Tag Archives: South East Asia

Impressions of Burma

It’s funny think that if I hadn’t walked through a glass door and ended up in hospital I might never have made it to Burma. But doing just that put paid to my plans to spend some time diving on the Andaman Coast, and finally made my mind up to book a flight to Yangon.

Yangon by night

Yangon by night

It’s probably worth saying straight off that for a long time I had been a supporter of the tourism boycott (that interestingly seems to have a far higher profile in the UK than in many other countries), but in the last year I’ve had numerous conversations with other travellers that had started me questioning my stance – and finally this year a friend of mine from back home who knows far more about Burma than anyone else I know talked me into it.

Ultimately the thing that swayed me was the argument that the boycott is damaging the people far more than it is the government (who don’t suffer that much at all thanks to being propped up with cash from lots of Asian governments like China). Sanctions mean that Burma gets way less development aid (about a quarter of the amount per capita) than near neighbours such as Bangladesh, Laos & Cambodia. Visiting as an independent tourist offers a way to give money directly to people running private businesses (incidentally the Lonely Planet is pretty helpful at advising you on how to minimise the amount of cash you spend that goes to the government), and we made a real effort to spread our cash around rather than spend it all in the same place. Furthermore, it was interesting to see quite how much people were willing to open up when talking one to one, about their views of the government – and it seems that the vast majority want tourists to come and see for themselves how the junta keeps the people poor and repressed.

I’m so glad I did make the decision to go, as the country was one of the highlights of the whole year of travelling. It was certainly the most intense experience of the whole year, with some amazing highs interspersed with some of the more challenging bits of the whole trip – most notably the rather terrible bus journeys and food that was often even worse (and had us leaping for joy at the sight of this restaurant in Nyaungshwe, by Inle Lake):

Inle Pancake Kingdom

The best pancakes in Burma

There were times too when the poverty became hard to bear – between the five of us, we tried to spread our money round as much as possible to help as many people as possible – but you have to acknowledge you can’t help everyone – which led to a sadly farcical situation in Inwa, where we decided we’d rather sight-see on foot, and spent the afternoon being followed around by a horse and cart driver desperately trying to persuade us to use his services (and being told repeatedly no). We ended up trying to escape him by taking short cuts across fields, but every time we thought we’d got away he’d turn up again.

No escape

No escape

Luckily though the highs easily outweighed the lows. I’ve already written about how Yangon is one of my favourite cities in Asia, on how Bagan really deserves to rival Angkor Wat in terms of global fame, and on the wonders of trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake.

Bridge over Inle Lake

Bridge over Inle Lake

But there were plenty of other highlights too. Inle Lake itself is absolutely stunning. It’s edges dissolve into a series of floating vegetable gardens and houses on stilts, so it’s hard to see where land ends and lake begins. Even better is taking a boat out early in the morning to explore the area – at that time of day on a clear day even the sky and the lake seem to blur into one.

Inle Lake fisherman Burma

The unique rowing style of the Inle Lake fishermen

Meanwhile around Mandalay it’s easy to spend a day stopping off at the former capitals of Inwa (with its rather amazing leaning tower), Sagaing (and its many temples on a hill overlooking the mighty River Irrawaddy) & Amarapura (with the rather incredible U Bein’s Bridge, at 1.2km long, the longest teak bridge in the world).

The leaning tower of Inwa

The leaning tower of Inwa

In terms of natural beauty and historic interest, the places I visited in Burma rival anything else I saw in Asia, and all with way fewer tourists than in most neighbouring countries (and all still pretty cheap too). Even better is the fact that in many ways its traditional culture is better preserved than many countries in the region. For a start, it’s the only Asian country I’ve been to where people still stick to traditional dress, with the clear majority of men & women preferring the skirt-like longyi over trousers. Equally distinctive is the use of thanaka, a creamy paste derived from a sandalwood-like tree, and which most women and children use on their faces and arms as a natural sunblock.

Sunset over U Bein's bridge

Sunset over the beautiful U Bein's bridge

Best of all though, yet again were the people. From the moment we arrived at Yangon airport to the moment we left, we were overwhelmed by the friendliness of the people we met everywhere. Everyone says mingala ba (hello) in the street, people regularly stop just to have a chat, and people go out of their way to be helpful, and even when times got a little bit stressful people were always there to help cheer us up. People constantly surprised us with their reactions, like the woman from Inle Pancake kingdom who chased us down the road to try to return the money we’d left as a tip (she thought we’d accidentally overpaid). It’s a great tribute to the people that they manage to remain so friendly and upbeat despite the best efforts of the government, and I hope one day soon that they get to escape from military rule.

You can see all of my photos of Buma here.

