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

 

 

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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Vietnam 2001

Tuesday    6th February, 2001      Hanoi

Our first impression of Vietnam is not great – a dull, misty, grey afternoon and only about twenty degrees. And passing through immigration is painstaking. We see David get off the plane and try to dodge him but he spies us and tries to bum a lift into town. He knows we’ve got transfers into Hanoi and we wouldn’t mind giving him a lift but then we don’t want to get stuck with him after that. Luckily our driver is a bit late and David ends up going with some other poor suckers – they’ll be wishing they had earplugs by the time they get there.

Our transfer is a red four-wheel drive with tinted windows – no this isn’t supposed to happen! We want adventure not comfort! The forty-minute drive from the airport is along a newly constructed freeway with ugly billboards all along the way. Beneath advertisements for western luxuries are farmers working bare-footed in cold, wet paddy fields. Rice paddies stretch as far as we can see and workers in conical hats are either still in the fields or heading home on bicycles. We’re driving on the right hand side of the road and it takes a while to get used to it. There’s traffic chaos as we come into the city that looks much nicer as we pass through the Old Quarter. It’s dusk by now and lights are twinkling from street stalls and we pass pretty parks and old French architecture. The streets are jammed with people and bicycles and cyclos. The Old Quarter is a maze of narrow streets that are each named after the merchandise they sell. There’s Lace Street, Tin Street, Gold Street, Button Street, Silk Street and more, more, more.

Our van finally turns off into a dark, muddy side street to pull up at the Hotel Hong Ngoc. This is a tiny, elegant French boutique hotel and a lovely surprise. A doorman rushes out to get our bags while Mark jokes with the funny guy on the desk. The foyer has antique looking furniture and mirrors, a marble floor, a carved staircase and potted palms. Our room is on the fourth floor and there’s no lift but we get help to carry them up the eight flights of stairs. Our room is as elegant as the foyer and we love it. Don’t mind foregoing adventure for comfort for a couple of nights when it means staying in an old French hotel which is actually part of Vietnam’s history – sounds like a good excuse anyway. We have a tiled floor and one whole wall consists of French windows which lead out onto our own balcony. There are maroon velvet curtains and white lace curtains, carved furniture, paintings, a writing table, bedside lamps, potted plants as well as a fridge, air-conditioning, a television, a bathroom with a bath and best of all hot water. A hot bath can’t wait and we jump in before we even unpack.

In search of dinner, we take ages to find somewhere to eat. The streets around our hotel are very dark and I feel slightly nervous which isn’t like me. We find a Vietnamese café called Smiling Café on the first floor of an old corner building. Up a set of old, rickety stairs we sit on plastic stools at a tiny table on a balcony overlooking the street. Below is total chaos. There’s no rest from traffic noise as horns blow relentlessly and we feel almost culture shocked after the peace of Laos. As advertised on the sign outside, the food is fast and good. Vegetable soup, chips and an unusual hamburger of four tiny slices of bread topped with minced meat, tomato and cucumber. Saigon Beer is as awful and warm as the beer in India but at least it’s beer.

From here we walk around to the Municipal Water Puppet Theatre on the shore of Lake Hoan Kiem. We’re here for the 9.15pm performance, which only costs us twenty thousand dong or $3AUD.  Along with a large crowd of mainly western tourists, we wait in a large tiled room that smells damp and mouldy. The theatre upstairs is nice and we have good seats. Someone gives us paper fans which also smell of mould so we chuck them away. The performance starts with the band playing truly beautiful music on wooden and bamboo stringed instruments. The single stringed ‘dan bau’ produces a range of haunting notes and is played by a young woman who sings just as perfectly. After a few solos, the water puppets start.

This one thousand-year-old art form consists of wooden puppets operated by puppeteers actually standing waist deep in the water behind bamboo screens. There’s a story behind it and it’s not too hard to follow with lots of funny bits for us non-Vietnamese speakers. The costumes are great and we really enjoy it but are both almost falling asleep by the time it finishes. I still find it a bit threatening as we walk back through the streets but we find an interesting side street where most shops have artists copying photographs and other paintings. Our street takes a bit of finding as we didn’t really pay attention to our bearings when we left. Relieved to finally get to bed after a long day. We watch some television just because we can, then have a good nights sleep in our so, so comfortable bed.

Wednesday        7th February, 2001               Hanoi

Today is wet and cool – not impressed. Mark accepts it as it is but I really am the worst sport when it comes to bad weather. Breakfast is in the cute dining room downstairs at 7.30 and then we’re out into the wet streets in the misty rain. For some reason, it takes ages to get a taxi to stop for us. First time to have trouble getting transport anywhere in Asia – usually beating them off with a stick. When we do finally get a taxi to stop we have trouble explaining in our Aussie accents where we want to go but at last we arrive at Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum.

Here we find some very strange protocol. The first rule is to leave our bags in the ‘Put Bags for Free’ office. Then we’re herded with a group of Vietnamese tourists into a large room full of wooden school-type desks to watch a propaganda film on Ho Chi Minh. Can’t understand a word but there appears to be lots of happy, waving people. Anyway, it works on us and I’m in love within minutes – what a sweetie is Uncle Ho. Next we’re marched two abreast towards the Mausoleum. This is a huge square ‘communist looking’ building if there is such a thing. It’s encased in a blanket of mist which adds to the wonderful, eerie atmosphere of the whole experience. Uniformed honour guards make sure that no-one strays off the path and Mark gets screamed at for getting out of line. Cameras and videos must be left at another small office and then we continue marching. It’s hilarious and we’re having a great time. At the Mausoleum, we must have hands out of pockets and hats off while guards in snowy-white uniforms are standing around inside to make sure no-one goes berserk around Uncle Ho. We solemnly walk around the body which is in a glass case in the centre of a large darkened room. This is wonderful – he just looks asleep and especially handsome.

Outside we tag along with a group of Chinese tourists with a guide. Since we don’t understand a word it’s totally pointless and we go off on our own. A fine mist still hangs in the air and partly obscures the beautiful old French Presidential Palace set amongst the trees. We finally come to a small lake teeming with huge gold fish and fringed with weeping willows. On the bank opposite is Ho Chi Minh’s stilt house where he lived for eleven years from 1958. Not far from here is the One Pillar Pagoda which is a pretty temple sitting in the middle of a pond. Steep stairs lead to the entrance and I’m determined to have a look despite having to fight off a band of Japanese tourists. On, then, to Ho Chi Minh’s Museum which is surprisingly huge, modern and beautiful. Our favourite exhibition has Ho’s words inscribed in a metal plaque: ‘All the People on Earth are Equal. Each People has the Right to Life, Happiness and Liberty. Ho Chi Minh’ – how fantastic!

The rain has eased off now so we hire a cyclo to take us to the Love Planet Café. Margaret, a friend from our India trip, recommended The Love Planet as she’d been here last year and said the service is good. It’s an open-fronted room lined with travel books and a few tiny tables and chairs and a booking desk. We’re greeted by a sweet, smiling girl who offers us a chair and gestures that the other girl, ‘my friend’ as she calls her, will serve us next. She’s also friendly and smiling and speaks good English. Mark books our tickets for the overnight sleeper-train to Hue on Friday night as well as a two-day trip to Halong Bay starting tomorrow. We pay a deposit and it all seems too, too easy.

From here we wander around the Old Quarter and eat at another café-cum-booking office. This area is littered with them and most aren’t cafes at all like the popular Sinh Cafés that operate all through Vietnam. Another cyclo now and we’re in amongst heavy traffic with a herd of motor bikes hurtling towards us. The roads are wet, we’re heading down what seems to be the wrong side of the road and surrounded by all sorts of vehicles – all of which could squash our cyclo like an ant. Cyclos are different to the samlors of Thailand and the cycle-rickshaws of India where the rider pulls the carriage behind him. Vietnamese rickshaw carriages are right out there at the front with the driver pedaling from the back. Probably dangerous as hell but great fun.

We’re on our way to Lake Hoan Kiem and the Ngoc Son Temple. This 18th century temple is situated on an island on the lake and we reach it by crossing a picturesque, arched, red painted bridge. The temple covers most of the tiny island which is surrounded by trees and flowering shrubs. Inside, elaborately carved statues are decorated in vibrant colours, candles are burning everywhere and flashing Christmas-type lights make the whole scene incredibly beautiful. Vietnamese worshippers are burning incense and oils and making offerings of fruit and flowers. Just love watching these Buddhist rituals.

Another cyclo to our hotel so we can ring home. Talk to Mum and Dad and Angie and they all seem okay. Miss them all and feeling very sad for Benny today. Best thing is to keep busy so we hire a taxi to take us to Hoa Sua which is a French/Vietnamese restaurant that takes in and trains street kids to work as cooks or waiters. It’s situated at the back of an old colonial building and is surprisingly up-market. The décor is a perfect mix of Asian and French colonial and so is the food. We’re not hungry enough for a meal so we order a cheese platter from some sweet kids. One young boy is really loves Mark and wants his photo taken with him out the front.

From here we head to the Relax Bar only a few streets away. This place is a scream and we enjoy is so much. It’s set in another lovely old colonial with columns and tall French doors opening onto a tiny balcony surrounded by plants and potted ferns. The two young girls who work here are lounging over the counter and we’re the only customers. The ‘bar’ looks suspiciously not like a bar and we’re even more suspicious when we see what’s on the menu. Besides beers and spirits you can also get all sorts of massages from full body ones to a ‘Face Massage for Anti-Obesity’. Think we’ll pass on the last one and not game to go out back for the full body routine, so we both opt for a ‘Legs Wash’. No idea what this involves but soon the ‘boss lady’ appears and two electric foot vibrators arrive in a car. Next a bucket of hot water is brought in through the front door and we spend the next twenty minutes with our feet dangling in scolding hot water in the electric massagers. Along with our beers we’re proudly presented with free peanuts and mandarins and have a great time with the girls showing them pictures of Angie and Lauren. The girls then give us half-hour foot massages while we drink our Tiger beer. Definitely worth a visit to the Relax Bar.

The rain has stopped and we have a dry cyclo ride back to the Love Planet to pick up our tickets. We dodge bicycles and cyclos and tourists and flower-sellers. Wherever we look we see women in conical hats with two cane baskets bouncing from the ends of a long wooden pole balanced on one shoulder. The baskets can contain anything from vegetables to breadrolls to flowers to garbage. At the Love Planet we’re met by the smiling girl who again gestures us to wait for ‘my friend’ who’s serving a couple of people ahead of us. We tell the smiling girl that we’ll go for a walk and be back in a few minutes.

In the street behind the Love Planet is a market selling flowers and foodstuffs. This includes live chickens whose throats are being cut and the blood drained out of them into a metal bowl. Mark buys me a long stemmed white rose which I love but obviously can’t keep. A young woman is selling disgusting animal entrails and blocks of congealed blood, and she admires my rose. Mark hands it to her and she and all her mates on the other stalls are screaming laughing. The market is amazing but we have to get back to the Love Planet. Here we present ourselves for our sleeper-train tickets but ‘sorry, no ticket’ – ‘why?’ – ‘you not here’ – ‘but we’d paid a twenty dollar deposit’ – ‘sorry, no ticket’ – ‘but we told the other girl we were just going for a walk’….. Apparently the only English words the smiling girl knows are ‘my friend’ and she had no idea what we were talking about. Great, this means we can only get seats and we’ll have to sit up the whole twelve hours to Hue. Oh well, Mark says it’ll be an experience.

After a quick change at the hotel we walk around to the Cyclo Bar for dinner. We’d expected this to be some sort of gimmicky place but it’s surprisingly very high class even though everyone is sitting around in rickshaws. Mood music is playing and the lights are dim and the prices match the expensive décor. We eat a Vietnamese chicken dish, prawn fritters and profiteroles then drink cocktails to round off a posh night. Back to our room then for a hot bath before bed. Tomorrow we head off to Halong Bay.

Thursday   8th February, 2001      Hanoi to Halong Bay

At six o’clock we wake, pack and are downstairs with all our gear in the dining room for breakfast at six thirty. Off then in a taxi to the Love Planet Café where we store one of our bags as we only need a few clothes for the two-day trip. At seven thirty we’re walked around to a main street where a big bus is waiting for our tour group which will be made up of people from lots of small agencies. We’d been given the choice of going in a mini-bus with a small group which is more expensive or with a group of thirty. We’d opted for the cheap trip only to find that there’s only seven of us anyway and we still get to go in the big bus. This is not only big but very fancy with green lace curtains. Mark and I are on first and are very pleased with ourselves for grabbing the front seat opposite the driver. This will give us perfect views of the road ahead through the huge front windscreen. Our happy guide introduces himself as we pull out of the city. His name is Khinh and he’s so keen to please. He speaks English but his accent is so strong it’s still sounds like Vietnamese. We do lots of smiling and nodding even though we can’t make out a word he says.

The road to Halong City is along Highway 5 and very uninspiring. It’s another grey, drizzly day and the scenery for the whole five hours is ugly towns broken up by rice paddies as far as the eye can see. Water buffalo are ploughing paddy fields, most of which contain family burial plots made of huge, cement headstones. Things could be a lot worse than being a bit bored with the scenery as we see conical-hatted people up to their knees in freezing water as they plant the rice. The funniest thing about the trip is that our ‘great’ seats turn out to be a nightmare. Our driver blasts his horn every few seconds and we have bird’s eye views of Vietnamese people ambling all over the road on dodgy bicycles and we see endless near-misses. Young people ride in the middle of the road holding hands as they pedal along next to each other and overladen trucks lie on their sides after tipping over at roundabouts.

After a couple of hours we pull in at a toilet stop-cum-souvenir shop selling hideous souvenirs like polished wooden plaques and lacquered jewelry boxes. Other buses are here as well and we see David from Laos but luckily he’s not going to Cat Ba Island which is our final destination today. He’s with one of the tour groups who stay in Halong City and just do day trips out into the bay. No-one on any bus buys any of the horrible souvenirs and off we go for another three hours of being deafened by our horn-happy driver. Along the route we stop at numerous tollgates to pay for the new road and there’s lots of roadwork as we come into Halong City. The seven of us and Khinh eat at a roadside café for a banquet-style lunch that’s part of the trip price. We get to meet the others: Liz and Tracey from England, Ben and Louis from England and Paul from Australia. He’s a lecturer from UNE and is married to a Vietnamese woman. He’s a total bore but does tell us interesting things about Vietnamese life.

Across from the café is the dock where our boat is waiting to take us on the four-hour trip to Cat Ba Island. I buy a woolen beanie before we board and, besides a blanket we’ve brought with us, it’s the only warm thing we own. The boat is a fabulous big old wooden tub and very spacious inside. There are yellow nylon curtains trimmed with lace at each window and each padded seat is topped with a lace cover – tacky but homey. We all get a padded bench seat each with a low table between facing seats. Mark and the boys spend time out on the front deck and up on the roof but I’m too cold and stay inside talking to the girls. Liz and Tracey are so easy to talk to and tell heaps of funny stories about their travels in India.

Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage listed area in the Gulf of Tonkin that’s dotted with three thousand limestone islands. These jut steeply out of the water and contain thousands of caves. After an hour we pull in at Hang Dau Go which is a huge cave reached by climbing ninety steps that zigzag up the side of one of the islands. We love it here and can’t believe its size. Stalagmites and stalactites are lit up with coloured lights but aren’t too garish. The view from the top is beautiful and we can see how wonderful this area must be on a good day. The clouds have opened and the water below is the turquoise blue that we’ve read about. By the time we get back down to the boat, though, the weather is dull again. Despite the grey skies, Halong Bay is still incredibly impressive and atmospheric with endless tiny islands peeping through the mist that  rises up from the water. By the time we see Cat Ba Island at five-thirty, though, we’ve definitely had enough.

Cat Ba is the largest of Halong Bay’s islands and is inhabited by tiny fishing villages and a row of hideous tourist hotels newly erected along the waterfront. Khinh proudly points to a blue, high-rise monstrosity which is where we’ll spend the night. God knows how safe these things are. They all look like they’re on a lean and ours is no different. Meanwhile, inside the small bay where we’re to dock, we pass hundreds of houseboats and fishing boats and some people have rowed out to meet us. At the pier we grab our packs and follow Khinh to our hotel. Our room is on the second floor with a verandah that looks out over the bay. We have a bathroom with hot water and a television with only one station. This is of a little Asian girl singing and dancing – rivetting stuff. Mark goes for a walk along the waterfront while I get into bed to read and get warm.

After hot showers, we meet the others downstairs for dinner at six thirty. Despite being the only diners we’re all squashed around a tiny table in one corner. It doesn’t even seem to be a dining room but just part of the foyer. No atmosphere which ironically means it’s a great atmosphere. The food is good and then Mark brings down our duty-free Bacardi and Jim Beam which we all get stuck into. Paul doesn’t drink and disappears but the rest of us get very drunk and very loud. We even talk Khinh into downing a few rums. ‘Dewn the hetch’ as he keeps saying and actually tosses back a couple in one gulp.

Don’t remember getting back to our room and manage to sleep heavily.

Friday        9th February, 2001      Halong Bay to Hanoi

Wake to find us encased in a mosquito net – Mark must have been drunk! This morning he’s also feeling badly hungover and sick on the stomach. At breakfast the others are looking just as bad and not looking forward to their trek across the island especially as it’s still raining. Not sure if we’re any better off by heading back to Hanoi today. It means four hours on the boat, five hours on a bus and then twelve hours sitting up on a train tonight. We’ve got to be kidding!

The boat trip is horrid for me but poor Mark is really suffering. He’s able to lie down but there’s not enough room for him to get comfortable and anyway he has to make frequent visits to the loo to be sick. Outside the water and sky are the same dull grey and I’m feeling less than thrilled. I pass the time planning on ways to get home early but I know Mark won’t be in it. At last at the dock at Halong City, I ask about getting a taxi back to Hanoi but it’ll cost the earth so we’ll just have to bus it. We follow the crowd to a restaurant near the bus stop. This is three narrow crowded floors of backpackers and locals all making lots of noise and there’s food and used bowls everywhere including the floor. We add our packs to the wet, mountainous pile near the front door and squash into a seat downstairs. I ask to go to the loo which actually appears to be the owner’s bathroom. Even though we haven’t ordered anything, the food just keeps on coming. Mark can’t stand the smell and I can’t eat it all. We’d escape but we don’t know when the bus leaves and we can’t miss it.

At one o’clock the bus is ready and (great!) we’ve got the same horn-happy driver as yesterday. The bus is packed today and all the Vietnamese passengers seem to have brought everything they own with them. Plastic chairs are set up down the aisle so that we’re five across from window to window and the rain means we can’t open the windows so it’s a stuffy, five-hour drive back to Hanoi. As we reach the outskirts of the city, the traffic is horrendous but we finally reach the Old Quarter about six o’clock. So, so glad to get off this bus. A quick walk around to the Love Planet to pick up our train tickets and our other pack, then find the nearby Kim Café to eat. We like the atmosphere in here but our order comes out wrong twice. From here we walk around to ‘jumper street’, as we call it. It’s cold enough for woolies but there’s nothing we can even force ourselves to buy except for a woolen scarf each. There seems to be the same fashion time warp in Vietnam as in India and we’ll just pray for warmer weather.

A taxi, next, to the railway station where the usual Asian chaos reigns. Train stations are always great places to people watch and Hanoi is the same. Hundreds of people are sitting on the floor inside and we can’t find any English signs. Mark shows a woman in a uniform our tickets and she has us on the train in seconds. The carriage is clean and brightly lit and much more comfortable than we’d expected. The seats are full of Vietnamese passengers and a few backpackers and the aisles are stacked with bags of rice. We get off to buy food at a stall on the platform. Here we make a great find – Choco Pies! These are biscuits with marshmallow on top and all covered with dark chocolate – a chocoholic’s heaven. Back on the train, we’re approached by a tiny man who tells about his new hotel in Hue. The deal is that we get free transport from the station to have a look but no obligation to stay. Fair enough. It’s dark by the time we pull out of Hanoi and, with our seats laying back almost horizontal, we actually go to sleep.

Saturday   10th February, 2001             Hue

Very pleased with the amount of sleep we’ve managed to get. Wide awake at six o’clock and feeling great. Breakfast arrives on a cart and consists of a white doughy ball with a rissole looking thing in the middle.  Mark eats it, of course. I just can’t stomach it at this time of day but manage to scoff down a few Choco Pies instead. Disappointed to see that it’s still raining even this far from Hanoi and the scenery is never-ending rice paddies. I swear, half this country must be under water. We’ve been sitting on some sort of transport for twenty-five hours by now and I start to lose it about a quarter of an hour before arriving in Hue. I know it’s got a lot to do with the weather but I’m not at all impressed with this country and getting unreasonably annoyed. I know it also has a lot to do with losing Benny but Vietnam isn’t really what I’d expected. I want to love it here and hopefully Hue will be better.

At nine o’clock we arrive in Hue and it’s raining. Luckily hawkers are here selling raincoats for a dollar each and the van for the Thai Binh Hotel is waiting for us. Two other backpackers jump in as well and within two minutes we turn down a muddy lane and pull up in front of the hotel. It’s typical of the new Vietnamese hotels – tall, skinny, cement rendered and with white pillared balconies facing the street on each floor. Inside there’s also the usual décor of white slippery tiles, plain white walls and lots of laminex – hideous bit clean. We look at a room on the first floor with a bathroom with bath and hot water, a fridge, television and two single beds. For $20 AUS it’s a bargain and we take it.

Breakfast/lunch is at Thuy’s Café (pronounced ‘two’) which is just a few doors down the alley and a real travellers’ haunt. Lots of very trendy backpackers here but we manage to get a table. Thuy is a crazy but friendly Vietnamese woman saying ‘g’day mate’ to us Aussies. She’s learnt all the tourist jargon and deserves her reputation. She tells us that her dream, which may be happening next year, is to make it into Lonely Planet. While we wait for our food I get a shoeshine from a cute little boy about ten years old but then see him smoking in the laneway a few minutes later.

Before going back to our room for a long hot bath, we book seats on a minibus to Hoi An leaving in the morning. We’d planned to stay in Hue for two days but we want to try and outrun the rain. Back out onto the street, then, to find a cyclo. On the main road we’re spotted by two cyclo drivers who we bargain with to take us to the Citadel. The cyclos here are smaller than in Hanoi so we have to have one each. We cross the bridge over the Perfume River and then turn left into tree-lined avenues that are surprisingly peaceful after the chaos of Hanoi. It’s still raining but we’re wearing our new raincoats and it’s not as cold here as up north so we’re feeling very happy. I’m almost alive again today.

Every traveller’s story about the Citadel is that it’s raining so today is just perfect. It’s not so much raining now as a thin mist that hangs in the air. This creates a wonderful mood for this moated Chinese-style fortress. We wander around for a couple of hours and spend ages with a Yoko Ono look-alike who’s selling her husband’s paintings. Inside a teahouse surrounded by flowering gardens, we buy a bronze incense burner (AUD$16) then listen to a man playing a wooden flute. Very haunting sounds in these atmospheric surroundings. We see huge temple drums and temple bells and the ruins of the Purple Forbidden City blown to smithereens by the Americans during the Tet Offensive in 1968.

Outside our cyclo drivers are still waiting for us and we head off towards the town centre. Lonely Planet recommends the Lac Tien Restaurant which is owned and run by a deaf family. The sign out front proudly boasts ‘Mentioned in Lonely Planet’ and ‘Food is Awesome’. It’s typical of all Vietnamese cafes with laminex tables and little plastic stools. Our dinner is cooked over hot coals in an old metal cooker on the street and the food is great. While we’re eating a man selling silk paintings approaches us and we buy two for $1US each. This seems criminally cheap but he’s overjoyed.

Off in the rain again to the Post Office to ring home. It’s Jacky’s birthday but she doesn’t answer so I ring Mum and Dad to tell them to ring her for me. Had enough of the rain so we ask to be taken back to the hotel. Now we’re cosy and warm in bed, reading our books and don’t plan to go out again till dinner. The rain is a good excuse to stay inside and sleep. We wake at seven thirty and walk down the alley to look for a different café. The rain has stopped now and it’s so nice to walk around at night. At a souvenir stall we stop to buy bronze rice paddy workers (AUD $4 each) then we wander around the corner to stumble across the Mandarin Café which is another Lonely Planet favourite. Every other backpacker in Hue must have a Lonely Planet as well because it’s packed. We like it though for its quick service and just the right amount of dinginess. Music is playing but it’s not too cool or too loud and there’s framed travel photos all along the walls. We have a great meal of garlic squid, garlic shrimp and ice-cream. Back then to our three-quarter bed and our books.

Sunday      11th February, 2001              Hue to Hoi An

At six thirty we wake and wander down to Thuy’s Café for breakfast. For some reason we’re the only ones here so we get to chat with Thuy. She’s very pretty and obviously intelligent and ambitious. The music is Simon and Garfunkel and we’re given complimentary green tea in tiny flowered ceramic cups and a tiny teapot. Breakfast of cheese and mushroom omelets is good but, like everywhere else in Indochina, if you ask for ‘toast’ you get a huge French breadroll that’s always fresh but a bit much at seven o’clock in the morning.

At eight o’clock we meet the minivan at the end of the laneway and stash our packs in the back. As usual we’re the first to turn up and we get the best seats. There are eleven of us including an unfriendly American girl and some nice young English people. Sitting opposite us and facing backwards the whole trip are two crazy English guys aged in their thirties. They’re having a ball in Asia getting pissed and taking any drug they can lay their hands on and they keep us laughing the whole way.

We make our way out of Hue and soon start to see mountains ahead of us. This is the Truong Son Mountain Range that divides Vietnam into the cool north and the warmer dry south. It’s why we’re on our way to Hoi An where we tell ourselves it’ll be warm for sure. We’re travelling along the famous Highway 1, which winds its way down the coast of Vietnam from Hanoi to Saigon. It’s a pot-holed mess and dangerous on the sharp bends of Hai Van Pass which crosses the mountains. The scenery is lovely – a dramatic, sandy and rocky coastline and low clouds suspended in the valleys below. We stop to take photos of North Vietnam about half way up the pass then another hour of crawling upwards till we reach the top. Here we stop for a toilet visit and to take photos of sunny South Vietnam on the other side. Well, it’s a little bit sunny down there so we’re still feeling optimistic. Aggressive hawkers surround us as we get out of the van. They get shitty when people won’t buy their stuff. Mark and I buy some tiny orange flowered bowls but then lock ourselves in the van to get away from them.

The trip down the pass is quick and after travelling through a few small towns, we arrive at Danang. During the American War this was called the ‘Saigon of the North’ and is still Vietnam’s fourth largest city. The American girl and a couple of others are being dropped off here and we all get out to stretch our legs. At last, it’s warm and sunny and we can’t wait to get to Hoi An. Firstly we have a stop at China Beach which is a big disappointment but I really don’t know what I expected. The only interesting thing is some round fishing boats lying on the sand and some young girls trying to sell us shell necklaces. Behind us is Marble Mountain, which is supposed to be part of the trip but the English guys just want to keep on going.

Another hour and we’re coming into Hoi An. The sun is almost shining and the scenery is pretty, green rice paddies and small basic villages. I don’t know why, but Hoi An itself does nothing to inspire us. Despite being known as ‘The Jewel in the Crown’ it just appears to be ‘another shit-hole Vietnamese town’ as Mark so nicely puts it. The weather has also turned dull again which doesn’t help and we drive around for ages trying to get us hotels. We’re all finally deposited across the bridge at the Pho Hoi Hotel. It’s a bit out of the way but very impressive with a lovely foyer with the usual velvet curtains and walnut Chinese-style furniture as well as a wide sweeping staircase. Our room is big with a bath, hot water, a fridge, a television and two beds covered in frilly blue nylon covers. It’s only $20 AUS a night and looks clean but for some reason it stinks so we decide to only stay until tomorrow.

After unpacking, we head across the Cam Nam Bridge to explore the town. I don’t know what’s wrong with me but I’m hating this country. To make my depression even worse we’re soon dragged into a café by another ‘g’day mate’ Vietnamese woman. We’re asked to write our order in a book but half an hour later we haven’t even got our drinks. Apparently, they haven’t even started our order and they want us to write it down again. Besides this, we’ve spent the whole time getting rid of hawkers selling postcards and wooden whistles and beggars shoving their stumps in our faces. I feel like the biggest bitch but they’re making me a nervous wreck. I usually love hawkers so I think I must be having a nervous breakdown. Good, then I can go home.

After a gracious ‘up yours’ we move on to another café down the street. This is a lovely old Chinese teahouse with dark, dark wooden furniture to match the dark interior. The atmosphere is great and things are looking up. That’s until I order a chicken and cheese sandwich. This seems reasonable as the menu offers a cheese sandwich and a chicken sandwich but there is no way I can have cheese on my chicken sandwich or vice versa. Totally pissed off by now but give up and we end up having a nice Vietnamese lunch anyway.

We decide to look for a new unstinky hotel for tomorrow and wander around town for a few hours. Hoi An was once a major trading port for the Dutch and Chinese and its strong Chinese ties are reflected in the many pagodas and Chinese congregational halls all around the town. The French influence is also prominent in the beautiful but dilapidated colonial houses and lots have been turned into shops and hotels. Some of the shops sell paintings and carvings and silk lanterns but these are far outnumbered by the tailor shops. They’re everywhere but we can’t be bothered getting anything made. Next to the water, the central market is a beehive of activity as all Asian markets are. All sorts of fruit, vegetables, meats, rice, eggs, chickens and lots of fish. Pretty smelly at this time of day so we’ll come back in the morning.

Near the market we find the Banana Split Café and have fruit-salad splits while we E-mail Jillian. Back across the bridge to our hotel, we lie down for a read and a sleep. Afternoon napping is turning into a habit and the novels we’ve brought with us are definitely becoming addictive. At six o’clock we walk back across the bridge into town.

It’s dark by now and nice walking along the promenade beside the river. We eat at a cheap, atmospheric, upstairs café called Dong Phuong Restaurant that has red Chinese lanterns hanging from the balcony. Beef spaghetti and prawn crackers are good but especially the ‘hot pot’ which is another version of dishes we had in Laos a few weeks ago. A round metal container with a trough around the outside is heated by red-hot coals in the middle. The stewy-like meal is kept hot in the pot then poured into tiny bowls. The BGI beer is also a great discovery.

From here we push on to Champa Bar a few streets away. Love the atmosphere in here. So dark and only lit by interesting bamboo lampshades on the walls. More beers while we sit at the bar and watch the Vietnamese barman slaying a young English guy at pool. The Vietnamese guy is too good for Mark, too, but they have a great time. Meanwhile, I’ve been trying to talk to the little barmaid who’s been putting sticky squares like elastoplast all the way up her spine.

Our next stop is the Tam Tam Café and Bar. This is a busy bar at the top of a narrow set of stairs and is full of Westerners. Good surroundings and we’re just in time for happy hour beers. We sit with three young English people who’d been on our minibus from Hue then walk home through the now deserted and very dark streets. Back to our stinky room and our very comfortable beds.

Monday     17th February, 2001             Hoi An

We’re back over in town before eight o’clock to look for a new hotel. Next to the bridge is a cute guesthouse with a café right on the Thu Ban River so this is our first stop. We have a relaxing breakfast here next to the water then we’re extremely happy to find that there’s a spare room upstairs overlooking the street. We race back to check out of the stinky one and into our lovely new room at the Huy Hoang Hotel. We have a balcony with bonsaied bougainvillea in blue and white Chinese pots and colored lanterns are hanging from the verandah roof. The room itself is big with a white tiled floor, a bathroom, cane furniture and a huge window. It’s a bit noisy with a school on the next corner and the market across the road but it’s in a great spot and we’re very happy.

Outside we meet Mai, a pretty boat woman who’s ready to take us for a ride upriver. She’s wearing the traditional straw conical hat that all the women workers wear and a soft purple pyjama-like outfit. Most poorer class women wear these as well and they look comfortable and even elegant. We follow Mai back across the bridge where her tiny boat is tied up and where her friend is waiting. Mai’s friend is also called Mai but she’s much older. She’s so sweet and happy and we all shake hands. Young Mai has the most gorgeous smile which never disappears except when she tells us that her husband is dead. This should be a sad story but she mimes out how he drank himself to death. We’re all laughing so she keeps doing it. She says ‘five children, no husband’ and wipes away a fake tear then starts the whole thing again – best laugh we’ve had in ages. Then, she keeps saying we’re going for a two-hour boat ride although we’d only told her one-hour. Then she says. ‘Okay, one hour and a half’ with a nod and a big happy smile like it’s all decided. Mark says’ Okay, only half hour now’ which makes her scream laughing.

For the whole hour she’s yelling out to fishermen and people on the shore. I guess she knows everyone here. There’s so many different types of fishing techniques that we’ve never seen before. One man is sitting on the very front of his tiny boat so that it’s sticking up out of the water at the back. He’s paddling with one foot and unravelling a net. Nearby two men are standing chest-deep in the water while they push long poles into the muddy bottom. Further down, bigger boats are tied up ready to go out to sea after dark. Here Mai stops to roll the biggest tobacco rolly we’ve ever seen and then keeps paddling with it hanging out the side of her mouth. The town looks lovely from here. It spreads for a couple of kilometres along the river which is lined with coconut palms and cafes. Even when it starts to rain, it’s still lovely on the calm water. Mai takes off her conical hat and insists I wear it. The air is warm and I feel so good out here. After an hour, Mai and Mai drop us off at the market and we give them toy koalas to give to their grandchildren.

No sooner are we on the wharf, than we’re ‘kidnapped’ by a young girl who takes us to her mother’s shop. This is in an old wooden warehouse at the back of the market. It’s smelly and dirty around here but we like it. The shop sells materials and within minutes I’ve been fitted for a pair of black kashmir pants. We must look easy prey as we’re abducted again as we walk out the back door. A pretty lady called Thuy tells me I’m ‘beautiful’ while we’re both cuddled and whisked us away to her beauty parlour. It seems that I’m to have a manicure with Thuy and Mark a hand massage with her daughter. The ‘beauty parlour’ is about the size of a double bed so Mark has to sit on a plastic stool outside with his hand sticking in through the door. This also makes him a prime target for hawkers and beggars. I’m luckier inside and get two coats of nail polish and one of nail hardener. Now I have to write how much I love it in Thuy’s little book that she keeps to show prospective customers. For $3.50 AUD it’s a bargain and worth more just for the great experience. Feeling so much happier now that we’re meeting some of the local people.

As we head off in search of lunch, we get dragged into another tailor shop called the Hoa Clothing Shop and there’s no escaping. Mark orders a silk shirt and I order a skirt and top in black Chinese material – don’t even want the bloody things. We escape to our room to rest for the afternoon but are back up again at three thirty to walk down to the Post Office. We need to send off postcards and to cash in traveller’s cheques. This is quite an experience as we line up with other frustrated travellers who also can’t understand the time-wasting rigmarole. We fill in long forms that ask the strangest questions while five people behind the desk are very busy processing one person between the five of them instead of taking one each. Back to the market to try on my black pants that I don’t want. They don’t fit and I want them even less now but I promise to come back tomorrow for another fitting.

Outside the market is a sea of conical hats and we wander around with another wrinkled, sweet boat-lady who also tells me I’m ‘beautiful’. I say ‘you’re beautiful’ which she really is. The women we’ve met here in Hoi An are all so gentle and kind. They’re poorer than anyone could be at home but seem to be happy maybe because it’s a close-knit community. I suppose we can all be happy or at least accepting of what we’ve got, if everyone we know is the same. Or maybe western values have just been fucked up so much that we don’t even know what it really means anymore. Along the river next to the market we stop to talk to a young man selling vegetable cutters. He’s so enthusiastic carving carrots and parsnips into pretty shapes for us that we can’t not buy a pack. It’s all for ten thousand dong or about a dollar and we even get a photocopied instruction sheet. He tells us that we’re his first customers today which, sadly,  is probably true.

Further along we sit under umbrellas in tiny blue plastic chairs. Mark squeezes his rear end into one which stays attached to him when he gets up to move. This sends Thu who owns them into hysterics and she calls him ‘big bum’. She sells us beers and cokes from an esky then brings out a letter and a photo that another traveller had sent her after they’d arrived home. She wants us to do the same so we take lots of photos and get her address. Next her husband turns up so there’s more photos. All Vietnamese people ask us ‘what name?’ then ‘how old?’ and Thu’s no different. She wants us to write down our ages in a book then falls into hysterics again when she works out that I’m fifteen years older than Mark. She tells everyone around and it’s all a great laugh – ha ha. Definitely having a good day today.

It’s so busy down here along the river especially now when school is finished. The school ferry is tied up just near us and is overloaded to the hilt. Everyone seems to have a bicycle which goes with them. As they float off towards the island, it looks like it’ll sink any minute but I guess this is what it’s like every day. Back through the market we watch fresh fish being sorted then find our way to the Banana Split Café to book a trip to My Son for tomorrow. Here we also buy a fresh bread roll with cheese and then order a salad and, at last, a cheese-salad roll! Finally getting the hang of this place.

Half an hour later, we’ve had hot baths and are on our way to happy hour at the Tam Tam Bar. It’s dark by now and a nice walk through town especially one street full of amazing old Chinese shops that sell herbal medicines and spices. After French fries and huge tankards of beer at Tam Tam, we head home to the Huy Hoang for an early night. It had better be sunny tomorrow.

Tuesday    13th February, 2001    Hoi An to My Son to Hoi An

Guess what? It’s raining! Fuck it – hate to be here in the wet season. We’d set the alarm for 6.30am to go to the market next door but we’ve heard the goings on since 3am so we’re wide awake anyway. We want to get there early so we can watch the fishing catch that’s just been brought in. It’s even busier here than usual and there’s hundreds of conical-hatted women buying and selling all sorts and sizes of seafood.

Try, then, to go to the Banana Split Café for breakfast but an old lady from the place next door literally pushes us into her café. Most cafes around here seem to have an old lady, presumably the grandmother, perched at a table on the street ready to drag in passing tourists. We’re the only customers, breakfast is good and it’s a nice family atmosphere so it’s a good move.

Now the mini-bus for My Son is ready and we spend the next half-hour driving all over town picking up other tourists at their hotels. Of course, we’re all squashed in like sardines, hot, uncomfortable and gasping for air. We drive through the usual grotty towns but also see lots of beautiful countryside including endless brilliant green rice paddies. It’s not planting-time here in Central Vietnam so there’s no-one working in the fields like we’d seen everywhere in the north.

The best part of the two-hour trip is when we’re held up by a huge funeral-march. The mourners are walking behind the body which is elaborately decorated and carried by a group of men who smile and wave to us as our van crawls past them. At last we pull into a muddy area near some rundown cafes and where other minivans are also arriving. We’re told to go ‘that way’ so we head off with the others for a kilometre to where jeeps are waiting to take us to the ruins.

A lot of ugly, old German tourists are here and we’ve had enough of them so we decide it’s our turn to be rude bastards for a change. Instead of waiting, we push past them and sit our arses in the back of the first jeep. So proud of ourselves and we laugh uncontrollably the whole way. Great fun but think the weather is starting to make us a bit strange in the head.

