Myanmar – February 2015

21 Feb
Click here for the photos!

Lake Inle, Shan State, Myanmar

Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.

…and so to Myanmar – a country on the top of our list for a while. Never been anywhere quite like Yangon! Reached dust and pagoda, and in particular, “dusty pagoda” saturation point in Bagan in the central desert state of Mandalay (famous for it’s 2200 ancient temples). The peace, tranquility and beauty of Lake Inle in Shan State saved the day and we left Myanmar enchanted by its charms :-).

Our arrival at Yangon airport was less than auspicious – chaos, heat and thick globs of betel spit all over the sidewalk …. oh boy… this wasn’t Tokyo, my newfound spiritual home of order, tidiness and obsessive compulsive cleanliness ;-).

Clogged, stationary traffic and crawling cars. When the traffic moved at all, we were propelled forward at the speed of light, then the brakes were slammed on, the driver opened his door, hawked up some betel spit and spat it onto the road…. mach 2, brakes, hawk and spit… and repeat for an hour or so… Lovely!

Aside from the betel spit, the city looked relatively clean, tidy and westernized for the first few miles as we crawled past the embassies, parks and luxury car dealerships.

The “real” Yangon was quite a different experience – complete and utter disorder, overcrowding, dirt and, in parts, bordering on squalid.

Yikes! Welcome to Yangon – formerly known as Rangoon, the former capital of Myanmar – the country formerly known as Burma ;-).

Too late for sunset over Schwedagon Pagoda we grabbed a cab to visit the world famous pagoda at night. A temple of impressive beauty and grandeur dated loosely from the 12th century (if you count its inception from the 8 – now enshrined – human hairs given to 2 brothers from Yangon by a newly ordained Indian Buddha). It has been re-gilded and rebuilt since the 14th century until it reached its present height of 325 feet. Sounded fabulous – only almost all of its 325 feet is currently neatly clad in bamboo scaffolding whilst it undergoes one of its many re-gildings – typical!

Knees are a no-no in the temples of Myanmar so I went equipped with a sarong (a great look wrapped over shorts ;-) ). Shoes and socks (as well as kneecaps) are prohibited in Myanmar pagodas. I prefer to forget the full grimness and horror of padding about in the dust, grit and grime of the white marble and stone floors ;-). Ignoring the centerpiece pagoda covered in scaffolding, the huge number of surrounding stupors and shrines were still in perfect gleaming order – which is more than could be said for the soles of our feet ;-).

In the darkness we were vaguely aware as to the likely condition of the streets around our hotel. We remained naively optimistic that it couldn’t be quite as bad as it looked in the dark but under the glow of the early morning sunlight on our first morning, Yangon was revealed in all of its glorious splendor ;-).

We had booked a “Deluxe City View” room (a considerable upgrade from the Deluxe without the window). Perhaps we had misread the online description and it had actually said “Deluxe Shitty View”? ;-). Still, we decided to embrace our 36 hours in the steamy city of Yangon with all of its various as yet unknown charms and settled in to watch the monks collect alms from the locals as we sipped tea and slurped noodles for breakfast from the luxury of the hotel’s rooftop – steeling ourselves for descending into the city to explore.

Stepping into the streets of Yangon is like taking a step back in time … quite a large step for a couple of relatively spoilt westerners…

The city streets are the like of which I have never quite seen before. As we hurdled over the trash and debris of city life, crossed planks over open-sewers (where public works did, at least, seem to be in progress), sidled past chaotically busy street food vendors, tip-toed over market stall vendors sitting in the road, dodged cars and mopeds flying around with little regard for human life, initial impressions were hard to gauge about the city. Part intensely depressing and part bright and vibrant and full of life – either way – it was sensory overload!

Despite the shitty view, the hotel was ideally placed to explore the ethnic parts of the city as opposed to the more sanitized areas around the embassies and new luxury developments towards the airport. Surrounded by Chinatown and Little India and the residential area of downtown we were at least in the thrumming heart of real life Yangon.

The city is famous for the decaying beauty of it’s moss covered British Colonial buildings – previously grand and glorious but now mostly held precariously together by lichen and the roots of ferns growing out of the cracks of the walls. They are undoubtedly an amazing sight.

To be fair to Yangon, everything we saw was an amazing sight in its own peculiar way. It is a travel photographers dream if you are willing to straddle the open sewers, wade through billowing trash and leap out of the way of trucks and mopeds careering about in impossibly narrow and overcrowded side streets – all trying to end your life sooner than you might choose.