Next (and final) stop: Cambodia

Bagan: Nearly as many punctures as temples

With over 4,400 temples in a space the size of Manhattan, the biggest problem you face is deciding where to start. Especially when you’re still recovering from a dreadful bus journey.Bagan Temple

Our bus from Inle Lake was ‘only’ supposed to take 12 hours, but it started to go wrong from the start. Our taxi dropped us off at the road junction at 4am, only for us to sit there shivering for an hour by the side of the road while we waited for the bus to turn up. If it wasn’t for the nearby hot donut stand I think I may have cried. Eventually, though, it turned up, and we began the long, slow winding journey down through the mountains. Progress was glacially slow, as we seemed to stop EVERYWHERE to pick people up – and this on a bus so small that each seat only sat one and a half people, meaning we had to take in turns to be the one with one bum cheek balancing on the seat and the other hanging off into the aisle. Although at least this was balanced out by the ability to stretch one leg out – for the leg room was minute, and not helped by the fact that the area under the seats was stuffed with luggage.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, we then ended up stranded in Kalaw for about three hours with a damaged axle. It all got a bit much for Sam who decided to run down the road to try to by a plane ticket to Bagan instead. I was on the verge of cracking as well, when eventually they fixed it and we were back on our way. And in the end we were only 5 hours late – that’s 17 hours stuck on a bus, and without doubt the worst journey in over 11 months of travelling.Bagan Temple

With such a nightmare behind us, it was an easy decision to spend the next day on a tour rather than under our own steam, so we hired a couple of horse & carts, and spent the day being driven around the major temples.

As we drove down the main road from Nyaung U towards Old Bagan, it soon began to become apparent quite how many temples there are in the area – they are literally everywhere. The site is on a wide, flat plan in the bend of a river. It’s a very dry region, so it has an almost desert like feel, with smaller bushes and trees rather than being thickly forested – and one of the benefits of this is that its easy to appreciate quite how big the site is and quite how many temples there are stretching away as far as the eye can see in every direction.

They were built over a period of hundreds of years, with each successive ruler wanting to leave his mark in a different way, meaning that the temples are in a variety of styles, shapes, and sizes, from tiny to gobsmackingly large. Some of the them have fantastic beautifully painted interiors. Others have huge stone buddhas in varying positions. Many have massively thick walls and are dark and mysterious inside. Others allow streams of natural light pouring in from different doorways. Here and there you come across ones that are still being repaired after a devastating earthquake in 1975. Bagan Temple

Best of all are the ones that allow you up onto the roof, from where you can really appreciate the scale of Bagan. Our cart driver clearly knew what he was doing though – for he saved the best til last. Just before taking us home, he took us to a small temple just outside the city walls. From there we climbed to the roof – and were rewarded with the best view we’d had to date, with all the biggest temples lined up around us. I’ve been lucky enough to see some of the biggest and best ruins in the world in the past – Teotihuacan, Machu Picchu, Borobodur, Tikal, Ephesus – and none of them even come close to matching the scale of Bagan. Utterly breathtaking.Bagan Temples

Feeling refreshed after an easy day being driven around, and a good night’s sleep, we decided that for the next day we’d take a more strenuous option, and hire some bikes to get a bit more off the beaten track.

This turned out to be the worst decision of the trip so far (yes, even worse than eating in bus station in Yangon). For getting off the beaten track meant getting off the roads, to see the temples of the central plain. It started to go wrong almost immediately as we soon found ourselves cycling into thick sand that made peddling impossible, so our progress was slowed as we kept having to stop, then push the bikes for a bit, then get back on, and then off again….Bagan Temple

As if that wasn’t bad enough, things soon started to get worse. One by one, we all succumbed to punctures. First one wheel, then the other, until all five of us had two flat tires. The culprit? The whole area was growing with thorny bushes, leaving vicious, 2cm long thorns everywhere. The combination of flat tyres and thick sand made riding impossible, so we were forced to push on, getting more and more dehydrated. Things soon got even worse, when am cycled over a branch and had some thorns whipped across his leg – producing quite a lot of blood. Consulting the map we realised we were still quite some distance from roads in every direction, and with steadily dipping morale we pressed on, abandoning plans to see certain temples in favour of the most direct route back.

Just as we were about to collapse, we turned a corner…and found the first people we’d come across all day, at a remote temple in the middle of nowhere. We were delighted to find they had a little shack selling cold drinks. And even more so to find they could actually repair our punctures – it turned out that each bike had dozens, and in the end it took five of them a good hour to fix, while we cooled off.

Refreshed and revived, with working bikes again, we were delighted to find from there on in, that the dirt road was wide, smooth, and clear of thorns – and the rest of the day passed by like a dream, stopping every hundred metres or so for yet another stunning temple. There really is nowhere quite like it in the world.

Bagan Temple Gang

The Burma Gang: Sam, Frankie, Andrew & Tony

Two days was enough however – as after that we were truly templed out, and I was beginning to worry whether or not visiting Angkor at in a week’s time would really be a good idea….

You can see all my photos of Bagan here.

Only just making it to Kalaw

We packed so much into our first day in Yangon that we decided to change our plans and head straight for the hills the following day – on our first night bus of the trip. Tempting as it would have been to fly, I’d done a fair bit too much of that of late (well, Indonesia & the Philippines being island nations gave me an excuse to be nice and lazy) and so I had no choice but to go for the 17 hour bus – the longest single bus journey I’d taken since Argentina, and I had a sneaky suspicion that Burmese buses wouldn’t quite be up Latin American levels of luxury.

