Monday, 27 August 2012

A bit more Shanghai

Sparrows on sticks and fertilized eggs.
After scanning over my last post I feel I should say a bit more about what I got up to in Shanghai. I spent nine days there and, if the post below is anything to go on, it appears all that time was spent faffing around with train tickets and gawping at Chinese people gobbling their dinner. I did more than that though.

The majority of the 23 million people that live in Shanghai do so in cramped conditions. By population, it is the largest city in the world. And by the sheer number of tower blocks required to accommodate its people, much of the city appears as strangely ordered urban clutter. Monstrous tower blocks tesselate from the street in characterless uniformity. The architecture is, to use a technical term, mind-numbing. For residents, tourists, and anyone with a sense of space, Shanghai's many parks are a reprieve from the city's steadfast urbanism which, at this time of the year, can seem suffocated when combined with the stuffy climate.

Typical fruit and
veg stall.
As well as eating ice creams in parks, I visited several museums - leisurely inspecting old chop sticks, various jewels, scrolls, masks, Chinese things, Tibetan things, Inner Mongolian things, things that are old, things that are not so old, and some things that were very old indeed. I also saw a lot of art during my visit. I visited 'M50' - a thriving artists' quarter in the north of the city. It reminded me a lot of a similar set-up they have going on at Dashanzi, in Beijing, where numerous studios are bunched together to create a hub.

The award for 'Worst Tourist Attraction I Have Ever Handed Over Money For' goes to Shanghai's 'tourist tunnel' which is, essentially, a jazzed up tube ride carrying passengers from the Bund to Pudong and back. LED fairy lights are draped across the tunnel and each carriage is blasted which odd 'space-like' noises. The ride lasts a crummy three minutes and at the end of it passengers are quickly ushered out so that the gabble of complaints doesn't reverberate back down the tunnel.

Other highlights of my time in Shanghai included viewing the city from the top of the Shanghai World Financial Center building (the world's highest observatory), wandering the streets and markets of the old town, and leading on scammers in East Nanjing Road. Sadly, it seems if a local approaches a tourist in Shanghai and makes small talk, he, she, or they, are almost certainly out to scam. In fact, they're some of the most sophisticated scammers around. They'll convincingly strike up a pleasant conversation - perhaps pretend to be a tourist and ask you to take a photo - before a lot of small talk which will eventually lead to an invitation to see a 'tea ceremony' where you'll drink a cup of tea and then be charged a proposterous amount for it. A good thing to do is to play along and, when they invite you along at the end, politely decline but ask them if they would like to join you for an ice cream in McDonalds. 

East Nanjing Road, Shanghai.

Thursday, 16 August 2012


Throw me a pigeon on a stick - I need something to dip in this fermented sheep's penis broth.

A broken (but alive) crab
waits to be sold.
At the table to my left, a young boy is gnawing on ducks' toes while sparrows' legs dangle from his younger sister's mouth. Their parents have a mélange of ligaments and tendons before them. The monkey's forehead, 'old lady's lung' and 'jellied beef without sexual life' are all recommended dishes in this joint.

At the table to my right, a man is eating dumplings injected with the dreams of X-Factor contestants, rice fragranced with Japanese memories and a side serving of head cheese and yak veins. His lady friend is soaking her taste buds with a bowl of soup made using tears of sad horses.

Me? I've just polished off a sea cucumber and fried dove sandwich. I snuck a few quail eggs (cooked in the urine of Disney's five most popular characters) in my bag for later.

Not really. All of that was just made up stuff.

But the food in China really does stretch the imagination. Admittedly, a lot of the things I've eaten I simply haven't been unidentified. Obscure animal parts, some of which I suspect haven't even been named by the appropriate science yet, travel incognito in broths and stocks. Here, buns and dumplings are the culinary equivalent of unsuspecting vehicles carrying illegal immigrants across borders. My intestine, as I write, is digesting half the animal kingdom.

The menus in the local restaurants here, if you are lucky, have pictures of the available dishes, and there's little else to go on (unless you have the patience to learn Mandarin as you go, which is just as torturous for the restaurant staff as it is for the foreigner).

As well as being hugely varied, meals here are cheap, made with quality ingredients, and cooked with expertise.

I've spent a week here so far, which is longer than I ever anticipated. China is throwing its officialdom right at my face which is causing a visa-based headache. In three weeks time I will be taking a tour of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea, to you and I - more about that later), which means I will be leaving the country and re-entering after the tour. To do this I must hold a double-entry visa, rather than the single-entry visa I am currently traveling with. As I can't convert the visa, I have the option of either leaving the country beforehand and obtaining a new double-entry visa, or winging it and seeing what happens when I leave North Korea. The latter doesn't appeal so much, so I'm going to Hong Kong.

