I’ve got a brand new blog all about life in New Zealand (yes, Andy and I moved to New Zealand… yes, we’re still together… yes, we got married. We’ve got so much to catch up on). Come and join me over there at http://thisupsidedownlife.blogspot.co.nz/
Gah! I’ve gone and done exactly what I promised I wouldn’t do – namely, get very behind again on this blog. There’s no new excuse, only the old one – that I’m having such a tremendous time in Malaysia, having fallen hook, line and sinker for the place. So, with the help of my trusty sidekick Andy who is without doubt both the memory and the brains of this operation, I’m now going to cast my mind far, far back in the mists of time to see what I was doing about six weeks ago…
Back when we lived in Argentina, one of our favourite long weekend escapes from the sometimes overwhelming city that is BA was to Bariloche. Up in the mountains, the air was cool, the food was fondue, the architecture Swiss and the dogs St. Bernards. Here in Malaysia, feeling the need to have some respite from the heat and noise and swirling mass of humanity that is KL, we decided to make a similar break, up to the Cameron Highlands. Like a lot of Asian countries that were once colonised, Malaysia has a few of these hill stations knocking around, giving a glimpse into the past and a different stance on life.
Most people get the bus, but we’re not most people. Instead, we took the train. Slightly slower, but infinitely better for the environment, and more relaxing than the bus, the train was clean, efficient, and freezing cold, having the air con turned up full whack. Luckily we were prepared for this, and dug fleeces out of our bags as the train trundled towards Ipoh. Even though Ipoh is one of the biggest cities in Malaysia, we definitely got the impression that not too many tourists passed through that way – leaving the massive colonial railway station, we were faced with a town that was definitely pleasant, but absolutely not touristy. Our first stop was the bus station, where we bought our tickets for the Cameron Highlands for a bus leaving in a couple of hours, with only minimal hassle from the local madman (story of my life – I’ve got one of those faces), and set off for something to eat.
Normally, I’m the kind of person who shudders at the thought of a British pub abroad, conjuring up in my mind the horrors of Benidorm with its all day English breakfast (gaaaaaaah), but there was a place in Ipoh that sounded intriguing. Called the Miner’s Arms, it immediately resonated with both Andy and me, both of us having grown up in old mining towns. We trundled off with our backpacks, and soon enough, a very authentic-looking pub sign swung into view.
After a swift drink and sandwich in the mining-town-meets-cowboy-town interior, we headed back to the bus station, where I popped a travel sickness tablet and prayed for sleep – the road up to the highlands was notoriously twisty, hell on earth for a motion sickness sufferer.
When I woke, it was just in time to see us ascending into the clouds – that’s how high we’d climbed. The air con on the bus was still on, but probably not necessary. As soon as we arrived in the Highlands and stepped off the bus, we realised we were literally in another world, needing to layer up and cover up from the rain that would constantly accompany us for the next day. We got a room easily enough, but it was a room that damp and chill seemed to seep into from all round, and I don’t think either of us felt properly warm all the time we were there. It was sufficiently cold for me to indulge in a hot chocolate when we went out for a walk that night.
The next day, we’d booked on a tour of the surrounding area – we’d normally steer clear of these, but without your own transport, seeing an area like the Highlands becomes nigh on impossible. The first stop was an incredibly cheesy rose garden, replete with tacky statues and Disney-esque buildings. Second was a strawberry farm. Now, strawberries seem these days to provide the Highlands with their whole raison d’etre – everything, and I mean everything, is strawberry themed. There are levels of strawberry-themed tourist souvenirs that you never thought possible. Amazingly, I restrained myself and only went for a strawberry magnet to add to my fridge collection. The strawberry farm was less than interesting – the strawberry milkshakes made up for this, though, and were tasty and fresh and sweet and everything you want from a milkshake. The highlight of the day was a trip to the Boh Tea Plantation, providing tea for most of Malaysia. Interesting to see, and drinking a cup of tea in the cafe there, looking out at the hills on which it was grown is a good thing to do.
We chilled out – literally – for the rest of the day, and in the evening, headed for a Steamboat restaurant. These are local specialities that crop up in certain towns, and involve a pot of simmering broth brought to your table, along with massive platefuls of raw ingredients that you cook in the broth and then eat. We got it completely wrong, much to the chagrin of the owner who kept having to put us right, but we had marvellous fun, and ate like kings.
We set off early the next morning, not too upset to be leaving the Cameron Highlands – beautiful though it was, a couple of days out of the sun had heightened my need to be back in the warmth, and also it was the only place in Malaysia that we found the people to be less than delightfully charming – every other Malaysian blames this on the fact that they are cold and damp all the time up there – and plus, I was very, very excited to be heading for Penang. Back to the island lifestyle…
Back in Nepal, we were reading our emails when Andy suddenly yelped and jumped a mile. No, it’s not one of his quirks; he’d just read an email from his brother Paul, casually dropping into the conversation that he and his wife Kenya were going on holiday to Kuala Lumpur within the next few weeks. After a short bout of email tennis (not helped by the time difference), we worked out a schedule whereby we could meet up with them, albeit just for one night. Our original plan was to travel south through Thailand, and then go by boat to the islands at the north west coast of Malaysia; instead, we would fly to Kuala Lumpur (or KL as we now call it in true jetsetting style), then reverse our schedule. Totally doable, and totally worth it to see big bro Jones and Mrs McKenzie-Jones.
Even though we were going from one big city (Bangkok) to another, there was stil an innate sense of excitement that comes from going to a completely new place. I only knew one person who’d been, and she’d come back with glowing reports (well, one at the time – it since transpires that my lovely friend Doireann from my last backpacking expedition has been here). It was new territory for us, but one that I was very excited about getting to. Due to its long, complex history that I will now clumsily attempt to narrow down to just one sentence, Malaysia has three large ethnic communities – Chinese, India, and Malay – each contributing massive amounts to the culture, architecture, customs, and (yay, yay and thrice yay) the food. We navigated our way easily enough from the airport on the fast, clean, cool (as in cold, we weren’t down with da kidz) airport express train, and after only a slight amount of driving round back streets, managed to get our taxi driver to take us to Back Home Hostel, a new hostel in China Town getting rave reviews. We didn’t have time straight away to check it out, we just had time to dump our stuff in the dorm room (the one downside to KL is expensive rooms, so back to the dorm for us), me to grab my new *cough* authentic Hermes handbag – listen, you would have too, when you hear where Paul and Kenya were staying – and work our way via the multiple confusing mass transit systems in KL to the RitzCarlton. Yep, that’s the RITZCARLTON. And we were in a backpackers. As Kelvin, the manager of the hostel asked Andy, “So, your brother’s in the RitzCarlton… dude, what went wrong?”
