of gold and silver shops mainly to escape the rain but I’d also like to buy some silver jewellery. Bad luck, there isn’t anything I like but I’m not bothered in the least.

This area of Stone Town is just as amazing as the rest with endless photo opportunities, as they say – weathered but beautiful buildings with flowering vines trailing down from upper floor balconies, coconut palms surrounding an old well still in use and a man carrying long lengths of sugarcane on his shoulder.

Eventually we stumble across St Monica’s Convent and the Anglican Church next door. The convert is a colonial beauty, painted a brilliant white with Arabic archways along the balconies on both floors. The tropical gardens in front are shaded with date palms and coconut trees and the path from the stone fence is lined with clipped hedges – love that colonial/tropical mix.

Next door at the entrance to the church we shelter from the rain, which is still coming down in buckets, with other tourists on a verandah near the ticket office. Beneath here is where the slaves were kept before being shipped off to other parts of the world.

Zanzibar was at the forefront of the slave trade during its peak in the 19th century when men, women and children were captured on the mainland, then brought here to be auctioned at the slave market outside. We pay $5 each then an old man takes us down stone stairwells to the dungeons below. These are incredibly small considering how many poor people they jammed in here. There’s only a small opening at one end for fresh air so that lots of them died before they were even sold.

Upstairs our guide shows us a painting of Reverend Spears, a British man who was responsible for freeing the slaves here in Zanzibar. He also built St Monica’s and the church on top of the slave chambers. Inside the church we have a quick tour then visit the slave memorial outside – a sad place.

Weaving our way back through the laneways, now ankle deep in water, we check out of the Emerson Spice and check in to the Emerson on Hurumzi. The sun is out again and pours in through our three arched windows. The room is huge with a four-poster bed draped in sheer white curtains, antique bedside tables, a lounge and chairs upholstered in green velvet, a black and white marble floor and a mirrored wash stand. But this is just one of our rooms – we also have another bedroom and a bathroom! And as finishing touches, our bed is sprinkled with red rose petals and there’s a bunch of fresh flowers on a table in front of the lounge.

The room also opens up onto a private courtyard packed with tropical plants and vines growing up a latticed trellis. The hotel seems to have lots of these secret little nooks and crannies everywhere. Unbelievable that we’re only paying $100 for all this gorgeousness!

After a quick unpack, we check out the nearby Hindu temple then spend ages buying gifts for home from a nice Indian couple. From here we wander down towards the water and settle in for lunch at the interesting Tempo Hotel. This is just another of the many fabulous hotels right on the beachfront. We have yet another perfect seafood meal – lobster bisque, calamari salad, shrimp salad, hot chips and lime sodas. Meanwhile we watch kids playing down near the water and dhows sailing slowly past.

Back to our hotel where we pay for our room, confirm our Kenya Airways flight for tomorrow, order a taxi to pick us up in the morning and ask for a 3am wake-up call. We spend the rest of the afternoon reading on the bed then about 5pm we spend ages in an antique shop that Mark came across earlier. It’s an Aladdin’s cave, jammed with great stuff but too expensive.

As the sun starts to set we climb up to the roof for sundowners. Mark orders a beer while I’m happy with my Bacardi and coke. As we watch the sun disappear into the ocean, the Islamic call-to-prayer adds to the Eastern ambience of Arab-style pillows, small tables and hanging lanterns.

Great people-watching too as the Swedish lady from the Emerson Spice has turned up and is greeting a group of friends. She’s about my age but very classy – not in a ‘wearing expensive label clothes’ way but confident in who she is. With her long hair, ethnic jewellery and black kaftan she has the bohemian look I love – it’s says culture and travel, being yourself and not giving a flying fuck about the latest fashion or fad – going to chuck out all my dopey ‘corporate’ clothes when I get home.

After the sun sets across the water, a full moon rises over the rooftops of Stone Town – nice. In the dark, we set off for Fodorhani Gardens. Like last night there are thousands of people eating from the food stalls but mainly they just seem to be hanging out. Everyone is dressed in their most colourful finery especially the ladies and little girls. The local boys are again running and launching themselves off the harbour wall into the sea much to the delight of the crowds.

Livingstone’s is just a short walk along the sand which is also packed with people. While we order more drinks we watch everyone having a riotous time with the usual dhows sailing close to the shore. Dinner is spaghetti bolognese for me and lobster for Mark. A lovely end to our amazing time here in Zanzibar.

Bed at 10pm for our early start.

Thursday 9th October, 2014     Zanzibar to Nairobi to Johannesburg

The alarm wakes us at 2.30am and we’re ready and packed by the time the guy from the desk knocks on our door. We follow him on foot through the dark lane ways as the taxi has to park way over near the mosque at the waterfront. It’s always exciting getting up this early with no-one around and the temperature a lot cooler.

The airport is about half an hour away and very small and deserted at this early hour. It’s pretty dingy too and the staff hasn’t a clue. One guy checking in his bags ends up going behind the desk and getting on the computer to sort out whatever problem is they’re having. The rest of the staff is standing around chatting and laughing. No-one is in a hurry but we’re finally pointed to a bus that takes us to the plane revving up on the tarmac.

After all the slowness, we actually take off twenty five minutes early – pretty funny. The plane is nice and we end up with two seats each. Breakfast is served with tea and coffee. We’re flying AIR Kenya so instead of heading straight for Johannesburg we have to fly two hours north to Nairobi first – love that we’re going to another country even if we’ll only see the airport. And no real problem especially as we get to fly past Mount Kilimanjaro – Africa’s highest mountain, in case you didn’t know.

At Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport we hang out in transit for an hour and a half having something to eat and getting onto Facebook. I give Lebo’s Backpackers in Soweto a call as we’re hoping to stay there tonight. They do have a room and she tells us to give them a call when we land and they’ll have someone pick us up for $40.

The five hours to Johannesburg goes quickly with individual screens to watch a movie. While we’re waiting for our bags to turn up on the carousel, I ring Lebo’s Backpackers. No-one is available to come and pick us up so we’ll just have to get a taxi. The drive is forty minutes past the horrible city and towards the south west. Ugliness is everywhere – shrivelled, dry, dust and windy – with a backdrop of huge hills of dirt – hideous scars left over from the gold mining.

And reaching Soweto is no improvement although it’s the last thing you’d expect anyway. This is where the poor blacks were dumped when they were brought here to work in the mines. Now there’s supposed to be a sort of middle class here with some nicer areas but it all looks horrible. Our driver keeps ringing people on his mobile as he obviously doesn’t know where we mean although he keeps saying ‘Yes. I know’. If it was the Amazing Race we’d be eliminated! And it’s already showing $70 on the meter – fuck that!

Finally we pull up at Lebo’s, a colourful place with a green park opposite. This is the most attractive place we’ve seen anywhere around here. Across the road are a few guys hanging out under the tress and bicycles are lined up for the daily bike tours they arrange here. I can tell right now that I won’t be doing that – too fucking lazy.

Inside we meet the lovely Mary who shows us our room – $40 for a small, basic bedroom with a shared bathroom next door. The eating area is right outside our door and all the girls who work here are having something to eat and having a riotous time.

We check out the rest of the place which is really tiny but very cutely African. We get talking to an Aussie couple who are having a wine and a beer in the courtyard. Rob and Helen are in their late fifties and we get on like a house on fire from the start. They’ve been in Ethiopia for a month and on a truck safari for six weeks. It was a bit of a disaster with a lazy guide and really old people in the group and they say they’ll never do one again. We plan to meet up again for dinner and drinks later.

We’re stuffed after our early start and decide to have an afternoon nap. On dark we have dinner with Rob and Helen as well as Elody, a young German girl, and Dan, a young Swiss guy. Elody is working in a women’s centre helping victims of domestic violence and she’s been here for six weeks already. Dan has been to Namibia and so we’ve all got lots of travel stories to swap. Besides the great company, the food is excellent. The lovely cook reminds us of our hostess at Legends Backpackers in Swaziland – very second word is ‘Ayaya’ with a huge smile.

We have a lovely salad, coleslaw and baked fish with ice cream and cake as dessert. More drinks afterwards by the fire with very loud music. I go to bed later leaving Mark and Rob drinking the bar dry.

Friday 10th October, 2014       Johannesburg

Breakfast is with all our mates from last night – Rob, Helen, Elody and Dan. While Elody goes off to work and Rob and Helen plan a bike ride around Soweto, Mark and I pack for our afternoon flight home. We book a car to take us to the airport then set off to walk to Nelson Mandela’s house. We visited it in 2007 but really it’s the only thing to see in walking distance of Lebo’s, so we’re told by Mary on the desk.

The’ easy walk’ ends up being over an hour through an ugly, barren suburb with a hot wind blowing in our faces. Fucking hell!! The only greenery is weeds growing in the gutters and most houses look like building sites with piles of dirt and rubbish filling the front yards.

At first there aren’t any footpaths at all but the closer we get to Mandela’s the better the road, the sidewalks are paved and there are even a few trees. This is along the tourist bus route so things have been spruced up.

We know when we’re almost there by all the cars and buses but we’re still surprised at the change in the area. Since we were here seven years ago, Nelson Mandela’s house has been ‘fixed up’ – this translates to ‘fucked up’! A wide concreted area has replaced the dirt footpath and a tall fence surrounds the old house that you now enter through a sort of ticket office. The authentic atmosphere is gone with the little house now sitting forlorn amongst modern cafes, restaurants, souvenir shops and market stalls.

Very thirsty, we find an outdoor table under a tree for drinks to order lunch as Lebo’s doesn’t provide it. From here we watch the locals dressed in skins and feathers milling around waiting for their next street performance – a bloody circus!

We decide to escape back to the backpackers but, guess what, no taxis. All the tourists seem to turn up in bug tour buses – huge, air-conditioned things that drive rich people around the sad streets so they can gawp at the poverty.

I hate the thought of the long walk back in the heat and the wind and I keep looking behind hoping to see a taxi or a bus heading our way. Actually only a couple of cars pass us the whole time and the only person we see is a little boy trying to get money out of us. This place is like something after the apocalypse – a slight exaggeration but I hate it anyway.

Very glad to arrive back at Lebo’s and start getting ready to leave. Rob and Helen still haven’t returned from their bike tour so we can’t say goodbye. While we wait for the car we sit outside with Rob and cool down with a soft drink each. He’s an interesting young guy who’s spent the last month in Windhoek in Namibia so we enjoy our last hour here at Lebo’s.

Not sorry to be leaving Soweto, though, and definitely not sorry to be leaving Johannesburg or the whole bloody country for that matter. Past the slag heaps, the boring suburbs, the ugly city, we’re happy to escape to the airport terminal.

A late afternoon takeoff means a night flight and after a Temazapam each we sleep away at least some of the fourteen hour trip back to Sydney

Saturday 11th October, 2014

Sydney

Home to our beautiful family

Final thoughts – the most adventurous and probably best holiday we’ve ever had. Loved it all!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Laos and Thailand 2001

Saturday   27th January, 2001               Sydney to Bangkok

After kissing goodbye to our precious cats, Benny and Layla, we leave home with Angie and Lauren to say goodbye to Mum and Dad and then on to Pelican Airport to catch the plane to Sydney. I break my heart sitting on the plane as I see my two beautiful girls waiting at the fence to wave us off. A month is a long time to be away from them and I can barely stand to think about it. It takes me nearly the whole forty minutes to Sydney to stop crying but feel better once we arrive.

At the Domestic Terminal we grab the airport bus to the International Terminal and by now we’re both feeling very excited. I love the feeling we have when we get here. Everything is done and we can relax usually for the first time in months.

At the baggage check-in we’re second in line as we’re here three hours early. This means that we get great window seats at the back of the plane. To pass the time, we eat pizza, buy a travel book called ‘The Wrong Way Home’ by Peter Moore, eat McDonalds and then find an outdoor beer garden and bar. Sitting in the sun and drinking beer must be the most relaxing thing in the world. Two beers later we pass through immigration and buy duty free bottles of Bacardi and Jim Beam, a carton of cigarettes for presents (or bribery) and a disposable underwater camera.

Our Thai Airways plane takes off at 5.15pm and we quickly move to the centre aisle next to us which has three empty seats. This is such a bonus as we can lie down for almost the whole trip. We make the most of it all by me drinking strong Bacardi with orange juice and Mark drinking a couple of wines. Dinner is good and so are two movies. Neither of us sleep but we manage to pass an enjoyable nine hours.

As we land, it’s 10pm in Bangkok and 2am in Sydney. Airport formalities are quick and we pick up a few maps and brochures from the information booth. We decide to get the airport bus into the city even though it’ll take longer than a taxi. This is our first backpacking trip on our own so we’re going to start it in the right vein.

We arrive at Khao San Road after forty minutes and, although it’s now midnight, it’s absolutely pumping. We’d expected to find deserted, dark streets but everything is open and the street is full of raging backpackers. This is incredibly exciting and any traces of tiredness have now gone.

Our first priority is to get accommodation even though we’re dying for alcohol. The last time we were here we’d eaten at a fabulous café around the corner so we head towards there to get a room. This is the Sawasdee Guesthouse and it looks fantastic. The whole lower floor consists of the café, bar and foyer which all open onto the street. People are lounging around drinking and eating and listening to music. We want to stay here so much but they’re full so off we trudge to the guesthouse next door.

Everywhere is booked out and we start to have visions of sleeping on the street. Along Thanon Rambutri we try the Viengtai Hotel where we stayed with Intrepid tours but they have only one deluxe room left and want $70AUS even though it’s already one o’clock in the morning.

Further along we ask at a little café that had become our favourite last time. So relieved when they tell us they have spare rooms. Not so relieved when we drag our gear up a winding cement staircase and see what’s on offer. Besides looking like a firetrap, it’s dirty and the shared bathrooms are hideous. The rooms are partitioned off from each other with the top foot or so made of mesh. This means we can hear people talking in the other rooms and they sound like a bunch of drug addicts. The place itself reminds us of where Richard stayed in The Beach so we’re very polite but say we’ll keep looking.

The lady who owns it is so sweet and runs after us down the street to tell us of another guesthouse down a nearby alleyway. Luck must be on our side as we just beat a young French couple to the door and take the only room left.

This is the 7Holder Guesthouse run by a smiling Thai lady called Mumma. Our room is on the bottom floor, it’s clean and we even have a bathroom. All this for 150 baht or $6 AUS. Besides this we’re only ten metres through a winding alleyway to Khao San Road where we head after chucking our gear on the bed. As usual there’s loud music, tuk tuks and backpackers everywhere.

We have beer and food at a table in the street and then on to another café for more beer. At 2am we decide we’d better get some sleep even though we feel great. After quick cold showers to cool us down we finally get to sleep.

Sunday  28th January, 2001.                  Bangkok

At 7:30 we’re up for more cold showers and have hysterics at the towel that comes with the room. We’d been worried that we wouldn’t get one but this thing is almost the size of a bedspread – you had to be there. After throwing on our clothes we’re out into the street as quickly as we can.

Today we have a heap of things planned to do. Outside it’s blue skies and hot already and just how we remember Bangkok. Our alleyway zigzags between Thanon Rambutri and Khao San Road and has double storey wooden Thai houses running along one side and mainly guesthouses on the other. It’s a nice atmosphere. One strange thing though are the Dog’s Toilet signs painted every few metres on the wall of the alley – what the?

Breakfast is in Khao San Road at a big, busy open-air café with fans buzzing overhead and loud music coming from somewhere in the back. The sun is pouring in and this is absolute heaven. Unbelievably, there are still some of the same people we saw last night still sitting in the same seats and looking definitely worse for wear. We only have 120 baht until the moneychangers open so this means we eat like the other backpackers. We share two slices of toast, one mushroom omelet and a small bottle of water.

After breakfast we ask Mumma if we can book the room for another half-day as we want to have cold showers before we get on the train tonight. She’s a sweetie and lets us have the room for 120 baht till 6pm. We talk with her and her daughter, Dang, while admiring the buddha shrine in the foyer. This has the usual offerings of incense, fruit and flowers and surprisingly a bowl of Tiny Teddy biscuits – what the?

Out into Khao San Road we change $100US into baht and ring home from a little place down an interesting alleyway off the main drag. It’s cool and dark and very basic with cheap cafes and tables and chairs set up down the middle. The phone connection is bad but great to hear Mum and Dad and it only cost us 100 baht ($4AUS).

Before we start our planned itinerary, we’ve got one more thing to do and that’s to get over to the Royal Hotel to pick up our train tickets. Following a map, we get out onto a busy road and pass open-air pavilions where people are playing some sort of gambling game with cards maybe like lotto or scratchies.

Across an intersection choked with traffic we come to the Royal. The foyer is big and impressive with lots of activity and, amazingly, here are our tickets. We’d booked them through Intrepid Tours in Australia as this weekend is the Chinese New Year celebration long weekend and most trains would have been booked out ages ago. I don’t know how else we could get to Laos except to fly to Vientienne. We’d decided to go overland, though, as we want to cross the Friendship Bridge on the Mekong.

Outside the Royal Hotel, we walk for a while next to a small canal (called a klong in Thai) but soon hail down a tuktuk to take us to Jim Thomson’s House. It’s an exhilarating twenty-minute drive through the streets and a great way to cool down. Being Sunday the traffic is thin so we avoid being choked to death by exhaust fumes as we have on some previous rides especially in India. We eventually turn off the main road and into a rutted side lane to reach Jim Thomson’s House situated on the edge of a klong.

Jim Thomson was an American who was based in Thailand during the war and then stayed on to revitalise the Thai silk industry. He disappeared when on a walk whilst holidaying in Malaysia and his house is now a major tourist attraction. The setting is magic and the gardens are a jungle of tropical plants and flowers. The house is actually two very old teak houses that he had transferred here from Ayutthaya in 1959 and joined together to house his vast collection of antiques and treasures. I can say that this is my ultimate dream home.

The entire house is teak with overhead fans in every room and all with shutters opening onto the garden or the klong below. A tiny slow-walking Thai girl leads us from room to room describing the treasures each one holds. Crystal chandeliers from Belgium, Chinese vases from the Ming dynasty, 18th century paintings and rugs and every piece of furniture unique. It’s sparsely furnished so that each piece looks like a piece of art and yet there is an overall feeling of comfort and homeliness. I just love it.

Before we leave we have lunch at a café next to a pond near the house. While chatting to some European tourists we have a Thai chilli fish dish and a large cold Heineken. One traveller tells us where to get the BTS (Bangkok Transport System), or the monorail, which has been newly built since we were here in 1997.

It’s only a short walk down the laneway and up to the platform where we’re on the train before we know it. This is extremely clean and almost empty, being Sunday I guess, and we have good views of the city from up here. We want to get to the Oriental Hotel which apparently is at the end of the line so this has worked out perfectly.

After a fifteen-minute ride we’re back down in the streets looking for the Oriental. We ask the way but we always seem to get someone who is trying to send us off somewhere else, for a commission presumably. Bangkok must be full of men combing the streets for lost looking foreigners they can pounce on. Despite being caught twice last visit, we still manage to be conned and end up in a tuktuk at a pier on the Chao Praya River where some guy is trying to sell us klong tours.

We end up stumbling upon the Oriental ourselves only to be turned away at the gate for looking like filthy backpackers – great. No real problem as the up-river water-taxi pier is nearby. It’s a creaky old wooden building which is what we love about Asia. With longtail boats and ferries of all shapes and sizes, the river is almost as busy as the streets. Our ferry is already jammed with people and we have to jump onto the back deck as the boat washes up against the pier. The sun is scorching but the breeze from the river cools us down and it’s an enjoyable ten minute ride upriver.

We’re part of the crowd that jumps off at the busy pier near Wat Po and we’re soon heading for the temple. Here, two different tuktuk drivers tell us that it’s closed till three o’clock but they can take us to another temple in the meantime. This is weird as the Lonely Planet doesn’t mention anything about it being closed in the middle of the day. We walk around to the main entrance and, of course, it’s not closed and never is – just another scam to make money – nice try anyway.

Inside the grounds of Wat Po are tourists, tourists and more tourists. It’s about two hundred degrees in the shade so the first thing we do is buy drinks and ice creams near the souvenir stalls. The main reason we’re here is to have a massage at the Wat Po Massage school so we set out to find it amongst the labyrinth of temples, stupas and pagodas. The school is situated in two open-air buildings with overhead fans and rows of raised beds. People are lined up at the entrance showing how popular it’s become. We book in and told we’ll only have to wait about half an hour.

To pass the time we wander around the complex and spend most of our time in the temple of the huge reclining buddha. Many Thai people are in here making offerings of flowers and burning handfuls of incense at small shrines at the base of the buddha. There are rows of tiny candles, brass vases of flowers and smoke from burning oil and incense – so beautiful. Along the walls of the temple are rows of monks’ bowls and Mark drops coin donations in these before we go back out into the sun.

At the massage school we still have a ten minute wait so we sit in the shade in the doorway and watch some young Thai girls having foot massages. Our turn now and we’re lucky to be on adjoining beds. I’m given a pair of baggy pyjama pants to put on as I’m wearing a long skirt and then we’re ready to start. The massage is great at times but so painful at other times. It consists of half an hour of pulling, pushing, stretching and cracking. Despite the pain the atmosphere in here is wonderful with the massage people all dressed in bright yellow pants and tops and the ceiling fans keeping us cool.

Outside in the street I buy a bag of cold watermelon from a street cart and then we hail down a tuktuk. I tell the driver we want to go to Wat Mahatat but he can’t understand what I’m saying and then cracks up laughing when he realises what I said and how I said it. He starts telling his mates and it’s a great joke on me – ha, ha.

At Wat Mahatat there are no tourists but us and it’s so much more peaceful, like a temple should be. The large temple in the centre is surrounded on all four sides by long open-air pavilions lined with rows of about fifty larger-than-life golden buddhas. Local Thai people are lying around on the cool cement floors, some asleep, some talking and some eating. It’s like a family day out.

A man takes us into the back of the main temple where about a hundred people are doing a slow-walking meditation led by a monk sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of them.  At the rear of the temple are huge gold-leafed sitting buddhas where the man who’d shown us in, hands us lotus flowers to give as offerings. He shows us how to make the offerings with palms together and heads bent. A bit pointless since we aren’t Buddhists but it’s a nice experience and he gets paid for the flowers. We have another quick look around the grounds before finding another tuktuk to take us back to Khao San Road.

At a tiny upstairs internet place, we send E-mails off home and I’m in tears again. I just hope everything is okay – a month is so long. Back down in the street we buy cushion covers for $4AUS each and a hemp water bottle carrier. We try a different café now for rice and a Thai salad that’s so hot I can’t eat more than a mouthful but Mark eats the lot. We change more money and then race back to the room for cold showers. I have three in a row as I just can’t cool down then I end up passing out on the bed while Mark packs. He’s my darling.

At 6pm we say goodbye to Mumma and head around to a massage parlour in another laneway between Khao San Road and Thanon Rambutri. This is so popular probably as it’s got a good write-up in Lonely Planet. We have to leave our packs just inside the door and I worry the whole time that they’ll be gone when we come out.

Firstly we’re taken to a room at the back where we have our feet washed and dried, then since we’ve already had a body massage today, we ask for foot massage. There’s obviously a communication breakdown, though, as we’re led upstairs to a dark room where the floor is covered in mattresses and where tourists are all getting the torture treatment. Our foot massages never happen and we end up with the torture treatment too. It’s funny but we’re glad when it’s over and can retrieve our bags again.

In Khao San Road we order food from a table set up in the street, as this will be our last chance to eat before we get on the train. Mark orders chips and gets fried rice instead but no problem and we both have a beer. It’s dark by now and still hot and steamy.

With our packs on, we set off through the crowds to the end of the road to get a tuktuk to the station. Hualomphong Station is packed and very exciting. After buying water for the train, we board at 7.30pm. I keep nodding off in my seat as soon as we sit down so Mark makes up the top bunk for me and I’m dead to the world before the train pulls out at eight o’clock. Mark stays up for another half an hour but has an early night as well.

Monday     29th January, 2001               Vientienne, Laos

The night is comfortable but freezing in our overly air-conditioned carriage. Although I wake a couple of times to put on more clothes, I have plenty of sleep. Mark also sleeps exceptionally well considering he’s too big for the bed.

At five thirty in the morning, I’m awake in my bunk, writing up the diary and eating chocolates – extremely pleasant. At seven o’clock I wake Mark and we do the going to the toilet/cleaning our teeth ablutions before our American breakfast arrives.

This is provided by a young girl who’s been sleeping in her seat with the breakfast food in a plastic bag at her feet. We have eggs, a tiny sausage, bacon, toast, jam and tea then watch the passing countryside as we speed towards the border at Nong Khai. The scenery is rather uninspiring and the day looks slightly overcast but we are on a fantastic adventure so stop complaining, Virginia.

Finally we pull into Nong Khai station where we’re met, not surprisingly, by a crowd of tuktuk drivers. The tuktuks here are really a little trailer pulled by a motorbike so they’re probably called something else. We share with a well-travelled European guy who says we’ve paid too much as the border is only about a kilometre away.

Here we quickly pass through customs and immigration on the Thai side of the border then cram into a tiny bus with other travellers to take us to Laos. The Laos border is situated on the other side of the Mekong River and we cross the Australian-built Friendship Bridge to reach it. Again, formalities are quick as we already have our visas and in no time we’re racing off in a taxi with the friendliest little man ever.

The difference from Thailand is immediately apparent. Previously a part of France’s Indochina along with Cambodia and Vietnam, Laos has only allowed foreign travellers in since the nineteen nineties. Being effectually cut off from the rest of the world for almost twenty years it’s remained a rare treasure of what South East Asia once was.  It’s obviously a much poorer country than its neighbouring Thailand but quieter, much less westernised and also what we’d hoped for – we love it already.

We’ll be staying in Vientienne tonight but we want to see Buddha Park, called Xieng Khuan, on the way. The park is actually a small distance in the opposite direction but it’ll save us coming back thirty kilometres later. We drive for about fifteen minutes through villages along the Mekong and see that most of the houses are grass shacks and the road is rutted and unpaved.

Buddha Park is, as the name suggests, a park full of buddha statues of all shapes and sizes. There’s a massive reclining buddha, hundreds of smaller ones, stupas and flowering bougainvillea everywhere. Situated on the banks of the Mekong, it’s a peaceful setting and there are only a few people around so we enjoy the serenity. I give flower offerings (no idea what I’m doing) while Mark climbs the steep stairs of a temple.

Back in the car, we set off for the capital of Laos, Vientienne. This is supposedly the quietest capital city in the world and it appears to be just that. Most buildings are only two floors high and the streets are wide with very little traffic. Despite this, it doesn’t really impress me too much but this is probably due to the weather which is still a bit cool and overcast.

We’ve decided on a guesthouse near Chinatown called Vannasinh which turns out to be a good choice. It’s in a side alley, atmospheric, small and cheap at $20AUS a night. It’s a bit smelly but appears to be clean and we have our own bathroom with the ‘throne’ really looking like a throne on it’s raised dais.

Since we’re starving we quickly dump our gear and head out for food. We eat at the closest café which is run by an aging French hippie making it a mix of Asian and Western. After a quick snack we grab a tuktuk outside to take us to the Talaat Sao or the Morning Market. This is the local shopping centre and most of the things for sale are hideous western clothes and basically a lot of junk. We don’t stay long and then spend ages trying to find another tuktuk to take us to the middle of town where there’s supposed to be some interesting cafes along the river.

Our driver obviously has no idea what we mean and very happily drives us straight to a huge golden stupa. We have no idea where we are but think we may as well get out for a look as it’s probably somewhere we’ll eventually want to see. No-one speaks English and our driver has disappeared so we hit the Lonely Planet only to find we are at Laos’ most sacred/important religious monument. This is Pha That Luang which translates to World-Precious Sacred Stupa.

It may be precious but it’s less than exciting and we wander across the road to the monks’ quarters which are set in beautiful flowering gardens with colored shrines and temples. This is incredibly interesting and we watch the monks going about their daily chores in their saffron robes and have fun with some local kids who want to see themselves on the video.

Back out on the street we luckily find a tuktuk driver who does understand us and we head off for the river cafes. At a leafy café on a quiet corner we eat chicken, fried noodles and vegetables then drink Lao Beer while talking to some friendly English backpackers. It’s more touristy here than where we’re staying and we prefer our quiet little area.

The river is definitely not beautiful here and is disappointingly just big and muddy but then it is the famous Mekong. Since we stayed in a guesthouse on the Ganges last year, our goal is to stay on famous rivers all over the world but we’ll wait till we get to Luang Prabang where the Mekong will hopefully be more picturesque.

Our next plan is to get out to Wat Sok Pa Luang which is a temple a few kilometres out of town. Instead of a tuktuk we have our first ride in a jumbo. These are slightly larger vehicles but just as colourful and noisy. Our driver is a sweetie and takes us straight to the village next to the temple which is our real destination.

Here in a stilted wooden hut we have a wonderful time. The hut is open on three sides and surrounded by palms, banana trees and bougainvillea. On wooden benches at the top of the stairs, a few backpackers in sarongs are lounging around drinking tea after their massages and herbal saunas. Can’t stop laughing getting into our sarongs and then enter the sauna which is my first ever. There’s six of us crammed in here but it’s barely possible to see the person next to you. Sweat is pouring out of us which I suppose is good but it’s so hot and claustrophobic that I can’t stand it. I feel like running out the door like a mad woman but everyone else is looking very ‘cool’ so I have to behave. I keep thinking ‘I’ll stay till I count to fifty’, or something like that, and so I stay a respectable fifteen minutes before making my escape. Mark is much more impressive and braves it for about half an hour.

The thing to do now is to not shower for three hours to let the herbs get into our pores. I’m very proud of my first sauna and we cool down while talking to two young English guys who teach school in China. We all drink green tea and then it’s our turn for massages.

For forty minutes we lay on raised beds getting our first Lao massage which is at least as painful as the Thai massages we’d hoped to have left behind us. It’s still a magical experience, though, as we lay here watching the other travellers and the monks and villagers below us.

Back into the sauna again – five minutes for me and ten minutes for Mark. More cooling down and then we dress before walking up the dirt track to the temple which is uninteresting except for a few monks wandering around. We have no idea how we’ll get back to town until we see our driver who’s waited for us all this time. It really goes to show how few fares there are if he’s prepared to wait hours for us. We’re so grateful anyway. On the way into town we pick up a Dutch girl who’d been at the sauna and is walking all the way back. She’s also grateful as it’s getting cool by now.

Despite looking forward to hot showers, we only manage a lukewarm bottom wash and have to jump into bed to warm up. Of course, we both fall asleep and have to force ourselves to get up at seven o’clock. So tempting to stay here but we don’t want to miss out on our first night in Laos.

Besides this, we have to work out how we’re going to get to Vang Vieng tomorrow. We try to book a tuktuk for the morning from the guy behind the desk in the foyer but he tells us to just go out onto the road and one will come along. This sounds a bit dodgey but it’ll have to do. Outside it’s dark but a bit warmer so it’s nice walking around the streets. Our guesthouse is only a street away from a busy area of local cafes and shops. This whole area seems to be just for locals and there isn’t a backpacker to be seen.

We choose a café where lots of Lao people seem to be having a great time. The décor is basic to say the least but this is the real thing and what we prefer. The floor is littered with lettuce leaves and other green vegetables and we soon find out why. Our meal consists of a table full of dishes and an electric bowl in the middle with steam rising off the hot water inside.

Copying the locals, we put onions, garlic, noodles and slithers of meat into the boiling water to cook. These are then fished out with a pair of chopsticks (not easy), place inside a lettuce leaf, add rice paper, sprouts and ginger, wrap it like a parcel and then dip it into a chili, satay or soy dipping sauce also on the table. It’s great fun and by the end of the meal we’re also ankle deep in lettuce leaves. Mark loves this food and is having the best time eating and drinking Beer Lao. I admire the white tiled walls, plastic tables and chairs and plastic flowers then wander outside to watch two women preparing the dishes for the next lot of customers.

Walking home we pass a nightclub and decide to have a look as we’re wide awake by now. Inside we can’t see anything except the stage and a spinning disco ball on the ceiling. As our eyes adjust we can see that there’s a few locals spread around and a lot of young girls. In the ladies loo I can barely get in as it’s packed with them all ploughing on heaps of makeup in the mirror.

We can’t really work out what happening on stage as each song is sung by a different person who disappears immediately afterwards. Don’t know if it’s a talent quest or this is normal. Anyway, they’re all good and we get slightly drunk and even have a romantic dance. The drinks are incredibly expensive and two beers each cost more than our room. Being less than sober, we find this hysterical. It’s worth it anyway to see another side of Lao life. Home, then, to pack and straight to sleep.

Tuesday    30th January, 2001     Vientienne to Vang Vieng

The alarm wakes us at six o’clock and we’re dressed and out on the street in fifteen minutes. The main road is deserted but a tuktuk appears from nowhere and we’re soon off to the bus station. We’ve only got a vague idea about when buses leave for Vang Vieng but we can get a songthaew if it doesn’t work out. No problem as a bus is leaving at seven o’clock and we manage to get seats.

The bus station is a hive of activity so we’re kept amused while we wait. The best thing about our wait is that we buy fresh French bread sticks filled with salad from one of the many young girls wandering around with baskets full of them. The weather is warm and sunny already so everything is wonderful.

We leave on time with half the bus filled with travellers and there’s standing room only for lots of people. The aisles are stacked with sacks of grain and vegetables which is usual on Asian buses and no-one seems to mind.

It’s an interesting three-hour drive and through open windows we see how primitive most people live. Villages consist of grass huts and we even pass a line of working elephants walking along the road through Kasi. I swear, I nearly jump out the window with excitement. After an hour of driving through flat cultivated areas, the last two hours are quite mountainous and reminds us of Northern Thailand. Plastic spew bags are handed out and thrown out the window as people fill them up. Mark is feeling sick as well and we’re so glad to reach Vang Vieng at eleven o’clock.

This is really just a village that’s become popular with travellers for its limestone caves as well as being a stopover between Vientienne and Luang Prabang which is still seven hours north. We love it immediately.

Our bus takes us right into the dusty village square which is surrounded by cafes, guesthouses and the local market. On the way in we see a guesthouse we like so we race back to book a room. This is two floors high although the metal reinforcing rods sticking out of the roof indicate the hope of an optimistic future. Our room is clean and sunny although we do have a leaking toilet and only warm water.  At $8AUS a night I don’t think we’ll complain.

A quick unpack and we head down to the river. This is the Nam Song and it’s picture-postcard material. It gently bends towards the village with limestone karsts as its western backdrop. The mountains are spectacular and rise up one behind the other as far as we can see to the north.

The village is situated on only one bank of the river but two bamboo pedestrian bridges lead to another smaller village not far from the opposite side. Water buffalo are wading in the shallows and three naked little boys are playing in the deeper water.

We walk along a path that runs along the water’s edge and come across the La Pavot Café set up high in the trees. A bamboo staircase leads up from the river and we sit on the verandah amongst hanging plants and caged birds. While we wait for our drinks a young boy sits near us with his pet monkey. We really could sit here all day but we’ve got so much to see.

Back along the river we find a path that leads to the morning market which is situated in a large open-sided building. The fruit and vegetables look wonderful as well as the French bread rolls and baguettes. At a tiny stall set up with plastic chairs we order a noodle dish and watch the girls preparing the herbs and vegetables in a mortar and pestle. It looks like a thick vegetable soup and comes with a plate of lettuce leaves. After eating I bargain for place mats and a table runner all woven locally. The girls serving are so sweet and one looks too young to have a tiny baby.

Now it’s time to find out where we can hire rubber tubes to float down the river. We know about this from reading other travellers’ stories and it sounds wonderful. A guy in a stall on the edge of the square hires us two tubes for the afternoon so we hurry back to the room to get into our swimmers.

Our guesthouse has a very unique safety protocol. Each time we go out we have to leave our keys on a table in the courtyard. This is ‘guarded’ by someone who’s either swinging in a hammock or lying on a nearby mattress. The only problem is that the ‘guard’ is always asleep and you just grab your key each time you come back. Love to have such a laid-back approach to life.

Back in the square we find a tuktuk driver who’ll take us up river. On the way out of town we stop to pick up an ancient Hmong couple who are heading back to their village. They’re both wearing the traditional Hmong dress of indigo clothes with coloured trim – wonderful. The four of us do lots of smiling and nodding and then wave goodbye as we’re suddenly dropped off on the main road. We find the river a few hundred metres down a dusty laneway and push off into the cool river.

At first this is relaxing and just what we need but the river is running so slowly and we don’t seem to be getting anywhere fast. We decide to put our thongs on our hands and use them as paddles. We pass groups of young people smoking dope and drinking beer they’ve brought with them. We pass fishermen and buffalo but there’s really not much else to look at. We see other people desperately trying to push themselves along by using sticks and all of them are jealously eyeing off our rubber paddles. No way baby, I want to get the hell out of here.

Two hours later we’re overjoyed to see the village. We’re dripping wet as we walk through the market but I just want to get to a shower. Thankfully, the water is hot and Mark also does some washing and we hang it out to dry on the front balcony.

Another thing we’d read about was that we must watch the sunset across the river at the aptly called Sunset Café. Firstly we have a drink on the verandah of the French-owned Nam Son Hotel also situated on the banks of the river. This is very French-colonial with white wicker furniture and potted plants. Instead of buying alcohol, we’ve brought along our duty free Bacardi and Jim Beam disguised in water bottles.

After a couple of drinks we move over to the Sunset Café where lots of other travellers are eating and drinking and all waiting for the sun to set. The café is next to one of the bamboo pedestrian bridges and we watch people crossing over to reach the small village on the other side.

Travellers are also being transported across the river in trailers dragged by noisy engines, women are washing themselves and their clothes and children are playing in the water. Surrounded by flowering bougainvillea and with the limestone peaks opposite it’s just too beautiful.

The sun finally sets in a cloudless sky and is definitely worth the wait. We order noodles and a Lao dish for dinner and talk to two French-Canadian girls. After more drinks we walk back to the guesthouse and then a wander around town in the dark. We stop for a drink at the only bar in town but soon head back for an early night at eight o’clock. A great day.

Wednesday        31st January, 2001               Vang Vieng

Because we have so much sleep we’re awake and up by 6.30am. We decide to check out the village on the other side of the town centre. The morning is fresh and a lovely time of day to be out walking. The village is slowly coming to life and we watch people cooking and sweeping. The houses are all raised off the ground and are mostly grass and bamboo huts with a couple of wooden and cement buildings owned by the wealthy few.

Within the village we come across Wat That where local women are putting food onto bamboo trays set up under the trees. After preparing the food they fill about six metal bowls on each tray. Nearby, monks in saffron robes are sitting around outside the monks’ quarters and village men are squatting in another area opposite. Other village women put handfuls of rice into alms bowls set in rows on a long table in the centre of the compound. Other people walk along the table giving offerings of money and sweets into each bowl. Soon the monks collect a bamboo tray each and their own alms bowl and carry them to an open-sided building where music is being played.

Our video camera battery runs out so we race back to our room for a new one while the sun is rising now in a pale pink sky. By the time we get back to the temple, all the village people have taken places on the floor inside the building while the monks sit together at the front. The chanting begins and we watch this fabulous spectacle for an hour amazed at how lucky we are to be here.

We’re starving by now so we leave in search of breakfast. Down a dusty street back in town, we eat in a clean little café where a television is belting loud karaoke music. Strange hearing the Eagles and Credence Clearwater sung with an Asian accent – just doesn’t make it somehow.