So... I head to Shanghai Central Railway Station to get a ticket for the 21 hour train journey south, only to be told by a girl in the ticket office that there are no tickets available until the 27th August. That's TWO WEEKS away! I need to get to Hong Kong quicker than that. I give her a doleful look and ask her if there's any way I can get to Hong Kong before that date. The reply - "No" - is delivered from an inscrutable face, her tone suggesting: "Your travel needs, to me, mean so little that to offer any sympathy at all would be utter hypocrisy - I hope you can see this from my poker face. I hate my job, so it's best you go away now."

I went away and stroked my beard a bit, thumbing through my copy of Lonely Planet to look for alternative routes to Hong Kong. The thumbing was aggressive - I was a little frustrated; why is China making me leave the country to get a different visa but at the same time apparently making it nigh on impossible to leave the country? What is China playing at? I thought about the question but couldn't answer it. I went back to the ticket counter and asked for a ticket to Guanzhou - a city just north of the Hong Kong border. "You must book within three days of travel for this train, sir." I gave her a lovely smile and thanked her for her help. Through her job with the Chinese rail network, this poor girl peddles disappointment all day.

My problem was that I had sent my camera off to be repaired by Shanghai's Canon Service Centre (which, remarkably, did the job for free) and I didn't know how long it would take.

Anyhow, at the risk of writing something so boring that the internet may break, I eventually got my ticket to Guanzhou and my camera came back fixed up.

[Sidenote: To post this, I have had to subscribe to (and pay for) a 'virtual private network' which disguises my location as being outside China. I have then had to email the post using Hotmail. As far as hullabaloos go, this must be one of the biggest.]

Pudong skyline.

Manila: submerged

My second visit to Manila was a completely different ball game to the first. Much of the city was submerged by water displaced by Typhoon Saola, which struck towards the end of July. Rain of biblical proportions fell on Manila, as well as other parts of the Philippines, Taiwan, and China.

My aim of packing in a whole lot of tourism during my second visit was not to be - unless I was willing to swim. For local kids, swimming through the streets was a rare novelty. This was the most severe floods for over ten years according to locals (although some news reports claimed them to be the worst seen in Manila in fifty years). Knowing that the waters were a likely mix of rainwater and sewerage, I left my swimwear in the hostel. I did, however, venture out to take some snaps. My attempts at reportage photography portrayed an altogether happier picture of a city in crisis than many of the tabloids did. If anything, the locals (where I was, at least) appeared to be making the best of an unfortunate situation.

Photos are here: (I would upload them directly to the blog, as I usually do, but China, where I currently am, won't let me).

The rest of my time in Manila was spent hanging round the food court of the local mall with a great bunch of fellow backpackers. This time I wasn't harassed by any prostitutes.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Puerto Princesa: Take Two

Two days in Puerto Princesa was time enough to get a feel for the city. With below 300,000 people living there, it's the most sparsely populated city in the Philippines. You can walk from one end of the city proper to the other in a couple of hours. I exhausted the city's key tourist attractions - a church, a museum of old bowls, and a port - within that time.

Going north.
Puerto's provincial boundaries stretch 2,381 km², making it the second largest province in the archipelago. This is too far to walk, so I rented a Honda Beat scooter for a couple of days (at the bargain price, after some hard bargaining, of 250 pesos - about £2.50 - per day). This opened up a whole new world of countryside fun.

I didn't have a map of the countryside but fortunately in a place like Palawan, where infrastructure is still very much a work in process, I didn't need one. As you leave the city you are given two options: North Road or South Road. I took the north road and biked three hours to Roxas, a small coastal municipality. Not a lot going on there - for tourists it's more of a transit point than anything else. I saw a ladyboy shouting at children, had a couple of ice-creams by the bus station, and headed back south.

On the way back I stopped at Viet-Ville, a semi-derelict village of huts a few kilometres north of Puerto city. It was established by Vietnamese boat refugees who crossed the South China Sea after the fall of South Vietnam in 1975. There's a Catholic church, a Buddhist temple, and 20 or so wooden houses, most of which are empty and run-down. The place has an eerie stillness about it.

When I got back to the north-south junction, I continued along the south road, past Puerto, towards Iwahig, stopping off on the way at a little butterfly garden on the way. I'd read about Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm, where visitors can sign in and wander around freely. The prison has minimum, medium and maximum security compounds and prisoners wear t-shirts with their security level printed on the chest. The penal colony is where many of the thieves, murderers and rapists of the Philippines end up when they've done a naughty. Riding a scooter around the prison grounds, peering through barbed wire fences at malnourished prisoners and starey guards, was one of the stranger tourism experiences I've had. I was warned when signing in that taking photos of prisoners is strictly prohibited. Fortunately, I met a medium security inmate outside the recreation hall who offered to show me his home - the medium security compound.

The inmate, who wasn't allowed to tell me his name, had been incarcerated since 1989 and still had another 23 years of time ahead of him. I would guess that he was in his forties. I asked him what his crime was and he told me was caught with marijuana in Quezon City. A likely story! I didn't doubt him though. He had certain freedoms that the other inmates did not have, like being able to walk freely around the grounds at certain times of the day. He told me this was for good behavior over the years. I asked him if he could escape. He said it was possible, and that inmates have escaped previously, but if you're caught then your life isn't worth living.