Feeling massively out of place but not letting this stop us, we waltzed in, up to the desk, and asked if they could call the room of Paul Jones to let him know we were here. After some checking, “Um sorry, there is no Paul Jones staying here”. Oh, it’ll be booked in Kenya’s name then. Can you try Kenya McKenzie, or Kenya Jones, or Kenya McKenzie-Jones? “Nope, sorry, no one by that name either”. Just as we had visions of them holed up in another Ritz somewhere on the other side of the city, I fortunately had one last brainwave. Paul is actually his middle name – the name on his birth certificate and, presumably his passport, is John. “Yes, we have a John Jones”. We held our breath while they called him – thankfully it was the right one. We had a wonderfully happy and emotional reunion with them, and then they led us to the holy grail, the bar in their hotel, where the cocktails were cold and the air con was colder.
The night continued much in the same vein – after more cocktails at their hotel, we had the guided tour of their wonderful place – plush doesn’t even come close to it – and nicked all their lovely freebies before hopping in a taxi, and all four of us heading to the Sky Bar at Traders Hotel, a wonderful bar in itself, even before you throw in the top notch views of the famous KL Petronas Twin Towers.
We finished up in there a good few cocktails to the wind – Raspberry Mojitos! If that’s not a drink of the gods, I don’t know what is – and headed for food, before Paul realised he’d lost his phone, somewhere along the way. We started desperately calling it and texting it, all to no avail. Unsurprisingly, it put a dampner on the evening, and we made one final trip back to the bar to see if it was there, but unfortunately it wasn’t. To save you worrying, and to cut a long story short, I’ll tell you now that, luckily, it was handed back to him the next day. We couldn’t quite get the full story, as the people returning it didn’t speak very much English, but suffice to say it’s yet another example that there are more good people in the world than bad.
Unfortunately, all too soon, the time came for us to say goodbye to the McKenzie-Joneses, as they were at the end of their holiday. The goodbyes were just as sad as last time, but with the silver lining that comes from such a serendipitous meeting; that we were in the same city at all was a wonderful, unexpected bonus, and although goodbye is always sad, surely this shows us that you never, ever know when you might see someone again. Perhaps it will be much sooner than you anticipated.
So, all alone in the vast metropolis that is Kuala Lumpur, what to do? We’d seen that there was a hop-on, hop-off shuttle bus around the major tourist sights, and so many factors led us to this option; it is scorching hot in Malaysia right now, with humidity in the high 90%s (yet another good hair day chez moi), KL is massive, and it’s also a pedestrian nightmare, with highways running right through the middle and crazy traffic, and it would save on us getting taxis or buses or monorails or undergrounds (with a separate ticket required for each leg of the journey, it seems that KLs public transport planners have been in conference with Manchester but that’s another soap box for another day…).
Our first stop was the bird park, where we spent a couple of hot but happy hours wandering round and admiring the many beautiful birds in this free-flying aviary
before heading off on the next bus to Merdeka Square, symbolic in particular as this was the site where Malaysia’s independence was delcared in 1957, and the day we visited was shortly before Independence Day. Old Colonial buildings surround the square, including the Church of St Mary, looking for all the world like an English country village church, private clubs, and a central field, used by the Brits in their time as a cricket pitch. It’s a wonderful place to see the many facets of modern Malaysian life, all shoulder to shoulder around this significant square.
After all this tramping about in the heat, our feet were weary and throbbing, so we bit the bullet and tried something that Paul and Kenya had told us about… a fish spa. Yep, you read it right, a fish spa. Does what it says on the tin, folks. Basically, you put your feet into a tank of water and lots of small fish come and nibble the dead skin off your feet. Sounds strange? It was. Possibly the most bizarre thing I’ve ever done (and a quick read through some old blog entries should confirm I’ve done some pretty strange things). For a committed sharkophobe, even this was a freaky step too far, and there was a moment after I put my feet in and the first nibbles were taking place, I thought I wouldn’t be able to carry on. But strangely, you get used to it, and it becomes almost theraputic. And my feet at the end of it were soft as a baby’s bottom.
The next morning, bouncing out of bed with feet as soft as marshmallows (am I making my point strongly enough?) we were up bright and early, ready to join a queue. The Petronas Towers gives out a few thousand tickets each day to go up to the skybridge in between the two, and although these tickets were only valid for 10 minutes at the top, they were free, and the backpacker in me couldn’t let a chance like this slip away. Although we were dubious about the size of the queue, after being the only two people in the queue at the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu, we were still there by about 8.15am. And were we glad that we were – even by that time, the queue was massive, so long that we were starting to doubt we’d even get tickets. Fortunately, more people flooded in behind us, so not being the last in the queue somehow brings a small bit of comfort. You are given a fixed time for the tour, and an electronic display shows what time tickets were being distributed for, in order of first come, first served. Our bets were on 3pm, but we’d done better than we anticipated, as we were given tickets for 12 noon. We filled the time in between leaving the queue and the tour by enjoying the mega mall at the bottom of the towers (malls are something that Malaysia does better than anywhere I’ve ever been – more in the next entry), and, after a short propaganda film by Petronas, the owners of the towers, all about THE WONDER THAT IS PETROL, we were heading up in a lift so quick and so advanced my ears didn’t even have time to pop.
The views from the top were stunning, and it was FREE, but the 10 minutes at the top went by way too quickly, and there was only enough time to snap a few photos.
Still, it was something pretty memorable and special, and I’d still recommend it to anyone going to KL. Did I mention it was free?