In a nearby shack we hire little-girl type pushbikes from a happy lady and set off through the village. Bicycle riding is not my talent but Vang Vieng is perfect for amateurs – no traffic and wide dirt roads. We ride through the other side of the village and down to the Vang Vieng Resort which is really just a few sad looking huts down on the river. I think they make most of their money from tourists who have to pay a toll to get through here to reach Tham Jang cave on the other side of the river.

Riding across the wooden bridge is a bit of a worry but soon we arrive at the steps to the cave. More money here before starting the climb of a hundred or so steps to the mouth of the cave. Besides being totally exhausted by the time I reach the top, we’ve also forgotten to bring water with us. The cave is impressive but has been touristified with walkways and bridges inside and all lit up with coloured lights. So hideous really and we don’t stay.

Back down the stairs we walk around the other side of the cliff to find a few smaller caves which all contain buddha shrines and offerings of incense and fruit. A grotto at the base of the cliff is filled with clear running water and some Japanese tourists are there have a hilarious time. We decide to go back to get our swimmers as the heat is stifling by now and the water looks so good.

After changing at the guesthouse, we cycle first to the market and then down to the river. Across another bamboo bridge with a makeshift tollgate in the centre, we come to an interesting tourist attraction. A hand painted sign on a stick reads ‘The Vang Vieng Tan Centre – Sunbathe Centre’ and consists of a few straw mats on a piece of grass about two metres square down on the riverbank. We guess you pay to sunbake on the mats which is not a bad initiative if it wasn’t for a pile of rubbish sitting several feet away.

From here we try to get to Luci Cave indicated by a sign pointing across a dry rice paddy. We stupidly try to cycle across it but have to turn back. Then we have to climb over a bamboo fence where Mark nearly breaks his leg when the fence collapses under him. We continue our pathetic bike riding adventure by trying to follow some other lost riders along the riverbank. This is no easy task as the bank consists mainly of rocks and we end up getting off and pushing.

At last we come to a sign pointing to a cave five kilometres along a dirt road. This leads to a small village of grass huts but the thought of riding five kilometres there and back in this heat is too much. We head back along the river, across the bamboo bridge and up through the market to finally have lunch in a lovely leafy café. It appears to be owned by a French guy who’s probably an artist. Lunch is wonderful – fresh baguettes with chicken salad and banana milkshakes. From here, Mark decides to go to the bank while I E-mail home before we get back down to the grotto near Tham Jang cave for a swim.

We never do get there. An E-mail from Angie tells us that our precious cat Benny is sick and he’s at the vet now. When I read that he can’t move his back legs I know this is it. Angie wants us to ring home as soon as we can and I’m frantic by the time Mark gets back. No-one knows where we can ring although some say the post office but it’s closed now until two o’clock.

We race back to our guesthouse and they tell us to go to some other place where there’s a phonebox to make international calls. I ring Mum and Dad and Angie is there. The vet will do what he can but my darling boy may have to be put to sleep. I’m inconsolable and spend hours lying on the bed crying. Mark is so sad and we feel helpless. I don’t know what to do with myself and just want this pain to go away. I want to be home with my poor girls – they’ll be heartbroken. I can’t apologise for feeling like this over a little cat but he’s been my baby for fourteen years and I can’t imagine what it will be like without him.

I have to think that there may be a chance and make myself get up. We go for a walk down to the school and watch the tiny little ones come out all immaculate in their white blouses and navy sarongs called phaa nungs.

We have a massage in a small family hut along the road above the river which would normally be a great experience but I can’t stop seeing Benny’s little face. We have dinner in a little café next to the guesthouse and drink a few Bourbons and Bacardis to numb our brains. I take a sleeping pill and I dream that Benny is better. I keep waking and the dream is wrong and our precious boy is still sick.

Thursday   1st February,2001       Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang

We’re up at seven o’clock to shower and pack. Still crying but have to keep going as we have to get to Luang Prabang today as we’ve arranged to meet Julie and Steve there. Since we arrived two days ago, the bus stop has been moved out onto the main road instead of the near the market. This means a ten minute walk across an old airstrip that was built by the Americans during the Indochina War.

After getting our tickets and me securing our seats, Mark races back into town to buy some food. He comes back with bottled water and four beautiful french rolls filled with hot chicken salad. We leave about eight o’clock with the bus virtually full of travellers. They’re an interesting crew and the scenery is lovely but all I can do is cry and cry for Benny.

After an hour along Route 13, the road begins to wind up and down spectacular mountains and we can see it snaking its way over other mountains ahead of us. Villages appear periodically along the side of the road which falls away on either side. The ground is so steep that the back of the huts are built up on stilts and we wonder why these villages would be here at all. After two hours we all pile out to go to the toilet in the long grass and then stop again two and a half hours later for lunch in a small village.

This is a strange place as we soon have an audience of young children but who seem very shy and stand back from us. No-one is trying to sell us anything and the little ones even seem a bit afraid. I give them a bottle of Pepsi that they all politely share with each other. About five little girls no more than six years old themselves have babies strapped to their backs and some are carrying umbrellas for shade. We show them what they look like in the video camera and they all look on very seriously – not the giggles we got from the school kids in Vang Vieng. It highlights how remote these villages are and how relatively few westerners travel this route.

Route 13 was the scene of many Hmong guerilla attacks even up until five years ago and the road is still considered to be potentially dangerous. For me, I’m more afraid of plummeting over the side than of being attacked by guerillas. I must say, though, that our driver seems to be very safety conscious unlike lots of other drivers we’ve experienced in Asia. Back on the bus we have to share seats with a Lao man and Mark is also feeling bus sick. The only thing is to watch the road as much as we can or take our minds off our stomachs by listening to the driver’s music tape that we’ve heard several times today already. Our favourite is ‘My Itsy Bitsy Tenny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini’.

At last after six hours on the road we can see the Mekong down below us and at four o’clock we finally arrive at the Luang Prabang bus stop a few kilometres out of town. Here we’re met by jumbos and six of us pile into one including a Lao man with his sack of grain. The jumbo driver takes us on a detour to the man’s village where we drop him off and then we continue into town to find guesthouses for the rest of us. The other passengers are a friendly American guy and a young French couple.

At the first guesthouse Mark and the French guy look at a room but say it’s too dark. The American guy jumps out and says he doesn’t care and he’ll take it. Our next stop is the Mekong Guesthouse where the French couple grab the only room. We decide to leave our backpacks here and set off on foot to look for somewhere to stay. Maybe that dark room wasn’t so bad after all.

Luang Prabang is lovely and deserves its reputation as the ‘best preserved city in South East Asia’. Since 1995 it’s been World Heritage listed by UNESCO to preserve its historical, cultural and architectural beauty. It’s everything we’ve read about – quiet streets, a mixture of Lao and French buildings, temples, monks, chickens, guesthouses and cafes.

The streets are clean and there are potted flowering plants outside most houses. It’s situated on a peninsular where the Mekong and the Khan rivers meet and surrounded by green mountains – beautiful. It’s relatively flat except for a temple-topped steep hill in the middle of town called Phu Si. Only 16,000 people live here and there’s very little western influence at all.

We walk along the bank of the Mekong which runs wide and muddy below us down a steep embankment. All along this street are cafes and guesthouses but no empty rooms anywhere. Along a side street we can hear a loud temple drum and expect to turn the corner and witness another special religious moment. Instead we find a group of young monks having a jam session with drums and tambourines. Great to see that teenagers are the same everywhere.

After numerous turndowns we finally find a room on the bank of the Nam Khan. It’s upstairs in a quaint little guesthouse with a nice verandah set up with tables and chairs. Our room is clean and has hot, or nearly hot, water and we have our own toilet all for AUS$14.

While Mark goes back to get the bags I find an internet shop to E-mail home. I spend the next half an hour sobbing as I read the messages from Angie and Lauren about out poor, sick baby boy. I’m heartbroken that I can’t be there with him. I’m so proud of the girls. It must be so hard for them to see him this sick. They told him that they love him and Lauren whispered ‘Benny Ball Kibble’ in his ear and she thinks he heard. I told them to give him a kiss on the cheek from his Mummy and I think it will be today that he’ll be put to sleep. Can’t bear to think of it or what the girls will do. I should be with them.

Mark finds me and takes me down to a café on the river to have a beer. Just as it is on the Mekong side of town, there are cafes all along the banks of the Nam Khan on this side of town. They all have tables set up under trees and so, with the beer and this soothing atmosphere, I calm down.

The bank on other side of the river is cultivated in terraced vegetable gardens and we can see the rows of plants being painstakingly watered with watering cans. Although we’ve only been here a matter of a few hours, and it’s probably my state of mind, but I already know that Luang Prabang is where you could find peace and heal the soul.

We don’t know if it’s today or tomorrow that we’re to meet Julie and Steve as we’ve lost contact over the last few days. They’ll arrive from the opposite direction to us as they’re on a boat coming down the Mekong. We notice a few travellers wandering around so we think that the boat must have already come in. I ask them if an Australian couple had been on today’s boat. The girl says yes and that the woman looks like me. That’s them!

Suddenly we hear Steve call us and there they are in the back of a jumbo. So happy to see them but not good timing with me being so sad. I can’t wreck their holiday so I’ll have to be okay. I have a cry when I tell Julie and they both really understand as they’re just as crazy about their dog, Nelson.

To get a room they have to go out of town a bit but they can move in the morning. We meet them again at seven o’clock and it’s great to hear of their Thailand and Mekong River adventures. We all get on so well and love all the same things. Dinner is on the main street where tables and chairs have been set up on the footpath. We’re all tired and go back to bed about ten thirty. After taking another sleeping pill I cry myself to sleep.

Friday        2nd February, 2001               Luang Prabang

We wake early and I’m still crying for Benny. I’ve dreamt about him and see his dear little face all the time. We meet Julie and Steve in the main street at eight o’clock. They have a new guesthouse right here in town so we all set off for the Post Office so I can ring home. It’s shut for some reason but I manage to buy a phone-card and ring from a telephone box in the street.

Lauren is there and tells us that our baby boy has died during the night. We’re so, so sad but glad that he went by himself. He was always such a good little man and it’s just like him. Lauren is so sad but so sensible. It was his time to go and she knows it. She and Angie brought him home from the vets this morning and Doug buried him in the back garden where he always loved to be. They put him under the trees near the fountain and put the angel statue on top of his grave. Can’t bear to think that he’s gone but I can’t bear to think of him suffering. He just couldn’t get better and his little body had just had enough. Home will never be the same again.

It’s good that Julie and Steve are with us, otherwise I think I’d just go back to the room all day. We all have breakfast at a sunny café near the market and then Mark and I hire a sidecar rickshaw to go in search of the airline offices. It takes a while to find them but the weather is beautiful and we have a fun and unexpected tour of this part of town. They’re both situated along a rutted road running parallel to the main street and amidst temples and coconut trees.

Inside Lao Aviation we’re held up while a moronic French couple ask hundreds of stupid questions. We book a flight back to Vientiane for Monday afternoon and then cross the street to the Vietnam Airlines office to confirm our flight to Hanoi on Tuesday. While we’re waiting the French morons turn up and quite happily push in before us. What is it with people?

Another rickshaw back to meet Julie and Steve then we all hire a jumbo to take us out to Kuang Si Falls thirty two kilometres out of town. It’s an interesting, if dusty and bumpy, one-hour drive. The villages we pass through are basic grass huts and the people are friendly. We see green rice terraces and water buffalo down in the stream below and finally arrive at a picturesque village near Kuang Si. Our jumbo driver drops us at the bottom of the hill where it’s a five-minute walk up to the falls. A couple of grass shacks along the track are selling fruit and we buy bananas to put on the bread rolls that we’ve brought with us.

I’m not particularly a waterfall person but these falls are truly pretty. The water cascades down over limestone formations which spread the water out into fanned shapes which pour into milky turquoise pools below. The main pool empties into a series of lower pools and bamboo bridges allow people to get close to the main falls.

We decide to have lunch before going for a swim but the bananas have big black seeds in them, ‘like eyeballs’ Julie says. Hideous! Mark and Julie climb to the top of the falls while Steve and I sit around in the sun. The top pool has a sign that tells us to ‘DO Not Swimming Here’ so we walk down to the lower pool and get changed in a tiny wooden shed. Steve’s noticed a guy who’s been hanging around and watching us so we have turns of swimming while the others mind the bags. The water is wonderful and such a beautiful colour but it feels strange on our skin – caused by the limestone from the rocks apparently.

After our swim we all walk back down the hill and tell our jumbo driver that we’ll meet him down further as we want to walk around the village. Small grass shacks sell weavings and Julie buys a lovely purple scarf. Off the road the village people are busy chopping bamboo and making things out of dried grass. One lady is making spoons out of bamboo and I buy a set even though they’ll be impossible to take with us. Seeds are lying out to dry in the sun and naked children are playing in the stream. It’s so lovely here and there are even wooden water wheels on the opposite bank. A lady is washing herself in the water and healthy looking turkeys, ducks and chickens are wandering around in between the huts.

Back in the jumbo and it’s another dust-swallowing hour back to town. We’re all starving by now and have lunch in an outdoor cafe on the main street. I have a beautiful salad with egg, chicken, ham, lettuce, tomato, onion and hot potato while Mark has chicken noodle soup. For me, the combined influence of French, English and Laos on the food here is really the ultimate.

We plan to meet Julie and Steve later this afternoon and go to read our latest E-mails from the girls. We both cry as we read how Benny died and how they buried him. They’d given him cuddles and kisses and told him they loved him and told him that we love him too. It just breaks my heart that we couldn’t say goodbye.

To say our own good-byes to Benny we climb the many steps to the temple on top of Phu Si. As the sun goes down over the Mekong, we say goodbye to our little man. Goodbye our precious baby boy, our little mate, our clever handsome little man. You brought such happiness to our lives – you’ll live in our hearts forever. Thank you, Benny.

Julie and Steve are with us so we all decide to eat at the night market. There’s an array of meats, cooked and uncooked, like whole pig’s heads and Mark orders chicken on a stick. This includes its head and feet and he eats it all. I have watermelon. From here we all walk to the Kaem Karn Food Garden on the Nam Khan for traditional music. Unfortunately, three of the band are ‘absent’ so the music is off. Mark now eats buffalo sausage and black sticky rice – disgusting!

An early night.

Saturday   3rd February,2001                Luang Prabang

Still crying when I wake and my eyes are so puffed up by now I look like I’ve been in a fight. We get up at seven o’clock to get out of the room. We also hope to see monks on their early morning alms rounds so we head off towards the temples. As we turn the first corner here they are coming towards us in a long line.

This is a magical sight as the air is slightly misty this early and the streets are empty. The monks are barefoot and wearing saffron robes and each carrying their wooden alms bowl. Village people are kneeling along the footpath and place handfuls of cooked rice into each monk’s bowl from their own silver donation bowls.

We spend the next hour wandering around the pretty temple area. Monks are sweeping and doing other morning chores while the local people are also beginning their day. In the backstreets around the temples are wooden houses, chickens, cafes and guesthouses and many French colonial buildings. Some of these have been converted into guesthouses and we decide to move into one of the very atmospheric ones this morning. The Bounthieng Guesthouse is white with blue louvred shutters and overlooks the Mekong which is another bonus. There are palm trees across the road and lots of small cafes nearby.

After meeting Julie and Steve in town for a noodle breakfast at eight o’clock, we move to our new guesthouse, change money and meet them again at Talaat Dala. This is the central market that sells just about everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to toiletries and plastic homeware. We wander around in here buying incense and Steve and Julie buy a metal cooker. Huge bags of tobacco are interesting but we don’t stay long as we’ve got a walking tour planned for this part of town.

From the market we follow the Lonely Planet’s directions which takes us past the hospital – please God, don’t let us get sick – and then watch a group of men playing a game like boche. We visit Wat Wisunalat and the Watermelon Stupa, walk along the Nam Khan and see two men making a buddha statue. It’s a pleasant, peaceful walk in the morning sunshine.

Back in town we all have cakes at the Scandinavian Bakery and then book massages for tomorrow at the Red Cross. I ring Mum and Dad and talk to Angie but she doesn’t sound good. We continue with the second part of our walking tour that involves revisiting most of the area we saw this morning. The main wat is Xieng Thong which was built in 1560. The low sweeping rooflines of its buildings are typical of Luang Prabang architecture. Situated on the Mekong and dotted with flowering trees, it’s extremely appealing.

Back in the main part of town, we buy silk wall hangings from a small market near the Post Office and Julie buys more cushion covers. Afterwards, we return to the temple area for afternoon tea.

This is at the Auberge Calao mansion which also overlooks the Mekong. We’re the only guests but enjoy our bacon salad roll and beers on the verandah. We all decide to have a sleep for an hour and then meet again at the internet café. Mark and I get more sad messages from the girls and feel so helpless that I can’t be with them.

Dinner is at our favourite street café on the main road. Mark has pork with ginger and I have a chicken salad covered in nuts. Then, because we’re feeling lazy, we all catch a jumbo to the Kaem Karn Food Garden.

The night is warm and it’s pleasant sitting out here in the open next to the river and listening to the traditional music. The ‘band’ has turned up tonight. We eat hot chili beef salad with lemongrass and lots of bacardis and bourbons. We leave Julie and Steve now to go back to their own guesthouse.

Before heading back across to the Mekong, Mark and I buy pancakes covered in condensed milk, bananas and chocolate from a street cart then stop to talk to some young local people playing guitars and singing. Near our guesthouse we have a beer at a corner café that looks too inviting. It’s dimly lit and open on two sides. The television is on and showing ‘Charlie’s Angels’ in Lao – very interesting. Bed at eleven o’clock and a good sleep despite the hard bed.

Sunday      4th February, 2001               Luang Prabang

Julie and Steve move into our hotel at eight o’clock and we all have breakfast at an outdoor café overlooking the Mekong. Actually, it’s a bit of a stretch to call these cafes ‘cafes’ as they’re really just some tables and chairs set up on the bare ground under the trees next to the river. It’s perfect especially in this weather and with this setting. The street is quiet except for the ubiquitous crowing roosters, who really only add to the wonderful laid-back atmosphere.

A jumbo now to the Red Cross on the other side of town. This is set in an old wooden Lao-French house, which makes most of its money giving massages and herbal saunas. Julie and Steve are taken upstairs while Mark and I are shown to a room at the back. For 25,000 kip ($6 AUS) we have an hour-long Lao-Swedish massage. From here we all walk up to Talaat Dalat and find a jumbo decorated in colourful plastic flowers to take us out to Ban Phanom.

This ugly, dusty little village is only fifteen minutes out of town and is known as the silk-weaving village. It’s become a recent tourist attraction and definitely spoiled because of it. There’s only a few other people here besides us this morning but, by the size of the shop, it obviously gets package tourists coming out from town by the busload. The shop is a newly built cement monstrosity filled with local women sitting with their weavings and waiting for customers. It’s the same stuff we’ve seen everywhere in Luang Prabang and we’ve already bought one each at the market yesterday. As we walk in they all hold up their silks and look at us hopefully. It’s so overwhelming and it seems too awful to walk out but we do anyway.

Across the road we watch a young girl giving weaving and spinning demonstrations and another lady making paper. It’s a bit touristy but interesting anyway and Julie and I both buy silk-covered books that we’ll probably never use.

We rest in the afternoon and plan to meet again at four o’clock outside the guesthouse. While Mark and I are waiting on the steps, we’re approached by a man called Mr. Somboun who offers to take us upriver to Pak Ou Caves. We ask him if he has a ‘fast boat’ or a ‘slow boat’ as we have to be back by one o’clock tomorrow to get ready to fly out in the afternoon. He tells us that he has a ‘slow boat’ but that it can go fast. Can’t ask for more than that. We agree to go tomorrow at 8.30 am for $20 AUS for the two of us.

Now we all wander around till we come across a lovely leafy café, which, for some reason, has shrubs, covered in eggshells – what the…? Must be eggplants (ha, ha). After pineapple shakes we head down to the internet café. There’s a message from Lauren and she’s so lonely and sad, as no-one understands why she’s so upset about losing Benny – after all ‘he’s only a cat’. After fourteen years it’s hard to imagine him not with us anymore.

Dinner is in an upmarket café in a side street but my heart isn’t in it. Afterwards, we walk along the Mekong and stop at yet another open-air café surrounded by lanterns and coloured lights. We all get slightly drunk after having our first taste of ‘lao-lao’. This is rice whiskey, distilled locally which obviously means it’s extremely strong and we only need a couple of shots each to make us all very ‘happy’. An older American couple are also drinking lao-lao and they tell us they’re on their way up north to spend a few weeks smoking dope – amazing. Another stop for a beer near our guesthouse and we finally fall into bed about eleven o’clock.

Monday     5th February, 2001      Luang Prabang to Vientiane

Mark and I are both feeling surprisingly good after our night on the lao-lao although poor Julie as been up spewing all night. She and Steve are leaving this morning to catch the seven o’clock bus to Vang Vieng. It’s been great to be with them and a shame it’s over so quickly but we’ll see them again at home in three weeks time. While we say goodbye outside in the street we’re lucky to see monks on their alms rounds coming towards us. We’re the only tourists here – always better when it’s the real thing and not some staged tourist attraction.

After waving goodbye, Mark and I hang around watching the monks and then head back to our room to shower and pack. For breakfast we decide to splurge and walk around to Villa Santi. This one hundred and twenty year old French colonial building was once the home of King Sisavong Vong and is still decorated with antiques and Lao art. The villa is beautiful with its two floors overlooking an inner garden. We’re shown to a table on the balcony and have a wonderful buffet breakfast for $20 AUS.

Now it’s time for our boat trip up the Mekong to Pak Ou Caves. We meet our boatman as arranged at 8.30 am and follow him down the steep embankment to his boat. We’re thrilled that we’re the only passengers and also with our boat which is extremely picturesque. It’s an old wooden longtail, painted green and white and set up with tiny polished wooden kindergarten-sized seats. It’s open on all sides but we have a roof for shade and even some tied-back curtains.

The two hours to the caves are rather uneventful but I’m a bit better today and feel almost carefree out here on the river. We’ve brought our pillows with us and Mark makes up a bed in the bottom of the boat for a snooze. I watch the activity along the river although there’s not much to see. A few people working in vegetable gardens, some hanging washing out on bamboo poles and some men making a boat down near the water.

The Mekong is quite dangerous in parts as the water swirls around the rocks jutting out from its muddy depths. We pass another ‘slow boat’ and almost get deafened by a couple of speed boats that roar past us. These look so out of place and I have no idea why you’d want to experience this remote beautiful country by hurtling down the Mekong at top speed encased in life-jackets and crash helmets – each to his own, I guess.

After a couple of hours we pull in at Ban Xang Hai also called the Jar Maker Village. Here hundreds of pottery jars are filled with the sticky rice that ferments into lao-lao. On the river bank we’re met by two women and a little girl from a Hmong tribe. The Hmong people live all around this area and still wear their traditional dress of black loose pants and kimino style jacket with bright pink and blue silk trim. All three have different styled hats but all in the same black, pink and blue colours. The women are extremely beautiful with soft delicate features and great smiles. They’re selling their embroidery and we promise to buy some after we’ve been to the village.

This is clean and quaint and so many wonderful things for sale. There’s the usual silk hangings as well as countless buddha images and opium pipes. I fall in love with a very antique looking brown and gold pipe and naturally buy it – what a treasure. There seems to be lao-lao jars everywhere but we don’t have time to see anything being done. On the way back to the boat we buy two wristbands and an awful embroidered bag from the Hmong ladies. All only $4 AUS so it’s no problem.

Back in the boat and it’s only another fifteen minutes to the caves. This is on the other side of the river and we can see one cave overlooking the river high up in the side of a limestone rock face. The boat pulls in to a tiny wooden jetty and we climb the cement stairs to the lower cave called Tham Ting.

An old man shows us how to make offerings to Buddha with incense, candles and flowers. This is so wonderful. We love doing this. The cave is crowded with thousands of buddha statues particularly the Luang Prabang standing buddha and the whole cave looking out onto the blue cloudless sky and the huge brown Mekong below us.

From here we climb up to Than Phum or the upper cave. Oh no, here’s more Hmong women on the stairs selling more of their horrible embroidery – I definitely cannot buy anymore. At the upper cave Mark goes through the ‘offerings-to-Buddha’ thing – know what we’re doing now.  Look at more statues and then time to get back to town. The trip back only takes an hour as we’re travelling with the fast flowing current this time. There’s almost a drama when we nearly get swamped by one of the dickhead speedboats and our camera and video camera both get wet but there’s no real damage done.

Back in Luang Prabang, we still have a few hours before we have to be at the airport. We walk back downtown to the internet shop, buy a phonecard, try unsuccessfully to ring home, revisit the market, buy a silver urn, a temple gong and a red opium pipe and then have lunch. This is in a café but feels more like being in someone’s loungeroom – very appealing and there’s no menu. You just get whatever your given which is noodles and cost us only $1 AUS. Just love it.

Another unsuccessful attempt to ring home and then we have bacon and cheese salad breadrolls with pineapple and yoghurt shakes from our favourite café. From here we grab a tuktuk to pick up our bags from the guesthouse then through the now-familiar streets of Luang Prabang and out to the airport.

The terminal is a low modern building lacking any adornments or character. I finally get through to Lauren and she’s so sad. She’s bought a kitten but thinks she might take him back – too soon yet, I think. Angie has just gone out so I’ll ring her from Hanoi.

The waiting area is full of flies and uncomfortably hot and humid. We’re pleased, then, to discover that the restaurant is air-conditioned and we spend a pleasant hour cooling off in here drinking and diary writing. We’re looking at a very small plane outside the window and hoping like hell that it isn’t ours. It is. It definitely doesn’t instill us with confidence. Lao Aviation doesn’t have the best reputation but we can’t face ten hours backtracking across the mountains to Vientiane. We’ll take the risk.

Besides us, there are another eight passengers, which just about fills the plane. We take off at five o’clock and the next forty minutes are probably the longest of my life. Despite spectacular scenery as we put-put our way over endless mountain peaks, our ears are popping and we can see the sky through gaps in the emergency door parts of which have been covered with sticky tape. Lao Aviation – never again!

Sighs of relief as we land at Wattay airport. Everyone else has noticed the gaps around the door as well as the black engine soot on the wings. Anyway, we’re here and we share a taxi with a New Zealand guy called David. He works and lives in Hong Kong and travels all over Asia in his spare time. He knows Vientiane well and takes us to the Haysoke Hotel where we can get a good deal.

The hotel consists of a three floored newish building with a picturesque wooden French house next door. We like the house and our room is big with cane furniture but a bit grubby. We share a bathroom so for $20 AUS it’s not such a good deal. But we do have a television and it’s an experience to watch Lao TV. After quick showers we meet David outside and we all walk around to a bar he knows about.

‘Casper’ is set in the garden of a lovely old French villa. Most of the tables are filled with westerners but there’s also a lot of young heavily made-up local girls wandering around – prostitutes, I suppose. At first we sit at the outside bar and order jugs of bia sot which is the local draft beer. For 10,000 kip or $2.50 AUS we get two drinks each.

I can’t believe how much food we now manage to get through. We all share hot chips, vegetable/rice rolls wrapped in rice paper, chicken salad, tuna salad, fried pork rice and a Korean barbeque. This involves putting hot coals in a hole in the centre of the table then sitting the Korean barbeque on top. This is a stainless steel dish raised in the centre and a moat around the edge. The moat is filled with a watery broth which you use to cook noodles, cabbage and lettuce. Two eggs are also broken into the broth and stirred while strips of meat are cooked on the top. Interesting but painstaking and not that great.

We’re so tired now after an eventful day and definitely sick of drinking. We can’t believe that all this food and two jugs of bia sot only cost us $16 AUS. Glad to be rid of David’s incessant talking, Mark and I can’t wait to get back to our room and be alone. We watch our video on the television and then to sleep at last.

Tuesday    6th February, 2001               Vientiane to Hanoi

After early showers we’re out in the street for breakfast. Next door is a grotty local café with the usual flies, plastic chairs, fans, buddha shrines and dead chickens hanging from ceiling hooks. We sit at an outside table as it’s hot already. No-one can speak English so we just point to some bamboo steamers stacked on top of one another on a cart in the street.

We’re given five small steamers – spicy ducks feet, chicken wings and feet, birds eggs, dumpling and pork mince wrapped in Mekong seaweed and all washed down with warm Lao tea. What a great last breakfast in Laos. It’s a bit weird but the real thing and the reason we’re here after all. The bill comes to ‘ten five sousand’ meaning fifteen thousand kip.

From here we wander around the area stopping at a few wats and watching women sell live fish on the footpath. The streets around here are smelly and dirty but it’s an interesting town with more street life than Luang Prabang.

We make our way down to the river that’s lined with a string of ‘malaria’ cafes as Mark calls them. They look exactly that – a ramshackle mess sitting along the marshy banks of the Mekong. Thailand is easily visible on the other side of the river which is quite low at this dry time of year with sandbanks protruding from its shallows.

The humidity has got to us already and we head back to the room for a rest. Mark packs while I go in search of salad rolls. I find the rolls and I find the salad but there doesn’t seem to be any way that I’m going to get the two to come together. I compromise with a cold pork and cheese roll from a street cart – tastes good but will probably kill us.

We leave our bags in reception after checking out of our room and then catch a jumbo to the post office. From here we set off down the wide avenue of Thanon Lan Xang where we can see Laos’ version of the Arc de Triomphe called Patuxai. On the way we watch people sitting under trees on the footpaths having their fortunes told. No-one can speak English so we miss out.

At Patuxai, we pay 1000 kip to climb the six flights of stairs to the top for great views of the city. So hot now so I buy cold watermelon from a street cart then catch a jumbo to Fountain Circle. Of course, the fountain is dry so we keep going back to the hotel to pick up our packs.

Our last jumbo ride in Laos and we’re off to Wattay International Airport. As usual when we leave a country, we wonder if we’ll ever be back and what it’ll be like if we do. Despite being so sad over the last few days, we’ve loved this country and its happy people. I’ve felt at peace here and hope that western influences don’t manage to destroy its beautiful culture.

The airport terminal is modern and impressive and a cool relief from the heat outside. In an upstairs restaurant, we order satay beef and rice (Mark, of course) and a tuna club sandwich (me, of course) from a sign with coloured pictures of the meals on offer.

Mark has a diet coke which is the first he’s been able to get since Bangkok and he’s thinking of blowing the budget and ordering another. I ask for a chocolate milkshake and get a glass filled with chocolate ice water and two small jugs, one with milk and the other with liquid sugar. The little waiter is so worried that I’m not drinking it but when I explain what a chocolate milkshake is, he’s really interested – may have started something new in Laos.

Meanwhile we’re very happy to see that our Vietnam Airlines plane is the sleek and modern craft outside the window. Back outside, the heat on the tarmac is scorching but at 3.40 pm we’re up, up and away, finally heading for Hanoi and a new three week adventure in Vietnam.

 

 

 

 

 

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Nepal 1999

 

Wednesday 15th December, 1999.        Varanasi to Kathmandu

Leaving India behind us, we’re off on a new adventure to the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal. The flight on Indian Airways is only fifty minutes and it’s all spectacular. The snow covered peaks of the Annapurna Mountains rise above the clouds and we circle our way down between rugged mountains surrounding the green Kathmandu Valley that stretches out below us. As we land at Tribhuvan International Airport, we’re 1200 feet above sea level and the day is warm with a brilliant blue sky.

The formalities are quick and soon we’re speeding away in a rusty old car which we’ve been told is the airport taxi. The driver and his friend are both street-wise young men who seem to be taking us on a wild goose chase. When I ask ‘are we going the right way’ the driver assumes we’ve been here before and we say ‘yes, many times’.

Now we’re back on what looks like a main road and are soon driving through the narrow crowded streets of Kathmandu. It’s different to India but similar, too. Like India, the buildings are all in need of a coat of paint and washing is hanging out from upper balconies. The streets are crowded but, because only a few women here wear saris, there’s less colour and there’s not a cow to be seen anywhere.

An inner area called Thamel is the backpacker district and where we have a booking at the Kathmandu Guesthouse. Thamel is like an oasis for people who’ve been in India for too long. Here are cafes, bakeries, pubs, souvenir shops and tourist agencies.

Despite this, Thamel still retains its Asian flavour with its dusty, narrow streets and cycle-rickshaws. Before long, our ‘taxi’ pulls in at the Kathmandu Guesthouse. After reading the Lonely Planet this was the only place we wanted to stay. As well as being in the centre of all the action, it’s the original hotel around here and the most famous especially if you want to meet other travellers.

There’s a large paved courtyard in front where tables and chairs have been set up under the trees. A bar is at one side and trekking shops and a bicycle rental place are along the alleyway to the street. Inside, the foyer looks like a postcard of a chalet. The walls and low ceiling are lined with dark panelled wood, there’s a copper and brass open fireplace with comfy lounges pulled up in front, Indian carpets, red velvet curtains and huge windows looking out onto an inner garden.

We carry our packs inside and then we’re shown to our room along a wooden panelled corridor. Small offices, an internet room, a beauty parlour, a massage room and information rooms lead off here. The whole place appears to be extremely organised.

Our room is on the first floor and entered through arched double wooden doors. Down two steps and we’re in a huge room with the bed at one end then lounge chairs, a dressing table, a television, wardrobes and the biggest bathroom we’ve ever seen. We have a long vanity, a toilet and a bath and a shower with the first shower curtain we’ve seen in Asia. To top it off, the toilet works and we have water  – hot water – luxury!

Leaving the unpacking till later, we go out to check out the area. In front of an old Newari house, we sit in the sun near a buddhist monk wearing the maroon robes like those in Sarnath. Incredibly, the streets are empty of rubbish and there’s no smell – more luxury. Later in the courtyard of our guesthouse we order Carlsberg beers and then, after dark, we wander around to the Rum Doodle Bar, also famous as a traveller’s haunt.

The temperature has dropped and the atmosphere in here is cosy with an open fire and trekking paraphernalia on the walls. Although we’d only planned to stay for a beer, the fire is too nice to leave so we order dinner as well. It’s also hard to pass up the menu. Mark orders steak and vegetables while I order soup and garlic bread. More beers and then back to bed.

Thursday   16th December, 1999.          Kathmandu

Mornings are foggy at this time of year in Kathmandu so it gives us a good excuse to sleep in. We don’t leave the room until 9.30am and have breakfast at Alice’s Restaurant. This is an atmospheric rooftop café and another well-known hippie eating place.

Across the narrow street are other sunny rooftop cafes packed with travellers and below us the street is buzzing. We decide to hang around Kathmandu today and start out by doing a walking tour of the old area.

Rickshaws are easy to come by and we’re soon being cycled through the crowded streets. The air looks hazy from dust or fog or both – very otherworldly. Our driver drops us off at Thahiti Tole which is a busy little square with lots of tiny temples around the outside and a large 15th century stupa in the middle.

Rickshaw drivers in colourful hand-embroidered skullcaps are lounging around in the sun and in no obvious hurry to find any customers. From here we keep walking through narrow streets to visit more temples and an old monastery and later to the tiny Ugratara Temple which you visit if you have sore eyes.

Next to this is a lump of wood onto which you nail coins to get rid of a toothache – seriously. If this doesn’t work a whole street nearby is dedicated to dentists. We can’t read the signs but it doesn’t matter as over each doorway hangs a hand-painted pair of smiling dentures. My Buddha, don’t let us get a toothache.

Further on, we climb a wooden ladder to reach a tiny shop not much bigger than a closet. Here we buy an embroidered wall hanging from two men who are sewing other hangings just like it on old treadle machines. Sewing is the done thing here in Nepal and we’ve seen people using these old machines all through the streets.

This area is incredible as the shops are either down one step through a baby-sized doorway or up one step to a cupboard-sized room. I can’t see why this is. I mean, the Nepalese are a small people but they’re not pygmies. These shops definitely aren’t made for tall Westerners especially like Mark and we both have to bend our heads to get through the doorways.

As we keep walking, Mark buys a pair of red zip-off pants with embroidered edges and I buy a navy woolen coat with maroon trim – very Nepalese. It’s actually cold enough here at night to wear a coat and I just have to get the ‘look’ even though we’re not going anywhere near mountains or snow.

I swear we must be the only people in Kathmandu who aren’t trekking – already been or about to go. We just haven’t got the time and besides that we’re so stuffed from our India stint we can barely walk down the street. That’s my excuse, anyway.

We soon find our way back to Thamel, pick up our photos and have lunch in one of the sunny rooftop cafes we saw this morning from Alice’s Restaurant. The cafe is above a bakery that makes fresh bead rolls and cakes all day and, consequently, is always packed.

Now we decide to ask if we can get a cheaper room at the Kathmandu Guesthouse. We don’t need our huge room that’s costing us too much money. We’re in luck and not only can we get a cheaper room but we like this one even more. It’s on the next floor and we have a window at the back that looks out over trees and an old Newari house and a balcony at the front from where we can see snow-capped mountains. The sun is streaming into the bedroom and the bathroom and our verandah overlooks an inner garden and pond.

By now, it’s three o’clock and just enough time to cycle to the hilltop temple of Swayambhunath. We hire mountain bikes near the guesthouse and set off through the busy streets. Mark’s a good rider but I haven’t been on a bike in years so I’m hopeless – and scared.

There’s so much traffic but I go screaming (literally) through the first few streets being totally amazed that I’m still on the bike. At a chaotic intersection we both get off and push our bikes across and then jump back on them again as the traffic thins. After crossing a wide bridge we start the climb to the temple. This area is only a few kilometres from the centre of Kathmandu but already it’s taking on a more rural atmosphere. We can see terraces and green fields and always the snow-capped mountains (love saying that) in the distance. The road is unpaved now and full of potholes, which are really hard to miss. Near the top we pass a school and then at last the temple steps are in sight.

Here are the usual stalls and shops all trying to tempt the hundreds of tourists that visit the temple every day. Although it’s a popular tourist destination, there’s no tourist buses or hordes of people like we’ve seen in some places in India. I guess that late afternoon is a good time to miss the crowds. The majority of people here are Nepalese either making their way up the stairs or just hanging around. It’s quite peaceful which is just as it should be.

Tall trees shade the whole area and are growing beside the steps all the way to the top. Two huge buddha statues painted orange and yellow sit on either side of the base of the steps and coloured prayer flags are strung high up in the trees across the path. A man passes us carrying two huge bundles of dried twigs from a pole across his shoulders and two girls are grooming each other’s hair looking for bugs, I suppose.

At the bottom of the stairs is a huge prayer wheel inside a small doorway and outside is a row of smaller prayer wheels. Mark walks along the row spinning each one to send off prayers to Buddha ‘heaven’ – lovely.

After chaining up our bikes we start our climb of the three hundred and sixty steps to the temple. Not having one iota of fitness it’s a hard climb. I take it slow and Mark doesn’t mind waiting. There’s so much to occupy us on the way up anyway.

The Nepalese women are so colourful in their traditional clothes and on every landing are stalls selling jewelry and trinkets. Swayambhunath is also called the Monkey Temple and there’s a tribe of them here playing in the trees and on the handrailings. We’re nearly there but going up the last group of steps I’m almost on my hands and knees – pathetic.

At the top at last to find the whole area crammed with temples, a monastery, carved pillars, bronze statues and stalls selling prayer wheels and other religious curios. Of course, dominating it all is the huge central stupa where the eyes of the Buddha look out from the four sides of the base of its golden spire.