We bump our way along a sort of road for fifteen minutes then we’re told to get out and walk the rest of the way. Mark has brilliantly decided to wear rubber thongs which are now either being sucked into the mud or behaving like ice-skates. This means we take ages to get to ruins which are definitely ‘ruins’. After being pilfered and bombed almost out of existence, there’s not much left at all.

My Son is a group of monuments from the Champa kingdom which thrived in this area from the second to the fifteenth century. The site has been divided into ten ‘groups’ which were once temples, meditation halls and other religious buildings. Some are still in tact and look beautiful in their lush setting surrounded by the now mist-covered hills. Before the American War (aka the Vietnam War), the best preserved group was Group A but now it’s nothing more than a pile of rocks after the pea-brained Yanks blew it to bits – brilliant. On the whole the ruins are rather unimpressive but we have lots of laughs. For some reason we find that childishly posing for photos behind headless statues is absolutely hysterical.

Our raincoats are now acting like mini saunas but we can’t take them off because it’s still raining. Let’s get the hell out of here! Back through the slimy mud to the jeep, we dump the raincoats and are soon back at the cafes. These would have to be the most basic place possible to eat but we take the chance. In fact we really like it here with its dirt floor and mangy dogs. I go to the loo in the most ordinary of toilets but we’re having fun. Our lunch is a meat and tomato dish and fried rice and it’s surprisingly good.

The drive back to Hoi An is just as hot and stuffy as this morning. We arrive at one thirty and try to ring Vietnam Airlines from the Banana Split Café. We want to move our Nha Trang air tickets for Friday forward to tomorrow but no go. It’s the end of Tet here in Vietnam which is sort of like our Christmas holidays and people are moving all around the country visiting friends and relatives. This means all the planes and trains are booked ahead so we’ll just have to stay put. I’d met some Australian girls in the corridor of our hotel this morning and they were trying to get out of Vietnam as well. They’re so desperate to get back to Thailand that they’re going overland through Cambodia.

After looking at the weather forecast on the internet we decide to try and bypass Nha Trang where it’s supposed to rain for the next few days. Luckily we can get tickets to Saigon on Thursday where it’ll definitely be hot and sunny. The rain has finally stopped and the streets are dry so we hire a motorbike from a friendly man in a wheelchair. We can have it for only $2US for the afternoon but Mark only gets to do a trial run around the block before the rain starts coming down again. We take the bike back and now it’s Mark’s turn to be depressed. He sulks under the bedspread in our room but then we decide to go for a walk in the rain. ‘If you can’t beat it’ as they say.

Our first stop is the Hoa Cloth shop which is only a few doors down from our hotel. We’re really happy with our clothes and since we’re here for two more days, we order more. Mark is getting two pairs of travellers pants and I’m getting a long green silk dress. The two ladies who work here are Yaun and Hoa and are making a great fuss of us. They’ll probably be able to retire if we stay here much longer. They sit us on miniature plastic stools and give us bottled water and a bowl each of the traditional Hoi An dish called Cau Lan. This is croutons, noodles, bean sprouts, green vegetables and pork and is very nice. In Hoang Dieu Street we drop off photos at Fuji Processing even though the machine inside looks suspiciously like Kodak. The area around here is busy especially now with school kids on their way home on foot and on bicycles.

It’s still sprinkling but it’s warm and quite pleasant. We buy new raincoats and are feeling happy again. We spend hours walking around the tiny streets and even find some Choco Pies in a tiny corner shop. We watch woodcarvers and bamboo wood crafting then visit a lovely old French house-cum-art gallery. There are endless shops selling paintings and even more selling tailor-made clothes. All of these have examples of their designs hanging out the front but the crazy thing is, they’re all exactly the same. Hundreds of shops making the same bloody clothes. Our own designs have worked out, though, and really there’s nothing much else to do here so we’ll probably get more made.

Still on our walk, we wander back down to the river then cross the An Hoi Footbridge to a quiet café on the other side. Love the atmosphere here with it’s basic furniture and Chinese lanterns glowing red in the dimming light of dusk. We sit near the balcony and watch the rain sprinkling on the calm water and local people crossing the bridge to the village on this side of the river. The air is still and warm and the mood is almost surreal. Feeling happy, ‘over the moon’ as Mark says, and we order drinks and ‘Cake Hoi An’.

It’s dark by the time we get back to the market to pick up my black pants so we head back to the room for a bath and a rest. At seven thirty we’re at Hoa Clothing again and order two more shirts for Mark and a black satin jacket for me. Outside the streets are busy with candle-lit stalls and handcarts selling all sorts of interesting food to the locals. In a deserted back street there’s a sudden blackout but we have our torch so we’re okay and we head to Champa Bar. This is even more atmospheric tonight being lit only by candles and not many people around. We have beers at the bar while we watch a group of well dressed, elderly local men playing pool. They’re all hopeless and roar laughing after every shot. We ask about the traditional music that we’d seen advertised for tonight but we’re told that there aren’t any tickets left so we buy some for tomorrow night. It’s interesting to see that it’s only Vietnamese people arriving for tonight’s performance.

A few minutes later, a cute, smiling man wearing a black, silk Chinese-style costume and hat approaches us. He invites us to the show and insists we follow him up the stairs to the theatre. He pulls aside a heavy curtain covering the door and shows us into a large room with the biggest wooden chairs we’ve ever seen. These are set up in three rows and there’s a screen in the left-hand corner and musical instruments opposite. After getting our seats we’re given tall glasses of lemon drink and the show starts on time. The cute, smiling man is the host and he translates everything he says into English. Since we’re the only westerners here we feel very privileged.

The musicians consist of five men dressed in pale green satin tops and black trousers and a beautiful woman in a pink ao-dai. The musicians are excellent especially a young guy playing a two-stringed instrument with a bow. He’s so talented – like the Jimi Hendrix of Vietnam. There are also eight female dancers and two males. They’re not what you’d call professionals but the costumes are spectacular and they’re having a great time.

The audience is having a great time as well but we notice that throughout the show people just talk to the person next to them or behind them in their normal speaking voice. There’s no attempt to be quiet or whisper but no-one seems to mind – must be a cultural thing.

We enjoy every minute of the show which finishes with the cast standing in front of the audience, who is also standing, while everyone (including the audience) claps and sings at the top of their lungs. They all suddenly launch into Auld Ange Syne in Vietnamese with everyone belting it out and clapping with huge smiles. It’s a scream and an unexpectedly fabulous night. Afterwards everyone asks us if we ‘like’ which is nice. Downstairs then for a beer but very tired so home to bed.

Wednesday        14th February, 2001    Hoi An

Guess what – it’s raining. We decide to look for a different hotel to amuse ourselves. We walk for hours and look at a few rooms but decide we like our little hotel the best. We both order more clothes from Hoa as well as a jacket for Mark and a pair of silk pants for me from another tailor shop on the other side of the market. At this rate we’ll have enough clothes to last us for years. At Fuji we find that our photos have been developed by Kodak like we’d suspected yesterday and the colour just isn’t right. We’ll get them redone later.

Lunch is at the Yellow River Restaurant. We’re working our way through all the Lonely Planet-recommended restaurants in Hoi An and so far they’re all good. I ring home and talk to Angie. She’s quiet but trying to sound okay. I’ll be with them soon but I can’t think about it or I’ll be more worried and depressed than I am already. Back to bed to read for hours then a hot bath. Feeling unmotivated today but we make ourselves get up and we pick up clothes from Hoa, order shoes from a tiny shop across the road then pick up Mark’s jacket. He looks gorgeous in everything he’s had made which isn’t at all surprising.

As we walk back through the market we’re ‘kidnapped’ again by two sisters who tell us we’re both ‘very beautiful’. With arms around our waists we’re ushered through the little back alleyways to their tiny massage parlour/hairdresser/beauty shop. It’s among a shantytown of lots of these little businesses and where tailors are actually sewing all the clothes ordered from the dress shops.

Before we know it Mark’s agreed to have a half hour back and leg massage and I’ve agreed to have a hand massage and a ‘skin washing’ whatever that is – hate to think. All this is to cost a mere $8AUD so who cares what it is. You get what you pay for as they say and no wonder it’s cheap. Neither of them have a clue what they’re doing but we have heaps of fun. Mark is on the bed opposite and is doing a lot of yelping while my face is being slapped and scrubbed so hard it’s red raw and I’ve got a scratch down the side of my nose. It’s hilarious especially when they pull faces at Mark’s hairy legs then roar laughing when he isn’t looking. They think they’re doing a great job and we tell them they’re fabulous but thank God we’d only agreed to half an hour.

Dinner is at LY Café 22 in a part of town we haven’t eaten in before. It’s a nice atmosphere and good food – pork salad, wonton soup, prawns and vegetables. Back at the hotel we book transport to Danang for one o’clock tomorrow afternoon then up to bed to read – Mark is obsessed.

Thursday   15th February, 2001             Hoi An to Danang

We wake early but lay around having hot baths and reading till eight o’clock. We’ve got till one o’clock before we leave so we decide to do a last minute walk around town. At the river we have breakfast at the Dong Phuong Restaurant (also in Lonely Planet) and sit on the upstairs verandah overlooking the street and the water. The sun is shining and everything looks so different today. Mornings anywhere are one of the best times to watch local daily life and from up here we can see all sorts of small boats on the river going back and forth to the market.

After breakfast, we cross the Japanese Covered Bridge, which was built in 1592 and is still used to cross the small stream that runs through this side of town. The bridge not only has a roof but it’s also walled with windows looking out onto the stream and wide doorways at either end. It has that wonderful ancient feel that transports you back to another time. On the other side are lovely old houses and art galleries and we stop to take pictures of a cute baby.

Back to the main side of town, Mark barters for eight silk Chinese lampshades. The three ladies are very excited and pretend to cry when Mark tries to bargain them down to AUD $5 each. We spend ages here and all have a good laugh. Further along we buy three wall plaques with ‘happiness’ written in Vietnamese and then to another shop to buy an opium pipe (AUD $10) and an incense burner (AUD $12).

Mark heads off to the bank to exchange US dollars for dong while I go back to Hoa to pick up the last of our clothes. Now I have a black brocade skirt and top, a green brocade skirt and top, an orange Japanese silk skirt, a cashmere skirt and jacket and a pink satin top. Everything fits perfectly and I’m thrilled with my new wardrobe.

It works out that for five tops (AUD$10 each), five skirts (AUD $18 each), a jacket (AUD $18), a suit jacket (AUD $24) and two pairs of pants (AUD $18 each) I’ve spent a grand total of AUD $218. Mark now has three silk collarless shirts (AUD $16 each), two pairs of travellers pants (AUD $20 each) and a corduroy jacket (AUD $36) all for AUD $126. Mark arrives and jokes around with Hoa and Yaun while we take photos and videos. They tell us that we’re ‘beautiful’ then get me to put on my suit for a photo in front of the shop to show other customers – fame at last!  Very attractive in my walking boots, too.

Back to the room to pack and check out and store our packs in the foyer. Outside we meet a pretty boat lady called Lan who wants to take us for a ride out on the river. She’s so, so sweet and tells us that he husband drowned last September in the flood – ‘he die in big water, September, water high, he no swim, I swim, he no swim’. She’s only thirty-eight and has two sons who she has to support by paddling around tourists in her tiny boat. She pays ten thousand dong a day to have her littlest one minded and only gets that much for each hour she works. Some days she doesn’t get anyone and today we’re her first customers.

When we pass small covered boats with whole families inside I ask her if that’s where they live. She says that they’re ‘very poor, no house, like me’. We can’t believe it, but she lives in this tiniest of boats with no roof. It’s unbelievable that people can be this poor and I feel so sad for her. She’s told us all this only because we’ve asked her. There’s no self-pity, just a gentle acceptance.

Lan paddles us up past the market, which looks wonderful now that the sun is shining in a brilliant blue sky. Old fisherwomen in the same tiny boats as ours, float up beside us to tempt us with baskets of miniscule fish. We feel sorry for the ladies but, I mean, what would we do with raw fish. As we come to the footbridge we all have to lay flat in the bottom of the boat to pass under it and we’re all laughing.

Lan drops us off at the Han Huyen Restaurant which is floating on the river. This is another Lonely Planet recommendation and it looks wonderful. As we climb ashore we watch her paddle off in her little boat and my heart is so sad for her. Here are Mark and I going to a fancy restaurant and Lan hasn’t even got a home. We paid her a lot more than she’d asked but now we wish we’d given more.

The restaurant looks out onto the prettiest area. Palm trees, old French houses, boats, and the footbridge. The river is so calm it looks like glass and the coconut trees and boats tied up on the banks are perfectly reflected in the still water. We see old Mai in her conical hat busy unloading a boat of vegetables and an endless stream of village people on bicycles crossing the bridge. The food is good and Mark orders eel.

It’s time to head back to the hotel but on the way we stop to watch some woodcarvers sitting on the floor of a lovely old shop. Within fifteen minutes we’ve bought a beautiful carved wooden sideboard decorated with intricate mother-of-pearl inlay. The AUD $1200 price includes shipping it to Sydney and we’re ecstatic.

Our walk back to the hotel takes us past colourful Chinese temples which we visit before picking up our shoes. Both pairs are a tight fit but we’re quickly assured they’ll stretch. Suddenly we hear Lan calling us and waving her arms. She’s brought her little two-year old boy to meet us and he’s immaculately clean and dressed in a navy baby suit. It always amazes me how these people who have nothing always manage to be spotlessly clean and fresh. An absolute contradiction to the arrogant western perception of people in underdeveloped countries as being smelly and dirty. Lan looks lovely in her apricot-coloured pyjama suit. She has the face and body of a model but doesn’t have a clue how beautiful she truly is.

While we wait for our transport to Danang to arrive, we sit with Lan on a low wall outside the hotel. Mai turns up with two other friends all wearing conical hats and huge smiles. One friend is younger with fair skin and freckles so she’s probably a war child. The other lady, called Nguyan Thi Nga, has her front teeth missing. She tells us ‘husband gone, no good’ and then pretends to drink from a bottle and staggers all over the road. She has us all in fits of laughter and keeps doing it. We video her and there’s more squeals when we play it back.

Sitting here I feel like one of the girls and wish we’d met them all on our first day in Hoi An instead of when we’re about to leave. For the first time we know this is genuine friendship. When the van arrives we throw our gear in and then there’s cuddles all round. We get more cuddles through the van window and we’re waved off with bit beautiful smiles.

Driving through the streets of Hoi An we feel sorry to be leaving our new friends but happy to be on the way to our next adventure. The one-hour drive to Danang is interesting and with the sun shining we’re feeling excited and happy. The driver is playing the ubiquitous loud, daggy music but it fits our good mood. Small villages line the road and we dodge endless bicycles and school children on their way home.

Coming into Danang, we cross the wide Han River with its busy docks and river transport. At the Vietnam Airlines office in town we stop to pick up our airline tickets to Saigon. Because someone has processed our names in the Vietnamese way of surname first, only people called Scott Mark and Kibble Virginia have tickets for the flight. We make a snap decision and decide to keep our original tickets to Nha Trang for tomorrow and so we’ll stay here in Danang tonight.

Outside are two motorbike riders who offer to take us to a hotel. We like them straight away and they introduce themselves as Quang and Van. We hop on the back of a bike each while the guys balance our packs across their laps. The Hoa Hong Hotel is on the other side of town and we love riding around on the bikes. The streets aren’t too busy and Quang and Van are safe drivers. We check into a room on the second storey with a slightly sloping floor and the usual bad taste décor. We like it.

Back down on the bikes in minutes, we ask Quang and Van to take us to the open-air Cham Museum. The buildings here are old and picturesquely set amongst trees and gardens. The guys drop us off to pick up their kids from school and we plan to meet them out the front in an hour. Inside, we’re approached by a tiny Vietnamese man who wants to be our guide. He’s straight out of Lonely Planet and I recognise him as Monsieur Louis or Nguyen Phu Luy. He even reads his bit out of the guide book – ‘friendly old man who speaks relatively good English and is highly knowledgeable in Cham art’. Of course he fails to read the part about how he overcharges everyone. Naturally we can’t pass up meeting a ‘celebrity’ so off we go feeling like we’re back at school.

After each room he tests us to see if we’ve been listening then hurries us off to the next room saying ‘this way, very complicated’. It’s a scream and we can barely understand what he’s saying. He’s so bossy but very enthusiastic and we have fun. For the last ten minutes we look at a map on the wall and get a long-winded history of the Cham empire – definitely too much information! At last we escape and hand over US$2. He’s not overly impressed and rushes off to nab a better paying customer.

Out on the street the guys take us down near the river then drop us at Christies Restaurant for a snack. It’s in an air-conditioned upstairs room with no atmosphere but memorable anyway. From here we ride out to the Cao Dai Temple on the outskirts of town for the six o’clock evening prayers.

It’s just on dusk and the temple looks empty with its tall wrought iron gates closed and no-one around. Quang manages to get an old man’s attention and he happily opens the gate for us to come into the garden. Leaving our shoes at the door, we’re welcomed inside to watch the worshippers doing their thing. They’re all wearing long white gowns and are kneeling, standing and bowing to the main altar. Behind the altar sits a huge eye which is the symbol of Caodaiism. After the prayers, two priests come to speak to Mark. They look so tiny next to him and peer at the silver Moslem and Hindu symbols around his neck. They’re so sweet and patiently explain their religion to him. I stand back as they only seem to be interested in Mark – maybe it’s a religious thing. I’m not sure, though, as Quang and Van seem to be taken with him as well. They keep telling me I have ‘handsome man’.

Caodaiism sounds nice as the priests show us a sign above the huge eye that reads ‘Van Giao Nhat Ly’ which translates as ‘All religions have the same reason’. The sign also shows the founders of the world’s great religions; Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Laotse (Greek Orthodox Jew) and Confucius. Afterwards they walk us outside and wave us off. We’re so glad we came here when it’s so quiet and had the chance to meet these lovely people. Always best when you don’t feel like a tourist.

On the bikes again, it’s another fifteen minutes back to the hotel and we arrange for Quang and Van to pick us up early in the morning to take us out to Marble Mountain. Down the street to look for dinner, we find a noodle stall and sit on baby-sized plastic stools at a baby-sized table and eat delicious noodle soup for fifty cents. On the way home, we stop to buy Choco Pies then rush back to our room to eat them in bed. Feeling happy today especially with our unexpected time here in Danang.

Friday  16th February, 2001          Danang to Nha Trang

At six thirty we shower and pack before meeting Quang and Van downstairs. We head through town then across a small bridge to pass through endless villages. These are alive already and the roads are packed with bicycles and motor bikes. We feel safe on the bikes and exceptionally free this morning. Our first stop is at Non Nuoc Hamlet which is the village at the base of the Marble Mountain. Here we watch the marble carvers at work and see each stage from the actual carving to the polishing. Some statues are so huge they could only be for the very rich.

Now Mark, Van and I start climbing the hundreds of steps to the top of the mountain. These are carved out of the cliff face and shaded by overhanging greenery. The main cathedral-like Huyen Khang cave has a small opening to the sky in the centre of its soaring ceiling and was used as a hideout for the Viet Cong during the American War. Inside are Buddha and Confucius images which are all overlooked by a huge stone Buddha high up in the darkness.

We visit another smaller cave and the Tam Thai Tu Pagoda and several other pagodas. From the top we have great views of China Beach and the village below. Somehow Van and I lose Mark. One minute he’s there and next minute he’s gone. I have images of him being kidnapped or chucked over the side until a man on the stairs tells us that he’s been seen on the other side of the mountain. I’m so happy to see him when we get to the bottom.

On the bikes again, we head back to Danang to pick up our packs at the hotel. On now, to the airport where we can’t thank Quang and Van enough for giving us a great time. We pay them more than usual and they’re very happy. While we wait for the plane we see the funniest thing. A man is stuck inside a glass phone booth in the boarding lounge. Staff are running around not having a clue what to do while the man’s plane is revving up on the tarmac and his wife is happily taking pictures of him. He’s finally released after twenty minutes having enjoyed himself immensely.

The flight to Nha Trang only takes an hour and the town looks lovely as we land. There are palm trees and sandy beaches and best of all there’s blue skies. The airport terminal is an attractive white building with coconut palms around it and there’s a real beachy, holiday feel already. Outside taxi touts are waiting and we ask to go to a Lonely Planet favourite only to find it closed for renovations. The driver is happy to take us somewhere else and we soon pull up at the Phu Quy Hotel. It’s in a good area near lots of cafes and our room is clean with television, bathroom and a balcony. It’s probably the best place we’ve stayed in so far and only US$19.

After checking in, we walk along the beach promenade. We feel so wonderful to be warm and wearing thongs and singlet tops. The beach cafes surrounded by palm trees remind us of Bali and the beach has white sand just like home. We have lunch of cuttlefish salad and little beef rolls with ham and cheese inside that look like Mr Hankies. From here we walk to the Post Office to E-mail home and then on to Sinh Café to book a boat trip to the islands for tomorrow.

Now it’s back to the room for a sleep, bath and book reading. After blow-drying my hair for only the second time since leaving home, I try on all my Hoi An clothes for the video. To go out I wear my favourite which is the black and gold brocade skirt and top while Mark wears his new shoes, new navy pants and new rust coloured silk shirt. We look very glamorous as we’re planning a romantic night on the town.

At the end of our street is the Vien Dong Hotel which supposedly has nightly shows of traditional music. The huge hotel  restaurant opens up onto the pool and we order cocktails and finger food. Mark buys me a cocktail with Baileys and Cointreau called ‘I Love You’ – he’s so good to me.  We eat pork spring rolls and drink beers and bacardis. The live Vietnamese band is playing beautiful classical music and we especially love the violins.

Feeling very happy we hail down cyclos outside to take us to the Nha Trang Sailing Club. The night is hot and it’s lovely to be out in the breeze as we pedal alongside the beach. The Sailing Club is naturally right on the beach and is a series of open-air thatched huts. The lighting is wonderful, good music, and everything is made of bamboo, wood and cane. Young backpackers are playing pool and there’s a lot of pretty Asian girls with ugly old western men.

We sit on cane stools at the bar and order the equivalent of a Bali Arak – a one litre plastic bottle with two straws and filled with orange juice and just about pure alcohol. Tastes like shit but it’s fun. Cyclos home.

Saturday   17th February, 2001             Nha Trang

Breakfast is early in the café next door to our hotel. ‘Same, same’ as most cafes all over Vietnam – plastic, laminex and featureless but somehow appealing. We sit at a table in the sun which is a real treat and then walk down to Sinh Café. A couple of guys are loading food into the van that’s to take us to the boat. I sit inside and talk to Lan who’s the pretty lady that runs the boat.

On the way we stop at a few hotels to pick up an Australian couple and a family of unfriendly Germans. We drive along a wide palm-fringed road next to the beach to get to the Cao Da dock which is at the southern end of town.

Here chaos rules. The carpark is full of locals and vans from other travel agencies while hawkers and beggars scramble to get to the door of our van first. The crowd is five deep and everyone is desperate to make a sale. I buy a straw conical hat then we race down the stairs to the water to escape it all.

Red and blue painted boats are also pushing and shoving just like the crowd. They’re all vying for positions at the wharf and just ram their way into cracks between other boats to push them out of the way. So glad when we all board and get the hell out of here. Talk about a relaxing day to the islands!

Our boat holds fifteen tourists and three crew as well as Lan. Leaving the craziness at the wharf behind, we start to enjoy being in the sunshine and out on the beautiful blue waters of the South China Sea. After an hour, the boat drops anchor about twenty metres off a deserted island. We thought we’d be getting off but apparently we’re to just snorkel and swim next to the boat.

Mark and a few of the men jump in and do a bit of swimming around using the masks and snorkels but there’s nothing much to see so they come back. Other boats have now arrived and it’s like Pitt Street. The plan is to stay here for an hour and a half and this is exactly what we do despite the fact that everyone is ready to get going after thirty minutes. I climb onto the roof and Mark and I are alone for the fifteen-minute ride to the next stop.

Unfortunately this looks exactly like the last stop and no-one can be bothered going in the water. We still can’t go ashore so we all just sit there looking at each other. I’m back on the roof and feeling totally nauseous with the boat rolling in the swell even though it’s barely noticeable. Lunch is a great distraction and we climb down to the deck where the food is spread out in the middle. Seafood, rice, noodles and salads are all good but I feel even worse now. Still sticking to the dreaded schedule, we stay for another hour then chug off to another island.

Thank God we can get off at this one and we walk along a path next to the shore that’s lined with thatched raised platforms. Here Vietnamese holiday-makers are lounging around in their swimmers and kids are playing in the shallow water. Mark and I find a shady table and chairs and talk to the lovely Australian couple from our boat. They’re Tom and Desley from Queensland and they tell us of their travels so far in Vietnam. They’ve come up from Saigon so we get lots of good tips from them about where to stay and what to see.

Back on the boat, Lan has afternoon tea waiting for us. This is even better than lunch and I’m feeling wonderful again. We try everything including pineapples, watermelon, mandarins, papaya, sponge cake and dragon fruit. This is a handsome spiky bright pink fruit speckled black with white flesh inside and tastes good too.

The next island looks so pretty and we’re met by young women in the famous round basket boats. Mark and I ride around for ages with a couple of young girls. They let Mark have a go and think it’s funny to see someone else rowing for a change. Back on the boat, we head back towards Nha Trang.

Mark sits at the point of the bow with one of the guys from the crew. He tells Mark that they do this trip every day and earn an absolute pittance. Before we get off, Lan points to Mark’s feet. Unbelievably all the men have had their little toenails painted bright red sometime during the day.

In the van back to town, we make plans to meet Tom and Desley for dinner. After quick showers we walk around to the street parallel to ours to find the Indian restaurant. The food is so cheap and the service quick. We have a lovely night talking about each other’s travels and after a few beers we head back to the hotel for an early night.

Sunday 18th February, 2001     Nha Trang to Ho Chi Minh City

We wake early to a sunny, hot day. By eight o’clock we’ve had a quick breakfast in a cafe next door, packed, and in a taxi on the way to the airport. Nha Trang looks especially lovely today and we feel in a true holiday mood created by the heat, the palm trees and the beach. The airport is only a couple of minutes from the hotel and we’re in the air on time. The trip to Ho Chi Minh City is a quick forty minutes. Feeling better today, maybe because of the good weather or maybe because this is our last stop before we go home.

By ten thirty we’re outside Saigon airport and in a metered taxi which is what Tom and Desley recommended as the cheapest way to get around. The streets are busy and full of life even though it’s a Sunday.  Despite heavy traffic of bicycles, cyclos and thousands of motorbikes, we like the look of Saigon. It’s greener than we’d expected and very exciting.

The hotel that Desley and Tom stayed in last week is in Pham Ngu Lao which is the backpacker area of the city and where we want to stay as well. This is itself at the western end of District 1 which is central Saigon so we’re in a great area. We know when we reach Pham Ngu Lao by the internet cafes, guesthouses tour booking offices, dress making shops, artist studios, souvenir sellers, cafes and beggars.

The Mien Chau Hotel is like all the guesthouses around here – narrow and four floors high with the family living in the foyer and cooking in the back alley. Our room is on the third floor and looks onto a brick wall. We love the fact that it’s big, old and rundown with a faded linoleum floor and thankful that it’s air-conditioned and quiet.

After quickly unpacking, we spend a while walking around the area then jump in a couple of cyclos. The drivers are friendly and take us past the Saigon River, pointing things out along the way.  and then on to a moneychanger. After changing some money, they take us to lunch at Restaurant Nineteen and wait for us outside. The café is air-conditioned which is a bonus and the food is good.

From here they recommend going to the Jade Emperor Pagoda so off we go. The Pagoda is unbelievably colourful and full of giant statues of Chinese gods representing both Taoism and Buddhism. Our sweet driver, who’s also kindly acting as our guide, shows us two floors of rooms where people come to worship by burning handfuls of joss sticks and oil. One room has a carved depiction of hell on the wall showing all the gruesome ways to be punished when you get there. A happier area has rows of ceramic mothers and their children. There’s buddhas everywhere – happy buddha and woman buddha and even unemployment buddha where you leave a donation if you want a job.

In the leafy courtyard outside is a pond holding baby-sized turtles and huge goldfish. It’s nice here with a lot of children and families hanging around. Here also are women surrounded by bamboo cages packed with tiny birds. The idea is to pay for one and then set it free for good luck. I ask how much and I’m told it’s very expensive – five thousand dong or about eighty cents. A little bird is put into a smaller bamboo cage and I hold it up and open the door. Should have done this weeks ago – might have staved off the rain till the wet season.

Our next stop is the War Remnants Museum. We get a mini tour of central Saigon on the way. It’s a muddle of lovely old French buildings and rundown newer buildings that have all seen better days. Some have a war-torn look but maybe we’ve just got war on the brain because of where we’re headed. Despite changing its name from the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes to avoid upsetting anyone, the War Remnants Museum is a depiction of the American/Vietnam War from a totally one-sided Vietnamese perspective – which is probably as it should be.

In the grounds of the Museum are some interesting planes and helicopters from the war and a small building showing hideous torture methods. Had enough for one day and ready now for a sleep so we take the rickshaws back to the hotel. Dinner is cheese burgers and chicken burgers after booking a tour for tomorrow to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels. An early night in our quiet, air-conditioned room.

Monday  19th February, 2001                 Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)

Mark wakes feeling great but I’m sick with cramps in the stomach and the dreaded runs. Breakfast is at Sinh Café before we board the bus to take us out to the tunnels. Our guide is Skinny Thong who speaks exceptionally good English and fills us in with stories about the war as we head out of town. The two-hour drive is through rural areas and small towns. The road is so bad with potholes the whole way and is making me feel sicker than before.

Glad to arrive at Cu Chi where our bus pulls into a carpark already full of other tourist buses and vans. It seems that half the population of Saigon has turned up for the day but we only get held up for fifteen minutes. There’s a line-up for the film which is compulsory to watch before we’re allowed any further. This is another propaganda film about the evil Americans who came ‘thousands of miles from their homeland’ to kill ‘woman, children, chickens, pots and pans, and ‘burn houses’. The film is accompanied by the daggiest music that makes it seem like an old silent movie.

Skinny Thong then leads us across the road and into the jungle. Love Skinny Thong – he’s so sweet and has the cutest accent, like Tweety Bird. He shows us all sorts of ‘booby twaps’ that the Viet Cong used during the war – terrifying. Horrid things positioned in the ground or in trees and set with bamboo spikes.

We’re shown how the entrances to the tunnels were completely camouflaged. From a patch of bare ground covered with leaves a man emerges from a tiny hole that’s been hidden by a leaf-covered board. I volunteer (very unlike me) to have a turn and can barely squeeze through myself. Mark would never fit.

On now to the shooting range where we both shoot an AK47 at a target. Unbelievably loud despite ear muffs but very proud of doing something so different. We see an abandoned American tank and then we climb into one of the tunnels.

These have been made twice the size for us huge westerners but they’re still unbearably claustrophobic. It’s also incredibly hot and I get out the first chance I get. From here we’re taken to see an underground kitchen and given tea in tiny cups and eat tapioca. This is what the Viet Cong had to survive on because rice was so scarce.

As we walk through the jungle we hear noises like popguns going off then people screaming and laughing. Apparently they’ve put booby trap wires across all the paths so that we can experience what it must have been like.

We’re back in Saigon by early afternoon. At Sinh Café we hail a taxi to take us to the Post Office so we can ring home. This is a huge elaborate building beautifully restored and obviously newly painted. Although impressive inside and out, the service is the worst we’ve come across even in Vietnam. Instead of ringing then paying, you have to pay first so you have to guess how long you’ll talk and that’s if you get through at all. The woman keeps ringing the wrong number and I have to line up again and again. I feel like jumping the counter and strangling someone.

Outside we take photos of the beautiful church of Notre Dame which is a replica of the original in Paris. Now we’re back in a taxi to the hotel for a sleep. Feeling very sick by now with stomach cramps and a headache. Out for a quick snack about seven o’clock and then back to bed.

Tuesday  20th February, 2001               Saigon

Wake feeling much better but we lay around and don’t leave the hotel till nine o’clock. At Kim Café in the next street, we have club sandwiches for breakfast – very un-Vietnamese. From here we catch a taxi to Cholon which is Saigon’s Chinatown. After a twenty-minute drive through congested streets we’re dropped off at the huge Binh Tay Market.

This is a two-storey cement block crammed with stalls and people. The amount of stock is mind-blowing. We really enjoy the ground level area in an old wooden structure attached to the side of the main building. We have fun with some of the ladies who are either swinging in hammocks hung above their goods or sitting amongst it all in shops no bigger than an average wardrobe.

A blind man is walking around playing an electric guitar and singing while two young boys walk with him, one carrying a speaker made from a tin can and the other with a collection tin. We buy incense cones and tall, fat incense sticks then wander around the food area. We sit at a noodle stand and Mark orders soup and noodles while I just watch. I’m still feeling too queazy (is that a word?) to eat Vietnamese food although it looks so good.

Outside we’re followed by a rickshaw driver who won’t leave us alone. We decide to just go with the flow so we get in. Besides that, he’s so lovely and his name is Ngu. He offers to take us to some of the local Chinese pagodas that turn out to be wonderful.

We visit three which are all different but in a way ‘same, same’. Love watching the worshippers who don’t seem to mind us being there. At each pagoda they’re burning oil and incense, giving offerings of fruit and burning paper in open furnaces. The decorations are so ornate and we see two-metre high incense coils hanging from the carved ceilings. I adore these places.

Ngu cycles us all the way back to the Mien Chau Hotel so we can have a rest – how pathetic. He picks us up again outside at three o’clock so we can go to the Thai Airways office. We need to confirm our flight home but we’re also hoping to be able to get an earlier plane. Even if we can at least get back to Bangkok earlier we’ll jump at the chance. No luck as the next flight out of here is the 20th March. Okay that’s it, time to buck up and be happy. At Kim Café around the corner we book a two-day trip to the Mekong Delta for tomorrow. This will keep us occupied till we leave.

Ngu now cycles us to Cong Vien Van Hoa Park near the Reunification Palace. This is a huge walled park with lots of different areas but not many people around today. There are a lot of gardeners, however, and funnily enough they’re all women. I swear, from what I’ve seen, most Vietnamese men are either swinging in hammocks or congregating on busy pavements getting pissed. A young boy passes us making a clicking sound by hitting two sticks together. Apparently this means that if you follow him you’ll be able to buy hot ‘pho’ which is a vegetable noodle dish that’s eaten anytime of the day.

As we ride back to the hotel, Ngu tells us about his family and proudly shows us pictures of his new baby girl. In the cool of our room, we have a quick nap before dressing up for a posh night on the town. Although we intend to grab a taxi, we see Ngu riding past so we call out to him. He’s so pleased to get another fare and off we go to the area of District One near the river. He cycles us around for a while showing us the sights.

The city looks so different at night – exciting even. Ngu drops us off at the Continental Hotel which is where Graham Greene wrote The Quiet American in 1954. Outside are sandbags all along the pavement and inside the bar is closed. Apparently they’re in the process of filming the movie which is to star Michael Cain. Disappointing but we still get to see inside the famous hotel.

The other famous old hotel of Saigon is the Rex and it’s an easy walk from the Continental. The foyer is very impressive but smells like shit – literally! The Rex’s infamous bar is on the roof and open to the beautiful night sky. It’s a big area divided into intimate dining and drinking spaces. It’s tastefully decorated with cane furniture, caged birds and bonsai plants. We spend an enjoyable hour drinking beer and eating peanuts then downstairs again to find a taxi to take us to the floating restaurants.

These are a series of boats tied up along the Saigon River and all decorated with strings of coloured lights. The docks are packed with local people watching the guests get on and off the boats. We almost feel like royalty when our taxi pulls into a special dropping off area and we’re led to the gangplank of the nearest boat. Each boat has three levels and we choose the lower level where a band is playing.

This is a big mistake as we’re on the same level as the dock which is only metres away. The poor people stand there watching us eat and drink. Facing the other direction isn’t much better as the view consists of huge hideous neon advertising signs all along the other side of the river. The set menu is also revolting and I’m given a tiny pigeon, head and all. No way can I eat it and don’t eat much of anything. Mark naturally eats everything but we’re both glad to escape the food, the music and the atmosphere. Despite the tackiness of the whole experience we have a good night. Back to bed early.

Wednesday 21st February, 2001 Saigon to The Mekong Delta

The bus to the Mekong Delta is leaving at eight o’clock but we have time to pack, have breakfast and E-mail home. On the minibus we meet Hai our driver. He’s a replica of Skinny Thong  – all teeth and crinkley eyes as he smiles and laughs continually.

Our fellow travellers consists mainly of Europeans and there’s two rude Hungarian couples who speak at the top of their voices the whole time Hai is talking. He’s painstakingly explaining our tour as we head west out of the city but the Hungarians have their backs to him and have also opened the windows. Hai patiently explains that we have to have the windows shut so that the air-conditioning can work and we can all be comfortable. Of course, they ignore him and everyone else is doing the ‘rolling the eyes’ thing.

The roads out of Saigon are packed with bicycles and motorbikes as people make their way to school and to work. A few hours out we turn off the main highway and onto a bumpy dirt road that winds through open countryside. We drive beside a canal where ramshackle houses are built on the other side and connected to the road with arched bridges every few hundred metres. The bus pulls up at a pineapple plantation and we all get out to watch trucks being loaded from small canoe-type boats. Hai explains the process of growing the pineapples and then we all get to try whole pineapples freshly picked this morning. They’re so sweet and juicy.

From here we travel to Cai Be which is a large town on a filthy waterway. We all pile onto an old wooden boat and head off to the floating market – ‘you know flotting mar-ket?’ as Hai keeps saying. Unfortunately the floating market is finished for the day so we keep going up the river to a village where they make rice cakes. This is a pleasant area with grass huts overlooking the water and surrounded by trees and gardens. We watch while the family goes through all the stages of making rice cakes and then, of course, we all buy bags of them – lovely.

The boat drops us off back at the wharf which is really just a plank of wood over a muddy bank. Mark and I have lunch with a lovely couple from the bus. Brian is English and Turid is Norwegian and they live in Cyprus. How boring are we? Mark is Australian and Virginia is Australian and we live in Australia – fascinating stuff! Afterwards we walk through the market which, as always, is fantastic and loads of fun. The ladies are playing bingo and there’s lots of laughing.

We get back on the boat, now, and wind our way through smaller canals. After a while we get off to walk along the water’s edge and see how people live in these little backwaters of the Delta. We’re on Tan Phong Island which is so thick with vegetation it’s hard to tell how many people actually live here.

As we continue on the boat, the people are so friendly and we spend the whole time waving and smiling and some throw fruit at us in fun. Feel like we’re on the African Queen as we chug our way through narrow canals overhung with greenery.

We finally reach Vinh Long town and set off with Brian and Turid in search of alcohol during our one hour break. The Hungarians are late getting back to the bus but we manage to get to the ferry wharf on time. Here huge white vehicular ferries are loading cars and trucks that are lined up on both sides. This is an incredibly busy area and we can see at least six other ferries of the same size crossing the Mekong.

We all pile out of the van and take seats on an upper deck. As we make our way across the huge river, the sun is setting in a golden sky and the Mekong almost looks lovely. At last we arrive at Can Tho City which is the capital of the Mekong Delta and the largest town.