There are traders with their various wares sitting on the roadsides. On every street corner there is a vendor rolling betel leaves together with a white paste, betel nut and spices doing a roaring trade…It is well-known to cause gum damage, tooth decay and oral cancer but that doesn’t seem to put off the locals.

Street food is a way of life here – if the outside of the buildings is anything to go by I suspect few would actually want to cook in their kitchens inside them. I wasn’t brave enough to sample any of it… although Geoff did succumb to a very happy Indian selling various flavored vegetable pakoras (6 for the princely sum of $0.20). I am reliably informed that they were some of the best he had ever eaten :-).

Common across most of South East Asia it is often preferred for tourists to pay in $US than in the local currency. Having said that, we discovered almost immediately that we were the proud owners of 100’s of dollars of cash which was completely worthless ;-). It’s not that they don’t like the greenback here – they most certainly do – but only if it is fresh off the press, free of minuscule tears, folds or bends… if not it is chucked back at you and spurned like a rabid dog. Consequently, every transaction took twice as long as necessary – whether paying for a bottle of water, a cab ride or buying food – as the irritating recipient of our hard earned $US poured over each note with a fine tooth comb, throwing back the unacceptable “defective” notes and rifling through wad loads of our money until they found the perfect one. Ironic really, as the ratty state of their own currency had me wonder if most of it wasn’t actually held together with sweat, grease and germs – which is why, of course, Geoff handles all the local currency cash and I don’t go near it ;-).

Before the heat of the day settled in we headed towards the shiny golden stupa at the end of “our” main road, Sule Pagoda. It is far more peaceful and altogether less touristy than Schwedagon but just as grimy underfoot ;-). Shoes off again and an inflated entrance fee for “Foreigners” – still – at least it bought us a sani-wipe each for our soon to be repulsive blackened feet ;-). Myanmar pagodas are undoubtedly some of the most ornate we have seen in South East Asia – intricate and invariably gold clad in one form or another – they are absolutely stunning! :-)

There was a lady selling the “freedom” of a cage full of sparrows for a $1 each – apparently it brings good luck to release the birds outside the temple so we liberated a couple. Geoff’s wasn’t too thrilled at being manhandled and dug its ungrateful beak into his finger before heading off into the trees to be caught, caged and resold again the following day, no doubt ;-).

Freshly sani-wiped and back on the even dirtier streets we wandered aimlessly through roads and neighborhoods specializing entirely in one type of product – paper, or house paint (strangely, nobody was doing much of a trade in those stores ;-) ), plumbing supplies, hardware, fabric and ribbon, fishing nets or electrical supplies.

People were friendly and curious and smiled at us constantly. We were surprised how few westerners there were in the city. Some people stopped us in our tracks just wanting to practice their English. Others surprised us by their ability to speak English at all. I cannot quite imagine why a trader frying pakoras on the side walk would have an in-depth knowledge of the English language, but he did. He also had a better understanding of the geography of the world than a considerably wealthier trader in the rice and spice warehouse who asked “Where you from?” – ”England “ Geoff answered… “Ahh… Crocodile Dundee!!” he exclaimed with a wide dark red grin. His smile another victim of the revolting national obsession with chewing betel nut; he had barely a single blackened tooth left in his dark red stained mouth – its previous companions lost to the side-effects of the betel nut.

Another turbaned street trader stopped us to ask where we were from and was very excited when we said we were English. He had relatives in London — all of his family had moved there, in fact, and they had been trying to convince him to leave Yangon to join them there. With no sign of irony whatsoever he grinned from ear to ear as he threw his arms wide open expansively as if to say – “Here is my magnificent kingdom” – and uttered the inexplicable words … “But why should I leave all this behind me?! I have been blessed. How could I possibly leave this place?“. I resisted the urge to say “I’d recommend your best bet would be on the first plane out of here, love”.

Beauty is undoubtedly in the eye of the beholder ;-).

Heartened by the friendliness of the locals in general (if not their standards of hygiene) Geoff was offered a mahogany seed to try. The lady vendor demonstrated throwing the seed back into her throat and swallowing it. Geoff followed suit but she looked on with some amused horror as he bit into the hard brown shell, spluttered something unintelligible which might have been “Water…water…I’m going to be sick”, grabbed a tissue and spat it all out again. A shade of green only outdone by the verdigris on the collapsing buildings around us, he was rescued by a passing nun who explained that he was supposed to remove the outer shell first and only eat the kernel. The 2 women found it quite hilarious as they watched the strange green foreigner spluttering into his tissue. And this, of course, is why I never, ever sample street food… and why Geoff invariably ends up spitting the spoils of his frequently ill-advised culinary explorations into the drains along with the equally revolting betel spit of the locals ;-).