In prison.
When we got to the compound the guards allowed me through a steel gate into a foyer-like area, where there was another large gate into the compound itself. Inside the medium security compound are 250 inmates, split between four dormitories (yes, only four! I can just imagine the reviews on

Some of the inmates reached through the bars of the gate to shake hands with me, but my inmate friend suggested I shouldn't. He did, however, strongly suggest I buy a slab of cigarettes to share amongst them - and him. Conveniently, I could buy them from the security office next door. Cigarettes costing a pittance here, I obliged. After a cup of tea with him outside the compound, I made my excuses and left.

"Enjoy life outside prison," he quipped as I got on my scooter.

"Be good!" I joked.

What a nice man.

After milling around in Puerto the next morning I caught a flight to Manila. The flight was delayed by an hour due to heavy rain over Manila. I was surprised it went ahead at all given the scenes that I was met with when I arrived. 

Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Leaving El Nido

I double-took when I received the bill for my 'cottage' in El Nido when I left it for the last time this morning. 'Nine nights', the invoice said. How time flies in El Nido. 

Most backpackers are done with El Nido within three or four days - the 'attractions' here can be done in a couple of days - weather allowing. However, after four or five days in El Nido time begins to melt away completely. 

Destination: Beach.
Inventory: Bicycle, towel, bag full of baked goods.
Time: Unknown.
Thank goodness for darkness, which acts as a diurnal leash on daylight activities (which include sitting on the beach, lying on the beach, reading my book on the beach and, my personal favourite, eating baked goods on the beach). It's telling that the most common search on my laptop over the past week has been "current time and day?".

In brief, the average day in El Nido has been as follows: 

• Wake up. 
• Go back to sleep for a bit.
• Wake up again.
• Wonder what the time is. 
• Get dressed, go for breakfast.
• Discover it must be fairly late as the restaurants are onto their lunch menus. 
• Rent bicycle and head, via bakery, to Las Cabanas beach (a gentle 6km ride).
• Read, swim, lie down, eat cake. (Sometimes take shelter from rain under palm trees).
• Cycle back to town, drop off bike. 
• Shower and have a little rest.
• Go out for dinner.

(Repeat 9 times). 

River crossing on
the way to
Nagkalit-kalit Falls.
Sounds like Groundhog Day with a twist, I realise, but I have been breaking it up with the odd extra-curricular activity.. A couple of days ago I went on a muddy adventure to Nagkalit-kalit Falls and Nacpan Beach. I say adventure because it was pelting down with rain most of the time and the roads and paths were mere dirt tracks.

I commandeered a local tricycle driver, Abby, to take me to Nagkalit-kalit Falls, located about 14km north of El Nido town, and then to the beach (we went on his bike - road conditions were too bad for the ramshackle contraptions that are Filipino tricycles). From the nearest road, we trekked for around half an hour through jungle-covered limestone outcrops and made some sketchy river crossings. Both of us lost our sandals to the river, so spent the rest of the day barefooted. The sacrifice wasn't in vain though. The falls collect into a natural pool that you can swim in. I didn't realise swimming was on the cards so didn't have any swim gear with me. As I was soaked through, I couldn't resist and had a splash about in my shorts.

Splashing around at Nagkalit-kalit Falls. 
The road from from Nagkalit-kalit to Nacpan Beach, around 7km in distance, was broken up by temporary quagmires. Abby, who kept reassuring me that as a "professional driver" he could handle the mud, eventually got stuck and we had to push the bike through much of the time. Again, Nacpan Beach itself was worth the perseverance; an attractive wide white-sand beach stretching out into clear water. And the rain continued to hammer down. 

[Sidenote: Anybody who has been on a motorbike in the rain without a helmet will know that it is a stressful affair. When traveling at speed, the rain feels like a million tiny bullets being shot by Mother Nature at your face. One dare not open one's eyes for fear of being instantly rendered blind. So, my journey back from Nacpan Beach to El Nido was unpleasant, cowering behind the driver with one hand gripping the back bar, another attempting to shield my eyes, mud splattered up to my knees, no footwear, and locals zooming past wearing raincoats and helmets with visors, giving me a puzzled look, as if wondering to themselves whether this is what tourists come to their island for.]

I'm back in Puerto Princesa now. It feels good to be on the move again. I have a full day here before I fly back to Manila on Tuesday evening.

Las Cabanas Beach.
Children outside their home
on the way to Nagkalit-kalit Falls.
Abby and I: post adventure.
Abby: mid adventure.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

El Nido (Palawan)

A bit of trouble in paradise.

A couple of hours ago I was having dinner with a stunning Filipino, in conversation about everything from the dark side of Walt Disney to the Russian underground, tucking into cordon bleu and sipping red wine. And now I'm refashioning a coat hanger in order to prod at a puzzling blockage in my toilet. 