Another attraction at the bottom of the towers is the KL Aquarium. Last time I went to an Aquarium it was in Sydney, and my Shark Phobia was in full swing, so I was interested to guage my reaction this time. I’d had hypnotherapy (no laughing at the back) just before I came away to cure me of this daft thing that has plagued me on my travels, limiting the things I’d allow myself to do. I genuinely felt no fear, even as we watched divers get into the pool and feed the sharks. It was looking promising, but would only be tested fully when I was at the sea.
My trio of fishy encounters was complete later that evening. Malaysia’s food is best sampled at hawker stalls, plastic tabled, plastic chaired stalls that were set up on every street, each with a different speciality, most serving the cheapest beer in town, all with a fantastic atmosphere, being equally populated by locals and tourists, slurping up the amazing food and soaking up the atmosphere. One street in particular in KL is known as food street, and it was here that we headed later that night. I was finally able to satisfy my seafood craving -nothing at all to do with visiting the aquarium, honest – by having some of the most delicious salt and pepper squid I’d ever had.
A good way to end an altogether fishy couple of days.
“More whisky!” shouted the row of guys sitting in front of us for the (thankfully shortish) flight from Delhi to Bangkok. Before we’d even set off. Yep, we had the good fortune to be sitting on the second row from the back, directly behind the Delhi equivalent of the lads’ weekend away in Amsterdam – the lads’ weekend away in Bangkok. Before we’d left the tarmac, they’d exhausted the air stewards (who coped with it all with remarkable patience and tact) with their toddler-like instant demands for whisky. OK, I know most toddler’s don’t drink that much whisky, what I mean is they way they were demanding attention and drinks NOW was reminiscent of toddlers. The poor people behind us were suffering even more, being on the non-reclining back row. As a goodwill gesture, we promised not to recline our seats, but unfortunately the whisky drinkers in front of us didn’t think that far ahead, so before long their heads were virtually in our laps. Again, this was all before take off, they blatantly ignoring the safety instructions to have their seat upright.
It got better, too. We’d pre-ordered a veggie meal, thinking safer is better than sorry when it comes to airline food but as the flight was at 1am I was pretty dead on my feet, so decided just to try to get some sleep. Evidently though, the pre-ordering system for Jet Airways meals sucks, as by the time they got round to serving us, they were fresh out of veggie meals. I said it was ok, I just wanted water and some sleep, at which point the air hostess turned into an Indian version of Mrs Doyle, “Please have something. Will you eat a chicken meal? How about some fruit? Some wine?” but I declined, still optimistic that sleep would come. Andy was hungry, and said we’d ordered a veggie meal. “Will you not have chicken?” “No, I’m vegetarian”. “Do not worry, we will find something for you”. Five minutes later, he’s presented with a tofu sandwich. Not being a lover of tofu, he did a remarkable job of getting through it. Followed 5 minutes later, triumphantly, with a full veggie meal. He was pretty full by now but following the hoopla it took to get it, felt obliged to eat it, but implored me to help him out. I managed a couple of mouthfuls of lentils before we had to scrunch the tinfoil back on top and make it look like more had been eaten. He washed it down with a glass of red wine, wrapped in a serviette as the lads weekenders had been told no more alcohol was being served by that point. All very hush hush. I felt even sorrier for the girl on the row behind, who was a Coeliac and had ordered a gluten-free meal – again, it hadn’t got through. Shame really, we’ve now flown four times with Jet Airways and it was the only flight that let them down. Sort the meals out, Jet!
No sleep came, so we passed the time playing “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” on the entertainment system, and too late, started to watch a film, “I Love You Man”, which had us both in fits of laughter. If you’ve seen it, no spoilers please, as we landed before it was finished.
Navigating Bangkok’s new airport was no trouble, they have wonderful walkways everywhere and a pre-paid taxi stand, always a blessing when you arrive in a new city and have no idea how much anything should cost anywhere. We collapsed into the lovely aircon taxi, and were both out for the count within minutes, missing out on the lengthy commute into Bangkok city centre. We were woken up by our lovely driver when we arrived at our first guest house, Asha. “OK, Suttisarn Road, no more sleep!”
Maybe not for him, but for us, sleep deprived and exhausted, definitely more sleep. We fell into a deep sleep and woke up, did a full load of washing (god bless hotels with washing machines) and set out, excited to explore the city. We’d both passed through Bangkok before but neither of us really took to it – it was just a stepping stone on the way to other, more exciting places. However this time, it was like seeing it through new eyes. Suddenly, Bangkok was prosperous, clean, and, dare I say it, very tame compared to Kathmandu and Delhi. Plus, after a few weeks of Nepalese and Indian curries, Thai food tasted fresh and new. We spent the day mooching round the shops, stocking up on essentials, and visiting the Patpong night market, slap bang in the middle of the red light district – now more a tourist attraction than anything.
We bought our souvenirs, and just generally enjoyed being in a new city. I went to bed refreshed and excited about the day to come.
I woke up the next day one whole year older. It’s the second time I’ve had my birthday away from home, the first time being back in Sydney in 2006 when I turned 30. First thing, I opened all my cards (thank you everyone) and presents (thank you everyone), and commented on Andy’s good taste as he’d picked out a pashmina in exactly the right shade for me – almost as if I’d picked it myself We had plenty of fun planned, and as soon as we’d had breakfast at the guest house, we got on with packing, as we were moving to a wonderful, plush hotel, the Park Plaza.
And what a delight it was – we got a welcome drink (never get that at a backpacker hostel), the staff were attentive, our room was A-MA-ZING, with a power shower, the biggest bed I’ve seen in my life, an elephant-origami-towel thing on the bed, and wonderful views over the city. If you’re heading to Bangkok and want a recommendation, go there. And for 45 pounds a night it was a real bargain.
We spent a few minutes rejoicing in our surroundings, before getting our cozzies on and heading on to the rooftop pool. And that was pretty much how I spent the day of my birthday – aren’t I the luckiest girl in the world?