Continuing our wanderings through the back streets as he slowly recovered from his mahogany shell snack, we ventured through wholesale fabric markets so crowded and narrow that the darkened passageways were barely 1’ wide with dozens of people all trying to simultaneously squeeze through carrying wide bolts of fabric. Decidedly not for the claustrophobic or faint-hearted.. then again neither was the rice and spice warehouse … nor the outdoor fruit and vegetable markets… nor the streets and markets in Chinatown – clogged to overflowing with decorations for the imminent Chinese New Year celebrations.

Whilst some of the streets are bordering on squalid… dirt roads, overcrowding, grime and trash in abundance there is, in the midst of it all (albeit under billions of flies) the freshest looking fruit and vegetables, lobsters, sea bass and other sea dwellers.

On the surface people don’t seem to be short of good quality food supplies but life for some people is obviously very tough which is the hardest part of being a relatively wealthy traveler in developing countries.

In the end, the noise of the relentless car horns, noisy chatter, business activity and squeezing past a constant stream of humanity without being covered in chicken blood or splattered with cooking grease took its toll. We took refuge in a massage “spa” where we enjoyed listening to the belching of the man in the curtained area next to ours – perhaps a sign of appreciation for a good massage in this part of the world? ;-).

I think we liked Yangon …maybe we just survived it..some places are just too much of a culture shock ;-). Anyway, I, for one, couldn’t wait to get on the first plane out to Bagan … the mystical land of 2200 pagodas in Mandalay.

How could I possibly have guessed we would be bordering on bored to death in Bagan and rather missing the chaotic excitement of Yangon ;-) !

In a hot, dry, dusty desert in the middle of nowhere, Bagan (Old and New) and the neighboring town of Nyuang U weren’t going to keep us entertained for long. Bagan must have once been a huge ancient city. Between the 11th and 13th centuries over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were built in the plains. Thank goodness only 2200 survive today ;-) ;-). Our excited designated cab driver for the day insisted on taking us on his ultimate $20 guided tour. We padded around the desert pagodas bare-footed, trying to avoid impaling ourselves on thorns or treading on bat poo. We really could have called it a day and taken refuge in the hotel pool after the first white pagoda, the first gold one and the first brick one. However, the driver insisted he earn his $20 so we kept going until they were all a blur of dust, heat and Buddha statues. According to my copious but useless notes we visited all of the following and probably more (in the end we gave up the will to record any more unpronounceable names): Gubyaukgyi, Bu-Lething, Sulamani, Dhammayangyi, Thatbyinnyu, Ananda, Schwezigon and Schwesandor – this final temple was the only one I knew for certain because the driver was under instructions to get us there for sunset… At least by then we couldn’t see what we were stepping in ;-). They were all quite stunning.

Some temples were busy with tourists and vendors trying to make a quick kyat (or an immaculate dollar ;-) ). In others we were surrounded by gaggles of kids trying to sell trinkets – one of them asked “Where from?” …“England” we answered (wondering if it would be easier to say Kazakhstan in future ;-) )…”Luvvly jubbly!!” screeched the kid in thick Burmese English…. (sorry – American friends – it’s an English joke!)… Where on earth do kids pick these things up?? ;-).

Most temples, however, were empty save for us, Buddha and the scuttling geckos… By the end of the day we were totally pagoda saturated… it was amazing to see so many in such a landscape but the number of them is just too overwhelming to absorb.

Refusing the taxi driver’s offer to take us to even more pagodas the following day we agreed instead to a whistle stop tour of the local market at Nyuang U (a typical indigenous experience only with toilets from the middle ages and a village water well). Notable events were – Geoff being kicked in the butt by a giggling monk as he got in the way of the baby monk getting his free rice alms; me being grabbed, wrapped up, tied into a longhi (the long skirt which men and women all wear here to cover up their offensive knees ;-) ) and the proud new owner of it before I could utter any fruitless objections; and a small grubby child grabbing Geoff by the hand and asking him to play “ball” with a pink heart balloon.