The van now drops us all off at our hotel which is a rundown dump with cold, damp rooms. We don’t take long to shower and meet Brian and Turid downstairs. At the counter, the Hungarian bitch is going on about her passport having been stolen from her room and that it must have been someone from the hotel. Hai is getting totally pissed off and tells her to go back to her room and have a good look. She finds it but doesn’t bother to apologise. Hai is very smug and is all crinkley eyes again. He tells us that he loves coming on these trips which he does once a week. He’s happy to announce that he has a girlfriend here and a wife in Saigon.

With Brian and Turid, we go next door for a beer but it’s pretty horrid so we look up the Lonely Planet for somewhere to eat. Apparently, the best café in town is Restaurant 31 which is in this very street. We all set off the find it only to find that it’s the dump we’ve just left.

Someone suggests we look for the other restaurants down by the river so we set off through the market. This is now closed and reeks of rotting fruit and vegetables. It’s also very dark so we can’t avoid wading through the muck on the ground. We decide it would be better to go back along the main street and get to the river that way.

We find a few interesting restaurants here overlooking a park and the river beyond. We find a table on a balcony that looks down on the market and the busy street. The meal is good and we get along famously with Turid and Brian. They are soooo interesting. After dinner I suddenly feel vertigoed out so Mark and I catch a moto-cyclo back to the hotel. This is a motorbike pulling a cyclo and is unique to the Delta region. Back to our horrid room and bed.

Thursday  22nd February, 2001             Mekong Delta to Saigon

I feel much better this morning and we have breakfast in a café across the road while we watch the local market people setting up their stalls. We’re all on the bus at seven fifteen and drive for about an hour to a small canal. Here we walk down the grassy embankment to find two tiny boats waiting for us.

There’s to be six in each boat and Hai is making very sure that he’s not in the same boat as the hateful Hungarians. Mark and I do the same. The boat is only wide enough for our two bums which are sitting on a hard wooden plank. We hope we’re not going to be in it for too long.

Our first stop is the Cai Rang floating market which is a total waste of time – yet again it appears to be ‘finished’. From Cai Rang, we chug our way slowly through narrow waterways for several hours. The boat stops for us to walk through some rice paddies where women are harvesting the rice with long scythes. It looks such hot, backbreaking work.

From here we have to stop several times to unwind reeds and rubbish that’s been caught up in the propeller. Definitely had enough of this boat but the people down here are so friendly. We never seem to stop waving and ‘helloing’ especially as we get closer to the Phong Dien floating market.

This is much more like a floating market and tiny boats selling food and drinks pull up alongside us. Most of the real produce, though, is on bigger boats that display their wares by hanging a sample from a flagpole on the deck. Some have bunches of onions or other vegetables but we don’t see any real trading going on. I must say, the floating markets are definitely not what we’d expected.

The problem with most expectations is that they’re rarely lived up to. I’d pictured the Mekong Delta as lush and picturesque, which it is in some parts, but mostly it’s a congested, filthy mess with wide, ugly, brown expanses of water where the Mekong River fans out before emptying itself into the South China Sea.

Happily, at least the weather has managed to live up to our expectations of being hot and sunny. I really have been the worst sort of spoiled brat on this holiday even if it’s been mainly in my own mind. Mark may like to disagree with that – ha,ha. I love South East Asia so I know how I’m feeling isn’t normal for me. For some reason I got a set against Vietnam from the start and I just can’t shake it. Will come back one day to see it in my usual (better) frame of mind.

Near the floating market we finally get off the dreaded boat at a sort of shop/café built out over the water. Here there’s a television blaring out old Boney M clips. Hai has a ball turning it up full blast and dancing to ‘By The Rivers of Babylon’ all by himself. Now we get back into our minivan and stop half an hour later for lunch. This is the dirtiest café we’ve ever seen. Old chicken bones are scattered all over the floor and spider webs and daddy-long legs are hanging under the tables. The food is passable but we can almost see the germs.

An hour more on the bus and we arrive at Rung Tram forest and the site of a Viet Cong Army Base called Xeo Quit. Hai guides us across bridges that span small canals though the dense jungle. He shows us bunkers and shelters, lookout posts and a mine field that’s still active. Apparently the Viet Cong chose this area because of the thickness of the jungle. There’s vines and marshes and paperback trees that grew back quickly if they were fire bombed or sprayed by the Americans. It’s a scary, damp place that’s made even scarier when we see a live giant snake about eight inches in diameter in a cage near the entrance. This jungle must be teeming with these monsters.

By now we’re all dying to get back to Saigon – ‘tell me I didn’t hear him say three more hours’, Turid feels the same as me – totally over this tour. After a couple of hours we stop to buy icecreams and Mark and I buy breadrolls with tomato, cheese and chives from a little street cart. Just heaven.

Back on the bus for an incredibly hairy ride back into the city to arrive at Pham Ngu Lao about seven o’clock. No time for showers or unpacking, we head straight to Café Allez Boo for beers with Brian and Turid. Great atmosphere in here with bamboo walls, cane furniture, a bar with a thatched roof, open windows onto the busy street and old Credence Clearwater tapes playing. The place is full of backpackers and hawkers are hanging in through the windows and walking through the crowds inside. After a couple of drinks each, Mark and I decide to go back to our hotel to see if we still have a room. Luckily we’ve got our same room which is starting to feel like home. Back out to meet Brian and Turid at a nearby Indian restaurant for dinner and then an early night.

Friday 28th February, 2001                              Saigon

This morning neither of us are well and our toilet is constantly occupied. I’ve also got a sore throat so we stay in the room till eight thirty. We have breakfast in Kim Café but have to hurry back to the room for another toilet stop. Luckily we haven’t got anything planned for today so we lay around reading till lunchtime. We decide to go souvenir hunting but have lunch first at a nearby café – chicken salad roll for me and curried chicken roll for Mark.

Outside the café we ask a couple of cyclo drivers to show us where we can find souvenirs like masks and buddha statues. One driver is so bossy and keeps telling us that all the tourists love him – I doubt it. They ride us a few kilometres away to a sad looking department store  – like a mini David Jones but no customers. While we walk around the empty store, all eyes are on us and we feel almost obliged to buy. When we ask if there is more on the next floor, the woman screams something up the stairs and we hear footsteps scurrying across the floor and lights being turned on. Up here are more awful polished wood and lacquer-work ornaments and boxes like those we’d seen on the way to Halong Bay. We politely leave as soon as we can and ask to be taken back to our hotel.

We wander around outside for a while, then Mark goes up to lie down – not feeling well at all. I go to E-mail and find messages from Angie and Jillian. After some local souvenir shopping and money changing I head back to the room to get ready for our night out with Turid and Brian.

We all meet at Allez Boos again and we’re all looking very different in our posh clothes. Turid looks beautiful – the same age as me but has no wrinkles and lovely golden tanned skin. Brian is fifty-eight and looks great for his age. Mark is the handsomest man in the whole world and I’m trying to look my best. After a couple of beers we get a taxi to Vietnam House.

This is an expensive restaurant in a French villa in inner city District 1. We all have a drink at the bar before going up to the lovely dining room. We order a different set menu each so that we can try everything. Meanwhile we’re entertained by three female musicians who all look stunning in pastel coloured ao-dais. So much food arrives and it’s all traditional Vietnamese. The seafood soup and barbequed tuna is the best. We talk so much we don’t even notice that we’re soon the only ones left in the restaurant and the staff are obviously hovering around waiting for us to leave. When they start dimming the lights we finally get the hint even though it’s only ten thirty. We can’t even find anywhere else to party on so it’s another taxi back to our hotels. Brian and Turid’s hotel is totally locked up – people definitely have early nights around here. Luckily we can get into the Mien Chau and it’s straight to bed.

Saturday  24th February, 2001     Saigon to Bangkok to Sydney

Mark is feeling sick again but he manages to have breakfast at Kim Café – our favourite. We buy a wooden mask for our collection and then head back to the room to pack. Mark manages to squeeze it all in before we go out to change some money. Fortunately, or unfortunately, we pass a shop selling beautiful silk and beaded shoes and handbags. Within minutes I’ve bought five pairs of shoes, three handbags, five purses and three silk scarves. Mark somehow crams them into our already bulging bags and we set off for the airport.

We take off at 2pm for a one hour flight to Bangkok. Leave here at 6pm to arrive in Sydney at 6am Sunday morning to catch the dreaded Aero Pelican plane back to Newcastle. Thank God we’re home!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sri Lanka 2012

 

    P1020723

                                                                             Our Itinerary
Tuesday 12th June, 2012 Train to Sydney
Wednesday 13th June, 2012 Sydney 10.55am to Kuala Lumpur 5.30pm
Thursday 14th June, 2012 Kuala Lumpur 6.15am to Colombo 7.15am  to Sigirya
Friday 15th June, 2012 Sigirya  to Polonnaruwa
Saturday 16th June, 2012 Polonnaruwa to Kandy
Sunday 17th June, 2012 Kandy
Monday 18th June, 2012 Kandy to Nuwara Eliya
Tuesday 19th June, 2012 Nuwara Eliya to Arugam Bay
Wednesday 20th June, 2012 Arugam Bay
Thursday 21st June, 2012 Arugam Bay
Friday 22nd June, 2012 Arugam Bay to Unawatuna
Saturday 23rd June, 2012 Unawatuna
Sunday 24th June, 2012 Unawatuna to Negombo
Monday 25th June, 2012 Colombo 8.15am to Kuala Lumpur 2.30pm. Depart Kuala Lumpur 11.40pm
Tuesday 26th June, 2012 Sydney 9.45am

 

Tuesday 12th June, 2012       Sydney

Lauren picks us up from home at four o’clock and drives us to Hamilton Station. We kiss our darling girls goodbye – we don’t want them to see us off on the train because the Dolly became so upset when we went to Bali in March. As soon as Lauren drives away we realize that the station is closed because of track work and we have to ring her to come back and drive us to Broadmeadow.

Dolly had been okay when we left her at Hamilton but when she realizes we’re saying goodbye at Broadmeadow she starts crying and we can hear her screaming as poor Lauren drives off down the street. Oh Abi, we love you, That Girl. We’ll be away for two weeks this time – hate leaving Lauren – I wish they were coming with us.

The train trip is the usual two hours and the weather is dark and raining by the time we reach Central. From here we catch another train to St James then walk in the rain to Jillian’s in Wooloomooloo. Luckily she’s already ordered pizzas so we don’t have to go back out again on this horrible night. We have a lovely time catching up before heading for bed at 10.30am.

Wednesday 13th June, 2012      Sydney to Kuala Lumpur

An early start to have breakfast with Jillian and by 7.30am we’re walking across Hyde Park to St James Station. We don’t have to change trains at Central but go straight through to the International Terminal. Here we do our usual airport routine – check in our bags, pass through immigration, eat McDonalds and buy duty free cigarettes and Bacardi (just one bottle because I have visions of myself going easy on the fags and the booze for a change – dumb idea and I’m sure I’ll regret it).

At 11.15am we fly out on Air Asia on our incredibly cheap tickets. When we were booking for Bali in January, Mark found this flight from Sydney to Sri Lanka for $500 each return, including taxes! We do have to stay overnight in Kuala Lumpur (Air Asia’s hub) on the way over and for ten hours on the way back but we don’t care – all an experience and we’ve made plans on how to fill in our time instead of just hanging out at the airport.

Anyway, back to the plane. Mark has a window seat and I’m in the middle of him and a nice Indonesian man who I share my lollies with. After take-off, I check out the back of the plane and find two empty seats – heaven. Now I can be comfortable, reading and sleeping for a few hours while Mark works on his laptop. I chat with a young Muslim couple with their fat baby girl called Tabitha – I want our little baby!

Arrive in Kuala Lumpur at 5.30pm their time, four and a half hours behind Sydney. KL has two international airports: The Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) and the KL Low Cost Carrier Terminal (LCCT).  Air Asia monopolises the LCCT, so this is where we arrive and where we’ll depart for Sri Lanka in the morning. The flight leaves at 6am so we’ll need to check in by 3am.

This means that we’ll either have to stay at an airport hotel (sounds boring and a waste of money anyway) or crash out in the airport (sounds fun and something we’ve never done before). A few weeks ago I found a great website called Sleeping in Airports where I picked up some good advice about KL. The only problem is that we need to get to KLIA as we can’t sleep here at the LCCT for some reason.

So to get to KLIA, we need to catch an airport shuttle bus outside the busy terminal. By now it’s after six o’clock but it’s still thirty degrees and very humid – just how we like it – wonderful to be in the tropics again. Asian restaurants and fast food outlets are full while buses, cars and taxis are dropping off and picking up passengers. We like it here and feel very excited to be starting another adventure together.

The shuttle soon arrives and we pay only 3RM for the twenty minute ride to KLIA. The terminal here is much bigger and modern but lacks the buzz of the LCCT. Up escalators to the fourth floor we look for the food hall as we’re starving by now. Inside is a semi-circle of food outlets, each with a different name but all the food looks exactly the same. It also looks disgusting so we pass and decide to go up a floor.

On the fifth floor we see signs for airport accommodation and decide to check out the cost – if we can get a really cheap room we may as well take it. Of course it takes ages to find out – Mark stays with the packs while I head off on a wild goose chase from desk to desk, and up and down escalators.  Eventually I’m told that we needed to book weeks ago and anyway it’s over a hundred dollars – not paying that especially for just a few hours.

Even hungrier by now, we find McDonalds and pig out till we’re feeling sick. Funny sitting here watching very excited teenage school girls and their parents.

So now we wander around looking for the best spot to make camp. We’re following the info I’d found on the Sleeping in Airports blogs but things must have changed because we can’t find any benches in the spot they recommend. We ask some of the friendly cleaning staff about other places to sleep. One lady thinks we should go down to the third floor so off we go down in the lift yet again.

Finally we find two long benches facing each other in a remote spot that should be quiet but still close enough to the shops to be safe. Mark locks our packs to the trolley that he parks in between the seats. With our bed pillows that we always bring with us, blankets we’ve pinched off the plane, ear plugs and eye masks we settle down about ten o’clock. I love this and feel very comfy and secure. Manage to get about four hours sleep.

Thursday 14th June, 2012      Kuala Lumpur to Colombo to Dambulla toSigirya

Mark’s alarm goes off at 2:30am – both very happy to be on the move again. And also very happy that we ended up sleeping in the airport – a great experience as well as being free. Now we’ll have no worries about doing it again in the future.

Outside we find a taxi to take us back to the LCCT as the shuttle buses don’t run in the middle of the night – a shame because it costs us a lot more – 62MR instead of 3MR. Arriving at 3am at the LCCT, we’re surprised to see how many people are around already. We try checking in but there’s some confusion about our Bacardi which they want bubble wrapped. We’re not paying for that so we pretend to do it and just wrap it in some clothes and book through our packs at another counter.

With two and a half hours before takeoff, we order breakfast with coffee and tea at Old Town White Coffee then, through immigration, I sleep for an hour while Mark checks out the shops and watches a bit of Euro 2012 on tv.

We leave on time at 6:15am with – joy of joys – three seats each. The flight is only three hours but, with room to stretch out, we both sleep most of the way. We’re excited to get our first glimpse of Sri Lanka, prettily described as a little teardrop shaped island just off the southern tip of India. As we cross the coastline, dark clouds obscure the land below us and, at 6.50am, we land at Colombo airport in the rain.

We quickly get our visas and clear immigration easily. Mark talks me into buying a bottle of Bacardi – I’m to be very thankful for this later. Bag pickup is easy as well and at customs there’s no-one to be seen so we just sail through. While Mark gets out some money from an ATM (130LKR to 1AUD), I have a ciggie in the garden. Lovely here – hot and humid with the tropical rain pouring down around me.

Now we have to work out how to get to Dambulla – by bus or get a van and a driver. At the information desk we’re told that there aren’t any direct buses so we’ll have to go back into Colombo and get one from there. But since Colombo is an hour away in the opposite direction it would add two hours onto the journey – doesn’t make sense so we decide to go for the van/driver option despite it being a lot more expensive. Outside, the terminal is chaos as hundreds of people are getting in and out of taxis and buses and vans.

After bargaining with a few touts, we agree with a handsome, young man called Madu that he and his friend will drive us to Dambulla for 7,500LKR. Surely we’re being ripped off but we haven’t got time to muck around as we’ve got a lot of ground to cover in only twelve days. Our plan today is to get to Dambulla in the centre of the island, check out the famous caves then get a bus to the ancient city of Polonnaruwa.

Anyway it’s still only nine thirty by the time we leave the airport. We love the look of Sri Lanka already even though it’s still raining. The vegetation is thick, lush and green and, amazingly, we pass two trucks with elephants on the back! I ask Madu if they’re being taken to the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage which is only a couple of hours from here. He says he can make a side trip to the orphanage for a mere 4,000LKR extra. We say ‘no thanks’ but he doesn’t give up.

Actually, he’s already been driving us mad trying to talk us into having him as our driver for the whole time we’re here. No matter how many times we politely say ‘no thanks’ within a couple of minutes he’s on about it again. He tries all sorts of angles – ‘I very cheap’, ‘I very safe’, ‘I very good guide’, etc, etc …

Despite Madu being a pest we do like him and really enjoy the trip especially as the rain stops after the first hour. About half way we stop on the side of the road so that Madu’s friend can get out and leave money at a Buddhist shrine for good luck. We also visit a lake where Madu says they found an ancient golden coach on the bottom only a few years ago.

Later we stop at one of the many roadside shacks that sell coconuts, fruit and corn on the cob. An old lady wearing a faded, floral sarong is cooking the corn in a big metal urn over hot coals. I get out to have a closer look and to buy hot corn cobs for the four of us. She takes them out of the boiling water and puts them in a dish of cold water then wraps each one in corn husks so we can hold them without burning our fingers.

Back on the road we notice that the vegetation has changed by now – not as thick as on the coast and the coconut plantations have been replaced by rice paddies – a really nice drive. After three hours we arrive in Dambulla.

Dambulla is hot and sunny and quite a big town. The main reason in coming here is to visit The Golden Rock Temple but first we want to get rid of Madu. We get him to drop us at BBH restaurant in the centre of town. Even as Mark is paying him, he’s still trying to talk us into something else – whatever and goodbye!

Such a relief when he drives off and we’re on our own.

Before we do anything we want to have lunch. Inside the restaurant’s large, dark interior, we order a chicken curry which is so hot that I can’t eat it. Mark devours most of his and all the locals are getting stuck in as well – apparently most Sri Lankan dishes are super spicy so God knows what I’m going to eat.

After a visit to the loo – my first squat toilet for a while – we ask if we can leave our bags here while we visit the Temple. The ladies can’t speak much English but eventually they understand and we store our packs behind the counter.

Outside we talk to a young tuktuk driver called Nian who agrees to take us out to the Temple for 200LKR each way. We squash ourselves inside the little cabin which is decorated with colourful Buddhist hangings and a bunch of plastic grapes. We putput our way to the outskirts of town where we can see the towering Dambulla Rock looming above us.

Nian pulls into the entrance to the temple which is dominated by a giant, golden meditating Buddha. The Buddha itself sits on top of a three storey building which houses the museum and is decorated with fake, pink and white lotus flowers. The wide doorway is framed with a row of teeth so it looks like an open mouth and the pink steps up to it look like a long tongue – sounds hideous but it’s nice.

On a cliff face to the right hand side of the museum, is a line of monk statues representing the monks from the local area coming for prayer. On the other side of the museum is the beginning of the stairs that lead up to our destination – the World Heritage-listed cave temples.

We’re not sure how many stairs there are and I’m not game to ask. Better to just take our time and enjoy the views and the little market stalls that have been set up along the way. Half way up we stop for a rest and a drink.

Looking eastward, the landscape is flat except for Sigirya Rock far away in the distance. It’s a huge, grey, flat-topped blob sticking out of the surrounding green jungle. It was built as a fortress and palace in 500AD by King Kassapa as Sri Lanka’s capital. Now it’s another World Heritage site and we plan to climb it tomorrow – attempt to anyway – it looks HUUGE!

Now, though, we still have the rest of Dambulla Rock to climb. Finally at the top we need to take off our shoes and Mark has to rent a sarong because we’re entering a temple area. We hire an old man called Manu to be our guide through the cave complex. He tells us that the five caves were cut out of the rock by the Sinhala kings and made into temples that contain hundreds of Buddhist statues and paintings. Inside, the ceilings are painted with intricate patterns of religious portraits that follow the contours of the rock – very well

 

We stop at a Hindu shrine to have white string wrapped around our wrists for luck then Mark prays with Manu in front of a tall Buddha. We really like the whole place – the caves have a wonderful atmosphere helped by the uplighting at the base of the statues.

On the way back down we stop to watch monkeys being naughty in a tree and Mark buys a couple of t-shirts from a man who is very grateful for his sale. At the bottom we climb the steps to the golden Buddha. We stop to make friends with three local ladies wearing all-white dresses and carrying purple water lilies which we’re told is Sri Lanka’s national flower.

Time now to head back to town and find a way of getting to Polonnaruwa. Nian hasn’t turned up yet so we wait in the shade of a spreading tree then try to get a close-up photo of a big male monkey. Soon our tuktuk arrives and we’re sharing the ride (very squashy) with a friendly Aussie guy who’s heading to Arugam Bay from Dambulla – might run into him out there.

At BHH Restaurant we pick up our bags, thanking the ladies for watching them for us. Across the road is the main bus stop for Polonnaruwa and we buy water from a nearby bakery for the trip. Lots of people are waiting for buses that come every minute or so, most heading north to Anuradapura and even to Jaffna at the very top of the island. Before our own bus arrives we’re convinced by a funny guy called Kalau into going to Sigirya in his tuktuk today then head for Polonnaruwa tomorrow.

We like the plan so we’re soon speeding out of town with a beaming Kalau, who’s overjoyed to have got a fare. We ask him about getting beer in Sigirya but he’s not sure so he stops at a sort of bottle shop made of odd bits of corrugated iron. Mark buys a few Lion longnecks (giving one to Kalau) and cracks one himself already – great to be on holidays

The forty minute drive is very pretty, passing all sorts of fruit trees – avocado, bread fruit, cashew nut – vegetable gardens and young plant nurseries.  Kalau is a good guide pointing out things on the way.

Sigirya is perfect – a tiny village across a pretty stream on a bend in the road. There are about twenty little shops, guesthouses and cafes – all very basic.  We’re hoping to get a room at The Flower Inn as I loved the images of it on Tripadvisor – and it’s cheap.

But before we check it out, Kalau wants to show us Sigirya Rock which is only a few hundred metres past the village. This is excellent as we’ll easily be able to walk this far tomorrow if we can get a room here tonight. Now, we turn off the road onto a gravel laneway overhung with flowering trees and vines to find The Flower Inn sitting cutely in its own garden.

Breetney, the jolly owner, greets us like old friends and shows us a darling room just off the verandah – aqua blue cement walls, pink floral bedspreads, pink mosquito nets and a lino floor. We even have our own bathroom with an adorable yellow frog sitting on the sink. The best part, though, is the little windows that open outwards into the garden, letting the sun pour in. All this for just $12AUD!

Feeling tired by now, we rest till 6pm with the overhead fan keeping us cool. On dark we set off to find somewhere to eat and drink. Just outside the laneway we see an elephant walking along the road – how could we not love it here? Further along we come across the Sigirya Rest House which is a sort of semi-upmarket place but just shabby enough for us to like it. A large open-sided room with dining tables and chairs and a few lounge areas is perfect for a few drinks.

From here we find a small, simple café in the village where we order chicken noodles and chicken fried rice. The owner’s little boy is in a walker and we’re sad to see that there’s something awfully wrong with the poor little one – he seems to be very loved, though.

We walk back to The Flower Inn in the warm night air which is a bit stinky in the laneway – must be cows next door. Now it’s time for bed after an excellent first day. Tomorrow we’ll attempt to climb Sigirya Rock then get to Polonnaruwa somehow or other.

I don’t think we could have had a better first day!

Friday 15th June, 2012      Sigirya to Polonnaruwa

I wake at 5.30am after a deep sleep but Mark is still sleeping bunny for another hour. Breetney serves us breakfast at seven o’clock on the verandah – pineapple, banana, toast (good for Asia), scrambled eggs, marmalade, tea and Kopi. This is a lovely setting with the flower garden all around us and birds singing in the trees – we’re very lucky to have found this pretty place right in the village.

Meanwhile, the cow manure smell is still hanging around but Mark thinks it might be an elephant instead – Breetney says he’s right. There are two elephants living right next door to us! – will check them out after breakfast. While we’re eating we chat to the only other guests – a friendly, young Japanese couple who are off to climb the Rock this morning as well. We also ask Breetney if she can organize a tuktuk to take us to Polonnaruwa after lunch.

Before leaving for the Rock, we go next door to visit the elephants – ‘elephants at river’ we’re told – and here they are being bathed by their mahouts and having a wonderful time lying on their sides and doing lots of poops – huge things the size of basketballs that float on top of the water. This is the prettiest place with a big tree overhanging the river which is very shallow at the moment – hasn’t rained here for ages apparently.

We ask about having a ride after we finish the climb, so we organize to meet back here about eleven o’clock. We don’t have enough cash on us though, so the owner doubles Mark on his motor bike to the next village to get some money. Meanwhile I enjoy watching the elephants – not something you do every day. Twenty minutes later, Mark has returned so we go back to our room to get our day packs ready for our walk/climb.

Now we set off on foot through the village turning left after a few hundred metres onto a dirt road leading to the Rock. I can see that we’ll have at least a kilometer to walk before we even get to the entrance, so I’m very happy when a lone tuktuk offers us a lift. The road follows the edge of the moat that surrounds the rock palace and the grounds below it. We see monkeys playing on an ancient stone wall and a tree that’s grown around a boulder reminding us of Ta Phrom in Cambodia.

At the entrance we buy our US$30 each ticket from an office next to a pond completely covered in pink flowering water lilies. A pesky man wants to be our guide but we can’t understand a word he’s saying and tell him nicely to bugger off – we’d rather be by ourselves anyway – we’ll read the Lonely Planet as we go.

 

We must be punished because the sole of one of Mark’s boots comes away but he manages to tie his shoelace around the front of his boot to keep it in place – an ideas man. Meanwhile the walking shoes I’d brought with me have already been dumped at The Flower Inn as the whole sole had come off one of them. This means that I’m wearing my old brown flatties and socks for the long climb – could be a good excuse if I can’t make it – there’s always a bright side.

Okay, so now we’re ready to get to the summit of this 370 metre high granite peak (guide book info). It’s hot already even though it’s still only eight o’clock. Before going up too far we check out the reception areas and the Cobra Cave. Uncountable stone stairs lead us to lots of other levels; one a big flat rock where the king and queen had meetings and held court.

For the next hour we keep climbing up and up – stone steps, open stairways and a spiral metal staircase to some cave paintings. At one stage we meet the Japanese couple from breakfast coming back down. We finally reach the Lions Paw Terrace which is a large, flat area about halfway up the rock. From here we can see the Lion Staircase (steep metal stairs attached to the side of the Rock) that look almost as steep as a ladder. A local man called Ratna walks with me holding onto my hand and pointing out things on the way – I guess we have a guide after all.

At last we reach the top where the king’s palace was built over fifteen hundred years ago. Can’t believe I actually made it and I’m not even sore or tired – might be a different story tomorrow. Mark stands on three bricks to be the highest person here – he’s very competitive!

Ratna points out the swimming pool which is full of water even now. Also the queen’s bedrooms and the king’s seat carved into the rock which had channels of water running around it to keep him cool. Lush, green jungle extends in every direction and we can see a white standing Buddha, Dambulla Rock and a large lake towards Polonnaruwa far in the distance.

Back down to the Lions Paw Gate, I give Ratna a good tip but he turns into a little shit. He isn’t at all happy and keeps whinging for more – I don’t like him anymore. The walk back down from here is easy. At the bottom we see what we now realize is the real Cobra Cave – much more impressive. We head for the car park which means navigating a maze of little shops. I make the fatal mistake of making eye contact with a wooden jigsaw puzzle so we get mercilessly hassled until we gratefully escape in a tuktuk back to The Flower Inn.

Now it’s almost time for our elephant ride but first I have a cold shower and change my clothes. A tall platform reached by rough wooden stairs has been built to make it easy to get onto the elephant’s back. Years ago when we went elephant riding in the jungles of northern Thailand, the poor elephant had to get on its knees for us to scramble onto its back so this is a much easier method all round.

I’m no sooner about to climb aboard when I have to race back to our room for a kabumbah – I take an Imodeon so I’ll be safe for a few hours at least. Second time lucky, and soon we’re both sitting in the basket on Raja’s back. He’s a twenty nine year old male and very tall which is why we feel so high off the ground. His mahout is Muttiah and we’re also accompanied by Deva who grabs our cameras taking photos the whole way. He seems to know what he’s doing and it looks like we’ll have hundreds of photos and video footage to pick from.

Raja walks us through the village towards Sigirya Rock then through a jungly area next to a lake. It’s very eventful seeing troops of monkeys, Raja doing lots of poopadoops and Deva blowing bubbles with a soap plant. Muttiah also gets Rajah to do tricks for us. He throws his trunk up into the air and blows like a trumpet and very cleverly puts his right front leg up on a stump and lifts his hind leg up off the ground – God love him.

Now Deva (who, so far, hasn’t drawn breath and keeps calling us Mrs. Virginia and Mr. Mark – hilarious) gets me to climb onto Raja’s head – a bit scary getting on but I’ve always wanted to ride an elephant this way. Mark and Lauren have already done it at different times in Thailand, so now it’s my turn. I love it even when Deva gets Raja to pull on a vine and my legs are nearly crushed between his head and his shoulder.

We finally come to an elephant camp next to a lake which is just below Sigirya Rock. With Raja wading out into the deeper water, we have photos with the rock behind us before heading back to the village. Just on the outskirts we stop at a family home for Raja to have a drink as well as spray us with water.

Muttiah throws a bucket into the well then pulls it back up with a rope. Raja drinks a couple then sucks up a few more before throwing his trunk back and shooting the water straight at us – great fun and good to get wet even if it’s probably half elephant snot.

More poops on the way back to the village and The Flower Inn. Ready to keep moving, we have cold showers, pack and pay 2400LKR for our room. We share two Lion Lagers as we wait for the tuktuk to Polonnaruwa that Breetney had promised to arrange for us. After half an hour, she finally gets around to telling us that ‘tuk tuk no happen today’.

I want to see if we can get one from someone else but Mark is up for an adventure catching local buses. I know he’s right so we wait out the front for a bus to take us back to Dambulla. It’s in the opposite direction to Polonnaruwa but there aren’t any buses direct from here. While we wait, I sit on our packs in the shade of an awning while Mark buys water from a little shop.

The Dambulla bus arrives at 12.30 – only 62LKR (about 50 cents) for both of us. With a cooling breeze coming in through the open windows, I love this trip. Mark is happy filming a little girl and her mother then playing it back to them – lots of giggles. At first we’re driving incredibly slow as we pass through tiny villages but then, in the middle of nowhere, we eventually come to a total standstill – we have a flat tyre!

The driver looks bewildered and all the passengers gradually get off and stand on the road behind the bus. No-one can speak English but we figure we’d better do the same. All the ladies have put up umbrellas to keep off the burning sun but I have to stay in the shade of the bus. Eventually another bus is flying towards us and soon we’re happily sailing towards Dambulla – music blaring, of course.

In Dambulla, we’re dropped off almost opposite the bus stop where we got the tuktuk to Sigirya yesterday and quickly cross the road to wait for a Polonnaruwa bus. We have to ask people each time a bus pulls up if it’s the right one but at last we’re on our way. It’s almost full but we manage to get a seat each even though we’re not together. By the time we leave, there’s standing room only but mainly with local school kids dressed in pure white uniforms who get off after a few stops. Mark is right at the back and makes friends with a grandmother and her two grandkids. He takes their photos and a video so he can replay it for them. After an hour, we stop at a small roadside shop where we buy yogurt while the two ladies sharing my seat buy plumbago plants at a small nursery next door.

For the next hour we pass through Habarana and Girithale and a few small towns before reaching the huge tank (a man-made lake) built by King Vijayabahu a thousand years ago. Now on the outskirts of Polonnaruwa we can see some of the many temples and dagobas of the ancient city that we’ll visit tomorrow – too hot and tired today and, anyway, we’ve read that it’s better to go in the cool of the morning.

As we get off the bus in the old city, Mark’s new friends say goodbye with heartfelt handshakes. From here we look for Samudra Guest House but after the owner shows us the dreary rooms, we decide to check out the Devi Tourist Inn that Breetney in Sigirya had recommended. Apparently it’s outside of the old town centre, but then it looks pretty shabby and uneventful here anyway so we’re happy to check it out.

So now we find a tuktuk which heads out of town to a pretty area of laneways and local houses. Diva is an attractive bungalow painted bright yellow and shaded by tall trees and coconut palms. The owner is Darina – a fat, cheery Breetney replica – maybe they’re sisters? When we tell her that Breetney had recommended that we stay here, she’s thrilled – ‘I must rrrring her’ she says, rushing off after showing us our room.

This is excellent with air-con and hot water – good value at only 300rp a night. I’m exhausted so I have a sleep while Mark reads outside on our little verandah with the call to prayer coming from the local mosque. Darina calls us for dinner at 6:30pm. The meal is set up in an indoor/outdoor room with overhead fans and dark furniture. Noodles, soup and french fries are all good, if a bit scarce.

Later we have drinks on our verandah while we write up the diary together. Geckos keep us amused and we have bets on which one will be the next to catch an insect. Mark wants to have his wicked way with me but I’m still tired so I go to bed early and he stays up till 10.30pm reading and drinking beer.

 

An even better day than yesterday!!

Saturday 16th June, 2012     Polonnaruwa to Kandy

This morning we wake early as we want to see the ruins before getting a bus to Kandy. By 6am we’re outside exploring the quiet little, shaded laneways under clear, blue skies. Big, airy houses with deep verandahs, thick gardens, flowering hedges, banana trees and glimpses of green rice paddies make for a lovely walk. We watch an old man wearing a temple sarong picking flowers for offerings and see gardeners at work behind tall gates. It reminds us of our time spent in Anjuna in Goa in 2005.The funny thing is that every house seems to have a dog and we set them all off barking at once. The best bit is when I pick a red hibiscus to put in my hair.

Breakfast is at seven o’clock – pineapple, banana, avocado, toast, one scrambled egg between two of us, tea and kopi all cooked by our lovely hostess, Darina.

At 7.45am we meet our tuktuk driver in the laneway as we’d arranged yesterday. He’d told us that he can get us into the ancient city for $20US each instead of $40US each by sneaking us in the back way. Darina isn’t happy when we tell her so we ‘promise’ we’ll make him take us through the main entrance and pay the full fare – NOT!!

Anyway, now we’re ready to see old Polonnaruwa. This was the second capital of ancient Sri Lanka and nowadays, of course, it’s another UNESCO World Heritage site – hence the hefty entrance fee.

 

We fly through the laneways and out onto the main road that runs alongside the massive lake. On the opposite side of the road are brilliant green rice paddies and groves of coconut palms. Further on we turn onto another dirt road that follows a pretty canal where we see people washing their clothes and others going in for the full body bath. Everyone waves to us and we even see two mongoose (mongeese?) on the side of the road.

We’re taken to lots of different ruins with short tuktuk rides in between. We like Park Island which has a deep stone pool filled with water and overhung with weeping willows. At another spot overlooking the lake, our guide shows us where the king and queen bathed and the audience room with a lion throne. Another big carved lion must have been very happy with a huge penis hard-on. I talk to a local teacher with a group of teenage girls on a school excursion.

From here we drive back around the canal to the main area. We see a tall fig tree strangling a stone wall – another reminder of Ta Phrom – then visit a big white dagoba and a crematory dagoba before the long, hot walk to the carving area. Cut out of the rock face is a reclining Buddha, a standing Buddha and a sitting Buddha. Apparently these are extra special so tin roofed shelters have been erected to protect them but ironically they ruin the whole atmosphere.

Walking back in the scorching sun towards the white dagoba, we come across my favourite temple – a tall stone structure open to the sky because, like all the buildings here, the wooden roof fell to bits a millennium ago. Inside is dominated by a thirty foot high statue at the far end which is missing its head for some reason. I love it here and sit quietly having an unexpected and emotional spiritual connection – are you here, Angie? I love you, my little one, my heart is hurting today.

Later outside, we sit in the shade to cool down while watching the Sri Lankan tourists. From here we walk to see more ruins then drive to another big dagoba nearby – the last one for the trip – templed out by now.

Back at Diva Guest House, we shower, pack, then pay Darina 7000LKR for our accommodation, beers, cokes, dinner and brekky. Our tuktuk driver has waited for us so we set out for the bus station with Darina and her husband waving us off. Luckily they never asked if we paid the full price to see the ruins.

The bus station is in the new town of Polonnaruwa but it only takes about ten minutes to get there. We’re very lucky as we barely have time to jump on before the bus pulls out. Luck is also on our side that we can get seats together for the four hour trip. So now we’re off to Kandy!

We haven’t brought any food with us but we assume we’ll stop somewhere for a toilet break like we did yesterday on the way from Dambulla – wrong!  We only stop to let people on or off but we manage to buy bunches of rambutan from a hawker who jumps onto the bus then later hot corn cobs from another hawker near Dambulla.

Leaving Dambulla, we climb slowly and steadily through rice paddies and spice gardens. Mark reads most of the way but I never get tired of looking out the window. As we climb higher we pass through the busy towns of Katugastota and Matale finally reaching Kandy about three o’clock.

This is the country’s second largest city and was the last capital of ancient Sri Lanka. It’s very popular with both overseas and local tourists not just because of its history but also because of its beautiful setting.  It sits on the edge of Kandy Lake surrounded by mountains mostly covered with thick forests and tea plantations.

The bus terminates at the main bus station which is incredibly hectic and we’re surprised to see how busy the whole town seems to be. As soon as we jump off the bus, tuktuk drivers are ready to pounce and we’re soon speeding towards The Pink House which is the guesthouse we’ve chosen from the Lonely Planet.

To get there we pass the Queens Hotel and beautiful Kandy Lake then uphill a hundred metres to be dropped at the door. The Pink House is a cute family-run guesthouse surrounded by greenery and painted a candy coloured – you guessed it – pink.

The tiny owner comes out to greet us, very happy to have more guests. He shows us our room which is just off the garden – basic but clean and we have our own bathroom for 1500LKR. The other rooms are all inside the main part of the house which has a shabby but very appealing old-world atmosphere. A few feral looking travellers are lounging around on the closed-in verandah at the front.

The family lives in a smaller house behind and attached to the Pink House by a covered walkway. Here a long wooden table and chairs have been set up for meals but I think we’ll be eating in town as we don’t want to miss out on anything.

After resting for an hour, we’re up at four o’clock ready to explore Kandy. The little owner wants to show us the closest shop, for some unknown reason, so he walks with us down the hill and along the edge of the lake. We thank him at the shop and buy the three of us an ice cream each. The problem is that he’s still hanging around like a bad smell and now wants to go with us to the Kandy Cultural Centre where we hope to see the Kandyan Dancers. Okay, we’ve finally worked out why – obviously he’ll get a handout for taking us there but we want to go to the Queens Hotel first, so we ever-so-nicely, ‘fuck him off’.