We started the evening off with a celebratory mojito, and then I got a call from Reception to see what time I wanted my birthday cake! They’d clocked it was my birthday on the way in, and, sweet things that they were, they brought me up a fab chocolate cheesecake. Unfortunately, just before we went out it started to POUR down, the monsoon starting a bit earlier than usual, so Part II of our plans (cocktails on a roof bar) would be put on hold – but fear not, gentle reader, they will appear soon enough in my story – however, Part I – fab dinner – could go ahead as planned. My friend Elephant Apple (long story…) had recommended an Aussie-owned restaurant called Eat Me, closeish to the Patpong Market, and it was there that we headed. And what a good call it was, thanks so much EA. Wonderful surroundings, we sat outside (undercover, it was still raining), and stuffed ourselves silly on wonderful warm bread and olive oil, duck confit, and apple pie. A pretty perfect birthday meal for me.
And to crown the night off completely, we wandered back to the market, where the night before I’d fallen in love with a bag. I know, it’s just not me at all – shoes yes, bags I can give or take. But this particular bag I’d wanted for as long as I can remember – a Hermes Kelly bag, designed for and named after Grace Kelly. I know other bags are far, far more fashionable right now, but anyone who knows me will know that I’m not exactly a dedicated follower of fashion, I have my own style and when I fall in love with things, that’s it. I’d hummed and ahhed over it, decided to sleep on it, and woke up knowing it would be my birthday present to myself. Now for those of you frantically googling Hermes Kelly Bag and seeing sums of between 7,000 and 80,000 dollars, fear not, I definitely got a knock-off, but a very good knock off, and I love it just as much as if it was the real deal.
Clutching my new bag, and delighted with my day, we headed back to the hotel. And once again, in a strange city on the other side of the world from most of my nearest and dearest, the star of the day is Andy, who spoiled me even more than usual, giving me once again a real birthday to remember.
We knew that after Nepal, we wanted to head down towards the south of Asia, through Malaysia and Indonesia before hitting Australia, and the easiest transport hub to head for was Bangkok. However, after a bit of googling, direct fares from Kathmandu to Bangkok were out of budget. After even more googling (I love how ‘to google’ has become a verb), we found a cheaper way to do it – a flight to Delhi, followed by a flight to Bangkok. And after a final bout of googling (don’t worry, it really is the last mention, I’m just trying to get some sponsorship is all), we found that to do this, we would need a transit visa, allowing us a little bit more time in the country that technically shouldn’t be used for tourism but hey, when Delhi is just a 2.5 hour train ride away from Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal, what’s a girl to do but encourage her boyfriend to have a whistlestop tour to the world’s most beautiful building?
Luckily, he didn’t need too much persuading and so we found ourselves, transit visa in passport, on the very plush Shatabdi Express heading for Agra. To make it even more special, it was our 3 year anniversary, possibly. I say ‘possibly’ because we can’t actually agree when our anniversary is, having different ideas of what constitutes a date, apparently. Fortunately for us, and possibly the reason we are actually celebrating 3 years together, this is one of the few things we disagree on. We get therefore to pick a date each year, and the day when we were going to see the Taj Mahal, the iconic monument to love, seemed very apt. The Indian Railway system agreed with us, and presented us (all of us in the carriage, not just us two – that WOULD have been service) with a rose. Possibly the most random item I’ve ever been presented with on a train, but I certainly wasn’t complaining, especially as this rose was followed by the day’s papers and a very ‘hearty’ (to use the local terminology) breakfast. Makes getting a 6.15am train all worthwhile. The journey passed like a dream, fortunately – when Mum and her cousin Irene visited India a couple of years ago that same train was delayed by 6.5 hours, which would certainly have put our ‘lightening visit’ plans under considerable strain.
We got to Agra and managed to find a tuk tuk driver who would take us to our hotel with only the slightest amount of coercion to stay at another hotel owned by, surprise surprise, his brother. “Your hotel a long way from Agra, you know that? Well, your holiday, your choice. I guess.” The hotel turned out to be fine – budget for sure, but still fine, within 10 minutes’ walk of the Taj, which was where we headed straight away, despite the scorching midday heat.
Now I did post another blog entry all about my first visit to this amazing building, so re-read that if you want the descriptions, although a million words and a million photos could never convey just how beautiful it is. Despite it being my second time, I still got exactly the same goosebumps I’d had the first time. Just as enjoyable to me this time was seeing Andy being blown away by it for the first time also, such a relief when I’d convinced him it was all worthwhile. It really, really is. Like I said, the descriptions you can read in my first blog, but I will just say for sure – if you are ever ANYWHERE in the vicinity (and I count the UK in that vicinity!), then GO. Don’t think about it, don’t hesitate, just GO.
We headed back to the hotel to escape the sun for a while, before heading back out to dinner, which we had at Shanti Lodge, where I stayed last time and probably has the best sunset view of the Taj. Strange experience – apparently they no longer have a licence (I distinctly remember getting a bottle of beer last time) – and now serve any beer you order out of a teapot, and in mugs. First time for everything, and the first rule of backpacking is not to question, but to accept. We stayed there as long as possible, lingering over an aloo gobi curry with naan bread, numerous teapots of beer, taking plenty of sunset Taj Mahal pics on Andy’s camera (my camera battery packed up, plus I thought it best not to inflict another 100,000 photos of the same thing on the world – again, see my flickr photos from the first time round if you want to see my complete lack of restraint when it comes to photos) and listening to the call to prayer echoing out around the city.
Wandering back to our hotel, we decided to have a nightcap at the plush hotel next door, the AMAZING Oberoi. Wowzer. One of the most beautiful hotels you can imagine, dotted with fountains, beautiful details and wonderful service. We spent as much on a drink as we did on our budget hotel next door, but hey, it was our anniversary (and I’m worth it, right?).