Best of all are the fabulous views of the green Kathmandu Valley with snow-capped mountains (sorry) in the distance.  On the hillside behind the top platform are other stupas and shrines and monkeys everywhere. These ones are small and incredibly cute to watch.

Before heading back down the stairs, it’s my turn to spin the prayer wheels. One of the reasons I wanted to come to Nepal was to do just this. Half way down the stairs we stop to buy silver bangles and rings from a smiling local lady and have fun bartering. At the bottom we pay the little man who watched over our bikes even though we’d chained them up.

Apparently if someone doesn’t keep an eye on them, kids let down the tyres and then you have to pay them to pump them back up – ingenious really.  Riding back into Kathmandu, I’m feeling more confident and only manage to sideswipe one little boy. It’s starting to get dark by now so we’re glad to get back into Thamel and the guesthouse.

Hot showers and a change into our ‘good’ clothes. I wear a beautiful black shawl I’d bought in India and we have a posh dinner in the courtyard sitting next to a wood fire. A few beers and then we find the dingiest little bar down the street. It’s down a tiny alley and up a ladder-like set of wooden steps, very dark inside, posters of Bob Marley on the wall, candles on the low tables and sixties music coming from behind the bar.

We sit on the floor on cushions and order cocktails with strange Kathmanduish names – very hippie. Of course, we love it and should have stayed instead of going on to the Irish Pub further down the street. No atmosphere here and feeling drunk anyway so we spend the rest of the night watching a crappy movie on the AXN station in our room.

Friday 17th December, 1999Kathmandu to Patan to Bhaktapur

Another sleep-in and again we don’t leave the room till 9.30am. Along a side street we find an interesting café where we sit on cushions in a cosy corner for a good breakfast of omelets and toast. Today we’ve planned to visit some of the other towns in the valley so we barter for a taxi to take us to Patan and Bhaktapur.

Patan is the closest and only takes us half an hour to get there. All three towns of Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Patan have a Durbar Square which is situated in front of the palace. They’re all surrounded by temples and great places to buy Nepalese souvenirs. In Patan’s Durbar Square, we buy a prayer wheel, buddha masks and a silver ganesh.

Bhaktapur is another half-hour away and situated amongst greenery, cultivated terraces and with snow-capped mountains (sorry again) close by. The town dates back to the 14th century and looks it. We’re dropped off in a square surrounded by ancient looking shops and houses then walk down the hill to where women are busy working in vast vegetable gardens.

Mark is buying mandarins but the stall owner is ripping us off so he tells her to shove them. Back up in the main part of town we watch people washing clothes in the street, tying together bundles of straw and, everywhere, women sewing or knitting. We wander through tiny winding alleyways and in every doorway people are sitting in the sun talking or playing with children.

We take photos of two little boys whose eyes have been rimmed with black kohl. It’s a relaxed town but there’s no-one being terribly friendly. I think they see tourists here all the time and although it’s incredibly interesting, we decide to head back to Kathmandu. By now, I’m also feeling sick again and can’t wait to get back to the room.

The trip back is horrific. As we come into the outskirts of Kathmandu it’s bumper to bumper traffic and every vehicle is spewing out buckets of black shit. We thought India was polluted and we’ve been looking forward to the fresh air of Nepal. What a joke. Back to the room for a sleep then salad rolls for a picnic dinner on the bed.

Saturday   18th December, 1999.          Kathmandu

We’re both feeling slightly better today but so very tired. We stay in bed till ten o’clock – our longest sleep-in yet. Breakfast is in a leafy courtyard café near our guesthouse. Neither of us eat much and we have constant dashes back to the room for emergency toilet visits.

Christmas is only a week away and the foyer of our guesthouse has been decorated in red and green and Christmas carols are being played outside – getting homesick now. Ring the girls from a small place near the guesthouse and this makes me even more homesick. Had enough of travelling, sightseeing, guidebooks, changing money, taking photographs….

Nevertheless, we can’t help ourselves and take a cycle-rickshaw to Kathmandu’s Durbar Square. More stupas, shrines and temples – ‘same, same’. It is pleasant here, though, and we buy more souvenirs, climb the steps of the temple of Maju Deval and have some laughs with a couple of sadhus.

Sadhus are Hindu wanderers usually on pilgrimages from one spiritual centre to the next. The sadhus here follow different gods. One is wearing bright yellow robes and has three vertical lines (tilakas) on his forehead indicating that he is a follower of Vishnu. The other very jovial sadhu wearing red robes follows Shiva since his tilaka is three horizontal lines and he’s carrying the symbol Shiva on a long staff. I sit with the jovial sadhu on the steps of Jagannath Temple and for a small donation for his journeys I’m given yellow marigolds to wear around my neck.

Durbar Square is also the place where locals like to be seen or just to hang out reading or playing musical instruments. I should say it’s where men hang out as there are no women sitting around doing nothing.

Around the outskirts of the square are flower sellers, women selling fruit from big cane baskets, and hundreds of spices being sold from big canvas bags.

Another rickshaw ride takes us back to Thamel. Lunch is the beautiful crusty bread rolls with salad at our favourite sunny rooftop café. The afternoon is spent shopping for presents for home – had a gut full of shopping, too. We are very happy, though, with some ethnic looking cushion covers and a brass and silver urn.

By late afternoon we’re doing all the last minute things like picking up the last rolls of photos and final gift buying and Mark buys a huge bag to carry all this extra stuff home. After a few beers in the courtyard, Mark goes back to the room to pack while I go out to buy more rolls for tea – can’t stop eating them. An early night.

Sunday  19th December, 1999       Kathmandu to Singapore

We’re ready to go in plenty of time, so we just have to buy salad rolls for breakfast/lunch. Mark packs all our gear into the back of a taxi and off we go to the airport. At Departures there’s stacks of people so there must be a few planes all leaving at about the same time as ours at 1pm.

As we line up for baggage check-in, an airport ‘official’ hints that he can get all bags through without having to pay an excess. There’s lots of winking going on suggesting that we’re somehow special and he’ll look after us. We go along with the charade but the joke’s on him. If he thinks he’s going to get money out of us he’s out of luck because we haven’t got any left.

No money also means we can’t buy anything to eat in the Departure lounge. We’ve got a few coins so Mark tries to get the guy serving to let us buy a drink with only half the money but he looks at him like he’s an idiot.

To occupy ourselves we look at everything in the duty free shops but then just have to be bored and both sit there staring into space. In a moment of mindless delerium I have a sudden flash, ‘can you imagine India hosting the Olympics?’ This somehow sends us into hysterics and keeps us amused for the rest of the day.

We leave an hour late but the take off is great as we have our last glimpse of Kathmandu and the snow-capped Annapurnas. We make up some time but at Singapore’s Changi Airport we literally have to run to catch our connecting flight to Sydney. Of course this means that there wasn’t enough time for our bags to be transferred over but we don’t realise this till we get to Sydney.

Definitely not happy but we’re reassured that they will come on the same flight tomorrow and will be delivered to our home. Also not happy that we fly through a storm on the horrid little shit-box Aeropelican plane on the way back to Newcastle.

Please God, if I’m going to die in a plane let it be somewhere madly exotic and not, please God, in a mangrove swamp fifty kilometres from home. No problem, and I’m incredibly happy when I see my darling Dad, Angie, Lauren, Jacky, Emily and Alex waiting at the terminal at Pelican. Home, then, to see my beautiful Mum and all is well.

 

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Bali 2003

 

 Monday     26th May, 2003            Sydney to Denpasar, Bali

We leave home at 5.15 am on a cold, rainy morning. Drive to Sydney without any holdups and leave the car in the longterm carpark. Very miserable weather still and we wait ages for the courtesy bus to take us to the International Airport. We check in and for once we’re sorry to see that there’s not many passengers.

Bali has suffered so much since the bombing of Paddy’s Bar and the Sari Club on October 12th last year and it looks like the tourists are still keeping away. The trial of the terrorists is starting this week in Denpasar so I guess this is scaring people away even more. Mark and I don’t understand this mentality but everyone does what they have to do.

I can’t believe we’re at the airport again so soon. It’s less than three months ago that we were taking off for Egypt so I feel exceptionally lucky. Mark is my dream, my love, my hero. He knows what going back to Bali means to me and what it will mean to the both of us to buy our wedding rings there. No gold or diamonds could replace or mean more than the plain silver rings we want to buy.

My heart is full when I think of this beautiful little island. I don’t know why but it feels so right. My heart breaks for the Balinese people and maybe going will help a tiny bit. I think we’ll have to prepare ourselves for big changes, though. Will we find Barney and will Ketut be at Aneka?  Has the bombing destroyed this perfect little paradise?

Through to immigration in Sydney, we buy perfume, bacardi, bourbon, Bailey’s and a book for Mark – Richard Branson’s autobiography. Ring Mum and Dad then board on time. We leave at 10.50am and move seats since the plane is only a third full. Mark has three middle seats and I have two seats next to the window.

Outside is still dark and raining but within minutes we’ve broken through the clouds and brilliant golden sunshine pours into the cabin. God, I feel like we’re there already! We’re flying Garuda so the hostesses are gorgeous Indonesian girls in traditional dress. Mark gets a couple of hours sleep but I’m too excited and read up on the guidebook. We want to cram in as much as we can.

As we leave Australia, the coastline looks amazing but the best sight is the islands of Indonesia a few hours later. We fly past a few on our right, one with a volcano peeking up through the mist that surrounds it. The captain soon announces that the weather in Denpasar is clear skies and thirty degrees – awesome!

At last we see our beloved Bali. It even looks wonderful from the runway. Palm trees grow right up to the airstrip and part of it juts out into the ocean. The terminal is so Balinese with fountains and ponds and traditional architecture. Nowhere else looks like this! We pass quickly through immigration as only about seventy of us disembark while the others go on to Jakarta. Sadly, of the seventy that get off in Bali, only a handful are tourists and the rest are locals.

We can feel the heat even inside the terminal and get a blast of it as we walk outside. It’s only 2.30pm so we’re still copping the midday heat. It’s what we love and adds to the excitement. The usual airport chaos is missing and only about ten tour-guides are here holding up their little name placards.

We’re met by a sweet girl who leads us to a van across the carpark. Even this is gorgeous and surrounded by flowering shrubs and tropical gardens. As we drive into Kuta, she tells us how different things are since the bombing. Even so, the streets are much busier than we’d expected and it all looks so fantastic. It’s still the Bali we love and I’m so excited.

Down Jalan Pantai Kuta towards the beach and then along the beach road which is still busy – bemos and motorbikes everywhere and even some tourists walking around. It doesn’t seem five years since we’ve been here at all and much, much better than we’d expected.

We’re booked into the same hotel that we’ve stayed in twice before as it feels like home to us. We turn into the long driveway to Aneka Beach and see that it’s as beautiful as ever. The foyer is open on two sides and as we check in all the wonderful smells of Bali over-power us. I feel that I could burst with happiness. We ask for a room with a sunny balcony and unpack a few things before going down to the bar.

Wayan is still working here and Ketut will be on tomorrow. Wayan has tomorrow off so he agrees to take us up to Ubud for the day. Now we order Bintangs and a cocktail and can’t get the huge smiles off our faces. Mark is as happy as I am. I can’t remember feeling this way since we were here last. My heart is full and I feel totally me. It’s so good to be in singlet tops and thongs – total freedom.

The pool is right next to the bar and there are a few people sunbaking and swimming. Can’t wait to get in the water ourselves and it feels wonderful. The gardens around the pool are so lush and flowering bougainvillea is everywhere. This is the loveliest hotel – not too big and so clean and friendly. It’s also only a few metres to the beach and opens straight out onto Poppies I.

After swims we decide to check out the laneway and walk down towards the beach. The same stalls are here and so is our favourite café right on the corner across from the beach. We’re the only customers and lap up the sunshine and the excitement of this area. Young motorbike and bemo drivers are hanging around waiting to pick up fares but not having much luck. Barney isn’t here today so we’ll just have to keep looking for him.

For lunch we have satay, noodles, shrimp salad and beers – so cheap – and then walk over to the beach. It’s lined with palms and other tropical shade trees and the massage ladies are still here in force. We pay 40,000RP ($8AUD) each for an hour-long massage but then I end up with a foot scrub for $2AUD which I don’t ask for, one fingernail done for free and a piece of leather tied around my wrist ‘because I like you, Jenny’ – what a scream!

I promise to buy sarongs, bracelets, etc and come back for the full fingernail and toenail treatment. Not relaxing but I love the ladies and it’s all part of the Bali experience that you have to do. We talk to the ladies about the bombing and they all say ‘fuckin’ arsehole, Amrosi – we like to kill him!’.

The sun is setting now and the beach is packed with Balinese. This happens every day and we watch the families and young people walking around and playing games on the beach. From here we wander back up Poppies to change money and then back to the room to use the internet. Mark has had to bring his laptop with him as he’s not even supposed to be on this holiday and he’ll have to try and run the lab from here. There’s no luck with the internet so we find an internet café along the laneway. This is a change from five years ago when there wasn’t one internet cafe in the whole of Bali.

Now we walk up to Jalan Legion which is the main thouroughfare and the street where the bomb went off. Before October last year, this street was choked with traffic day and night, but now it’s almost empty. This really brings home the effect it’s had on Bali – no tourists, so no jobs and no money.

It’s depressing so we walk back down Poppies where things seem much more ‘normal’. There’s even a few more cafes opened since we were here in ’98 and we want to try them all. Firstly I just have to spend some money and buy six black cane placemats ($2AUD each), a shirt for Mark ($6AUD) and a scarf ($3AUD). Now we stop at a new café for dinner and soda waters then Mark has another swim at Aneka before going back to our room for bacardis on the balcony. A beautiful night but still hot and humid – sleep with the air-conditioning on.

Tuesday              27th May, 2003            Kuta to Ubud to Kuta

Wake at seven after a good sleep then walk north along the beach towards Legian – a gorgeous morning. We cross to Poppies II and have breakfast at Bali Corner Café. The stalls are just opening up and we really love this time of day here. We eat noodles, omelets and pineapple juice while Mark makes a few work and options trading phonecalls home.

After getting changed in our room, we meet Wayan out in front of the Hard Rock Hotel on the beach. The road is busy again this morning but mainly with Balinese going about their lives rather than the much-needed tourists. We head up Jalan Melasti and out of Kuta towards Sanur.

From here we keep driving to Batubulan where we stop to look at stone carvers at work. Wayan also takes us to a batik making centre and then on to Celuk. This is the silver-makers village and where we hope to buy our rings. I tell Wayan that we want to visit a small family business instead of the touristy ones on the main road. He drives us along narrow laneways overgrown with greenery and finally pulls into a grassy yard surrounded by trees and Hindu shrines.

There’s about six young guys here making silver jewelery on the open verandah and one of them shows us how it’s made. Inside is a small showroom where we find plain, wide rings that we love. Mark’s ring is too small so we go outside to watch them fix it. We also want to buy a very Balinese looking ring but no luck with sizes here. We’ve decided on two wedding rings each – one modern and one ‘alternate’. We look at two more silver shops but still nothing – have plenty of time so no problem.

Now we head towards Ubud which is about another half-hour away. A few minutes after leaving Celuk we’re hailed down by police who take Wayan to the back of the van and demand a 50,000 RP bribe. Other vans carrying travellers are also being pulled over and Wayan says it happens all the time. He knows it’s corrupt but still laughs about it – great attitude because there’s nothing he can do.

The scenery is tropical to say the least – rice paddies, coconut trees and everything a brilliant green. We pass through lots of small villages which all look the same with each family living in compounds behind decorated stone walls – very beautiful and very typical of Balinese architecture and design.

At last at Ubud. This village/town is the artistic centre of Bali and it’s more elevated position makes it cooler and less humid than the coast. It’s still so hot today, though, and Wayan takes us straight to the open-air Padi Prada Restaurant on Monkey Forest Road for lunch. This is amazingly beautiful and typical of so many Balinese eating-places. It’s hard to find anything here that isn’t tropical, tropical, tropical.  It’s open on all sides and we choose to sit upstairs where the tables look directly onto waterlogged rice paddies.

We can even see farmers in the distance ploughing the fields with ancient wooden ploughs pulled by water buffalo. Beyond the rice paddies are coconut palms and grass and bamboo houses. We’re the only ones here and have a lovely lunch of fried chicken and club sandwiches then beers and a cocktail called Rice Paddy. We can see a couple of beautiful bungalows down below and built level with the rice fields. We ask the cost and, because of the lack of tourists, they’ve been reduced to US$80 from US$160. After looking through one which also has its own pool, we book it for Saturday night.

Wayan turns up and we walk down to the monkey forest where he’s parked the car. I ask about seeing a village and he says he can take us to see a family home. This is back in Batubulan and on the main road. Most Balinese families live in family compounds which consist of about eight separate buildings set within high stone walls. Inside the ornate gate Wayan introduces us to an old man and his wife. She’s sitting in the shade on one of the verandahs and slicing up a huge cylinder of cooked rice. She lays each slice onto bamboo screens that her husband puts out to dry in the sun. These are homemade rice cakes and she gives us one to try.

We see the tiny primitive kitchen and an open-air room with a raised floor and a four-poster style bed on it. This is apparently for weddings but we can’t really get the drift of it all. There’s four small spirit houses on stilts, chickens, roosters for cock fighting, a shed for storing rice and to keep it dry during the rainy season, lots of skinny kittens and two young girls making ceremonial baskets from bamboo. It’s a nice atmosphere.

We stop again in Batubulan village to buy three carved wooden hangers. The old lady’s shop is just a shack and everything is caked with dust. She obviously hasn’t been doing much business lately so we’re glad we stopped here. Now we drive around the back laneways just off the main road to see a different world. It’s so lush and peaceful and I know I could live here.

Back in Kuta, Mark spends an hour emailing from his laptop in our room. Meanwhile I email home from a little place in Poppies I and change some money. Then it’s time for a beer and cocktails at Aneka and we’re so happy to see Ketut here today. We know him from the last two times we stayed at Aneka and we had a funny day with him in 1998 when he took us on a trip to Nusa Dua. He’d borrowed a car and had no idea how to use the gears so we kangarooed our way out of Kuta not even stopping for a red light then ended up with a flat tyre at Benoa Beach. Of course the spare was also flat so we had to get a taxi back. He’d also brought along his little three-year-old son who he told us was ‘very naughty, not like Daddy’. He’s still laughing and smiling even when he tells us about ‘the bomb’.

All life seems to have been either before or after ‘the bomb’ – it’s been a definite turning point in the lives of all the Balinese people. Ketut was to be at the Sari Club that night but he’d taken a group of tourists up to Lovina for the day and was too tired to go out.

After he makes me a milk cocktail we walk up Poppies to a massage place I’d seen an hour ago. This is Maria Massage and it’s in a tiny shed divided into two rooms. Maria’s husband, Wayan, also does massage so Mark and I get done at the same time. The room is so cute with frangipanis in a bowl under the table and the atmosphere only spoilt by loud Eminem music coming from across the alleyway. All part of the Kuta experience. We pay 50,000RP (AUD$10) for one hour – more expensive than before but heaps cheaper than home. It’s a good strong massage as well so it’s well worth it.

On the walk back home we stop at the open-air AP Bar for drinks. We sit on tall cane stools at the bar and watch all the action in the laneway. Lots of people around tonight and the café behind is almost full. This is a great atmosphere and we love to be hot and wearing our daggiest clothes and no-one cares. Mark drinks too many beers and I have banana daiquiris while we talk to a young English couple called Eve and Martin. Back to bed by 9.30pm.

Wednesday        28th May, 2003                      Kuta

Wake early again and we’re out in the streets by seven o’clock. We’ve decided to hang around Kuta today and check out the alleyways between Poppies I and Poppies II. What a discovery! All the times we’ve been here and only now do we find a fabulous world in these little laneways. It’s wonderful in here – interesting houses and girls in ceremonial dress putting out offerings of flowers, rice, fruit and incense from woven baskets.

There’s small rundown shacks selling local food cooked while you watch. These are called warangs and you sit on old, wooden benches and order real Balinese food. The only problem is that none of these people can speak English and it’s all too difficult. We decide to eat in a tourist café a bit later but first we want to visit the bombsite – been putting it off but we must see it before we go home – like a pilgrimage, I guess.

We follow Poppies II to the Bounty Hotel which almost backs onto the Sari Club and where we stayed for a few nights last time. It’s so quiet around in Jalan Legian where the two clubs once stood. Paddy’s Bar and the Sari Club are totally gone and are now vacant blocks behind tall metal fences. All the buildings around here are being rebuilt or repaired and the whole area looks like a demolition site.

At the corner of the Sari Club is a shrine to the people who lost their lives here. Some personal messages from parents and one from a daughter to her mother make us so sad. We’d been at the club with the kids in 1998 so we remember what it was like – not a fancy nightclub, just a little beach bar with people in thongs and T-shirts – just a place to have fun.

I remember the morning we found out what had happened. It was a Sunday and I put the television on while I was eating breakfast. I saw news footage of a fire and bomb explosion in an Asian nightclub and then heard them say The Sari Club. I thought it must be a club of the same name in a major city but then they said Bali. I called out to Mark and we watched it in disbelief.

The rest of the day brought worse news of the number of casualties and the next week we heard nothing else. I couldn’t handle it at all. I was so sad for the people who were killed and injured but we knew from that first second what it would do to Bali and the Balinese people. The tourists just left and, now seven months later, very few have come back.

Now we head back down into the little alleyways and meet a friendly lady called Agung. She’s been buying vegetables and she shows us her home. She tells us that she does massage so we promise to come back later. Her house is so ‘Balinese’ and it’ll be an exciting change from the beach massages.

In another alleyway we see ceremonial Balinese umbrellas and decorated spirit houses behind a tall stone fence. Inside the garden women are weaving flowers and we ask them what’s happening. They tell us that there’ll be a big, religious celebration here tonight and to come back about eight o’clock. Unreal!! This is what we want to see – real Bali culture.

We finally stop for breakfast at the Secret Garden which is an interesting café tucked away behind some market stalls. Even though it’s still early it’s hot already and the verandah is the coolest place to be.

Mark has to make more phonecalls to work – so hard for him, trying to give me a holiday but copping it from the Amdel bosses. Jo Navaro had told him a few days ago ‘Mark, I do not give you permission to go to Bali’ – well, here we are and I’m so proud of my baby. He’s ready to chuck it and Joe’s attitude just confirms that he’s right to resign. He’s so calm about it all but I know he wouldn’t let me know even if he really was worried. He walks back to the hotel for more emailing while I buy five tops and a skirt from a very happy lady.

At Aneka pool we hang around swimming and sunbaking but not for long – too much to do. Swimming in this pool is my idea of heaven. The gardens and trees are so lovely and the pool has three dragonhead fountains at one end and the open bar all along one side. After cooling down we wander back down the laneway to Agung’s house. I love it inside more than the outside. It’s not as primitive as the family compound that Wayan took us to yesterday but it’s still the same setup. There’s spirit houses in the tiny yard and separate buildings for the kitchen and bedrooms but all opening onto a long verandah.

Agung meets us in her bra and introduces us to her daughter, also called Agung, who massages as well. Mark goes with old Agung and I go off with young Agung to a little house in one corner of the yard. A mattress is on the floor in a type of loungeroom and I have a great but very strange massage for the next hour. Her ten-year-old son comes back from school with two of his friends and then her husband turns up. Meanwhile I’m on my back, naked to the waist. No-one seems to take any notice so I don’t stress either. Afterwards we have photos taken together – a lovely experience.

Not far from Agung’s house, we find a very bambooey café for lunch. It’s opposite the cockfighting ring and a very green area with tall trees and shrubs. We like it here so much. A young hawker comes into the café and we buy nine CD’s from him for AUD $3 each. He’s very excited at his big sale and we’re very happy to have added to our Café Del Mar collection.

I decide to have a manicure and pedicure and find a little place in the next laneway. Mark gets his nails clipped then goes back to the room for a rest. Meanwhile, I spend an agonising hour with a lady called Maria who hasn’t got the faintest idea what she’s doing. She laughs the whole time and I don’t have the heart to tell her to stop. By the time I leave, I’ve been scraped under every fingernail and there’s a hole in the middle of one where the scissors slipped. A pretty young German girl is waiting to get her hair permed and I feel like telling her to run and don’t look back!

At 4.30pm we walk down to the beach to look for Barney. I even ask some of the other bemo drivers but they don’t seem to know him. Instead we find a nice little man called Made who drives us out to Jimbaran Bay for 70,000RP (AUD $14) – much more than we’d have paid before but the Balinese need the money more than we do so we don’t barter much at all. The drive out there is nice in the late afternoon sunshine and only takes about twenty minutes.

We came here last time so we know what to expect. Very basic cafes are set up all along the beach and we go to Maima Café where Made takes us. All the cafés are the same with plastic tables and chairs set up on the sand in front of thatched areas where you pick your fresh seafood and have it cooked over hot coals.

Before sitting down we walk right up to the southern end of the beach and watch kids playing in the sand and fisherman hanging out around their boats. This area is so alive with local people. The sun is almost setting and the sky has turned to gold. A few surfers are out in the water and it’s a perfect night – warm and still – just like every night here in Bali. Back at Maima we order beers and our seafood. It’s so expensive here now and we spend AUD $50 for twenty king prawns and calamari.

We choose a table out on the sand and have a wonderful meal of salad with our garlic seafood. Some roving musicians are entertaining other people further down and they’re even playing Bob Marley – what could be more perfect? Now Made drives us back to Kuta. We decide to walk along the beach and stop at another café for an Arak Attack. This is the very alcoholic local rice wine with lemon juice. Before heading back to Aneka we want to check out the religious festival that’s supposed to be happening in one of the back laneways tonight.

We find it easily and watch from the gate for ages. At first we’re not sure if it’s the right thing to do but one of the men beckons us to move closer. About a hundred people are crammed inside with the women wearing the traditional Balinese sarongs and lace tops with coloured bands wrapped around their waist. The men are all in white pyjama-like outfits with coloured sashes. One woman is chanting and singing while other women give offerings at the spirit houses. This is magic and we didn’t realise all these wonderful things happen just near our hotel.

Duty free drinks of bacardi and Jim Beam on our lovely verandah before bed.

Thursday   29th May, 2003            Kuta to Nusa Dua to Kuta

Sleep in till eight o’clock this morning then get a phone call to tell us that we’ve won a holiday. I’d filled in a survey at the Maima Café last night and miraculously we’ve won ‘a major prize’. They’ll tell us all about it if we go out to Nusa Dua for ninety minutes. They’ll send a car to pick us up and bring us back and we get a free breakfast at one of the resorts. Mark is suspicious straight away but they deny it’s anything like time-share. We think, why not? We’ve got nothing planned this morning so why not go for the drive.

The weather is perfect again with blue skies and the temperature in the low thirties. It’s a thirty-minute drive to Nusa Dua and we enjoy every minute. The resort is nice and we wait on big cane lounges in the huge open-air lobby. At last we’re met by Toni, a sleazy Irishman who we hate on sight. With him is a young Malaysian guy who’s learning the trade. His name is Oz and is too nice to be with this creep.

Firstly we have breakfast but we have to eat with them obviously so Tony can size us up. Then he takes us downstairs to give us the con job. Mark doesn’t let him get away with anything and we can see him getting more and more hostile by the minute. He finally says ‘you’re not going to sign anything today, are you?’ – like we’re the scum of the earth. So happy that he hates us as much as we hate him and that he still has to give us the ‘free’ holiday. Up in the foyer a nice Balinese lady gives us our voucher and we take off back to Kuta laughing all the way – suck eggs, Tony!

The driver drops us at Bemo Corner as we want to walk around here for a while. There’s more traffic in Jalan Legian today and we’re so happy to be back in Kuta. In Poppies II, I’m abducted by a young girl who takes me down an alley to have my fingernails and toenails painted pink with white and red flowers.

From here we walk down to the cock-fighting laneway and find a Thai café for lunch. We sit on cushions on the floor and are served by a smiling man and his wife. Leaning against the wall with overhead fans cooling us down, it’s wonderful to watch the world go by outside. We love it here. Told that the cockfight starts ‘at one or maybe two’ (Balinese time) so we walk back to Aneka for a swim. This is the hottest day we’ve had so far and there’s a lot more people around the pool today.

At 2.30pm we go back to watch the cockfight. It’s in full swing and there’s about a hundred men all yelling at the top of their lungs as they make their bets. It’s amazing to see and there’s lots of blood. It’s a cultural thing so we don’t judge but glad to see that they don’t fight to the death.

The men who own the cocks really seem to love them so it’s hard to work out. Apparently it started as a religious thing with the spilling of blood for the gods. I like the area around the ring the best. Underneath the trees are warangs selling all sorts of interesting foods and other types of betting games going on as well. We’re the only westerners here and I’m the only woman watching but no-one seems to mind.

Mark needs to do some emailing from the room so I go back with him to wash my hair. Now down to the bar and we meet Tom, an eighty year old Australian, who’s come to Bali twice a year for the last fourteen years. He was here when the bomb went off and told us that two girls from the hotel never came home. Another two sisters from Germany survived but then one of them was eaten by a crocodile when they went to Australia a few weeks later – true!

Happily, Ketut is here and he always makes us happy. He laughs after every sentence and has a permanently beaming face. We make arrangements with him to get a driver to take us out along the east coast tomorrow. He also arranges with two lady friends of his to come to our room to give us massages. Can’t believe that we’ve had a massage every day since we came and they’ve all been in different places.

Afterwards, we walk down to the beach then find a taxi to drive us to the Kuta Night Market. It’s only about a five-minute drive but we probably wouldn’t have found it on our own. It’s down a side-street in an open-sided shed with lots of stalls and warangs inside. Only Balinese people here and a lot of them seem to be getting take-away food. It’s all freshly cooked so it’s a lot healthier than our fast-food at home. We wander around looking at all the food then choose a popular warang.

We order fish and prawns in garlic and chili and watch it all being cooked in big woks. The people are nice and like getting in the video. We eat at one of the long tables in front and have the best meal here so far. So much cheaper than Jimbaran Bay which has become so over-priced in the last few years. No-one ever comes here to the Night Market so it’s still the price that the Balinese pay.

Meanwhile my scraped fingernails from Maria, ‘The Manicurist From Hell’, are giving me hell especially when I eat. The slightest bit of salt just about has me going through the roof and the fingernail with the hole is now bruised as well. I’d hate to see the poor girl who was waiting to have a perm – she’s probably bald by now.

Walking back to Aneka we stop at a Chinese temple which we also hadn’t known existed till now. Learning so much more on this trip – have become better travellers after lots of trips since 1998. The temple is like all those we saw in Vietnam – so ornate and so much atmosphere. A few people are praying and burning incense but it’s quiet at this time of night.

Next to the temple we see another Balinese ceremony and we watch at the gate. Again we’re invited in and this ceremony is even more interesting than the one we saw last night. This is a water purifying ritual and the men are stripped to the waist and walk up to a small doorway in a raised temple and have water poured over their heads. Women wear simple saris and do the same. Other older women are sitting around in ceremonial dress and some are burning fires. This is amazing and something I never thought went on in such a touristy area as Kuta.

From here we walk back to the hotel through the very huge Hard Rock Hotel. It’s impressive but leaves us cold and we much prefer our homey little Aneka. Drinks on the verandah again before going to bed. This is our last night as we’re off to the east coast early in the morning.

Friday        30th May, 2003            Kuta to Tirtagangga

Wake at 7.30am to another beautiful day. After packing, Mark emails and I wash my hair. In the foyer we pay our phone bill, confirm flights and check out of Aneka. Ketut’s friend, Nyoman, is waiting for us and stores our packs in the back of his van.

We plan to have breakfast on the road somewhere so we set off about eight o’clock. It’s hot and humid already but luckily the van is air-conditioned. We pass through Sanur and then along the coast road which we’ve never been on before. Later we turn inland to the small town of Gianyar which we really like. Further on we stop for breakfast at a small café on the outskirts of Klungkung.

This is in a lovely setting near a bridge and with a rocky cliff-face behind. It’s very green here and we sit in a raised pavilion with a thatched roof. While we wait for breakfast we wander down to some covered verandahs and find an artist painting unusual and lovely pictures. He introduces himself and shows us his studio and gallery and his huge sculptures made from dead trees. They’re all of the human face or body and are simply amazing. He’s so gentle and makes no attempt to sell us anything. These people are incredible.

Now onto Klunkung which is a surprisingly large town. If we had more time I’d love to check out all these places – will definitely come back again next trip. Not far from here, we turn off the main road and onto a winding narrow road overhung with thick vegetation. It’s so beautiful here. We’re on our way to the coastal town of Padangbai to hopefully do some snorkelling.

Padangbai is a terminal for boats to Lombok and other outer islands and a long jetty stretches out into the ocean. Nyoman drives us to a string of shacks near the water that rent out boats and diving gear. I think we’re the only customers they’ve had here for a long time but still there’s no hassling.

We hire an outrigger, a driver and snorkelling gear for AUD $40 then change into our swimmers in the van. The young guys at the hire shop take us down to the beach. This is so lovely. There’s no waves here so the water is calm, crystal clear and aqua blue with a narrow strip of white sand all along the curved bay. There’s a very laid-back, holiday atmosphere here with a few cafés and guesthouses across the road from the beach – would definitely love to be staying here. Another smaller wooden jetty is nearby and there’s some sort of colourful, religious ceremony happening at its far end.

Meanwhile our boat is ready. It’s a small, white outrigger and our driver is Ketut who’s brought along his young friend, Made. We push off from shore and head out of the bay. It’s so nice to be on the water to cool down but definitely getting sunburnt already. We sail around a couple of small headlands for about twenty minutes till we reach Blue Lagoon.

Ketut makes anchor then he and Made fish while Mark and I put on our snorkelling gear and flippers. The water is warm in Bali so no need for wet-suits like we had to wear in the Egypt a few months ago. The reef here can’t compare to the Red Sea but it’s still lovely and we see heaps of coloured fish. We hold hands again and I’m in love with this undersea world. Mark has been snorkelling and diving lots of times before but snorkelling is the last thing I thought I’d love – a great surprise. There’s always something wonderful and new to learn no matter how old you are.

Back on shore, we leave Padangbai and head inland to the very unusual village of Tenganan. It’s unlike any other Balinese village although it’s actually the home of the descendents of the original Bali Aga people who lived here before the beginning of the Majapahit dynasty in the fourteenth century. The village is a few kilometres off the main road and at the end of a leafy track that winds its way through other small villages.

Tenganan had become a big tourist attraction but hardly anyone comes out this way since the bombing. At the entrance to the village a few shops are selling souvenirs and, in particular, the very special kamben gringsing weavings. These are made by the time-consuming double ikat method which means that the threads are dyed to make the patterns before the weaving is done. They’re very expensive and I don’t even like them that much.

We pay a fee to get in through the stone wall that surrounds the village and find even more weavings here for sale. The setout of the village is amazing with two very long stone houses facing each other with lots of small doorways along each one signifying the many different houses within them. So many of these houses use the front room to display even more weavings – there’s literally thousands, but who will ever buy them?

The longhouses are built up a hill for several hundred metres and with a few communal buildings in the centre. We sit in the shade for a while and laugh at a chicken picking food out of the mouth of a cow that’s lounging around on the grass. Now we follow Nyoman up the hill where most of the village people seem to be hanging out.

We’ve picked a great time to visit the village as there’s to be a big festival tomorrow and today is when all the food is prepared. Most of the young people are hanging out together while the adults are congregated in groups doing different stages of the food preparation. The men are chopping all sorts of vegetables in enormous amounts while the women are cooking in big black pots over open fires. They talk the whole time and I can tell that it’s the local gossip by the rapt looks on their faces. This is so primitive here and it’s been a great chance to see more of real Balinese life.

Leaving Tenganan, we drive back to the main road and on to Candi Dasa. This is a coastal town but there doesn’t seem to be a main centre and it all seems to be strung out along the water’s edge. It’s more green and overgrown here than I’d imagined and it’ll be another nice place to stay next time. We stop now at the up-market Lotus Café right on the water and have a posh lunch of chicken stuffed with ham and cheese and a few beers.

From Candi Dasa, we turn inland again for about half an hour then turn off the main road and start climbing upwards to the picturesque area of Tirtagangga. This is our destination for today and we hope to get a room at the guesthouse inside the grounds of Tirtagangga’s Water Palace. This was built by the local rajah early last century and consists of a series of ponds, pools and fountains.

Nyoman pulls up at a small market outside the entrance and helps us carry our bags inside. Here we meet Made who leads us around the Royal Pools to the Tirta Ayu Homestay. This is so wonderful and atmospheric with Chinese-style roofs on three different levels. It’s old and elaborate and yet totally unpretentious. It overlooks the pools and sits at the base of a cliff thick with tropical greenery.

The bungalows are built up the hill behind the main building and reached by tiny winding paths through a jungle of flowering trees and palms. For only AUD$30 a night we have our own bungalow with a verandah and a bathroom open to the sky with a sunken tiled bath that’s filled by a fountain head high up on the wall.

The rest of the afternoon we spend lounging around in the big cane chairs on the verandah drinking our duty free grog and reading. Mark then has a one-hour massage with Made in the room while I sit outside catching up with the diary and getting rid of my flowered finger and toenail polish.

Dinner is in the open-air restaurant that overlooks the ponds. This afternoon we’d booked the pick of the tables which sits on it’s own in an alcove that juts out from the rest and has the best views. We have satay chicken, pork, soup and lots to drink. It’s been a long day so we have an early night with our mozzy ring burning and listening to the sounds of frogs and geckos.

Saturday   31st May, 2003             Tirtagangga to Ubud

This morning we wake to the sound of the ever-present geckos. We love it because we know we’re in Asia even before we open our eyes. The weather is perfect again and so hot that Mark has an early swim in the big, upper pool before breakfast. It looks especially gorgeous here this morning and we wish we could stay for a few days.

We walk across stepping stones through the pools and out into the market. Across the road is a bamboo and thatched café that looks out over rice paddies so that’s where we head for breakfast. The young waiter, who is also the cook, is so happy to see us. While we wait for our food, we watch the village kids walking to school and I feed carrots and bananas to a tiny monkey. The poor little thing is tied to a pole and holding a broken piece of tile that he can see his reflection in. Our breakfast is proudly delivered but it’s the worst food imaginable. Mark had ordered a cheese omelet so he gets a dry vegetable omelet with two slices of cheese on another plate. My watermelon juice is good although my toast is hard as a rock and there’s no butter. No problem, the setting and the lovely waiter make up for it.

Very hot now, so we go back to the room so I can change into my swimmers. We swim in one of the lower pools where a few Balinese kids are having a great time. Fountains pour water into both sides of the pool and, looking back at the guesthouse and the jungle growing up the hill behind, I can’t imagine anything more beautiful. We can’t stay here for long, though, as Made has arranged for his Uncle Ketut to drive us to Ubud. Ketut helps us take our packs to his van and we leave about ten o’clock with Made waving us off.

Today we drive along the inland road over the mountains instead of yesterday’s coast road. From Tirtagangga we drive up and up and around and around. The road winds its way through luxuriant tropical growth and lots of small villages. At the village of Budakeling, Ketut tells us that this is where many silversmiths live. We’re so excited that we may be able to find our Balinese-style wedding rings here. Ketut pulls up and we follow him down a laneway overhung with vines and bougainvillea. At the end next to a rice paddy is a lovely Balinese house and here at last we find the exact rings we’ve been looking for. We love that we’ve bought them here because it will always be a special memory.