So, from the shop we continue our walk around the lake to the main part of town. We can see the British colonial Queens Hotel looking majestic and glowing white on the opposite bank with the Temple of the Tooth alongside – more about that later.

At the Queens we ask to look at a room and book in for tomorrow night – only $80US to stay in this gorgeous historical place. Built one hundred and sixty years ago as the Governor’s residence, it’s one of Sri Lanka’s oldest hotels. We’re very excited as we thought it would be way out of our price range.

To celebrate we settle in for drinks in the Mountbatten Bar. The bar is obviously named after Lord Mountbatten of Burma who used to stay here when he was the Supreme Allied Commander of South East Asia – I love all this British colonial history and want to learn more!

We also order a club sandwich and chicken burger – too much for me – and are running late to get to the dance show. At 5.30pm, we hurry past the busy Temple of the Tooth where we’re befriended by another little man – a replica of our little Pink House man and who also wants to take us to the Cultural Centre – apparently he’s a ‘master dancer’ whatever that’s supposed to mean. He goes on and on, ‘I good man’ and tells us that he helps visitors ‘not for money’ but to gain ‘good karma’ – heard that one before. He keeps saying that he doesn’t want anything from us, he’s just ‘good man’ – whatever! Then of course, when we get to the door, he’s got his hand out – another little shit!

Now we settle in for the show and get front row seats upstairs. This is a great view for the one hour performance of ten different dances, the national anthem (where we all have to stand up) and the dramatic fire walking finale. We enjoy it all but one hour is definitely enough – the performers are a bit amateurish but they’re hearts are in it and the costumes are impressive.

Time for a drink so we find a tuktuk to take us uphill to the PUB where we sit on the rooftop terrace that looks down over Kandy. The view is beautiful with the lake in front of us and the lights of the town spread out below. Besides this, a group of Chinese guys are getting very drunk and a couple of interesting dreadlocked, backpacker ‘couples’ (gay) make for good people watching. We get very drunk ourselves and I serenade Mark in the tuktuk all the way home.

Straight to bed but then I wake in the middle of the night looking for the loo but I can’t see a bloody thing and have to wake Mark to help me find the light switch. I promise him that he can sleep in tomorrow as a thank you.

Sunday 17th June, 2012     Kandy

I wake Mark at 6:30am (yes, that’s your sleep-in) as I want to get lots done today – tea plantations, a massage and Temple of the Tooth for a start. After showers, I find a litter of cute kittens to cuddle and we see monkeys on the roof of the house next door – a good start to the day.

We decide to get to the Temple for the morning session so we walk around the winding road on the edge of the lake towards town. On the way we stop at an interesting looking monastery which is home to the monks who administer the tooth relic temple. No one is around at the moment – must all be at the temple. Closer to town we see the water level control system for the lake. This is because it’s not a real lake but another manmade tank – heaps of them in Sri Lanka.

In town we look for an ATM but the only one we can find doesn’t take our card. We’ll try somewhere else later. At the moment we’re in a small street near the side entrance to the Temple. A row of market stalls sell colourful flowers, including the amazing lotus that worshippers buy for offerings.

The Temple won’t be open for a while so we look for somewhere to have breakfast. We find a simple café popular with locals who are all tucking into what looks to me like mountains of food. When the waiter comes over we just point to what everyone else is eating and soon end up with an array of dishes in front of us – dosas with sambals on flat bread with a few chili dishes. Thank God we’ve got water with us because it’s too hot for me – chili hot but temperature cold – bloody awful, I think, but Mark loves it all.

Nearby we find a colourful Hindu temple where all the worshippers are dressed in white. Inside is a garden with a central pavilion surrounded by smaller chambers. Strangely, one is inhabited by an old Buddhist monk who welcomes us inside his bright yellow room. All the walls are decorated with vividly coloured Buddha paintings and he proudly shows us photos taken of him with the Dalai Lama.

He ties white string around our wrists and blesses us each with a long chanting session. Of course he asks for a donation and we’re happy to give him 1000LKR for the lovely experience.

From here we find another ATM but this time we’re short of funds so now we’ll have to find an internet place so we can transfer money from another account. Before that we stop at Queens Pastry Corner – it doesn’t sell pastry and it’s not on a corner, but it does sell cakes and that’s what I want. Because it’s part of the Queens Hotel, it’s very English so we have a posh chocolate cake, tea and kopi.

An internet café is next so we can shuffle money then back to the ATM where we finally withdraw our cash. While Mark is doing all this, I’ve been sitting on a ledge in the arcade surrounding the Queens Hotel. A local man stops to say hello as he recognizes me from our guesthouse. His name is Barda (or something like that) and says, ‘Madam, don’t you remember me? I clean floors in your hotel’. I don’t recognise him but I say I do anyway, in case I hurt his feelings.

He asks me what our plans are for today then gives us lots of good advice about other things we can do. Apparently it’s better for us to go to the Temple of the Tooth tonight so we can see a group of traditional musicians playing, as they’re not there in the morning.

I ask him where we can get an Ayervedic massage and he says he can take us to a good place. Firstly he can show us a true local market that most tourists don’t know about. So off we go.

The market is interesting as all fresh food markets are – rice, fish, fruit and vegetables. The meat section is typically gross with disgusting entrails hanging from hooks, other unrecognizable organs and buffalo tails complete with hair. Upstairs is the fabric section where I buy a pashmina and a gorgeous orange skirt.

Outside the three of us squeeze into a tuktuk for the twenty minute drive to the massage place high up in the hills overlooking the city. It seems that we’ve come all this way because Barda tells us that this is a ‘true’ Ayervedic place. It’s hard to work out what’s so special about it but apparently Ayervedic medicine doesn’t just deal with the symptoms of disease like western medicine. It’s holistic, so it’s about the spiritual, emotional and mental aspects of a person’s life as well. It’s got something to do with all the herbs and spices used in the massage oils that are supposed to do the trick. Anyway, we really don’t give a shit because we just want a massage, man!

Anyway, for 7200LKR we end up with a one hour and ten minute workout accompanied by buckets of warm oil. Then we’re taken to separate rooms where we lie in a steam bath for twenty minutes. This is a creepy, iron-lung looking contraption – hot as hell and scarily claustrophobic. Mark calls out, ‘are you in the log?’ which cracks me up to imagine him having the same torture treatment. I’m so over it and can’t wait to get out of the bloody thing! At last we’re released to have warm showers that only manage to wash away some of the oil. Outside, Barda and our tuktuk driver have disappeared so the owners have to ring someone else to get us – can’t say we’ve enjoyed it much at all.

On the way back we get texts from Lauren to say that our Dolly isn’t well. She points to her tummy saying ‘tic’ then throws up. We text back and forth then end up ringing Lauren. We both feel sad and worried then I have an Angie meltdown and can’t stop crying. Mark helps me and soon I feel a bit better.

We get dropped back at the Pink House where we pack then get another tuktuk to take us to the Queens Hotel. This will definitely be one of the highlights of our trip. The grand foyer has a black and white marble floor, velvet curtains, chandeliers, potted palms, walnut furniture and rotating overhead fans. A magnificent staircase with walnut wooden banisters and a thick maroon carpet leads up to the rooms.

A porter takes us up in the old wrought iron lift to the second floor to Room at 304. We have a big bedroom and a sitting room with dark polished floors as well as a beautifully restored bathroom – like stepping back a hundred years. Our two windows look out over the lake and the Temple entrance so we’ve got a great room.

Lunch is at the Mountbatten Bar – club sandwiches, a beer for Mark and a fresh pineapple juice for me. A wedding is being held in the reception room and women in gorgeous gold-trimmed saris are wandering around. They proudly line up when I ask if I can take their photos. I even seek out the reception and stick my head in for a look. Tired now, so we head upstairs for an afternoon siesta.

On dusk we get ready for our visit to the temple but naturally have a drink in the Mountbatten Bar first – we love being on holidays! Crossing to the temple gate, some ladies tie a wrap around my shoulders and Mark has to wear a sarong.

Lots of people carrying floral offerings are making their way down the long path and across the moat to the main temple which is already jam packed. We squeeze our way past the people lined up to file past the precious tooth till we find a good spot to sit on the floor where we can watch the ceremony.

I suppose here that I should explain what all the fuss is about. The Temple of the Tooth is one of Buddhism’s most sacred temples. It’s said that there are only three of the Buddha’s teeth in the world – one in India, one in Thailand and this one in Sri Lanka. A load of rubbish but it’s what they believe.

And you can’t see the tooth because it’s kept in a series of golden, jewel-covered caskets behind an altar inside a carefully guarded shrine. The caskets are brought out once a year, but the tooth itself is never displayed – is it really there at all?

Anyway, everyone here obviously believes it – pilgrims come from all over the world to be at one of these twice-daily rituals. The tension is mounting and more and more people (all dressed in white) take up every inch of space. Meanwhile the musicians are making a racket downstairs so I sneak off for a look while Mark minds our spot.

I love watching them. One man is playing a flute-like instrument while four others are playing drums. They’re all bare chested wearing white turbans and sarongs with wide red cumberbunds – very spectacular especially in this vast imposing space. What I love most about it is that this isn’t a tourist performance – this is spiritually and religiously meaningful to the whole tooth ritual thing

Back upstairs, the ceremony starts with hundreds of people slowly parading through the inner sanctum where the tooth is safely tucked away. After about thirty minutes we’ve had enough, so we spend the next hour exploring the other buildings. We join crowds of pilgrims squashing into a small room to see a marble Buddha then to outer buildings holding more Buddha images. An area on the temple wall overlooking the moat is beautiful with hundreds of candles flickering in the calm night-air darkness.

By now we’re hungry, so we leave by the side entrance as we want to eat at the Old Empire Hotel. This is a historic, colonial place a bit worse for wear but the real thing – love it. The dining room is painted a faded pink with a polished dark wooden dado, lovely time-worn tables and chairs, arched windows and Victorian pendant lights hanging from the high ceiling. There’s nothing posh about it, though – probably not much has changed since it was built over a hundred years ago.

A very old man brings us the menu and another very old man brings us our vegetable soup – adorable. The food is excellent and cheap but, most of all, we just like soaking up the atmosphere.

Afterwards we walk across to the Queens Bar which isn’t inside the hotel but in the arched arcade that runs around it on three sides. This is where we’d met Barda this morning. Now as we reach the Bar, we have another man approach us – all teeth and gushy – ‘Madam, don’t you remember me? I am cook in your hotel’. Now where have I heard something like that before? Suddenly the doorman rushes out and tells him to ‘piss off’ while ushering us inside. Okay, now I get it! Of course, that little shit, Barda, never did work in our hotel – dumb of me not to have realized. As if our crappy little guesthouse would pay someone to clean the floors! Feel a bit stupid but it’s all pretty harmless.

Anyway, the Queens Bar is fantastic with the most gorgeous antique bar we’ve ever seen. This is another stepping back in time place with pressed metal ceilings, slowly swirling ceiling fans, polished floors and coloured glass arched windows. And I can smoke!

We spend an hour drinking beer and Bacardi and making friends with a German couple who are leaving for Arugam Bay tomorrow. Later we walk down the street to an upstairs bar where we can sit on the verandah overlooking the street. I don’t like it as much as the Queens so we go back to enjoy more of the old world atmosphere. We sit on stools at the bar chatting to the lovely little barman then have photos taken with him.

Bed at 11pm after a great day.

Monday 18th June, 2012     Kandy to Nuwara Eliya

This morning we’ve set the alarm for 6am as we’re leaving Kandy today for Nuwara Eliya and we want to get to the station by eight o’clock. Breakfast is at 7am in the Queens posh dining room. We eat everything – fruits, cereal, bacon and eggs with tea and coffee. Another special experience – I love everything about this place.

Outside we catch a tuktuk to the train station only five minutes away. We line up to buy our tickets for the 8:20 train but have to wait until the ticket office opens. Incredibly we only pay about three dollars each for the four hour trip.

On the platform we meet a friendly English couple as well as talking to lots of other nice local passengers as the train is an hour late and no-one seems to know what’s going on. Mark wanders off to buy some food but it looks disgusting so he can have it all.

At 9:20am we eventually pull out on a funny old train with lots of spare sets. However, this comfort is short-lived as we have to get off two stops later at Peradeniya Junction where we jump onto another train that’s already packed to the rafters. The poor people on this train have been waiting for us for an hour but no-one seems to mind.

For the first hour, we have to sit on the step at the open doorway but then a nice local man gets up to give me his seat. Mark still has to sit in the doorway but he loves it anyway.

Actually we both love every minute of this trip. It’s what we like about travelling on our own – especially using public transport. The people are gorgeous – they’re having a great time swapping seats and a couple of kids are moving from lap to lap. As we climb higher into the hills the weather changes from hot, sunny Kandy to cool, misty pine forests. And because all the big windows are wide open, we really get to feel the difference. The train is also struggling with the ascent and we’re literally moving at a snail’s pace.

I love hanging out the doorway to watch the end of the train curling behind us as we wind our way around the bends. We stop at a few little stations where men jump on selling rotti and fruit. We buy a bunch of peanuts as we’re getting hungry by now.

The scenery is also spectacular – waterfalls, views through deep valleys towards the south coast, people carrying bundles of sticks on their heads, Buddhist temples and tea pickers in the endless tea plantations.

It’s well after midday when we eventually crawl into Nano Oya which is the closest station to Nuwara Eliya. In the cold mountain air, we cram into a minibus with a French family who I try not to hate but I do anyway. Within fifteen minutes we reach Nuwara Eliya – a small, British hill station surrounded by mist covered peaks.

The story goes that a group of British officers came across Nuwara Eliya during the earlier part of the 19th century when they became lost while hunting elephants. At that time it was just a tiny village but was changed by the British almost overnight when it became a popular escape from the heat and humidity of the coast.

Now as we drive into town, we feel like we’re in a Little Britain time warp. The centre is busy with markets and shops but the outskirts are like a journey into the past – colonial villas, rose gardens, a golf course and country-club-styled hotels. We drop the French family off at St. Andrew’s which is a picturesque old Tudor mansion tucked away down its own little lane close to the heart of town. It’s obviously too expensive for us so we drive on to check out the Grosvenor Hotel. We have a quick look inside but it’s strangely cold and lifeless so we agree to look at our driver’s hotel called The Trevene.

This rambling, old white house is built on the side of a small hill just behind the town centre. Our hostess is Nisa – a jovial, helpful lady with a baby girl on her hip. She shows us to our room which has old fashioned dark furniture and a tiny sitting room attached. Our bathroom is huge with hot water – we hope so anyway, as we’re really cold by now. After pulling on layers of clothes (I look like a bag lady) we check out the cosy, old sitting room and dining room, both with open fires. It’s all very cute and homey with vases of plastic flowers everywhere.

On the pretty glassed-in verandah, Nisa brings us a welcome pot of tea before we order soup for lunch. Later I see her re-arranging the flowers which aren’t fake at all but fresh from her sister’s nursery.

We ask her about getting to the Grand Hotel so she gets someone to drive us there in the Trevene van. The Grand is very grand – a sort of mock Tudor with a gabled roof and half timbering on the top floor. The gardens are vast and very English with clipped hedges, topiary, winding paths with flower borders and white garden furniture scattered across the lawns. We see a few couples taking photos but not what we’d expect – the women are in the full burka and there are lots more of them inside. Apparently Middle Eastern people like to come here on holidays for the cool climate – makes sense but it looks bizarre in these very British surroundings.

Of course, we’re after the bar and soon find it in a big, wood-paneled room with dim lighting and carpeted areas for comfortable sofas and chairs. Chandeliers hang from the intricate ceiling while century-old black and white photographs of The Grand decorate the walls. The beers come in huge mugs and, considering the surroundings, are surprisingly cheap at only $6 each.

Now we walk to Victoria Park where Mark thinks it’s a good idea for a stroll but it costs money to walk through and I think it’s too cold as well. I win, because I’m a pain, so we end up catching a tuktuk to the bus station. We’re looking for a bus to get us to Arugam Bay tomorrow but the trip looks like it’ll take too long so we decide to go with the van idea instead.

We talk to a young guy lurking around and who obviously sees us as potential customers for transport to Arugam Bay. He takes us across the road to a man called Bandu with a very dodgy looking van but we’re promised that he’ll borrow a new one for the long trip to the west coast. It’s expensive at 13,000LKR ($100 bucks) but it’s direct so we go with it. To compensate we’re given a ‘free’ lift to St Andrew’s Hotel. Bandu has his little boy with him and we stop on the way so he can buy fish for their dinner from a roadside vendor.

In minutes we pull up again at St Andrew’s – that other lovely old colonial hotel built during the British occupation. Outside, it looks about the same size as The Grand but inside seems smaller and cosier and we like it better. It’s very English with old customs that are still maintained to the letter. In the small bar, I have a Margarita and Mark has a beer – bloody expensive at $17 AUD – wtf? Pissed off paying this much and getting pissed off with each other – not really, but we have fun pretending to be ‘mean’. Don’t think we know the meaning of a real argument.

From here we walk into the town centre to look for an ATM. After getting our money, we decide to catch a tuktuk back to the Trevene instead of walking as it’s getting very cold in the late afternoon air. Back in our room we have a ‘snuggle’ in bed to warm up before getting all ‘poshed’ up for our night out at The Hill Club.

Forget St Andrews and The Grand, apparently this old stone-clad hotel is the epitome of Nuwara Eliya’s colonial past and having dinner here is supposed to be a unique experience.

We’ve read that it’s all very upmarket and the men even have to wear a suit. We’ve come moderately prepared but we’re improvising for the most part and don’t know if they’ll let us in. Mark is wearing the black jeans he wore on the plane, which we hope will pass for black trousers if you don’t look too close. He’s brought a long sleeved shirt and a tie which do look the part, but his hiking boots and plastic jacket are a bit dodgy. I’m wearing a long black skirt, my crappy flat brown shoes that I wore to the top of Sigirya and a day-pack as I haven’t brought a handbag of any sort. I am wearing the lovely pashmina (probably a fake) that I bought in Kandy so I don’t look too bad from the waist up.

Nisa calls us a tuktuk (our limousine, as we call it) and we freeze our butts off all the way even though the cabin has been encased in plastic to try and keep out the wind – it doesn’t. We can’t stop laughing at how ridiculous we look then feel even more ridiculous when our tuktuk, farting loudly, ceremoniously pulls up at the stately entrance. A doorman greets us, ushering Mark straight to the cloak room where he has to borrow a suit jacket before we’re allowed in. I try to hide the backpack behind my skirt and hope he doesn’t spot my dirty old shoes. Finally we’re in and seek out the Mixed Bar.

Up until 1970, the Hill Club was reserved for British males (typical!) and one of its bars remained resolutely ‘men only’ until a few years ago. It’s now open to Sri Lankans and women. Apparently, members retain reciprocal rights with London clubs so we become temporary members (Rs 100) for the day.

The bar is empty just now so we have individual service. We try to be very posh until Mark takes a sip of his dry sherry and nearly gags – FAIL! I have a Tom Collins which is okay but then just order a coke to go with my smuggled-in Bacardi – all class! Mark’s second drink is the ‘cocktail of the day’, a Stinger – another FAIL! We find it all hysterically funny but you had to be there.

Enough of crappy drinks, we’re escorted to the formal dining room for the famous Hill Club dinner. It’s GORGEOUS! – a thoroughly retro atmosphere with white linen tablecloths, intimate lighting, small round tables with wicker and wooden chairs, faded lounges and old hunting prints on the walls.

But, like the bar, we’re the only people here – we suppose because it’s Monday night – hilarious! The old waiter treats us like royalty and we order white wine to go with our five course meal. For $20 each we have warm rolls, ravioli, tomato soup, baked pork with vegetables and a fancy chocolate tart.

After dinner we ‘retire’, darling, to the other end of the room to sit on one of the tapestry couches pulled up to the big fireplace. The burning logs look very welcoming in the soft, warm glow of lamp light. We order tea that comes in dainty English tea cups then choose tiny cakes from the aperitifs trolley – all very civilised. The whole bill comes to only $53!

At nine o’clock, we wait in the library for our limo (see tuktuk). The doorman announces its arrival but we’ve already heard it coming a mile away – more embarrassment – glad no-one else is here. A very cold trip back to bed.

Mark performs like a stud for hours before sleeping with more than satisfied wife (a minor embellishment and this bit obviously written by Mark himself).

Tuesday 19th June, 2012      Nuwara Eliya to Arugam Bay

Up at 7am after M services V again – what a stud (this bit also obviously written by Mark).

Quick, hot showers and pack then we’re ready by seven thirty. Bandu soon arrives – still in the shitty, old van from yesterday but we don’t care as long as it gets us there. Now we set off for the seven hour drive to Arugam Bay. The plan is to head south east through the towns of Agampodigama and Welimada stopping to have a look at Ella then continuing south to Wellaway. Here we’ll turn left onto the CRWB Highway going directly east across the plains till we reach the coast.

Half an hour after leaving cool, misty Nuwara Eliya, Bandu veers off the main road to pick up his friend who’ll take turns with the driving as they’ll be coming all the way back again today.

Still in the hill country, the scenery is never ending terraces of tea plantations, tea pickers, vegetable gardens and temples. We stop at a Hindu temple where Mark and I have a wander around then later pull up at a roadside Buddhist shrine where Bandu gets out to pray and to give a good-luck donation.

After two hours we arrive in sunny Ella where we’ll all have breakfast. Ella is little more than a handful of shops, hotels and guesthouses, but with spectacular views that stretch right across the south coast of the island. At a nice outdoor café built on the side of a hill, Mark orders string hoppers with dahl, sambal and hot curry while I have chicken satay with green peppers – an excellent meal and worth a photo!

Because we’ve been winding our way down the mountains, the temperature has climbed so we start peeling off layers of clothes – nice to be warm again. And because of the winding roads, Mark is sooky lala and feeling sick so he lies on the seat with his head on my lap while I pat his forehead.

Just outside Ella we visit a pretty waterfall where local vendors are selling hot corn on the side of the road. Finally we reach the plains and the small town of Wellaway where we visit an ATM as apparently there’s nowhere to get money at Arugam Bay. The road from here is flat and straight all the way to the east coast so Mark is feeling a lot better.

Driving through the Yala East National Park we see a wild elephant in the distance then later we’re thrilled and very lucky to see a family of ten elephants very close up.

We also pass herds of water buffalo just before we arrive in the small Muslim village of Pottuvil. It’s a bit dry and dusty but could be interesting so we decide to check it out in the next few days as Arugam Bay is only five kilometres to the south.

Just over the bridge that connects the two towns, we turn left into the Beach Hut which is where we hope to get accommodation tonight. It’s had good reviews on Tripadvisor and it looks very cool in the photos – there are even tree houses to stay in.

One of the young guys who works here takes us down to the beach where the so-called tree houses are – not tree houses at all, just rooms on stilts. We have a look inside but we hate them and they’re expensive anyway so we ask to look at the rooms up the laneway. We like it better here especially the hanging-out areas but these are taken up with lots of too-cool backpackers. The room we’re shown has a great rustic atmosphere but our close neighbor is an overly-friendly aging surfer who’ll potentially be a pain-in-the-arse so we decide to go somewhere else.

I’d also liked the look of the Hideaway on Tripadvisor, so we check it out as well. It’s in a much nicer spot a lot further down in the middle of town but the rooms are too expensive for our tight budget – $60 a night. But then we notice the Arugam Bay Surf Resort which is just across the road and right on the beach. It’s a colourful place with an open-air basic restaurant with a chill-out spot attached where more cool backpackers are lounging around. That doesn’t worry us this time as it’s in a much better location so we’ll stay here for tonight at least.

Our room is painted bright orange and our bed has a strange zip-up net dome to keep the mozzies out – very odd but effective. For $30 a night it’s a pretty good deal. Back out in the restaurant we order lunch and lime sodas. It feels great to be in summer clothes after being in Nuwara Eliya – hate being cold.

I’m feeling tired so I have a sleep while Mark sets off for the point to check out the surf. Arugam Bay is listed as one of the top ten surf points in the world and apparently we’re here at the best time of the year when the predominant wind is offshore – we’ll see.

Mark comes back to find me still asleep so he orders a hamburger and a beer. Later I have a prawn quesadilla – good food here – then we have a great night getting a bit drunk while up-loading photos onto Facebook. Lauren has put up lots of photos of her and Abi so we’re extra happy tonight.

Wednesday 20th June, 2012      Arugam Bay

Mark gets up early to watch the fishermen coming back with their catch. They all look very poor and scraggy compared to one well-dressed buyer. We have breakfast at the Surf Resort then Mark spends half an hour on the phone talking to Andy Hunter who’s looking after our office while we’re away.

Later we walk along the main road which runs parallel to the beach – too hot so we head back towards the point. The weird thing is seeing uniformed police and army people all along the beach and there’s even a police station right on the sand.

Wandering along the sandy laneways we come across Rupa’s Guesthouse where we have lime sodas in the simple café at the front closest to the beach. We ask if we can have a look at a room (3500LKR per night) and decide to move here this morning. We love the quiet, leafy setting and the big, airy room.

Now we walk around the point to look at the surf then backtrack to Mambos which is an attractive hotel with a restaurant and a thatched roofed bar on the beachfront. We order chicken salad and chips sitting at a table under the trees while checking out the guests – no ‘cool’ people here probably because it’s more expensive.

Back at the Surf Resort, we pack up and walk down to Rupa’s. While I read, Mark hires a board for 500LKR from a shop on the main road then has a surf at the main point. When he comes back we decide to have a snack here at Rupa’s. We have to wait ages for the wife to return from Pottuvil then we get flavourless prawn noodles, so we won’t be eating here again.

Now we’re feeling lazy so we have our usual sleeping and book reading afternoon. About 6pm we walk back down to the Surf Resort which seems to be the only place that has worked out food at a good price. Besides this, the atmosphere is the best, so we have another fun night drinking and uploading photos onto Facebook. I go to sleep early while Mark gets a good chunk of his book read.

Thursday 21st June, 2012       Arugam Ba

Our last day in Arugam Bay – clear blue skies once again and already warm. We plan to have another quiet day before heading off on our long bus trip to the south coast tomorrow. This starts with a bit of a sleep-in before breakfast at Mambos around 9ish – not sure, as we’re starting to forget the time – must be time to move on, I think.

I have a small western breakfast and Mark has a vegetable jaffle while we spread out on padded floor cushions in one of the open-air cabanas. We talk to three Aussies from Perth then see a suntanned European woman in a skimpy bikini with the biggest banana tits you could imagine – seriously, each one about a foot long. She’s loving all the attention and poses on the sand out front – great people watching here this morning!

Next we go for a swim in the pretty corner of the lagoon. Mark swims to the other side while I float around in the shallows. Later we find a sweet young man to take us in his tuktuk into Pottuvil. We want to check it out as we liked the look of it on the way in. We also want to go to the bus station to find out the timetable.

 

We head first for the supermarket to pick up a few supplies for tomorrow’s long trip. It’s very hot today so I buy ice blocks for the three of us then find out when the bus leaves for the south in the morning. Next we visit a local market selling fresh vegetables, fish and meat. Stray goats wander around town and there are a lot of army guys in combat gear carrying machine guns. I‘ll explain why.

The Tamil Tigers of the north (mostly Hindus) and the Sinhalese from the south (mostly Buddhists) were still fighting here only two years ago even though the civil war between them was supposed to be over after the ceasefire in 2002. Today things are still shaky so the military presence remains even though Pottuvil is mainly Muslim – so what’s going on here? Too complicated to work out.

Back in Arugam Bay, I find an Ayervedic massage place but just opt for a head massage this time. This is really, really good and I wish it would go on forever. Meanwhile Mark hires a board from a shack  at the main point but after a couple of waves he takes it back – surf not good today.

Mark is offered a bong but just ends up having a couple of puffs on a joint. More sleeping then at six o’clock we walk back along the sand to the Surf Resort for quesadillas and prawn spaghetti. Back to Rupa’s via the main road this time then have beers and Bacardis at the Bob Marley Bar right on the beach. This is as basic as you can get but we love it. With our feet in the sand and drinking by candlelight, it’s magic sitting here on this calm, starry night.

Later we walk around to Mambo’s to do some Facebook and diary writing but leave when they have a blackout. I want to go sleeping bunny so Mark walks me home then goes back out again for fresh grilled fish as well as being on the prowl for BIG TITS woman. Does he find her?????

 

Friday 22nd June, 2012       Arugam Bay to Unawatuna

Today we’re leaving Arugam for Unawatuna on the south-west coast. At 5.15am our alarm wakes us – throw on our clothes and grab all our gear to meet our tuktuk driver from yesterday out in the dark laneway. We always love these really early starts when we’re away.

In Pottuvil we’re dropped at the bus stop where a few people are waiting on the side of the road in the early light of dawn. Because Pottuvil is predominately Muslim, the women are wearing hijab, or Muslim head scarves, and jilbab, the long all-covering robes. The men wear kufi caps and white baggy pants and long collarless shirts.

Across from the bus station (just a place where the buses pull up, really) Mark buys cakes wrapped in cellophane and water for the trip and we watch the military guys patrolling the main street with machine guns. Cows are wandering around accompanied by big, black crows – creepy things.

There seems to be a lot of confusion over what bus we should catch so we ask the only other westerner (a Canadian girl) but, like us, she’s been given a few different stories. Finally the three of us jump on the 6.30am bus and hope it’s the right one – luckily, it is!

Apparently, the bus only goes as far as Matara where we’ll then have to catch a train to Unawatuna – all a bit up in the air but we love travelling this way. The bus leg will be at least seven hours so we’re lucky to have three seats for a while. Just out of Pottuvil we see flocks of wild peacocks – gorgeous.

From the east coast, we head inland, westward through Monaragala to Wellawaya where the bus fills up – now we’re squashed in our seats and many people are standing. I love this trip with the breeze coming in through the open windows keeping us cool and lots to see on the way – never get bored.

Now we turn south on the CGHW Highway till we reach Hambantota on the southern coast. Here we follow the shoreline westward to arrive in the busy town of Matara about two o’clock. The bus terminates right on the edge of the water where we grab a tuktuk to drive us straight to the train station.

This is across the other side of town so we manage to get a good impression of the place – we like it. At the station we’re in luck as we’ve only got a fifteen minute wait. It’s nice here – a very British feel about it and very clean with lots of potted palms and school children in snowy white uniforms.

There aren’t many people in second class so we can stretch out and hang out the open windows. We snake our way through Weligama and Habaraduwa passing through smaller towns and dense tropical growth. We pass acres of salt beds, cross wide rivers and can see the ocean on our left for most of the trip.

We’re not sure if the train actually stops in Unawatuna, so after one and a half hours, we’re ready to jump out at every station. Suddenly we’re here and hop off onto the railway line. The tiny station is more inland and amongst village houses and laneways. We start to walk along a dirt road till we see a tuktuk coming the other way.

At last we’re heading towards the beach. Through the village we turn onto the main road that runs through to Galle only five minutes to the west. We’ll definitely check it out in the next couple of days but for now we just want to get a room and a beer. After a hundred metres we veer to the right into the labyrinth of laneways that make up the tourist part of Unawatuna – cafes, restaurants, guesthouses, homestays and little shops.

We ask to be taken to the Village Inn as it sounds nice in the Lonely Planet – away from the beach in an overgrown yard. The setting is nice but it looks like it might be mosquito heaven so we leave. Soon we see the cute Thilak Guesthouse – 3000LKR for an excellent upstairs room with a big bathroom and a wide verandah overlooking the beach. It’s very homey, painted a happy, bright yellow with a thick garden overhung with tall tropical plants and palms. And it’s right amongst all the cafes and market stalls!

After dumping our gear on the bed we head off in search of food and drink. Just a few doors down from our guesthouse is the Upul Restaurant which is a small family-run place literally built right over the waves. We enjoy marinara spaghetti and roast chicken. A large local family is having a celebration at a long table next to us and we talk to a couple of Australian women.


While Unawatuna suffered heavily in the 2005 Tsunami, it was quickly rebuilt but with the cafes and bars still too close to the water – they never learnt from their mistakes but maybe it’s an economic survival thing and hopefully a tsunami will never happen again.

Anyway we just have to enjoy the moment and we really do have the best viewpoint – a golden beach protected by coral reefs, safe for swimming and surfing, and a white Buddhist stupa looking majestic on the point.

Feeling tired and hot, we head back to our room for showers and a rest then, on dark, we walk to the Happy Banana for free wifi and lemon sodas and beers. It’s nice here but we like the look of some other places a bit further along the beach. At the Tartaruga Restaurant we sit at a table on the sand. By candle-light we order seafood and drinks then buy three awful little home-made oil lamps from a nice man who we feel sorry for – we don’t want them and end up leaving them on the table – maybe he can sell them again to someone else.

While we’re uploading photos onto Facebook I agree to have a twenty minute neck massage. After ten minutes the massage guy says he’ll just go and get my change – of course, he never comes back – another little shit! Anyway, we’re having a lovely time and it really reminds us of Ko Samuii with all the cafes and restaurants set up with tables and chairs on the sand, fairy lights and music.

We get a few sprinkles as we’re walking home. During the night we hear heavy rain falling on the roof and hope that the bad weather we’ve been expecting hasn’t arrived at last.

Saturday 23rd June, 2012      Unawatuna

Guess what? It’s hot and sunny without a cloud in the sky – we’ve been soooo lucky with the weather except for the first couple of hours after we arrived ten days ago. The south coast is supposed to be hit with a monsoon at this time of year but so far it’s been perfect.

We’re up early this morning as we want to see a lot today. First we have breakfast at Ton Tun Villa just along the laneway – orange juice, eggs, toast, corn flakes, tea and coffee.  We like it here with vases of the striking blue water hyacinth on the tables – a bit fancier and expensive than we usually go for.

Back out in the laneway, we talk to a man called Kalu who says he can take us to see a few nearby sights – a turtle hatchery, a spice garden and even the stilt fisherman. We’ve got nothing definite planned so off we go in his tuktuk heading east on the main road.

First stop is the turtle hatchery near Habaraduwa. This is a basic family-run concern and we have the grandfather showing us around. He shows us where the eggs are incubated in the sand then all the different ponds according to the age of the turtles. Some are as small as a baby’s hand and others are huge – one has a flipper missing so he’ll have to stay here forever.

Further on, we turn down a narrow dirt laneway away from the coast to a pretty spice garden situated on a lagoon. Kalu introduces us to our guide for an in-depth tour of the garden. All very interesting but verging on too much information. He explains each plant then shows us the medicine or cream that it’s been made up into. One plant is used as hair removal – very popular with the very hairy Sri Lankan ladies. He smears some on Mark’s leg which he wipes off ten minutes later – totally bald so I think I might buy some.

And our guide is really nice, God love him. He’s so intense about it all but it’s hard to take him seriously with his hairline starting halfway down his forehead – can’t stop staring at it.

When the tour is finally over he takes us to an open-air room next to the water where we have a twenty minute massage each from two young men who are being trained in Ayervedic medicine. We give them a donation then we can’t avoid a visit to the shop. They want $50 for a small jar of the hair removal cream – are you serious? ‘Goodbye’!

Back out onto the main drag, we stop at a small roadside shop for water then set off for Weligama to see the stilt fishermen. No luck but we do see the stilts – a pretty place. We could come back late this afternoon or early in the morning but it’s too far so we probably won’t bother.

Now we head for home but then decide that we should go to Galle while we’re already out and about. It’s only ten minutes further on and a big town compared to tiny Unawatuna. It’s actually the biggest town on the south coast and was once the country’s main port before the British developed the harbor at Colombo. Galle’s biggest attraction is its old Dutch fort and the main reason we want to check it out.

Coming round the coast road we can see the massive fort walls that dominate the city. Just near the entrance we stop at the cricket ground to watch Sri Lanka playing Pakistan in a test match. We join lots of locals who are looking through the wire fence while many more are perched high up on the fort walls – a bird’s eye view for free.

Afterwards Kalu drives us through the arched, stone entrance to visit the old city within the walls. Galle Fort is a true living museum full of colonial-style hotels, homes and restaurants and is understandably a world heritage site.

Our first stop is the Dutch church but a service is happening so we don’t intrude. Next is the Dutch museum situated in an old mansion. I could spend ages in here and I especially love the architecture – vaulted ceilings, towering wooden doors and an inner courtyard where we watch a lady making lace in the long-established way. Lace making is apparently a tradition from the Dutch colonial days and lace is one of the most popular mementos bought by the tourists – too expensive for us and not our thing anyway.

Our next stop is the fort wall adjacent to the sea. We start our walk along the top of the wall from the lovely old lighthouse to an old church at the other end. We stop on the way to watch a man fishing with a small hand-net in the shallow water below us. This is a happy, lively place with lots of local tourists. From this far end we can see the silhouette of the lighthouse glowing a brilliant white against the blue sky with a cluster of coconut palms growing at its base – picture postcard material!

Now we drive round the cobbled streets looking at the wonderful old buildings and I’d really love to move here tonight but Mark wants to stay in Unawatuna. Instead we decide to have lunch in one of the cute restaurants but I suddenly get an attack of the kabumbahs and think we’d better go back to our room.

We still want to visit the bell tower so we make a quick visit. From up here we can look down onto the cricket ground but unfortunately they’re at lunch and by 12.30pm we’re speeding back home. Before saying goodbye to Kalu, we arrange for him to pick us up at five thirty in the morning to drive us to the Galle railway station.

After a hurried visit to our loo, I’m feeling good again so we head straight out for lunch and drinks on the sand next to our guest house. Because it’s the weekend there are loads of locals around. We watch them having a riotous time at the other end of the bay, jumping into tourist boats that take them back and forth along the beach. It all seems a bit pointless but it’s definitely a cultural thing so we don’t piss ourselves laughing too much.

Later we go back to our room for sleeping bunny, heading out again about six o’clock. The Bong Spice Chili Bar is a dark, rustic place right on the water with old hanging Indian lamps, candles and some tables on the sand. We sit on the verandah eating garlic prawns while listening to good music and talking to the owner’s little boy. It’s really nice here but we can’t get Wi-Fi so we move on.

Like last night, we end up at Tartaruga but decide to sit inside for a change. There are a lot more people around tonight so I’m happy people watching while we have a few more drinks and do our diary, Facebook and email. Home to bed about ten o’clock and hear the rain starting just as we enter our room.

Off to Colombo in the morning – full circle!

Sunday 24th June, 2012       Unawatuna to Colombo to Negombo

At five o’clock we jump out of bed to shower and pack before meeting Kalu with his tuktuk outside at 5:30am. In this early dawn light, the lanes are quiet except for a few other backpackers possibly on their way to Galle railway station as well. Luckily the rain has disappeared and we have clear skies once again.

The tickets for the three hour trip to Colombo cost a mere 53LKR (about 23c each). Before boarding, Mark buys coffee and a chicken salad roll but I just stick to a cup of tea.

We’ve bought second class seats and it’s another enjoyable journey. Rail travel in Sri Lanka has been a fantastic experience mainly because of the atmospheric, crusty old trains and the friendly people – at least as fun as the long, public bus trips.