With such a long journey ahead of us, we stopped off to refuel at the bus station. Experienced travellers will already have spotted our mistake there and then – bus stations around the world are hardly noted for their gourmet cuisine, and this one was no exception. Filled up with rather unpleasantly greasy chicken and vegetable curries, we got on the bus and settled in for the long journey north.

Burmese bus station food

The offending meal. The dish in the far left hand corner of the table was memorably described as 'cow's arse soup' by Tony. It may have been his downfall.

The plains north of Yangon are some of the flattest, dullest landscape I have encountered on any bus journey yet on this trip, but I wasn’t complaining, as flat = quick, and anyway, we were kept quite entertained by Burmese pop videos (best of which: a Burmese cover of Britney Spears’ Womanizer) and some rather slapstick comedy.

Soon enough we were to be introduced to one of the unbreakable rules of Burmese bus travel: they must stop every three hours on the dot so that the locals can all have a full meal. As everyone piled out and enthusiastically tucked in, we decided to abstain, which was probably a good move, as it was soon after getting on our way again that the troubles began. Tony started to feel very ill indeed, and after a couple of unscheduled stops, eventually had to be to be let off the bus – and ended up being dropped in the new national capital of Naypyidaw (it turned out to be quite an interesting experience for him – they don’t get to see many tourists, especially american ones!).

Birthday celebrations on the way to Kalaw

The remaining 80% put on a brave face for Frankie's birthday


Our second three hourly stop was at midnight, where, despite the loss of one fifth of our party, we managed a beer to celebrate Frankie’s birthday, before reluctantly heading back on the bus before it wound up into the mountains.

It soon became apparent that the food poisoning hadn’t just hit Tony, for soon enough Andrew and I started to hear groans from am & Frankie in the row behind us. I was worried we wouldn’t make it at all, but luckily, the building of a new road meant that it didn’t take 17 hours after all – but 12, and the bus dropped us off in Kalaw at 3am. By this time Sam and Frankie could barely speak, and only just made it to the hotel. Fortunately a very understanding owner showed us straight to our rooms and allowed us to delay check-in til the morning.

As always, I was very grateful for my iron stomach – and continued to be later that day, as our first meal in Kalaw turned out to be as greasy and flavourless as the one in the Yangon bus station. Burmese food was rapidly becoming the one thing we didn’t like about the country.

Kalaw Paya, Burma

Lovely Paya in the middle of Kalaw


The town itself was lovely, with a beautifully tiled Paya right in the centre, and another collection of golden Payas outside a cave full of Buddhas just outside the town, that all made for a lovely afternoon of walking around the town – well, lovely enough until we realised that Frankie’s birthday, already ruined by food poisoning, had plunged to even lower depths by losing her camera.

We soon fanned out round town to head to everywhere we’d been all day, and in the end it turned up – outside the Buddha cave. We headed back to the hotel to celebrate, with Sam & Frankie beginning to feel better (although still no sign of Tony), and it really felt like maybe our luck was beginning to turn – especially as the staff at the hotel insisted on buying us some food to help us celebrate. We were, understandably, rather wary, but the dish we ended up with, a salad of fermented tea leaves with nuts, garlic and chilli, turned out to be the nicest Asian salad I’ve ever had (and began to redeem Burmese food somewhat)

We had an early start planned again for the next day, so we soon headed to bed for an early night. Just three days in, and Burma was already turning out to be the most intense experience of my travels so far.

How to do Yangon in a day

Getting up at 4am is never the best way to start the day, but at least I was able to comfort myself with the knowledge that it was just going to be a ‘travel day’ – I planned to spend most of the day chilling out in Yangon, perhaps exploring a little bit of the city near to the hotel, with the serious business of sightseeing left to the following day after catching up with some sleep. Or so I’d thought – it all ended up far more hectic (and a lot more fun)

I travelled to Bangkok airport with Sam (an Englishman I’d met at the Burmese embassy a few days before, and subsequently bonded with over a nightmare adventure wandering around Bangkok trying to find suitable clean and unmarked US dollars to take to notoriously fussy Burma) and Frankie (a German who happened to be in the same hostel). A slight flight delay saw the three of us chatting to two Americans, Andrew & Tony, and so when we finally arrived in Burma, the five of us decided to head to a hostel together – the wonderful Motherland 2. Seriously, if you’re a backpacker planning a Burmese visit, this is totally the best place to start – they’ll come and pick you up from the airport (for free), give you loads of tips on what to do in the city and round the country, advice on getting the best exchange rates and book all your onward travel for you too.

Colonial building, yangon, myanmar

Faded colonial grandeur


After checking in, showering and changing, it was about 11am and the five of us decided it was time to head out for a little wander around town. The first thing that struck me was that Yangon is a gorgeous little city. There are loads of colonial-era buildings still standing, and the centre is much more low-rise than most in Asia (I’ve only really felt the same atmosphere in Lao cities), giving it a much more human scale and charm that I’ve really missed since leaving Latin America.