The road continues to climb upwards after Budakeling until we have panoramic views of green fields and rice paddies stepped into the overlapping hills. At a lovely bend in the road, we stop to walk down a hill that’s layered with rice fields and watch groups of people cutting and thrashing harvested rice. We take lots of photos but no-one speaks English so there’s a bit of a communication problem – a lovely, friendly atmosphere, nevertheless.

Further on we stop at a tiny village to look at cloves that have been laid out on the road to dry in the sun and I talk to one of the village ladies. One day we’ll come back to this lovely area.

The village of Sideman is further on and here we stop again to watch women weaving the very beautiful songket material. The fabric is interwoven with gold or silver thread and we buy two beautiful hangings after visiting the weaving shed. It’s feels so ancient in here. It’s not a tourist attraction but the real thing and we feel a bit intrusive. Now we continue along Sideman Road which is so fantastic – small villages, Mount Batur behind us and endless views of emerald green rice paddies.

We finally arrive in Ubud around lunchtime and book into our luxury suite at Padi Prada. Our bungalow is set in a flowering garden and has a big bedroom, a kitchenette, a bathroom, a separate shower room and a large verandah with a raised platform in the middle for relaxing and eating. We’re directly on the rice paddies where farmers are ploughing the fields with water buffalo. We even have our own pool. It’s hard not to feel self-indulgent in the face of their hardship and poverty.

After a swim we walk down the main street and eat lunch in a nice café. The power is off so it has to be salad – no problem. Mark buys a shirt and I buy a shawl for Mum. Another swim and then we both have a massage at the hotel’s spa. This is in a small stone room near our bungalow and half is open to the sky. The atmosphere is so magical I could cry. We have a one-hour oil massage each with two sweet young girls – so relaxing it’s hard not to fall asleep.

On dusk we watch the sun setting over the rice paddies – another magical moment. Now we get dressed up in our new Balinese clothes and catch a bemo around to the Ubud Palace for the nightly performance of the Legong Dance. Last time we were here with the girls we saw the dance in another palace but this time the setting is even better.

We walk through lily ponds to sit in front of the stone façade which is lit up from below making a surreal spectacle. I love the dance and the traditional instruments and sitting outside on this warm, still night. Bali truly is paradise on earth.

We move to the restaurant towards the end of the dance and watch the rest of it from here. I don’t like the menu – too fancy and a rip-off – so we just have a drink and walk around the next street to a lovely open-air café. This is much more fun and more ‘us’ as well. The young waitress is a sweetie and we have a lovely night.

Sunday      1st June, 2003              Ubud to Kuta

A great sleep in our huge four-poster bed. Breakfast is fresh tropical fruits and juices. It’s served on the verandah on the platform and we dress in sarongs to feel the part. After a quick walk around town, we decide to have our own private Balinese wedding ceremony. We change into new sarongs and set the video camera up near the pool with the rice paddies behind us. We tell each other how we feel and put on our wedding rings. This is so romantic and to us it will always be the real ceremony.

The heat is melting us so we have a skinny-dip in the pool and then change to go to the monkey forest. This is only a few metres down the road which is shaded by thick overhanging vines. We love the monkey forest even though we’ve been here twice before. At the entrance we buy peanuts then walk up the wide path to the main area. I swear, I could watch them all day. There’s lots of babies hanging on to their mummies and lots of naughty little ones running around on their own. One big monkey steals the whole bag from Mark’s pocket and sits there stuffing himself while all the others try to run in and snatch them off him.

We meet one of the caretakers who shows us around and takes us to a temple on a hill which we never knew about. He shows us three miniature paintings that he’s done himself. Ubud is well known for its miniature art so we buy all three. Then he takes us down to the beautiful old temple at the bottom of the gully where a small stream runs through the forest.

This place is my utopia – peace itself. It’s so serene and incredibly beautiful. The temple is overgrown with bright green moss and the sunlight streaks through the vines in long yellow rays. Monkeys are jumping all over the place and most are climbing up the cliff face on their way to the rice paddies. Apparently there’s a leader monkey and when he says go, they go.

Back at Padi Prada we pack up and organise a bemo to take us back to Kuta. It’s a hot one-hour drive but there’s always something to see on the way. We get dropped off in Poppies I and decide to stay in a cheap guesthouse as we’ll be leaving tonight at nine o’clock to go to the airport.

Halfway up the laneway we find a nice place with a small pretty pool for AUD$14. The room is dark and dingy and very basic but it’s perfect for today. In the laneway we have lunch and buy a few last minute presents for the girls. We spend the rest of the afternoon having a few drinks and on dusk we walk back down to the beach. There’s a huge crowd here tonight all cheering on tug of war teams.

We watch for a while then have a last drink at Aneka with Ketut. So happy that we met him again but sad that we never found Barney. Maybe next time. Now we go back to the room to pack then arrange for transport to the airport. Our last dinner is at a busy café in the laneway and, like always, we really, really wished we were staying longer.

On the drive out to the airport I feel so happy and grateful that Mark thought of bringing me here. It’s been a full and wonderful week and not at all the sad experience I thought it might be. The Balinese people are incredible and have an attitude to life that we can only envy. We’ll always come back to Bali and buying our wedding rings here is more precious to us than anyone will ever know.

I love you Mark. I love you Bali.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand 2004

 

Tuesday    30th December, 2003                     Sydney to Bangkok

A gorgeous warm day to set off on this long-awaited holiday. We decide to start our adventure right from the front door so with backpacks on, we walk down to Hamilton Station. From here it’s an easy two and a half hour train ride to Sydney’s Central Station and then ten minutes to the International Airport. We’re over three hours early but already people are lined up to book in. At the British Airlines desk we’re asked to move over to the next counter where the check-in lady gives us the unbelievable, incredible, mind-blowing news that ‘we’re upgrading you to Business Class’ !!!!!!!!!!!  This is our dream come true and the best bit is that we can now spend the next three hours lounging around in the Qantas Club rooms. Everything is free – food, newspapers, magazines and every type of alcohol imaginable. This really is ‘us’, we decide, so we act like total snobs drinking wine and turning our noses up at the riffraff down below.

On the plane we find that Business Class is even better than we expected as this is not just ‘ordinary’ business class but the old first class. This means we get individual little cocoon-like seats that totally flatten out to a real bed. We’re so excited but pretend we’re cool and ignore all the losers heading for the back of the plane. We agree that there really should be a separate entrance for ‘cattle class’ – such undesirables, darling!

Of course, we must have champagne and Kir Royales and dinner is a la carte with three courses. This is such luxury and a shame to waste it sleeping but the bed is so comfortable and I manage about four hours straight. Never arrived anywhere feeling so great. Bangkok is hot and humid as usual even though it’s ten thirty at night. The airport bus has just left so we ask another couple if they want to share a taxi into town which means that we’re at Khao San Road in half an hour. We head straight for Mamas Guesthouse where luckily they have one room left. It’s basic and windowless but we’ll move to better spot in the morning. Right now we just want to eat and have a drink. There’s a shabby looking Japanese Restaurant next door so that’ll do. Don’t stay up long as we’ve got a lot planned for tomorrow. Sleep in our clothes.

Wednesday        31st December, 2003           Bangkok, Thailand

New Years Eve – very excited about spending it here in exotic Thailand. We wake early and set off from Mamas towards Soi 1 to look for a guesthouse in this much quieter area. It’s only a ten minute walk from all the action in Khao San Road but it’s in a lovely residential area with stacks of atmosphere. On the way, we visit a Chinese temple overlooking a wide klong. This is our first taste of Buddhism for the trip and I feel ecstatic. Turning left into Soi 1 we head for the Bamboo Guesthouse which we found last March on our way home from Egypt. It’s just perfect and today they have one double room left – so many things going right for us already this trip. We have breakfast on the street then grab our gear from Mamas and check into the Bamboo.

Our second floor room is big and airy with wood panelled floors and walls. Windows along one wall look out onto the verandahs of old teak houses, so close we can almost touch them. There’s a narrow klong below but it’s so filthy it’s more like a drain and we get a foul whiff every now and again – it’s Asia after all. The shared bathrooms are clean, though, and the lounging around area is fantastic – all this for only 220 baht a night. There’s the same poor little dog with a bucket on his head to stop him scratching a skin disease on his back. He’s blind as well and keeps bouncing off the chair legs – must be very loved. The only thing wrong with it here is the grouchy old owner. His wife is sweet but he and the grandmother walk around like someone just died. Too bad for them, we say.

We don’t unpack much gear as we hope to be leaving tomorrow. Cold showers cool us down as the humidity is high even this early. We’ve forgotten to bring towels with us so we dry ourselves with a sarong. Now we wander around the market stalls in Khao San Road and then look for a travel agent in Thanon Rambutri. We’d decided to wait till we get to Bangkok to arrange our flights to Myanmar as they’ll be cheaper here than if we’d booked from home. The only risk is that we might not be able to get there when we want. Hopefully we’ll be able to fly out tomorrow, the first of January, but this will only give us today to book. If we do have to hang around Bangkok for a few days longer, well so be it. Bangkok is one of our favourite places and this is our fifth time here but there’s still so much to see. We also want to get clothes made so we’ll need a few days either at the beginning or at the end of the trip to get measured and fitted.

Luck is on our side again and we book cheap flights to Yangon with Myanmar Airways International (MAI) for tomorrow morning. We have to be back between five and six o’clock tonight to pick up the tickets. Now we cross over to Mamas for our usual massages. Sharlo and her husband are here and baby Puchai has grown so much. Love the massage like always and feel so at home in their little room. Mark says ‘Mr Mama’ is the best masseur in the world. Afterwards we eat shrimp and chicken on the street and drink Beer Chang to celebrate our first day back in Asia. The smells and the sight of all the food stalls along this street make me happier than I can say. It’s so familiar and we feel very grateful to be here.

Our plan now is to walk to Wat Saket. It’s on the map I’m trying to decipher but it takes Mark to actually find it. We spend a hot half hour walking in the sun before finding some shade along a busy klong. The temple is on a hill but almost hidden by trees and the area around the base is wonderfully green and cool. By the time we get to the temple, though, we’re dripping with sweat. At the top are orange-robed monks, lots of Thai tourists and great views of Bangkok. We ring temple bells and spin prayer wheels on the way down before jumping in a tuktuk to take us to Wang Suan Phakkat. This is a traffic-jammed half hour ride from Wat Saket and we hope it’ll be worth the headache of getting there.

Wang Suan Pakkat is also known as the Lettuce Farm Palace and consists of five traditional Thai houses all made of warm, dark wood. It sits amongst pretty green gardens set out with ponds and little bridges. It’s not exactly peaceful here, though, as the palace is next to a main road and the traffic noise is inescapable. We enjoy ourselves anyway eating ice-creams under a tree and wandering around the beautiful buildings. Each house is elevated off the ground and joined to each other with wooden walkways and the whole place looks over a large pond. We cool ourselves with coloured cane fans that come as part of the ticket price and enjoy the elegant Lacquer Pavilion at the rear of the palace.

Enough sightseeing for today, so we suffer another traffic-choked tuktuk ride back to Khao San Road. We’re both feeling tired but don’t want to give in just yet. In Thanon Phra Sumen, we like the look of the Pavarati Bar and drink a jug of Carlsberg beer sitting on stools at the bar. The atmosphere is quite upmarket but still casual enough for backpackers. It’s good to sit down but we become so relaxed that we decide to go back to the room to rest. The Bamboo Guesthouse is close by – across a small bridge over the klong and then through a couple of alleyways lined with small shops and lots of people sitting outside their homes.

With the overhead fan going, we both fall asleep. Just on dark Mark asks me the time. We can’t believe that we’ve forgotten to pick up our plane tickets! Mark races off to see if he can do anything while I tell myself not to stress. Is this payback for all the things that have gone our way in the last two days? Mark is away for an age but finally arrives back with two towels and the tickets. The travel agent had still been open, thank Buddha – now we can go out and celebrate.

After another cold shower we walk to the big park on the river but nothing seems to be happening here yet. Across the road is a string of trendy Thai restaurants which we head for to get something to eat. We pick the Dog Days Cafe because it’s small and atmospheric – and it’s air-conditioned. We have salad and pork noodles and break out our duty free Bacardi and bourbon. After a few drinks we decide to take on Khao San Road before it gets too busy. A big bulb-flashing archway has been erected at the entrance just for tonight and the street is even crazier than ever. Hundreds of backpackers and young Thai people are having a great time already. It’s only nine thirty but we won’t stay here for long. We don’t think it’s a great idea to be here at midnight for two reasons really. Firstly it’ll be jam packed with pissed idiots (backpackers) and secondly because if there was to be a terrorist attack against westerners, Khao San Road would be a likely  spot on New Years Eve. We’re not paranoid about it but no need to take obvious chances.

This street is so electrifying tonight and we’re shoulder to shoulder. We peel off from the crowd moving along the street and somehow manage to find a table at the open-air Cyber Cafe. Music is coming from all directions and the excitement is catching. A couple of drinks later we head for nearby Soi Rambutri where most of the backpacker bars and cafes are situated across from the temple. Every night the cafe owners set up tables and chairs along the temple wall so we find a good people-watching spot opposite Sawasdee Guesthouse. We love sitting here in the warm night air and feel very at home.

Apparently the main fireworks will be happening down on the Chao Praya River so our next stop is a huge open-air restaurant that overlooks the water. Ferries and boats strung with party lights are slowly making their way towards the bridge so we know we’re in the right spot. Mark orders a mushroom soup which literally smells like the klong outside our room so we share my battered fish. At last it’s midnight and the fireworks display is surprisingly spectacular. What a thrill to be here!

Now it’s time to get some sleep, though, before our early start tomorrow and the beginning of our Myanmar adventure.

Thursday  1st January, 2004          Bangkok to Yangon, Myanmar

New Years Day. The alarm wakes us at six and we’re speeding off to Don Muang Airport by seven o’clock. Bangkok drivers are notoriously mad and our elderly sweet-looking driver is no exception. Like our ride-from-hell experience out to the airport last March, we do hair-raising overtaking maneuvers on the left shoulder and get up to terrifying speeds on the freeway. So glad to get here!

Inside we’re told to check into Thai Airways although we’ve paid for the cheaper MAI flight. Upstairs we find a restaurant we’ve never seen before and have a relaxing breakfast before going through immigration. The plane is late so I spend an hour lying on the floor in the morning sunshine while Mark takes pictures of Gate 12 and our missing plane. The flight is only an hour across the Gulf of Mottama in the Andaman Sea and at last we land in hot, sunny Myanmar.

It’s hard to say Myanmar and not Burma and to say Yangon and not Rangoon – a remnant of old Social Studies classes in primary school. The Irrawaddy River is now disappointingly called the Ayeyarwady – not so romantic, I think. Apparently it was always called Myanmar and it was the British who made all the name changes. After the 1988 Uprising everything reverted back to its original name. Anyway no matter what the name, we’re here and let the journey begin!

There’s a one hour time difference so we put our watches back to 11.30am. Outside the airport we’re greeted with the usual taxi-driver crush and we’re soon whisked away by a beaming Mr. Zaw. Our packs are thrown in the back of his van while Mr. Zaw gives us a quick language lesson in Burmese. Say ‘mingalaba’ for ‘hello’ and ‘cezu tinbadeh’ for ‘thank-you’. The weather is perfect and the half-hour drive into Yangon shows how very green it is here. We pass numerous golden chedi and closer to town, the massive Shwedagon Paya which is at the top of everyone’s must-see list. As we enter central Yangon the traffic becomes heavier but for a city of four million people it’s surprisingly laid-back. Mr. Zaw points out the zeigyo which is the Burmese name for main market and in Yangon is called the Bogyoke Aung San Market. It looks huge and jammed with locals and is also on our list for tomorrow.

Mr. Zaw is trying so hard to suck up. He keeps up his free guided tour as well as telling Mark that he looks like a movie-star. He asks us our plans which are apparently all wrong and says that he can show us all of his beautiful country in his private car. We make no promises but agree to let him show us the sights of Yangon tomorrow. He starts with some exorbitant price and is shattered when we bargain him  down. I guess it works sometimes so there’s no harm trying. After dropping us at the Three Seasons Hotel we arrange to meet him outside at eight o’clock in the morning.

The Three Seasons is a Lonely Planet recommendation in the mid-range section so we pay US$18 a night. It’s expensive for Myanmar but a bargain for its position and its mixed colonial/Asian atmosphere. There’s a small courtyard behind the tall front fence and the foyer is lined in dark paneled wood and furnished with elaborate lounge chairs. It’s very welcoming and so are the owners. Our room is on the next floor and is also lined with wood with bright pink curtains decorating the window. There’s no air-conditioning but we have a fan and our own bathroom so we’re happy.

Downstairs, we ask the lady who runs the guesthouse how to get to the train station as we want to book tickets to Mandalay for next Monday. It’s a thirteen hour overnight trip so we hope to get a sleeper car and we’ve read that you have to book at least four days ahead. She tells us it’s not far along the main road and back towards the market so we decide to walk. The temperature is in the high thirties but we don’t mind the heat. Walking also gives us the chance to get amongst the street life. Like all Asian cities so much goes on out of doors. On the footpaths people are cooking noodles, rice, chicken, vegetables and pancakes over hot coals. Others are sitting on baby-sized plastic stools eating bowls of food with wooden chopsticks. Teashops are common in Burma and we see lots of locals (men only) whiling about the day drinking tea and eating all sorts of tea snacks.

We’re walking along Bogyoke Aung San Road which is remarkably quiet for being one of the main streets in a capital city. There’s still the overcrowded buses and cars and a few motorbikes but the road is so wide the pace seems less hectic. Trees have been planted along both sides of the street which give us some much needed shade. There’s a pervasive English influence in the once-beautiful buildings which are now seriously rundown. Despite the neglect, they have a decaying elegance that makes this city so special.

We finally find our way to the Dagon Mann booking office which isn’t at the railway station but in what seems to be a disused siding. This is an amazing place where lots of poor people are hanging out and a few decrepit teashops have been set up. We have no idea where to go and no-one seems to speak English. Soon though we’re being guided to the right counter by a helpful lady and our sleeper train tickets are booked and paid for. It’s not cheap at A$50 each because the government makes sure that foreigners pay for everything through the nose.

By now we’re starving so we set out for the Sakhantha Hotel which is part of the old Yangon Train Station. The station is on the other side of the tracks across a busy bridge. It’s a striking building that seems to be part colonial, part Chinese. We’re so hot by the time we get here and can’t wait for a beer. We sit in a kind of bar/restaurant with a lot of locals and order fried chicken and a tomato salad which comes covered in a sate sauce. It’s all good and I even manage to eat mine with chopsticks. The beer is on tap and not bad  so Mark drinks a bucketful.

Our next job is to find somewhere to send emails and we’re sent on a wild goose chase from the Sakhantha Hotel to the Yoma Hotel to the Queens Park Hotel. Here we have to pretend that we’re thinking of staying the night so we waste precious time looking at their rooms. We finally realize that they only have local email so it really is a waste of time. The girls are so sweet though so we try to look impressed and promise to come back later. After all this, we find an internet cafe just around the corner from our hotel only to find that we can’t use Hotmail in Myanmar. There’s some sort of government block on Yahoo and Hotmail but the young guy in charge helps us to sign up with Paok and we finally get to send a message off home

Our quick walk to the railway booking office has turned into a five hour trek and we’re both exhausted. We collapse in the foyer of the Three Seasons and order lime sodas. After a shower and a quick lie down we’re out in the street again. There’s a few Lonely Planet recommended restaurants around here so we set off to find them. The 50th Street Bar and Grill is first on the list. It’s dark by now but still warm and so nice walking around the streets. This area is like a ghetto with high rise apartment blocks that look like they should be condemned. It’s weird, but we like it. Kids are still running around outside and we can see inside the doorways of the flats. Most of them have no electricity and people are out on their balconies. Candle-lit food stalls and cafes are set up along the edge of the street that leads down to the Bar. The road is unpaved and potholed and it’s pitch black. Even though we’re walking around in the dark in a slum area we feel totally safe. We always feel like this in Asia.

The 50th Street Bar and Grill is a huge contrast to the world outside. The bar would be impressive in the middle of Sydney let alone in this poorest of places. A couple of westerners are sitting in an alcove but other than that, we’re the only ones here. We have a beer each sitting up at the bar and talk to the barman. One look at the prices on the menu, though, and we decide to eat somewhere else.

This turns out to be a good move. Back down in the main street, we sit at a rickety old table set up on the footpath and order chicken and chili noodles. It’s cooked in a wok over hot coals and has to be the best meal we’ve had for ages. Much better sitting here anyway. There’s so much street life and even the traffic is amazing. Buses are taking people home from central Yangon and bursting at the seams. We could stay here and order more food but we decide to try the nearby Shan restaurant. It’s open to the street and down a couple of steps. The food is displayed at the counter and looks totally unappealing. I stick with the free soup but Mark piles up on chili squid and a vegetable dish. Really starting to lose our momentum by now so we head for the Three Seasons and our comfy beds.

Friday        2nd January, 2004                                  Yangon

Our beds may be comfortable but we’re kept awake half the night by mosquitoes. We’re up at five o’clock and have breakfast in the dining room overlooking the street. Breakfast is included in the room price and it’s a feast – pawpaw, grapefruit, sticky rice, pancake, toast, scrambled eggs, tea, coffee and juice. After getting our day packs ready, we wait downstairs for Mr. Zaw who doesn’t turn up. I guess he’s found someone who’ll pay more but we don’t mind and prefer to do our own thing anyway.

The first thing we see outside the guesthouse is a line of monks on their alms rounds. They each carry a wooden alms bowl that the local people fill with rice. This is a fabulous sight and one we’re sure to see many times on this trip. Eighty seven percent of Burmese are Theravada Buddhists and almost half a million monks live within the fifty thousand monasteries throughout the country. All males are expected to become novice monks for at least a short time between the ages of ten and twenty and then become fully ordained later in life if they choose. As a novice they mustn’t steal, lie, drink alcohol, have sex, eat after noon, listen to music and do any of the other fun things we westerners like to do.

Heading out onto the main road, we cross to a monastery on the other side. We’re met by the sweetest of men called Wimyam. He’s a layman at the monastery as well as owning a tiny shop next door. He takes us upstairs to the monks’ quarters and explains how it all works. The monks sleep in bare rooms around a central area used for praying and hanging out. It’s a peaceful, homey atmosphere and I pat one of the live-in cats. A group of young male students are eating around a low table and have the greatest fun when Mark videos them and plays it back. They’re so excited and incredibly innocent – brings it home how much we take the things we have for granted. Downstairs we talk to the head monk who brings out kittens for us to play with. Mark reckons I love monasteries as much for the cats as for the monks.

Now Wimyam shows us his cupboard-sized shop set up under a tree outside and we watch him making betel nut packages for the locals. He paints a lime leaf with a white paste and sprinkles on tobacco and betel nut and then wraps it up in a little parcel. He sells us some tiny wrapped lollies and then proudly has his photo taken in front of his shop. This has been an unexpectedly great start to the day.

Across the street is an interesting teahouse so we find a table inside and order sweet milk tea and tea snacks. Our waiter is a young guy who wants to be in the video and his mates in the kitchen are giggling in the doorway. We’ve found the people here to be the most sweet-tempered and well-meaning that we’ve met anywhere. Despite being deeply oppressed and kept poor by the military government, the Burmese people have such dignity and a gentleness of spirit that we find admirable and enviable.

And because of the fact that Myanmar is ruled by a military government, we had to decide if coming here was the right thing to do. The military regime has had the democratic leader, Aung San Suu Khi, under house arrest twice since her victory in 1990. Our decision had to be balanced against seeming to support the government and coming here to support the Burmese people.  By ensuring that we only travel on non-government transport and only stay in non-government accommodation, we feel we may still be helping the local people. We hope so anyway. Aung San Suu Khi is a hero of human rights beyond words and we want to experience the country and the people she loves so much.

From the teahouse, we send off some emails from the internet place around the corner and then grab a taxi to take us to the Bogyoke Aung San Market in central Yangon. The market has been running for seventy years and sells anything and everything. Apparently the British called it the Scott Market so we feel much at home. Mark buys a longyi which is the traditional dress worn by all the Burmese men and women. One long piece of material is sewn together and then wrapped around the waist like a sarong – totally practical in the hot weather and looks great. All sorts of strange animal entrails are being sold in the food market as well as the usual fruit and vegetables. At a makeshift cafe we choose chicken on skewers for lunch while ear-shattering music is played on a CD player. The young girls here are so pretty and keep smiling at us to make sure we’re enjoying the music. I buy a purple silk longyi and a white cotton blouse to wear in the temples and then we’re back outside and in another taxi heading for the Shwedagon Paya on the outskirts of town.

The Shwedagon Paya is Myanmar’s most sacred Buddhist sight and attracts thousands of locals every day. It consists of a massive golden stupa surrounded by countless prayer halls, smaller stupas, bell pavilions, temples, shrines and four bodhi trees at each corner. As we approach the paya we can see the ninety eight metre golden dome rising from its hilltop position then a tree-lined sweeping drive takes us to the foreigner’s entrance. We take off our shoes and pay a US$5 admission fee to enter the lift which takes us up to the level of the paya. The sight before us is dazzlingly beautiful. All the temples and smaller stupas are elaborately carved and covered with tiny mirrors and gold leaf so that the whole scene is a glowing spectacle. The main central stupa is topped with a seventy six carat diamond sitting on a golden sphere studded with thousands of precious stones and over four thousand smaller diamonds. Considering the poverty of the people it seems ironic to see so much wealth in these payas but it just shows that our western way of thinking just doesn’t mean the same here.

We spend ages wandering around all the pavilions and watching the locals praying and giving offerings. The whole area is paved with white marble so even though it’s swelteringly hot, the ground is cool enough to walk on with bare feet. We leave by the main entrance which is almost as magnificent as the stupa itself. An enormous enclosed staircase lined with dark carved wood leads down the hundred or so steps to the sunshine outside.

According to our map, Lake Kandawgyi isn’t far and we think it might be cooler down there. It takes ages, though, walking in the hot sun before we find it. At the Kandawgyi Palace Hotel we stop for a drink. This is so luxurious with a tropical garden right on the lake with swimming pools set into grottos and a thatched bar. Sitting on bamboo chairs at the bar we order beers and lime sodas and wish we were staying here. Too late now as we’re off to Bago in the morning. Another long, hot walk around the lake then we taxi it back to the Three Seasons for a rest.

After dark we find a trishaw down in the street to take us to the Strand Hotel. Trishaws are the Burmese version of a rickshaw except that there are two tiny seats next to the driver with each person facing opposite directions. I sit facing backwards and get to ‘mingalaba’ with the locals going past in other trishaws. Tonight is warm and still and we feel very blessed to be here. At the Strand we pay off our driver and enter the lovely old foyer. The Strand was built in 1896 by the same guys who built the Raffles Hotel in Singapore and has that same colonial elegance. It was a hangout for the British colonialists and still has that old world feel. We sit on stools at the bar and order a Manhattan and a beer then move to a comfortable corner for a lime Margarita and a white wine.

Outside again, we find another trishaw to take us into the main part of town to look for one of the rooftop restaurants we’ve read about in the Lonely Planet. We pass Sule Paya glowing gold in the night and through a maze of dark streets. There doesn’t seem to be any street lights probably because of the electricity restrictions which means different parts of the city experience regular brownouts. We spend ages driving around while our poor driver tries to find the restaurants. He can’t read our map and no-one he stops seems to know anything about them. We decide to get out and walk and take an hour of wandering around and backtracking before finally finding them. This is a horrid, sleazy area and the restaurants don’t look much better. We share an elevator with a group of pretty young girls all carrying a hard plastic carry bag each. Apparently there’s a fashion show on later and these are the models.

Inside the restaurant we’re shown to a table surrounded by a few scrawny plants and it’s so dark we can barely read the menu. Our young waiter stands to attention beside our table but then sits down for a chat. The beers are served in cold plastic mugs and we’re entertained with a karaoke competition while we eat. Next is the fashion parade which is so bad it’s almost funny. About twenty girls model one outfit each and for some reason videoing is strictly forbidden. Another cultural thing, I suppose. We don’t stay long and need to get back to the room anyway to pack for our early start tomorrow.

Saturday             3rd January, 2004                Yangon to Bago

Mark has a head cold this morning but still manages to eat some of our huge breakfast. At eight o’clock we order a taxi to drive us to the Highway Bus Station. After forty minutes driving we begin to think our driver must be either lost or he thinks he’s taking us the whole way to Bago. The scenery is great anyway with people setting off for work and for school and we like the look of this more rural area.

Soon we see the bus station which is spread out over a wide area and it’s still a mystery as to why it’s so far out of Yangon. Our driver stops a few people to ask where the Bago bus departs and drops us at one of the ticket offices nearby. These are set up in a row of old sheds and we’re told that the Bago bus will leave in an hour. We buy our A$2 tickets from a man sitting at a small table and then we’re told to sit on little wooden stools to wait. A young boy makes room for us and Mark reads while I wander outside to look at the food stalls. A small market sells fruit and cooked noodles to passengers waiting to board buses to all parts of the country. Everyone here is Burmese except for us so I get lots of smiles and ‘mingalabas’.

When the bus arrives Mark throws our packs on the roof while I find that we have excellent seats right behind the driver. I buy a bag of chopped watermelon through the bus window before we leave on time at ten thirty. All the seats are full and a dozen people have to stand. Instead of spreading themselves out along the aisle they all crowd together as far to the front as they possibly can. I don’t know why, but we’ve seen this happen in most Asian countries including India. It’s a bit claustrophobic with three people just about sitting on Mark’s shoulder, but it’s good people watching.

Bago is only eighty kilometres from Yangon but the bus isn’t capable of getting up to any sort of speed so it takes three hours to get there. Along the way we stop at a roadside cafe for lunch. At least that’s what we think is happening. No-one speaks English so we just keep our eye on the driver in case we’re only here for a toilet stop. We’re not game to order anything that could take too long so we buy a bag of hot potato snacks cooked on the street and soda waters from the cafe.

Back on the bus, we crawl towards Bago and finally arrive at one thirty. The main street is busy and unappealing with three and four storey buildings looking very rundown and totally lacking in character. A group of young guys are touting for the local guesthouses and they surround us as we get off the bus. The hotels are near the bus stop and all look as bad as each other so we go with the guy we like the most. His name is Peace and he walks us across the street to the very glamorously named Emperor Hotel. Our room is on the second floor at the back and overlooks a roof covered in rubbish that’s been thrown from upper storey windows. A minaret from the local mosque is right behind us as well so it’ll be interesting to see if the call-to-prayer is as noisy here as it was in Cairo last year. The bed takes up most of the room but we do have a bathroom and surprisingly, a television. Peace proudly shows us the luxury suite across the hallway which is bigger and even has a plastic table and chairs and a vase of plastic flowers. It’s sad to think that this awful little room is ‘luxury’ to these people who have nothing.

Peace also tells us that we won’t have to go back to Yangon to get on the Mandalay train as it definitely stops in Bago. This will save us so much time and hassle backtracking to Yangon – we just hope he’s right. He even promises take us to the station to get us into the right carriage as the train only stops for two minutes.

By now Mark’s head cold has become worse and I’ve got sinusitis as well so we decide to sleep for a while. Besides this we’re both covered with mosquito bites from our nights at the Three Seasons. At five o’clock, Peace walks us across the bridge to the ‘chemist’ to get some tablets. It’s a tiny hole-in-the-wall place but they have something to dry up Mark’s nose and my sinuses. Peace tells us that we can watch the sunset from the roof of the hotel so we grab our duty free grog from the room while Peace rounds up some coke. Six flights of steep stairs leads to the rooftop where we find another traveller who’s staying here as well. He’s Mark from Holland and we make plans to have dinner together. Meanwhile the sun is setting behind a distant haze created by the thousands of wood fires used in homes all through this area. Peace points out all the local temples and we can see how very small the town is. Also it’s good to see that the yucky part of Bago is confined to the main street while directly behind is thatched villages and pretty temples. Looking forward to seeing it all tomorrow.

At six thirty Mark and I walk around to the Shwe Li Restaurant recommended by Peace as the cleanest place in town to eat. Because the electricity is out, it’s very dark in the street. Most hotels and restaurants have their own generators so the Shwe Li is a dim glow in a rutted dirt laneway near the Emperor. It overlooks the Bago River and seems to be popular with locals. When ‘Holland Mark’ turns up he tells us we should steer away from eating meat in these rural areas because the constant power cuts mean that the refrigeration is pretty dodgy. It’s a good tip and we all order vegetarian dishes which are all good anyway. Mark tells us about his life and his travels in Burma and gives us a few tips for when we head up north.

We get to bed about ten o’clock but it’s not long before I start the first of my many toilet visits for the night – great tip about the vegetarian food! Hope ‘Holland Mark’ is having an even shittier time than me.

Sunday      4th January, 2004                                   Bago

Peace told us last night that hundreds of monks do their alms rounds past the hotel at 5am so even though I’m exhausted after a sleepless night, I make myself get up. The electricity is off and the corridor outside our room is in darkness. I can see that it’s still dark outside as well and anyway I can’t get past all the sleeping bodies at the top of the stairs. Peace and the other people who work here have to sleep on the tiled floor and someone is lying on the counter.

Now we sleep till ten thirty before dragging ourselves down to the 555 Cafe next door for breakfast. It looks like it’ll be a wasted day with me still running to the toilet and Mark feeling even sicker with his cold. The mosque hadn’t been too noisy but we could hear chanting all night so Mark didn’t get much sleep as well. As we sit down to order, he has to make a dash for our room so now we’ve both got ‘Bago Belly’. The menu of ‘fried air bladder’, ‘gort fighting ball’, ‘fried crisp duck webs’ and ‘pork balls’ isn’t very inviting on a sick stomach so we settle for fruit salad and an omelet.

The rest of the day is spent sleeping, toileting, sleeping, toileting …. – never thought we could sleep so much in one day. The electricity is on sporadically so we pass some of the time watching television. The trouble is that we’ll be halfway through watching something when the power goes off and by the time it comes back on the show is over. Our room is getting more horrid by the minute. The toilet and the shower are in the same tiny dark cell which means that we’re forever walking water through the bedroom. The floor is vinyl so it’s continually wet and the toilet/bathroom has a bare cement floor that looks like it could breed almost anything.

By nightfall we can’t stand being here anymore so we decide to try and eat dinner. No way will we be heading back to the Shew Li tonight. Across the street near the bridge is the Panda Restaurant which is about the only other place in town to eat. It’s a featureless bare room that steps down off the street and we’re the only customers. One look at the menu (more ‘air bladders’ and ‘gort balls’) is enough to make us almost throw up on the table and we order the closest thing we can find to a salad. Mark has to get some sort of food into him because of his diabetes but neither of us manages to eat much before crawling back to bed.

Monday     5th January, 2004      Bago to Mandalay by overnight train

After a better night, we wake at seven ready to spend the whole day taking in the highlights of Bago. Both still feeling a bit precious so breakfast is watermelon and an omelet at the 555. We’ve missed the monks’ alms rounds the last two mornings but now here is a group of Buddhist nuns walking towards the cafe. They’re all shaven headed and dressed in soft baby pink robes that look wonderful against the golden brown of their skin. They’re happy to have their photos taken  while they collect cooked rice from the people in the cafe.

 

Yesterday we’d met a young trishaw driver called Zawtun who is now waiting outside to take us around town to some of the temples and monasteries. His beautiful smile reflects his beautiful nature and he tells us that he’s the best guide in town. The morning is clear and warm and we’re optimistic of having a wonderful day. Zawtun has an extra cushion on the front of the trishaw because he says that Mark ‘is fat’. And because Mark ‘is fat’, he also has to sit in the front seat so I have to sit behind facing backwards again. Off we go about eight o’clock cycling south out of town. As we reach the bridge over the railway line, Mark quietly announces that we have to go back to the hotel – fast! My poor darling has lost what was left of his insides in a brown watery mess all over the trishaw. Poor Zawtun quickly turns around and we speed back to the Emperor. Mark races embarrassingly up to the room while Zawtun cleans the seat. He thinks it’s a great joke and soon half the town knows about it. I go to see how Mark is going and he greets me at the door in the longyi he’d bought in Yangon and never thought he’d wear. It’s the only clean thing he’s got left but he looks great anyway.

Downstairs we set off for the second time after Mark has swallowed half a packet of Imodium. He’s determined we’re going to make up for yesterday – thank you, baby! Back across the bridge we turn right into a village area that is so lovely. Tropical gardens, flowering bougainvillea and lots of palm and coconut trees line the red dirt streets and surround the wooden and thatched houses. We pass children on their way to school wearing white shirts and dark green longyis and carrying multi-coloured shoulder bags. Burmese music is blaring from a parked truck while someone encased in a huge papier mache head is collecting money from people walking past. Zawtun says that they’re raising funds for one of the many small monasteries spread out around the town.

Because Zawtun knows what happens where and when, we’re happy to just go where he takes us. Our first stop is the Kha Khat Wain Kyaung Buddhist monastery on the Bago River. A dirt track runs alongside the water’s edge and we can hear music coming from the thatched village on the opposite bank. Before going inside we take off our shoes then walk along the cool tiles of the long shaded walkway to the central area where gardens and trees are planted between all the buildings and pavilions. Zawtun shows us the kitchen and the giant-sized, black metal pots used for cooking rice and vegetables. All this is done over wooden fires and adds to the constant haze that rests over the town. In a large open pavilion hundreds of novice monks are sitting cross-legged in front of tiny wooden desks on the bare floor. They’re doing a Pali exam but apparently we’re welcome to watch. The silence is beautiful and only broken by birds singing in the gardens outside.

While the exam is still going on we visit one of the monks’ quarters which is just as bare as those we saw in the monastery in Yangon. Maroon robes are hanging on two ropes strung across the room and thin mattresses cover most of the floor. A couple of monks are reciting Buddhist scriptures and give us shy smiles. From here we follow Zawtun into the eating hall where low round wooden tables are set ready for the monks to have their ten-thirty meal. They dine once in the early morning and again before noon after which they can’t eat at all. Young monks carry in trays from the kitchen. Each tray is about three feet across and holds a dozen metal bowls containing some sort of vegetable soup. One is placed on each of the round tables along with large silver teapots.

While we wait outside the hall, two young girls try to sell us postcards and paintings. “I’ve already bought some, yesterday” I say to which one replies “Yes, but they were bamboo, these are different”. Incredibly the word has got around town even about something as insignificant as this. Mark’s hairy legs have them in fits of laughter and even more when he shows them his stomach. Now, very daintily, they paint my face with thanakha. This is a white paste from the thanakha tree and used as a cosmetic by all Burmese women. They paint great blobs of the stuff on their cheeks, forehead, chin and down the nose. Some say it’s used as a sun screen but mainly it’s their form of makeup. At first I like the cool feel of it on my face but then it dries into a sort of stiff mud mask. It’s good to be one of the girls anyway and I buy a jar of it to take home.