I knew about the plumbing work ahead of me before I left, but classed it as an after-dinner activity. So I went for a beer in a restaurant just down the road from my 'cottage' (hut). A few minutes after, just as I was rescanning pages of my book that I had read but not actually absorbed, a broad American accent asked if I was traveling alone. I double-took when I saw that the question had come from this Filipino girl sitting at a table opposite me. "Yes.." Blah, blah, blah.. We went through the customary "How long are you here? Where are you from?" conversation. She was from Manila and was on vacation (yes - vacation, not holiday - English was introduced here by the Americans). 

So we ended up having dinner together - it was great to have a proper conversation with a 'local' and I quizzed her about the 'real Manila', which I hadn't and probably won't see. She was excited about heading to Borneo to climb Mount Kinabalu before heading back to her job as an accountant. All I could really think about throughout dinner was how outrageously good-looking she was. After dinner she suggested we go for a beer on the beach front at a place called 'Panoys', or something similar. She had to go and drop some stuff at her hotel so she'd meet me there in a few minutes. Awesome.

However, after walking the beach for 15 minutes around the area she said I couldn't find a bar with that name, or anything similar. It was her idea so I doubt she was standing me up. She must have confused the name and was probably sat in a bar thinking I had stood her up. Aside from a sunken vessel off the coast of Palawan earlier this year, this must be the biggest tragedy ever to have taken place on the island. And now I'm back in my 'cottage', armed with a coat hanger and duct tape, in combat with a wholly different sunken vessel.

Unless my plumbing skills outshine my expectations I may have to leave town tomorrow.

Joking aside, Palawan really is paradise. I'm slightly bitter about my lack of planning, which resulted in me being here during typhoon season. I imagine if I were here in the high season, it would be a highlight of my whole trip. But instead, a part of me is waiting for my flight out of here. The people here are great, I've met some great backpackers, and the beaches are sublime. But the rain is such a hindrance.

Anyhow, if anything, my time here is relaxing. I've been doing a lot of sewing. I managed to transform my custom-made elephant t-shirt from a 'medium' to a 'small'. The cut is a bit squiffy but it looks a lot more 'hand-made', which is pretty trendy. I've also started a book of drawings that I can take to China in a couple of weeks and use to communicate with people who don't speak English. 

I have one more week in Palawan before returning to Manila. 

Friday, 27 July 2012

Puerto Princesa and Sabang (Palawan)

The red lights of Manila eventually turned green. I checked into a great hostel, 'Where2Next' just down the road and never came across the horrible woman again. [Having read over my last post, perhaps I need to man up a bit too]. 

Manila has a dismal reputation. Its streets are addled with crime and a great number of tourists who visit are dirty old men looking for a roll in the hay, so to speak. The linchpin of Manila - paid for sex - survives on desperation of both the client and purveyor. Together, they make a deal of shame. But Manila is pretty much unavoidable; the archipelago's own Mephistopheles - an ugly gateway to the Philippines.

After a night of brandy and Pictionary with fellow backpackers at Where2Next, I planned to explore Intramuros - the 'old town' of Manila. As I was leaving the hostel I was stopped by reception staff, who questioned my backpack. Generally, I carry around with me my camera, two or three lenses, a flash, a guidebook, my laptop and, since arriving in the Philippines, an umbrella. My bag is always full and, admittedly, valuable. They said I should leave any unnecessary valuables in the hostel, wear my backpack on my front and avoid talking to anybody on the way. I couldn't help but feel their concern was over the top. Either way, it made me change my plan altogether. Instead, I went to watch a remarkably shit film called 'Acts Of Valor' at the Mall of Asia (incidentally, one of the largest malls in the whole of Asia). I often find myself in cinema halls when I'm not really sure what else to do in a city. They act as a place of relief, if nothing else.

A flight with Cebu Pacific took me from Manila to Puerto Princesa, the capital province of Palawan, on Tuesday. I arrived early in the evening and checked into Banwa Art House - a great little bamboo-built hostel in the corner of city. I spent the evening with a French woman, Christine, who had travelled a similar route to me, and who was writing a short novel about what she called "the travelling blues". Like me, she had motorcycled through Vietnam. She was telling me how she found the whole experience an ordeal - she had a horrendous accident in Vietnam and she found the people, at the time, disagreeable. I couldn't disagree more. She said she was tired of having the same conversations with locals, tired of having the same conversations with travelers, tired of living as a temporary friend to so many people and as a permanent stranger to so many others. I sympathized.

I took a bus from Puerto Princesa to Sabang - a four hour journey. It's very much the wet season in the Philippines and since I arrived I've been wet most of the time.

The de rigueur attraction in Sabang is a subterranean river, which the locals have dubiously been campaigning to be one of the 'Seven Wonders of the World' for several years. Unfortunately, I arrived without a permit to visit the river, which I discovered can only be obtained in Puerto Princesa. What a convoluted system - having to travel back to the capital to buy (what is effectively) a ticket. Imagine having to go to London to buy a ticket for Stone Henge!