Another early start the next day, to get the train back to Delhi. Initially the plan was to get out and see some of the sights, not that there were many places I was desperate to return to in the capital, but unfortunately the left luggage facility at Delhi Airport has been suspended for security reasons, so we were stuck with our big backpacks. Even though we were on the pleasant 2AC carriage, we were still stuck for anything we could do with our bags in tow, considering it was pushing 100F outside, so our only option was to kill some time when we got back. For lunch, we headed to the Banana Leaf at Connaught Place, a restaurant I remembered from last time and the food was as good as ever – unfortunately our plan of making 1 lunch between us and 2 drinks drag out for as long as possible was sussed by the management and we were presented with the bill by the management before we asked for it – first time I’ve ever been kicked out of a restaurant! Luckily there was another coffee shop next door so we lingered there, people watching, until it was time to head. Just as we were deciding the best course of action, we were offered a taxi ride to the airport in a wonderful old Ambassador Car, so we ended up travelling in style.
Unfortunately we couldn’t say the same for the plane ride to Bangkok…
Before I came here, my image of Kathmandu was formed by seeing all those old hippy pictures from the 60s and 70s, long-haired folk in afghan coats, surrounded by the heavy fog of pot, maybe gently strumming a guitar as they hung out on the steps of Durbar Square, amazed at their good luck at finding such a blissed-out, chilled-out Shangri-La.
Thing is, it isn’t like that so much any more.
We’d purposely come back to Kathmandu with a week to spare before our flight out, knowing that we had to sort out a transit visa for India, and having read horror stories of just how long these took to get organised at the Indian Embassy. “Start queuing at 4am!” reads the Lonely Planet. Fellow bloggers recount tales of having to return many, many times just to get the right form. So a week should do it, we thought. Plus, after all that relaxing in Pokhara and Bandipur, surely we were ready for a bit of city living. Well maybe, but it turns out, just not this city. After such quiet havens, the traffic here seemed louder and more intense, the people far more numerous and crowding, the smells… well, the smells I could never describe in words. It was tough going coming back here.
The first day was spent re-acclimatising, and making sure that we had everything ready for the great visa run. Concerned about the possibility of a 4am start, we asked around, and were somewhat mollified by people from the hotel telling us to get there at 8.30. As a compromise, we got in a taxi at 7.30, and were up at the Embassy for 7.45. Anticipating huge throngs of people, we were disconcerted to see we were the only people there. Reassuringly, this meant what we had hoped was true, was actually true – low season (monsoon) meant fewer foreign visitors trying to get visas. The doors opened at 8.30, so not too long to wait, and we spent these chatting to a couple of Australian NGOs waiting for visas also. When we were finally let in, a tout (some people pay agents in the region of 20 pounds just to do the queuing for them) swung in ahead of me and started pressing the ticket machine which churned out loads and loads of tickets. “I think you were 2 and 3, no?” she said to me. Back in bolshy mood, I snarled “NO, we were 1 and 2″, taking the relevant tickets out of her hand. We had to wait another hour (but on seats this time) before the windows slowly started to open. The tout woman STILL somehow managed to get in front of us, but not to worry – we were seen before long and with no hassle, we were told to come back at 4.30 that afternoon.
We filled the day by doing a walking tour of old Kathmandu. These winding streets, leading to hidden temples and courtyards, were the closest thing I’ve seen to Kathmandu as it used to be, and it was wonderful to see this ancient architecture and thousands upon thousands of carvings that elsewhere would be in a museum, above, say, a photocopying shop. However, the streets were still choked with traffic, and we were still hounded by touts and shopkeepers wherever we went. The tour led us to Durbar Square, the heart of Old Kathmandu, which is a number of interlinking squares dotted by hundreds of temples, including one that houses the Kumari Devi, Nepal’s living goddess. It was even busier than usual, as we’d chosen to visit on Krishna’s birthday, ensuring winding queues of women (only women) waiting to pay homage to Krishna.
It was an amazing sight (and site), but just not quite what I’d had in mind. It’s a World Heritage Site, so it was a bit of a shock to see just as many cars and motorbikes storming through the middle of it as on other roads – I’d, naively perhaps, assumed that it would be shut off to traffic. I enjoyed seeing it used as a market, as it would have always been used for this purpose, and rickshaws, ok, but bikes and cars that damage these wonderful buildings? No thanks. There wouldn’t have been so many vehicles back in the day, I guess.
To escape the city, the next day we took a taxi out in the Kathmandu valley to a town called Bakhtapur. This is an amazingly well preserved medieval town, and no traffic was allowed! We took the obligatory millions of photos, managing to shake off the tour guide touts telling them we came from “Cymru”, did they know that language? So we pretty much were able to wander round of our own accord. It was truly beautiful, and again, amazing to see these museum-worthy pieces being used as climbing frames or washing lines. Sad though that the children there are already learning to ask “you give me ten rupees?” – SOMEONE must have, once upon a time, or they wouldn’t ask. Makes me really sad.
The drive back to Kathmandu from Bakhtapur took about an hour, again through horrendous traffic – it was too hot to have the windows up, but open them just an inch and the choking black fumes from the buses and trucks surrounding us came flooding in. I was feeling quite queasy the rest of the day after that!
To get back on track, we spent lots of precious hours soaking up the greenery at the beautiful Garden of Dreams. Although situated right in the middle of tourist hub Thamel, seems to magically block out all the horns and pollution, just by walking through the gates. Attached to an old house, the formal gardens had originally fallen into rack and ruin, but have recently been brought back to their original, stunning glory. An amazing way to spend the day, just meandering and enjoying the peace. Even better, they have a fantastic restaurant here, and we came back on Saturday night to eat the best meal we’d had in Nepal, and generally be treated like kings, whilst looking out over the floodlit gardens.
And as for the rest of the days, we’ve spent them shopping, eating (one of the best things about Kathmandu is its restaurants – pretty much anything you fancy can be done), and enjoying some Everest Beers. The best drinking spot we’ve found is Rum Doodles, famous as being the home of the Everest Summiters’ Club, its walls are covered with signatures of legendary climbers such as Edmund Hillary, Tenzing Norgay Sherpa, Ang Dorje Sherpa, Rob Hall, and Jon Krakauer, along with cardboard footprints signed by people completing smaller treks, such as Everest Base Camp and the Annapurna Circuit (get me calling them “smaller” as if I’d been up to the top of Everest myself).
You can eat there free for life, if you’re part of the Summiters’ Club (and yes, they do verify it unfortunately, as I was considering making the claim myself and then moving to Kathmandu just so I could eat one of their Rum Doodles steaks every single day).