By now the monks are ready and a head monk hits a bell with the butt end of a thick piece of wood then uses it again to hit a bronze gong. This is the Burmese version of the dinner bell and here they come! This is a magical sight and one I’ve always dreamed of seeing. One thousand monks walking in straight lines come from two opposite directions towards the eating hall. They each carry a wooden alms bowl and all walk in total silence. As they reach the entrance they’re given a scoop of rice each and then they move inside to take their place at one of the round tables. We follow them in and sit on the floor to one side near the eighty year old head monk. He’s being helped by two very young novices and looks like he hasn’t a clue what’s going on – asleep even? Mark leans backwards and cuts his hand on a piece of glass propped up against the wall. He really is having the worst luck today.

When all the monks are seated three of them stand at the front and recite a loud musical chant with the palms of their hands together in front of their third eye. When they finish everyone else has a turn and one thousand monks say grace – beautiful. From now on, though, there’s absolute silence as they spoon some of the soup into their rice bowl and use their fingers to scoop it into their mouth. The sun slanting in through the windows turns their maroon robes into a vibrant red – a marvellous sight! We’ll never forget this special morning.

Back out in the sunshine, Zawtun rides us back through the village and over the bridge along the Yangon-Mandalay Road to the southern side of town. Along the way we pass another truck with a man on the back yelling into a loud-speaker. Accompanied by deafening Burmese music, he’s advertising the latest film playing at the Bago cinema. We pass a school and then turn into a rutted side street. To our right is the very pretty Leikpya Reservoir and small food stalls are built along both sides of the street. Finally we stop in front of a roughly built wooden shack where a man and woman are cutting the ends off home-made cigars. The family who live here are all cigar makers and Zawtun takes us through to another shack at the back. Sitting on a bare wooden floor in the oldest of buildings are the women of the family – a couple of younger women with a little girl each and an older woman swinging a sleeping baby in a small hammock by pulling a string attached to it. Two tiny withered old women are obviously the grandmothers and they all welcome us and want their photos taken. They work automatically like they’ve done this forever. It’s a happy family atmosphere.

From here we ride down a long wide avenue where the golden Shwemawdaw Paya stands impressively at one end. At one hundred and fourteen metres high and one thousand years old it’s the main tourist attraction in Bago. The entrance fee goes straight to the government so Zawtun sneaks us into a side entrance where we don’t have to pay. A long covered stairwell leads to the main paya where an old man takes pity on Mark’s attempt to tie his longyi and redoes it for him. For a while we sit in the shade near the stupa then find the massive original pinnacle which fell to the ground during the 1917 earthquake.

We don’t stay long as Zawtun is waiting for us at the back entrance. We follow him along a narrow covered walkway to the Hintha Gon Paya. This is a lively temple where lots of local people are selling flowers and incense at the bottom of the stairs. Like all Buddhist temples a long staircase leads to the stupa where we can hear loud clanking music. Three men are playing traditional gongs, drums and xylophones while a fat lady ‘sings’ into a microphone. The band sounds like a preschool percussion class gone wrong and the singer sounds like a wounded cat but apparently it’s the real thing. Two very odd looking people with heavily made up faces are dancing in long black dresses and hats and carrying a bunch of leaves in their left hand and a long sword in their right hand. Zawtun tells us that this is a nat ceremony so we’ve come at just the right time. Nats are spirits and Burmese Buddhism actually incorporates many aspects of nat worship. Offerings to Buddha ensure happiness in a future life while offerings to the nats ensure happiness in this life. A small group of local people are sitting on the floor watching the performance and every now and again the ladies pin money to the dancer’s clothes. The dancers are spirit mediums called nat-gadaw and are usually transvestites which accounts for their bizarre appearance. The next dance involves five more dancers wearing even more elaborate costumes. It’s their job to lure the nats into possessing them until they go into a trance. The whole thing feels a bit skin crawly, really.

Now it’s time to eat but Zawtun wants us to see one more paya on this side of town. We bounce along a pot-holed track on the edge of the village to an ancient, rather ugly looking temple. Mark is over-heating so he sits in the shade while I go inside with Zawtun. The walls are lined with hundreds of golden buddhas and glass showcases hold precious Buddha images. Too hungry to see any more so we decide to head back to town. My white painted face brings lots of smiles along the way especially from the ladies who all give me nods of approval.

At the 555 Cafe we order noodles and soda waters while I catch up on the diary – so much has happened today already. Burmese cafes have a certain atmosphere that makes them somehow different to other places in South East Asia. I think one reason is that all the cooking is done over hot coals so there’s always a smoky cloud hanging in the air. As well as this they all have dark interiors probably because the electricity is usually off but this creates a wonderful mystical mood and we feel like we’re in some sort of Burmese time warp. The only thing that brings us back to reality is that all these cafes have posters of David Beckham decorating the walls. He’s the only western face we’ve seen in any sort of advertising and they seem to be obsessed with him here – and what good taste, I say.

We ask Zawtun about getting a massage so he says he’ll take us to his village. This is just behind the main road and it’s a lovely contrast. In between grass and wooden huts overhung with trees we ride along rough dirt tracks till we pull up in front of Zawtun’s hut. Like all the others around here it’s built on stilts with an area at ground level beside it where all the cooking is done. There’s no running water so outside each hut is a large ceramic pot filled with water that the villagers have to buy. It’s unimaginably basic but wonderfully appealing. Planks of wood lead up to the two rooms inside where we sit on woven cane mats on the floor. Zawtun’s wife was originally from the Karen tribe in northern Myanmar and she brings us a pot of hot green tea. Their eldest son is at school but we get to meet the baby of the family who’s wearing thanakha on his face like the rest of the children in the village.

Soon a man who appears to be drunk arrives in a trishaw and he’s introduced as Mark’s masseur. My tiny massage lady arrives a few minutes later and we can’t believe how old and frail she is. Looks are deceiving though and she gives me the usual painful business. Mosquito coils are burning on the floor next to us and we can see through the slats of the hut to the life going on outside. Zawtun’s parents live next door and we can see them sitting on the verandah. His mother is making cheroots and after our massages she gives me a funny but unsuccessful lesson. We have an audience who also follow us to look at the river. The babies are so adorable and there seems to be a lot of them around here. Zawtun shows us the local shop which consists of a few sad looking things in plastic bags hanging outside an old hut. We watch a man making kindling for the cooking fires and take lots of photos of our fan club before they wave us off.

It’s getting late but Zawtun insists on taking us to see the huge reclining Shwethalyaung Buddha. To get there we ride though another pretty part of town but stop on the way to visit a small park full of Buddha statues and again at a giant erection of four buddhas standing back to back. The reclining Buddha is surrounded by a large shed where we’re supposed to pay an entrance fee. Zawtun goes ahead ‘to check on the military’, as he says, but apparently they’ve gone and we can get in for free. Inside we find that the resting white Buddha is fifty five metres long and dressed in saffron robes but, although longer, is not as beautiful as Bangkok’s Wat Po, we think.

From here we ride a little farther north to a Mon village. The Mon people are one of Myanmar’s many ethnic groups and make up two percent of the population. Their traditional weaving techniques are still practiced in this village so we hope to see some of it today. The track to the village is so rough and sandy that we have to leave the trishaw and walk some of the way. Beneath one of the stilted houses we find women weavers and spinners at work using ancient looking wooden machines. It’s all done by hand and looks incredibly complicated. I really can’t leave without buying something so I get fitted for a green and black longyi which a young woman makes up on the spot. Back along the track we have to move aside for a pair of oxen pulling a cart. There’s no machinery in Myanmar so all the farm work is still done using animals and hand ploughs. This is by far the most primitive of all the Asian countries we’ve visited yet.

Now it’s time to head back to the hotel. Mark pays Zawtun before getting back on the trishaw so that the hotel owners don’t know how much we give him and won’t be able to get as much commission. He’s given us a wonderful time and it’s up there with one of our favourite travel days ever.

At the Emperor we find that Peace has had to go to Yangon and won’t be back in time to take us to the station. The Indian owner says he’ll fix it so we pack and grab something to eat downstairs. At six thirty we set off on foot in the dark with a smiling young man called Ko carrying my big back pack. We follow him through the candle-lit village which is now full of life and very exciting. The station is just as exciting with lots of locals waiting for trains. There’s only a few bench seats so the rest of us have to sit on the ground. A large family looks like they’ve set up for the night and eat a picnic spread out on a blanket then curl up together to go to sleep.

The train is an hour late then as it makes its slow approach we all cross to the platform on the other side of the tracks. Ko tells us to stay with him as he knows which carriage we’ll be in. When it had been relatively calm before, now there’s a sense of urgency and as the train stops everyone is running in all directions. I follow close on Ko’s heels and Mark is right behind us. Our carriage must be at the far end of the train but finally Ko finds it and we jump on. Ko and I jump on, that is, but where’s my baby? I can’t see him anywhere and I start to panic. If he was on the platform he’d be head and shoulders above the Burmese people so he’s just disappeared. I stick my head out the window and scream at two Indian guards standing on the platform. “Where’s my husband?”. One points in one direction, “he get on up there” while the other guard points in the opposite direction, “he get on down there”. “Where’s my husband?” I keep screaming like a woman possessed. Now the train is starting to move and I don’t know whether to get off or stay put. Ko is frantically trying to climb out the nearest window but he can’t fit so by the time he leaps through the door the train is well under way. Poor Ko – he didn’t even get a tip let alone having to throw himself from a speeding train. I can’t believe this is happening and it’s awful and hilarious at the same time. Suddenly Mark appears from the other end of the corridor and looks as stressed as I am. That we’re happy to see each other is an understatement. In the chaos on the platform, he’d missed seeing Ko and I get on the train and had run right past us. As the train was pulling out, he’d just jumped on hoping I was already here somewhere. We really should have plans for times like these.

By now we’re thundering our way towards Mandalay. I say thundering because the train is just about jumping off the tracks and the noise is deafening. Our private cabin is as decrepit as could be with hard, double decked bunks and a fan that doesn’t work and a window that doesn’t open. The door won’t close properly so Mark has to jam it shut so hard I doubt we’ll ever get out. At least we won’t have any unwelcome visitors during the night. After popping a sleeping pill each and putting in earplugs, Mark gets out our pillows and we try to make ourselves comfortable. Despite the bumping and bouncing and the dodgy cabin we love this train trip.

Tuesday    6th January, 2004                Mandalay

It’s still early when we wake so we watch the scenery from the corridor window till the train finally pulls into Mandalay at nine o’clock. The day is warm with clear blue skies so it’s a good start. Outside the station we grab a taxi to take us to a guesthouse. Taxis in Mandalay are tiny blue trucks so we’re squeezed into the back with all our gear. The Natural Inn Guesthouse appears to be closed so we backtrack across town to the Silver Swan Hotel. It’s a ten storey block and too upmarket for us, both in price and atmosphere.  But going on what we’ve seen of Mandalay so far, it’ll be too much trouble trying to find something else, so we check in.

Our room has all the trappings of a four star hotel including a bath and hot water. Since we’re both still feeling a bit off, it’s probably a good idea to stay somewhere like this for a couple of days anyway. The foyer has a friendly atmosphere and is very elaborately Asian – dark carved furniture and vinyl lounges covered in white crocheted doilies. There seems to be too many staff for the amount of guests and no-one seems to care that most of them are lounging around watching television. Before going out we book boat tickets for Bagan on Thursday morning and ask about boats to Mingun for tomorrow.

Apparently Mandalay’s only internet place is back over in the town centre. A taxi near the guesthouse takes us to the ultra-modern Cyberspace Cafe on the third floor of a partly finished building. The stairs lead from a busy market on the bottom level, up two flights where there aren’t even any walls and the floors are covered in sand, to the third level expensively fitted out with a bank and computer shops. It’s the most stylish internet cafe we’ve ever seen and we even get served coffee while we type.  Back outside, though, we can’t find a taxi anywhere and we’re getting majorly frustrated. I don’t know if I like this town yet. The temperature is in the thirties and there’s no transport till we get within a few blocks of the hotel.

Finally we’re saved by a trishaw driver called Mohammed. He’s an Islamic Burmese with nine children and an intelligent, happy face. His English is good so he’ll be a great guide for the rest of the day. The historical area lays to the north-east of the town just below Mandalay Hill so we, or rather Mohammed, has a long ride to get there. The whole town is basically flat but the roads are so pitted and uneven that it’s a slow trip. Besides this, Mandalay Fort is a two kilometre square compound smack in the centre of the city. An attractive, seventy metre wide moat surrounds it as well so wherever we go it means going around the whole bloody thing.

We haven’t eaten all day and still can’t stomach Burmese food so Mohammed cycles us to the European BBB Restaurant. The room is dim and cool and the food expensive because of the English menu. Unfortunately everything still tastes Burmese and we don’t eat much.  But now we’re ready to take on the temples with our lovely Mohammed. Another long ride takes us through the shabby outskirts of town and past a few imposing buildings behind tall fences. When I ask Mohammed what they’re used for, he looks straight ahead and says ‘Government. The fucking government!’

The first of the temples is called Shwekyimint Paya which is very special for some reason but looks same, same. The nearby Atumashi Kyaung is better because of it’s intricate wooden structure but the nicest thing about both of them is the setting. This area is tropically green and shaded by tall trees which look like they’ve been here as long as the monastery and temple themselves.

A short ride and we come to Kuthodaw Paya which houses what’s called ‘the world’s biggest book’. The ‘book’ is actually a series of seven hundred and twenty nine marble slabs inscribed with the entire Tripikata which is sort of the Buddhist bible. Each slab sits in its own stupa all of which surround the central golden stupa. Beneath this main stupa is a monk sitting on a sort of raised throne reciting Buddhist scriptures to a small crowd of female worshippers. They’re all sitting on the ground under a spreading tree and we stop to listen.

Nearby we visit another amazing paya which is surrounded by hundreds of blindingly white stupas each containing more Buddhist writings but we’ve definitely had enough by now and decide to head back to the hotel. Here we rest and lay around in the bath before we meet Mohammed outside again. We’ve arranged for him to take us to a few of Mandalay’s ‘hot’ night spots.

The first is the night market. This is far from hot or even interesting and mainly sells out-dated clothes and cheap household stuff. The lighting is so bad we can’t see much anyway and after looking at a few food stalls we head east to the other side of town. Again poor Mohammed has to do a half lap of the Mandalay Fort till we come to the Little Mandalay Restaurant. Mohammed has chosen it for us and we love the setting. We sit outside in a garden lit by fairy lights and candles with an extremely posh group of diners. Almost everyone is French except for a very black woman wearing a turban and speaking with an  upper class English accent – we try to eavesdrop. Despite the wonderful atmosphere, the food is only mediocre and the beer is either headless or has a six inch layer of froth. Mark spoons some of his froth into my glass and we enjoy ourselves immensely.

Now we’re off to the famous Mandalay Marionettes. This is set in a quiet side street in a funny little wooden theatre. It only holds about fifty people and we find excellent seats in the second row. The band is directly in front of us and consists of five old men playing traditional instruments and wearing ancestral dress. The narration is in English and spoken with a sweet Burmese accent. Each scene ends with the curtain being raised above the little stage so that we can see the puppeteers doing their thing. The marionettes are so beautiful and we’ll definitely be buying one to take home. During the last fifteen minutes the old master shows off why he is the master and then comes around to shake everyone’s hand. It’s such a lovely ending to a lovely art form which is unfortunately dying out probably because of the introduction of television and the cinema.

The ride back is long and cool. I’d forgotten that Mandalay is so much farther north and gets cold at night at this time of year. Nothing to do but enjoy the ride. Tomorrow we’re off to Mingun so we get a good night’s sleep.

Wednesday   7th January, 2004     Mandalay to Mingun to Mandalay 

Breakfast this morning is on the eighth floor of the Silver Swan. It comes with the cost of the room but is so awful we can barely eat it. We count eight waiters and four customers so the service is good but the toast is like cardboard and the tea is cold. No problem because we do have a view and the day is clear and sunny once again.

At 8.15 we meet Mohammed outside and set off on his trishaw to take on the bumpy streets of Mandalay. We’re off to catch a ferry to the village of Mingun. This is one of the ‘ancient cities’ that surround Mandalay and sits on the Irrawaddy River eleven kilometers upstream. To get to the jetty we ride through lively backstreets among temples, old shops and houses. Giant trees provide shade along unpaved streets, so rutted we’re nearly knocked out of our seats.

At the jetty Mohammed takes us to the ticket office which is a rickety shack set on stilts overhanging the bank. We follow a small crowd of people to the ferry which is tied up on the riverbank amid a tangle of boats. Plastic chairs are set up in two rows inside the boat which has a roof and open sides and only big enough to hold the twelve of us. The trip is a pleasant hour passing small clusters of thatched shacks along the shoreline and boys fishing from tiny canoe sized boats. The banks are green and flat and the surrounding hills are dotted with golden stupas sparkling in the morning sunshine. At last we see the huge Mingun Paya perched majestically on the opposite bank and we head for the shore.

Today Mingun is a small village but at the end of the eighteenth century, King Bodawpaya had grand plans to build the world’s biggest paya right here. Instead Mingun Paya is now described by Lonely Planet as the world’s biggest pile of bricks. It was never finished because an earthquake destroyed it’s base beyond repair in 1838. Even so, the base is over fifty metres high and over seventy metres square so it’s still a magnificent site. It dominates the whole area and we pull in just below it at a grassy shore.

A handful of hawkers wearing conical hats are waiting to pounce on us as soon as we reach the bank. As well as the ladies, there’s a couple of oxen-drawn carts driven by wrinkled old men who want to show us the village. Then a young man called Lu nominates himself as our guide so we head off first to see the paya. From the riverbank a narrow track leads us through a grove of trees growing around two giant stone lions called chinthe. They look out over the river and were built to act as guards to the temple.

And now through the trees, here is the magical Mingun Paya. It’s so much more impressive up close and we can see the two huge cracks caused by the earthquake that cut down both sides of the central portico. We follow Lu up wide stone stairs to the entrance then take off our shoes as we enter the inner chamber. Before a statue of Buddha is an old monk sitting on the floor and ringing a tiny bell. He shows us how to make an offering and gives me candles and incense to burn. The atmosphere is lovely with sunshine pouring in through the entrance and all so quiet and peaceful. The monk hands us a mandarin each as we leave and we give him a donation for his monastery.

Outside we sit on the steps for a while to enjoy this lovely area. It really is so calming. A few people wander along the dirt track in front and a few ox-carts go by but that’s about as fast as the pace gets around here. We talk to one of the ladies selling souvenirs from a bag slung over her shoulder and I buy three beaded purses which makes her very happy. She gives me a little plastic ruler as a ‘present’.

From the paya it’s an easy walk to anywhere else in the village but we jump in the back of an ox-cart just for the ride. An old man in a conical hat is driving two pale coloured oxen which pull our little thatched covered wagon. The track is dusty and bumpy and it’s all so much fun. We ask Lu about seeing the monastery so we jump out at the gate. Lu spent three years here as a monk when he was a teenager so he knows everything about it. He takes us to meet the head monk who Lu obviously idolizes. He’s an intelligent man in his thirties and is the youngest head monk in Burma. We chat with him sitting on wooden benches under a shady tree while we wait for the monks to start their morning meal. Earlier they’d gone to another temple and we soon find that they won’t be back for an hour so we can only see two tiny novices eating in the small dining hall. Only about twenty monks live here so it’s nothing like the size of the eating hall in the monastery in Bago. In the kitchen, a skinny monk, bare to the waist, is cooking over a wood fire and he giggles when we take his photo. Lu walks us around the grounds and we sit on a bench overlooking the river while he tells us of his years here as a monk. I think he misses it in a way. Now he goes to school in Mandalay and proudly teaches a group of kids here in Mingun for free.

Once more in the ox-cart, our next stop is the Buddhist Infirmary which is a sanitarium for the aged. It’s a muddle of old buildings set out in a leafy yard with chickens running around and people going about household chores. One building is divided into double rooms for couples but most people stay in dormitories. The ladies’ dormitory is big, airy and sunny with a mosquito net hanging from bamboo poles over each bed. We’re welcomed with huge toothless smiles and have our photos taken with a group of ladies sitting around a wooden communal table in the middle of the room. Mark thinks it might be a nice place for my Mum and Dad to retire and decides to tell them that he’s booked a spot for them. They’ll love the joke. Seriously though, I’d rather end up here than in a sterile old people’s home in Australia. Outside in the grounds again Lu introduces us to the head nurse after she bounds out of her open-air office to greet us. She’s a roly-poly sweetie dressed in a snow white uniform complete with a big white, starched head-piece. Her name is Than Than Sue and we’re happy to give her a donation for the hospital.

Across from the sanitarium, we now visit Mingun Bell. It’s the biggest, hugest, f……ing ‘uncracked hung bell’ in the whole universe – a claim to fame if ever we heard one. Mark gives the bottom rim a gong with a wooden pole and I guess it’s quite impressive but we’re out of there in two minutes. It’s better outside with the local people selling jewellery and hundreds of beautiful marionettes. We’ve already decided to get one and here will be a fabulous place to remember buying it. I take ages to choose and finally decide on a big antique looking one with a rust coloured costume. The lady who sells it to us gives a demonstration after spending ages untangling the strings.

By now it’s almost midday and we’re starving. Lu walks us back through this part of the village and past Mingun Paya to his auntie’s café. It’s a bamboo shack open to the street with one wooden table and two bench seats. No-one else is here and we get the royal treatment because Lu has brought us. We’re both still a bit seedy on the stomach so I order a salad and soda water and Mark asks for chips. He gets a packet of stale potato chips and I get raw cabbage and chopped tomato. It’s actually not too bad. Mark buys a black, very Rudyard Kipling style shirt from auntie who then wants her photo taken with him. Meanwhile, we’ve been watching two men climbing up and down gigantic palm trees opposite. They shimmy up the trunk like monkeys and hack off the big palm leaves at the top which apparently they use for thatching for their houses. This really is a lovely place and we feel extremely relaxed sitting here in the sunshine.

The boat sets off for Mandalay at one o’clock so we say goodbye to Lu and auntie and walk back towards the Paya. Along the way we stop to look at a small art gallery surrounded by thick tropical plants. There seems to be lots of paintings for sale in Mingun so it must be the local past-time. Some of them are really very good. Before getting back on the boat we take a walk along the river where vegetable gardens have been planted right up to the water’s edge.

The ferry ride back to Mandalay seems to be over in no time and Mohammed is there to meet us with his trishaw. Back at the hotel we decide to just hang around in our room for the rest of the afternoon so we make arrangements with Mohammed to pick us up in the morning. By nightfall we’re hungry so we head out in the dark to find somewhere to eat. This is easier said than done in Mandalay and we literally walk miles before we end up in the busy main street. We buy mandarins from a street cart and biscuits, chocolates and chips for the long boat trip to Bagan in the morning. At last we find a café but it has no atmosphere and the worst food ever. Chicken in black bean is too horrible to eat so we go hungry.

Walking back to the Silver Swan I give some clothes that I don’t need to a poor lady begging on the street. Before bed we repack our backpacks to be ready for our very early start tomorrow.

Thursday   8th January, 2004                           Mandalay to Bagan

Our alarm wakes us at five and by five thirty we’re outside cramming our gear into the tiny truck Mohammed has borrowed to take us to the boat wharf. This is a lot further than the Mingun pier and Mark and I spend a chilly twenty minutes in the open, back cabin as we fly through the dark streets of Mandalay. It’s always exciting to be on the move again and we love these early starts.

It’s still dark when we arrive at the river but there’s lots of activity even at this hour. After saying goodbye to Mohammed we cross a gangplank onto a flat bottomed ferry where local people are sleeping on the deck. Most of them are wrapped in blankets from head to toe so at first glance it just looks like piles of material spread out all over the floor and we’re lucky we don’t step on anyone. We soon realize that this isn’t our boat at all and we’re only using it as a stepping stone to get to our ferry parked on the other side.

Our boat is the new Mandalay-Bagan Express tourist ferry which is very slick and modern and totally lacking the appeal of the local boat next door. We could still use the local ferry but it takes two days to get to Bagan and we just haven’t got the time. Inside our ferry, there must be about a hundred seats, all very big and comfortable. Mark and I have seats two rows from the front next to the window which is a real bonus. As we pull out of Mandalay at 6am, we get an even bigger bonus. All the seats are taken except the one next to ours and the two seats in front. I jump in front while Mark spreads out over three seats and we spend the rest of the day lying down reading and sleeping. With our great seats and our chocolates, chips, biscuits, mandarins and drinks we feel especially spoilt – but are we going to share our seats with anyone else? No way.

Throughout the day the boat pulls in at small villages along the river. Crowds come to meet the boat to unload supplies brought all the way from Mandalay. We wander around the deck a few times and drink tea in the tearoom on the middle deck but spend most of the time lying around. We thought the trip was only about six hours but it’s three o’clock and we’re still heading south. By four thirty we can see pagodas all along the river bank so we know we’re here at last.

Bagan is probably the main reason that most tourists visit Myanmar. Flanking the Ayeyarwady River, it’s a vast plain of forty square kilometres covered in hundreds of temples. From the eleventh century to the thirteenth century, up to twelve thousand stupas and temples were said to have been built but now after several earthquakes only two thousand two hundred are now still identifiable. We plan to spend the next three nights here so we can see at least a few of the temples as well as hang out in this peaceful laid-back area.

Again the ferry wharf is just a plank of wood between the bank and the boat and we’re the first to jump ship. We know that we’ll have to line up to pay a government entrance fee of US$10 before we can enter this archaeological zone. A small crowd of touts and travel agents are waiting at the top of the path next to the ticket sellers. After paying our fee we walk straight past the little woman holding up a sign with our names on it. Apparently the guy at the desk of the Silver Swan in Mandalay has arranged a guesthouse for us but we want to find our own. I don’t feel too sorry for the little lady because the sigh reads ‘Mister Mark Scott and one Australian’. I guess that’s me.

We jump in one of the waiting taxis and leave behind the offending sign as we bounce along a bumpy rock-covered road towards Old Bagan. This is a small village with a lively market but we drive straight through on our way to Nyaung U. This is only five kilometers from Old Bagan and is another sleepy village with unpaved roads, palm tress and thatched huts.  We’ve chosen the New Heaven Hotel out of the Lonely Planet and it looks a good choice. It’s set in a dirt laneway with trees and a sad little garden in front. The owner is enthusiastically helpful and we’re given a comfortable small room with our own bathroom and a balcony. After doing a bit of unpacking we sit on the balcony to make plans for the evening. Just around the corner is a street lined with cafes and art galleries so we head for here to have a drink and dinner. We don’t make it past the first café as the owners are almost begging us to come inside. It has a nice atmosphere and we stay for pizza and a vegetable salad and cups of hot tea which I spill all over my leg. Very painful but no real harm done.

We decide to go back to the room to get our duty free grog and end up at the Pwi Wa Restaurant for drinks. This is an open sided place with a thatched roof and tables inside and out. The tables outside are set up beside the ancient temple next door which tonight is covered with twinkling fairy lights – very beautiful under a starry sky. A small theatre is set up outside and we spend an hour watching the nightly marionette show. A great end to a relaxing day.

Friday        9th January, 2004                           Bagan

We both sleep well in our very quiet room and then eat breakfast in the sunny dining room set up in a pretty building near the laneway. It comes with the price of the room and the banana pancakes are a nice change.

There’s a couple of guys in the laneway with horse and carts so we arrange with a young driver to take us around the temples. His name is Ow Ow and he can speak English. Mark sits up front while I hop in the cart with our day packs. Our carriage is very handsome with a black leather roof and red leather seats and a pooh catcher for the horse. This is the only way to get around as the tracks into each temple are deep in sand and so no good for cars. It adds to the atmosphere anyway and keeps the area peaceful, as it should be.

We head out of Nyaung U (pronounced Nyow Oo) and soon ride into our first temple called Gubyaukgyi Paya. It’s behind an ancient brick wall and we climb the stone internal stairs to the top. The stairs are steep and so narrow that         Mark’s shoulders are too wide and he has to go up almost sideways. We have wonderful views of the whole area and marvel at the amount of temples we can see. It’s much greener and lush than we’d imagined and we can see the Ayeyarwady River on one side and a range of mountains behind it in the distance. In the courtyard outside the temple are souvenir sellers with chickens running around amongst their gear. It’s a warm sunny morning and so good to feel at peace.

From here we visit two more temples that seem much the same and all with spectacular views from the top. At the third one we buy four temple paintings from two lovely men who are the artists themselves. The paintings are colourful reproductions of those found on the temple walls and will be great keepsakes of Myanmar. From here we visit the biggest and best-preserved temple of Bagan called Ananda Pahto. It’s still used by worshippers and the surrounding area is alive with markets and music. Ow Ow drives us around to the back gate and we walk barefoot along an open corridor to the entrance of the temple. Inside are a group of monks sitting around an elaborate coloured shrine and village people are having picnics on the floor. One of the monks is chanting while the rest are sitting around low, round wooden tables eating from scores of metal bowls. They seem very happy and friendly and it’s a cheery atmosphere.

In the middle of the temple are four standing buddhas facing outwards from the central cube. Each are 9.5 metres high and made of teak but are entirely covered with gold. We buy patches of gold leaf to stick to the statues but only Mark is allowed to apply it to one of the big buddhas. Because I’m a woman I can only apply it to the little Buddha sitting beneath – male supremacy reigns worldwide, it seems. Back outside we head off to another busy temple where I buy a cotton blouse from one of the ladies outside. She also shows me how the women make thanakha to paint on their faces. She takes a thin branch from the thanakha tree and rubs it on a whetstone with a few drops of water. The milky white sap forms a paste which she rubs on my face so I leave it on for the rest of the day. Mark buys a bag of peanuts before we set off for the village of Old Bagan.

We’d passed through here yesterday after we’d left the boat and it’s just as busy and colourful this morning. Music is coming from shacks all along both sides of the road as we clip clop our way through the village. Ow Ow shows us the Tharaba Gateway which is all that’s left of the wall that once surrounded the town and in the shade of trees close by are women selling watermelon and sugar cane. Nearby is an open-air café where we order a Bamar banquet for lunch. This sounds very exotic but we end up with a table full of very unappealing dishes. The fried chicken consists of a bowl of bones and the fish is a plateful of tiny whitebait, both cold and God only knows when it was cooked. We’re given an electric fan which we think is to keep us cool but it’s actually to keep the flies off the food. All the food is cold but apparently this is the traditional way. It’s cooked in the morning and then eaten later in the day. Don’t know if we get someone else’s leftovers but I suspect it’s the case. I eat virtually nothing while Mark eats up a storm. I swear he’d eat anything. I amuse myself by feeding a starving cat under the table. He likes the fish and I hope I’m not giving him food poisoning.

Now we head across the road to the huge outdoor market. There’s a kind of carnival atmosphere and we spend an hour wandering around. Untold stalls of dried fish and huge mounds of anchovette make it very smelly in some parts and we don’t fancy the flies crawling all over the cakes and sweets. The rest of it is fun and I buy a watermelon from one of the ladies sitting near the Tharaba Gateway.

We’re ready for a break so Ow Ow now takes us back to the New Heaven. We have drinks on our little terrace then walk down to the village. At the Pwi Wa Restaurant we order chips and chicken salad for a late lunch and book traditional Burmese massages at a shack near the hotel. Rest and read in our room till the late afternoon then down the street to have our massages. Two young ladies are waiting and Mark and I lie on thin mattresses on the wooden floor. It’s so basically wonderful in here. The walls are woven bamboo and we can smell the combination of burning incense and mosquito coils.

It’s almost dark by the time we leave so we head back to our room for a quick shower. Back again to the village, we now turn right for a change and find an Italian restaurant playing Santana and some very atmospheric Italian music. There’s a full moon so we sit outside and eat pizza and tomato salad and drink Bacardi rum with fresh pineapple juice. Very romantic and we get a bit silly before an early night.

Saturday   10th January, 2004               Bagan

Breakfast is banana pancakes again and this morning we chat with a young German girl.  She’s an expert on everything and a bit of a pain. We’ve just found out the bad news that we can’t use credit cards or traveller’s cheques in Myanmar so Mark does a few quick calculations and realises we won’t have enough American dollars to get us to the end of our holiday. The hotel owner is incredibly helpful and we get him to ring MAI to get us on an earlier flight back to Bangkok. The only flight we can get is one day before our scheduled one but it’ll have to do. We’ll just have to do everything on the cheap. We start to make plans to change our itinerary when I redo the calcs and we’ve got heaps more than we thought. For once my baby was wrong and we’re both happy that he was. Now we can fly from Lake Inle back to Yangon to save us the apparently hellish twenty hour bus ride. We book the flight now and also arrange to have a van drive us to Kalaw tomorrow.

Feeling very relieved, we hire bikes from the hotel and set off for a day around Bagan. Mark is a good rider but I’m scared and hopeless. Still determined, though, we head for the Post Office. This is out on the main road but there’s virtually no traffic so it should be a breeze. I don’t appear to have any control over the bike and always seem to be screaming at near misses with the gutter. The Post Office is hard to find because it’s not what we expect it to look like. It’s set behind a high wall in a very tropical area and the building is very grand and beautiful. I just miss a few stray dogs lounging around the door and then make an easy phone call home.

Back near the hotel we stop at a café for drinks then head off to the Shwezigon Paya. Across a wide dirt patch of ground I unceremoniously fall off my bike but no damage done. Leaving the bikes outside we look at the souvenir stalls along the long walkway to the paya and buy a copy of George Orwell’s classic, ’’Burmese Days”. Inside is the usual small payas and ceremonial halls all built around the central golden chedi. A young girl wearing a faceful of thanakha latches onto us and becomes our guide. She walks us around the compound and I buy gold leaf to put on a tiny Buddha statue inside a sort of low cave. She takes us to see the nats and we give her a donation as we leave.

Outside, souvenir sellers are waiting for us and as I’d promised to buy something on the way out we barter for a bronze elephant. They want too much and we don’t really care if we get it anyway so we leave. They chase us out to the bikes and we settle for a price that we’re happy with. Across from the paya on the main road is a string of cafes so we stop at the Nation Cafe for fresh pineapple juice and noodles. From here we ride out to a monastery where we’re hoping to arrange a meditation for tonight. It’s a barren dusty place with lots of scrawny dogs hanging around. I’m scared they’ll chase the bikes so we get off and walk. In an open pavilion a group of monks are chanting but no-one comes near us so we think we’ve got the wrong place.

On the bikes again we ride towards Shwezigon Paya and finally find the right monastery. It’s called Aung Myi Bodhi Dhamma Yeiktha or the Meditation Monastery and it’s beautiful. Past another pavilion of chanting monks we meet the actual meditation monk himself. He’s a tall thin man of about thirty and has the usual calm countenance of all Buddhist monks. He’s obviously totally relaxed as he cheerfully farts the whole time. He’s happy to show us around and takes us to a couple of prayer halls and then to visit his mother.

Her name is Dhamma Nandi and she’s a nun at the monastery. She lives in a bamboo shack behind the monks’ quarters and shares with a group of young people who are here to study for a few months. We climb up onto the bamboo platform raised a few feet off the dirt floor and our meditation monk makes us green tea and offers us biscuits and cigarettes. Surprisingly he smokes a packet a day. He wants us to take photos of the students and his mother but Dhamma Nandi is far from happy. She obviously doesn’t want her picture taken and is muttering under her breath. Apparently she wants to put on her nun’s robes so we wait while she takes out a pale pink shawl thing and wraps it around her and over her shoulder. Now she’s happy and is all smiles. She can’t stop laughing as she lights up a pipe and which has us all laughing too. We take fabulous photos and make arrangements to come back tonight.

At the New Heaven we get out our duty free booze again and relax on the verandah reading and writing. At five o’clock we get back on the bikes and ride out to Gubyaukgyi Paya near the village of Myinkaba. It seems that the tourist thing to do is to watch sunset from the top of one of the ancient temples. We’d visited this temple yesterday with Ow Ow and really liked it so here we are again. According to Lonely Planet, the best viewpoints are from a couple of temples in Old Bagan, but no way could I ride all the way there and back. The bonus is that we’re the only ones here and we can’t see how it could be better anywhere else. From the top we watch farmers herding bullocks across and field and see the sun gradually set in a cloudless, golden sky.

Now there’s still an hour to kill before we meet the meditation monk at the monastery at seven o’clock. We’ve brought our Bacardi with us so we head to a café not far away. It’s the Aye Yeik Thar Yar Restaurant and I drink too much alcohol while having dinner. It’s not a good idea to be drunk when you go to a monastery but then our monk smokes and farts so Mark reckons it’s even.

It’s a hairy, dark ride from the café and I almost flatten a lone monk as I wobble into the grounds. Mark is giving me ‘the look’ so I try to act sober. Inside the meditation monk’s room we sit on the floor while he makes us green tea and talks about Buddhism and his life. It’s all incredibly interesting and I get a bit enthusiastic and spill my tea all over the floor – wish I was sober.

Next we sit cross-legged on the hard floor behind him while we all face the shrine to Buddha. This is our forty-five minute sitting meditation and it’s agonising to sit like this for so long. Afterwards he shows us the walking meditation which we do for fifteen minutes while he sits smoking in his chair. Before we leave he gets one of the lay people to take photos of us all so he can send them to the head monk who’s living in Yangon for a year. A great night and a great experience with this lovely man.

At the hotel we take back the bikes and pack for our four-thirty start in the morning. We’re leaving Bagan for Kalaw and it’s sure to be a long day.

Sunday      11th January, 2004                        Bagan to Mount Popa to Kalaw

A knock on our door wakes us at four fifteen and we’re soon taken to the breakfast room where the kitchen staff are sleeping on the tables and one poor man is woken to fix us something to eat. We’d rather let him sleep but they insist on giving us breakfast. Within fifteen minutes we’re in the van and being waved off in the dark by the owner and a couple of the staff. The van is an alternative to the local bus which we don’t fancy at all as it takes twelve long hours to get Kalaw. For US$70 we figure it’s worth it. We have a driver and another man who’s coming along for the ride.

Because it’s dark we both lie down across the seats and try to get some sleep. We wanted to leave this early so we could catch sunrise at the top of Mount Popa. It always amazes me that whenever we’re in a foreign country we just about walk over hot coals to watch a sunset or a sunrise and yet at home we wouldn’t bother to walk out the back door to see one. Just a part of travelling that we feel we have to do – like ticking it off a list, I suppose.

Mount Popa is just over an hour away and it’s almost light by the time we get there. Popa a seven hundred metre peak rising from the Myingyan Plain and the temple at the summit is a popular Burmese pilgrimage site. In the village at the base of the mountain we’re dropped at the stairs that lead to the temple. No shoes are allowed but there’s no-one else here this early so I keep mine on. It’s too cold to go barefoot but I soon decide I should do the right thing but then drop one of my shoes down inside one of the steep ladders – serves me right. The climb is a grueling half hour of walkways, steep stairs and ladders with monkeys running around all over the place. The ground is littered with monkey pooh that’s impossible to dodge. At last at the summit we sit on a ledge out of the wind and watch the monkeys chasing each other while we eat mandarins. The sunrise is lovely with a spectacular view of the plains below and definitely worth the climb.

Now we wander around the temple and stupas where nat figures are set amongst coloured lights and burning incense. Outside the wind is cold and too strong to hang around so we make the long walk back to the bottom. On the way Mark manages to rescue my shoe and by now groups of pilgrims are climbing their way to the top. Most of them are carrying bunches of long leaves which must be some sort of offering to the nat spirits.

In the village we sit in a cosy café and have breakfast while we talk to a young English backpacker who’s spent a cold night in the local monastery. The young woman owner of the café is hitching a ride with us to the next village where a market is being held today. As we drive out of town we pass lines of monks on their alms rounds and  temples dotted around the surrounding hills.