So, instead of making a ridiculous journey to buy the permit, I walked north of Sabang's white-sand beach to the mangroves. This unadvertised gem has been the highlight of my time in the Philippines so far. I felt like I'd stumbled across a frontier. As I approached the mangroves, a woman - perhaps in her sixties - welcomed me with a smile and, gestured towards a small wooden boat. 

Lady of the Mangroves.
"Welcome to the mangroves, sir. I am the Lady of the Mangroves and the beauty of my kingdom awaits you."

With an introduction like that, I didn't really care how much I paid. (As it turned out, a 'cruise' in the mangroves was only 150 pesos - around £2.30.)

I boarded the little boat with the Lady of the Mangroves and an old man who rowed at the back. Fantastically, the 'Lady of the Mangroves' spent the entire half hour talking about herself in third person, and kept referencing a 'special' hut she lived in. Pointing out various birds, she made 'ooooh' and 'aaaah' noises, like at a bird firework display. We saw mangrove monkeys, fiddler crabs, horrible red crabs, horrible tarantulas, snakes, some mudskippers, a horrible monitor lizard, and birds with beaks that made them look like avian clowns. At the end of the cruise, the Lady of the Mangroves sang a song - exclusively for me - about the crabs and birds of the mangroves, which was really very nice. The rower in the back, who had been silent throughout the whole cruise, piped up with soft harmonies. Perhaps he was the Lady of the Mangroves' husband - Guardian of Mudskippers.

A fiddler crab
shows its big hand.
With intermittent typhoons and electricity running only between 6pm and 10pm, there's often long stretches of time here where there's nothing to do, unless you're happy to get drenched. I'm more than happy to get drenched, but my camera hates it. I spent most of my time in Sabang playing Chess with a guy called Terry, from Belgium. We played against the Filippinos who play fast and seemingly with no strategy. Their game is practiced and instinctual - far from the classical European way of playing, with games typically taking a matter of minutes. Terry, a keen Chess player, took on a local kid (who must have been 16 years old) and lost within ten minutes.

Today I took a six-hour van ride to El Nido, in the north of Palawan. The rain continues to fall massively.

Mangroves in Sabang.
Mangrove monitor lizard in Sabang.

Sunday, 22 July 2012


I had always associated Singapore with Singapore chow mein, and not a lot else. Ironic really, as you'd have a hard time finding chow mein here. 

I arrived in Singapore a week ago without a guide book and with no real preconceptions. I left yesterday with great impressions. It's fair to say that Singapore is a city of contrast. Lofty Soviet-esque buildings tower over its suburbs, whilst the centre is a model of modernity, with fancy-schmancy restaurants and shopping malls, world-class infrastructure, and hotels that defy belief. 

'Gardens by the Bay' sitting pretty in
front of Marina Bay Sands resort.
The Marina Bay Sands resort stands as an architectural masterpiece. I can only imagine the scene at the city council's planning committee meeting when an inspired architect suggested building a 57-story hotel with a mock ship on the top. It's a city of opulence and magnificence. I was fortunate to visit shortly after the 'Gardens by the Bay' opened - the result of an initiative by the Singapore government to creat a "city in a garden". To think I come from a town where it's a matter of debate whether local government can afford new hanging baskets!

It's easy to navigate the city by foot, but the MRT (underground) is cheap, simple to use and offers air-conditioning. Food here is spectacular. It's mostly fusion food; from what I gather it's hard to put a finger on what exactly counts as Singaporean food. You can get dosas and biryani from Little India, unnamed bowls of bizarreness from Chinatown, kebabs and gözleme in Arab Street, Laksa and Nasi Lemak from ubiquitous Malay food stands, mei goreng, soto ayam, dim sim, satay, seafood, sushi.. The list goes on and on.

Four days in Singapore was ample to get a feel for the place, but I left feeling I could easily spend a couple of weeks there - if only to loiter in food courts and people watch in shopping malls. It's cosmopolitan, and people here are friendly, easygoing and, for the most part, well-dressed.

A highlight was seeing the nightly display put on at the bayfront - Southeast Asia's 'largest light and water show'. Set to an orchestral soundtrack, the display uses electric light, laser effects and a series or water fountains to create staggering visuals, with the sparkling city skyline as a backdrop.

I also went to see Batman, which was pretty good, and found myself watching the Asia Global Bellydance competition at a shopping mall in Bugis Junction, around the corner from my hostel in Arab Street, a backpacker hub.

Next stop: Manila

A dancer at the Asia Global Belly Dance competition.
A dancer at the Asia Global Belly Dance competition.
Lights and water display at the marina.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012


In a similar vein to New York City's nickname, the 'Big Apple', Jakarta has a fruity sobriquet. People call Jakarta the 'Big Durian' because, like its namesake, it is an absolute stinker.

Jakarta's official metropolitan area is the second largest in the world. Approaching the city by train is a brilliant way to get a feel for the immensity of the place. Rice paddies are slowly dotted with shacked houses and tin roofed huts, which gradually multiply into shanty towns, which themselves progress to vast slums, carved up by canals, roads, and improvised rubbish tips. This goes on for a surprisingly long time, before high-rise buildings emerge in the distance and bridges and parks begin to hare past the train window in a haze of smog.