Unsurprisingly enough there are way fewer white faces on the streets of Yangon compared to Thailand, so we definitely stood out. But it became apparent straight away that this was going to be a very friendly country – armed with the one word of Burmese we’d picked up at the hotel (Mingalaba) we set about saying hello to everyone we passed and got plenty of amused smiles and Mingalabas in return.

Sule Paya, Yangon, Burma

Temple in a roundabout


As we approached our first major sight – the Sule Paya, a huge golden-domed temple in the middle of a roundabout at the heart of town – we had our first proper interaction with a local. We were stopped by an elderly monk (who looked remarkably like Yoda) who told us all about the Paya and then proudly displayed his world knowledge by giving us each a fact on finding out where we were all from (Chicago – Al Capone!; Germany – Angela Merkel!; London – John Terry! (yes, still no escaping the football even in Burma).

The monk was entertaining enough – but I’m not sure anything could quite have prepared us for our next meeting with a Burmese. Heading away from the Sule Paya, we were soon ambushed by a little old lady by the name of Ethel. Daw Ethel (who by her own admission talks a lot of blah blah blah) insisted we join her for tea, and so the five of us were soon perched on little stools by the side of the road, sharing tea and listening to a whole series of very entertaining monologues on subjects ranging from life in the city, to her childhood, and tips on travelling round the country. Ultimately she was trying to sell herself as a guide around the country – but lovely (and hysterical) as she was, the five of us all agreed that the blah blah blah would have left the five of us unable to get a word in edgeways for the rest of the trip so we regretfully declined, after buying her lunch for her time. (On a side note – I’d love to team her up with equally lovely-but-bonkersCynthia from Mexico and see what happened).

Yangonn, Myanmar

Quite a character


After wandering around admiring all the historic architecture, next stop was the market, to change some money on the black market (essential, as the official exchange rate is terrible). This required a trip to the main market, and wandering around asking various people about exhange rates, and then disappearing down an alleyway to do the deal – which involved tediously counting my way through hundreds of 1000 kyat notes to check I wasn’t being short-changed. As it turned out, my usual terrible currency luck continued – when we were there, the exchange rate was the worst its been in aaaages – although despite that, it still left me in the uncomfortable position of wandering around with three huge bricks of notes inside my rucksack.

We’d covered a fair bit of ground on foot by this point, so we were all starving. In typically adventurous tourist style, we shunned Burmese food and headed straight out for a curry at one of the numerous Indian restaurants in town (our subsequent experiences were to show that may not have been a bad move…). Suitably refuelled, we soon found ourselves abandoning our previous plans to head back to the hostel, and instead made our way up to the city’s highlight, the spectacular Shwedagon Paya.

Shwedagon Paya, Yangon, Burma

Day....

Words really can’t quite do justice to it – it sits on top of a hill, dominating the city, and is pretty enormous. It’s reached by four different staircases on each side, and as we reached the top we were pretty blown away by the scale of it, with dozens of spires and domes, all encrusted in gold, and packed with local families and monks paying their respects. We hung around for a couple of hours, soaking up the atmosphere and trying to take it all in, and then admiring the changing colours as the sun set. Quite remarkable.

Shwedagon Paya, Yangon, Burma

...and night

Of course by now it was dark and any thoughts of heading back went out of the window, and so we all hopped in a cab (five of us was a bit of a tight squeeze) and headed for a bar – which, being sunday night, was almost entirely empty, although predictably enough was showing a Spurs game. Regardless, we had a few drinks before piling into a bus back into town for a final few drinks at a street corner beer station by the Sule Paya, and then walking home through deserted straights to make it to bed around midnight.

Packed into a Yangon Taxi

Packed in a taxi

So my planned quiet start to my fortnight in Burma ended up being a 20 hour sightseeing marathon. But what a way to start – exploring a fascinating city on foot, meeting wonderful locals, seeing some great sights, and having a great time bonding with the four people who I was to end up spending the next two weeks with.

You can see all of my photos of Yangon here. Next stop – heading up to the hills (by way of a rather dramatic bus ride).

The adorable little Tarsier

You may have noticed that this blog has become increasingly monkey-obsessed of late, what with posts on the cheeky macaques of Bali, the amazing orang-utans of Sumatra, and the naughty Small Monkey in Palawan. If you’re not a fan, you’re going to have bear with me a little while longer, as travelling from Palawan to Bohol gave me the chance to see a rather unusual relative – the world’s smallest primate, the Philippine Tarsier.

View of Alona Beach, Panglao Island, Bohol, Philippines

Room with a view

Getting to Bohol is pretty easy – a short flight to Cebu City, two hours on a fast ferry and half an hour on a motorised tricycle and I was swiftly at home in a beautiful little room right on the beach, above the Genesis dive shop. Wreck diving in Coron had been fun, but I was looking forward to getting back to a more traditional coral and fish environment, and the reefs of nearby Balicasag island didn’t disappoint.