The drive for the next few hours is through flat areas where farmers are driving bullock carts and through a few small raggedy villages. At eleven thirty we pull in to the town of Meiktila and stop at a café overlooking the lake. We’re not sure how far we’ve come or how long we have to go but we’ve heard that it’s not the custom to ask so we just go with the flow – much better that way anyway. From Meiktila we start to climb the hills towards Thazi. The road is steep and winding and we have panoramic views of the valleys below as we crawl our way around hairpin bends. A petrol stop on the way is a welcome toilet stop. The ‘petrol station’ is a roadside café with a couple of plastic containers of petrol sitting under a thatched stand next to the road. A few hours later we stop for petrol again in the dusty village of Thazi. It’s a tatty row of houses built on the side of a hill with a few primitive shops and the ‘petrol station’. We wander around for a while and wave to the village people who’ve some out to look. Later we have a longer stop as a bus has crashed into a car on a narrow bridge. No-one is hurt but the vehicles can’t be moved until the police arrive.

On our way again, the road seems to keep on going up and up and remains rutted and narrow the whole way. It’s a long tedious drive and we can only imagine how much worse it would have been in the bus. At last we’re greatly relieved to arrive at Kalaw at four o’clock in the afternoon.

Kalaw has a British heritage as it was used as a hill station during the British occupation. It’s high elevation created a cool respite from the heat of Mandalay but God only knows how long it took them to get here in the late nineteenth century. Now it’s a small community home to Shan, Bamar, Nepalese and Indian Muslims which makes it vastly different to the other towns we’ve already seen.

The Golden Lily Guesthouse is run by a friendly Indian family and we manage to get a nice airy room with a wide verandah in front. We have our own bathroom, colourful curtains and bedspreads and the bedroom walls are lined with wood creating a nice homey feel. Our verandah looks out over the town and the market is just at the bottom of our street. We decide to check it out and find something to eat. At a Chinese café I have a fantastic egg salad but Mark is feeling sick so we head back to the room. By five o’clock we’re both asleep and don’t move till morning.

Monday     12th January, 2003                        Kalaw

It’s seven thirty when we wake after fourteen hours sleep. Mark is feeling better so we’re ready for a busy day. Breakfast is in the sunny dining room downstairs where a few frozen backpackers are trying to warm up after a bitter night on the bus from Yangon. The Indian mother serves us breakfast then we arrange for massages in our room this afternoon and book bus tickets to get us to Lake Inle tomorrow. She also tells us that we’re lucky that the five-day market is happening in town today. This means that the people living in the surrounding hills come to Kalaw to sell and buy from each other every five days.

We head straight down to the market which is a huge area in the open air at the end of town. The Palaung, Black Karen, Intha, Shan and Kayah tribes people have their own dress so it’s a colourful sight. The vegetables and fish are the freshest imaginable and we spend ages wandering around. The women wear colored headgear wrapped liked turbans and all wear multi-coloured longyi and shoulder bags. Most are smoking cheroots while they squat in the sun next to their goods spread out on the ground.

From here we walk over to the main street which is alive with hill tribe people and locals. We stop at an interesting tea house and sit in the open window while we order tea and sweet tea snacks. A young man is making pancake-like sweets on a flat round metal plate and three turbaned men behind us are smoking cheroots. Nearby is the local market set up in a rambling warren of alleyways all lined with shops selling vegetables, flowers, household goods and clothes. We decide to make guacamole to have with our drinks at the guesthouse so we buy avocados, limes, garlic and onion.

Back at the Golden Lily we find that the avocados aren’t yet ripe enough so we make do with our duty free on its own. Soon the tiny old massage lady arrives and I have a one-hour traditional massage on the bed. She’ll come back later this afternoon for Mark’s turn.

Now we walk back down into town and visit a few temples before finding the Everest Restaurant for lunch. This is run by a well-spoken Nepalese lady and we have a huge thali meal in the very atmospheric surroundings. It’s situated in a quiet side street and highly recommended by Lonely Planet. We buy a guacamole dish and have it ‘take-away’ in a plastic bag to take back to our room. At the guesthouse we meet a young German guy from the room next door. He’s sitting on the sunny verandah so we spend ages with him drinking, eating and chatting. His wife is off trekking in the hills for the day but he says he wasn’t well enough to go – we suspect he’s probably just as slack as we are.

Now Mark has his massage then Frank’s wife Claudia returns from her day trekking in the hills. She’s on a total high and has lots of stories. We all decide to have dinner together and plan to meet downstairs after hot showers. We need to rug up tonight against the cool night air – nice for a different experience. Downstairs the frozen backpackers from this morning are all sitting around drinking and we stop to get introduced. They’re from all over the world and swapping fabulous travel tales. Sonia from Denmark is smoking a cheroot and she gives me one to try. Frank and Claudia turn up so we wander back into town to a Bamar restaurant they’d discovered last night. Good food, good atmosphere, good company and then back to the room for our early start to Lake Inle in the morning.

Tuesday    13th January, 2003               Kalaw to Lake Inle

We’re up at six o’clock and ready to leave within minutes.  Outside the air is crisp and clean and the town is draped in a soft mist.  The streets are empty and silent as we walk down to the bus stop near the market. The bus is waiting but won’t leave for a while so we order hot, green tea in the café opposite. Another backpacker is in the café waiting for the same bus and introduces himself as Mark from England. He’s been to Inle before and tells us we have to get off the bus at Shwenyaung junction and then get a taxi to the village of Nyaung Shwe near the lake.

At seven o’clock we leave Kalaw behind. As we look back, the town is beautiful in the pale light of dawn. The smoke of wood fires wafting from home chimneys melts with the morning mist to form a gentle haze that envelops the whole area. The next hour and a half sees us careering down the other side of the mountain range that we’d climbed two days ago. The scenery varies from rugged mountain ridges to the sunshine glaringly reflected from the mists lying in the valleys below. The bus is an adventure in itself. Except for us and Mark from England, all the passengers are locals rugged up to the eyeballs to keep out the cold. None of the windows shut properly and a cold draft pours in from unseen cracks. Everything is rattling and shuddering so it’s impossible to talk with all the noise. At last on the plains we drive through the small town of Heho and then pull up at Shwenyaung junction about nine o’clock.

Taxi touts are here to meet the bus so we make a deal with England Mark and share a car to Lake Inle. A straight flat road cuts through green cultivated fields and alongside Nan Chaung and Mong Li which are the canals that run into Nyaung Shwe. The Mong Li Canal broadens into the pretty Thazi Pond on the edge of town where ducks are paddling and women are washing clothes from small wooden jetties. We cross a rundown timber bridge then drive past the Mingala Market to the other side of town to look for a guesthouse.

After driving around for a while, we all settle on the Remember Inn in a quiet unpaved sidestreet just a few blocks from the market. The owners welcome us all with beaming smiles and show us a room facing the street. They think it might be a bit noisy but we haven’t seen a single thing pass since we got here. The room has that tropical, Asian feel that I always fall in love with. The walls are woven bamboo, the floor is wooden boards and the two big windows are draped with emerald green curtains. After unpacking we head to the big sunny dining room for breakfast.

Other travellers are here already and most of them look like they’re straight out of George Orwell’s ‘Burmese Days’ that I’m presently hooked on. One elderly man is even wearing khaki with a Rudyard Kipling style hat. Actually a lot of the travelers we’ve met in Myanmar are elderly and most are British or European. Not the package tour types either but intrepid adventurers who‘ve all got that ‘I’m off to shoot a tiger’ look – seems that the raj is still alive and well in the hearts of some.

Besides people-watching, our breakfast is the best we’ve had so far – thick banana pancakes and fresh strawberry juice. Now we book a boat to visit Lake Inle tomorrow then find that we’ve arrived again on time for the five-day market in Nyaung Shwe. This is near the canal and is already packed with villagers and Intha tribe people who live around Lake Inle. The Intha women wear turbans or even just towels wrapped around their heads and all carry the colourful shoulder bags. Like in Kalaw, they squat on the ground in long rows and weigh out their vegetables on primitive metal hand scales. I buy mandarins from a lady in an orange headwrap and then a bagful of weavings from a chubby, laughing lady at the Mingala Market. She jokes with Mark and is obviously proud of her sales. Mark has found an excellent pale beige shirt with a Nehru collar and embroidered buttons and I have two scarves and a tablecloth for home. Further down the street we stop to buy a Chinese food carrier then have another nap in our room. Why are we sleeping so much – lazy or just completely relaxed?

At 4pm we wander around to the Unique Cafe in the adjoining laneway for a late lunch of steamed fish, a tomato and egg salad and our favourite strawberry juice. The food is so healthy here and all these fresh fruit juices must be doing us wonders even if most of them are topped up with Bacardi. It’s a lovely time of day to be sitting here. Monks are ambling past and we think there must be a monastery down the street from our guesthouse. We’ll investigate tomorrow.

From the café we walk to the other side of town along some of the smaller canals. Groups of monks are down near the water and we stop to have our photos taken with three very young nuns in their pale pink robes. The sun is setting behind the palm trees and we can hear loud chanting from a nearby monastery. We follow the sound to a busy hall where local people are sitting in long lines but we can’t find the source of the chanting. It seems to be coming over loud speakers and is deafening enough to be heard all over town.

Wandering back towards the guesthouse we find the Golden Kite Café recommended by Lonely Planet. It doesn’t seem to have the wonderful rustic qualities the book talks about and we suspect it’s been ‘done up’ and lost its original atmosphere. We sit on the verandah anyway and have a drink before having another early night.

Wednesday        14th January, 2003       Nyaung Shwe to Lake Inle to Nyaung Shwe

Today is the day for the long boat trip to the villages around Lake Inle. It’s a cool misty morning but the clear skies promise another warm day ahead. We wake at 6.30 for a quick breakfast then follow our young boat driver called Owie through the quiet streets to the canal. England Mark and a suntanned Mauritian woman called Mylene are coming to the lake with us. The boat is tied up near the bridge and looks like a kind of wooden dug-out canoe. It’s very narrow with just enough seats for the four of us while Owie sits up the back next to the motor.

Before leaving Nyaung Shwe we stop to pay the fee to get into the lake – the government never misses a chance to cash in on the tourists. Now we speed along the canal for a chilly half-hour before entering the huge lake. Just at the entrance we’re lucky to get our first glimpse of Burma’s famous leg-rowing fishermen. They stand at one end of the boat and row with one leg wrapped around a long oar. This allows them to use their hands to pull in the conical shaped nets that they use to catch their fish.

Now we fly across the lake at top speed to the opposite shore when we slow down to make our way through the floating gardens. These really are floating and are made by the Intha people who form masses of soil, marsh and water hyacinth which they anchor to the bottom of the lake with long bamboo poles. Here they grow tomatoes, melons, papayas and all sorts of vegetables and we pick some tiny tomatoes as we float past. Soon we stop at a place where dozens of other boats are crowded together. Owie points to a dirt track and tells us to walk to the five-day Intha market which is about forty minutes away. The track runs past a canal where a group of women on the opposite bank are squatting on the ground next to piles of chopped wood which they must be selling. On the way we come across two water buffalo wading up to their necks near a wood bridge and, because it’s heating up by now, we start to peel off our jackets and long sleeved shirts. I can’t wait to go to the loo so I sneak into a field behind some bushes. Later we pass a village where local people are coming and going to the market further down the track. Oxen are pulling wooden wagons and it’s all amazingly primitive.

Soon we see the market on the opposite side of a bridge. Down river we can see that women are washing clothes and kids are playing in the shallows. Part of the market is set up under wooden shelters but most people have spread out their produce in the open. We stop to buy sweet cakes and Mark buys the biggest rice chip we’ve ever seen. There’s cock fighting and gambling games and lots of open-air eating sheds. We buy a potato dish and a salad for lunch and sit at rough wooden tables with the Intha people all wearing their traditional clothes and colourful headwear. We’re the only foreigners here so it’s a special experience.

Time to go and we meet up with England Mark and Mylene to walk back through the village and on to the boat. On the way we buy a Burmese book, a brass tin and two jade bracelets from some of the village people. Now we travel back through the houses built over the water and then once again enter the open lake. Soon we turn into yet another village built entirely on the water and pull up at a small jetty attached to a silversmith’s house. In fact all the people in this village are silversmiths. That’s the unique thing about Lake Inle – each village has its own cottage industry. There’s the silversmith village, the umbrella village, the blacksmith village, the cheroot making village, the silk weaving village and the boat making village.

At the silversmith’s home we watch two men making jewellery and ornaments then buy a pair of antique looking earrings for US$10 – very beautiful. From here we make our way to the umbrella makers’ village. As we turn into one of the canals, women in long canoes paddle furiously to block our way. They’re selling souvenirs from their tiny floating shops and hang onto the side of our boat desperate to make a sale. Inside one of the umbrella makers’ houses we watch as an elderly man makes the wooden tops with a foot-pedalled lathe while women sit on the floor decorating the paper umbrellas with real flower petals. The whole process is done here even from making the umbrella paper itself. We’ve seen paper-making many times before but it’s still fascinating to see it again.

The next village is where blacksmiths make knives and tools using the crudest of methods. Coal fires are kept hot by men pumping bellows above them while others take the knives from the red hot coals and pound them into shape on a flat block. Three of them rhythmically pound the knife until the metal cools hard. It’s then put back into the coals and the whole process is started again. The boat builders’ village is next. A group of men are making the wooden canoes by the same traditional method that’s been used forever. There must be a never-ending demand as boats are the only means of getting anywhere around here. Nearby is the silk weavers’ village and we can hear the clanking of wooden looms coming from all the homes. In one house we move from room to room watching wrinkled old women spinning thread while younger women sit at the huge looms weaving the beautiful silk fabrics we’ve seen all over Myanmar. One old lady is even stripping the stalks from lotus flowers and pulling out long silken threads to be used for weaving.

Back in the boat we head for a big temple built out on the water. We wander around inside and then buy weavings from a market underneath. Lunch is next and only a short boat ride away. The four of us have an excellent seafood meal before setting off for the cheroot-makers’ village. In a sunny, timber-lined room, where one wall is totally open to the water, a group of teenage girls are rolling cheroots the same way that Zawtun’s mother made them in Bago. Mark sits on the floor with the girls for a lesson while the rest of us drink hot green tea. After his lesson Mark plays a game of cannonball with a few of the local boys. It’s a type of soccer boardgame where you use your fingers to flick small discs into corner goals. Meanwhile I’ve been buying a lacquered bowl from one of the lovely ladies – just one more souvenir, please.

Our last stop is where I’ve been waiting to go all day – the Jumping Cat Monastery. The monastery is an elaborate but weathered wooden building built over the lake with polished floor boards and old Buddha images sitting on ornate carved pedestals inside. But the best thing about it all is the cats. They’re fat and healthy are laying around all over the vast expanse of floor space. In one corner I sit amongst them and even get to cuddle a few. A group of monks are hanging around and Mark talks soccer with them while we watch the cats doing their thing. One of the older monks holds a small hoop in front of each of the cats and they all have a turn of jumping through it. Afterwards they all get a cat biscuit as a reward.

Before going back to Nyaung Shwe we stop on the edge of the lake and turn the engine off to watch the sun set. It’s so peaceful and nearby are the leg-rowing fishermen pulling up their nets with a golden backdrop as the sun dips behind the surrounding mountains. The temperature has dropped by now so we’re all looking forward to getting back to town. It’s a cool half-hour ride to Nyaung Shwe where we pay Owie for a wonderful day.

It’s six o’clock by the time we walk back to Remember Inn and make arrangements to have dinner with England Mark. After showers and a change of clothes, we meet him at the Unique Café for the lovely atmosphere and a great meal. Now it’s bed by eight o’clock.

Thursday   15th January, 2003                                                     Nyaung Shwe

Today is a free day – nothing planned and no traveling which is nice for a change. We don’t breakfast till eight o’clock then stroll around town to look for the Three Sisters Café near the main canal. One of the sisters tells us that they only open at six o’clock so we’ll look for somewhere else to eat for lunch. Next to the Nan Chaung Canal, we stop at an empty restaurant for cold lime sodas. Our window opens onto the water so we can watch the noisy boats going past. From here we find a cute café in a quiet laneway and have salads for lunch. The friendly lady serving us asks if we’d like to visit a family from the ‘long-neck’ tribe. We’d heard that a few of them live on the outskirts of Nyaung Shwe and we’re keen to see them.

We follow our little lady through the unpaved streets and over a canal to the edge of town. Ending up in a backstreet, she stops to talk to two young men. They’re both wearing longyis and look no different to the rest of the men here in Burma. They are, however, from the Padaung hill tribe and the husbands of the ‘longneck’ women. After we pay them a small sum, they take across a tiny bridge and into an open yard behind a two-storey timber house. And here are the Padaung women – a young girl of about ten, a teenage girl and the two wives who look much older than their husbands (nothing wrong with that, I say). They all have straight, cropped black hair with a short fringe and wear knee length black skirts and long white tops all trimmed in pink. The lower parts of their legs are wrapped in a dark blue material and they wear red and green head pieces with coloured ribbons that come down on either side of their face. But the most amazing part of their dress is, of course, the brass rings around their knees, wrists and neck. The rings are worn throughout their life and are gradually added as the girl grows. The older women have about thirty thick rings around their necks which must be so heavy. The rings actually depress the collar bone rather than stretching the neck which creates an incredibly deformed look – surely it must be painful. The younger girls give us little smiles but the older women never smile at all – just like the whole experience, really – quite sad and sobering.

The teenage girl is sitting beneath a small structure on stilts. She’s weaving the traditional way with a simple wooden hand loom. This is how the women make their money and the wives show us the weavings they sell in the market. We buy a blanket, a bag and a scarf that will be treasured mementos of this amazing meeting.

Now one of the husbands points to the back of the house and here we find an old lady having a wash. She’s sitting on a wooden platform and pouring water on herself from a tall metal container. She’s wearing a simple grey sarong so we can see how strange the neck rings have made her body look. At first we’re afraid that we must be intruding on her privacy but she’s all smiles and tells us to come closer. She has a wonderful gentleness and tranquility so maybe we’re just being paranoid about the women being unhappy. And maybe it’s just another lesson in remembering not to judge other cultures according to our western values.

Before leaving we take a few photos then Mark quietly gives the two ladies some extra money which they won’t have to share with their husbands. It’s been a special experience – moving and shocking at the same time. And are we helping by giving them money or are we just being voyeurs – hard to know.

Now walking back through the Mingala Market we stop to buy incense and cheroots by the bundle which work out to be about half a cent each. Back at the Remember Inn we order beers and take them on to the roof to sit in the shade and relax in front of the mountains overlooking the town. More beers in the dining room downstairs and then back to our room for a sleep.

On dusk we walk down the road past the Shan Museum to watch young monks playing soccer. Afterwards we walk to the street behind the guesthouse to have a traditional massage. This has to be the best one yet. In a family home, we lie on raised mattresses for a one and three quarter hour massage. Mark and I are next to each other while another traveler sounds like he’s having massage orgasms behind a curtain a few feet away – what a weirdo! We laugh with the man and lady who are doing our massages. The incredible thing about this massage is not only the time for the small price, but we’re actually walked on just about the entire time. They hold onto beams in the low roof above us and walk up and down our legs and backs – agonizing at times but generally great. Afterwards we drink tea with the family who all want to be introduced. A definite language problem but we’re still able to communicate somehow.

Now it’s only a short walk to the Unique Café where we have another wonderful meal under the stars. We celebrate our last dinner in Myanmar with bacardis and strawberry juice – a fitting end to a lovely holiday.

Friday        16th January, 2004               Nyaung Shwe to Heho to Yangon to Bangkok

An early start to pack and have breakfast before our car arrives at seven o’clock to drive us to Heho. The girls from the guesthouse wave goodbye reminding us again of just how lovely the Burmese people are. The one-hour drive to Heho is the essence of Myanmar and the time we’ve spent here. We pass farmers, ethnic women, green fields, monks, mountains, small villages and the ever present bullock carts. At Shwenyaung junction we turn onto the main road to arrive at Heho fifteen minutes later.

Here we turn into a long dirt track that leads to the tiny airport. After booking in our packs we find a sunny corner next to an open window and I lay across three seats for a sleep. Soon we’re told that the plane will be very late and that we’re all being given a free lunch. This means a ten-minute walk down the track to a café just off the road. About thirty of us sit at tables in the sun for our free drinks and noodles then Mark and I make our way back to the airport. Outside ladies are selling baskets of fresh strawberries so we spend an hour outside in the sun and eat a whole basketful. At last the plane arrives and in half an hour we’re back in Yangon with plenty of time to make our connection to Bangkok. We take off at four thirty and catch our last glimpse of this lovely country as we turn towards Thailand – ‘cezu tinbadeh’, Myanmar!

It’s been a trip we’ll never forget from the wonderful sights we’ve seen to the gentleness and kindness of the Burmese people and the experiences we’ve had with them. But now we’re back in Bangkok and ready for four glorious days in this city that we love so much. It’s incomparably different to Myanmar with high-rise buildings, elevated freeways and traffic clogged roads but its excitement blows me away every time. The airport bus is filled to the brim till someone decides we need an extra bus so we soon stop to unload half the people. This means an hour and a half of stuffing around but only makes us extra happy to finally arrive at Khao San Road.

There’s often a problem getting accommodation this late in the day but fortunately the Bamboo Guesthouse has one double room left. The window faces the sun and our room is like a sauna so we head straight back out into the streets. We spend the rest of the night in Soi Rambutri drinking and eating fresh seafood cooked fresh on the street.

Saturday   17th January, 2004                                  Bangkok

Today is hot and humid from the moment we wake up. After breakfast downstairs and cold showers we catch a ferry to the Wat Po pier and wander around the so-called up-market area in search of a tailor shop to get suits and shirts made for Mark. Everywhere seems to be the same price as the tailors in Khao San Road and so no advantage in having them made anywhere else. We walk for ages and stop at an Irish Bar for drinks but decide we hate the whole scene around here and make a beeline back to Khao San Road in the fastest tuktuk we can find. Back to our favourite at Aviv Clothes Making we meet up with our old friend, Alex. We’ve had clothes made with him before and Mark now orders three suits, three pairs of pants, six shirts and seven silk ties. Alex has taken a definite liking to Mark and wants us to come back tonight for a fitting and then to take us out to dinner.

The rest of the day is spent having a massage at Mammas and lots of drinking and eating. At six o’clock we meet Alex and cross Khao San Road to an Indian restaurant on the first floor of a building opposite Aviv. He tells us about his life here and in India while we have a wonderful Indian meal.

Sunday      18th January, 2004                                  Bangkok

This morning we catch a taxi to the nearest monorail station to catch the Bangkok Skyway to the Chatuchak Weekend Market. It takes about twenty minutes before we jump out with hundreds of local people. The market is a short walk from the skyway station and we spend three hours wandering around the thousands of stalls. It’s divided into different areas according to what’s for sale. The animal market is the most interesting selling chickens and lots of fluffy dogs. We buy a ceramic teaset decorated with gold but too hot and bothered to buy anything else.

Monday and Tuesday           19th and 20th January, 2004                   Bangkok

The next two days are ‘same, same’, as they say here in Asia – wonderfully lazy and carefree. We have oil massages, Thai massages, manicures, pedicures, visit the temple, buy untold CD’s and a magnificent praying lady in Khao San Road. We visit the Mahatat Amulet Market and spend the nights in Thanon Rhambutri eating seafood and drinking at the tables next to the temple.

At two o’clock on Tuesday afternoon we catch a taxi to the airport for our five thirty flight to Sydney.

Yet another wonderful Asian holiday! We’ll be back in June on our way home from Italy. And can’t wait!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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China and Hong Kong 2006

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                                                               Our Itinerary

Thursday 10th August, 2006             Sydney

Friday 11th August, 2006                  Sydney (12 hr flight) to  Shanghai

Saturday 12th August, 2006             Shanghai

Sunday 13th August, 2006               Shanghai                                                    

Monday 14th August, 2006              Shanghai (overnight train) to Beijing

Tuesday 15th August, 2006             Beijing

Wednesday 16th August, 2006        Beijing (Great Wall) 

Thursday 17th August, 2006           Beijing (overnight train) toXian

Friday 18th August, 2006               Xian

Saturday 19th August, 2006          Xian

Sunday 20th August, 2006            Xian (fly) to Guilin (bus) to Yangshuo

 Monday 21st August, 2006           Yangshuo

 Tuesday 22nd August, 2006       Yangshou (bus) to Guilin

Wednesday 23rd August, 2006  Guilin (bus) to Guangzhou (hydrofoil) to Hong Kong

Thursday 24th August, 2006       Hong Kong

Friday 25th August, 2006            Hong Kong

Saturday 26th August, 2006       Hong Kong (9 hr flight) to

Sunday 27th August, 2006          Sydney

 

Thursday 10th August, 2006         Sydney

 At three o’clock Angie drives us to Hamilton Station where we cross the road for our usual pre-holiday drink at SJ’s then board the train for Sydney. Arriving at 6pm we book into the Royal Exhibition Hotel in Surry Hills then have dinner across the road at another pub. No smoking in here so we sit at a pavement table for drinks even though it’s a bit chilly. We really should have an early night but we’re having such a good time that we don’t.

Friday 11th August, 2006     Sydney to Shanghai

 This morning we wake to a clear blue sky which is always a good start to a holiday. As we’re getting dressed though, we see on the television that there have been attempted terrorist attacks in London on planes heading for the USA. We have no idea if this will affect our flight but we’ll just have to wait till we get to the airport. Crossing Chalmers Street to Central Station we just miss the airport train and spend a chilly fifteen minutes waiting for the next one to come at seven fifteen.

As we arrive at the international airport we see crews from Sydney television networks broadcasting live interviews and probably hoping to find the airport in pandemonium. Bad luck – no panic stricken passengers, no-one having hysterics, everything just as usual. Upstairs we meet Jillian and Eddy at the check-in counter and have a short wait to book in our bags and get our seat tickets. Instead of Qantas we’re flying China Eastern Airways which is a smaller plane so a bit of a disappointment. Obviously security is much stricter today and people flying to the States or the United Kingdom aren’t allowed any hand luggage except for their passports and wallets. Luckily for us, the same doesn’t apply for passengers going to Asia.

After a McDonald’s breakfast and a drink in the outdoor bar, we go through immigration. While we wait to board, we buy duty free grog and perfume then find that our plane has been delayed for two hours probably because of all the extra security. At last we take off with me (selfish) grabbing the only spare seats on the plane – four directly across the aisle from us. After too many drinks last night I can’t face alcohol or airplane food so I try to sleep as much as I can. Mark has two seats next to the window but wants to stay awake so he can sleep tonight in Shanghai. There’s not much for him to do though as China Eastern doesn’t have individual television screens and the movie showing half way down the plane stops and starts every few seconds – a crappy airline.

After ten hours flying we land at Shanghai’s airport at 10.30pm. Soon we’re out in the hot night air and in a taxi speeding towards the massive city of Shanghai that now has a population of almost nineteen million people. We’re driving on the right hand side of the road which always takes a while to get used to. The half hour drive is uneventful until we reach the river where our driver slows down so we can all get a better look at the fantastic city lights. The Pearl Tower is very spectacularly space-agey while buildings on both sides of the river are lit up with multi-coloured lights. After crossing the Huangpu River, which is actually an estuary of the famous Yangtze, we drive along the Bund then turn off after the Peace Hotel to our little street tucked away behind the main shopping area.

The Nanjing Hotel is a moderate hotel making up for its lack of character with its great position. We booked rooms on the internet weeks ago and have all the paperwork but of course we get blank stares when we turn up at the desk. The guy is obviously not impressed and gives us that ‘go away’ look. Nevertheless, we end up with nice rooms and we’re happy.

Even though it’s late we all need to eat so we head out into the street. It has lots of small cafes and open fronted shops with heaps of foot traffic and bicycles – really like it here. Now we head down to Nanjing Street just twenty metres from our hotel. This is supposed to be one of the busiest streets in the world and visited by 1.7 million people every day. As it’s midnight by this time, it’s not too busy but we’ll obviously experience the crowds in the next few days. As we get into the street Mark is approached by a guy who asks ‘do you want to be with girl in spa?’. Mark points to me and says ‘I’ll just ask my wife’ to which the guy does a quick about face and bolts.

Further on a young man standing outside one of the tall buildings coaxes us into a lift to the restaurant on the fifth floor. It looks expensive but we’re all starving and it’s too late to look around. A young waitress shows us to a table against a big window where Mark and Ed order sizzling beef and Jillian and I order pizzas. The beef comes out soon on sizzling hot plates but Jillian and I have to wait ‘a little long time’. When the pizzas finally arrive they’re more like big bread rolls but they fill the spot.

Time for bed at last.

Saturday 12th August, 2006          Shanghai

As usual I sleep okay but Mark is awake at 5.30am. Looking out our window which looks towards the river, we get out first day-time glimpse of Shanghai. The weather looks brilliant and should be a hot one.

After quick showers we decide to go out for a walk before we meet Jillian and Eddy. From our street we walk couple of streets east and come to a local area where people live off narrow laneways and lots of them are going about their morning ablutions outside their doorways. Some are cleaning their teeth, others are having a wash in communal sinks while old men are dozing in easy chairs. This is the China we wanted to see and we’ll come back later today.

At eight o’clock the four of us have breakfast across the road in an interesting local café – very Chinese with dark wooden tables and red paper lanterns. The front is open to the street which is full of activity with people shopping and riding bicycles. I don’t know why but a lot of locals seem to be wearing their pyjamas. Breakfast is spring rolls, wanton soup and pork and seafood steamed dumplings which come out in a stack of bamboo steamers. Ed is so excited this morning and loves it all.

Now it’s time to go and explore. We head first into Nanjing Street which is much busier this morning now that the shops are open. It seems to be Chinese capitalism gone mad and such a contrast to our interesting little street. Shanghai has a colourful history of opium, spices, gambling and prostitution but now most of it is modern and fashionable which basically means it’s lost a lot of its appeal. As we saw this morning though, we only need to venture a couple of streets off the main shopping areas and the old, traditional way of life still exists.

Setting off towards the river we cross a few chaotic intersections where uniformed traffic police wave us across the road. Near the famous old Peace Hotel we drop into a sex shop for a laugh then walk under the wide and busy Zhongshan Road to the river’s edge. This is the Bund area.

The Bund stretches for a mile along Zhongshan Road which itself runs beside the Huangpu River. What makes the Bund so amazing is its fifty-two very un-Chinese buildings. Gothic, Baroque, Art-Deco, Renaissance architectural styles were built here in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century mainly by the British. Actually it’s lucky they survived because by 1946 all the foreigners had been kicked out when Shanghai returned to Chinese rule. But then after the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, a new open-door policy meant that government and foreign investment revived Shanghai as the financial centre that it is today.

Looking across the river to Pudong with its ultra-modern architecture and down along the Bund with its colonial architecture, it’s an incongruous sight. A statue of Chairman Mao sits near the water and we have our photos taken. We hang around here for a while watching all the activity – lots of Chinese tourists and all sorts of craft out on the river. The temperature and humidity is about the worst that we’ve experienced anywhere and with a mixture of smog and water vapour it’s difficult to see too far into the distance.

Eddie is hassled to buy a watch and he finally gives in after the watch guy stalks us half way down the river. While he’s choosing the one he wants, Jillian and Mark and I visit the Bund Museum. It’s set in a tiny picturesque place but the main attraction is the air-conditioning.

Because of the heat we try to find shade when we can and end up sitting in one of the vine covered shelters eating ice-creams next to local families. From here we cross to a pretty park with ponds and weeping willows to look for the Old City. This is another very local area with washing hanging out from the balconies overhead, fruit carts, men sewing on old hand-run machines and bicycles – love it.

Just next door is the entrance to Yu Gardens Bazaar but first we find a beautiful temple alive with worshippers burning bundles of joss sticks, bringing food offerings, lighting candles and praying before very elaborate images of the Chinese version of Buddha. We all sit out of the sun on the edge of the inner courtyard to watch all the goings on and to soak up the wonderful atmosphere.

From here we make our way into Yu Gardens. These gardens are four hundred years old and probably very beautiful, but disappointingly we can’t see a bloody thing for the thousands of tourists who aren’t here to see the gardens but to shop in the market. Also disappointingly the market looks suspiciously brand new and up-market – even a Starbucks in one of the supposedly ancient buildings. The pond in the middle is the best part but we can’t find anything I’ve picked out in the Lonely Planet and we can’t find anywhere to have a beer and we can’t be bothered buying any of the shit that’s for sale (I swear, it’s like a giant Go-Lo) so we leave.

Out in the street we look for another place in the Lonely Planet but can’t find that either. By now the heat is killing us so we hightail it back to Nanjing Street in a taxi. Here we find Mojo’s Café with outdoor seating under canvas awnings and, at last, cold beers. This is heaven even if we feel sorry for the beggars who we give money to anyway. We stay too long and all get a bit pissy so we decide to have an afternoon nap before meeting again at 5.30pm.

Our plan for tonight is to get to Frenchtown to see the famous Chinese acrobats but first we want to have a drink at the nostalgic old Peace Hotel down on the Bund. Built in the Gothic style, it was first opened as the Cathay Hotel in 1929.The exterior is very beautiful – granite with a copper-sheathed roof now aged to a deep green. As one of the most famous hotels in the world, it’s accommodated the rich and famous like Charlie Chaplin, George Bernard Shaw and even Noel Coward who finished writing ‘Private Lives’ right here.

The interior is cool and dimly lit with a very sepia feel – like stepping back in time. After a look around we catch the elevator twelve floors to the bar on the roof. The views are spectacular and the breeze keeps us cool while we order beers for the boys and margaritas for us girls. Night is slowly falling and the city is starting to light up in every direction.

Back down in the street it takes us ages to find a cab driver who understands enough English to get us to Frenchtown. This area is only a fifteen minute ride away but seems much different with lots of tree-lined streets and French architecture. Our driver drops us at the Jin Jiang Hotel which is just across the road from the Lyceum Theatre where the acrobats play every night. Well not tonight actually – what a bummer so we decide to drown our sorrows at a cute little bar called the Clou Bar.

We all sit at the bar and meet the friendly young waitresses. One of them tells Ed his fortune by reading his palm while another teaches us to say ‘wall eye knee’ meaning ‘I love you’ in Chinese. An Australian guy wearing a cap comes in and strikes up a conversation. His name is Michael and lives in Shanghai most of the year and obviously spends a lot of time at the Clou Bar. He’s a crashing bore so we make our escape. After walking along the smelliest street imaginable, we find another night spot called the Music Bar. It’s a dark place lit only with a few red neon lights and playing noisy dance music. It’s also empty so after one drink we decide to go back to the Clou Bar.

Unfortunately Michael is still here sucking up to the young bar girls. His cap is gone by now and he’s not only a bore but an ugly, bald nerd – probably has to live in Asia so he can get a shag. He latches onto me this time and keeps insisting that he show us some other hot night spots – no way mate – think he’s probably a pervert as well.

We finally make our second escape from Michael and get a taxi back to Nanjing Street. Across the street from the hotel we stop for a beer but Jillian and I are dead tired so the boys stay for a drink while we go to bed.

Sunday 13th August, 2006               Shanghai  

 Ed is sick today. He had an awful night throwing up or on the loo. He wants to sleep for a while longer so Mark, Jillian and I walk down to the Bund at 7.30am. Unbelievably, it is sweltering already.

In Nanjing Street elderly people are out doing tai chi, playing badminton and fan tai chi while couples are ballroom dancing down near the river. On the way back to the hotel we stop at McDonalds as much for the air-conditioning as the food.

Jillian goes up to stay with Ed while Mark and I go for another   walk through the hutongs. It is even livelier than yesterday with people washing, chopping vegetables and meat, street barbers and more teeth cleaning. Mark stops in at a tiny barber shop to have his hair washed. There is a strange way of doing this. Mark sits in a chair in front of the mirror while the barber pours shampoo on top of his head from a squeeze bottle then soaps it up before taking him over to the basin to have it washed out. Next is the blow dry and Mark now looks especially poofy.

We cross to another alleyway where a small fruit and vegetable market is set up. While Mark has fun videoing some ladies, I buy grapes and a watermelon. I mime cutting the watermelon to the old man selling it so he brings out a big knife to chop it in half then insists I sit on a little stool in his shop to eat it. This is so much fun until the poor man upturns a flask of boiling water on to his foot. No harm done apparently.

Back at the hotel Ed has emerged but looks decidedly pale and sick. He wants to keep going though so we all set off for the Bund once again. Our plan is to get over to Pudong to visit the Oriental Pearl Tower and take the Bund Tunnel to get there. This very tacky touristy tunnel goes under the river and we find the entrance in a type of underground amusement hall. A glassed-in capsule carries us through the tunnel lit by psychedelic lights with flapping inflatable figures and a loud musical commentary – so bad it’s fun.

We pop out just near the Pearl Tower but it’s still a scorching walk to get there. Outside we buy cold drinks and take photos of the very impressive tower while being serenaded by deafening Britney Spears music. Apparently the Tower’s design is based on a romantic poem about a lute but its shape is definitely space-age. It was built in 1955 and is proudly the tallest tower in Asia and the third tallest in the world.

After buying our tickets we take a glassed-in lift a few floors up then line up for half an hour to get another lift to the observation deck. It’s hard to get to the windows because of all the Chinese tourists but eventually we get to see just how massive this city really is. The smog is so bad though we can’t see where it ends in any direction. More long lines and long waits to get back down so we decide to head back to the hotel instead of going over to the Hyatt. We wander down to the river but the tide is so low that the ferries wouldn’t be running and we can’t find them anyway so we grab a cab instead.

At the hotel Jillian and Ed go for a rest while Mark and I find a taxi to take us to the Yifu Theatre to watch a performance of Chinese opera. Apparently all Chinese opera is called Beijing Opera because that’s where it originated. The theatre is in an old building that’s been renovated inside and very red and ultra-modern. We buy the cheap $5 seats up the back – can’t imagine we’ll be staying for the whole performance. The costumes are spectacular but there doesn’t seem to be too much singing. Most of the time someone walks sideways across the stage in big white clog-looking shoes then there’s a bit of screeching and that’s it. After forty minutes we’ve seen enough – been there, done that, so we leave.

Not far from the theatre we find the weirdest ice cream parlour so we have to go in. Everyone is sitting in floral covered swing seats suspended from the ceiling with green tulle wrapped ropes – very kitsch but cute.

Another taxi takes us back to Nanjing Street where we find the loveliest upstairs room for a one hour foot massage for $14AUD. We lay back on comfy lounges while we have our feet soaked in a black liquid in wooden buckets then drink hot green tea and eat slices of watermelon while we have our massage. The atmosphere is wonderful – dark wooden ceiling, floor and furniture, potted bamboo, a fountain and Chinese paper lights.

Next door we just have time to do some internetting in a huge dark room packed with young people manically playing computer games – horrible place. Now it’s time to get back to our room to pack for our overnight train trip to Beijing tonight.

The four of us check out about five o‘clock while a doorman runs to the end of the street to hail down a taxi. In fifteen minutes we pull up at Shanghai’s busy railway station. From the underground carpark we catch an elevator to the area in front of the station. People are everywhere and most are sitting on the ground. We find the busy waiting room for our train and are lucky to get a place to sit. We take turns going to the shop to buy food and drinks for the train while the others mind the backpacks. We all buy loads of beer, chips, biscuits and coke – planning on a fun night.