 

Between Galle and Hikkaduwa the railway runs close to the coast, most of the time within sight of the beach. At Telwatta, the track cuts through thick palm groves and the sea, 200 metres away, is barely visible.

I don’t want to dwell on this, but this is exactly where the tsunami hit the Queen of the Sea that terrible morning in 2005. The train was packed because it was a holiday weekend as well as a full moon, when Buddhists visit relatives. The tsunami was three times the height of the train killing all 1,700 passengers. It’s the world’s worst ever train accident. Now and again we see huge boats still stranded hundreds of metres inland.

On the outskirts of Colombo, we pass the popular beach resorts favoured by the locals rather than western tourists. The end of the line is at the busy Fort Station where we jump straight into a tuktuk to take us to the Galle Face Hotel. I’ve read a lot about this place and hoped we’d have time for a visit.

Built by the British in 1864, it sits right on the edge of the Indian Ocean and adjoining Galle Face Green. This is a long, grassy promenade popular with food vendors and families having picnics and flying kites. The hotel gleams pure white with the sun beating down on it from a cloudless blue sky.

We both get that deja-vous feeling as we pull up at the hotel’s grand arched entrance in another farting tuktuk. Uniformed staff rush out of the tall carved doors to extract our backpacks while we seek out the desk. No luck with getting a cheap room here for tonight (over $200AUD) but we are in time for the buffet breakfast. This is served on the gorgeous, long colonial verandah – arches, columns, multi-paned windows, ceiling fans, palms, a polished wooden ceiling and a cool, slate floor – and, yes, I’m in heaven again.

I pay for the buffet breakfast but poor Mark is full from eating on the train so he just has to watch me stuff my face. Before we leave, we have a wander around the posh bottom floor – a perfect mix of English elegance and the exotic east.

Back out into the heat and sunshine we jump into another tuktuk to take us across town to the bus station. This is alive with local people unloading bags from tuktuks and transferring them to the waiting buses. As usual these are all a bit dodgy which means loads of character. We love public transport and soak up everything we see.

I have a sudden kabumbah attack but I’ll just have to wait till we get to Negombo. It’s only thirty seven kilometres to the north so it shouldn’t take too long to get there – WRONG! I spend two nail-biting hours thinking I’m going to shit myself as we literally stop every few hundred metres!

Finally, at the bus station, we grab a tuktuk to drop us at the Beach Villa Guesthouse – a cheap option in the Lonely Planet. This is off the main road down a sandy alleyway and facing the ocean. The beach here, though, is unappealing to say the least – a long stretch of windswept coastline with a wide expanse of sand and no-one around.

For some reason my kabumbah urge has eased, so when we see that the guesthouse is a bit of a dump, we decide to see if we can find anything better close by. The guesthouse next door looks fantastic but it’s booked out so we look at another one on the main road. This is a newish apartment with no character at all so we head back to the laneway.

Here we check out another place with only two bare rooms set in a dry, mangy garden. Okay, it looks like the crappy Beach Villa isn’t too crappy after all. Things are so spread out here that we can’t be bothered trying to find other places and we’ve only got tonight anyway so we book in.

Our room is small and dingy but, to make up for it, there’s a comfy lounging around area with groups of other travellers relaxing and having lunch. I just want to have a sleep so Mark goes off to check things out.

He finds a tuktuk to take him to a bar in the centre of town but he isn’t too impressed. At six o’clock we both head out again for a late lunch / early dinner. At the Rodeo Bar, we share a chicken burger then I see a beauty parlour sign further down the main road. I’d like to have my grungy nails done before we get home so we wander down for a look.

The beauty parlour is in the garden of a hotel and very upmarket – not what I like but there doesn’t seem to be anything else around – this definitely ain’t Thailand. Anyway, the lady who owns it is lovely and we become best friends in no time. She even calls out to her little boy and girl to come inside to meet me. The only downfall is that my manicure and pedicure are the worst ever with nail polish everywhere – I think Abi could have done a better job. And it costs a fortune – hilarious. Don’t have the heart to say anything else but ‘thanks’ and give her a hug.

Meanwhile Mark has found a restaurant/bar right on the sand but there’s no atmosphere at all. We’re trying to like Negombo but it’s just not happening. We move on to Cocktails Bar and this is more like it. On sunset a lot of local families and couples are on the beach which is much nicer in this area and the restaurant is starting to fill up with people having dinner.

We order prawns and lobster cocktails as well as plenty of beers and margaritas – we decide to splurge on our last night. In half an hour I’m drunk and sing loud love songs to Mark – I’m pretty sure I sound amazing!

Tuktuk home to bed.

Monday 25th June, 2012      Negombo to Kuala Lumpur

A very early 4.30am alarm and we’re ready to go in minutes. Out in the laneway we meet our tuktuk driver who drove us back here last night. We were hoping he’d turn up this early and here he is, God love him. Flying through the empty streets, these extra early starts are always exciting.

Twenty minutes later, it’s still pitch dark as we pull up at the busy Bandaranaike International Airport terminal. The flight is only a few hours and we seem to be landing back in Malaysia in no time at all. We’ve got a ten hour stop-over so we decide to go into the city instead of hanging out here at the LCCT. First we put our big packs into storage then get a shuttle bus to KLIA to catch the fast-speed train into Kuala Lumpur.

This is the KLIA Ekspress that runs non-stop from the international airport into the centre of the capital. We’ve caught it once before when we flew in from Borneo a few years ago. The train is super-modern and at speeds of 160km/h, we cover the 57 kilometres in only 28 minutes.

At KL Sentral, Mark manages to work out how to get another train to Chinatown. I’m totally confused especially finding the right platform through floors literally packed with people. Mark seems to have some sort of inner radar and we’re soon on the right train and in Chinatown in minutes. We wander around the markets buying an owl backpack for Abi and scarves for presents.

Near the entrance we stop for drinks at the Reggae Bar that was a favourite when we were here last time. Inside is decorated with Bob Marley pictures, photographs and posters and endless Bob songs are playing with a little bit of UB40 thrown in. We decide to sit outside so we can watch the passersby – good people watching. Later we wander back into the market then on dark get a train back to KL Sentral where we catch the airport KLIA Espress to the airport.

One more leg to go – the shuttle bus to LCCT where we get our packs out of storage then wait for our eleven o’clock flight. The terminal is packed but I find an empty bench seat where I lie down to read – very comfy.

The plane leaves on time and we have an easy nine hour trip home.

Tuesday 26th June, 2012     Sydney

Land at 10am then train home. Lauren and Dolly pick us up. Soooo happy to be back with our darlings.

 

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Thailand 1997

01-29-2008 12;00;11PM

 

Saturday 10th May, 1997     Sydney to Singapore to Bangkok

We said our good-byes to Angie, Lauren, Benny and Layla. This was our first holiday away from our babies but I think they were looking forward to having the house to themselves – party time, obviously. We drove out to Mark’s mum and dad’s and then my mum and dad’s for more good-byes. At last we set off about 11am in our hired rice-bubble of a car for Sydney airport.  We booked in on time to get good window seats on the plane – always try to get the last few rows, which have only two seats instead of three. This gives us more room and we don’t have to bother squeezing past someone else to get to the loo. We were really pleased with ourselves for getting through our first solo airport experience so easily.

The weather was cold, rainy and windy – a great day to be leaving Australia for hot sunny Thailand. The take-off was rough and we had turbulence for half an hour into the flight. I’m glad it hadn’t been like this for Angie and Lauren’s first flight when we took them to Bali last year. We were really impressed with Qantas except for a grouchy airhostess. There were six smelly Moslems in long white robes and caps sitting near us. Twice during the flight they prayed on mats at the back of the plane – don’t know how they knew which direction Mecca was.

We finally landed in the dark at Singapore’s Changi Airport eight hours after leaving Sydney. This part of the flight had gone fast with a movie and in-flight television and a great captain. He turned the plane on its side as we passed over Alice Springs so we could get a good view. We were delayed for an hour and a half in Singapore but this was fine as the airport is so huge and beautiful with flowering orchids and fountains – puts Sydney to shame. No smoking except in the Smoking Room which was quite a degrading experience really. You enter a glass box inside the airport and sit there fagging away with all the other losers all on show to the healthy, sensible people outside. The air is white with smoke and I was happy to find a door to an outside verandah. Much better out here and I was so excited to feel how hot it was outside.

It was only two hours flying from Singapore to Bangkok. It was now 1am Thai time and twelve hours after leaving Sydney. Bangkok’s Don Muang airport was quiet at this time of night so we passed through customs quickly. We’d arranged transfers with Intrepid and so we expected to be picked up by a tour agent. Instead we were met by a young girl and guy in a smelly old brown car with no seatbelts and plastic flowers hanging off the rear vision mirror. What a great surprise and why we love Asia so much. We drove at top speed to get to the hotel in forty minutes. There were so many freeways, which was quite a shock but once we left them we began to see the real Bangkok. Our hotel is in a great area and we can’t wait until tomorrow to get out there. The Viengtai Hotel is also not what we had been led to believe and is a grubby multistory old building with smelly rooms – also loved it. Finally got to bed at 2.30 am.

Sunday 11th May, 1997        Bangkok

We woke at about 6.30 am and couldn’t wait to get out into the streets. We walked up our hotel street called Tanee Road and watched people cooking and eating at tiny tables and chairs on the footpath. Everything is so different to home – the heat, the noises and the smells of cooking and sewage mixed together. We found that Khao San Road was only the next street parallel to ours. This is the famous backpacker area of Bangkok. It’s lined with markets, cheap guesthouses and cafes all playing loud music and packed with backpackers from all over the world. Here we had a lovely breakfast in an open-air café that was blaring out music even at this hour. We bought some bottled water and walked over to Wat Bovorinet where we were shown around by a young Thai boy. This was our first temple and we were quite impressed but it was rather small compared to others we were yet to see.

We were tiring by now so we walked back to the hotel for a couple of hours sleep – jet lag combined with the heat is a killer. It was only midday when we woke so we set off again, this time in search of the Chao Praya River.  Bangkok traffic is notoriously bad and it took us ages to cross some of the busy streets – no pedestrian crossings that we could see, you just seem to go for it. It was so hot and we walked for ages in the sun without finding the river – next time we travel we’ll definitely be buying a Lonely Planet. Hopped into a tuktuk which are tiny three-wheeled open-air vehicles that sound like lawn mowers and which can zip in and out of traffic like motorbikes. They’re wonderful for short distances and to get a breeze in hot weather. We were dropped off at the Memorial Bridge which was the beginning of a walking tour of Thonburi that we’d read about in an old guidebook on Bangkok. Thonburi is on the opposite side of the Chao Praya River to Bangkok and is the site of the original capital. It is a maze of canals or klongs as they’re called.

After crossing the bridge, we found Wat Prayon that contained a small grotto called Turtle Mount, which is filled with shrines and stupas rising up out of a pond. We bought plates of chopped meat and papaya and sat on the edge of the pond to feed the hundreds of little turtles that live in it. It was so lovely and peaceful in here with Thai people lying around the pond on raised pagodas – shoes off, of course. Our next stop was the Portuguese area and the Church of Santa Cruz and then on to Wat Kalaya Namit. We seemed to have lost our way but finally came to the klong area where people recycle cooking oil cans. There were a lot of people sitting around in these narrow alleyways and smiling and friendly as usual. We found the river at last and caught a ferry which we thought would take us up-river where we were hoping to find a restaurant we’d read about. Unfortunately, the ferry took us across the river then back again to Thonburi where we were dragged off by the driver who was going home!  We got on another ferry which took us across to the Bangkok side once again until a young Thai girl could see we were dumb foreigners and told us that the ferries from these wharves just go back and forth all day. We gave up trying to get a ferry up-river, so we walked through the market area to find a tuktuk.

A young Thai student stopped us as he said he wanted to practice his English. He then mentioned a fantastic place selling cheap jewelry and it was the very last day we could buy it and we must hurry!  He shoved us in a tuktuk and off we went like dumb farangs again. Naturally is was a scam and the gem shop was so expensive and probably fakes – we’d already been warned by Intrepid and all the guidebooks and we weren’t even interested in the first place – so why did we let ourselves get taken in, we ask ourselves. We only stayed long enough to be polite then had our tuktuk driver take us to the marble temple at Wat Traimit to see the Temple of the Golden Buddha. The grounds here were lovely and we walked around the monks quarters and then had a peaceful sit in front of the Golden Buddha. Another man outside befriended us and tried again to talk us into going to another gem shop – not so dumb this time!

Jetlag was catching up on us again, so we had an early dinner in Tanee Road and had three hours sleep in our air-conditioned room. We’d set the alarm for 9.30pm and dragged ourselves off in a taxi to Patpong Road. Instead the driver took us down a grotty alley to a dingy looking place where we were asked to pay 400baht (AUS$20) each to get in. The people looked pretty scary but we said ‘no thanks’ and headed off back towards the road not knowing where the hell we were. It must have been in the business section of the city because it was totally deserted at night. Suddenly our taxi appeared again with the driver calling out to us and promising this time to take us to Patpong Road. He’d probably get a commission if we’d actually gone into this horrible out of the way club.

We finally arrived at the very glitzy street of Patpong. It is lined with bars and flashing neon lights with a busy night market down the centre. The street was packed and noisy and we were continually hassled by young men to go into their particular bar. Each one carries type-written cards with English explanations of what goes on inside. We saw most of this; girl smoking cigarettes, bursting balloons with blow darts, blowing out candles, blowing trumpet, picking up cigarettes with chopsticks, shooting out bananas. A couple of hours was enough to see these poor bored young girls do their stuff for sleazy white foreigners who probably use them as prostitutes as well. Glad to find a tuktuk and get back to bed by 12.30pm.

Monday 12th May, 1997                 Bangkok

A beautiful clear blue sky again today and hot already at 7am. We had breakfast at the same outdoor café in Tanee Road where we’d eaten dinner last night. From Khao San Road we caught a tuktuk to Chinatown to begin our second walking tour. It was an interesting ride through the streets and over a bridge spanning a small klong near the railway station. We drove along backstreets full of life – lots of food stuffs and furniture being made. In the main street of Chinatown we were stopped by a well dressed Thai man who sent us off in a tuktuk to some wonderful markets that would be closing soon. Not again! We were taken to another gem shop! We really are the dumbest travellers! Back in the tuktuk we choked on traffic fumes all the way back to Chinatown.

At last we could begin our walking tour. We walked through the maze of tiny alleyways called sois which are lined on both sides with food stalls and funerary supplies. These funerary shops sell paper replicas of things to be cremated with the body which they believe will be taken with them into the next life – motorcars, televisions, mobile phones, etc. (just what you need in heaven – I don’t think!) The sois are amazing with so many different foods to look at and strange smells and people calling out to each other. No farangs here but us which made it even better. Monks were walking around in their orange robes and nuns with shaved heads wearing white robes.

We veered off into even smaller alleyways where people were preparing all sorts of meat and seafood. Women were shelling huge baskets of prawns and chopping up carcasses of meat. Back out onto a wider street we found a Chinese Buddhist temple called Neng Noi Yee.  Here a constant stream of people of all ages came to pray and burn handfuls of incense sticks. It was so hard to breathe with all the burning oil and incense. We’d never seen anything like this and could have stayed for ages but we weren’t sure if it was polite to watch these religious rituals.

After the temple we walked for an hour through another maze of crowded sois which sold fabrics, bric-a-brac and just a whole lot of junk really. This was a total waste of time and we were so glad to make our way out to the main road. We bought meat on skewers from a street cart and hailed another tuktuk to take us to Wat Pho, home of the gigantic Reclining Buddha. The temple grounds are huge and we could look into the monks quarters. The main building houses the reclining Buddha which is covered in gold leaf and an amazing 46 metres long and 15 metres high. The main attraction for us is the massage school in the grounds of the wat. For a couple of dollars we both had a half-hour Thai massage which is definitely long enough. This is no gentle massage like those on the beach in Bali. A Thai massage is eventful to say the least. It involves a lot of pushing and pulling and gauging with elbows and knees and then finished off by being walked on! This can be understandingly painful but a great experience especially in the wonderful setting. The school is set in lovely airy rooms open on three sides and cooled by overhead fans. The masseurs all wear bright yellow pyjamas and the ‘victims’ lie on mattresses on raised wooden platforms.

Feeling really high from our massage we tuktuked it back to Khao San Road for food and shopping. We had dinner at our favourite café – great food and atmosphere sitting under vines and hanging Chinese lanterns on the busy street. Afterwards, more shopping and an early night.

Tuesday 13th May, 1997      Bangkok to Chiang Mai

We had an early breakfast in Khao San Road and then met Naomi, our leader, and the Intrepid group at 10 o’clock. Naomi is probably in her late twenties, really well travelled and very athletic looking. She seems very nice and explained to us the Intrepid way of travelling (green and eco-friendly) and our itinerary. We are twelve in all – Mark and I, Bridget from England, Enda from Ireland and the rest Aussies – Vanessa and Sally from Melbourne, Karne and his father Ross from Perth, Robyn and her boyfriend Warren from Perth and Carole and Suzie from Brisbane.

We all stored our gear in a dayroom at the Viengtai Hotel and walked through some lovely leafy laneways lined with cafes and guesthouses to the Chao Praya River. We boarded a long-tail boat and set off for the klongs of Thonburi. A woman passing in a small boat sold us bread which we fed to the thousands of fish at Fish Temple – huge ugly catfish looking creatures. It is amazing to see how the people live along the klongs in houses crowded up to the riverbanks and many actually built over the river. Some were living in sampans and houseboats but all had a wave and a smile as we went past. So cool out here on the river and great to get away from the heat.

After an hour we jumped off at a pier near The Grand Palace. Mark bought some street food – lovely chicken kebabs – and we all shared some bananas that Ross had bought near the river. At the Grand Palace we were met by a sweet little Thai lady who was to be our guide. She was so proud of the palace and kept stopping for us to take photos of things we didn’t want to photograph. There are strange dress rules at the Palace as we had to wear long pants or long skirts but no sarongs – they even checked to see that my skirt wasn’t tied at the waist. Our shoulders and the backs of our heels also had to be covered. It was unbearably hot in here and it was so nice and cool to sit on the floor of the temple of the Emerald Buddha. This is the most sacred buddha in Thailand but is surprisingly small. More rules here – we mustn’t sit with soles of our feet pointing at the buddha – or any buddha for that matter or any Buddhist for that matter. The feet are considered dirty so it’s an insult to point them at someone just as it’s an insult to touch someone on the top of the head which is considered the most spiritual part of the body – will get the hang of it, no doubt.

Still inside the grounds of the Palace, we walked past a small temple literally packed with monks in orange robes who were blessing water which they then brought out to us. We all had to kneel down and it was sprinkled over our heads for good luck – what a bonus to have this unique experience!

Tuktuks, then, back to the hotel and we all went our separate ways for the rest of the afternoon. Mark and I had lunch on the verandah of a lovely old colonial-style guesthouse near the river – called Sawasdee Guesthouse. The food was so good but hot, hot! Some sort of beef dish with whole red chilies and seeds. Mark loved it so much he ordered more to take on the overnight train.

We met again at the hotel and piled our backpacks and ourselves into tuktuks for the Hualamphong railway station.  This is huge with a massive coloured glass window at one end. Hundreds of people were waiting for trains and added to the excitement. We bought junk food for the train which left at 6pm. Mark was feeling sick with a head cold but we managed to enjoy ourselves with a few bourbons and bacardis. We had dinner on the train and ordered plates of pineapple and watermelon. We took about an hour to pass through Bangkok and then the old capital of Ayuthaya before dark. As we left the cities we could see farmers working in the fields and a beautiful sunset across the rice paddies.01-29-2008 10;37;25AM

Police boarded the train several times – suppose they were looking for drugs. Porters came and made up our beds as we needed them – bunks top and bottom with clean white sheets and pillows and curtained off from the long carriage. We went to bed about 10pm. I slept badly on the top bunk (kept thinking I was going to fall out) and Mark didn’t sleep at all on the bottom bunk (sick and just too big for the bed).

Wednesday 14th May, 1997          Chiang Mai to Tham Lod village

At  six o’clock in the morning I climbed down into Mark’s bunk and we watched the scenery together as we came into Chiang Mai at 7.10am. Outside the station we all threw our gear into the back of a songthaew  – like a truck with a roof, open sides and wooden bench seats facing each other. This was to be the first of so many on this trip.

We drove to the bus station where we all had a really cheap breakfast at a grubby little café opposite – still liked it, though. We all had to stand when the National Anthem was played over loud speakers  – the Thais are very devoted to their king. The toilets here were our first experience of the squat type – takes a bit of getting used to. At 8.30am we left in a local bus headed for Sappong.  It had very narrow seats and only fan-cooled but this was better than air-conditioning as we later needed the open windows for other purposes. Deafening Thai music entertained us the whole way. The bus was full of Thais and hilltribe people and the road was unbelievably steep and winding for four and a half hours. Mark wasn’t feeling well at all and we both had to try to watch the road to stop getting motion sick.

We stopped at two police checkpoints where they boarded the bus to look for illegal Burmese immigrants – one man was taken off the bus. We stopped a roadside café after about two hours and finally arrived at the small town of Pai at one o’clock. We bought drinks in plastic bags and set off again for Sappong. The bus was now packed with hilltribe people in traditional dress and we had to share seats. Before we left Pai, we wondered why the driver had put plastic bags in the roof right along the aisles. As soon as we started around the mountains again we found out why. Apparently hilltribe people have trouble travelling and were grabbing the bags to vomit into. Eleven people were sick on the one and a half hours to Sappong. Spew bags were flying past us out of the open windows and exploding on the road – wonderful! So glad we all made it without being sick ourselves.

At Sappong we were met by the women of the Lisu hilltribe in traditional dress in black, bright pink and yellow. They all had red teeth from chewing betel nut and they were so friendly giving us their huge red smiles. We all bought their embroidered, multi-coloured water bottle carriers which were to be invaluable.

Naomi then found a songthaew to take us to Cave Lodge only half an hour away. This is situated on the outskirts of a small village of grass huts called Tham Lod. The main area of the lodge is incredible with lots of cushions and low tables and hilltribe wall hangings.

01-29-2008 11;00;07AMIt’s open on three sides and looks over a small valley overgrown with bamboo and bougainvillea. The verandah was taken over by the Lisu women who spread out their beautiful embroidery on the floor. Mark and I had a hut to ourselves because Mark was sick but we still shared cold showers and squat toilets with the others.

After settling in we all walked to Tham Lod Caves about half an hour through the village. There was thick green vegetation around the entrance to the cave, which had a small stream running through it.  There were three caves in all full of stalagmites and stalactites, ancient coffins, prehistoric paintings and lots of steep bamboo ladders. 01-29-2008 11;53;01AMThere is no way I would normally have attempted to climb these but there was no choice really and you can’t look a total wimp in front of the others.  I’m so glad I did as it was such fun. The cave was lovely and cool inside but was very smelly due to the millions of bats which inhabit it. Three Thai ladies carrying old kerosene lanterns guided us through the caves. The lamps gave a very eerie light and added to the wonderful atmosphere. After an hour of climbing we were led down to a stream deep within one of the caves. Here we all jumped onto bamboo rafts and now were led by some Thai men, very colourful in patterned headscarves. We came out at last through the huge mouth of the cave to the lovely greenery outside. What a great adventure and to think that I was going to stay behind at the lodge and rest!01-29-2008 11;56;07AM

Back to Cave Lodge and back to the heat. After very welcome cold showers we all had a banquet of different Thai dishes for dinner. We all sat together on cushions on the floor and ate at a low wooden table while Naomi explained the plans for the trek tomorrow.

01-29-2008 10;47;50AMSuch a great atmosphere here, with other backpackers lounging around and great old ’60’s music playing. After dinner we all had an early night. Mark and I both slept well in our own little grass hut under a mosquito net – what luxury!!01-29-2008 11;44;25AM

Thursday  15th May,1997    First Day of Trek

The sun woke us early and after cold showers Mark and I sat on the verandah of our hut. So lovely sitting in the sun looking over the jungle of bamboo before us. We all had fruit for breakfast and sat around on the big balcony where the Lisu women had spread out their weavings again. It seemed like paradise looking at the beautiful brightly coloured hilltribe women and the brilliant greenery and flowers around the balcony.01-29-2008 12;02;41PM

It was time to get ready for the trek. Mark was fit and not worried but I wasn’t fit and very worried. We all packed our big backpacks away in a storage room and strapped our sleeping mats to our day-packs. Mark carried my big pack, two mats, six bottles of water and all our clothes – my darling! I only had a small day-pack and two bottles of water but I was still worried about making the trek. Naomi introduced us to Miss Doi, our guide, and we all set off at 9am.

At first we walked next to a lovely stream where water buffalo were drinking and pigs were running past. We’d picked up our two other guides by now – Puck and Charlie. We always had a guide at the front, back and middle of our group for the whole trek – good safety precautions.

01-29-2008 12;06;22PMThe walking wasn’t steep at first but we literally crossed the river about fifty times during the day. The pace was quite fast and it was unbelievably hot by now. It wasn’t too bad, though, as we stopped every hour for a break or to lie fully clothed in the river – boots and all.01-29-2008 12;24;27PM

Lunch was simple but tasted great – rice wrapped in elephant leaves next to a shady stream. Puck fished with a stick while Doi and Charlie smoked bongs! We kept close to the stream again after lunch until we started the incredibly steep climb to the village.

01-29-2008 12;12;06PMMark and I stayed back with Carole who was doing it tough. She is a rather large person who smokes (as I do) and is unfit (as I am). This was good as it didn’t make me look as bad. We had lots of laughs with her and Doi didn’t mind the slow pace either. At last we could hear sounds of farm animals and we soon arrived at the Lahu hilltribe village. The Lahu villagers slash and burn so the area is pretty barren. The village itself was bare of grass or greenery and a bit ugly but the real thing. The huts are built on stilts on the side of a hill so the view was quite beautiful. There were lots of animals around and under the huts – pigs, dogs, chooks, roosters everywhere and making untold noise.

01-29-2008 12;15;56PMWe dumped our gear in a hut that had been vacated for the night by the family who live there. It was so bare inside and it is hard to believe that they have so little. There was no furniture at all and only a fire for cooking in one corner. There were no rivers here so we had to pour water over ourselves from a dish but it felt great anyway. We were all so hot we just lay on the floor of the hut and I fell asleep before I knew it. I woke to find a fire roaring away next to me heating up a big cast iron pot full of water. I didn’t need to be any hotter so I sat outside with Mark and the others. The men tried to catch the cute piglets but it was Bridget who caught the only one. She is such a fun person and I think I like her the best.

01-29-2008 12;17;51PMAt dusk we walked to the top of the village and watched the women sitting on the floor of their verandahs preparing their evening meals. They were also chopping huge trunks of banana trees for pig food.

01-29-2008 12;13;59PMThe village kids hung around us and showed off – some of them cute but others so streetwise. It was a great view from the top of the village and we all took photos of the beautiful sunset.

01-29-2008 12;21;02PMBack at the hut, we watched Doi and Puck prepare vegetables for our meal, which they cooked over the open fire. Dinner was vegetables, rice, of course, and chicken – tasted nice but a bit smoky. We went to bed early I think – hard to tell as we aren’t allowed to wear watches on the trek. We were all kept awake by chooks under the hut and roosters crowing all night.

Friday 16th May, 1997          Second Day of Trek

It must have been about 7am when we woke although no-one had slept well because of all the animal noise. Mark was still sick with his cold but maybe feeling a bit better – he never complains. We watched Doi cook breakfast over the open fire again – vegetables and rice – and then she cooked lunch of chicken, vegetables and rice – what variety! She wrapped lunch in banana leaves that she tore into little squares and tied with string.

After breakfast we packed our gear and set off through the village. The whole day’s walk was up and down steep hills and along narrow ridges. We stopped at a village where the people were really friendly and showed Karne how to shoot a rifle. We walked through a deserted village and just kept going up and up. Carole and I were walking slower than the rest but I felt amazingly better than I ever expected. Never thought I’d be able to walk for so far or for so long especially in this heat. I think I could have walked even further. Mark and Doi stayed back with us and poor Mark was by now carrying both his big pack and Carole’s pack as well.

The pace was fast considering the heat and the steep hills. We stopped for lunch at the top of a ridge but most of us were too hot to eat. The guides smoked bongs again and we set off after a rest in the shade. So hot and no rivers today to cool us down. After more ridges we had a really steep and slippery descent into a lovely green valley. It was a scary climb down and we were all amazed to make it without falling. It was worth it, though, as it was green and cool at the bottom and, best of all, there were the elephants! There were three down here among the bamboo where they were being watched over by men from the Karen hilltribe, all dressed in their traditional red woven tops.

01-29-2008 12;26;45PMMark and I, Robin, Ross, Suzie and Carole climbed onto the elephants by stepping on their heads from a huge fallen log. The others walked to the Karen village about an hour away. We had an incredibly uncomfortable ride sitting in the baskets tied to the elephants’ backs – worth every second, though, to think that we were actually riding an elephant in the hills of Thailand! We passed along the narrowest pathways through the thick jungle and up steep inclines – never realised how agile elephants are. It was a slow ride as the elephants continually stopped to pull at the bamboo and eat it. The elephant drivers sat on the elephant’s heads and made grunting noises to give them orders to move branches on the path with their trunks.

01-29-2008 12;30;36PMWe came at last to the Karen village – very different from the barren Lahu village. Very beautiful and green here with lots of crops growing around the village and fruit trees around the grass huts. Each hut was raised above the ground and each had its own yard enclosed by bamboo fences. The Karen people look beautiful in their red and black embroidered clothing that they weave themselves. The elephants took us right up to the hut where we were to sleep for the night.

After settling in to own new hut, we all walked through the village to the river about twenty minutes away. We passed the school and waved to the village kids who were hanging out of the windows and we passed rice paddies in the valley below. Mark and the others walked on to the cave while Ross, Carole and I decided we lay in the river for an hour. So lovely to be cool and be surrounded by the greenery. Th vegetation was so dense here with huge trees full of vines and lots of bamboo. We saw elephants again on their way to the cave. Mark said the cave was great and they had to crawl on their stomachs to get in. Mark, Naomi and Suzie came back for a swim and we had to wear sarongs as swimsuits are regarded as too daring and impolite. The others returned on elephants and then we all walked back to the village.

Here there were about twenty Karen women waiting for us with their weavings. The married women wear black and red clothes and the unmarried girls wear long white dresses with hot pink trim. We all crowded onto the verandah outside the hut and they spread out their weavings of rugs, scarves, wall hangings, bags, and clothes.

01-29-2008 12;33;30PMIt started to rain suddenly and they quickly packed up and we all squeezed together under the eaves on either side of the verandah. It began to really pour then hail and we were all laughing together – a lovely experience. It was still hot and Sally and Bridget washed themselves in the rain which cooled all of us down. The rain was getting even heavier so we all went into the hut and bought lots of weavings. Mark and I bought a scarf for 100Baht ($5 AUS), a blanket for 500Baht ($25 AUS) and a shirt for Mark. After the women left we all sat around with candles while Doi cooked our dinner. We lounged around on the floor and had lots of laughs before having dinner of vegetables and eggs off a low wooden table in the candlelight.

Mark and I had our own little room with a window and wooden shutters. The hut was still absolutely basic but much nicer than the night before. Unfortunately, the sleeping mats were still as uncomfortable as ever and we needed blankets for the first time as the night became cool. The worst was yet to come, however, as I had to get up three times for urgent toilet visits. This was my worst nightmare. Each time I had to find the torch and toilet paper, pick my way in the dark over sleeping bodies, find my boots under the hut, walk through the mud and ‘go’ in the horrid pit toilet behind the hut while trying not to make those awful ‘toilet noises’ – definitely not one of my best experiences. A bad night’s sleep had by us all.

Saturday 17th May, 1997     Third Day of Trek and Chiang Mai

Woke early again and I wasn’t feeling too good so I couldn’t eat the porridge Doi had made for breakfast. Hard to understand why I was the only one to get sick as we’d all eaten the same food for two days and I only drank bottled water. We packed up our gear and said goodbye to the villagers. As we walked through the village we watched a woman weaving a blanket – so glad we have one to remember this lovely place.

01-29-2008 11;49;35AMAt first we walked through a pretty river area crossing lots of creeks sometimes by walking across narrow branches but mainly walking straight through the water getting our boots soaked again. After lots of hills and walking through rice paddies, we came at last to Tham Lod village and Cave Lodge.01-29-2008 12;38;52PM

We quickly showered and packed and then Mark and the others had a Thai lunch. I only had a salad as I was feeling really nauseous by now. After lunch we all piled into a songthaew to take us to Pai. I sat in the front with Noan and her husband so I could see the road. The hour and a half drive to Pai was all right but when we got there we found that there was no bus running to Chiang Mai  – what they call ‘Thai time’. This didn’t seem to worry Noan and her husband who now had to drive us all the way. First they drove us to a shop to buy water for the four or five hours to Chiang Mai.

It started to rain about half an hour later and we had to stop and put the canvas sides down. Mark said it was pretty awful in the back and most of the group felt sick – so stuffy in there and they couldn’t see the road ahead. They all made the most of it though and there was singing and lots of joke telling. I felt so sick in the front and Noan kept fussing over me. She was really sweet and kept feeling my forehead and she put a blanket over me. It was so hot and I tried to let it slip off my shoulder but then she’d notice and tuck in back in. I kept asking her how far it was to Chiang Mai but she would just give a big smile, hold up five fingers and say’ Chiang Mai five’. I guess that was all the English she could speak so I just gave up. The five hours felt like ten with the heat, the rain, the winding road, feeling nauseous and on the verge of gastric the whole way. This ride was a ‘experience’ for everyone.

The road improved as we came into busy Ban Mae Malai and the last hour was through very thick traffic. We finally arrived at Chiang Mai at six o’clock and said goodbye to Noan and her husband who had to drive all the way back to Cave Lodge. The guesthouse was luxury after sleeping in grass huts but the rooms were as hot as hell. I felt so sick by now but rang Angie and Lauren as I couldn’t wait to hear how they were. I couldn’t go out and was so disappointed to miss the famous Chiang Mai night market. Mark went out for a quick dinner with the others and came home early.

Sunday 18th May, 1997                  Chiang Mai

Despite the heat we both slept well but I was still feeling sick on the stomach. We went for a walk and had fruit for breakfast at a small café. Back at the hotel I rang Mum and Dad then we decided to find McDonalds – couldn’t take any more rice or noodles! It was so cool inside and we ran into some of the others there as well. We bartered for jewelry and carved boxes in the markets then took a samlor ride. These are cycle rickshaws and this was our first ever ride but the driver was so old and we just couldn’t cope with seeing him struggle so we asked him to stop and just paid him anyway.

On the walk back to the guesthouse, we bought a mask and some nickel earrings – good shopping here with lots of hilltribe crafts for sale. We dumped our shopping in our room then picked up the clothes we’d sent to the laundry – big mistake. Some loose brown pants Mark had bought in Bangkok had run and all of our clothes (including the shirt he’d bought from the Karen women) either had brown streaks or were a lovely fawn colour. Not a disaster but we think we’ll do our own from now on.

Back out in the streets we found a place near the hotel that gave massages for 100Baht an hour. This place was wonderful! We were taken out to the back of a shop and up a lovely wide old wooden staircase to a big room painted pink with coloured sails on the ceiling and a wooden floor. We were dressed in coloured pyjamas and groovy music was playing somewhere downstairs – great atmosphere! The massage was good but so painful. I was stretched and thrown about but Mark was too big for the little Thai man to move so he just laughed and gave up.

We were running late by now and we raced back to the guesthouse to pack and meet the others. We all shoved our gear into a songthaew and set off for the station. Here, Mark and I went for a walk along the street opposite and bought junk food for the journey as we’d already experienced the rather ordinary train food on the way here. We pulled out of Chiang Mai at 4.40pm for the thirteen-hour trip back to Bangkok.

There were lots of toilet visits on the train which of course were the squat type we’d become accustomed to. The police came aboard at some stage and this time they had sniffer dogs with them – scary place! The train stopped before dark which seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. Village people were lining the tracks with fruit to sell to the passengers through the open windows – how fantastic! We had a nice night talking to the others who we’d become really friendly with by now. Mark slept badly in the top bunk and I spent another night toilet hopping. I was scared every time I had to go – thought I was going to be murdered and be found with my head stuffed down the toilet.

Monday 19th May, 1997                 Bangkok to Sangkhalburi

Most of us were already awake at 4.30 am to say goodbye to Robin and Warren who were getting off at the airport to fly to Phuket. After the tough week we’d just had, I think most of us envied them a few days lounging around on a beach instead of setting off on more Intrepid ‘adventures’. But an adventure is what we wanted, so let’s go!

After goodbyes and promises of letters and swapping photos, Mark and I got into the bottom bunk together for the rest of the trip. By 5.30am we could see the city was already alive with cars and people. We arrived at Bangkok Station at 6am and got into four tuktuks to take us back to the Viengtai Hotel. We raced each other through the streets that were getting busy even at that hour – great fun! We passed lines of monks in their orange robes on their alms rounds and morning markets busy already. Bangkok is so exciting!

It felt like coming home as we pulled into our hotel. Mark and I, Ross, Karne and Bridget were the only ones going on for the second part of the trip. We gave goodbye cuddles to Suzie, Carole, Vanessa, Sally and Enda and were really sorry they weren’t coming with us. They were all off backpacking to Vietnam or other parts of Thailand. The rest of us were given a dayroom and we all showered and repacked our bags for the second part of the trip. Mark and I walked around to Khao San Road to an open-air café for breakfast. A young Thai boy took our order but after fifteen minutes he came back with nothing. We ordered again and finally got our brekkie and raced back to the hotel to meet up with the new group. We now had two Irish girls called Siobhan and Delores and a loud-mouthed Canadian girl called Elizabeth. We also had a very trendy looking guy called John who was learning to be an Intrepid leader.

We had our shopping and excess clothes put into storage while Ross and Karne spent an hour tracking down two bags of clothes they’d put into storage the week before. Apparently they’d been sent to the laundry by mistake and had been washed! We were just in time to rescue our own gear when we saw it disappearing into a lift instead of the storage room behind the counter. Where was it going?

Ready at last, we strapped on our packs and walked to the end of our road where we found taxis to take us to the Southern Bus Station. We had a groovy driver who was playing loud ‘Eagles’ songs. The bus to Kanchanaburi was still a local bus but this time it was air-conditioned – luxury compared to the buses of the north but totally lacking in character. I was still feeling sick and slept some of the way – hate that – feel like I’ve missed seeing something.

Out of the bus at Kanchanaburi, we squashed into samlors to take us to a guesthouse called Rick’s Lodge about fifteen minutes through town. Mark and I had the slowest rider or the slowest rickshaw but maybe we were just too heavy with us and three backpacks hanging off the back. We drove past the Allied War Cemetery where thousands of allied POW’s were buried after dying in captivity during World War II. This is immaculately kept with green lawns and flowers. We finally pulled up at Rick’s Lodge in a dusty laneway behind the cemetery.

This is a bamboo guesthouse with a big bamboo verandah looking over the famous River Kwai. So nice here in these casual surroundings – one of the joys of Asia is the open-air cafes. We all had a buffet style dinner. Mark and the others had Thai but I only had a salad to settle my stupid stomach.