We’re ready now to move on to India and, if I’m honest, I won’t be sorry to leave Kathmandu. Nepal, yes, Kathmandu no. I’m sure it was a paradise once, and there are still glimpses of that paradise that occasionally strike you, but – and I’m sure the Western invasion has a massive part to play in this – now, sadly, it is very much Paradise Lost.
The small town of Bandipur is draped, according to the Lonely Planet, like a silk scarf along a high ridge in the hills of Nepal. We were looking for our next destination in Nepal, after being scuppered trying to get to Tansen, and were sold straight away. Well, nearly straight away, we had to do a quick search on the Foreign Office website first as apparently in the not-too-distant past it’s been a hotbed of support for the Maoist uprising here.
Getting there was relatively simple, as we just had to catch one of the many buses that run along the highway from Pokhara to Kathmandu every day, and hop off after a couple of hours. For me this meant no travel sickness tablet, as they usually render me about as awake as a hibernating tortoise, and just about as useful as well, so as we bumped and rocked our way over the poorly-maintained highway I was glad to see the signs for Dumre coming up. Dumre is a dusty little town with not much to recommend it at all, except the fact that the jeeps for Bandipur loiter there, ready to take you 7km up some of the steepest roads and tightest hairpin bends you have ever seen.
Because our plans for Tansen were so cruelly nipped in the bud, we decided to spend the money we would have otherwise spent on getting there/getting a hotel on a really lovely hotel in Bandipur, called The Old Inn. This is one of the old buildings in Bandipur that has been exceedingly carefully restored to its former glory, using traditional crafts, techniques, and materials. It was above budget, but as all meals were included, it wasn’t hard to sell us on it.
Bandipur was originally a bustling market town, an important stop on the India – Tibet trade route. Traders would stay here and take advantage of its malaria-free status, and the town itself prospered. However, in the 1970s, the main Kathmandu – Pokhara highway was built, for logistical reasons, far below in the valley, thereby bypassing Bandipur completely, and the town’s fortunes started a swift decline. However, this one fact that at one time was the doom of Bandipur now appears to become its saviour. It’s virtually completely preserved in its traditional architecture, a quiet, peaceful town where visitors are treated with a cool respect, which is so refreshing after the persistent touts of the bigger cities.
We checked into our amazing room, which was small but perfectly formed, with a balcony leading to views down the valley. And not just the valley – about an hour or so after check in I was reading and Andy was napping when I looked up and out of the balcony window to see the clearest view of the Himalayas we’ve had yet (Monsoon season means cloudier weather and fewer views). After an involuntary exclamation of “Oh wow” out loud, I had to wake Andy up to show him, and we spent about an hour taking woefully inadequate photos that could never show just how beautiful these mountains were.
The next challenge was putting up the mosquito net, a first for both of us, but necessary if we wanted to keep the balcony doors open at night (and we did – I couldn’t resist the thought of those views greeting me in the morning). But where to hang it from? The ever-so-useful hooks I’d bought from Wilko’s before we left were about as much good as a chocolate frog in a heatwave, refusing to stick to either the wooden beams or the plaster ceiling. Any fixtures and fittings were making the net either far too low or far too high, rendering it completely useless. Finally, after some perserverence and making good use of our Swiss Army knife (again, a first, apart from the corkscrew attachment), we managed to lodge it in the wooden beams overhead. Mozzie free!
After this mission, we set off round the town to stretch our legs and to take in some of the architecture. There are a couple of specific sights mentioned in our guidebook, but for the most part, the biggest charm in Bandipur was just wandering and getting lost in the winding streets. Our first recce took us out past some in-tact Newari houses, still being used exactly for the purpose for which they were intended, and past the (slightly incongruous in this setting) Notre Dame School, set up by Catholic nuns and, from the evidence we saw by meeting some of the children around town, they are doing a fine job in educating the young people of Bandipur. Apparently the school was shut in 2001 after some pressure from Maoists, but re-opened in 2003.
We wandered out again past hills and farms, enticed by the sight of a woman tending goats, and the sheer amount of chickens freely wandering the streets, again taking millions of photos of this enchanting place. The feeling of enchantment was even keener as we were wandering literally in the clouds – a combination of being high up and low clouds meant a mist followed us on our walks.
The charm was complete when, taking a breather after a particularly steep walk, we were approached by a number of children from Notre Dame school who, in perfect English (they were 9), asked us all about ourselves, where we came from, how long we were there for. They loved having their photo taken, and loved even more taking photos themselves, but they were just as keen to see photos of the countries that we come from. Like I said, utterly charming.
And it just kept getting better… we were the only guests staying there (monsoon means it’s the low season) so we had the pick of the tables for dinner, choosing to eat it looking right out over the mountains, lit by candles, and accompanied by the feeling that we were the only people in the world (well, apart from the people serving us Himalaya-sized portions of amazing curry, that is). It really, really doesn’t get much better than this, and I’m torn between telling everyone and keeping schtum so Bandipur can remain the beautiful haven that it is.
The next morning, wolfing down our amazing breakfast (boiled eggs and soldiers!), there was a loud commotion out on the street – we followed all the staff outside to have a look and saw a group of young men, beating drums, wearing paper hats, and dancing to the beat of the drum. Nobody could quite explain what was going on, so I’m still a bit in the dark – all we were told was it was a “tiger dance”. Just another quirky, lovely memory of this place.