Finally everyone is moving and we follow the crowd to the top of the stairs leading down to the platforms. We’re not sure of our platform number and I make the fatal mistake of asking a local for directions. I show a man our ticket and he happily points to the stairs so we cram in with the mob of people charging the train. At the bottom of the stairs we stop to show our tickets to one of the uniformed girls parked outside each carriage. She has a quick look and points to the other end of the train. We drag our gear past heaps of carriages till we find the one with the right number. Now this girl waves us away and points to the train on the next platform – oh shit. This is the wrong train and the right train is only a spit away but to get there we have to run all the way back to the stairs, up the stairs, along a corridor and down the next set of stairs. We run like maniacs and must look hilarious covered in heavy backpacks and bags of groceries bouncing from each hand – it’s the Amazing Race!

Tearing down the stairs to the right train, we’re just in time to see it slowly pulling out on its way to Beijing with our four empty berths. After getting over the realization that we’ve actually missed our train we make another dash for the ticket office to see if we can get on the ‘wrong’ train which is also about to leave. Madly asking people in railway uniforms we’re sent to Window 9 where the woman behind the glass waves us off to someone else who then sends us off to the ‘missed the train office’ or, as we prefer to call it, the ‘fuck up office’.

Of course by now even the ‘wrong’ train is on its merry way to Beijing so we’re hoping to get on the last train at 10pm. At the ‘fuck up office’ Jillian stands in line to get a refund on our tickets while Mark and Ed book new tickets. Jillian is having a hard time fighting off all the people trying to muscle their way to the front but it’s all such a  joke by now that it’s funny. No luck with tickets for tonight so we’re here in Shanghai for another day.

Outside we sit around having a smoke while we piss ourselves laughing. We all look wrecks after our sprint with the luggage – dripping in sweat with me and Jillian sporting very attractive frizzy hairdos. No choice now but to head back to the Nanjing Hotel and hope we can get our rooms back.

The four of us laugh all the way in the taxi then get new rooms at the hotel before setting out to make the most of another night here in Shanghai. We’d missed out before on the interesting café across from the hotel so now we head for here now to cook skewers of squid, chicken, pork and eggplant over hot coals. From here we wander up Nanjing Street which is extra busy tonight. At an outdoor café we sit under umbrellas and watch the passing parade. Nearby is a fountain where large crowds have gathered to watch the water spouting up to the rhythm of loud classical music. The beers are two for one tonight so we all have too many while I also get a shoeshine. A funny night.

Monday 14th August, 2006   Shanghai (overnight train to Beijing)

After our big drinking session last night and because we haven’t got plans for today we have a lovely sleep-in till 9am. Mark and I have breakfast in a local café – no English menus so they just bring out things on trays so we can point to what we want. Mark has wanton soup and I have noodle soup with mushrooms – mine is disgusting so Mark eats it.

Out in Nanjing Street we catch a ride to one end of the street on a kiddie train – must be getting bored but lots of fun really. Now we decide to go back to the local alleyways where we find a ‘beauty parlour’ to get our hair washed. For next to nothing we have a one hour head massage as well. The young people working in here are very trendy or trying their hardest to be anyway. They’re playing loud modern Chinese music and seem genuinely happy to get some business.

Racing back to the hotel we meet Ed and Jillian and follow them towards the Bund to the Captain’s Guesthouse that they found this morning. It’s a true backpacker place and we wish we’d stayed here last night.  On the rooftop café we lay around on cane lounges in the air-conditioning and order beers and pizzas.

After lunch we visit the nearby Pudong Bank right on the Bund. It has the most gorgeous interior – more like a church with marble columns and a frescoed domed ceiling. Ed and Jillian go off to find the fabulous massage place where Mark and I went yesterday while we grab a taxi to take us to the People’s Square and the Shanghai Museum.

As usual our driver has no idea what we’re talking about and drops us at an impressive building but which is definitely not the museum. Mark checks the map so we walk in the right general direction, we think. Along crowded sidewalks, under a highway, then over a highway we finally arrive at the People’s Park. It’s so hot – the sun is absolutely blazing and we can feel our skin burning and wet with sweat. We’re so happy to at last see the museum and make a beeline for the air-conditioning.

The museum was finished in 1996 and, for some reason, built to resemble an ancient, bronze, tripod cooking vessel. Its five floors have exhibits of beautiful jade, ceramics, sculptures, bronzes and paintings but all we can think of by now is to stay in here to have a break from the heat outside.

Once we cool down and have a good look around we walk over to Nanjing Street and get on the kiddie train again to get back down to our own little side street. After an ice cream each from a strange local place we go up to our room for a sleep before packing again for our second attempt at getting the overnight train to Beijing.

Tonight we don’t muck around going to the public lounge but head straight for the posh lounge. We even get great coffees and hot chocolates. And this time we find the right platform and in plenty of time. Our cabin is amazing – first class, darling. We have double bunks, a door, white sheets and pillows, piped music and reading lights. After a quick look at the dining car we have a few drinks in our cabin then have an early night.

Tuesday 15th August, 2006             Beijing

At seven o’clock we pull into the station in China’s capital, Beijing. All looking worse for wear, we put on our packs and grab our bags of leftover food to make our way through the station. We walk upwards along a wide corridor jammed with hundreds of other passengers to the heat and sunshine outside. Before us are hundreds more people, a huge television screen and Beijing’s skyline of modern buildings.

Within seconds, a taxi driver approaches us so we follow him to his van in a crowded small carpark. After realising he’s definitely trying to rip us off we set off on our own to find another taxi. A long line of them are outside the station but every time we try to get in one the driver shoos us away – what the hell? As we keep walking we realize we should be lined up with everyone else and that we’ve actually been cue jumping – sorry about that. Finally we get one and were soon speeding through the streets to our Gecko based hotel called the Home Inn. It’s a tall bright yellow building on the corner of a pretty tree-lined street. Across the road are a couple of open fronted shops selling fruit and vegetables and further along a few cafes and restaurants.  I think we’ll like it here.

Inside the hotel, the foyer is busy with people checking in and out so we sit on some lounges to wait for our turn. Mark notices a young Chinese guy reading Gecko feedback forms and thinks he might be the leader for our trip. We’re soon told that our rooms won’t be ready till 10.30am so we have a couple of hours to kill. Leaving our packs in storage we walk down to McDonalds a few streets away. It’s nice to sit in the air-conditioning as the temperature is draining already.

Afterwards we find the Merry Mart which is an odd looking building with a massive communist style statue out front – two people dressed as workers looking forward with eyes fixed on a potentially bright future. I buy a red (very Chinese) umbrella to keep the sun off then bargain with a watch seller in the street. Mark and I buy six watches including a very tacky one with Chairman Mao waving at us or maybe giving us the finger. Jillian and Ed go off on their own while Mark and I stop for a drink at a small shop then walk back to the hotel. It’s still only 9.30am but our room is ready so we check in for a much needed shower. We try to ring Jillian and Ed to tell them to come back early but we can’t get through again.

Half an hour later they knock on our door and we’re soon off in a taxi headed for the Summer Palace. Our driver is a happy man who wants to learn some English words as well as teaching us some Chinese on the fifty minute trip to the other side of the city.  Despite having a population of fifteen million it doesn’t seem as exciting as Shanghai. The roads are wide and modern and the city spread out and flat – looks boring and I’m losing interest fast.

At the Summer Palace we’re dropped off outside the gate which is busy with hoards of Chinese tourists. It’s sweltering waiting in line for our tickets so we’re glad to get inside which is a bit cooler under big shady trees. Jillian and I rent audio guides each which are supposed to start up every time we enter a different area. Sounds      good but the information is too involved and boring anyway so I don’t bother much with mine. Jillian and Ed go off on their own and we plan to meet back at the main gate in a few hours. Mark and I walk over to Lake Kumjing then around the water’s edge. Lots of paddle boats are for hire down here and it looks nice out on the water.

The Summer Palace was first built during the Jin Dynasty between 1115 and 1234 AD but since then it’s burnt down and rebuilt. It’s a pretty maze of classical gardens, pavilions, bridges, towers and corridors. We try to keep in the shade as much as possible and finally buy a fan to keep cool. At one of the stalls I buy some bracelets and a lovely bigger fan as a souvenir while Mark goes off to buy some ice creams. We pay to climb up to the big pagoda then wander along tranquil winding paths overhung by dense trees and willows.

Some areas are over crowded but in a quieter section we find a pretty two storey tea house and stop for a rest. On the top floor we find a table and chairs on a verandah overlooking the lake where we order a beer for Mark and green tea and biscuits for me. The tea is thick with big green leaves so its fun to drink.

At two o’clock we meet Eddie and Jillian outside and find a taxi to take us back to our hotel. Instead of fifty minutes it takes an hour and instead of 60 Yuan it costs 158 Yuan. We’re sure he’s been driving us around in circles and Jillian is ready to strangle him by the time we get back.

We get dropped off opposite the hotel and buy pork skewers from a hole-in-the-wall place before finding the Happy Bar for beers and food. The Happy Bar is a true Western place which we sometimes really need when we’re somewhere so different – think we’ll be back tonight.

Back near our hotel we meet a friendly rickshaw rider who wants to take us on a one hour hutong tour for 100 Yuan – excellent. We pedal off down our shady street and in no time we’re in the midst of old China. He takes us to lots of different hutongs which are neighbourhoods of traditional courtyard residences joined by narrow alleyways. The oldest looking ones are the most interesting but our driver tells us ‘gone – Olympics’. Sadly the ones that are staying (‘this one good’ with a thumbs up) have been spruced up – the buildings all painted grey and the alleys paved. The wonderful old atmosphere has gone but this is what the Chinese government wants the tourists to see – apparently all is bright and beautiful in China.

Still, we see wonderful things – people sitting on chairs and old beds in the alleys, local shops and old men playing board games. We stop a few times to visit a traditional house, an interesting courtyard hotel and a carving museum. Mark also barters for a terracotta warrior that we don’t even want and I buy some postcards from a girl in the street.

Meanwhile we keep telling our driver that we have to go back to our hotel but he keeps laughing and taking us to one more place after another. As we get near our hotel he goes on and on about how he took us for one and a half hours and so we’ll have to pay him more. Not only that but he didn’t mean 100 Yuan for both of us but for each person. Our lovely friendly driver has turned into a monster and Mark chucks 150 Yuan at him and says ‘rack off’.

Back in our room we have a cool shower then a short rest until we meet the Gecko group at 6pm in the foyer. The young Chinese guy that Mark had seen this morning does turn out to be our leader – his name is something unpronounceable in Chinese so he calls himself Keith (great choice, what the?). He takes us all to the dining room where we introduce ourselves. Besides us and Eddie and Jillian, there’s Jess and Kerry (Australian sisters who’ve been living in England), Mary and Gary (honeymooners from England), Brad (Australian), Kristy (an Australian girl who’s been working in England) and Trish and Bec (also Australians and who’ve also been working in England and who also happen to be lesbians).

After a banquet dinner and after Keith gives us the trip rundown, Mark, Jillian, Ed and I race off to the Happy Bar for beers and to talk about our group. They all seem really nice so it should be a good trip. The Happy Bar has karaoke and after a few drinks we’re all up singing our hearts out. Tommy and Cindy are the sweet young people who work behind the bar and we promise to come back tomorrow night.

Before going to bed we all buy fruit from one of the stalls across the road. Keith has told us we need to buy lunch for tomorrow as we’re off to the Great Wall first thing in the morning.

Wednesday 16th August, 2006        Beijing  (Great Wall) 

Up at 5.30am to have breakfast in the downstairs dining room. The food is very Chinese and most of it unrecognizable so Mark and I just have tea and toast. At six o’clock we set off in a comfortable minivan for the 110 kilometres to the Great Wall. Apparently the van is often used for officials so we have a siren and a loud speaker so we can abuse the other drivers – hilarious.

Leaving Beijing behind we head towards the mountains through ugly forgettable towns and light industrial areas all seen through a film of thick smog. Our driver is talking on his mobile at the top of his voice and really giving someone an earful or maybe this is just the Chinese way of communicating.

Two hours later as hills line the horizon, we start winding our way upwards, making hair-raising overtaking moves on blind bends and rises – yes, this is still Asia. The sun is out by now but a haze still seems to prevail wherever we go in China. Despite this, the scenery is much prettier here with open cultivated fields and the occasional small town.

After another hour, we reach Simatai. Lonely Planet describes this section of the Great Wall as ‘not for the faint hearted’. Because this is a harder climb than some sections and because it’s three hours from Beijing as well, we shouldn’t see many people here at all. From the village where we leave the van, we can see part of the two thousand year old Wall high up above us and stretching far into the distance on both sides. No surprise that it’s one of the wonders of the world – apparently it can even be seen from outer space.

After a drink and a visit to the squat loo we all set off through the village. Crossing a small stream we start up a steep path that finally leads to hundreds of stone steps to the top. Of course, I’m the slowest but Mark is in no hurry anyway or so he says.

The others stop for a rest now and again but no sooner do we catch up with them they’re off again with me dragging along behind. A few local ladies are walking with us fanning away the perspiration which gives us some relief from the awful heat.

Finally we reach the Wall where we have unlimited views of the wall but I’m sorry to see that the direction we’re heading is all uphill. Watchtowers are placed about every half a kilometre and we plan to walk to Tower 8 – six more to go. In most parts the Wall is wide enough to not worry about falling off but the stairs are often dangerous. At each tower we stop for a drink and to cool down in the shade. Here the ladies fan us madly and my lady even insists on carrying my backpack.

At Tower 5 we stop at the top to have a birthday cake for Mary and Trish that Keith had carried all the way in a cardboard box. A baking sun beats down on us all and I’m thankful for my little red umbrella.  After passing around the cake and singing Happy Birthday we set off again onwards and upwards.

Although the rest of us are melting, the Chinese ladies seem to be unaware of the heat and the climb – I think they do this every day. By now I’m not only having my pack carried and being fanned, but two ladies gently take an elbow each and guide me up the long stairway to the next tower – feel about a hundred. At long last we reach the last tower where the ladies are paid for their fanning and I buy a Great Wall book that I don’t want and Mark and Ed buy ‘I Climbed the Great Wall’ t-shirts. Now we head down a small track till we reach the chair lift that will take us almost to the village – great views and good to sit down.

The bus ride back to Beijing is quick mainly because I sleep most of the way. By the time we get there we’re starving so Jillian, Ed and Mark and I walk down to a café in our hotel street for beers, fried rice and chili beef.  Sitting outside under umbrellas we have a lovely time watching the locals cycling past, some in their pyjamas – must get to the bottom of this.

Back at the Home Inn, Mark and I have a shower and a rest while Jillian and Ed go off on a hutong tour. At 6.30pm we meet the others outside then jump in taxis to take us to the Red Theatre to see ‘The Legend of Kung Fu’. The theatre is very modern and very red with a full house which happens every night.

‘The Legend of Kung Fu’ is about a young boy who dreams of becoming a Kung Fu master but has to overcome lots of temptations before he finally reaches enlightenment. The show is a mixture of jaw dropping acrobatics, ballet and martial arts. Some scenes are dream-like and some like the red fires of hell. The whole thing is spectacular and beautiful.

Later at the Happy Bar we’re too tired to stay long after a huge day.

Thursday 17th August, 2006          Beijing (overnight train) to Xian                                                 

Today we’re sightseeing in Beijing then catching the overnight train late this afternoon for Xian. Mark and I have breakfast in a local café near our hotel. We have mushroom soup and deep fried bread made in a wok-style cooker on the street. Because we’re leaving today we have to book out of our room and store our bags before   meeting  Keith and the others for our tour of the Forbidden City.

Arriving in taxis, we meet our guide called Minnie. She‘s a sweet girl who shows us around the Forbidden City. This has the Chinese name Gu Gong and is the very centre of Beijing. Its 9,999 buildings are dramatically surrounded by a deep moat and a high stone wall. Yellow is the dominant colour being the symbol of the royal family. It’s all very spectacular but just a monument really with not much atmosphere mainly because all the best bits are covered in scaffolding in preparation for the dreaded Olympics. We do visit the pretty garden area but the rest is big and boring.

Outside is the main entrance with a huge portrait of Chairman Mao watching over it all like Big Brother himself. China’s National five star red flag is flying from rows of tall masts and across the road is Tian’anman Square. This is the biggest central square in the world and is the actual entrance to the Forbidden City. It is also where, in 1989, the Tiananmen Square Massacre took place. Demonstrations led by students and intellectuals faced army tanks and infantry that were sent to crush the protest. Estimates of civilian deaths is 2,000–3,000.

Not really wanting to be in this place we go underground to get the subway into the city. Most of us are over shops and all of us want to find Pizza Hut which we find after a determined effort. After stuffing ourselves,  Jillian, Ed, Mark and I get a taxi back to our hotel. Mark and I need to do some emailing so we try at the big hotel next door. For some reason hotmail doesn’t work so we give up on the idea.

With an hour to kill we wander around to a massage place that Jillian saw yesterday. We’re taken to a cool downstairs room with lots of massage beds but we‘re the only customers. A young girl and guy come in, turn on the tele and proceed to give us the lamest massages ever while watching an obvious Chinese soap opera. We both only get one side of our bodies done because they can’t see the tv from the other side.

Racing back to the hotel to pack, we soon meet the others to catch taxis to the station. After a short wait in the VIP lounge we all board the 4.50pm train for the overnight trip to Xian. We have hard sleepers this time with Mark and I sharing a cabin with a young Japanese couple and a Dutch guy called Roi. Roi is with a group who’ve traveled from Russia and on their way to Hong Kong. He’s a big friendly guy and we like him a lot.

Later we head for the dining car with Jillian and Ed. This is at the other end of the train which means a long and interesting walk through the packed carriages from our cabin. Our waitress is a uniformed horror we call Helga who hates us with a passion. We have a great time drinking and smoking – everyone is smoking, in fact, even Helga and the cooks.

Back in our cabin I take a sleeping pill and sit around with Mark and Roi and another Dutch guy having a chat. That’s the last thing I remember.
Friday 18th August, 2006              Xian

During the early hours, I wake up to realise that I can’t remember getting into bed. I can’t remember anything except for being woken by a little Chinese girl trying to get into my bed sometime in the night. I think she thought I was her mother and then ran away when she saw I wasn’t. I followed her down the carriage but she kept shooing me away.

When Mark wakes up he asks if I remember what happened. Apparently I was rambling on about Americans and American politics – saying to the Dutch man ’what’s the answer? – then my eyes rolled back and I passed out – very attractive. I don’t think Bacardi and sleeping pills mix – apparently made a total fool of myself. Roi is not making eye contact.

At 7.10am we pull into Xian railway station. According to the Lonely Planet, Xian is known as the eternal city and one of China’s six ‘ancient’ cities. It’s said to have good feng shui because it’s surrounded by water and hills but which we can’t see because of the pea soup air that’s even worse here.

From the station we all get taxis to the YMCA passing people doing their early morning tai chi and dancing in a big park. We pass through one of the gates in the old city wall where we’ll be going sometime this morning with the group.

After checking into our rooms (featureless but clean) we walk       down to a Chinese fast food place with Jillian and Ed. Nothing breakfasty here so we end up with spicy chicken drumsticks, prawn things and spring rolls – cholesterol hell – hideous.

At 9.30am we all meet in the foyer then follow Keith through the modern but not unpleasant streets, past the Drum Tower then down to the City Wall. This was built by the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty in the fourteenth century and stands a magnificent twelve meters high, fourteen meters across the top and fourteen kilometers around.

At the top of the stairs we all pile into electric carts to take us to a small stone building where we hire a push bike each. For some reason unknown to me, the ‘thing to do’ in Xian is to cycle around the whole City Wall – ‘but why?’

Everyone takes off at a life and death pace with me (and so, poor Mark) straggling behind. Jillian and Ed, God love them, wait for us to catch up then the four of us stop at a little shady place for a soft drink before we take off again. I push on for another hundred metres but it’s so hot and the ground is so rough that I can’t be bothered and turn back. I’m sure Mark is relieved to get rid of me and he flies off to chase the others while I have a leisurely ride back.

Here I sit in the shade for a drink and to soak in the surroundings. The top of the wall is lined with flags and red Chinese lanterns and I quite enjoy my ‘alone’ time. What a bore to ride around the whole bloody thing – all same, same and in air grey and ugly with smog. Mark arrives back first after riding full pelt the whole way. After the others get back we walk down into the main shopping area then split up. Jillian, Ed, Mark and I head for McDonalds where we fill up on drinks, burgers and air-con – so hot out there now.

Back at the hotel, Mark and I try to do some emailing in a three storey internet place. In the tatty foyer we’re pointed to the next floor, where we’re pointed to the next floor where we’re told to go back to the foyer to buy an internet card – for fuck sake! We go back to our room instead.

This afternoon Keith had tried to talk us all into going to a dumpling banquet – expensive and we’ve all had enough of dumplings so most of us decide to go to the Muslim quarter. At 6.30pm we meet the girls in the lobby and walk to the Muslim area past the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower which are both lit up by strings of lights and look very spectacular. All the streets are alive with people and markets but the Muslim quarter is by far the best.

We walk through a food and souvenir market which we’ll come back to later before finding the interesting tree-lined streets of tuktuks, cafes and restaurants. A lot of food is being cooked on the street and Mark and Ed stop to buy meat on skewers. We like the look of a busy café and are shown upstairs to a big round table.

After an okay meal and good fun we split up. Mark and I spend an hour in the market and buy a couple of calligraphy paintings and two marble paper weights. On the way back to the hotel we buy five lovely fans and ten silk pillow cases – have lots of fun with the young salesgirl.

Saturday 19th August, 2006          Xian

This morning we’re off to see the Terracotta Warriors not far from the city. We have a quick breakfast at the horrible fast food place again because nothing else is open – getting fatter by the minute in China. At 7.30am we all meet in the lobby then board a mini bus for the one hour drive to the Warriors. Keith entertains us with             conundrums that are very ‘sexy’ and we also meet Sandy, our Chinese guide. She’s a pretty sweet girl who explains the story of the Warriors in easy to understand English. She tells us that the Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses are one of the most important archeological excavations of the 20th century. The Chinese are obviously very proud of this major tourist attraction.

Again the scenery is fugly but gets a bit greener and rural as we get closer to the site. Also again the sky is a fugly thick haze except that Keith tells us that it isn’t smog, just the time of year – yeah, right. From the huge carpark we have a fifteen minute walk to get to the main gate. We all follow Sandy into the massive building that houses Pit 1. There are three pits in all but this is the biggest. Here Sandy tells us more about its history.

Upon ascending the throne at the age of 13 (in 246 BC), Qin Shi Huang, later the first Emperor of all China, began work for his mausoleum which took 11 years to finish. Terracotta replicas of his whole army of men and horses were made to be buried with him. They lay buried for two centuries until a group of peasants found the site while digging for a well in 1974. Altogether over 7,000 pottery soldiers, horses, chariots, and weapons have been unearthed from the three pits. Only one warrior was found in tact and since then most have been restored to their former grandeur.

After visiting Pits 2 and 3 and a quick look in the museum, we watch a 360° film re-enacting the history. It’s been an amazing experience and almost too much to actually take in.

Heading back to the bus we’re all followed by hawkers selling warriors of all sizes. Mark and I buy a box of miniature warriors for a dollar – very cute.

At this stage I must comment on Keith. He’s a friendly guy with lots of enthusiasm but the problem is he’s Chinese. He sticks to the itinerary like his life depends on it and won’t budge to do anything different even if the rest of us want to. Mary has read about another place we could visit on the way back to Xian but Keith obviously doesn’t want to go there. Even though we all vote to stop he tells us that ‘someone’ (meaning him) doesn’t want to so we charge on to Xian where there’s nothing planned for the rest of the day. A definite cultural thing that is gradually pissing us all off.

By the time we get to the hotel, Jillian has a bad headache and just wants to lie down. Ed had noticed a hotel on the way in with a ‘buffet lunch’ sign so the three of us walk back down the busy street to the Hotel Royal Garden. It’s an up-market place with a big fancy dining room and hardly anyone here. For $8 AUD we get a fantastic buffet lunch with free beer. We stuff ourselves till we’re sick and Mark and Ed compare fat bellies. Before we leave the boys use the loo and Ed is so impressed that he takes photos – he’s a scream.

After a big lunch and a big day we sleep till 8pm then meet some of the crew in the foyer for our ‘big drinking night’ (Keith) at karaoke. Bec, Trish. Kristy, Kerry, Jess, Jillian, Ed and me and Mark follow Keith across the street to a every tacky and glitzy karaoke place. There’s a lot of them around here and we love the one next door called ‘The Half Past Eight and Friend Changing Club’. After catching a lift to the third floor we’re met by a lady in a blue satin evening gown. She takes us to a small supermarket-type place where we choose our booze. Young men in suits follow us around and only they are allowed to carry the shopping baskets and put the beer in them after we choose what we want. All very important and official.

Now we’re shown to our own karaoke room off a wide dark hallway leading off into other private karaoke rooms. The room is very plush but smells of body odour – not ours. For the next four hours we all sing daggy songs and have a ball.

Back at the hotel at 1pm Mark and I go back to Jillian and Ed’s room with more alcohol and blow smoke out the window. A late night.

Sunday 20th August, 2006           Xian (fly) to Guilin (bus) to Yangshuo

This morning we sleep till 10am. It’s raining. Mark goes to the bakery for cheese buns and croissants. I make tea but forget and use tap water. Jillian and Ed go off shopping then stop at McDonalds where a crazy man is exposing himself. They run away and think they’re being followed. Meanwhile Mark and I pack and check out at twelve o’clock.

Our aim this morning is to find the orphanage that Julie and Steve visited last year on their Intrepid trip. The four of us get a taxi to where we think the orphanage is but after an hour we give up. Mark doesn’t feel good about it anyway so he doesn’t want to keep looking.

Instead we get a taxi to the Royal Garden Hotel for another buffet lunch.  At 2.30pm we meet the Gecko group and get a bus to the airport one hour away. We have two new people – James and Vicky who’ve been on another Gecko tour and are joining us for the rest of our tour. I try to make friends with Vicky but she’s in mourning for her old group and doesn’t want to know us so fuck her.

We fly out at 5.10pm for a one hour forty minute flight to Guilin. Arriving at Guilin at 7.10pm we have a forty five minute wait for our bus to arrive. Keith gives us a few more conundrums to solve as we sit on the steps outside the terminal. At last the bus arrives and we’re on our way to Yangshou.

After An hour drive in the dark we arrive in Yangshou at 9.30pm. Yangshuo is a small town in Guangxi Province surrounded by towering karst peaks and bordered on one side by the Li River even though we can’t see any of that at the moment. Chinese Street and West Street are the two main roads that run away from the water and form the central part of the town. The western area is on West Street and the pedestrian-only Xian Qian Street which runs between Chinese and West Street.

Our hotel, the Emperor Hotel, had good rooms in a great position in Xian Qian Street which is lined with cafes, bars and shops and busy with travellers even at this time of night – we love it here. We shower in fifteen minutes then walk to Monkey Janes rooftop café only a couple of minutes away for another of Keith’s ‘big drinking nights’.

Monkey Janes is a travellers’ favourite and we can see why. It sits on a rooftop in the middle of town with a great atmosphere. At a long candlelit table we order burritos and beers and have one of our best nights yet. Looking out into the distance it takes a while to work out the limestone karsts that surround the town and a huge one looming up right behind us – so close we could almost touch it.  We can’t wait to see it in the morning.

Bed at 1am.

Monday 21st August, 2006          Yangshuo

After a good sleep we’re really looking forward to haning out here for the next few days. This morning we’re all going for a cycling trip through the karst scenery of the countryside out of town. Breakfast first and it’s lovely – sitting in the sunshine at a table almost on the street in the hotel cafe with Jillian and Ed.

Under a glorious clear blue sky – no smog here – we all walk to the end of West Street and get a good idea of the town on the way – so much to see and buy here – fantastic!

At the bike-hire place, bicycles are lined up and everyone is eagerly grabbing one. Everyone except for me, that is – I know I won’t be able to keep up but then I notice a beautiful red electric motorbike – a definite gift from above. I know Mark would much rather cycle but then he’d probably spend half the time waiting for me to catch up so he’s fine. I jump on the back and off we all go. A short distance across town we thread our way through a market then we’re out in the lush green countryside. For an hour we ride along good roads without too much traffic, stopping now and again in small villages or to take photos of rice paddies and water buffalo. At one spot local women are selling garlands of fresh flowers and conical hats so we buy both.

Finally turning off onto a bumpy track we bounce our way down to the river. It’s so peaceful here with only the sound of our little bike whirring away every few seconds. The sun is scorching as usual and for once the sky is clear and bright. The river looks very appealing but Keith isn’t happy about us going for a swim – mustn’t be a part of the itinerary.

Village people are down by the water and a mob of kids greet us with a whining ‘you want water gun?’ – cute at first but then we want to slap them. They’re hiring out long blue plastic tubes that you use to suck up water then fire at your friends. Mark and I get one and Mark has a great time drenching an old man in a boat on the river. The reason we’re here is to board bamboo rafts for a ride a kilometre or so downstream. Each raft has seats, an umbrella and a boatman who pushes us along with a long bamboo pole. The bicycles are loaded onto the back of the rafts while Keith rides our bike down to the pickup place.

‘Oh the serenity!’, as Ed says – picture postcard material with a glorious blue sky, limestone karsts, the tranquil river and emerald green rice fields. The mountains are piled up around us like pointed cones amongst flat verdant land. Ladies on their own bamboo rafts float up to us selling cold beer and coke from battered old eskies. Mark buys a beer for himself and one for our oarsman who gives it back to the lady and pockets the cash – just another way to make some extra money.

Twice we have to go over small weirs which is a lot of fun especially watching the others. We finally pull into the shore where the bikes are unloaded and we set off again for an hour ride through the countryside.

Now it’s time for lunch so we stop at an open air café with a tall bamboo roof at the base of Moon Hill. At the top of the hill is a great lump of rock with a round hole in its center. Looking at it from different angles it resembles either a new moon or a full moon, hence its name. You can climb up to it but luckily we’re going caving instead.

At three o’clock we all ride to Buddha Cave and stop on the way to look at Moon Hill from another angle. Ed has decided to ride back to Yangshou – caving is no novelty for a miner.

Inside the cave we’re fitted with plastic sandals and hard hats then follow a young guy who is to be our guide. He’s so annoying whistling the same tune over and over. There doesn’t seem to be any conservation rules with people touching the stalagmites and stalactites and even people smoking. The cave is good but we’ve seen much better in Thailand and Laos. At one point we have to climb down a ladder through a narrow gap and I give up. Jillian, Trish, Jess and Kerry don’t want to go on either so we decide to wait for the others to come back. They’re gone for ages and we think we can hear rats so we             move back further towards the entrance. Trish is having a panic attack about the rat sounds so Jillian has to walk her out of the cave. When Mark and the rest finally come back Bec runs off to console Trish while the crew goes off in another direction to get down to the mud baths at the far bottom of the cave. I’d love to go but scared of getting claustrophobia so I take off for the entrance. After another hour they arrive back all wet from swimming in the mud baths. Mark loved the baths but there were so many people down there and more trying to get back up the ladders that they spent most of the time waiting around.

Mark, Jillian, Trish, Bec and me decide not to wait for the others but ride back to town now. We walk back through the village houses to pick up our bikes then take off for the one hour ride back. I’m so glad I didn’t get a bicycle – Mark and I can really enjoy the scenery along the way. People are working in the fields with a beautiful backdrop of the limestone hills. As we come closer to town I’m glad again that I’m not on a bicycle – very busy but the girls all handle it well.

By the time we have showers and meet Ed in the café on the street, the others are just getting back. Ed has made friends with a little Chinese boy. He’s very smart and very entertaining. After dinner, the four of us and Trish, Bec and Kristy meet Keith in the lobby. Tonight we’re going on a boat to watch the strange Chinese tradition of cormorant fishing. We follow him through the market and down to the river where a small motor boat is waiting. We head upstream for a while then stop while an old man on a bamboo raft pulls up alongside. He has three cormorants on board and uses a strong light to attract the fish to the surface of the water. The birds dive in, catch the fish then disgorge them into a cane basket on the raft. They can’t swallow the fish because of rings around the base of their necks. Apparently they get to eat when the fisherman has enough for himself and his family.

On a pebble beach on the far shore we all get off to get a better look at the birds and we each get to have one perched on our arms. Now it’s back to Yangshou and we take the fish with us to be cooked at a local restaurant. After a big day I don’t stay long but Mark stays up late playing pool with Brad and Keith.

Tuesday 22nd August, 2006      Yangshou (bus) to Guilin (overnight train) to Guangzhou                                                   

After a sleep in we meet Jillian and Ed at 8.30am then walk to Monkey Janes for breakfast. Now in the daylight we see the amazing views that we couldn’t see on our first night here. The sky is a bit   misty today and the humidity high even this early. The sun soon burns off the mist and we have another gorgeous day in this lovely place.

For the rest of the morning we shop in the market to barter for two scarves, two painted boxes, four Chinese dressing gowns and two Chinese figurines. Lunch is in a lovely cool café where the tiniest old lady with a beaming toothless smile comes in with a basket of trinkets for sale. She’s irresistible so I buy a few bits and pieces we don’t even want – she must make a fortune with that face. Afterwards we shop for CD’s and name chops then have a massage for 35 Yuan in a cool dark room off the main street. Our feet are soaked in a wooden bucket filled with rose water followed by an excellent massage.

Now it‘s 1pm and time for our calligraphy lesson. We meet Ed in a small room in an alley near Monkey Janes – Jillian has gone to have her hair washed. The teacher is a nice man and very patient. We’re the only students and Ed is the naughty one – smoking in class. We‘re taught the letters first then whole words – go top to bottom, left to right, inside to outside.

Afterwards Mark picks up the name chops and goes to the bank while I buy two paintings (40 Y), a calligraphy mural (80 Y) and a bronze dragon (210Y). After packing and showers in Jillian and Ed’s room, we all have beers and order burritos in the café on the street. The burritos take forever and we have to eat them on the way to the bus at 5pm.

From Yangshou we drive back to Guilin and see the wonderful scenery that we’d missed out on in the dark two nights ago. We’re dropped at the busy train station where we have an interesting loo experience. A long stainless steel trough runs through all the cubicles which means if you’re downstream you get to eyeball everyone else’s toilet experience and if you’re upstream, they get to ogle your’s – don’t know which is worse.

On the train we’re squeezed into three cubicles with six bunks in each, three on either side. Jillian and Bec bravely take the top bunks (scarily high up) while Trish and I are in the middle with Ed and Mark on the bottom. We all spend hours in the dining car ordering food and beer before retiring for the long night’s journey to Guangzhou.

Wednesday 23rd August, 2006   Guangzhou (ferry) to  Hong Kong                                               

Guangzhou has a population of 6 million and is the third most populous city in China. Once known as Canton, Guangzhou is a busy port on the Pearl River located about 120km north-west of Hong Kong. It’s here where we stop about eight o’clock and transfer to a bus for a half hour drive to the ferry wharf.

The ferry is huge with the top floor almost empty. Ed finds a private room where we can smoke so Mark goes off to talk to the girls downstairs. For the next couple of hours, we head out into the South China Sea and finally pull into Kowloon about midday. Here we board another bus to take us to our guesthouse in Kowloon called Booth Lodge. Mark and I aren’t too impressed with this place mainly because it seems to be too far from the harbour and all the action. We decide to look around for somewhere closer for tomorrow night. But the biggest downside is that the Lodge is run by the Salvation Army which means NO ALCOHOL!

After unpacking, the four of us catch a double decker bus – modern and pristine – to downtown near Victoria Harbour. We find the Chungking Mansions which is an old backpacker institution and where we hope to book rooms for tomorrow. The ground floor is crowded with shops and cafes and people of all nationalities. It’s fantastically interesting but we have to line up for the tiny dodgy lift and the rooms in most of the guesthouses are cramped and also dodgy and the whole thing feels like a fire trap – we’ll look elsewhere.

Now we’re ready for a drink and run into Paddy Murphy’s Bar – a downstairs, dimly lit Irish Bar – cool from the humidity outside and just what we need. Later we look for more accommodation but it’s either extortionately expensive or more fire traps – forget it! Instead we look for somewhere to drink and end up in a fancy Japanese bar with the most gorgeous toilets we’ve ever seen.

We come back to Paddy’s for dinner and drinks with the girls because this is our last night with Gecko and Kristy is leaving later on a flight back to London. A shame to split up after all getting on so well.

Thursday 24th August, 2006       Hong Kong

Today Mark and I decide to check out Hong Kong Island. Another very modern double decker bus takes us down to the Harbour which we cross on one of the famous old Star Ferries. Here we find a bus to take us to the bottom of Victoria Peak where we catch the Peak Tram to the top. After looking at the views we have an expensive lunch in a beautiful old-style restaurant while the rain pours down outside our window.

Back down the hill on the tram we catch a taxi to the main shopping area. We wander around the markets in Hong Kong and ride the longest escalator in the world (a fib – really a series of escalators).

Hong Kong is a world away from the China we’ve seen for the last two weeks. Even though it was a British colony for almost a hundred years, it’s now owned and governed by China so I looked up why it’s so different.

Hong Kong became a crown colony in 1843 and was leased by Britain for 99 years, from1 July 1898 to 30 June 1997. In 1984 Britain and China signed an agreement called the Sino-British Joint Declaration for Hong Kong to become the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of “One Country Two Systems” policy that the socialist economic system in mainland China would not be practised in Hong Kong, and Hong Kong’s previous capitalist system and life-style would remain unchanged for at least 50 years, or until 2047. Hong Kong would enjoy a high degree of autonomy in all matters except diplomatic affairs and national defence. So now we know.

To get back to Kowloon we find the underground train system and are surprised again how modern it all is compared to China. We get off just near our hotel and head back to the room for a rest. At six o’clock we meet Bec, Trish, Ed and Jillian in the foyer then all have dinner together in a nearby restaurant. We’ve heard about the nightly light show on at Victoria Harbour so we catch a bus down to the water. It’s raining again and apparently we’ve missed the show which was on at seven o’clock but we have lots of fun with the girls. They’re leaving in the morning so they have an early night while the four of us wander around Kowloon till we find Ned Kelly’s Bar. The room is packed but we get seats right in front of the jazz band who play Waltzing Matilda for us Aussies. Get very drunk – a taxi home in the rain.

25th August, 2006            Hong Kong

The weather looks better today so Mark and I plan to go back over to Hong Kong Island and get around to the Stanley Market. After breakfast on the balcony outside the dining room, we catch the train over to Hong Kong then a bus for the almost one hour trip to the other side of the island. As usual the bus is big and comfortable and we have great views from our top deck front seats. We cross the hilly interior then drive around the coast road at Repulse Bay to finally get off at Stanley. The sun is out by now and we find a lovely place overlooking the water to have a drink. Lunch is in a cute Italian café on the boardwalk then we wander around the market for an hour before getting a bus back to Hong Kong.

Back at the Lodge Mark and I ask to see someone in the Salvation Army office on the ground floor about donating money to one of their children’s charities. They don’t really have what we want but we ask them about some mentally disabled teenagers we’ve seen the last couple of days getting into a van outside. She tells us to check out Caritas which is in the building next door.