And when you finally arrive at Gambira Terminal, in the city centre, the view pretty much smashes you in the face. Passengers step off the train onto an elevated platform looking over Medan Merdeka Park - a square kilometer area with Indonesia's National Monument sitting in the middle, and Jakarta's magnitude stretching away from it.

I only spent a day in Jakarta. My mission was to find a guidebook for the Philippines so I can start making some plans. Jakarta's high-end plazas ooze swank. I would go to the extent of even saying I felt a little uncomfortable in Plaza Senayan, dawdling past plush Louis Vitton and Gucci facades in my sweat-stained Beatles t-shirt* and unkept beard (beard trimmers broke in Bali; refuse to buy another). 

*[Sidenote: this t-shirt is a stalwart of my travels, being one of the few items I still have that I left with back in December 2010. To offer a suitable context, I have had to buy two new sets of nail clippers in this time, around a dozen pairs of fake Ray Bans, the same number of earphones, several pairs of sandals, and half a dozen beard trimming sets.]

Anyway, on that bombshell, I'm now in Singapore.

Ocek drivers in Jakarta.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Malang and Yogyakarta

At 1am this morning I was woken by my room moving. I considered the possibility that the pills I had taken before I went to bed last night were giving me some exciting side-effects and then realised I was experiencing a minor earthquake. The quakes lasted for only a few seconds but were great enough to wake me.

I'm in my hotel room in Yogyakarta, feeling a bit stale. I've left it only twice in the last couple of days - once to get some medicine and the second time to stock up on pears and crisps. Fortunately, the illness I've had seems to be subsiding in time for my train journey to Jakarta tomorrow.

My sleep patterns in Java have been erratic, waking up at early hours to take volcano and temple tours. In Yogyakarta, I have been woken up at 3.30am every morning by the Adhan (call to prayer). There are several minarets around my hotel - each of which summon everybody from their sleep by blasting prayers through a PA system. The nearby calls are echoed by more distant calls, producing a cacophonous drone that penetrates my earplugs and wakes me with alarm, like Allah is Himself giving me the religious equivalent of a 'wet willy'. What a prankster!

I ended up staying in Malang for three days. Malang, dubbed by locals as the "Paris of East Java", is one of the island's more affluent cities, with many students and an expat community. Its wide leafy streets and recreational spaces give the city a small-town feel to it. Many houses and public buildings in the centre date back to Indonesia's period of Dutch colonization, but the shanty towns that line the rivers and railway tracks running through the city's suburbia are a better portrayal of Java's ongoing development.

Snakes at Taman Rekreasi Senaputra.
On Sunday morning I visited the Taman Rekreasi Senaputra - a recreational 'park' where locals congregate at weekends. There's a public swimming pool, some play equipment, a little restaurant and on Sunday mornings a local dance ensemble perform Kuda Lumping ('horse dance'). The traditional dance comprises young boys pretending to be horses, dancing themselves into a spiritual trance that eventually allows them to perform extraordinary feats like eating shards of broken glass. I went along, not really knowing what to expect, so was surprised to see the performers, some of whom must have been only four or five years old, did in fact eat bits of glass after reaching the necessary state of horse-trance. Another highlight was an exhibition of big snakes which were being fearlessly patted and caressed by Javanese toddlers.

The rest of my time in Malang was spent wandering around somewhat aimlessly and perusing the many markets. One market, Pasar Senggol, consists of birds and owls crammed into tiny cages, fish and turtles hopelessly nosing at bags and bottles, and lizards clawing at vivarium corners.

I took an overnight minibus from Malang to Yogyakarta. Amusingly, the travel agent who sold me the ticket wrote on it: "Leave at 8pm - never on time." And he was right - I waited two and half hours for the minibus to arrive which in retrospect is baffling as I was, unusually, the only person on the bus. I was glad it left late though as it meant I arrived in Yogyakarta at around 6am the next morning - late enough to be able to check in somewhere rather than wait around in the dark.

Kopi Luwak in Yogyakarta.
Yogyakarta is commonly referred to as the cultural centre of Java. It's a lively, vibrant and busy little city that was, once upon a time, the Indonesian capital. These days, it is the archipelago's second most visited tourist centre, after Bali.

Besides waking up in the early hours of each morning thinking I've drifted into the Koran, my five days here have been packed out. I caught sunrise at Borobudur - the biggest Buddhist monument in the world, saw a performance of the Ramayana ballet at Prambanan - the largest Hindu temple in Indonesia, visited the remarkable Beringharjo market - a vast, dimly-lit bustling market in the centre of the city, drank Kopi Luwak - the 'most expensive coffee in the world', visited a Sultan's palace, a 'water castle', and the zoo.