After lunch we piled our gear on top of a small van and squeezed inside for the three-hour trip to Sanghklaburi. We drove through open country with only a few small towns. After about an hour, Naomi noticed a man and a motorbike in a ditch on the side of the road and made our driver stop. Our driver was a horrible man who never smiled and even wanted to leave the man there because he said he was probably dead! Mark and Naomi ran back to help him and they lifted him onto the back of an army truck to be taken to hospital. He wasn’t too badly hurt but Mark and Naomi both had blood on them when they got back to the van.

The road for the last couple of hours of the trip was very windy and steep – so many hills and mountains in this country! It’s very green here compared to the north and we saw lots of people living in houseboats on the lake which we followed for the last half an hour.

We arrived at Sangkhlaburi about five o’clock. The town is situated near the Burmese border on the edge of Lake Khao Laem. Very few Thais live here and it’s mainly inhabited by Burmese refugees and Karen and Mon tribes so it was different to other Thai towns. We pulled up at P Guesthouse which overlooked the lake. It consists of a restaurant and small huts all built of wood, bamboo and stone. Our huts had a grass roof and a verandah overlooking the lake with the Mon village on the other side.  We had shared squat toilets (accustomed to by now) and cold showers (no problem, because of the heat).

We all had dinner together in the lovely open-air café by the lake. Thai food for Mark and the rest of the gang but Karne and I ordered cheeseburgers as he was feeling sick as well – great to have someone to be sick with – not feeling so pathetic. We all had a few too many drinks but an early night as we were all exhausted after the last week. There were lots of ghekkos around the hut and amazing to hear the noise they make – they really do say ‘ghekko’!

Tuesday 20th May, 1997      Sangkhlaburi

 We had a fantastic sleep and then a lovely breakfast (feeling better at last) with Delores and Siobhan overlooking the lake. It was hot already and after cold showers we walked down to the lake to meet the longtail boat. Kumsoi was our guide for the elephant trek as well as bringing our lunch. She was so happy with a beaming face and always laughing.

We set off across the lake to see the Mon village and on to a partly submerged Buddhist temple. Forty minutes later we came to where a river joined the lake and here were the elephants. Cannot but be amazed to see them. There were seven elephants here with their mahouts and it was fun watching everyone making idiots of themselves trying to climb on. This time the elephants were made to kneel down and we climbed on to their knees but it was still so awkward.

The scenery was spectacular with the river and the hills in front of us and so much greenery. We rode for hours beside the river, crossing it several times and then through thick jungle. We had lots of laughs as Ross and Karne’s elephant was crazy and kept heading off on its own. We’d see them crashing through huge clumps of bamboo and down steep embankments totally off the track. Our elephant had a flatulence problem and let off a ginormous fart – so embarrassing but everyone just blamed Mark.

It was so uncomfortable sitting in the basket but worth it for the scenery and the great experience. So hot now and we were trying to fan ourselves with clumps of leaves from the trees we had to keep pushing out of our faces. The best surprise was when we rode into a Karen village and picked up a baby elephant to come with us. She was so gorgeous with her little mohawk hairdo and we couldn’t take our eyes off her. She kept us all laughing as she stumbled up the embankments beside her mother and when we rode through the deepest part of the river she would completely disappear under the water and then bob up again then under again. Such a great feeling on the ride as Kumsoi sang while bells jingled around the elephants’ necks – only partially spoilt by Elizabeth’s incessant chatter – poor Bridget! A camera crew from Bangkok television followed us all the way and met us again at the end of the ride. We could see them filming us as we were riding through the deepest part of the river. The water was up to the eyes of the elephants and it looked fantastic with the thick jungle all around.

We stopped for lunch by the river and I got up the courage to sit on an elephant’s knee so Mark and I could have our photos taken. Lunch was rice and pineapple that Kumsoi had brought with her. After lunch we all got onto bamboo rafts that were waiting there for us. Mark stood right up the front and I stood at the back and we steered with long bamboo poles. Actually Mark steered – I had no idea what I was doing and I was nervous as we had to stand up. Mark did all the work and we went really well. The girls didn’t do so well and Bridget spent more time in the water than on the raft. The Irish girls were in heaps of trouble and Delores had the most fantastic fall that had us all laughing for days. They kept getting stuck on rocks and had to be pulled off at one stage by a passing elephant. The rain started pouring down but it was still and warm and made it an unreal experience. It stopped as quick as it started and it was hot and sunny again. Ross and Karne spent most of the time pushing people off rafts and Mark got in on it too. Ross seemed to go berserk and even tried to drown the lovely Elizabeth – it shut her up for a few seconds anyway.

After about another hour we reached the longtail boat which dropped us off at the Mon village. The markets here were fantastic with goods smuggled in from Myanmar (Burma), China and India. Mark and I bought four bedspreads – everything so cheap and very different to other markets we’d seen. It was really pouring by now and we tried to get a songthaew at the village to take us back to the hotel. Couldn’t find one so our only option was to walk. The rain was heavy but it wasn’t cold and it was fun, really. The Mon villagers were so friendly and were waving and laughing at us as we walked past their huts. From the village we crossed over the bridge to Sangkhlaburi – of course, it had to be the longest wooden bridge in Thailand! We kept on walking through the pouring rain until a kind American woman saw how miserable we all looked and stopped to pick us up in her truck. We climbed in to the open section on the back and she drove us all the way back to P Guesthouse.

When we arrived the camera crew had already put the video together and were so excited to see it so soon. After showers and dry clothes we had drinks by the lake then all had dinner together. We had lots of drinks after dinner and talked and laughed for ages – great night! Mark and I went to bed about 10 o’clock and laughed till we went to sleep- very tipsy! Bridget, Ross and Karne came back to their hut next to ours about midnight and made lots of noise crashing about and laughing – also very tipsy! Our best day yet!!!

Wednesday        21st May, 1997   Sangkhlaburi to Kanchanaburi

An early rise again mainly due to the noisy longtail boats on the lake and the sounds of animals and music coming from the Mon village. After breakfast we all squashed into a small and very uncomfortable songthaew for the three-hour trip to Nam Tok. We were so cramped that John had to hang off the back the whole way. Our driver was a madman and kept stopping to do errands on the way and out of the way and then drive like crazy to get us to the train on time. We were all scared and Naomi kept banging on the glass between us and the cabin for him to slow down. He didn’t take any notice and it really was the ride from hell. So glad to reach Nam Tok alive. It was nice here near the station and we had lunch in an open-air café run by some happy Thai ladies and then watched them buy seafood from a man passing by.

At one o’clock we boarded the train to take us to Kanchanaburi. The train is called the Death Railway as the tracks and bridges were built by Australian, British and Thai POW’s during World War II and cost thousands of lives. It was hard to imagine what dreadful things happened only fifty years ago in this now lovely and peaceful area. The train itself was old and had beautiful polished bench seats. The train was full of locals who all seemed to be having a great time and hanging out the windows. We had good views of the River Kwai and crossed the famous bridge as we came into Kanchanaburi two hours later.

At the station, we found samlors to take us to Rick’s Lodge again. We had grass huts here too but this time we had our own toilet and shower – the toilet was even a sit down one! Our bed was in a loft which we had to get to by a bamboo ladder. We even had a thick mattress on the floor – a five star grass hut! It began to rain heavy again late in the afternoon – the rainy season has definitely begun. We decided to just lie around for the afternoon.

The rain had stopped by dark and it was hot and steamy again. We all decided to go to the night markets and set off down the laneways and streets of Kanchanaburi. It was smelly and dirty as usual but really alive and interesting. People were everywhere cooking and eating and lots of food stalls lining the streets. It took about forty minutes to reach the night food market where there were incredible things to eat – frogs, snails and even cockroach-looking bugs frying in a huge wok – they stank! Bridget picked up some cute looking furry creature but it peed all over her – a good laugh. There were no westerners here and everything was written in Thai so we had no idea what we were ordering. It was great to watch the people cooking in woks and we spent a couple of hours going from stall to stall. Mark and I sat down at a small table near one of the stalls with Naomi, John and Bridget. They all ordered a famous Thai dish called ‘pad thai’ then we all had banana pancakes smothered in condensed milk and sugar – beautiful but really sweet.

We walked back to the guesthouse at about ten o’clock and it was still really hot. There’s always something to see walking through towns and villages. People sit outside their homes sewing, cooking and eating. The homes are open and we could see that most people live in one room with only a bed, a few pieces of furniture and always a TV, a shrine for Buddha and photos of the royal family. The Buddhist shrines are in all homes and shops and are decorated with flowers, burning incense and coloured lights.

We climbed up our bamboo ladder and into our bed as soon as we got back. Went to sleep listening to the sounds of ghekkos and frogs outside our hut.

Thursday   22nd May, 1997            Kanchanaburi to Hua Hin

Our alarm woke us at six o’clock after a good sleep. The day was beautifully still and sunny and we had breakfast on the verandah overlooking the River Kwai. Afterwards we walked down to the river and boarded a longtail boat to take us to the Jeath War Museum about fifteen minutes downstream. The river is lined on either side with brightly painted barges that are used at night as floating restaurants and discos – hideous!

The Jeath Museum is set in the cool, shaded grounds of Wat Tai and run by a Thai monk. The building is a replica of the bamboo huts the prisoners of war were forced to live in. It appeared very unassuming at first but as we read the stories and looked at the photographs of the young prisoners we all became very quiet – most of us had a cry. It was an unexpected reaction as we’d all heard the stories before but maybe to be here where it all happened, it really brought it home.

Back in the boat, the lovely day made us feel better and we set off for the famous bridge at top speed. We walked across the bridge where we had great views of the river and its banks. On the other side we found a small market and a mother elephant and her cute baby. I put out my hand to touch the baby’s trunk which it wrapped around my wrist – incredible strength for such a baby.

The boat ride back to Rick’s Lodge in the early morning was beautiful. We quickly packed up our gear and climbed into yet another songthaew. This one was bigger than any we’d been in before and was quite comfortable – or maybe we were just getting accustomed to this strange transport. We drove for about an hour for an enjoyable ride to Ban Pong.

The open-air station here was really interesting – lovely in the sunshine with flowers and trees all around. While we waited for the train, Mark, Elizabeth and I walked down the street and tried some of the street stalls – things on skewers, lychees and mangosteens. At the station we bought little Thai cakes and water for the train.

Mark and I both sat next to Thai ladies with huge baskets of fruit and vegetables that they carried on either end of a bamboo pole. They got off after a few stops and we had double seats to ourselves for the rest of the trip. Great to stretch out for a change and watch the scenery through the open windows. The countryside was flat now and lots of palms and rice paddies. A really interesting trip and only three hours.

We arrived at Hua Hin at two o’clock and walked the fifteen minutes from the train station to the guesthouse. The town is a beach resort for Thais – pretty small and busy but hot and smelly as usual. The guesthouse, Baan Samboon, was really cute and situated down a quiet laneway. It has a bar and dining room downstairs off a lovely green garden with a pond and lots of tropical flowers. Our room was upstairs with a cute window overlooking the lane. We had a fan but it was still stifling so we decided to splurge and pay extra for air-conditioning.

After unpacking, Mark and I walked down to the Post Office to ring the girls – great to hear them and that everything is fine at home. We bought an icecream to cool us down and then met for a group meeting. We decided that we’d all do our own thing so Mark and I walked around the town and down to the beach. Lots of market stalls, food stalls and cafes near the beach with places hiring pushbikes and motorbikes. The shopping was really awful with hideous things for sale. Mark did all right, though, and bought six shirts for home (150Baht each). We also ordered a suit for Mark and a jacket for me from ‘G Armani” which we were told would be ready the next day.

Late in the afternoon it began to rain heavily and we ate in a small café not far from the hotel. We went back to the guesthouse for showers then back to ‘G Armani’ for fittings for our clothes. The tailor was a poor little man wearing ragged clothes and thongs and who arrived on a bike. It is sad to think of how little he’ll be paid for sitting up all night sewing our clothes.

We met the others downstairs at the guesthouse at seven o’clock and followed Naomi to the night market for dinner. So busy and colourful here but with lots of beggars who sit in the walkways between the food stalls. It is pitiful to see and we gave some money but can’t give to all. Mark and I sat at a food stall on little chairs and ordered Thai food then I bought a bag of watermelon. At nine o’clock we all met together again and walked to a bar near our guesthouse. A Thai man was playing a guitar and singing Western country music and we were all drinking and getting very merry.

After he’d finished, another Thai guitarist came on and played Thai music. A table of about thirty locals were sitting near us and getting very drunk and noisy and some of the men were up dancing. One of them was having a birthday and we all sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to him in English. Most of our group had gone home by now and only Mark, Bridget, Karne and me were left. The Thai people sent over a piece of birthday cake because we’d joined in with their singing, so Mark bought the ‘birthday boy’ a Thai rum. They just loved us after that. They started buying us Thai rums then dragged us up on to dance with them. We had a great time with these lovely people.

When the bar closed the four of us walked to a café and ordered hamburgers and did a lot of swearing and laughing and Elizabeth bagging. We made a lot of noise getting back into our rooms at the guesthouse at 2pm but didn’t manage to wake anyone.

Friday   23rd May, 1997            Hua Hin

We slept in till 9.30am, showered and had breakfast in a café near the guesthouse. Mark and I walked down to the beach where there were hundreds of umbrellas and deckchairs for hire. We decided to walk down the beach and have a swim. The water was warm but great to be at the beach after two weeks in the heat. We had a Thai massage on the beach lying on big pink silky sheets under the palm trees – it hurt again. We had another swim then walked back to the hotel.

In the afternoon we walked into town along busy laneways and streets lined with cafes. We had lunch at a seafood café on the pier – lovely and cool being so close to the water. Mark ordered a nice prawn meal and I had battered prawns, battered beans, battered onions and even a battered lettuce leaf – amazing meal!

After lunch I bought a cheap handpainted fan to try and keep cool. We stopped and had drinks with Delores and Siobhann at a café and heard about their ‘wee’ trip to see a ‘wee’ cave. Then we picked our clothed up at ‘G Armani’. Mark looks beautiful in his new suit and white shirt and I look horrible in my brown jacket – not surprising. We lost the others and so we had a pizza together near the guesthouse. After dinner we walked around town then had an early night in our lovely air-conditioned room.

Saturday  24th May, 1997              Hua Hin to Bangkok

Mark and I had an early breakfast in the café street and watched the life going on in the street. We went back to the guesthouse and sat around downstairs in the cool. Mark went and tried his suit on to show Bridget and the others.

At 12.30pm we all packed and walked into town to the bus station. Very hot now and heaps of people cooking and eating on the sidewalks and traffic everywhere. We left Hua Hin at 1pm for the four hours to Bangkok. There was roadwork most of the way and traffic jams as we came into Bangkok.

At the Southern Bus Station, we crammed ourselves into a tiny van. Bridget and I were up the back almost on top of each other – it was so hot and squashed it was funny and we had lots of laughs – I think we were delirious from the heat. It took us about forty-five minutes to reach the Teak House and what a surprise! We’d imagined another grass hut but this was so beautiful – very big and ornate traditional Thai house totally made from teak. The house belongs to a lady called Pip and her family who rent it out to tourists mainly for Pip’s wonderful cooking classes. We had our own room beautifully fitted out with teak paneling and six tiny windows with wooden shutters. We had yellow silk bedcovers, a dressing table with a mirror and padded floor seats. We were all given sarongs that we had to wear all the time we were there and no shoes naturally.

Heavy rain began soon after we arrived and it was lovely to watch the rain and the wind blowing through the huge palms surrounding the house. The grounds were as lovely as the house itself with lots of mango and other fruit trees and the klong at one end. Downstairs in the teak dining room, we all gathered for drinks then sat out in the tropical outdoor area surrounded by the greenery. After drinks, we had a traditional Thai meal then sat around drinking again outside to try and cool down. The cutest dogs belonging to the house hung around us all the time – everyone’s favourite was Beaver. Mark, Bridget, Karne, Ross and Siobbhan played cards till midnight while the rest of us found a book to read in bed.

Sunday 25th May, 1997            Bangkok

We woke at 6.30am after a good sleep except for the noisy ghekkos. We left at 7.30am to go to the local market with Pip’s daughter to buy food for the day. This was a real Thai market and again we were the only farangs here. We couldn’t believe the things being sold – live frogs and turtles, rats, cockroaches, eels, snails and quail. We watched women take live fish from a dish and chop them to pieces – definitely fresh!  There were masses of different fruits and vegetables many of which we’d never seen before. Mark and I bought a sarong each and some cakes just out of the oven. We bought a frozen coconut thing that looked like ice cream with nuts on top and some peanuts in their shells which turned out to be raw.

We drove back to the house and lounged around outside and then started our Thai cooking classes with Pip. She is a real sweetie and explained all the different vegetables and herbs which we all tasted. She showed us how to chop them depending on the sort of dish being made. She then showed us how to cook Tom Yam Kang (sour and spicy prawn soup), Lap Mu (spicy pork salad), Kaeng Khiao Wan Neva (Thai beef green curry) and Pha-Naeng Neva (beef curry in sweet peanut sauce). The class took about three hours and it was nice sitting in the outdoor kitchen watching her cook in the woks.

Then we followed her to the side verandah surrounded by lush gardens. We sat on the floor and watched her make her own red curry in a mortar and pestle. This took about half an hour – a job she does every day. It was good for me to be off my feet as they were really aching and, for some reason, had swollen to the size of elephant’s feet – very attractive!

For lunch we ate the food we’d watched Pip prepare. Mark loved it all but unfortunately I don’t like coconut milk, coriander or lemon grass which are in just about every Thai dish – what a party pooper! After lunch we went back to our rooms to relax. Bridget and some of the others went on a boat ride through the klongs and had a great time – wish we’d gone with them. Mark and I had a peaceful afternoon reading and talking then all met together downstairs at seven o’clock.

Another Thai meal with the vegetarians at one table (Naomi, John, Elizabeth, Delores and Siobbhan) and the meat-eaters at another table (Mark and me, Ross, Karne and Bridget). We had fun at dinner with Karne and Bridget arguing and flirting and all of us confessing our darkest secrets. We all played a card and spoon game after dinner – great fun for our last night together. Lots of laughing and screaming – Mark won and I lost – became the MUNGBEAN.

We sat around talking and drinking for hours until only Mark, Bridget, Karne and me were left. Mark did his naked ‘Billy Connelly’ romp on the lawn and again outside our room. We went to bed about midnight but couldn’t sleep for ages thinking about tomorrow and home. Looking forward to going back to Bangkok again before leaving to see it for the last time and looking forward to getting home to see the girls.

Monday   26th May, 1997     Bangkok

We woke at six o’clock to a beautiful morning. After showering and packing, we met everyone downstairs for breakfast of fresh fruit, toast and scrambled eggs. We paid up our drink bill and I mysteriously seemed to have a lot of beers on my tab even though I don’t drink it – Mark must have snuck in a few extras. We said our good-byes to Pip and her family and walked down to the klong. Beaver was there to see us off as we set off in a longtail boat for Bangkok.

The klongs were very narrow at first and we watched people bathing and washing their clothes in the muddy water. The houses are built right up to the water and most have small boats tied up alongside. We passed lots of little canoe-type boats filled with fruit and vegetables and some piled high with goods like small shops. After about fifteen minutes we entered a wider canal and then even wider ones as we came closer to the city. We passed elaborate wats and then the Fish Temple. The klongs finally joined the Chao Praya River and here again was the busy river traffic we’d seen before – ferries, riverboats, barges, houseboats and longtail boats of all sizes.

We disembarked at a small ferry wharf and walked for fifteen minutes through the small busy alleyways to come to Tanee Road and the Viengtai Hotel. We tried to arrange with the hotel staff to leave our packs in storage for a few hours but after a lot of confusion we had to get Naomi to help us. We said goodbye to Delores, Siobbhan, Elizabeth and John and walked around to Khao San Road with Bridget, Karne and Ross to arrange transport to the airport.

Mark and I left the others to cash some travellers cheques and do some last minute shopping. We bought pillowcases, bags and two big extra bags for the plane to hold all our purchases. So hot and we had to waste precious shopping time by stopping in a café for an iced pineapple juice. We were running out of time and raced back to the hotel to pack. We had our gear spread out all over the foyer but Mark managed to squeeze it all in.

The five of us then struggled back around to Khao San Road to get the airport bus. There were already eight people inside and the roof looked full of packs but we managed to cram in and we took off for the airport. Sad to be leaving Bangkok – so much to see and we wonder if we’ll ever be back. The bus driver spent the whole time weaving in and out of traffic and we arrived at the airport forty minutes later in record time for the middle of the day. We couldn’t resist ordering pizza at the airport and then were devastated as we forgot to ask for window seats when we checked in.

We sat around with Karne and Ross who were flying with us as far as Singapore and then catching a connecting flight to Perth. Bridget was also on our plane as she was off to Australia for an extended holiday. She is such a sweet, fun person and Mark and I sat with her for the two hours to Singapore. WE were all devastated when we open our meals and discovered we were having rice for dinner! At Changi Airport in Singapore we said goodbye to Ross and Karne and took off one and a half-hours later for Sydney. We couldn’t get seats with Bridget at first but after half an hour we managed to move and we sat together for the eight hours home.

We arrived at Sydney Airport at 5.15am and gave Bridget big hugs and promises to see each other soon. Mark and I flew back to Newcastle with Aero Pelican and it was great to watch the coastline as we headed home. Disappointed at Pelican as the girls weren’t there to meet us as Angie was sick. Jacky and Dad were there though and drove us back to see Mum and then home to see our darlings. Good to be home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

           

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Italy 2004

Scan10051Wednesday 9th June,2004                     London to Rome

At 4.30pm we land at Fiumicino or Leonardo da Vinci Airport in Rome. This is more like it! The weather is hot and sunny, no-one is speaking English and Italians are everywhere! A monorail takes us to baggage collection then we catch the airport train into the city. After half an hour we enter the outskirts of Rome and see ancient ruins already. At Termini Station we put on our packs and head off to find our accommodation that we’ve already booked on the internet. I think we take the long way round and it’s a hot thirty minute walk to Via Giovanni Lanza. At last we find the right address in a row of old buildings with an avenue of trees outside. Mark presses the buzzer for the Red Rose Bed and Breakfast but no-one answers. Inside the foyer another couple is also trying to get in so Mark makes a call on his mobile. While we wait we chat with the young American backpackers who’ve been in Italy for ages and give us a few tips. I just love this foyer with its marble floor and wrought iron winding staircase. It’s so very Italian and the real thing. Soon a lady called Anna Rosa arrives with the key. She’s a buxom bleached blonde in her fifties and not exactly friendly until she wants us to come to her restaurant.

The Red Rose is fabulously Italian! Our room is huge with ornate furniture, a marble floor, a chandelier, two velvet couches and a gilt mirror over the fireplace. The window has three sets of shutters and looks onto an old convent. Mark opens the shutters to let the afternoon sun flow into our room – lovely! We also have a shared bathroom and a homey kitchen where we’ll have breakfast tomorrow morning.

After unpacking we walk up to the busy Via Tonna to look for Anna Rosa’s restaurant. Sorry, Anna Rosa, it’s far too expensive so we find a small osteria instead and sit at a table on the sidewalk to order wine and a capricciosa pizza – olives, prosciutto, mushrooms and artichokes. Now we wander the streets and stop at a small fruit and vegetable shop. The owners are a friendly old couple and we buy cherries, onions, tomatoes and a lettuce that we drop back at the Red Rose.

Scan10056Further down Via Giovanni Lanza we find a wonderful little piazza called Piazza Madonna del Mondi in a maze of tiny laneways. It has a fountain in the middle and cafes on two sides. We have a lovely time sitting in one of the cafes watching the locals and drinking expensive vino bianco to celebrate our first night in Italy.

Thursday 10th June, 2004                    Rome

Buongiorno! Our first full day in Rome. It was a bit noisy last night with traffic outside our window and guests coming and going but we still managed to get plenty of sleep. By seven thirty we’re up, showered and having breakfast made for us by another Italian lady in the kitchen. She doesn’t even bother trying to be friendly and throws us stale croissants, tea, coffee and orange juice – welcome to Italy.

Scan10053At eight thirty we set off and realize that we can see the Roman Forum at the end of our street – don’t know how we missed seeing it last night. Our first stop is the Colosseum. It’s only a five minute walk and sits in the middle of a sort of giant roundabout. It looks wonderful even though it’s now just a shell of its former glory. The queue isn’t too long and we’re inside within fifteen minutes.

Scan10051Climbing the stairs to the top level we can see how incredibly huge it is. It once held fifty thousand spectators who during the one hundred day inauguration games watched five thousand animals killed and gladiators fight to the death. During another set of games that lasted one hundred and seventeen days, over nine thousand gladiators died. They could even fill the arena with water to put on displays of sea battles. It’s hard to imagine all this happening in this lovely peaceful place. We spend an hour or so inside then I have a photo taken with one of the gladiators out in the forecourt.

Now we head for the Roman Forum which is just a short walk uphill along the Via Sacra. At the top of the hill is the pretty Arco di Settimio Severo where we sit on a boulder in the shade to eat bananas for morning tea. From here we can see the whole area – the Basilica Aemilia, temples, churches and columns – all in ruins amongst orange poppy fields – beautiful! This is also where Caesar was buried and where Mark Antony gave his famous speech – ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar not to praise him’. It’s so much bigger and beautiful than we expected and so spread out that it’s still a relaxing haven despite the hundreds of tourists.Scan10052

We walk up the stairs on the far side to Capitoline Hill for an even better view and to see the Piazza del Campidoglio. The piazza is surrounded by three palaces and reached by the Cordonata which is a wide ramp designed by Michelangelo. At the bottom of the ramp it’s just a short walk to the Piazza Venezia which is dominated by the spectacular monument of Vittoriano. A fountain and pool at the bottom is a good place to cool down as we splash water over our arms and legs.

Scan10054From here we walk through back laneways then sit on the shaded steps of a church to look at more monuments across the street – this whole city seems to be a treasure trove of ancient history. Mark has packed a salad for our lunch but we stop at a nearby supermarket to buy more supplies – two bottles of wine, a loaf of crusty bread, salami, a block of Edam cheese and prosciutto. We plan to be out all day and to have a picnic somewhere wonderful.

Scan10055Using our map we soon find the Pantheon, the next stop on our itinerary. It’s surrounded by lively cafes and men playing Italian music on accordions which adds to the wonderful atmosphere. The Pantheon itself is spectacular and apparently the greatest architectural achievement of the Roman Empire. The marble floor spans a forty three metre diameter circle and the dome is also a soaring forty three metres high. Outside we sit at the base of one of the sixteen Corinthian columns to have our picnic lunch and to watch all the action.

Scan10057It’s so hot by now that at nearby Piazza Navona we sit on the edge of one of the fountains to paddle in the cold water. Pigeons are sitting on the nude statues and one is pecking at a doodle. Two young boys have thrown their mate fully clothed into the fountain and throw the poor guy in again when they see our video camera. In the centre of the piazza is Bellini’s beautiful Fountain of the Four Rivers and surrounding the fountain are a few hawkers and artists selling original paintings of Rome.

Scan10058From here we make our way to the famous Trevi Fountain. This is set in a tiny piazza and is every bit as magical as we’d expected. The sunshine is glaring as it’s reflected off the white marble sculptures and the blue pool beneath. Hundreds of tourists are crammed into this little square but we find an empty space on the edge of the pool to throw in three coins each over our shoulders.

Scan10061In a nearby air-conditioned internet café we spend an hour emailing home then head back out to find the Spanish Steps. We read the map wrong and lose our way for an hour and have to stop for soft cone Cornettos. The best part of getting lost is that we stumble across Bellini’s Fontana del Tritone in Piazza Barbarini.

Scan10059This is one of my favourite sculptures because the very spunky body of the figure reminds me of my darling with his clothes off – ‘I wish’ he says but I know it’s true. An old man is running around the piazza dancing and dunking his head in the water and spouting it out of his mouth like a fountain.

Scan10060At last we find the Spanish Steps but we’re almost too hot to care. Hoards of more fucking tourists are here as well. The heat is sweltering so we don’t hang around for long but take the Metro to Termini Station. We’ve never seen a train so packed and I even have a man rubbing his crotch against my leg. At Termini we can’t stand the thought of another packed train or another pervert so we decide to walk back to the Red Rose. On the way we stop at a supermarket to buy more picnic supplies – cheese, proscuitto, salad dressing and aluminium containers. The checkout chick is a model of Italian service – lazy, talking to her friends and a scowl. Closer to home we come across a travel agent and book tickets for the train to Florence leaving tomorrow morning.

So glad to finally get back to our room to lie around on the bed eating cherries and reading with the fan keeping us cool. At seven thirty we wander down to Piazza Madonna then find a crowded pizzeria to have dinner. The atmosphere couldn’t be more Italian if it tried. An accordionist is wandering around between the tables, everyone is smoking, there’s a jug of wine on every table, the air is thick with garlic and everyone except us is Italian. Predictably the menu choices are pizza or pasta so we order both as well as a jug of vino russo. The tomato and basil bread seems to be free till we get the bill. A great night.

Friday  11th June, 2004                 Rome    

Both wearing earplugs we slept much better and ready for our second day in Rome. Waking at seven we shower, have breakfast and Mark packs our picnic food. Outside is hot already but it’s great to see the sun and blue skies above. At nearby Cavour Station we buy a day ticket each then catch the Metro to the St Peters stop in Vatican City. A ten minute walk from the station takes us through pleasant streets past shops and souvenir stalls to reach the seventeenth century Piazza San Pietro. St Paul’s Square is a massive area in front of the domed basilica with fountains in the centre and flanked by semi-circular Doric colonnades four rows deep. We sit here in the shade to admire the view, eat cherries and feed the pigeons.

Before we can enter St Paul’s Basilica we must line up for fifteen minutes in the sun then have our bags checked. Only one gate is open because the guy in charge of the other gate is having a casual chat and a fag. It’s free to get in which is like most of the sights we’ve seen in Rome so far.

Scan10063Once inside the foyer it’s much cooler and the atmosphere is amazing already. But the Basilica itself is even more amazing. The interior is huge with shafts of sunlight beaming in from the tall windows above. We stop first to look at Michelangelo’s Pieta which, in a sculpture or painting, means the dying Christ in the arms of the Madonna – very moving. The Basilica has so many other famous statues but the building itself is so marvellous that it’s hard to put it into words – so I won’t.

The other wonder of Vatican City is the Vatican Museums mainly because this is where we’ll find the Sistine Chapel or the Capella Sistina. The sun is scorching and we line up in the street behind hundreds of people. As we get to the corner we realize that the line goes up another street, around a corner, up that street, around another corner and then up another street. One and a half hours later we’re finally paying our 11 Euro each to get in. To reach the Sistine Chapel we have to walk through untold rooms of priceless paintings and statues while all the walls and ceilings are painted with frescos of Biblical stories. This is really unexpected and by the time we arrive at the Sistine Chapel it’s almost an anti-climax. No cameras, no videos and definitely no talking and it seems that the main job of the guards inside is to go ‘shoosh’. As we merge with the crowds in the middle of the chapel, Mark manages to take a video. We see the famous Creation of Man at the very centre of the ceiling and The Last Judgement on the back wall. The fact that most of the chapel was painted single-handedly by Michelangelo himself is enough to draw thousands of visitors here every day.

The exit to the Museums is back at the Basilica where we see some of the army of the Swiss Guards wearing the traditional blue, red and yellow costumes. We decide to have lunch in the shade of the colonnades so we wash our hands and splash water over our faces from one of the water fountains we’ve seen all over Rome. The water is freezing cold and great to fill our empty water bottles. Mark makes lunch of salami, lettuce, onion, tomato, cheese and dressing. Untold people are here now and most of them are trying to get out of the sun. I love feeding the pigeons in these piazzas but they’re not too fond of our salad today.

Scan10062For a change we think we’ll get a bus back to Rome so we wait at the bus stop near the station. An old lady waiting with us looks like she’s got sunstroke or something that’s making her look very sick. We wait for ages but it’s too hot to hang around any longer so we decide to go back by train. Catch the Metro to Termini Station then Line B to Cavour. We buy supplies at a supermarket then cherries and tomatoes from our favourite little fruit shop on the way to the Red Rose – a great relief to get back to our room to lie around on the bed with the fan on.

Later I decide to walk up to the internet café to see if any emails have come through and then at seven o’clock we grab our bottle of wine and wander around a few local piazzas. None compare to our favourite Piazza Madonna so we end up back here for the third night in a row. We sit on the steps of the fountain drinking our wine and watching the locals. After finishing the bottle we head up Via Cavour to find a small pizzeria where we have a lovely time eating pizza and drinking a jug of vino bianco.

Even though we don’t leave till nine o’clock it’s still light outside. These very long days are perfect for travelling because we can fit so much in as well as not having to rush.         

 Saturday  12th June, 2004                 Rome to Florence (Firenze)

Wake at 5.30, shower and walk down to Cavour Station to catch the Metro to Termini Station. Boarding our very flash train we pull out at 7am for Florence. It’s only a one and a half hour trip through the Tuscan countryside. We eat a bag of cherries and I catnap most of the way – can’t seem to stay awake. Arriving at 8.30 at Florence’s Stazione di Santa Maria Novella, we book in our backpacks, have brekky at McDonalds (sad but true) and book tickets for Venice tomorrow morning.

Using our Lonely Planet map we leave the station to look for the Galleria Academia to see the statue of David. We end up at the River Arno near the Ponte alle Grazie and the Ponte Vecchio. The river looks like glass this morning with the buildings opposite reflected in the still water. The Ponte Vecchio is a 14th century pedestrian bridge lined with expensive jewellery shops and at the moment is standing room only with daggy tourists. We cross the bridge to the other side and walk for ages looking for the Galleria Academia. No luck till we finally realise that I’ve marked it wrong on the map and it’s right over on the other side of town. Back across the Ponte Vecchio we line up at the Uffizi Gallery but I have urgent toilet business (too many cherries) so we find a public loo in a backstreet – have to pay to get in. Can’t be bothered going to the Uffizi so we head back towards the Duomo. On the way we visit the Piazza della Signoria. This is like an outdoor museum and we see Ammannati’s Fountain of Neptune and sculptures like Cellinis ‘Perseus’.

Deciding to leave the Galleria Academia until later we head back to the station to catch the No7 bus to the village of Fiesole in the hills above Florence. Bus fares are done on the honour system in Italy so we don’t pay. It’s a pleasant half hour drive out of town with spectacular views of Florence beneath us and Tuscan farmhouses perched on the hills above. Fiesole is a seventh century Etruscan town and still has a beautiful cathedral next to the Piazza Mino da Fiesole. This is where the bus drops us but we decide to explore the other side of town first. We walk up the hilly main street to a leafy area that overlooks a deep valley dotted with olive groves and vineyards. Mark makes our picnic lunch on a park bench near a low stone wall built on the edge of the hill.

Back in the piazza we eat gelatos in a cute café then check out the views of Florence from another café facing the city. This really shows how very lovely it is – a sea of old terracotta rooftops and the magnificent dome of the Duomo dominating it all. Not a sign of modern architecture to be seen. Now it’s time to get back down there. Buses run frequently from the piazza and we don’t have long to wait – get away with not paying again.

Half an hour later we’re back in Florence and feeling very hot and tired but decide to have one more go at finding the Galleria Academia. On the way we buy a big tapestry at an outdoor market – will probably be our only souvenir of Italy. At last we find the Academia where surprisingly there’s no queue at all. We pay 9.5 Euros each and see lots of beautiful paintings and statues but the prize is Michelangelo’s David. The statue sits alone beneath a tall dome at the end of a wide corridor and is truly spectacular – just love it! Mark takes a sneak video then we sit for a while just staring at it. Suddenly I have another toilet emergency and make a beeline for the loo – no more cherries, please!

Now we just want to get to the hostel so we make our way to the train station. Getting our packs out of storage we catch the No17 bus to take us out to the ostello – don’t pay again. We know that it’s about half an hour out of town but we’re not sure where to get off. I keep asking the driver ‘are we there yet?’. We share the bus with a group of nuns in grey habits and they get off about half way. At last the driver gives us the signal and we can see the gates of the hostel across the road. A long, long driveway winds through a wooded area till we can see Ostello Villa Camerata up ahead.

It’s a grand sandstone coloured mansion with green shutters on the windows and a walled garden at the front and supposed to be one of the best hostels in Europe. Inside, the foyer is as big and elaborate as a ballroom. We check in quickly as we’d been able to book on the internet from home. It’s single sex accommodation only so we go off to our separate wings. Mark is sharing with three other guys who aren’t in the room at the moment and I’m sharing with two Asian girls and a Swedish girl called Mona.  Downstairs we sit in the shade of the back balcony drinking and eating cheese. Mark reads while I watch the local cats and catch up on the diary. From the Lonely Planet we choose a pensione for the next two nights in Venice and make a booking from our mobile. Later we go for showers and to get changed for dinner. I wash my hair and then can’t get the hairdryer to work – have to go a la natural – yuk!  Dinner is pasta, roast chicken, a breadroll and a peach for 8.5 Euro. Mona comes to sit with us and then an American guy called Tom. Have a fun night drinking and talking till 11pm.

I manage to sleep okay even though a noisy party is going on in the garden all night. Despite earplugs Mark doesn’t sleep well at all.

Sunday 13th June, 2004                        Florence to Venice

At 6.15am we meet downstairs – feels like we haven’t seen each other for a week. Not at all fussed on this sleeping apart thing. It’s nice to be leaving early even though it’s a bit cool this morning. We manage to catch a bus just pulling out and have a quick trip into the city through the empty streets – steal another free ride. At the station we have McDonalds for breakfast – this is becoming a habit – and eat it sitting on our packs on the station floor while we wait for our train information to come up on the board.

As we leave Florence at nine o’clock I’m nodding off almost before we leave the station. The weather has turned cool and cloudy and there’s even a few drops of rain on the window. An hour and a half later we pull into Bologna where we have an hour to wait before changing trains for Venice. By now it’s raining but we still have a peek outside the station to decide if we’ll have a look around. There doesn’t seem to be much point in this weather so we spend the time waiting for the train by pulling out any warm clothes we can find from the backpacks. We just chuck on anything and end up looking like total retards. By the time we pull into Venice’s Statione di Santa Lucia an hour later, the rain has cleared with only partial cloud and intermittent bursts of sunshine. The station opens directly onto the Grand Canal which is bustling and full of excitement. We cross a nearby bridge called the Ponte de Scalzi and make our way through the laneways and along smaller canals to easily find our hotel, Albergo Casa Peron in the Santa Croce quarter. It’s an atmospheric pensione in a narrow laneway amongst cafés and pizzerias. The owner has a big green parrot on his shoulder and shows us our room on the third floor.

After showers we lunch at an outdoor café just near our pensione – lasagne, calzone, and half a litre of vino bianco. Feeling very relaxed we wander through the narrow streets, through laneways so tiny we can touch the buildings on either side, across wooden arched bridges spanning big and little canals and finally end up at the Canal Grande. Here at San Toma Pier we buy tickets for a vaporetta to take us to the San Marco quarter. The canal is like the main street in any other city and busy with vaporettas (motorized river ferries which go along the Canal), traghettos (like gondolas and which go across the Canal), river taxis, police launches, private boats and the tourist gondolas. Other gondolas are tied up to blue and white striped poles sticking up out of the water and the gondoliers wear black and white clothes with straw hats – very Venetian. The buildings are built right to the edge of the Canal and most have boat moorings with doorways leading straight into the house. With flowered window boxes it all looks very pretty and romantic.