Caritas is a charitable organisation founded by the Catholic Diocese in July 1953. It started with relief and rehabilitation services to the poor after the Second World War and it’s now funded by the Hong Kong government and donations. Over the last few months we’ve put away $200AUD with Julie, Steve, Jillian and Ed to give to a children’s charity in memory of Mark’s mum, Margaret, who died in March. Margaret loved children so we call it The Maggie May Children’s Fund. We have a good feeling about Caritas the minute we meet Carmen, the lady who runs it. She’s a warm young woman who arranges to show us around tomorrow.

Tonight the four of us head back down to the harbour to watch the light show. It starts on time at seven o’clock and it’s all a bit daggy but the weather is warm and clear so it’s all quite wonderful. The harbour looks beautiful with all the buildings on both sides turning different colours in time to the music.

When Hong Kong was handed back to the Chinese at midnight on the 1st July 1997 the last governor, Chris Patten, sailed out of Victoria Harbour on the royal yacht. It must have been an emotional sight.

Afterwards we try to get into the     Hotel but the boys are wearing thongs so they won’t let us into the bar. Only thing left is to go back to the Ned Kelly bar for another night of music and too many drinks.

Saturday 26th August, 2006       Hong Kong (9 hr flight) to Sydney

Our last day in Hong Kong. Today is the best weather we’ve seen since we got here and we’re all happy to see the sunshine. This morning we meet Carmel at Caritas. She shows us around the bedrooms and the print shop where they make cards and pamphlets to help keep the place going then takes us to the dance class. About ten mentally handicapped young people are energetically learning rap dancing by a young local guy. He takes it all seriously and so do the class. They’re having a ball and obviously love showing off for us. After a few dances we take photos and Mark presents Carmel with the money and a certificate that Steve made up with Margaret’s photo on the front. A great experience for us and Margaret would be so proud.

Now we all head off across the main road to a quieter area. We find a gem market set up in an old shed where Mark and I buy fabulous souvenirs for a great bargain compared to the prices at the Stanley Market. Nearby we look into a Chinese temple then find a McDonalds at the bottom of a modern building. McDonalds is always a good find in Asia – guaranteed air-conditioning! While we’re eating, a crazy man runs up to us and screams ‘give me money!’ – scares the life out of us but then he just as quickly runs away.

Now we find a wonderful fruit and vegetable market near small open fronted shops selling live chickens and dead chickens and all parts of chickens. Rows of pig’s heads and pig’s trotters are hanging from hooks on the pavement and seafood shops have beautiful coloured fish for sale. We can even buy dried lizards. This area is next to the Temple Street market and a lot of the stalls are just opening. Jillian and I buy some cheap watches then we all spend an hour in a camera shop. Jillian and Ed buy a video camera and a mobile phone for Tam while Mark and I buy a video camera and an MP4 player each for Lauren and Angie.

At the Lodge Mark and I pack and store our bags in Ed and Jillian’s room then we find a posh hotel nearby for drinks and snacks before catching a taxi out to the airport on Lantau Island. The airport is very impressive and we evn find a bar where we can smoke.

At ten o’clock we board and fly out of Hong Kong for the ten hour trip home.

Sunday 27th August, 2006          Sydney

Land at 8am in Sydney and spend ages getting through customs. Then we wait ages for the idiot Happy Cabby to get his act together before giving up and hiring a car for the four of us to get home.

Cost (per person)

Airfares               $1,254

Gecko trip           $990

Internal flight     $175

Insurance           $91

Total                    $2,510

Money        $1 AUD = 6.13 Y

 

 

 

 

 

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Bali and Nusa Lembongan, Indonesia 2007

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Our Itinerary

Sunday 13th May, 2007         Sydney to Bali (6 hrs flying Jetstar)

Monday 14th May, 2007          Kuta

Tuesday 15th May, 2007          Kuta

Wednesday 16th May, 2007   Kuta to Nusa Lembongan (boat 1.5 hrs)

Thursday 17th May, 2007      Nusa Lembongan to Ubud (boat 1.5hrs, van 2 hrs)

Friday 18th May, 2007           Ubud

Saturday 19th May, 2007      Ubud to Kuta (van 1.5 hrs)

Sunday 20th May, 2007         Kuta

Monday 21st May, 2007         Kuta

Tuesday 22nd May, 2007        Kuta to Melbourne (6hrs flying Jetstar)

Wednesday 23rd May, 2007   Melbourne to Sydney (1.5 hrs Jetstar)           

                  

Sunday 13th May, 2007              Sydney to Bali (6 hours flying Jetstar)

Angie comes over early to spend some time with us before we leave. At Hamilton Station we catch the 11.30am train to Central and as usual I doze most of the way – as always this is the only boring part of our trip. As usual we catch the airport train to the International Airport at Mascot.

After Chinese and O’Porto (yuk) we have a few drinks in the outdoor bar then pass through immigration. Here we buy Lauren an ipod for her car, two bottles of Bacardi and ciggies. The plane is delayed half an hour but we finally take off at 6.15pm.

Thankfully our flight is straight through to Denpasar instead of the dreaded  Melbourne stopover. This means it’s only a six hour flight (made faster with a sleeping pill and a couple of drinks) and we land in beautiful, hot Bali at 10.30pm.

The airport is unusually busy so we spend an hour in the long immigration lines and don’t arrive at Un’s Hotel till nearly midnight. Poor Julie and Steve have been waiting up for us and we’re so excited to see them. They’ve been here a week already and are leaving in two days so we’re going to make the most of our time together.

They found Un’s this morning and it’s wonderful. So lush and so Balinese and in a fantastic area in the back laneways of Kuta. After a few drinks by the pool they head off to bed but Mark and I are too excited and have a couple more drinks and a swim in the beautiful hotel pool. Bed at 2am.

Monday 14th May, 2007                        Kuta, Bali

Neither of us sleep well – Mark has to wear earplugs even if it’s deathly quiet and I’m too wound up. At six o’clock Mark is finally in a sound sleep so I decide to go for a walk. This only makes me more excited – all around is lovely. Later I head back to bed for half an hour but Mark is still sleeping so I hang out around the pool.

Meanwhile Steve has left for a surf at Ulu Watu so at nine o’clock, Julie, Mark and I have breakfast together in the hotel restaurant. This is an upstairs place, open on two sides – one that looks over the laneway (good people watching) and the other over the entrance to Un’s and the family compound next door. This is the best aspect – very tropical with a carved stone archway, a tiny Balinese gatehouse and a spirit house over the fence. Meanwhile Balinese music is playing somewhere making us almost burst with happiness.

After breakfast the three of us hang around the pool until Steve comes back about 9.30am. He said the surf was so rough he wasn’t even able to get out. Now because Julie and Steve already have a bike, Mark goes off to find one for us then he and Steve fill up at the ‘petrol station’ in front of Uns – six old cordial bottles on a metal rack and a plastic funnel (10,000Rp a litre).

Now we all set off for the beach with Steve’s board strapped to the side of their bike. We drive along Jalan Bensari on the outside wall of Uns then past a few smaller basic  guesthouses parallel to the beach road. Here we turn right and head for Legian Beach, only half a kilometer away.

At the corner of Jalan Melasti we continue on along a narrow road that leads to a small car park. Here we leave the bikes and walk down to the sand where we’re swamped with beach ladies and men wanting to rent us surfboards, chairs, umbrellas, a massage, manicure, pedicure, buy t-shirts, sarongs, etc, etc.

Mark hires a heavy old board and he and Steve go in for a surf while Julie and I hire beach chairs and umbrellas and have the whole massage/manicure/pedicure thing. Not so pleasant as we’re continually hassled by Rudy, Jerry and Harry to buy watches and sunglasses. If we buy from one of them then the other one sulks and stares at you till you buy something from them too – a good ploy because they know we want them to go away.

While all this is going on, I didn’t see Mark nearly drown saving a Balinese guy who’d gone in to ‘save’ Mark. Apparently Mark’s leg rope had broken so the Balo guy goes out to help him but then they both get caught in a rip and two more Balo guys go out to save them – a comedy of errors happening here. Anyway, they all nearly drown and Mark ends up dragging one of the poor guys up onto the beach where he collapses and throws up on the sand. To top it all off, he then wants Mark to give him a tip because he’d saved Mark’s life!

After our not-so-pleasant beach experience, we ride back to Uns then, as it’s one o’clock by now, we look for a café for lunch. We find a simple place not far along the alleyway and sit outside for food and Bintangs. At 4pm Mark and Steve go off on the bikes with their boards for a surf at Kuta reef while Julie and I walk down to Legian to the leather shops.

Lauren had been to Bali a few months ago and she’d some great stuff made at French Leather in Jalan Sahadewa by a friendly guy called Ivan. We find it easy enough and I order a black leather jacket each for Angie and Lauren ($100AUD each) and red leather boots for Angie ($60AUD). On the way back to the hotel we stop for a Caprioska each – lime, vodka crushed ice and soda water – the best drink ever!

It’s after dark when the boys get back and we’re really starting to worry. We later find out that Mark’s bike had run out of gas so he had to get a local guy to drive him somewhere to get petrol. Meanwhile Steve had lost Mark and was driving around looking for him. No problem in the end.

Now we jump back on the bikes and set off for the Kuta night market on the other side of town. This is so, so fabulous riding along the busy Jalan Legian which has heaps of people shopping and in cafes and the road packed with motorbikes and bemos.

But it takes a while to find the night market because we drive straight past it.  Last time Mark and I were here we’d found a fabulous local place with fresh cheap food and stacks of atmosphere. I don’t know what happened but it must have become popular for some reason (maybe mentioned in Lonely Planet) and now it’s all new and shiny AND touristy.

Anyway we have a great seafood meal sitting outside then ride back to Uns to leave the bikes so we can all have a few drinks. At a trendy café in our alleyway, we get stuck into the Caprioskas and end up very drunk – doing childish things like taking photos of ourselves with Pippetta up our nose and having swimming races at midnight back at the hotel – very noisy and Mark nude – alright!

Tuesday 15th May, 2007Kuta, Bali

Breakfast is Julie, Mark and I (or is it ‘me’) again upstairs at Uns. Steve has gone for a surf as this is their last morning – flying out at midnight tonight. When Steve gets back we all ride down to the leather shop at Legian then drive on to Seminyak. We stop in a big area next to the beach and I attempt to ride the bike on my own – very pathetic with lots of squealing and near misses – I’m scared to turn because I think the bike will fall over.

At the posh hotel next door we all order cakes and pizza before checking out the local temple. On the way back to Kuta we stop at a fabric shop for Julie and I to buy woven table runners.

Instead of going straight to Uns, Mark and I set off  for a ride through Poppies II and then onto Poppies I – it’s very exciting to be back in these old familiar alleyways.

But because of all the one way streets in Kuta it takes us ages to get back to Jalan Benasari where we decide to have a massage while Julie and Steve pack. We find a small place run by two sisters, Darmi and Suka. I have a manicure and pedicure (yes, another one) while Mark has a massage and a foot scrubbing. We also tell them that we want to go to Sanur in the morning so Suka arranges for her husband, Nyoman, to pick us up at seven o’clock at Uns.

The ladies are very sweet and we ask them if they’d like some clothes. We’d filled one of our backpacks with clothes from home to give to someone we liked here in Bali. They’re super excited and can’t wait for us to bring them from the hotel. They dive into the big bags and we’re really glad we made the effort. They love Mum’s tops the best and later, at the café across the road, they proudly turn up to show us what they look like.

On dark Mark and I set off on the bikes again with Julie and Steve for the southern end of Kuta Beach. Being down in this area at this time of day is always one of the things we love most about coming to Bali.

As usual at sunset, the Balinese are out in force and the beach is busy with families and tourists and lots of hawkers and massage ladies. The ladies are so much fun and because it’s her last night, Julie buys up big with presents to take home. We all have drinks brought to us while we sit on plastic chairs on the sand and watch the sunset.

Riding back to Uns along the beach road makes us very happy and we’ll definitely be coming back down here when we return from Ubud next week. After all having enchiladas together, we say a sad goodbye to Julie and Steve as they leave for the airport – wish they were staying and we feel a bit friendless at first.

We soon drown our sorrows with a couple of Bintangs at a new place we find up the alleyway then get to bed about nine o’clock. Very excited to be going to Nusa Lembongan tomorrow.

Wednesday 16th May, 2007      Kuta, Bali to Nusa Lembongan (boat 1.5 hrs)

An early start this morning. Early starts are always the best, especially when it means we moving on to a new adventure. As always the weather is perfect at this time of day in Bali – clear blue skies and warm but not yet too humid.

At 6.30am we wait for Nyoman just outside the stone gate sitting on our packs under overhanging palms. He soon arrives, all smiles and very colourful in his pink tropical print shirt. He and Mark throw our packs into the van and off we go to Sanur.

Sanur is on the opposite side of the peninsular to Kuta on the east coast of Bali and where the ferry leaves for the island of Nusa Lembongan. The streets are relatively quiet at this time of morning and we’re soon out of Kuta and on the main road heading east.

The road is lined with furniture builders which do most of their business exporting overseas. In less than half an hour we start to see hotels and cafes and shops as we reach the outskirts of Sanur. Turning right towards the water we finally pull up at the end of a long tree-lined street.

This is wonderful! Lots of activity with local people being dropped off loaded down with food and even baskets of live chickens that they’ll take on the ferry to Nusa Lembongan.

A few sun-filled cafes with open sides face the ocean near the ticket office which is just a tiny wooden shed. Nyoman carries our bags to one of the cafes where I order breakfast while he and Mark buy our tickets for the public ferry.

To get to Nusa Lembongan we could either catch the tourist speed boat or one of the huge tourist day-trip boats or the public ferry. Obviously we’ve opted for the public ferry which will take longer but lots more fun and cheap as well – only 50,000Rp each (about $AUD8).

While we wait for the 8am ferry we make plans with Nyoman to pick us up here tomorrow morning to take us straight to Ubud. He’s very happy with the extra work.

Now it’s time to board the ferry which is anchored close to the shore a little further down the beach. The ferry isn’t very big at all – just a small outrigger that will hold about thirty people at best – well we wanted to do it the local way instead of doing the tourist thing – just hope it’s safe.

We walk past market stalls and food carts congested along a footpath right on the sand. It’s a busy, vibrant atmosphere with many local men eagerly helping people get on and off the ferry.

With no pier, we have to time our dash for the boat as the waves are sucked back into the sea. Ready hands are waiting to pull each of us on board while others wade out with our packs on their heads. Mark and I make it onto the boat without getting too wet and find a space on a wooden bench near the front.

In the water next to us are a group of Japanese men bobbing around in the water and having a marvelous time. They’re all laughing loudly and pointing to a strange western man trying to get on to our ferry. He’s a sort of Mr Bean/absent minded professor eccentric with lily white skin and skinny legs that he’s now showing off as he pulls up his trouser legs to keep from getting wet. He makes four attempts for the boat and is getting more frustrated and angry by the second. He finally has a mini tantrum on the beach until he finally makes it.

Everyone else on the ferry is local except for an Australian father and son who are off to Nusa Lembongan to surf. Only about thirty people can squash on to the boat and we’re just about full now. For the next one and a half hours we check out the other passengers and look out across the water towards Bali and Nusa Lembongan. A short patch in the middle is a bit rough but the seas quickly calm again as we see the dark outline of land in the distance. The trip is really enjoyable on lots of levels – love its simplicity and being amongst the local people.

As we approach Jungat Batu Beach we pass two ugly big pontoons where the tourist boats from Bali pull into every day. Each one has two levels of lounging and dining areas and even water slides – probably good fo r families but not for us.

We like the look of Nusa Lembongan already – less commercialized than we expected – except for those horrible pontoons. Again there’s no pier and we have to jump off as the waves are sucked back out. A group of locals are here to meet relatives and some to pounce on any tourists like us.

I’d picked out a place from the Lonely Planet but we decide to let a couple of young guys show us another place just along the beach. They run off to find some transport while Mark and I wait in the shade of coconut trees on the edge of the village. Besides the thatched village houses, every inch of ground is covered with seaweed laid out to dry in the sun. Seaweed farming is Nusa Lembongan’s main industry with tourism coming a poor second. Mark is soon surrounded by a group of little girls and boys who all want to be in the video.

Soon the guys who’d met us at the boat arrive on motorbikes and we’re soon speeding off to Ketut’s Place. We drive along a narrow paved road with basic homestays on our left and forests of coconut palms on our right. It’s a lovely free feeling and we know we’ll like it here a lot. Arriving at Ketut’s Place in minutes, we’re shown to a wonderful upstairs bungalow right on the beach.

This is truly picture postcard stuff – our view is white sand, clear blue water, fishing boats, surf out on the reef and the Two Thousand Café set up under the trees below us. Our room is reached by ladder-like stairs and we have a big balcony overlooking the water and a smaller one overlooking the gardens. Inside is lined with golden woven rattan with a king-sized bed and a beautiful tiled bathroom. This is probably the prettiest place we’ve ever stayed in.

While we wait for our room to be ready we have lime sodas and chicken satay skewers at the Two Thousand café on the sand. After settling in we walk along the beach to the Baruna Café for a beer then hire a bike to explore the island on our own. All very casual here so no helmets available. We head away from the where the boat dropped us off and end up on tiny overgrown tracks that lead down to the beach. The main strip of road gradually ends up not much more than a track itself. We follow it along the northern coast through seaweed fishing villages built out over the water. All work seems to revolve around seaweed – farming, stringing, raking and laying out to dry.  We finally run out of road and stop for a snack at the tiniest of cafes while I have a dip in the shallow warm water next to our table. While we wait for our spring rolls (one huge one) and Bintangs we look around the village and watch nets being repaired then some cats and a tiny caged monkey keep me amused – they all hate me!

From here we drive back to Jungat Batu Beach, through the small township, up the hill behind and back down to the water. There doesn’t seem to be a great deal to do or see so we head back to Ketut’s Place. After a rest I have a massage with a local lady called Wayan down on the sand below our bungalow while Mark drinks beer and watches the afternoon spectacle on the water. Every day at low tide the place comes alive. Hundreds (lots anyway) of people are seaweed farming using hand propelled boats. They drag the seaweed into the boat then load it into baskets on the shore. After my massage I wander down to take some close-up shots.

At seven o’clock we walk down the beach to some of the cafes – a bit of an obstacle course in the dark dodging anchors sticking up out of the sand and trying to avoid being garroted by ropes tying up the boats in the water. Our first stop is the Scooby Doo Bar for drinks and a pizza then another cafe where we sit on stools at the bar to watch surfing movies – the only entertainment here on Nusa Lembongan. Before bed at 10pm we have another drink at the Two Thousand Café – have to be up fairly early again.

Thursday 17th May, 2007   Nusa Lembongan to Ubud, Bali (boat 1.5 hrs, van 2 hrs)

Mark sets the alarm for seven o’clock so we can pack and have breakfast at Two Thousand Café in time for the eight o’clock ferry back to Bali. Walking along the beach to the pick-up spot we wait around with the locals and a couple of surfers. Again we have to time the waves as we make a dash to dive onto the back of the ferry while we’re watched by lots of onlookers – maybe not much to do here except laugh at the tourists.

Soon we’re off but then pull into another place down a bit further to pick up more locals and even a motor bike. This would have been weird yesterday but today’s boat (another outrigger) is even smaller. And because it’s smaller, we’re glad that the water is especially calm and we can enjoy the ninety minutes back to Sanur without fear of drowning.

Even though it had been calm out on the ocean, the waves in shore are bigger today and most people get drenched leaving the ferry. One man piggy backs me and Mark manages to keep our bags dry by carrying them in one-by-one on his head. Nyoman is waiting for us on the sand to take us up to Ubud and he’s obviously very excited to see us – it will mean a whole day’s pay for him. He carries my pack and we all walk past the market stalls then I duck into a posh hotel to use the loo.

The atmosphere here is as exciting as yesterday but we want to start heading up north into the Gianyar district. This is the cultural heart of Bali encompassing the villages of Celuk, Batubulan, Mas, Sukuwati, Ubud and lots more. It’s here too that we’ll find the temples of Titra Empul, Gunung Kawi and Goa Gajah that we plan to visit in the next couple of days. There are lots of places to see along the way and even though we’ve done this so many times we still stop at Celuk at a silver maker’s workshop. We watch a demonstration – I think we could do it ourselves by now – and I buy a chain for my ohm ($35 AUD). At Mas we stop at a painters’ workshop – this place is so beautiful and I spend the time looking at the architecture rather than the artwork. Anyway, it’s not the true Balinese style of painting which is very intricate and lovely. Rather it’s the new big canvas, brightly coloured stuff that’s being reproduced all over Asia.

Not far from here Nyoman takes us to a temple where we hire plain blue sarongs from an old man sitting in a bale across the road. What’s a bale? Bales are thatched roof, open-sided Balinese meeting houses that are big enough to hold village ceremonies and banquets but nothing much is happening here today.

The town of Gianyar itself is a small administrative town and Nyoman stops on the outskirts where we have lunch in an open-sided restaurant overlooking a deep tropical ravine. We order salad, spring rolls and mixed sate and rice – all good as usual.

Now we bypass Ubud where we’ll be staying tonight as we want to visit the thousand year old temple of Tirta Empul near the village of Tampaksiring. We’ve been here several times before as well but it’s always an amazing experience. Today there are lots of people, as is usual, as Balinese worshippers bathe in the sacred pool in the first courtyard and line up to wash from the cold spring water gushing from spouts in the wall. Other worshippers give offerings of flowers and fruit and burn incense in the next courtyard. There is so much colour with the people in ceremonial dress while all around is lush and green. To get back to the van we walk through the maze of market stalls but don’t stop to buy.

Also in Tampaksiring but heading back towards Ubud we stop to visit the 11th century shrines of Gunung Kawi. After parking near some market stalls we stop at the top of hundreds (millions, maybe) of stone steps where we hire sarongs and pink temple sashes to wear arou nd our waists as this is a religious place. The three hundred steps lead down a pretty hillside surrounded by farmers working in their rice paddies while the path is dotted with market stalls (surprise, surprise). At the bottom is the pretty Pakrisan River and some thatched pavilions. But the best are the rock carvings – 10 huge rock-cut candi (shrines) carved into the cliff face. Not totally read up on their significance but they look very impressive.

By this time we’re ready to get to Ubud and find somewhere to stay. We arrive about three o’clock and stop at a money changer (monkey changer, as Nyoman calls them) then he drops us off in the busy section of Monkey Forest Road. We try the Ubud Bungalows where Julie and Steve had stayed a few days ago and luckily they have a spare bungalow right next to the pool for 250,000Rp. This is a pretty place – very Balinese architecture, our own tiled terrace with a table and chairs and a big bedroom and bathroom. Inside is quite dark but we like the moody atmosphere it creates.

After a quick unpack we head for the cafes. There are so many to choose from along this strip and we decide to try a few. The first is a trendy place with goldfish ponds and low tables so we order a Bintang each lying on cushions next to the pond with rain sprinkling outside. Never mind a bit of rain when it’s still hot and it just looks like the usual afternoon shower that they have up here in the mountains anyway – the reason it’s so green, of course.

Further along is the gorgeous Wayan Café – a bit more upmarket but stunningly beautiful with little pagolas set amongst the thick gardens. Here too you can choose to sit on cushions so we have our prawn rolls and Bintangs lying around on the bamboo floor. Walking back to our room we meet a man on the street who’s selling tickets to a Kecak dance to be held tonight. We’ve seen the Legong and Barong dances so this is exactly the one we wanted to see. We also find a shop to buy wh ite water rafting tickets for Saturday. I’m not really sure I’ll like rafting but I want to do it because Lauren has done it twice and she wants us to experience it as well. The shop is a lovely place lined with carved dark wood and selling expensive weavings that we bought for a song from Sideman village where they’re made. It was just a few months after the first Bali bombing in 2002 and there was barely a tourist in sight. Everything was so cheap and we bought up big – never get an opportunity like that again.

At six o’clock, after a swim and a drink on our verandah we set out for the night. On Monkey Forest Road we hire a motor bike for two days from a guy called Made who’s hanging around near our guesthouse. We decide to find where the Kecak dance is being held first then have dinner in one of the small cafes in a quiet area overlooking the football field. There’s a few really interesting little places along here but we can’t stay long as the dance starts at seven o’clock.

Like all the dances here in Ubud the Kecak dance is held outside but with a central fire and chairs for the audience set up in a big circle. The dance itself is one of the most famous of the Balinese dances. There’s no music except for the voices of the ‘monkey’ chorus. This is a troupe of one hundred bare-chested men chanting “chak-achak-achak” who sit and sway in circles around the fire. It’s great to watch but we’re totally clueless as to what it’s all about and we’re glad when the finale happens. This involves a lot of fire kicking and running through the fire with bare feet – excellent!

Now we drive around the streets of Ubud checking out the night life (there’s none) and getting our bearings. This is really one of our favourite things in the world – driving around together in the warm night air anywhere in Asia – magic!

Friday 18th May, 2007  Ubud, Bali

Today will be a rest day. We’re staying here in Ubud again but we want to stay somewhere different tonight. Ubud Bungalows are lovely but we want something a bit more rustic. We’ll look later but first we have a swim then breakfast in the hotel café. This is set up on a verandah further down the hill and where we chat with a nice American couple. She’s a jewellery designer and comes here twice a year to get her designs made up then sells them back home in the States.

After breakfast at 8am, we walk up to Ubud Pasar to check out the local food market before it turns into the art market and when the busloads of tourists come from the coast. There are no tourists here at all so we see the true local life. So many wonderful things are for sale and we especially love the colourful fruit and vegetable section. Downstairs is the meat section which isn’t really for the faint-hearted – some bits of animals I really just don’t want to know about.

Now for one of my favourite places in Bali – the Sacred Monkey Forest of Padangtegal. This is just down the bottom of Monkey Forest Road (hence the name, stupid) so a quick bike ride and we’re at the entrance. Even this is beautiful (lots of ‘beautifuls’, I know, but it just is). The forest is sacred because it surrounds a number of temples and is essential to providing harmony between the cosmos, nature and man – so the guide book says. The Forest is thick with vines and banyan trees and the home to hundreds of long-tailed macaques who the Balinese love on one hand because they see them as guardians of the temple, but hate on the other hand because they pinch their crops and anything else they can get their naughty little hands on.

This goes for tourists especially and the monkeys are forever lying in wait – even at the entrance. You need eyes in the back of your head and keep everything locked away in your bag and even hang on tight to your camera. While I sit watching a mother monkey with a baby, another very clever one is gently undoing the zipper of my pocket to sneak whatever I’ve got inside. Mark feeds some a few bananas that we bought at the gate then we watch as one of the rangers opens a cage of potatoes and throws a few around. He forgets to lock it and no sooner has he gone than they’re all in there stealing the lot.

The loveliest part of this jungle sanctuary is the bathing pool within the Holy Bathing Temple. Down a long mossy staircase, a path leads straight through the trunk of a huge banyan tree then across a small creek way down below to the Holy Bathing Temple. This is the most spiritual of places and I’d love to sit here all day. But of course that’s not going to happen. As usual I’ve got a long list of things we want to see today and we need to change guesthouses, so we push on.

Heading back up Monkey Forest Road we check out a couple of places – Rajas Place doesn’t look too appealing but then we find Sania’s House. This is just down a back laneway from the market and is so Balinese I could die. It’s built at the rear of a family compound set in a garden thick with flowers and trees. To get to the rooms we walk past Sania and her daughters sitting cross-legged in a raised pavilion making temple leis of red and yellow hibiscus and chopping up food for lunch. There’s a small pretty swimming pool with a fountain and the rooms are either in small bungalows or in a couple of gorgeous three storey buildings elaborately decorated with carved doorways and stonework.

We book a room on the spot then drive back to Ubud Bungalows to get our packs. Mark ferries them around to Sania’s then comes back to get me. After settling in with a complementary pot of tea, we walk back up to the market where Mark buys a couple of t-shirts, wooden plates and mother of pearl knives. For lunch we find a very basic Muslim cafe in our laneway and order ayum sate – no one can speak English because this isn’t a tourist place – this also means it’s incredibly cheap.

Back on the bike again, we fill up with petrol then head out of town for six kilometers to the village of Bedulu. We’re here to visit Goa Gajah better known as the Elephant Cave – a mix of Hinduism and Buddhism and dating back to the 11th century. We came here over ten years ago with Angie and Lauren so it’s time we made another visit. We park the bike in the carpark then walk through the market (always have to walk through an art market to get to anything). From here we follow a long winding staircase down to the two traditional bathing pools and the cave itself. Here we pick up a guide called Ketut who gives us a sarong each to wear inside the cave as it’s a religious site. The mouth of the cave is actually the open mouth of a demon carved into the rock face and inside we sit inside meditation chambers dug out of the walls.

Outside again, Ketut takes us to watch an old lady grinding rice the traditional way (‘money please’) then Mark has a go as well. We walk through vibrant green rice paddies surrounded by towering trees thick with vines then down to a lovely area we never knew existed. Here are the remains of a Buddhist temple and Ketut shows us a huge stone carved head that had fallen during an earthquake that virtually destroyed the whole place. It lay hidden by the jungle for centuries until a team of Dutch archeologists came across it in 1923.

Back on the bike we take off for Yeh Pulu village where we’ve heard about some ancient rock carvings. The village is traditional Balinese but not as lovely as some we’ve seen. At the top of the staircase that leads to the carvings, we stop for a drink at a tiny basic café where we have an interesting chat with a couple of French artists.

Mark then has to hire a sarong before we walk down past rice terraces where people are working and groups of ducks are paddling around in the flooded paddies. At the bottom we almost walk past the carvings – I think because we were expecting them to be as big as the ones at Gunung Kawi. Anyway they’re very nice and in a nice setting but the best bit is the tiny caretaker who welcomes us with a huge wrinkled smile and frangipanis in her hair. She blesses us with water out of a teapot before posing for photos like a pro – then ‘money please’.

Enough sightseeing for one day so we head back to Ubud in search of alcohol. Ubud is packed with cafes and restaurants but barely a bar in sight. We even drive up to Hotel Champuen but the only place resembling a bar is just down the laneway from Sania’s Place. After too many drinks and some extra hot salsa and chips we both have a one hour massage at a place next door. At 40,000Rp, it’s much more expensive up here than on the coast. Anyway, no problem and the massage is good as usual and we can hear a gamelan band playing across the road – lovely.

Dinner is in a beautiful and expensive restaurant on Monkey Forest Road then pineapple juices at a cute café nearby. An early night.

Saturday 19th May, 2007    Ubud, Bali to Kuta, Bali (van 1.5 hrs)

This morning we’re up at 7.30am to get ready for our white water rafting adventure – am I really doing this? Breakfast is brought to us on our little verandah and Mark has a quick swim. We pack and load our gear into a van in the laneway as we’ll be going straight from the river back to Kuta. Our driver is Wayan and our two other companions are Usunta, a Polish born Canadian, and her daughter Joanna. We hit it off from the beginning and talk all the way to the Ayung River.

We stop at the top of a long staircase and get fitted into our rafting gear – life jackets and helmets. It’s nice here with a house and chickens scratching around. I say to Mark, ‘look at those chickens fighting!’. He says, ‘they’re not fighting (stupid)’.

Now we follow our raft guide, Wayan, down the hundreds of steps that lead to the river deep within a narrow gorge. The water looks a bit rougher than I’d expected but this isn’t the wet season so it should be okay. At the bottom we scramble into the rubber boat while Wayan gives us the lowdown on how to paddle – ‘forward’, ‘back’, ‘hold on’ and ‘boom’. For the next two hours we float down the river – nothing dangerous and quite beautiful really. We get soaked under a couple of waterfalls then get out at a really pretty spot for a swim. Floating though a steep sided canyon is so lovely with ancient rock carvings almost hidden by moss and greenery. The water is so tranquil here and I can honestly feel the wonderful history and vibes of this place. A bit further along the magic is broken when we see a lady having a dump and then get into a friendly water fight with some other rafters.

Gradually we start to see a few bungalows and jump out before climbing hundreds of steps to a restaurant at the top of the cliff. Our packs have been driven here so after changing into dry clothes we have a lovely buffet lunch sitting with Joanna and Usunta – corn soup, nasi goring, mie goring, chicken, pork and fruit. They’re going back to Ubud so Mark and I share our van with an Australian family – daggy but nice

We get dropped off at Kuta Puri Bungalows but it’s too expensive so we have a drink at the Treehouse to cool down, then book into Sorga Cottages in Sorga Lane. Mark hires a motor bike the we have a massage in a little place nearby.

Later we have dinner and happy hour cocktails (AUD $2 each) at the Secret Garden and watch first half of the FA Cup. At half time we drive back to Sorga and meet an odd couple called May and we don’t know – she never bothered to introduce him. He’s a lot younger than her and she seems to ignore him. May is about eighty, has her long grey hair in Balinese plaits and wears a g-string bikini – whatever!

Sunday 20th May, 2007    Kuta, Bali

Today we haven’t got anything planned – just want to hang around Kuta. Of course, there is brilliant sunshine, endless blue sky and heat. After breakfast at Sorga next to the pool, we have a swim and lay around reading in deck chairs. This morning May is wearing a g-string bottom and is topless! Later we drive down to the Discovery – a huge and hideous department store down near Tuban. Too awful so we head back to the Kuta Art Market to buy 170 DVD’S for Angie and Lauren – so cheap at 80 cents Australian but most of them probably won’t work.

Ready now for a sunset drink on the beach. We ride down to a spot just near the Art Market and find a beach ‘bar’ – just an esky and some plastic chairs. Here we talk to Linda, a pretty woman selling hair clips, Suzy Cola and Sexy Hot Dog. I recognise Sexy Hot Dog from many years ago when we brought Angie and Lauren with us.

I ask her if she used to be called Crazy Hot Dog and she says, ‘yes, and next time you come I be Sexy Hot Dog Big Pussy’ – hilarious! She wants to give me six sarongs to spend the night with Mark. He says, ‘I no good – small banana’. She says, ‘no problem – I make it grow’. He says, ‘I no good – finish too fast’. She says, ‘No problem – I give you Viagra’. I tell her, ‘he’s very young’ and she says, ‘I know, that why I love him’. By now I’m beside myself laughing and then crack up again when she tries to sell me some tops. I say, ‘I wouldn’t wear them’ and she replies, ‘not for you, sexy bum, for your daughters’. By the time we leave, I’ve had a manicure, a pedicure, a neck massage, bought sarongs and paid too much for everything – all worth it for such a great time with the girls.

Riding back up along the very busy beach road to Poppies 1, we share pizza and chicken sate with happy hour margaritas and bintangs at Agungs Bar. This is an outdoors place near the Secret Garden and another great find. We watch the French Moto GP on the tele above the bar and chat with the locals. Bed at 9.30pm.

Monday 21st May, 2007                 Kuta, Bali

Another day hanging around. After breakfast at Sorga we ride to the leather shop at Legian but have to wait an hour for Ivan’s brother to bring the stuff on a motorbike from Denpasar. To pass the time we have a drink (stinking hot already) and sate chicken at a café across the laneway and buy a heap of CD’s from a guy walking past. In the shops near French Leather we also buy runners, board shorts, walking shorts for Mark and lots of sunglasses for Angie and Lauren.

The leather gear soon arrives and I’m thrilled with it – can’t wait to give it to the girls. Dumping it all back at Sorga we have a massage and pedicure at Dewi Dewa Salon then hang around the pool. Later we ride down to the Matahari department store to buy cheap makeup, a bag each for the girls, a silver ohm ring and tattoo stockings.

About five o’clock we head back down to the beach to hang out with the girls again. This time we also have Wendy and Julie who give me a foot scraping and sell us board shorts and junky jewellery. Sexy Hot Dog is here again and again she has me in stitches. Tonight she’s calling herself Sexy Hot Dog Bloody Big Bum and when we have a photo taken together she points to herself and says ‘look like monkey’. That made me a bit sad.

Before going back to Sorga we have a fun night at Brasil Café in Jalan Bensari drinking cheap cocktails and beers.

Tuesday 22nd May, 2007      Kuta, Bali  to Melbourne (6hrs flying Jetstar)

Our last day in Bali. We’re leaving at midnight tonight so we plan to just do some last minute packing and shopping. That’s until I see a pamphlet in the foyer about a ngaben or a cremation ceremony that’s taking place today. We’ve always wanted to attend a Balinese funeral so this is perfect. A quick phone call by the man at the desk and we’re booked in.

At ten o’clock we’re picked up in a bemo already full of tourists from other hotels around the place. Luckily we’re the last to get picked up so we head straight for Denpasar. The funeral is being held in a village just outside the capital and we’re there in forty minutes. The street has been blocked off and lots of people wearing colourful temple dress are sitting outside the lady’s house. Both men and women wear a batik cloth called a kamben wrapped around the waist. The women also wear a long-sleeved, lacy blouse called a kebaya while the men wear an udeng which is a headdress symbolic of Hindu gods like Siwa and Brahma.

We follow our guide inside the family compound where relatives are sitting together on the floor and the woman’s body, wrapped in a beautiful cloth of red and orange, lies high up on a little altar just a metre from us. It seems macabre to be here but for the Balinese this is a joyous occasion and they welcome anyone who wants to come. We can even take photos!

Back outside we watch the gamelan band getting ready to start banging away while the body is carried out and placed in a tall multi-tiered bamboo tower decorated with flowers, coloured paper, tinsel, silk, mirrors and a photo of the deceased lady. The body is sticking out of the top tier and looks like it could just fall out. About fifty men lift the bamboo frame holding the tower onto their shoulders and the procession to the cremation ground sets off. It’s led by lines of ladies carrying offerings on their heads followed by the band and then the body. It’s incredibly beautiful and colourful and nothing like the sad black funerals at home.

The lady who died must have been of some importance because of the size of the funeral and because she’s the only one being cremated. It’s tough for the poor people who have to bury their dead and then dig them up again when they’ve saved up for a funeral or to have a sort of multi-funeral with multi-bodies – very bizarre!

On the way to the cemetery the tower is turned several times – no easy feat. Turning the body around is to sort of confuse the soul so it doesn’t know where to come back to and can be set free. Setting the soul free is the whole idea of the cremation itself – the bodies of the dead must be cremated so that the soul can break from earthly ties through burning and go off to Hindu heaven.

We follow the procession to the cemetery. This is shaded by massive banyan trees and lots of tables have been set up heavy with food and offerings for after the cremation. The body is taken from the tower, which is then pulled to bits, and placed on a low platform. We can’t see what’s going on because everyone has crowded around but I guess there are blessings and the like. Soon though the body is set on fire and everyone starts digging into the food – more bizarre! Apparently it will take a few hours to be reduced to ashes which will be poured into the water by the family late this afternoon on the beach at Sanur.

Soon we’re back in the bemo headed for Kuta. The only problem is that because we were the last to get picked up, we’ll now be the last to get dropped off. This would be okay except that we have to drop off a bunch of losers staying at Nusa Dua – a one hour detour which is eating into our precious last afternoon. I guess the good thing is that we get to see some of the huge resorts that this area is renowned for – very beautiful but look as boring as hell.

At last we’re back at Sorga – have a swim, finish packing and walk around to Poppies I for our last dinner and drinks. Always feel down on our last night in Bali and feel very jealous of people just arriving – we could stay here forever. As we walk back to Sania’s to meet our lift to the airport we both actually get a bit teary. The air is warm and still and we can hear geckos and frogs coming out of the darkness. Bali is one very special place.

Wednesday 23rd May, 2007    Melbourne to Sydney (1.5 hrs flying Jetstar)

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