Now, all we had to do was get back down the hill. The bus company had told us to be at the bottom of the hill for 9, and the hotel staff who accompanied us down said we should leave at 8.30. Fine, it took half an hour coming up, probably slightly less down, there will be plenty of jeeps… or so you would think. Having just missed one (and choosing not to ride on the roof, local style, with our backpacks), we got on to the next one, and waited… and waited… and waited…
Our guide told us it would leave at 9.15. And what time would the bus be passing by the bottom? Between 9.30 and 10.00. OK. By now we were both either having kittens (me) or resigning ourselves to another night in the Inn (Andy). The jeep did leave on time, both of us being the subject of much speculation by the local people sitting on our bags, but contrary to what we were thinking, it took about the same time going down as coming up – those hairpin bends definitely can’t be rushed! Finally, after what seemed like hours of waiting and glancing at my watch, Dumre came into view at the bottom. We turned on to the main road just in front of one of the tourist buses, which pretty much travel in convoy along the highway, and were frantically glancing back to see if we could see the bus that we had a ticket for anywhere behind. We couldn’t – hopefully this meant it was shortly following, but potentially it had already passed through. We sat on a step in Dumre and waited yet again. We got lucky – our bus, the Greenline, followed through after about 5 minutes and, mightily relieved, we threw our bags in the back, sank on to our comfy seats, and began mentally preparing ourselves for the onslaught that is Kathmandu.
I’m usually a fan of thunderstorms. I love the charge and the excitement in the air, a reminder to us all that nature holds the ultimate power. One of my favourite memories from childhood was at Center Parcs, watching a thunderstorm from inside our forest cabin with my brother. Only twice in my life have I ever been scared by a storm, and both have been whilst travelling. The first was in Venice, on my first backpacking adventure 11 years ago. I was in a 6-bed dorm, and we gradually realised that the storm had woken all of us up, and had a few minutes chat before we started drifting off to sleep. A couple of minutes later, all six of us shrieked and leaped out of bed at the immense noise of lightning striking somewhere very, very close by. In the middle of the night we couldn’t see what had happened, but the next day, going past a church at the opposite corner of the piazza to our hostel, we spotted that scaffolding erected for maintenance at the church had been melted down the middle, as if some divine power had taken a massive blow torch and rendered apart the metal.
The second time was in Pokhara.
As tempting as it was to spend all our Nepalese time in Pokhara, the chilled-out lakeside city towards the west of the country, we’d come to the decision we’d regret being here and not making more of an effort to see more of the country. The obvious choice to go to would have been Chitwan National Park, but we’d been warned off going there right now as it’s monsoon season, the roads and nearby villages have a tendency to flood, the malarial mosquitos would have been more active than usual, and the animals (they have tigers, rhinos and elephants, amongst others) would have been harder to spot. After studying the Lonely Planet for some time, we came up with two alternatives that we would like to see – both sounded relatively similar, but equally lovely. One was Bandipur, in the mountains between Pokhara and Kathmandu, and the other was Tansen. Because Tansen was abut 5 hours south of Pokhara, we decided to go there for one night, loop back up to Pokhara, then the next day set off for Bandipur.
Now, I’m not the most superstitious person in the world, but a number of signs starting saying maybe this wasn’t the right thing to do. Everyone at the hotel was warning us that the roads to Tansen were pretty bad, and prone to landslides. The Lonely Planet described the road as “hair-raising”. And the only bus available was a pretty poorly maintained local bus, as opposed to the tourist buses we usually take. If there’s any combination of words that will strike fear into this backpacker, it’s “hair-raising” and “local bus”. And as we listened to the thunderstorm raging directly overhead for seemingly hours the night before we were due to leave, we were questioning our decision to leave even more. Even waking up with a dodgy stomach the next day should have been a massive clue not to travel, but no, I just popped a couple of magic tablets and put a brave face on it.
The bus was due to leave at 6.30, so just after 6 we got to the bus park. There was no sign of our bus just yet, but plenty of entertainment to be had, mainly in the form of one cafe owner who took it as his personal responsibility to see everyone (hundreds of tourists each day) on to the right bus, and maybe spend a few rupees on tea at his cafe while they were waiting. He checked everyone’s ticket and, if they didn’t have one, offer to sell them one… again, at a few rupees profit, naturally. One guy without a ticket took exception to this and decided to speak to the buses directly to ask if he could get a ride – after shouting after him “where you going? Where you going?” for a minute, he decided he wanted to be in the mix and said, “oh, I’ll come with you” and ran after him like a terrier. Every time a new bus came into the park, we’d look at him expectantly, and he just kept saying to us “Tansen?” “Yes!” we’d cry, but it was never to be. “No, not Tansen, you wait wait”.
We wait waited and wait waited for an hour and a half, until our sorry little faces were the only ones left there. “Bus no come today” cafe man eventually told us. “Road bad. But you come tomorrow at 6, and I will get good bus for you”. Dejected, we headed back to our hostel, where they were surprised to see us return after only a couple of hours rather than a day, and checked back in to the same room. We finally decided to listen to the signs and realised it just wasn’t meant to be. So the problem was, what to do now? Pokhara was becoming more and more of a Hotel California – we could (and did) check out, but we could never leave!
Not wanting to waste a beautiful clear day, we got a taxi up to the nearby hill of Sarangkot, which had amazing views over the city and over to the mountain ranges in the distance. Later, we went to our favourite restaurant in Pokhara, the Elegant View, and sat in the garden leading down to the lake where we feasted on buffalo steak (me) and curry (Andy) while being charmed even more by the wonderful staff, and watching the fireflies dance across the lake.
We made a plan to head to Bandipur the day after next but, for right now, getting stuck in Pokhara looked to be a very good move indeed.
As the bus wound up and out of the Kathmandu valley, we were afforded glimpses of what drew countless travellers here in the past, believing it to be Shangri-La. Nestled amongst the hills of the valley, the temples and houses must have seemed a miracle after the hard trek overland. Although things have changed these days, the population and pollution have metamorphasised it into an overwhelming metropolis, occasionally these insights help to show the appeal that still remains, if you look for it.
As for us in the 21st century, we spent most of the journey half-mesmerised, half-peeking through fingers as the road took us through the hills and followed the course of the river towards the western city of Pokhara. I managed to miss a lot of it, as my trusty travel sickness tablets knocked me out for much of the duration – I fell asleep with my arm at the open window though, ensuring a very classy farmer’s tan for my first couple of days here.
After the mayhem of Kathmandu, it came as sweet relief to arrive in this city, which seemed much more peaceful and relaxing. Pokhara is perched at the edge of Lake Phewa Tal, and at the other side of the lake, facing the city, is the mighty Annapurna Range of mountains. I can’t imagine a more blissful setting to finally start relaxing, and the collective breath that Andy and I have been holding the last few weeks, through packing up, moving out, selling belongings, feeling ill, and saying goodbye, seemed to be released.