My second dive in particular was stunning – we came across a huge school of jackfish, swimming in very tight formation. As I swam in towards the school it parted around me and started swimming in a tight funnel with me in the middle. It was absolutely beautiful, and for a moment it felt like I was in a scene from the Blue Planet. The different experiences I have almost every time I go diving are incredible – deciding to learn as part of my trip is one of the best decisions I made.

School of Jackfish seen diving near Balicasag, Panglao Island, Bohol, Philippines

Getting close to a school of Jackfish

With the diving out of the way (sadly, on a budget, I have to restrict my diving only to places that are supposed to be fantastic, and no more than two dives per location), I was free to explore the island a bit more. So with a few friends from the dive shop, we hired a driver and set off round the island.

Tarsier at the Tarsier Research Centre, Bohol, Philippines

If it was legal I would have stuffed my backpack full of the little darlings and taken them home

It all started pretty well, as our first stop was the Tarsier Research Centre, the easiest place to see (protected) Tarsiers in the semi-wild. Round the back of the centre is a fenced-off part of the forest. They are pretty damn tiny, but luckily the centre provides a guide who knows where the little critters like to hang out, and within a couple of minutes we came across the first one – and they really are tiny – about the size of a fist – and absolutely adorable. They sit there, gripping tightly onto tree twigs with their cute little fingers (proper big branches would be way too big for them) and staring at you with their enormous eyes – proportionate to their body size they are apparently about 150 times bigger than human ones, and take up most of the Tarsier’s head. They don’t do much, admittedly (being largely nocturnal) but hey, when you are quite that lovable then you can get away with it.

Things started to go a little bit downhill after that. We stopped off at a little restaurant / backpackers place nearby called Nuts Huts, planning to a little walk through the jungle down to some falls, but unfortunately the heavens opened and we were stuck inside for a while. The rain eased off for a short while, allowing us to run back to the car and on to the next spot, the famous chocolate hills. Someone at the national tourist board must have decided that the hills are the country’s most beautiful asset, as I’d seen them countless times on posters and postcards since being in the country. And they sure do look good in the pictures. Unfortunately I am unable to confirm how good they look in real life – as the whole area was covered in thick cloud, so instead of seeing a landscape of dozens of odd little green hills, tightly packed together, all we could see was the two directly in front of us. While we got soaked.

Chocolate Hills, Bohol, Philippines

Rather soggy chocolate hills

After sheltering some more in the cafe, we were soon on our way to the last attraction of the day – the oldest church in the Philippines. Unfortunately some faffing about on our part in the morning, along with the intervention of the weather, meant that we’d overrun our schedule quite a bit, and got there only to find it was closed. And getting dark. So we gave up and headed back to the beach.

The Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, Baclayon, the oldest church in the Philippines, on Bohol island

The Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception in Baclayon - oldest in the country

It could have been quite a disappointing day – but luckily my newfound monkey-love meant that seeing a few Tarsiers made it all worthwhile. All I have to worry about now is how to feed my addiction when I get back home.

Just before sunrise, Alona Beach, Panglao Island, Bohol, Philippines

For a change, rather than a nice sunset photo, here's lovely Alona Beach just before sunrise

You can see all of my photos from Bohol here.

Next stop: Malapascua, and attempting to dive with Thresher Sharks.

Never throw your flip flop in a cave

The sun finally emerged from behind the clouds just as we getting ready to leave Banaue for the spectacular three hour journey through the mountains to Sagada, giving us the opportunity I’d been waiting for: the chance to admire the scenery unobstructed by riding on the roof of a jeepney.

The rice terraces of Banaue

The ride was every bit as good as we’d been told, as the road wound its way up out of Banaue (and finally getting us the chance to see the town’s rice terraces in all their glory from the viewing point) and through the Cordilleras, passing dozens of beautiful terraces along the way (as well as field of vegetables that looked wonderful thanks to the heart that had been ploughed into its centre). Riding on the roof was pretty fun – but bloody uncomfortable. I won’t be doing that again – not unless I can find a cushion to sit on.

Aw, sweet

Sagada turned out to be a fantastic little village – richly forested, and with pretty houses ranged across the town’s various hills, valleys and atop cliffs. At a slightly lower altitude than Banaue, the climate was perfect too, with glorious blue skies and daytime temperatures that were perfect and without much humidity.

There was one main reason I wanted to visit the village – to see the famous hanging coffins. The people of Sagada have traditionally chosen to place their dead not in the ground, but either inside the many caves that surround the town, or more impressively, by hanging the coffins from the side of some of the huge cliffs in the area.

The Hanging Coffins of Echo Valley

It turned out they were just a short hike behind the church in the centre of the town, down into the valley, to a viewpoint looking right up at the coffins. It’s a truly bizarre sight, and quite impressive – but I must admit at the same time I had a slight tinge of disappointment, as for some reason (I have no idea why) I was expecting to see hundreds of coffins, and not the relative few that we got to see.

A rather unexpected highlight came the next day – I’d heard there were burial caves in town, but as we signed up for a tour, we had no idea what to expect. A half hour walk from the centre of the village took us down to the entrance of a huge cave, which was stacked up with dozens more burial coffins. That was impressive enough, but the best was yet to come.