At the San Marco Pier we disembark with a crowd of other tourists to join the masses that are here to see the famous Piazza San Marco. The pier is alive with tourist stalls selling carnival masks and plates painted with Venetian scenes – hideous. Mark hears a familiar and unmistakable voice in the crowd – it’s Pauline Hanson! My God, what’s she doing in Italy? Doesn’t she know it’s full of Italians – non-Australians – wogs! She actually looks quite attractive in a long pink top and I stalk her to get her on video. She seems to have a couple of minders with her – to keep away the wogs maybe. Get bored with Pauline so Mark buys corn from a street cart and we feed the pigeons.

Now we have a look at the very elaborate Basilica in St Marks Square. This is probably the most famous piazza in Italy. It’s massive with expensive boutiques and cafes all around and the centre filled with tourists and pigeons. Florian is a very famous, very old and very expensive café that has an orchestra playing outside. We stop to watch and decide we have to sit down at one of the tables outside even if it costs us a bomb – it does. Coffee and a hot chocolate cost us thirty five Euros or about fifty Australian dollars but worth it to be sitting here in Venice being entertained by classical musicians. One of the musicians is getting off playing his accordion while waiters wearing white tuxedos serve us our drinks. Every now and again the pigeons must get spooked and do a lap of the square before settling down again – beautiful. Another orchestra is playing on the other side of the square so we have stereo classical music.

From St Marks Square we plunge into the crowded touristy back streets to find an internet café then melt in with a tourist group to watch a glass-blowing exhibition. From here we catch another vaporetta (don’t pay this time) to San Toma Pier and the sanity and tranquility of our truly Italian little area. As we walk back towards our pensione we see lots of gondolas filled with awful tourists and it really doesn’t appeal to me at the moment. The canals themselves look quite lovely though at this time of day with the sun low in the sky so we decide to grab a slab of pizza and eat it on the edge of the Rio del Malcanton. This quiet little canal is just a stone’s throw from our pensione and we’re the only ones here except for a few local boats passing by.

Later we wander around the backstreets and come across the big Campo Santa Margherita. A campo is the same as a piazza but in Venice only St Marks is given the name piazza. We sit on a bench in the centre of the square drinking our Bacardi and watching the local kids playing while their parents eat and drink in the open-air cafes around the outside.

It’s dark by now so we buy kebabs and go back to our quiet little canal to eat them on the steps. I’m ready for bed so I go back to our room while Mark finds a nearby bar to watch today’s soccer game.

Monday  14th June, 2004                        Venice

Up at seven thirty to shower and have breakfast in the little dining room on the second floor – stale croissants, jam, tea, coffee and orange juice. The weather is sunny and warm as we set off for the station to catch a vaporetta to the Rialto Bridge. This lovely arched stone bridge was built in 1592 and is one of only three that cross the Canal Grande.

We’ve come to see the one thousand year old market but we’re too early so we decide to catch a ferry to one of the outer islands. This San Marco quarter is similar to our Santa Croce area – a confusing labyrinth of tiny alleyways and canals but we somehow find our way. We stop at a small supermarket then easily find the vaporetta stop at Fondamente Nuove.

Risking not paying again, we jump on a ferry to take us to the island of Murano. From the water we have a wide view of Venice then make a stop at the small island of San Michele. This is Venice’s cemetery and where a crowd of people get off carrying big bunches of flowers. Murano is the next stop. This is where the famous Venetian glass is made and at a glass workers showroom on Fondamento dei Vetroi we watch the artisans doing their thing. Very interesting but we don’t stay long as we’ve seen it all before. The whole village seems to be full of shops selling the finished glass products – most of it hideously elaborate or else too expensive. The wind is driving us crazy so we take refuge in the Chiesa dei SS Maria Donata cathedral. We walk along some of the small canals then cross a bridge to buy bread from a nice lady in one of the small shops facing the canal. There doesn’t seem much to do here so we decide to dump the other islands and head back to Venice.

At Fondamente Nuove pier we wander through cute laneways, across little bridges, along canals and past stone houses with flowering window boxes on our way back to the Rialto Bridge. At a marker near the bridge we buy a silk scarf for Mum and a soccer shirt for Mark. Crossing over the Grand Canal to San Polo we stop for an hour to sit in a sunny piazza to have our picnic lunch on a red bench. Very pleasant here watching the locals doing their shopping.

After a rest in our room, we walk to Campo Santa Margherita where we buy cherries from a market stall in the middle – can’t resist them despite the probable consequences. At a very Italian bar Mark watches some of the Italy versus Denmark game on the television while I stuff myself with cherries. Moving to another bar closer to our pensione we wash down a pizza with a few vinos then go back to Campo Santa Margherita. It’s very dark by now and the locals are out in force. Everyone seems to be drinking a very orange coloured drink called a spritza bitter so we order one to share between us. Good move because it’s horrible or maybe it’s just the depressed state I’ve suddenly talked myself into.

Sometimes I can’t understand what I feel or rather what I don’t feel. Here I am in a country that most people would give their right arm to see and yet I don’t feel anything. Everything is beautiful so there’s no disappointment there but still I feel nothing. So should it bother me, being different, or should I be happy that I am. I knew it would be this way and I think Mark did as well. It was the driving force behind coming here in a way – to see for ourselves if Europe was the be all and end all, as they say. But our love for Asia has out-won the ‘norm’ of the Europe thing, something we’d both suspected all along. Finally getting this sorted out in our heads, I must take Mark’s stance – that we’ll enjoy it for what it is but know where we really belong. Time to accept our ‘weirdness’ and just enjoy the holiday but from now on go where our hearts take us. God, I’m such a drama queen!

Tuesday 15th June,  2004            Venice to Verona to Lake Gardia to La Spezia

Today we leave Venice and pick up our hire car to take us to Verona. After breakfasting in the dining room we’re ready to leave at 8.30am. With packs on we walk towards the Grand Canal. Lots of Venetians are on their way to work either on foot or by vaporetta. Much nicer to be amongst the locals than the tourists who aren’t out of their hotels as yet. Mark finds our car rental place easily and we spend the next half an hour with the very vivacious woman in charge. Like lots of Italian women she’s volumptuous with waving hands and passionate phone calls. At last our car arrives but smaller and not the one we’d ordered.  I ask her if this means we get a discount but she says ‘No this one better. You see’ – whatever.

As we head out of town Mark is getting used to a left hand drive and driving on the right hand side of the road while I try to turn on the radio. It crashes to the floor and that’s the end of that. Crossing the Ponte della Liberta bridge we leave Venice behind. Trucks and cars fly past us but we’re doing fine in our little blue Datsun. On this glorious hot sunny day we pass through open countryside then pass the turnoff to Vicenza and one and a half hours later arrive in Verona. The old  part of the city is across the Ponte Nuovo bridge on the River Adige where we stop at the first parking spot we can find. Incredibly when we check the map we’re within a few metres of the Piazza del Erbe which is exactly where we want to be. A lively market is set up in the piazza which has a fountain in the centre and surrounded by historical palaces, cafes, wandering accordion players and churches. For lunch we buy cordona which is dry and horrible so we feed it to the pigeons.

A short walk from the piazza is Casa di Guilietta which is a leafy courtyard with the balcony from that famous scene in Romeo and Juliet. There’s also a bronze life-sized statue of Juliet where Mark has his photo taken with his hand on Juliet’s right breast for luck. Back at the piazza we walk under the Arco della Costa which has a whale bone suspended from the top and, which legend has it, will fall on the first ‘just’ person who walks beneath it.

Through interesting back laneways we find the Caffe Antica Osteria al Puoma as recommended by Lonely Planet. The tavern has a friendly, dimly lit atmosphere where locals are drinking and eating. Because we’d had to dump our lunch in the piazza we now have a bowl of sausage and ricotta tagliatelle and drink the local strawberry wine called fragolino.

Now we set out for the River Adige where we walk beside the stone wall that follows its high banks. The current is incredibly fast and we can see the first century built Roman theatre on the hill opposite. This really is a beautiful town. We’d planned to spend the night here in Verona but it’s only one o’clock so we decide to keep moving. Making our way back to the car through arched colonnades we pass statues of Dante and Garibaldi then take off for Lake Gardia.

Even though we found our way easily into Verona we can’t find our way out. Happily cruising along an empty traffic lane, a police car pulls up beside us and the policeman in the passenger seat holds up a kind of ping pong bat with Italian writing on it. We pull over and he tells us that we’re driving in a bus-only lane and wants to see our papers – shit! Luckily he can see that we’re just dumb tourists and lets us off. Mark asks him the way to Lake Gardia and he gives us the directions. As we pull away they drive up beside us again and yell out ‘eh, follow us!’ and give us a police escort out of the city. Not sure if they’re being friendly or just want us to get the hell out of their town.

Once out of Verona we find ourselves lost again and end up miles from where we’d been headed. Backtracking, we at last find the lake. Very pretty but ‘been there done that’ so we take off only to get lost again. Finally after a few hours we make our way to the towns of Modena and Parma then head for the mountains. The views are spectacular but where the hell are we going? The road winds up and up around hairpin bends till we’re so high up we’re in a forest of pine trees.

Finally back down the other side of the mountain we eventually and thankfully join the A15. This is more like it. Now we’re racing through the Italian countryside as fast as our little buzz box will go. Again we have fantastic views of mountains and deep valleys while the road cuts through the mountains ahead via tunnels that seem to go on forever. Bigger cars are tearing past us, obviously going much faster than the 130kph speed limit. I make a phone call to a cheap hotel in La Spezia to make sure we can get a room for the night. Soon we can see the blue Mediterranean ahead of us and we’re nearly there after eight hours on the road.

The outskirts of town is unattractive to say the least but quite pretty down near the waterfront. It’s a modern city lacking the historical character of other towns we’ve seen but still appealing in its own way. One way streets mean that we do a few laps of the inner city while we try to get as close to our hotel as possible. Mark finally finds a car park only a block from the Albergo Nuovo Spezia. This is in a pedestrian-only area in a quiet alleyway and we like the look of it. After ringing the bell, the bottom door opens and we find our hotel on the first floor. It’s a rabbit warren of rooms to rent plus the owner’s quarters – old and spartan but still very Italian. The owner is a smiling old man, full of information and unusually friendly for an Italian.

By the time we shower and unpack it’s time to eat. Just around the corner in another quiet alleyway is a café recommended by Lonely Planet called Trattoria da Luciano. We sit outside with the locals who all seem to have brought their dogs along. The dogs even sit up at the tables and everyone is smoking. It’s so lovely sitting here in the warm night air and we have the best pizzas so far. The jug of white house wine is perfect as always. From here we move on to a nearby bar for more drinks and to use the internet before falling into bed – a big day!

Wednesday 16th June, 2004         La Spezia to Cinque Terre to La Spezia

Our plan for today is to catch the train from La Spezia to The Cinque Terre. ‘Cinque Terre’ is Italian for ‘five towns’ and includes the villages of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso.

Skipping breakfast we shower and drive to the free parking area next to the station. At the ticket office Mark buys day-passes which let us travel between the five villages and back to La Spezia. Lots of other tourists are doing the same thing and everyone looks very summery and beachy. Along the Genoa/La Spezia line the train passes through long dark tunnels to burst into a glare of sunshine at the first village of Riomaggiore. At the cute station we walk through a pedestrian tunnel to reach the town. It clings to the cliff face with four storey cement rendered buildings all painted in soft shades of cream, yellow and pink. To get down to the water we walk through tiny dark alleyways between the houses. It smells dank and fishy especially on the water’s edge where fishing boats are pulled up onto the shore. We find a spot on the rocks to sunbake in our swimmers and to enjoy this lovely place. So nice to have the sun on our backs again.

An hour later we’re back on the train which we’ve decided to catch to the last town of Monterosso. The train passes through the hills between each town so that as we emerge from a pitch dark tunnel we’re greeted by a wonderful scene of golden sunshine, blue water and a picture postcard village.

Unlike the other four towns, which hug the cliffs, Monterossa sits at the bottom of the hill and spreads out along the coast. Also unlike the other towns, it has a long sandy beach covered with umbrellas and sunbathers. A huge rocky peak juts out of the water in the middle of the beach and the road in front is lined with cafes and tourist shops. We chat to an Australian woman and her daughter then eat gelatos and drink the local limonchina under a tree overlooking the beach.

Back on the train we head for Vernazza which is said to be the most picturesque of the five towns. It sits in a protected cove with a small rocky promenade covered with cafes and a thin strip of sandy beach on the other side of the water. We sit on a stone wall to wait for a table at the best café on the headland. Sitting under bright yellow umbrellas, we have pizza, tuna salad and a jug of vino bianco while looking back at the town and the boats bobbing in the cove. Lunch over, we jump off the rocks for our first swim in the Mediterranean. The water is crystal clear and so nice to cool down. After drying off and a bit of sunbaking we catch the train for the hilltop town of Corniglia.

At Corniglia station a shuttle bus takes us up through the vineyards to the town which sits at the top of the cliff. It’s a small village of narrow streets, tall stone houses with green shutters and churches surrounded by terraced vine clad hills. Looking out over the town from its highest point at Belvedere Santa Maria, it’s a maze of terracotta rooftops and church spires. In a tiny cobbled laneway near the main tree shaded piazza we stop to look inside an old doorway to watch two men bottling wine. They welcome us in to taste of one of the local red wines before we run to catch the bus back down to the station.

The next town along is Manarola. This sits above a rocky beach where sunbakers are spread out over the rocks and young people are jumping from the top of a massive outcrop into the water way below. We spend ages watching them then walk around the headland to get a better view of this really breathtaking town. Up in the village Mark has a beer outside a trattoria while I buy an icecream and wander around the shops. Before leaving we buy a bottle of the local limonchina which is made from the lemons grown around Monterosso. But now it’s time to head back to La Spezia.

At Manarola station we’re so tired we crash out on the ground till the train pulls in. This has been such a lovely day and these villages are really something special. I think that what makes them so different is the lack of motorised transport which not only keeps them peaceful but also out of reach of the dreaded tourist coaches. It’s good to get back to La Spezia, though, and we’re soon at Albergo Nuovo Spezia. We change rooms before showering in an old fashioned shared bathroom then head out for the night. After a drink at the internet bar we eat again at Trattoria da Luciano and drink jugs of the house white. Again we end up at the bar so that Mark can watch the soccer on the television. A few men are here playing a wooden board game with the barmaid and we enjoy this very local atmosphere.

Thursday 17th June, 2004        La Spezia to Pisa to San Gimignano to Sienna

 This morning we leave early for Pisa. At this hour the autostrad is relatively quiet and we reach the outskirts of Pisa in an hour. Within seconds we see the Leaning Tower over to our left. Parking the car in a side street, we cross over to the Cathedral and the Tower. There’s a slight mist in the air which creates an almost magical backdrop for them both. The Cathedral is a green and white marble Romanesque church started in 1064 and sits in the grassed Campo dei Miracoli. We’re too early to go in and even the tourist stalls are only just opening. We decide to move the car to the other side of the campo to get a better view of the Leaning Tower. Once you could climb it but now it’s under repair so that it doesn’t fall over altogether.

From Pisa we hit the back roads that lead to the walled medieval city of San Gimignano. The scenery is pretty and after about an hour’s drive we see the towers of the old city perched on a hill before us. It looks wonderful until we see untold tourist buses in the car park beneath the main gate – great! The gate called Porta San Giovanni leads us up a cobbled street lined with expensive shops to the Piazza del Duomo and the Piazza della Cisterna. Both squares are filled with tourists and umbrella covered stalls selling crap to tourists – just hate it. We escape the rat race and find some lovely quiet laneways with locals sitting outside their doorways and views from the city wall of lower parts of the town and the vineyards beyond.

Leaving San Gimignano behind, we head for the hills that will take us to Sienna. We can’t find anywhere to have a picnic until we finally spot a place on the edge of a vineyard. A quick u-turn and we pull into a dirt track just off the road. In the distance we can see the towers of San Gimignano and before us is a green valley of vineyards and cypress trees. Very romantic until we notice the toilet paper behind the bushes and the bull ants trying to pinch our lunch.

Finally reach Sienna and easily find the ostello on the main road into the city. It’s a semi-modern monstrosity but we do get a double room so we’re happy. After a rest we drive into town but as no cars are allowed in the medieval centre we park near the outside wall of the fort. Sienna is a hilly ancient town with paved streets and very picturesque. We stop to look at the thirteenth century Gothic cathedral then find Il Campo. This is a wide fourteenth century square in the heart of the city and slopes upwards on all sides. We can see a bar with a verandah high up on a wall overlooking the square so we find a couple of chairs right on the balcony. A beer or two later we wander around town then head back to the ostello.

For dinner we walk down the street to a busy pizza restaurant then watch the soccer back at the ostello before an early night.

Friday 18th June, 2004          Sienna to Montepulciano to Assisi

Breakfast is provided in the price of our room so we eat it sitting in the sun on the side verandah before heading off through the Tuscan countryside to Umbria. After passing through a few uneventful modernish towns we see the old walled city of Montepulciano sitting high up on a hill. The road twists its way upwards to reach the bottom of the town where we leave the car in a leafy laneway with lovely views of the surrounding countryside. The streets of Montepulciano are steep and narrow like all these old Etruscan towns so it’s a strenuous walk up the Piazza Grande. This ancient square has the usual cafes and palaces with the Cathedral taking up one whole side. This is Lido’s home town so we go into the cathedral to see where he would have come as a boy.

At one of the cafes we stand at the counter, as is the Italian way, and drink thick black coffee and eat one of the local cakes. Mark stays in the piazza while I pay to go into one of the palazzas and climb up to the rooftop to look out over the town. Nothing modern here at all and very few tourists so at last we feel we’re seeing the real Italy. We sit at the fountain in the piazza for a while then walk up to the castle before getting back in the car to head for Assisi.

On the way we stop at a pretty place for wine and cheese tasting but we’re just beaten by a busload of tourists. We look around anyway and love the traditional atmosphere – very gloomy inside with lots of polished wood. Onward to Assisi we drive through the town of Chiusi, around Lago di Trasimeno and past the turnoff to Perugia. At last we see Assisi clinging to the side of a hill. It looks almost too lovely to be real. Driving up the hill we come to the top of the town and park the car. Walking down narrow streets with stone houses on both sides we end up at the Piazza del Commune. This wide pretty square has cafes with flowering planter boxes, shops, palazzas and, of course, a fountain.

Just near the square through a stone archway and up a set of old brick stairs, we find Lieto Soggioro. This is a cute family-run pensione where a friendly young woman books is in for the night. For 40Euro we have a clean shared bathroom and a nice room with a shuttered window overlooking  a shaded courtyard. Back up in the sunny piazza we sit under an umbrella for a panini lunch then grab our packs from the car. After a look around town, Mark has a rest on the bed while I do some window shopping and emailing.

At six thirty we walk down to the Basilica di San Francesco which is dedicated to St Francis of Assisi. Inside is typically beautiful but we’re too late to get into the lower church. More wandering around town, we buy a wooden St Francis cross then find an atmospheric trattoria in a quiet side alleyway. So nice sitting here with only a few locals having dinner.

On dusk we run back down to the Basilica where we’re just in time to see the sun setting behind the church. Up in the Piazza del Commune again we have drinks in an outdoor café and Mark has the most ginormous beer we’ve ever seen. The Italy/Sweden game is being played on a television inside and we hear loud cheers whenever Italy scores. It’s so peaceful here with nuns in their grey habits and Francescan monks in their long black garbs. We’re so glad we came to this lovely town. And we’re so glad we have our car. Besides having a new experience and a fun experience, we’ve been able to see so much more than we ever expected.

Saturday 19th June, 2004             Assisi to Pompeii

We want to have an early start today as we plan to make the long drive down the centre of Italy to reach Pompeii in time to visit the ruins. At seven o’clock we pack then have breakfast in the dark dining room downstairs. The mumma of the house brings us our breakfast and what a surprise – stale buns again! These Italians really don’t make much of an effort and getting a free breakfast is definitely not a bonus. We’ve decided that we really want to leave Italy earlier than planned and to get back to Bangkok so we ask the daughter to ring British Airways in Rome for us. No luck getting through but at least we have the phone number to try later.

Mark now brings the car down to Piazza Commune so we won’t have to walk as far with our heavy packs. Leaving at a quarter to eight we set off for Perugia, get lost twice then eventually end up on the A1. Keeping on the autostrad the whole way we only stop once for baguettes at an Auto Grill. I make a call on our mobile to British Airways but sadly no seats from London to Bangkok. Seems like we’re stuck here. Five hours of driving later, with me snoring most of the way, we finally arrive in Pompeii.

Just opposite the ruins we see a camping ground and decide to stay here instead of the ostello which is further out of town. This is a pleasant change as well. The grounds are full of trees and we’re given a cabin with an annex at the side. For lunch we eat in an open-air café overlooking the campsites. Mark has a pizza but I order sausages and a tomato salad for something different. Bad move – one sausage cut in half and a few skinny slices of tomato.

It’s still too hot to visit the ruins so we lie around till five thirty then cross over to the main Porta Marina entrance where cafes and markets are still in full swing. We pay 10 Euro each to get in then spend an enjoyable couple of hours walking around. The ancient city of Pompeii was buried in AD 79 by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius which still ‘looms ominously’ over the area. ‘Ominous’ because the volcano is still active and could wipe out not only this same area but the huge city of Naples as well. The ruins are so much bigger than we’d expected and unbelievably well preserved – public buildings with colonnades, a brothel, murals, preserved bodies and floor mosaics. This is really something we’ll never forget.

Coming back out through the Porta Marina we look around the market and buy a couple of prints of wall murals from old Pompeii. Crossing the busy road we head back to the cabin for drinks in the annex then on dusk wander up to the main road. We like the look of an outdoor osteria and settle in for the night. At first it’s quite empty but as it gets dark the Italians start piling in. This is excellent people watching with a mixture of families, young couples and groups of trendy teenagers. A huge television screen has been set up for tonight’s soccer match and old nineties songs are being played from somewhere inside. Three jugs of vino bianco later they run out so we go on to the vino busso. While we watch the soccer I serenade Mark – he’s amazed at my voice – I can tell by the stunned look on his face. What a great night – our best yet!


Sunday 20th June, 2004                Pompeii to Sorrento to Positano

At eight o’clock we pack the car and set off towards the Amalfi Coast on another glorious hot sunny day. We pass Naples and drive around the Bay of Naples to Sorrento. This popular holiday town is where we finally leave the car but it takes a frustrating half hour to actually find the drop-off point.

Instead of staying here tonight we’re heading further south along the Amalfi Coast to Positano. We walk to the train station which is where the SITA buses leave for the coastal route. With standing room only, we spend the next exciting hour flying around hairpin bends on a road scarily narrow and clinging by its toenails to the edge of the cliffs. The water below is a deep aqua blue and the view up and down the coast is truly spectacular.

The approach to Positano is postcard material. The town is bathed in golden sunshine while the top of the mountain it clings to is hidden by a soft mist. The bus drops us at the top of the town and just a few metres from Ostello Brikette where we have a booking for tonight. Apparently the hostel is run by backpackers who decide to hang around for a few months so we’re booked in by a dickhead Yank who’s more than happy with himself. Of course, our booking is nowhere to be found but we still manage to get a room together. This is up a few flights of stairs and actually opens straight into the communal bathroom. We do have a nice garden view from our postage stamp sized window but there aren’t any sheets, the room stinks and we can’t be here between the hours of 9.30am and 3.30pm. All this luxury for a mere $100 AUD – get us the hell out of here and back to Bangkok!

Actually the ostello itself isn’t too bad with a balcony overlooking the town and the sea beyond. Just down the hill we catch one of the small orange local buses that go up and down the hill all day. The road twists and turns all the way to the bottom passing hotels, cafes and shops – all very Italian and expensive. The bus stops in a tiny space where the road ends and where the tourists are here in the hundreds. Narrow laneways lead down to the water but we decide to stop first for lunch. In a garden courtyard trattoria we have a horrible lunch and, because we’re feeling pissed off in general, we do the first ‘runner’ of our lives.

Escaping down to the water at Spiaggia Grande, we sit amongst the sunbathers who have to hire deckchairs because the beach is covered in grey pebbles. This waterfront area is full of life – swimmers, cafes, markets, ferries coming and going and tourists, tourists, tourists. On the pier we book tickets to visit the Isle of Capri tomorrow at eleven o’clock then walk around the rocky headland to find the wonderful Lo Guarracino trattoria set high on the cliff face. We order cokes and enjoy this lovely leafy place with a cool breeze coming in off the Gulf of Salerno.

Back in Positano we window shop for about five micro-seconds (boring, boring, boring) then stop at the Chiesa di Santa Maria Assunta. Now we sneak past the ‘runner’ café one at a time then catch the bus up to the ostello. At six o’clock we decide to walk down to the water and eat at a café on the way. At Il Saraceno d’Oro we sit at an outside table for pizza and vino and watch the local world go by. Much nicer up here than down on the water where most of the tourists congregate. From here we walk down Via Fornillo past interesting houses and small vegetable gardens to Spiaggia del Fornille beach.

It’s dusk by now so we’re the only ones here except for a couple of locals with their dog. We sit on deckchairs right on the water and enjoy the sound of the waves lapping against the pebbles. After dark we buy cokes at the beachside bar then follow the track around the cliffs back to the beach at Spiaggia Grande. From the cliff path Positano looks especially beautiful and we can see the twinkling lights of Amalfi further around the coast.

The cafes and restaurants right on the beach are literally bursting with happy holiday makers and all the shops and stalls are still open. We’ve had enough for today though so we catch the bus back to the hostel.

Monday 21st June, 2004             Positano to Sorrento

Breakfast is on the balcony of the ostello but at the moment the sun is hidden behind the mist that seems to hang permanently on the mountain tops. We’re leaving this morning for Sorrento but when a young French guy is booking us out he asks for the towels and sheets we’d supposedly been given when we checked in yesterday. When we tell him we didn’t get any he definitely thinks we’ve pinched them. Of course the smart-arsed Yank isn’t around to tell him we weren’t given them in the first place so the French guy still thinks we’ve got them stuffed inside our packs – get fucked!!

We’re heading back to Sorrento because we’ve decided to dump the trip to Capri –can’t face the tourists – so we sit on a stone wall in the sun while we wait for the Sita bus. We manage to get seats today and pick ones on the left hand side of the bus to have the best views. It’s an enjoyable trip till we realise we’ve left our pillow bag at the bus stop – not a good start to the day.

Arriving in Sorrento at ten o’clock, we book in at the Ostello della Sirene. At 50 Euros for a sunny room with double bunks and a bathroom, it’s much better value. The hostel itself is a funny little rabbit warren of rooms reached by a ladder-like staircase and with a dining room and café downstairs. Mark rings the Ostello Brikette to see if they’ll put our pillows on the next bus heading for Sorrento but seeing they think we’ve got their bed sheets, I’d say there’s no chance. After dumping our packs we walk into the main part of town and see a funeral then an old lady get hit by a car – still not a good day.

In the busy Piazza Tassi we stop at a picturesque trattoria for drinks and panini then wander around the narrow streets full of cafes and markets. We’ve forgotten our swimmers so we go back to the hostel and have a rest before heading back out into the streets. At a local supermarket we buy cheese, proscuitto and bread for our picnic lunch. It’s a long walk down to the beach and very weird when we get here. The good is fenced off so you have to pay to get in and the free bit is only about twenty metres wide and covered with black muddy sand. There’s not an inch of sand without a body on top of it anyway so we sit on the wall eating our lunch and watching the locals.

Further along we sit at the pier and feed cheese to a sweet stray cat who I name ‘Little’. She curls up on my lap and this little darling has made my day. Nearby in a raised café we’re served drinks by an annoying waiter we call ‘Mr Slimey’ then walk back to the ostello for showers. Later we sit in the café downstairs while the transvestite waiter prances around then Mark goes over to the bus station to check if our pillows have turned up – no they haven’t – bummer!

On dark we sit outside the hostel for happy hour drinks and talk with an Australian guy and two friendly Americans. At half time we walk around to the Red Lion café which is packed with singing English tourists. A fantastic atmosphere as we eat pizza and watch the rest of the game. The Poms absolutely go off when England finally wins. We only get charged for our drinks so, before they realize, we do another runner.

Tuesday 22nd June,2004                 Sorrento to Naples to Rome

Today we’re going back to Rome for our last night in Italy. We catch an early Circumvesuviana train for the one and a half hour trip to Naples with the Bay of Naples on our left and Mount Vesuvius above us on the right.

At Statione Centrale in Naples we change to the Eurostar train to take us to Rome. We sit opposite a pretty, young woman who cries the whole time. She’s sitting there with tears streaming down her face and not even trying to wipe them away – very melodramatic. Later an accordionist wanders through and then a trumpet player. We’ve really enjoyed the train trips and they’ve been an experience all their own. On the Rome to Florence train another young woman had moved from seat to seat placing a small parcel wrapped like a present on each windowsill. A small tag attached to the parcel told us that she’s deaf and that a small donation will help her.

In Rome the train stops as usual at Statione Termini where we walk in the opposite direction to where we stayed last time so we can experience a different area. We find a big, airy room with our own bathroom at Hotel Cervia for 67 Euro a night. The hotel is on the first floor of a lovely old building but the lady at the counter is, not surprisingly, a grouch. After a rest we wander around the streets to find an internet café then Mark buys a few beers to take back to the room.

For a very late lunch we eat in a pretty outdoor café and order lasagna and pasta then sleep till it gets dark. Italy is playing in the Euro 2004 tonight but the only place we can find with a television is an upmarket restaurant near our hotel – really fed up with Italy!

Wednesday  23rd June, 2004           Rome to Bangkok, Thailand

Our last day! Our flight back to London doesn’t take off till late this afternoon so we have most of the day to fill in. We decide to go back to the Spanish Steps to see the Keats/Shelley House which I’d forgotten to look at last time. On the way we see more beautiful piazzas, fountains and statues. Just near the Piazza di Spagna in front of the Spanish Steps we find all the designer shops – Chanel, Yves St Laurent, Gucci and Prada. Too expensive to even window shop and, anyway, I can’t be bothered. I thought it would be good to get back to Rome but I’m still bored – would love to throw a tantrum.

Finally it’s time to go so we catch the airport train from Statione Termini and fly out from Italy at 6.35pm. Landing at Heathrow on a cold windy day (it’s the middle of summer) we have a one and a half hour stopover before taking off for Thailand.

At last we’re on our way at ten o’clock for the eleven hour flight. Managing to get some sleep mainly due to our sleeping pills we arrive in Bangkok at three thirty in the afternoon. Sharing a taxi with a backpacking couple from England we’re soon at Khao San Road – we’re finally back! And all the old emotions are back. I feel something so deep and intense – something so passionate that it catches my breath. I have such love for this place and these people – I feel I’m home and totally me.

Now we walk through the temple to get to Soi Rambutri where we hope to get a room at the Wild Orchid. This wonderfully atmospheric guesthouse is in the backpacker area and in the middle of cafes, massage parlours and markets. Our room is typically Asian and we have our own sunny bathroom for the grand sum of AUD20. In the café downstairs we have a drink and salad rolls while we cool down under the overhead fans. From here we walk around to Khao San Road to Aviv Clothing where Mark wants to get a few business shirts made. Our old friend Alex is here to greet us with a big beaming smile as usual.

At six o’clock we’ve arranged to meet Kerrie and Paul who are also on their way home from England and Italy. They’ve already had a look around Khao San Road so we take them around to Soi Rambutri where it’s quieter. We have cocktails and fresh seafood and swap travel stories in an open-air café then show them where we’re staying. They love this area much better than the upmarket place their travel agent booked them into and we could only say ‘we told you so’.

Thursday  24th June, 2004              Bangkok to Sydney

Today we wake to sunshine, humidity and the smells of Asia. We follow our usual pattern of shopping in Khao San Road, a massage at Mamas, drinking orange juice squeezed fresh on the streets, eating in the open-air cafes, watching the worshippers at the temple and buying a bronze Hindu holy man at the Mahatat Market. While Mark packs, I round off a wonderful day by having a foot massage from the transvestite next to the Wild Orchid. He’s so nice and spends all day, every day calling out ‘you want mathage?’

Sadly it’s finally time to go. We’ve had an amazing trip and seen much more that we’d hoped. And yet if I was asked for the highlight I’d have to say it was being back here in our beloved Thailand. All the history and beauty of England and Italy isn’t enough. You have to be in the place where your heart skips a beat – where you’re deliriously happy because that’s what life is about. No mediocrity – it has to be about passion and undying love or it’s not enough.

 

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Java and Bali, Indonesia 2006

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                  Our Itinerary          
         
Tuesday 26th December 2006   Sydney to Melbourne (fly 1.5hr)
        to Bali (6hrs)
Wednesday 27th December 2006   Kuta, Bali
Thursday 28th December 2006   Kuta to Lovina (van 3hrs)
Friday 29th December 2006   Lovina
Saturday 30th December 2006   Lovina to Gilimanuk (bus 3hrs) to
        Java  ferry(1hr) to Probolinggo (bus 3hrs)
        to Cemoro Lawang (van 2hrs)
Sunday 31st December 2006   Cemoro Lawang – Mount Bromo
Monday 1st January 2007   Cemoro Lawang to Probolinggo (van 2hrs)
        to Solo (van 8 hrs)
Tuesday 2nd January 2007   Solo
Wednesday 3rd January 2007   Solo
Thursday 4th January 2007   Solo to Yogjakarta (train 1 hr)
Friday 5th January 2007   Yojakarta
Saturday 6th January 2007   Yogjakarta to Borobodhur (van 2 hrs)
        to Yogjakarta (van 2hrs)
Sunday 7th January 2007   Yogjakarta to Jakarta (fly Garuda 1.5 hrs)
Monday 8th January 2007   Jakarta to Sydney (fly Qantas 8 hrs)
Tuesday 9th January 2007   Sydney

 

Tuesday 26th December, 2006    Sydney to Melbourne to Bali

Lauren drives us to Hamilton Station where we catch the 10.30am train to Central – sleep most of the way. The airport train drops us at the Domestic Terminal where we catch the Qantas flight to Melbourne. Here we have a one and a half hour wait in an almost empty airport – much rather leave from Sydney but with free Frequent Flyer tickets we can’t complain.

At 7pm we fly out on Jetstar and find that our seats are on opposite sides of the plane. A nice girl swaps with me so it all works out. After a sleeping pill, a beer and a bacardi the six hour flight passes quickly.

We land in beautiful Bali at 9.45pm their time. The lines at immigration are slow but I pass the time fagging in a tiny glass box with two other smokers – hilarious. At last we’re out in the hot night air and immerse ourselves in the wonderful smells of Bali. We catch a taxi straight to Aneka Beach Hotel where we’ve stayed so many times before. But even at this late hour they want $80AUD for the night so we decide to look somewhere else. For some reason the gate into Poppies Gang 1 has been blocked so we have to walk down to the beach then back up the laneway. The first place we come to is Kuta Puri Cottages which looks wonderful and where we can get a room for $50AUD. This is still a lot more than we expected to pay but a good sign that the tourist industry isn’t struggling too much.

Our room is wonderful – a cottage really, with an open air bathroom and all very Balinese. Chucking our gear and changing into our slob clothes, we head straight for Poppies and find one of our old favourite places for a drink –  bamboo  stools at the bar right on the laneway. It shuts at 12.50am so we find a newer more upmarket bar also opening onto Poppies. We have a lovely time drinking Bintangs and Margaritas and eating satay chicken skewers – heaven.

Back at the hotel we have a funny time skinny-dipping in the pool – floating on our backs looking up at the clear starry sky and feeling overwhelmed by the wonderful vibes of this magical place. After a naked streak back to the room and showers in our outdoor bathroom, we finally crash about 2am – a great time already.

Wednesday 27th December, 2006            Kuta, Bali

At 7am we’re up and in the pool which is even lovelier in the daylight. Flowering bougainvillea, coconut palms and frangipani remind us that we’re back in Bali. Breakfast is in an open sided pavilion and served by pretty young girls in traditional dress. Afterwards we walk down to the beach then back up Poppies to Sorga Gang to look for a cheaper hotel for tonight. We like the look of Sorga Bungalows but then decide to stay at Kuta Puri instead of moving.

Continuing along Sorga Gang away from the beach we finally come out onto Jalan Legian and head for the Memorial. It’s four years this year that terrorists set off the bombs at the Sari Club and Paddy’s that killed over two hundred people. Back down Poppies II we have a massage (50,000 RP for one hour) in a new air-conditioned place down a small alleyway. The two girls are so sweet and happy to have customers this early. Now from the roadside markets, we buy two sarongs (22,000 RP each), a t-shirt (30,000 RP) and a scarf (20,000 Rp) before heading back to our hotel.

Unfortunately, we can’t get a room here at Kuta Puri for tonight so we pack and walk around to Sorga Cottages. This is fine with us because we like to stay in lots of different places anyway. And besides this, Sorga is so pretty with a lovely pool and a small leafy garden thick with flowering vines, palms, cycads, clumping bamboos, coloured Balinese umbrellas, thatched wooden lanterns and a spirit house. Our room is on the bottom of three floors. Facing the garden, we have a small verandah with a table and chairs and a clothes hanger for drying our towels and swimmers.

After a welcome drink in the tiny restaurant next to the pool, we walk to the Treehouse on the corner of Sorga Gang and Poppies I for lunch. Back in our air-conditioned room for a siesta, then up again at 5pm to walk down to the beach and watch the nightly ritual when hundreds of Balinese come down to hang out till sunset.

We walk down to the southern end of Kuta which is by far the nicest with lots of shade trees right on the sand and where all the massage ladies and hawkers hang out. Some people don’t like to be hassled but we love the ladies and they’ll let you alone after a while. We sit at a basic drink stand for beers and manage to buy CD’s, a pineapple and have a manicure without moving an inch. Other ladies are selling sarongs, necklaces, foot scrapings and neck massages.

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Only a few steps away is the Bali Art Market where we hope to find Ayu. Lauren met her on her last trip to Bali and we promised to look her up. She runs Stall 165 in the market and it takes a while to find it. She’s so happy to see us and we show her the photos that Lauren had taken of her and her little boy, Bagus. He’s here at the moment, playing on the floor and trying to keep cool in front of a tiny electric fan. Ayu is happy and friendly as most Balinese are and we love her smile that lights up her pretty chubby face. Lauren had told me that Ayu wanted lots of bottles of nail polish because she does manicures and pedicures for tourists to make extra money. I’ve brought a whole bagful so she’s very happy. Lauren also wanted some ‘butterfly’ style tops like the one she’d brought home with her. We order seven in all – for Lauren, Angie and Mum. We also get Ayu to arrange for a car and a driver to take us to Lovina tomorrow. Now, she’s extra happy and laughs and brags to her unlucky friends in the stalls nearby.