Just as I feel I'm getting to grips with some basic Bahasa Indonesia (I can count to ten, greet people, ask directions and say 'I don't understand'), it is almost time to leave. The basics have been surprisingly straightforward to grasp. Perhaps surprisingly, due to the sheer population numbers in Indonesia, Bahasa Indonesia is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. It's a non-tonal language, doesn't use tenses, and doesn't incorporate plurals into grammar.. For instance, there is a vegetable dish here called 'Gado Gado' which, technically, translates as 'some Gado'. Instead of having a plural version, the word is simply repeated. This has some amusing results for words such as 'butterfly', which is 'kupu-kupu' in Bahasa Indonesia - the plural being 'kupu-kupu kupu-kupu'. Another quirk is in greeting people. The  language has no specific equivalent to "hello", but instead uses greetings specific to the time of day; "Selamat Pagi" before 11am, "Selamat Siang" until 2pm, "Selamat Sore" 3pm to 6pm and "Selamat Malam" after dark. You'll notice there is no greeting allocated for the hour between 2pm and 3pm. As 2pm approaches, Indonesia's streets grow quiet as panic-stricken locals go inside to avoid awkward social contact. Those who have business to attend to avoid all conversation, or simply pretend they don't know what the time is.

Anyway, I will have one full day in Jakarta before flying to Singapore on Tuesday.

Sunrise at Borobudur. 
Street art in Yogyakarta.
Billy Goat at the zoo.
Ramayana ballet performer at Prambanan. 
Pasar Beringharjo, Yogyakarta.
An orangutan shares his thoughts on life in capitivity.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Ijen and Bromo

I'm sat in my room for the night - a 'bamboo gazebo' on a roof in Malang - eating the best pear of my life. The label on it, excitingly, says 'Golden Pear' which is, if anything, an understatement. I remember seeing the very same type of pear - huge, round and light green - in an IGA store round the corner from where I lived in South Perth but they were ridiculously expensive (around £3 each). I would occasionally sneak one into a bag of similar looking Granny Smiths. But those pears weren't as good as this pear.

I've spent five days in Java and I feel like I've got a million things to write about.

Wednesday turned out to be an arduous day of travel. A bemo from Ubud to Denpasar, another bemo to the other side of the city, a minibus from Denpasar to Gilimanuk in the west of Bali, a ferry from Gilimanuk to Ketapang, in Java, and then an ocek (motorcycle taxi) to Banyuwangi. Transport here is slow, and the public transport network can sometimes feel convoluted. As mentioned in a previous post, bemos - the cornerstone of Indonesia's transport system - must be full of passengers before they leave for their destination. This can quite literally take several hours. I've learnt that, if I intend to travel more than 50 kilometres I must wake up early - just incase the journey takes all day.

I checked into a place called Hotel Baru, in Banyuwangi, where I bumped into a French couple who I ended up sharing a jeep with the following morning to Ijen. There wasn't much sleep that night, with the jeep picking us up at the hotel at 4am. It took around an hour to ascend Ijen and then an hour and a half hike to reach the caldera, at the bottom of which is a one-kilometer-wide turquoise-coloured acid crater lake.

Sulphur miner at Kawah Ijen.
Ijen is home to a Chinese-owned sulphur mining operation. Sulpher-laden wicker baskets are lugged by hand from the crater floor by miners. A single load can weigh as much as 100kg. It's backbreaking work. Some of the miners have skin lesions on their shoulders, spinal disfigurements, and faces worn through years of grimacing. One of the miners showed me his hands, which were heavily creased with thick skin from gripping wicker. To add to their woes, from mid-morning, heat rages from the sun and dense sulphur fumes engulf them as they harvest. It's a colourful, beautiful and wretched affair. The men earn around 50,000RS - 75,000RS per day and once out of the crater, still need to carry the sulphur to the nearby Pultuding valley - three kilometres away - to get paid.

Whilst mooching around the caldera, a group of miners hurried past carrying one of their colleagues whose body was limp and whose face had blood flowing from it. Supposedly, he had collapsed from exhaustion and bashed his head as he fell. Emelie, one half of the French couple I was with, donated some cakes she had to the crowd of miners around a little wooden hut he was taken to. It goes without saying that there are no medical facilities in Kawah Ijen, and I have no doubt there is any sort of a workers' union. It was sobering to observe the drudgery these people go through to make a living.

Java's topography has given me a fresh burst of motivation. It may sound bratty of me to say so, but lately I've been growing tired of looking at rice paddies and temples. Riding the ferry across the Bali Strait, Java's snaggy contours were dramatic and new to me as the island approached. Since arriving, volcanoes have become a permanent fixture in the corner of my vision during waking hours. Here in Malang, I step out of my bamboo gazebo to a view of Gunung Semeru - the highest volcano in Java.

A couple of bemo and ocek rides took me from Banyuwangi to Probolingo, where I took a two hour bemo ride to Cemoro Lawang, a small town to the north-east of Mount Bromo. Unknowingly, I had timed my trip to Bromo terribly. Cemero Lawang was chockablock with tourists. It was the first weekend of the school holidays and the beginning of the high season.