The guides lead us deeper and deeper into the cave, leading us very carefully through narrow passages, and making us squeeze through some very tight holes as we headed down into the lower caverns. Some of these drops involved some fixed ropes, others required some quite nifty footwork to make our way down – but the whole way the guides were wonderful at making sure we never put a foot wrong.

Quite a tight squeeze

Inside the cave was spectacular – we got to see some massive caverns full of bats, loads of impressive rock formations like stalactites and calcified waterfalls – and the whole process of walking through was pretty fun too, as we switched between tighter passages to wading through pools of water, which caused a few problems for one of our group – instructed to walk barefoot, to get a better grip on slippery rocks, we were told to throw our flip flops to the other end of the cave. Matt threw just a little too hard, and they ended up soaring past the intended landing place, and straight down a vertical drop, never to be seen again.

Weird rock formation inside the cave

Eventually we reached the lowest point, a weird landscape of strangely shaped rocks and beautiful pools, and it was time to head back up – and emerge from an entirely separate cave from the one we’d entered through. We were underground for nearly four hours in total, and it was fantastic fun – I shall definitely be looking out for more caving tours in future.

Emerging into daylight

You can see all of my photos of Sagada here.

The stunning rice terraces of Batad

It’s never a nice surprise to arrive in a new town, bleary-eyed after a restless night on a bus, to find it pouring with rain.

“Isn’t it supposed to be the dry season in January?”

“Dry season? Ha ha. No. That doesn’t start here til March”

Serves me right for trusting the Lonely Planet when it comes to planning for the weather. For it turns out that yes, while the dry season starts in January in most of the Philippines, high up in the Cordillera Mountains of North Luzon it’s a different matter. Which was a bit of a problem. We’d made the epic journey up north for one main reason: to see the spectacular 2,000 year old rice terraces of the Ifugao people – and looking out of the hotel balcony, we couldn’t see a thing, as the entire valley was shrouded in cloud.

On arriving in Banaue I’d met up with an English / Ecuadorean couple (Matt & Carolina) and a German (Dominic) and we quickly abandoned our plans to go up to the viewing point over the town. The view would be even worse there. So instead we donned our raincoats and headed out for a wander around the valley in the hope we might actually get to see something. After a while the cloud lifted a little bit, but unfortunately the rain just got heavier and heavier (which is no fun at all when you’re walking along a very muddy unpaved road) so we had to admit defeat and turn back before we’d seen anything but a few smaller terraces.

Rice Terraces close-up

We’d only planned to stay two nights in the area before heading on to Sagada, so despite the weather we optimistically booked ourselves on to a trek for the following day.

The following morning only offered a slight improvement – the clouds were a smidgen higher, but the light drizzle continued. It was our only chance to see the terraces, so we jumped into the Jeepney for the bumpy one hour ride down the road praying for miracles. The weather continued in the same vein throughout the first section of the walk, down very steep, slippery steps and along yet another muddy path as we headed to our ultimate destination – the village of Batad.

We weren’t all that hopeful about our prospects of a good view, but as soon as we came round the corner and saw the village’s rice terraces in all their glory, suddenly the weather didn’t matter any more. For even with grey skies and persistent rain, the sight was spectacular. The guidebook describes them as looking like an amphitheater surrounding the village, and that’s pretty accurate – they rise high up the hillsides in a semicircle all the way round the village, and continue down the valley below as well. As we were there just before the new planting season, every terrace was full fo water – and as they completely surround the village, from our viewpoint above it made Batad look like an island.

The Batad amphitheatre

Trying not to fall in

An island in the mountains

The hike then took us out onto the terraces themselves, walking right along the narrow dividing walls The sight alone is impressive and beautiful enough – but it’s also quite incredible to think that they were carved straight out of the steep mountainsides, at over 2,000 metres, such a long time ago – and not just in Batad, but over a huge area (apparently laid out end to end they’re stretch the whole way round the world several times).

Rainbow over the rice terraces

It’s one of the most beautiful sights I’ve seen on my trip so far – and pretty unexpected too. If I knew anything about the Philippines, it’s as a destination for beaches and diving. I really wasn’t expecting such stunning mountain scenery. Just four days into my stay in the country and I was already falling in love with the place.

You can see all of my photos of the rice terraces here

I wanna hold your (furry) hand

Lake Toba was a pretty lovely place to spend a couple of days chilling out, but I was really only in Sumatra for one reason: Orang Utans.

A couple of hours north of sprawling (and not particularly exciting) Medan is the tiny little village of Bukit Lawang. It’s a charming little place, but it’s not the village everyone comes to see. Sumatra is one of only two places in the world (the other being Borneo) where Orang Utans still live in the wild. Just outside the village is a national park that protects both the rainforest and the animals that live there; on the edge of it is an Orang Utan rehabilitation centre that has been so succesful that the park can take no more of the animals, with the result that a second centre has been opened up elsewhere.