Back along the busy Jalan Legian, we head for Mades Warang on Jalan Pantaii. This is a Kuta institution and was one of the first places to sell European type food to travelers. It still has heaps of atmosphere and a great people-watching place. Mark and I find a bench seat right on the street and order nasi goring and beer. It’s very dark by now and possibly a bit cooler. Later in Poppies I we have drinks at the Secret Garden, the newish upstairs Sports Bar and then a basic old favourite. Here we meet a funny English couple who are living in Batam – great to talk to and a shame we won’t be able to see more of them.

At Sorga we swim in the pool to cool down before having a drink on our verandah. Nights are beautiful in Bali – we can hear Balinese music, soft wind chimes and, best of all, geckos and frogs.

Thursday 28th December, 2006                Kuta to Lovina

Mark has a sleep in this morning while I go off to email (not working) and buy the girls a few DVD’s. We have breakfast next to the pool then pack for our trip to Lovina this afternoon. Now we wander around the alleyways between Poppies I and Poppies II where we find a massage place that’s been around for years. It’s a basic old shack with green painted bamboo blinds at the front and tiny rooms inside. With no air-conditioning and nothing fancy about it, we love it. Mark and I are in the same little room which is even better. The girls are sweet and we love our one hour massage for only 25,000RP each (about $3.50 AUD).

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The Treehouse is in a laneway nearby so we head there for more good food. Lunch is tuna salad, fish and chips and lime sodas.

At 1pm Made and his friend pick us up from Sorga. They tell us that the air-conditioning isn’t working so we have to change vans. We drive over to a part of Kuta that we’ve never seen before – over near the Night Market but towards Tuban. We wind through tiny alleyways till we come to a newish house with big gates into the driveway. We move all our gear into another van then drive the short distance to the Art Market to meet Ayu. She has the butterfly tops for the girls and Mark buys a couple of t-shirts so she’s really happy with all her sales.

Now we’re off to Lovina. We pass through the busy streets of Kuta and Legian along Jalan Legian, then onto Seminyak and Kerokoban. This is where Schappelle Corby is being held in the big prison and we see its tall walls as we pass by. From here the towns start to thin out and we’re in the beautiful green countryside that Bali is known for. We pass through Bedulu then stop at Lake Bratan to see Pura Ulun Danu which is often seen on Bali postcards. Apparently, the temple is dedicated to Dewi Danu, the Lake Goddess, who provides the irrigation water for the rice fields. There seems to be a lot of Indonesian tourists here and a definite Muslim influence in this area – it doesn’t feel like Bali at all.

From here we drive over mist covered mountains where we pass a funeral procession. The winding roads are making Mark feel car sick so we’re both glad to reach the other side to the flat area on the north coast. We turn left at the busy town of Singaraja and drive along the coastal road to Lovina. I see a horrible sight on the way – a man has hung a cat up by the neck and the poor thing is hanging dead from the roof of his verandah.

Not a good first impression of somewhere but we do like the look of Kalibukbuk which is the main village to stay and eat. With the beach on one side of the main road, mountains close by on the other and lots of swaying palm trees; this will be a different experience to the part of Bali we’ve always known. Made and Made (as his friend is also called) drive us to a place we’ve picked out of the Lonely Planet. It’s called the Ban Kitami Hotel and we love it. It consists of a string of bungalows facing the beach with a gorgeous pool, acres of gardens, a creek and an open-air restaurant. Our bungalow has a verandah and an open-to-the-sky bathroom with rockwork and even a garden – all this for only 200,000 Rp ($28 AUD). I love it here especially when I see we have a resident cat.

According to a sign near the path, a group of mini-komodos live here in the creek and in the gardens so I go off to ask a young waitress in the restaurant. She takes me down to the creek but we can’t find any at the moment. Mark, in the mean time, has spied one in the grass near our hut and I’m just in time to see it make a run for it and dive into the creek – hideous thing but thrilling to see. Also not so ‘mini’ – about three foot long!

On dusk we walk down to the beach which isn’t the beautiful white sands of Kuta but black and grainy thanks to past volcanic eruptions of Mount Agung. Still, it’s nice by the water and we meet Ketut and her husband, Nyoman, on the beach and plan for him to take us out snorkeling in the morning. At seven o’clock we find a nearby café and order shrimp salad and coconut curry. We have a table almost on the sand and watch the local kids playing volleyball on the beach. All is beautiful till we see a dark ominous storm coming towards us across the water. In seconds the wind is blowing everything all over the place and the rain is pouring in. We don’t mind at all – exciting really and it’s still hot so we just move further inside the restaurant. We notice that there seems to be a lot of older western men here with young Balinese guys – apparently Lovina is known for these old perverts who use their money to lure in poor young men. Later after the storm has gone, we find an upstairs bar overlooking the main street then walk home in the dark.

Friday 29th December, 2006                    Lovina

A gorgeous day and a gorgeous view to wake up to  – clear blue skies, palm trees and the calm waters of the beach right in front of us – and it’s hot already. At 7.30am we wandder over to the hotel’s open air cafe for breakfast – yes, this is what Bali is all about.

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After breakfast we look around the gardens hunting out more dragons then spend a wonderful hour in the pool. We have it all to ourselves which is even better. As usual in Bali, the pool is surrounded by flowering bougainvillea and this pool even has a lovely garden in the middle.

At nine o’clock it’s time to meet Nyoman on the beach for our snorkeling trip to the reef. He’s already waiting for us and we’re soon speeding away from the shore on his outrigger with Ketut waving us off.

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Out at the reef Nyoman gives us bags of a cakey type of bread to feed the fish. We both love snorkeling so we have a lovely time swimming over the reef and getting the fish to eat straight from our fingers. Mark has taught me to dive with my snor kel so we spend ages taking pictures of each other under water. When it’s my turn to get back in the boat I just can’t do it and poor Mark and Nyoman have to drag me up over the side like a sack of potatoes.

Back on the beach Ketut is waiting to give us a massage. Mark wants to go back to the bungalow for a shower so I go first. I follow Ketut to their little hut built on the sand only metres from the water. In one room there is a concrete floor that she tells me was paid for by a tourist. A mattress is on the floor and clothes are hanging from hooks on the wall – no furniture at all – this is the family bedroom. During the massage she tells me that she will have to pull her son out of school because they can’t afford the fees now that the tourists have stopped coming to Bali since the bombings in 2002 and 2005. I buy a bottle of foul smelling oil that she has made herself – so with the snorkelling, the oil and the two massages, I hope that Mark and I have helped Nyoman and Ketut at least a little bit.

Mark has his massage next then, while I shower in the outdoor bathroom, he organizes a motor bike so we can change hotels. It’s lovely here but we always like to move around for different experiences. He picks me up and we set off to find a new place to stay.  We like the look of Pulwesi not far away in the centre of Kalibukbuk and amongst the cafes and shops near the beach. The friendly young guy running the place is Ecko whose family lives in nearby Singaraja. We ask him about getting a bus to Java tomorrow but he tells us that we can only buy the tickets at the bus station in Singaraja. He says he’ll go there himself to get the tickets for us. The other good news is that the bus doesn’t leave till 7.30pm so we’ll have another full day here tomorrow. Now we book into our room which is a brightly coloured bungalow with a Chinese style roof, a tiny verandah and another open air bathroom. After lunch in a nice café nearby, we crash out for an afternoon nap before heading out on the bike.

With me on the back, Mark drives east along the main road then turns off along a track that heads towards the beach. The clouds have moved in by now as they do every afternoon here in the wet season. The heavy black clouds actually look quite beautiful rolling over the green hills behind us. Suddenly the skies open up and we’re flying back along the main road to Kalibukbuk getting absolutely drenched. It’s a wonderfully free and happy feeling made all the better because the air is still calm and warm despite the rain.

On dark we ride down to a bar on the main road. It’s a little thatched place run by Batu and his beloved cat, Moo Chang. We’re the only customers so we sit at the bar talking to Batu while he serves us margaritas. He tells us about a tourist who he’d made friends with who was heading for Kuta the next day. A couple of days later he read his name in the list of people killed in the Sari Club bomb.

For dinner we ride to the Semina Café which is supposed to have Balinese dancing but because of the lack of tourists there isn’t any tonight.  We order drinks in fresh pineapples which look amazing but taste like shit. The food is horrible as well then a sleazy looking guy (one of the perverts) chats me for feeding my dinner to a starving cat – fuck off, pedophile!

Anyway the night quickly improves when we find a busy bar near the Pulwesi. We sit on stools right on the footpath and buy drinks for Ecko who’s come down to listen to the music. The band unfortunately takes requests and because I’ve had too many bacardis by this time I ask for Country Roads and sing it very badly at the top of my lungs – poor Mark.

Saturday 30th December, 2006             Lovina to Gilimanuk to Java to Probolinggo

This morning we wake to rain on the roof. Because we haven’t got big plans for today and because we have a long trip ahead of us tonight, we decide to have a sleep-in. Mark also has the runs and doesn’t want breakfast so later I walk down to a café on the beach to get something to eat. It’s all lovely until I see a puppy hit by a car and I feel so sad because no-one really cares – I guess puppies aren’t high up on the care-factor list when everyone here is struggling for survival themselves.

Later the weather has cleared so we hop on the bike to head inland instead of along the coast. We find lovely tracks through villages and stop at a roadside shop in the middle of nowhere. A poor woman sells us water while her three children stare at us. The shop is a broken down shack that looks ready to fall over in the next breeze and there’s only a few things for sale. Back on the bike we stop at a farm house to look at cows, sway back pigs and goats. The family comes out to say hello and the kids give me a baby goat to hold.

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Lunch is back at another café in our hotel street. We have pizza and shrimp cocktail with fresh juice but Mark starts to feel sick again. He makes a dash back to the room while I buy shell necklaces from a hawker walking past.

We spend the rest of the afternoon sleeping then at 6pm we pack, check out and eat in a pretty café with a bamboo bridge over an inside pond. At a quarter to seven, we walk up to the main road with Ecko who wants to wave us off on the bus. Yesterday he gave me lessons in Indonesian and now he hands me a handwritten page full of Balinese words with English translations. I feel so touched because I can see how much effort he’s put into it. I’m so grateful to have met such a sweet person as Ecko and just another example of the loveliness of the Balinese people.

It’s dark by now and we sit on our packs on the roadside while we wait for the bus. It arrives on time and we say a big thank you to Ecko. The bus has come from Singaraja and is almost full. The seats lie back and we soon settle in for the two and a half hour drive to Gilimanuk on the west coast. Because it’s dark we can’t see much except for passing through a few small towns and when we slow down for two ceremonies along the road. Both times people are carrying fire torches and wearing ceremonial dress on their way to the village temple.

We arrive in Gilimanuk about 10pm where the bus drives straight onto the big car ferry that will take us to Java. We can actually see the lights of Java across the three kilometre Bali Strait that separates the two islands. Instead of staying on the bus for the crossing like the rest of the passengers, we climb up to the top deck where we can sit in the fresh air with the locals. A television is playing loud music videos which is so typical of the Asian culture these days. The crossing itself is a short thirty minutes and a nice experience on this calm starry night.

At Ketapang port on the Java side we jump back on the bus and pop sleeping pills for the long (or so we thought) trip to Probollingo – big mistake. Luckily the bus driver knows when we should get off because he has to shake us awake from dead sleeps when we arrive about 3am. We grab our gear and find ourselves standing zombie-like in a tiny travel agent’s place which is the only thing open along this stretch of road and at this time of night. Still dazed from our sleeping pills, we sign up for a van to take us to the town of Cemoro Lawang on the edge of Mount Bromo, two nights in a hotel, a dawn trip to Mt Bromo, a van back to Probollingo in two days time and bus tickets to Solo. I think he could have offered us tickets to the moon and we would have signed up.

In no time we have a driver, and his friend, and we’re speeding towards Cemoro Lawang. Mark immediately curls up on the back seat while I try to sit up but soon pass out as well. Neither of us remember the two hour trip at all.

About 5am we’re dropped at the Cemara Indah Hotel in Cemoro Lawang. This is like a dream sequence with a light rain falling, fog swirling around us and people setting off in jeeps to watch the sunrise over Mount Bromo. Because we’re also freezing the hotel owner hires us thick jackets before showing us to our room. Collapse into bed.

Sunday 31st December, 2006            Probolinggo to Cemoro Lawang to Mt Bromo

We sleep soundly until 9am when we wake to a cold foggy day. This isn’t surprising considering the weather last night. If Cemoro Lawang looked bleak last night it doesn’t look any better by daylight. After dragging on our warmest clothes and our new jackets, we head out for breakfast.

We find that our guesthouse is just across the road from the rim of the crater of an extinct volcano. The fog lifts just in time for us to look down into the crater then comes rolling back in again. We can keep a watch out for it to clear from the Cemoro Indah Café built right on the crater rim. If the café has million dollar views the décor definitely doesn’t match. It’s a bare, cold place of cracked lino and cheap metal chairs – very uninviting but we somehow like it for being so unpretentious. Breakfast is simple but welcome – nasi goreng and hot sweet tea.

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Outside the local people are rugged up in thick scarves and woolen hats. Men crouch close to the ground with their hands tucked under their armpits to keep warm. Other men knock two short sticks together making a clunking sound to send off signals through the fog. The noise means that he has hot soup to sell from his food cart.

After breakfast we buy local hand knitted hats from a woman on the road. With our new hats and our hired jackets at least now we won’t freeze to death. Still hungry after our small breakfast, we set off in search of Café Lava. Because this whole area is a maze of extinct volcanos, Cemoro Lawang is built on the side of a steep slope so exploring the town means lots of up and down walking. The weather is still miserable but ironically creates a strangely exciting atmosphere. The houses are all very similar with thick brick rendered walls to keep out the cold. We walk though vegetable gardens and dodge the noisy motor bikes that roar up the hill.

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At the top of the ridge we still haven’t found Café Lava but meet some men who offer to take us to Mount Bromo on horseback for only 50,000 Rp (AUD $7 each). The trip there and back will take about three hours and the weather looks dreadful but what the hell! There is a problem with the horses though. They’re very short and the first one Mark sits on just about disappears under him.  The men find him a sturdier one which at least we can see.

Soon we set off with the guides on foot leading the horses down the steep dirt track to the base of the crater. This flat circular plain is called the Sea of Sand and is a painstaking three kilometers across to the base of Mount Bromo.

Out in the open the weather is much worse – cold, raining and windy. The fog swirls around us and becomes much thicker as we start the climb to Mount Bromo. The landscape is surreal – almost like the surface of the moon – barren, empty and devoid of any sort of vegetation. Climbing towards the base of the crater we’re engulfed with thick white sulfurous fumes that have us all, even the horses, coughing and wheezing.

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Leaving the horses and the guides behind, we climb the two hundred and fifty steps to the top of the crater. Of course, safety isn’t an issue and with a broken hand rail and slippery pebbles on the stairs, it’s not a simple climb. At the top the fumes are so thick we can barely breathe let alone see. Briefly the fumes shift so we finally get a glimpse down into the belly of the volcano and the source of the stinking smoke and fumes. The wind is so strong we have to push against it to stay upright so we don’t hang around too long.

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The ride back is long and very wet but I feel almost cozy wrapped up in my hooded rain jacket and thick clothes.  I think it must be the adrenaline rush as well. We’ve loved every minute of the whole experience.

Off the poor horses at last, we luckily find Cafe Lava which is a Swiss chalet-style place made of rich dark timber inside and out. Because we’re both totally drenched it’s a warm haven from the miserable weather outside. We order hot tea and lunch while we chat with Linda the jolly local owner.

By now we both need to sleep so we find a shortcut back to the guesthouse, dump our wet clothes and jump into bed. The room is like a fridge and has no heating at all so the only way to get warm is good old body heat – it works.

We sleep till seven then walk uphill to Hotel Bromo Pental for New Years Eve drinks and dinner. The hotel is an upmarket place (for Cemoro Lawang anyway) with a big room set out with tables around three sides of a dance floor and a raised stage at one end. While we order satay chicken and some noodle and rice dishes, we’re entertained by a local band with a female singer playing old ballads – all sung in Indonesian but we recognise most of the tunes. Besides Mark and I there is a group of Dutch travellers and two big groups of Indonesians – and everyone is wearing a beanie – a fabulous atmosphere and so weird to be in this cold misty place so soon after being in tropical Bali.

We don’t stay too late because Mark is feeling sad, this being the first New Years Eve since his Mum died. We walk home about 11 o’clock to our cold little room but are soon snuggled up in bed. We wake to hear a few people braving the cold and letting off a couple of fire crackers at midnight. Happy New Year, my darling.

Monday 1st January, 2007             Cemoro Lawang to Probilinggo to Solo

Guess what, it’s still raining and windy. This must be a miserable place to live – but maybe it’s just the time of year. Before breakfast we arrange for a van to take us back to Probilinggo at midday. At Cemara Indah Café we have another horrible breakfast then pack ready to be picked up down the hill. The driver naturally has brought a friend with him – company for the long drive there and back. We leave on time at noon but stop twice to pick up more friends on the way out of town.

The scenery is spectacular. We’d slept through it all on the way in and it was dark anyway. We can’t believe that we managed to sleep on this incredibly steep and winding road. The mountains climb almost perpendicular on either side of the road and amazingly they’re all terraced with vegetable gardens. With the fog still wafting around us this really is one of the most unusual landscapes we’ve ever seen

The weather suddenly improves as we reach the plains and the temperature and humidity skyrocket. We peel off layers of clothes and feel like we’re back in the tropics once again. Our driver is typical of most Asians and we’re flying through the countryside at breakneck speed.

Around 3pm we’re happy to pull into Probilinggo and get dropped of at the same little travel agent that we’d left from two nights ago. Here we book a bus to take us to Solo in Central Java but it doesn’t leave until nine o’clock tonight. We decide to book into a cheap room so we can have a rest this afternoon. Mark finds a becak (Indonesian rickshaw) driver to take us into town which is a lot further than we expected. The poor little man gets so tired that we hitch a ride with a motor bike driver who pulls us along with him. The rain has started to fall as well so our driver kindly encases us in a plastic cover that we can’t see through and feels like a sauna.

He drops us in town at the Hotel Bromo Pentai II which is a nice hotel with a pretty central courtyard garden. Now we realise that we’ve left the charger for our video camera back in the hotel in Cemoro Lawang. We walk for ages trying to find a telephone to ring the guesthouse and finally find a wartel where we arrange for it to be brought back to Probilinggo this afternoon. We don’t hold any real hope of this happening but we’ve given it a go anyway. At a small supermarket we buy water and ice creams then wander around a friendly local market.

We sleep most of the afternoon in our air conditioned room then Mark goes off to a nearby café for dinner. I can’t be bothered eating and prefer to sleep but it’s a waste of time because kids are running around outside our room in their pyjamas. The mothers of the kids are also dressed in the pyjamas even though it’s not even dark yet.

A mini van picks us up at 8.40pm. Apparently there is no bus to Solo tonight (or never was) so we have to do the seven hour drive in this decrepit old van – and ‘sorry but air-con broken’. The traffic is hectic and the pollution from the trucks and buses is suffocating. Somehow I manage to sleep but Mark has a horrible trip. We finally arrive in Solo about 4am and book into the Istana Griya – a cute guesthouse in a quiet street off the main drag. Our room is big and airy with air-con and our own bathroom. Collapse into bed for a long sleep.

Tuesday 2nd January, 2007                  Solo

Since we had an on-and-off sleep in the van last night, we both sleep soundly till 9am. We decide to hang around today and do some serious sightseeing tomorrow. The weather is a bit cloudy but very hot and humid.

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We have breakfast brought to us while we sit on cane lounges on the verandah of the guesthouse. It’s so pretty here – coloured glass around the roof, colonial hanging lamps, a red tiled floor, statues carved out of volcanic rock and a few blackboards and notice boards with information about local tours. Because we’re down an alleyway off another alleyway, it’s also very peaceful. A couple of cane cages with singing birds are hanging above us with lots of potted plants to keep us cool. A couple of young German travellers are also sitting around in the sun reading and writing journals. We love it here and the only downside is that the loo doesn’t flush. Mark reports it to the girl on the desk and she replies with a big happy ‘yes, you pour water down’.  Simple.

After sending off some emails in a nearby internet café, we buy a watch each from a cheap shop on the corner. Lunch is at Warung Baru across from our alleyway – it’s an old very Balinese-style place with thick vines and bamboo furniture. A couple of lounge chairs covered in cushions are set up here facing the street so we spend a nice hour or so having a beer and reading. Later we walk to a bar in the main street but it doesn’t open till 5pm so we catch a becak to the Kasuma Hotel.  This is Solo’s oldest colonial hotels behind a tall fence and with a wide sweeping driveway to the front entrance. Inside we find the posh bar and have a bintang each enjoying the lovely surroundings. No-one else is here at this time of day and I doubt it ever gets full.

We pick up another becak outside in the street to take us back to the guesthouse for an afternoon nap. Riding through the streets we can see how lovely this town really is. Even though it’s called Yogjakarta’s ‘twin’ sister, Solo has apparently retained more of its Javanese character and is described as the least westernized city in Central Java.

At 7pm we wander around to the shops a few streets away to look for an electricity adaptor to replace the one we left behind. Unbelievably we find one in no time and head off for the bar where a different person tells us that it doesn’t  open till 11pm – forget it, we’ll be asleep by then. From here we find the Gamelan Bar – a dark,  grubby place playing Cat Stevens music. At first we’re the only ones here. They mustn’t have much stock because when I order a coke someone has to race off on a motor bike to bring back a warm one. Later a few expats drink at the table next to us and we try to eavesdrop. Our table is right on the street which is good for people watching but the hundreds of motor bikes roaring past are sending us deaf. Besides that the noodles are cold and we see a rat – ‘would you like a rat with that?’

This soon sends us high tailing it back to Warung Baru where they have cold cokes, hot noodles and no rodents. Bed at 9.30pm.

Wednesday 3rd January, 2007            Solo 

Yesterday we’d arrange for some moto drivers to take us around Solo and the surrounding villages. This means an early start, so we’re up at 7am, shower and order a breakfast of nasi goring and tea to have on the cute verandah. Mark is feeling well today and the weather is hot and sunny – a great start. At 8 o’clock our moto drivers arrive in the laneway. They are Patrick and Ruti and have brought motorcycle helmets for Mark and I to wear – Mark’s is a tiny jockey’s hat – hilarious!

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It’s very exciting driving through town then within minutes we’re in true countryside. At a small thatched village we stop on the banks of the Solo River where a bamboo raft is waiting to take passengers to the other side. While the men are loading the bikes onto the raft, Mark and I have a look at the village.

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It’s so basic and lovely. The people are tiny and two extra tiny women stop to have their photos taken. They both have massive cane baskets strapped to their backs and I hope whatever they‘re carrying isn’t too heavy. Other tiny old women have their photos taken and strangely they all look the same – maybe they’re all sisters – and they look so sweet in their sarongs and pretty floral tops. We see chooks scratching around and a rooster crowing – we love these little villages.

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Finally it’s time to catch the ‘ferry’ after the bamboo walkway had to be fixed when it sunk into the mud on the bank. We have another lady wearing a conical hat coming with us and she too has a huge basket strapped to her back. To get to the other side, about twenty metres away, a young man steers us across by pushing a long pole into the bottom of the river. On the other side we get back on the bikes and head off for the next village. On the way we pass lots of rice paddies most of which are being planted by women working in rows. They’re all knee deep in water and mud and wearing the cane conical hats like they do in Vietnam – at least the weather is hot here today but it must be hard work.

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Our first stop is at the tofu making village. All the villages on the outskirts of Solo are experts in one particular cottage industry so everyone in this village makes tofu. Patrick and Ruti take us to the back of a hut where a man shows us the whole process while a young lady cooks a few pieces of chopped tofu in a pan of oil. We have a taste and really like it. The making of the tofu is very involved and primitive but lovely to see it being made in these homey surroundings. Fires are wood only so there’s a lovely smoky smell in the air.

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Along little tracks overhung with trees and vines we head off to the next village. Here we pass duck farmers herding hundreds of tall brown ducks and see a white mother duck swimming around with her seven little yellow ducklings. This next village is the gong making village. Gamelan bands are an integral part of Indonesian culture and the large metal gongs are one of the essential instruments. We’re taken into a big dark room that seriously looks like the chambers of hell.

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Sparks are flying everywhere as teams of men bash away at lumps of metal after it’s been heated up in fires set in pits on the earthen floor. There aren’t any safety precautions at all – the men are even barefoot. Apparently there are eight of them in a team and they work six days a week for 20,000 Rp a day (about $3 AUD).

We’re not sorry to leave and don’t know how these poor men can do this horrible job. The next village has much more appealing cottage industry – arak making. A very home-made looking still does a lot of the work but I don’t take too much notice as I’ve found a cute puppy to play with. Nearby is the roof tile making village and we spend ages watching a very old man making the tiles mainly with his feet. Inside the family hut his wife is chopping up vegetables for lunch while their two sons seem to be just hanging around – couldn’t they help Dad?

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From here we head back into Solo passing through some lovely countryside. In town we stop at the leather puppet making place. This is fascinating and so intricate – no wonder they’re expensive. Not far from here we stop to see batik being made – we’ve seen it before but we see all different sorts of processes done here. Mark buys 3 shirts – really good quality and he’ll have them for years.

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Patrick and Ruti now drop us off back at the guesthouse and we make plans with Patrick to go to the Sriwedari Theatre tonight. But now we head straight for Warung Baru for a pizza and a tomato salad with fresh orange juice. We make a few phone calls but not feeling easy about Angie so we spend an hour emailing home. We hang around Warung Baru for the rest of the afternoon reading and drinking Bintang.

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On dusk we catch a becak to a ‘steakhouse’ for dinner then meet Patrick back at Warung Baru for our visit to the theatre.

Yet another becak ride takes the three of us to the lively Sriwedari Amusement Park where we find the theatre amongst rides and candy stalls. It’s a big building with high ceilings, lots of seating and the band set up in a pit in front of the stage.

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Before the show starts, Patrick takes us backstage to see the sets and the actors putting on their costumes and makeup. We meet the clowns and love the whole experience. The actual performance, on the other hand, is very weird.

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It’s described as a ‘vaudeville-style of telling the classics with singing, comedy and action drama’. Okay, this could be good, but then no-one can dance and we can’t hear the actors (strangely, most of them are fat) because the audience and the band talk all the way through it. You can come and go as you please but we stay longer than we would otherwise so we don’t hurt Patrick’s feelings.

After telling Patrick that we’re going home to bed, we sneak off to the Lumba Lumba Bar to get drunk and sing more bad karaoke – this is more like it. I think the Bee Gees will always remind us of this place.

Becak home in the warm night air – a good day.

Thursday 4th January, 2007       Solo to Yogjakarta 

We’re almost reluctant to leave Solo but need to keep moving on. Today we wake at 8 o’clock and plan to visit the Kraton (palace) then catch a train to Yogjakarta.

We hire a becak outside in the street from one of the guys lying around. He pedals us to the other side of town then along one of the outside walls of the Kraton. Through one of the wide entrances we eventually pull up outside the palace itself. It looks like we’re the only ones here so it will be a relaxing visit. We hire a young man to be our guide and he patiently explains palace life while showing us around the grounds and the Sultan’s Carriage Museum.

Later we head back to the market in our becak. We wander around inside but it’s so huge that we lose our bearings. And there’s so much batik for sale – so much that we lose interest and catch another becak to the hotel.

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After a quick pack we catch a taxi to the station and pay 20,000Rp ($3AUD) each for tickets to Yogjakarta. The wait in the sunshine is nice as we buy ice creams and look at the other people on the platform. The train is on time and we find a spot on one of the long bench seats that run vertically down the train.

The sixty kilometer trip is only an hour so by midday we pull into hot, sunny Yogjakarta – also called Jogja for short. This is the cultural capital of Java so we hope to see some interesting stuff here. From the station we pile our backpacks onto a becak and head off for Blodok Losmen recommended by Lonely Planet. It’s in an interesting narrow street just off Malioboro Street, Jogja’s main shopping area. For 250,000 Rp (less than $30 AUD) a night, our room is fantastic – air-con, a bathroom, hot water, a flushing toilet, a fridge and a television. And there’s a lovely pool just outside our door so Mark has a swim before we do anything else. Also as part of the losmen is a sun filled café right on the street. By now we’re ready for lunch so we relax over pizza and chicken cordon bleu.

After our usual afternoon siesta we wander down to Malioboro Street about seven o’clock. This place is really exciting at night – people, markets, motor bikes, horse drawn carts, art galleries. We meet a friendly man in a supermarket who offers to take us to a batik exhibition. He speaks English really well and knows a lot about Australia because he has a cousin who lives in Mosman in Sydney. At the art gallery he introduces us to Jaka who’s obviously the best salesman around. We end up buying two batik hangings for $120 US – very beautiful but probably paid too much because Jaka is really happy. As we don’t have that much on us, he walks to the ATM with us and then wants to have dinner with us, show us his house and keep in touch – goodbye!

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Now we want to escape the noise of the main street so we head off into the little laneways around our losmen. In Gang II we find a few laid back cafes playing groovy music so we do a bit of a café crawl, drink too much and have a great night.

Home to bed but Mark sick.

Friday 5th January, 2007                 Yogjakarta

This morning feeling a bit over it all for some reason then after a phone call to Angie I just want to go home. She isn’t good and is worried about Mum and Dad. Mark is happy to go home earlier than we planned because he thinks he should be back at work.

It takes some time to find an airline office where we book flights from Yogjakarta to Jakarta on Sunday with Garuda ($69AUD each) then Jakarta to Sydney on Monday with Qantas ($690 AUD). It’s expensive but we don’t care. We feel that we’ll have seen what we want to by then.

Now we walk along past the market stalls and buy sandals for Angie and Lauren and then ice creams at a modern shopping centre. Back near our guesthouse we’re twice approached by young men who want to show us a batik exhibition (a batik overload here) and predictably when we tell them we come from Sydney, they both have a cousin who lives in Mosman. Totally over this bullshit.

Back at Bladock, Mark has a sleep while I find a little beauty parlour close by. At first I have a manicure which is pretty tragic but cheap then agree to have a facial to fill in time till Mark wakes up. Big mistake – the young girl has no idea what she’s doing. While I lie on a raised bed behind a curtain, she plasters my skin with a scrub and spends the next hour scouring away my poor face. I don’t have the heart to complain.

Meanwhile the lady who owns the place comes in with bags of groceries. Next her husband turns up and introduces himself as John. We get talking and decide that he’ll borrow a van and drive us to Borobodur in the morning.

At six o’clock we get a young man called Jo to ride us in his becak to the other side of the city to the Jogja Village Inn in Prawirotaman, the main backpacker area of Yogjakarta. It has a Balinese style garden courtyard, swimming pool and a lovely outdoor restaurant. Sitting by the pool in the warm night air and listening to the sound of frogs, we have dinner by candlelight – prawn cocktail and fish – and feel like we’re actually in Bali – “remind me again why we left Bali”.

After dinner Jo takes us to a couple of fabulous bars in the next street. It’s so dark around here in these back little laneways – very atmospheric and we like it a lot. Back at Bladok we head back to the cafe for drinks, singing and dancin

Saturday 6th January, 2007                    Yogjakarta to Borobodhur 

This morning we wake early so we can have breakfast before leaving for our trip to the eighth century Buddhist temple of Borobodur – one of the main reasons we’ve come to Java. Mark has an American breakfast and I order a fruit platter in the café at Bladok. At 8.15am we meet John outside in the street. He’s borrowed a new air-conditioned van and brought along his young teenage sister and her girlfriend. They sit politely in the back and giggle the whole way.

On the one hour trip to Borobodhur, we stop a couple of times – first at a stone carvers’ workshop on the side of the road and again at a silver shop. I want to buy something but in the end I’m not sure if it’s all too expensive.

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We pass the very impressive Mount Merapi in the distance on our right. Apparently it’s the most active volcano in Indonesia hence its nickname ‘Mountain of Fire’. In 1006 it really blew its stack and covered most of Java in ash. The last of its sixty eight eruptions was in 1994 so I think we’re safe today. And as a result of all these eruptions, the countryside all around is very green and pretty with lots of rice paddies and fields of chillis and intermittent small towns.

Volcanic eruptions and earthquakes are really common in Indonesia and it was only in 2006 that an earthquake measuring 6 on the Richter scale hit Yogjakarta at 6:30AM on Saturday, May 27th – almost six thousand people were killed and lots, lots more injured and made homeless.

Now as we approach Borobodur village, we can see the massive temple in the distance. Hawkers swamp us as we get out of the van but the souvenirs are horrible and we just want them to go away. Mark and I leave John and the girls and wander off to find the foreigners entrance – we have to pay $AUD 11 but the Indonesians get in for free.

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The approach to the main temple is along tree-lined walkways through a lovely park area. The temple sits huge and amazing at the end of the main path and merits its UNESCO World Heritage Listing. It was built entirely by hand and made from over 1,600,000 blocks of volcanic stone. Hundreds of locals are here crawling all over it and most carrying umbrellas to keep off the sun which is scorching by now. We decide to hire a guide for 40,00RP. He’s a sweet, polite young man who is passionate about the history of Borobodur. He explains the meaning of the carvings and tells us that the nine-terraces that make up the temple represent the path to nirvana.

One of the things you must do here is to reach inside one of the stupas and touch the small stone Buddha – Mark to touch the Buddha’s head and Virginia to touch the Buddha’s foot. We take turns with the locals who are having a wonderful time. They’re so friendly and lots of them want their photos taken with us.

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Back down in the park we see elephants grazing and an old man climbing coconut trees collecting sap in bamboo tubes. To leave the park and get back to our van, we need to follow the zigzag path through the market. The hawkers drive us mad again until I finally buy a handful of wooden shadow puppets (50,000Rp for 2), 4 salad spoons (10,00Rp each) and 10 batik cards. There isn’t a chance of just wandering around to look at the rest of the stalls – we just want to make our escape. This is by far the worst experience we’ve had with hawkers anywhere and we gladly jump into the ‘safety’ of John’s van.

He pulls off the road again after a couple of minutes to look at another ancient shrine in the village of Borobodur. The area is lovely – shaded by tall spreading trees and a small market next to the temple. But, oh God – here they come! Once again the hawkers here are like vultures swooping down on us as we get out of the van. To try to get rid of them I buy two puppets but they still keep hassling me till I escape back inside the car.

From Borobodur we head back towards Yogjakarta but John wants to take us for a close up look of Mount Merapi – you know that very active volcano?! We say why not. It’s a half hour detour upwards along winding roads with thick vegetation on both sides. We pass lots of people carrying bundles of long grass to use as feed for their cows. Finally we reach our destination which is the mountain next to Merapi. It has a tacky lookout, café and stalls and the Javanese tourists are out in force. We check out the restaurant at the lookout but prefer to eat hot corn on the cob that’s being cooked over hot coals on the street.

Back at Bladok Guesthouse we have a late lunch of chicken and avocado salad, a potato and spinach dish and cold lime sodas. Mark then goes off to the ATM and afterwards a swim in the pool while I go off for a massage at Gary II. I don’t really enjoy it because it’s a man and in a little room at the back of the restaurant. I take my top off but then have to roll over and he keeps staring at my boobs – Mark where are you? Can’t wait to get the hell out of there and do the bolt back to the guesthouse.

Later we walk down to Malioboro Street to find the posh Inna Garuda Hotel for a drink. Inside we find a gamelan band playing in traditional costumes so we have a drink close by to watch and listen. A wedding reception is being held in one of the big rooms near us and we’re lucky to see the bridal party walk in. All very over the top but cute.

Back in our street we watch the locals eating from street carts then a few drinks before bed.

Sunday 7th January, 2007     Yojakarta to Jakarta

This morning we pack then have an early breakfast before catching a taxi to the Adisucipto International Airport eight kilometres east of town. The Garuda flight to Jakarta, the capital, is only fifty minutes and for the most part all we see are volcanic peaks.

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At Jakarta’s airport we catch a tuktuk into town to the backpacker area in Jalan Jaksa. Like all backpacker districts this has the usual cheap guesthouses, cafes and bars. We wander around the back alleyways for ages looking at different places to stay but then decide on a bigger place on Jalan Jaksa itself. We’re only here for one night and we want air-con and hot showers so we can get cleaned up before we fly home.

After booking in we go in search of food at one of the cafes then decide to head into the main part of the city. Just as we leave Jalan Jaksa we run into a guy called Jacka who offers to take us on a bit of a city tour. Considering it’s the largest city in South East Asia I don’t think we’re going to see much of it though. Out on a really busy main road the three of us catch a bus into the CBD where Jacka is taking us to a place where they sell cheap pirated DVDs. When we get there though the police have closed it down for the day. So now we transfer to a tiny open air local bus that the poorer people use instead of taxis. Then we transfer to a tuktuk and end up at the old port of Sunda Kelapa at the mouth of the Ciliwung river.

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This was where Jakarta began as a trading harbour. Later it was named Batavia as the capital of the colonial Dutch East Indies then renamed Jakarta in 1942 during Japan’s occupation of Java. When Indonesia became independent after World War II it was made its capital.

Nowadays the port is still used for sailing cargo vessels (magnificent Makassar schooners) that transport freight to the other islands. We spend an hour looking at the boats (ships?) and Mark is brave enough to walk a really steep, narrow gangplank up to the deck of one of them.

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I get half way up and chicken out although I’d love to get up there. Next we hire a wrinkled old man to row us around in his old boat while we watch a group of little naked boys jumping from one of the boats to the water way down below. They show off for us as we video them.

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From here we tuktuk our way to the nearby fish market. We choose fish and prawns from one of the hundreds of stalls then have it cooked in an open-sided ‘café’ – sounds great but the flies almost carry us away.

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But the best part is when a Dutch guy called Roi and his Indonesian wife, Wiwi, invite us to have lunch with them. Roi has been living in Jakarta for ten years and says he doesn’t love it but here he can live like a king so why would he go back to Holland. After lunch they offer to drive us back to our guesthouse but then we decide to all have dinner together. First we go to a big department store where we find heaps of DVDs for Angie and Lauren – buy a couple of hundred! Then we pay Jacka and drive off with Roi and Wiwi in their luxury car. We stop at their house for a few minutes before having dinner in an Egyptian place in another big department store. It all looks quite grand but then you realise you’ve got vertigo because the floor isn’t level – crappy Indo construction. The whole bloody great thing will probably collapse in the next inevitable earthquake.

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Anyway dinner is good with an amazing atmosphere – Wiwi and Roi have dinner here every second night. Roi tells us a little about his business and it sounds as dodgy as the floor – don’t think he’s a crook, just knows the system and works it. After dinner they take for a drive through the transexual prostitute area and there they are lurking around in the dark looking very weird.

We’re sorry to say goodbye to Roi and Wiwi and wish we’d been staying longer. Anyway, we’re eager to get home to family stuff.

Monday 8th January, 2007   Jakarta to Sydney

Today we catch a taxi to the airport then line up for immigration. When it comes my turn to show my passport, the guy looks at me weird – keeps inspecting my passport and making phone calls. Then I’m told to follow him to a small room – oh shit! – Mark and I are both shitting ourselves – haven’t done anything wrong but that could be totally besides the point here. In the end we don’t know what the problem was but we were told to go

So happy to get on the plane.

 

 

 

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