Room in Cemoro Lawang.
The hotels suggested by Lonely Planet have obviously hiked their prices severely since the latest edition, published in 2010. I visited a couple of them - Cafe Lava Hotel and Cemara Indah Hotel - and (partly due to cheaper rooms being booked out) the cheapest bed I could get was 400,000RS. Knowing that I would be getting up at 3.30am to tour Bromo anyway, comfort wasn't a priority so I settled on a room I found for 110,000RS (£6.90) in a nameless guest house down the hill a bit. With the special exception of the Salvation Army's Red Shield House in Mumbai (the stuff of nightmares), it was probably the worst room I've found myself in. A dirty, cold, damp box with a bed and a couple of native cockroaches. But it would do.

Busy at Bromo.
The tour was great, but marred by the sheer number of other people there. I, and several hundred others, arrived at Peak Pananjakan (2,600m) just before sunrise. Unfortunately, it was impossible to get to the best viewpoints because they had already been taken by others. The view I settled for was still spectacular though - an infinite expanse of cloud with Gunung Semeru peaking through in the distance. The jeep then headed to Bromo itself, where tourists can climb (rather, sweat and pant their way up several hundred steps) to the crater rim and look in. The landscapes around Bromo were otherworldly. With my lack of sleep, the whole experience was pretty ethereal.

Just as impressive as the Bromo tour was my journey back to Probolingo from Cemoro Lawang. After waiting about for a bemo for around an hour, and becoming frustrated at the lack thereof, I decided to take an ocek. The hour long ride downhill was a little hairy - the bike struggling to balance with the driver, me, and my two bags as it negotiated hair-pin bends. The driver insisted I stop for a coffee at his village along the way, which we did. Java's strong, black Aribica coffee is cheap and available everywhere. It's a great brew.

The plan was to head from Probolingo to Yogyakarta until I discovered it would take a nine hour bus ride (which would, in reality, probably be about 12 or 13 hours). So I decided to head to Malang instead - a bearable two hour (actually, four and a half) journey.

Waiting for sunrise at Bromo.
Jean, a miner, Emelie and I hiking to Kawah Ijen.
Acid lake at Kawah Ijen.
Skin lesions.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Ubud, Bali

Well, bud bugs have got me in the face. A midnight ambush at Losmen Semeru Hotel, in Makassar, left me with a forehead so bumpy that when I run my fingers across it I can decipher several profanities in braille. The bites feel no different to mosquito bites, of which I also have plenty, but can be distinguished by the way they are clustered together, like a dermatological version of the Himalayas. Fortunately, they have now eased and my face is well on its way to looking normal again. Or, at least, the way it looked before.

Wearing my custom-made
elephant t-shirt in my bathroom.
I've spent the last three days in Ubud. I only scheduled two days here but I had to wait an extra day to pick up a t-shirt with an elephant hand-painted on it which I had commissioned over the weekend. That, and the fact that I like it here. It feels like I'm on holiday. I've been eating nice food, drinking smoothies and strawberry Fanta, buying cheap handicrafts, and going to watch traditional dance performances each night.

Ubud's a busy little place. It has a reputation for being the hub of Bali's booming arts scene. Makeshift studios corner the town's junctions and lurk amid antique shops and chic boutiques. The smell of nag champa attests to the town's boho vibe, which camouflages itself in a thousand wooden variations of Siddartha Gautama and beads of steam that drip from pots of jasmin tea. Coffee shops buzz next to gelato stands, and tanned Australian tourists wear yoga costumes and hippy trousers, temporarily embracing the new age before returning to their 9-5's. Expat advertisers are nestled amongst the Bali Daily and Jakarta Post in art cafe newspaper racks. Ubud is very touristy, but it's tourism done well.

The main attraction in Ubud is the Monkey Forest which, according to the local tourist office, attracts over 10,000 visitors each month. I walked to the entry gate, on the outskirts of town, and peered in. Next to the ticket office is a big sign advising visitors what to do if a monkey grabs something of theirs or, even worse, gets on them. Beyond the gate, I bould see a macaque loitering with intent on a wall. This was enough for me to put my wallet back in my pocket and turn around. The opportunity to trade 10,000IDR for time with the hairy little terror-imps suddenly became one I knew I must turn down.

Traditional Balinese Kecap dance.
In terms of cultural activities, I have gone on a bit of a traditional dance bender. For the past three evenings I have been to a different dance. On Sunday evening I went to see Legong dancers in Ubud Palace, on Monday I saw a Kecak dance performance in a nearby village, and this evening I enjoyed the retelling of the Ramayana. I could go on and on about the dances, which were all absolutely brilliant and great fun to watch, but I have to go to bed now as I have an early morning tomorrow.

My goal is to be somewhere near Kawah Ijen, in Java, at some point tomorrow evening. If this works out, hopefully on Thursday I'll be able to hike up to Gunung Merapi - the largest lake of acid on Earth, which happens to atop a volcano.

A Legong dancer.
Another Legong dancer.
And another one.