With that many Orang Utans living so close to the village, it’s no surprise that a steady stream of tourists head to Bukit Lawang to trek into the jungle to see them up close (although with this being Indonesia, that stream of tourists is more like a trickle compared to the flood that would visit if it were in most other South East Asian countries).

First monkey of the day

So at eight thirty in the morning, I met up with our guide, Alex, and the group of seven others I’d be trekking with – unusually for Indonesia, they were all English. It took us just a few minutes from the hotel to make it into the jungle, and in no time at all we came across our first close contact with some apes – a troop of Thomas Leaf Monkeys. They weren’t shy at all, and the adult male of the group came down from the trees to have a good look at us (and pose for photos), whilst the kids crashed around the trees above, chasing each other round, swinging from vine to vine and performing rather impressive leaps from tree to tree. Being a young monkey looks like a lot of fun.

It was a nice way to start the day, but we all knew we were there for one reason only, and so we soon moved on to try and find some Orang-Utans. Soon we came across another group standing at the bottom of a tree in silence staring straight up – and we quickly realised what the spectacle was. Perched right at the top of a tree was an adult female Orang Utan in her nest, while her child swung around the tree-tops above her. Exciting as it was to see one, she was so high up, with the sun directly behind her, that it was pretty hard to get a good view.

Getting close to Mina

The day continued in a similar vein, with regular glimpses high up in trees, often obscured by branches, and moving away as soon as we approached. Trying to spot wild animals is always going to be tricky, but it was pretty frustrating all the same. Our luck was about to turn though: as we sat down to have lunch, another group came running past us, as they were trying to get away from the notorious Mina. We’d heard all about her – before she was in the rehabilitation centre, she had lived with humans and had no fear of them. In fact, we had more to fear from her, as she knows humans normally carry food, and she can be quite aggressive in her pursuit of it. So we quickly finished our meals and headed in the direction she was supposed to be, and soon found her. She made a beeline for our guide, who managed to placate her by feeding her bananas one at a time, but as soon as they ran out she started heading straight for us, forcing us to make a quick exit down a steep hill to escape. While they may be shorter in height than humans, they are heavier, and much, much stronger, so it’s really not a good idea to get on the wrong side of one.

With all the excitement over, we headed back down the hill, down some waterfalls, to our camp by the river, with all of us on a real high from getting to see an Orang Utan so close up. We had no idea the best was yet to come.

Jackie

Soon after we made camp, we were all sitting around drinking tea, when Alex pointed out that another semi-wild female, Jackie, was heading down the waterfall and in our direction. She soon made it over to us, and perched on a short little tree just a metre away from where we were sitting, with her adorable little baby (with a cool little Mohican) hanging off her side.

She sat there for a good half hour checking us out, before coming down from the tree and holding the hands of the two nearest people from our group, Helen & Sheri. I really hadn’t expected to get quite so close to an Orang-Utan, and for the next twenty minutes or so, she sat in the middle of us, at one point even giving Sheri a great big hug (which sounds great, but with her huge size and vicelike grip I think Sheri was quite glad to be released again).

Making her way down from the trees

Hugging Sheri

Getting close

It soon became clear that Jackie is quite a bit smarter than Mina – rather than using aggression to get her way, Jackie lulled us into a false sense of security with her affection, and once our guard was down she made a beeline towards the kitchen tent. The guides managed to stop her just in time, and I ended up holding her hand and walking her back across the rover and away from the camp while one of the guides tempted her with some bananas.

Getting ready to walk her away from the camp

She knew she was on to a good thing with us, because as we woke up the next morning she was back in the tree above camp, and soon came down again to get close to us. This time chaos ensued. A troupe of long-tailed macaques had decided to take advantage of our distraction by sneaking round the kitchen tent from the back to try and get at the food, and as soon as we realised what they were up to we stopped watching Jackie for a second and she was off – straight into another tent where she had clearly sniffed out our fruit supplies. In no time at all she’d nabbed all our bananas, oranges and lychees (as well as Helen’s breakfast) and was back up in a tree just out of our reach munching away at her prize.

A Macaque takes advantage of the chaos to steal some toast

We were all pretty speechless. I’d come along on the trek hoping to see the Orang Utans, but I had no idea I’d be able to get so close to one as to be able to hold her hand. They are such beautiful creatures, so human-looking in some of their actions and facial expressions, and clearly very intelligent too. Bukit Lawang had never been on my original itinerary, but I am so glad I made it now. It was my last day in Indonesia after two months, and what a way to go out, as it’s without a doubt one of the best memories of the entire trip to date for me.

You can see all of my photos of the trek here

Cheeky Monkeys & Startled Ladies

After the unavoidable stop in Kuta for Christmas, we had time to escape the madness and explore a bit more of Bali before heading to the Gilis for New Year, and the real must-see was Ubud.

Ubud is one of the many places that I’ve visited on this trip that apparently ‘isn’t what it used to be’ since it was ‘discovered’ and ‘overrun’ by tourists. Funnily enough places that are rather snottily described like that often turn out to be the most fun, and Ubud was no exception.