We checked in to the calm courtyard of the Yeti Guesthouse, went out for a wander round the town and sat down for a lemon soda overlooking the lake, and unanimously and immediately decided to stay for as long as it took to feel ready to get back in the saddle of backpacking again.
For the first couple of days, we were content just to mooch and window shop – one of my regrets from my last big trip was that I didn’t buy even more mementoes, so that’s not going to pass me buy this time. We’re currently eyeing up a gorgeous silk bedspread, and the biggest decision of the day is what colour to buy it in… like I said, completely relaxed.
We also used the facilities available at one of the midrange (ie far too upmarket for us to afford to stay in) hotels here, as it had a swimming pool that, for 2 pounds a day, we could have full use of. We were content to do that, lounging in the baking sun, reading, sipping on lemon sodas, and generally getting a feel for the ‘real’ Nepal! The weather has been far, far hotter than I anticipated (probably indicating my lack of research – I think I saw the word ‘monsoon’ and imagined something like Manchester in November). The rain does come most days, but generally just in the evening, and even then it’s a real relief from the overpowering heat and humidity.
Despite these energy-zapping conditions, after a couple of days we were ready for a leg-stretch and noted that there was a trek nearby at the other side of the lake uphill to the World Peace Pagoda. Erected by Japanese Buddhists, the gleaming white pagoda watches over the city and serves as a constant guardian and reminder of the need for peace, especially in a land with a troubled history such as Nepal. After hiring a boatman to take us to the start of the trek, we were off. Well, nearly – first we had to negotiate a small stream. Amazingly, I didn’t fall in and nor did Andy, so, filled with purpose, we strode to the start of the trail.
We were gasping for breath within a few minutes – the heat and humitidity (combined no doubt with our general levels of unfitness) were serious enemies and we came close several times to giving up. Thankfully, we’re both stubborn devils, so were determined to push on up to the top. It was absolutely worth it, as the pagoda, and the views of the city from the top, were stunning, as was the sense of achievement. After 20 or so minutes at the top, we had to head back down to meet our boatman at the pre-arranged time. Now, my excuse is that the ground was slippy and that we were in a rush to come back down, but I guess it will come as no surprise to anyone that I took a tumble on the way back down. Thankfully it was on a smooth section and not on the rocks, but I went hard onto the knee that I’d already fallen on a couple of nights before… oh, I forgot to mention that one? That I ripped my almost-brand-new-worn-only-twice trousers? And embarassed myself infront of a group of concerned Nepalis? Yeah, that happened.
Still, Andy was the only witness to my tumble and he picked me up and patched me back together as he has to do far too often, and soon we were heading back over Phewa Tal, exhausted, soaked through with sweat/perspiration/glow depending on how polite you are, and headed straight back to the Yeti Guesthouse for a cold shower and an even colder Everest Beer.
Feeling ever-so-slightly trepidatious that we were about to board a flight with an airline that not only had we not heard of but neither had anyone we knew – Jet Airways – Andy and I swallowed our fears and got on the plane, waving a final farewell to the UK. Thankfully, those fears were completely unfounded. The flight was on time, we had good seats, the plane was clean and the on-board movies (and you know that matters) were up-to-date. We both went highbrow, I watched “He’s just not that into you” and Andy was disappointed he didn’t have time to get through both “Gran Torino” and “Happy Feet”.
After one of the best plane meals ever, and not much sleep (not the plane’s fault), we touched down at Delhi Airport, and were blasted by the furnace-like heat. As we were on an internatonal transfer, we were corralled and herded by Jet staff, but they made up for it by giving us free food – as you will know if you’ve read more than one entry on this blog, free food is ALWAYS the quickest way to my heart. Eventually, we passed through the over-staffed, under-speed security gates, and boarded for Kathmandu, feeling very anxious once again, not about our flight this time, but about our bags – would they make it all the way with us?
The lovely check-in woman at Heathrow had baggsed us the best seats on board, extra leg room plus on the left-hand side, thereby guaranteeing us good views of the Himalayas as we came in to Kathmandu. After having our foreheads scanned by a man in a mask (presumably testing our temperature, but considering by this time we were sweating like the proverbial, one wonders how effective this was as an anti-swine flu measure), and getting our visas in our pristine new passports, we were astounded to get to the baggage hall and instantly see our bags. Moreover, the pre-arranged pick-up from our guesthouse, the Hotel Ganesh Himal, was there already.
On to the mean streets of Kathmandu in the pick up, it was a real culture shock, despite the fact that we had both spent many, many months previously in Asia. The death-wish traffic, the millions of people all crowded into a small corner of the earth, the smells (Kathmandu’s rubbish collectors are currently on strike, meaning it all collects by the side of the road), the cows wandering the streets… we could be nowhere on earth but Asia, and it really felt we were in at the deep end all over again, and definitely without our armbands.
We spent a day or so getting our bearings, getting on Nepal time (bizarrely, 5 3/4 hours ahead of GMT, figure that one out), enjoying the cheap food – our new favourite is Tibetan MoMos, a plate of dumplings, and trying to find our Asia feet. Knowing that we would have to return and spend a good chunk of time in Kathmandu sorting out our India transit visa, we decided to push on sooner rather than later to Pokhara, a much more chilled-out city towards the east of the country.
As we were waiting for the bus early that morning, we were accosted by the usual hawkers, carrying trays not dissimilar to the old ice-cream sellers in theatres. One in particular was very tenacious, not being brushed off by our polite “no thankyou’s”. Instead, he kept muscling in on our conversation,
Him: “You have lots of luggage”
Me: “Yes, it’s very heavy”
Him: “You must be rich to have so much luggage, you want buy digestives?”
Me: “No thank you”
Andy: “Oh I’m really hot after walking with my backpack”
Me: “Me too, I’m really sweating, I didn’t know it was going to be so hot. Ha ha!”
Andy: “We should have researched. Ha ha!”
Him: “HAHAHA!!! Tiger balm?”
Oh yes, we were definitely back in Asia with a bump.