A rather thorough flea inspection

The town’s main claim to fame is being the centre of traditional Balinese culture (although by day that seems to manifest itself by shop after shop crammed with the same tourist tat, plus an added sprinkling of expat ‘artists’ churning out staggeringly bland and identikit paintings of rice paddies and Balinese temples) but for our first stop we were more interested in some of the other local inhabitants, the rather cheeky little monkeys of the town’s Monkey Forest Sanctuary. It’s just outside the centre of town, and the place is full of Macaques walking straight up to you in the hope of finding food. Despite the fact it’s all pretty touristy, it was great fun. The monkeys are pretty adorable (especially the babies) and when they’re not feeding they seem to spend most of the time sitting around in pairs checking each other for fleas (or, in the case of some of the male ones, engaging in a certain more solitary activity).

If the monkeys were a nice little distraction for an afternoon, the real highlight of our stay in Ubud was getting to see some traditional Balinese dancing. One evening we made our way up to Ubud Palace to watch a performance, and it was really quite incredible. It takes years to train to be a professional dancer, and you can clearly see why. The elegance of the different poses they strike is quite beautiful, and the various traditional forms that they gracefully and seemingly effortlessly hold themselves in – particularly the way the hands are constantly folded right back, far further than any normal person can manage – is amazing.

There’s just one aspect of it all that I find a little bizarre – it’s the way the female dancers spend most of the time with their eyes as wide open as they can, with eyebrows raised, that makes it look like they spend most of their time looking rather startled.

Christmas & New Year in Indonesia

If there’s one tip I could give wannabe round the world travellers that I failed to pick up on during my fifteen months of planning, it would be to think carefully about where you want to spend the Christmas and New Year period. I met countless travellers heading to Sydney who hadn’t planned ahead and were shocked to find hostels charging trip the normal rate. For a while I thought I was going to get stuck in East Timor – all the flights to Singapore and Bali were full, flights to Darwin were stupidly expensive, and all the buses out to West Timor were booked up too. Luckily I found out at the last minute that I was able to get a more indirect bus, and so I made it out just in time to get to Bali on the evening of the 23rd of December.

It wasn’t just the transport that I should have planned ahead with – I had fun enough on my last visit to Kuta back in November, but of all the places I might have chosen to spend Christmas day, it was far from the top of my list. Luckily though, I was meeting my friends Simon & Katie from back home, so at least I had good company and was able to spend the day on the beach trying my hand at surfing.

It was a pretty brief experience: I was utterly useless. I’d occasionally catch a wave and manage to get about one foot on the board before toppling off again, getting a mouthful of sea water and then struggling for the next twenty minutes to get back out to the waves again, only for each attempt to end the same way. After a couple of hours I soon realised I was never going to make it as a surfer and gave up to chill out on the beach.

If Christmas was a little disappointing, we had higher hopes for New Year. I’d loved the Gili Islands on my first visit, so we headed back there. Nice as Gili Trawangan was, I’d heard it would be pretty crowded, expensive, and difficult to get a room, so instead we decided on Gili Air as I’d heard there was going to be a party on the beach there for the once in a generation New Year’s Eve full moon party. Now, a little note to the Observer: the Gili Islands are not ‘the new Ibiza’, as a spectacularly idiotic article claimed last month. The comparison is laughable – each Gili Island is about the size of a single nightclub in Ibiza (and it’s worth noting that the islands don’t even have any nightclubs). About all the two places have in common is that they have a beach and a few hippies. It never ceases to amaze me, the drivel that British travel supplements churn out week after week.

Anyway, we arrived on Gili Air and instantly worried that we have made a bit of a mistake – despite most of the hotels being full (or out of our price range), it still felt as quiet as it had done on my last visit. The tranquility of the place is part of the appeal, but we were at least hoping for a little bit of action for the big night.

A final Gili Islands sunset

A final Gili Islands sunset

The place to be, apparently, was the Space bar, hidden away in the even quieter North Western corner of the island, so we hopefully trudged our way round the sandy coastal path with no idea what to expect. The bars we passed proceeded to get quieter and quieter…until eventually we began to hear the muffled thud of dance music somewhere in the distance. We finally arrived and were rather amazed by what we found – a full on rave on the beach, with lasers and projections and all kinds of glowing things hanging from the trees, and with a mixed group of about three hundred locals, hippies and backpackers dancing away on the sand.

NYE Fireworks

Ooo! Aah! etc..

It was hardly Ko Pha Ngan but I reckon all the better for it. It was bust enough to feel like a real party, but still quiet enough that there were plenty of quieter places along the beach to chill out on when we fancied chilling out from dancing to the rather banging psychedelic trance music. As we spent the night drifting between dancing amongst the palm trees, watching people dancing with fire poi, and the beach, it was one of the best new year’s parties I’d ever been to.

Raving on the beach

Raving on the beach

The next morning (well, afternoon actually, by the time we finally emerged from bed), the island has returned to its normal, sedate self. The only mystery was where on earth all those other people at the party had come – we didn’t see most of them around the island the rest of the time we were there.