We also took a quick detour out to a farming village (Minnanthu) to explore the dusty streets – the locals didn’t seem to mind that we were wandering through their back yards taking photos. We practiced our “Mingalabar” (hello) in the hope that we wouldn’t get chased off their land and it seemed to work without us getting into any trouble ;-) – which is convenient as it is the only Burmese word we could get our tongues around without embarrassing ourselves.

With hindsight we should have by-passed the trip to the Irrawaddy River and left it to the romance of our imaginations. It was just as filthy as the side streets of Nyuang U and Yangon … only the trash here floated in the river. In essence, the Irrawaddy River around Nyuang U, at least, is just a large toilet and bathing facility – which is fine – needs must etc… and this is how it would have been centuries ago. However, centuries ago the locals didn’t dispose of plastic bottles and bags into their lifeline. So, unless someone advises them not to chuck their used shampoo bottles into the grimy frothy brown waters the many cruise boats on the Irrawaddy will soon be navigating through and bobbing about in unappealing levels of litter and human debris.

Thankfully, the spa offered a welcome 3 hour retreat so we could wash off the dust and kill some time before our flight out the next morning. Never has being knelt and walked upon by a tiny Burmese massage therapist, kicked, twisted and generally manhandled (all for the bargain price of $50) been so appealing :-).

Call us heathens, but 2 days was plenty long enough in the desert despite its obvious beauties so we left the endless pagodas of Bagan behind us with some enthusiasm and headed for the hills of Shan.

Yes – the state of Shan where they declared a state of emergency the day after we arrived due to government and rebel warring factions. Luckily we were heading, conversely, to the extremely peaceful and idyllic Lake Inle in the south of the state.

The airport in Heho could have done with some updating – we have seen cleaner, more appealing and more advanced facilities in Africa….perhaps some toilet paper and a vending machine with basics like water would be nice additions, for instance…..

Even though the Villa Inle Hotel and Spa was an additional bouncy hour and a half drive over a mountain pass into the wilderness and then a 30 minute longboat ride, when we finally arrived at the dock of the hotel we knew we had, at last, finally arrived … so to speak :-).

Thank goodness we had found the Myanmar we were looking for :-). Lake Inle is the second largest lake in Myanmar, covering an area of 45 square miles at an elevation of almost 3000 feet. The elevation explained why the lovely people at the lovely hotel thought ahead and provided sweatshirts for each of its chilly guests to keep as a memento of their fabulous time there ;-). Being more cynical, I suspect they were provided mainly to ensure that the guests didn’t freeze to death at night before they had spent as much money as possible dining in their equally fabulous restaurant, enjoying their overpriced but similarly fabulous private boat trips around the lake and, in Geoff’s case, clearing them out of their supplies of Gin and Tonic.

On that note, we arrived early enough to grab a gin and tonic and leap into a canoe for 2 to watch the sunset over the tranquil waters of the lake. We were guided about silently by one of the local fishermen famous for their paddling and steering skills using one leg and a paddle. It was all quite spectacular and magical :-). Swallows swooping overhead catching mosquitoes, water buffalo grazing in the marshland and the orange and pink of the sun setting on the water.

Our days were spent zipping about in a longboat for 2 from one stilted “floating” village to the next, passing residents bathing in the lake, families cooking on the steps of their stilted houses, tending their patches of floating vegetable gardens, and washing their water buffalo … as you do… ;-) ! Refusing our boat driver’s offer to take us to see the “long necked lady” ;-) we puttered around in the canals checking out where people lived instead. Still, he couldn’t resist insisting on a brief stop at an indigenous market in Indein which was fun – we saw women in their local costume and headdresses and got to tiptoe through the betel spit on dry land again. Not quite as much fun for one of the other tourists who arrived just ahead of us – disembarking her longboat onto the steps of the dock, she missed the dock completely and disappeared head first with her camera clutched in her hand into the canal. I hope her TB shots were up to date ;-).

Back out on the lake, the water was so calm in the backwater canals that the houses cast nearly perfect reflections. It was almost too idyllic to be true… We loved it :-).

The local people are famous not only for their unusual one-legged paddling style but – luckily for me – silversmithing and jewelry and silk weaving :-). By the time we made it to the lotus and silk weavers we had been cleaned out of cash. Not remotely phased by the fact we only had a few kyats left, they let us have our scarves anyway if we promised to pay our boat driver when we got back to the hotel. He would be passing the store the next day anyway and could drop the cash off then. You wouldn’t get that kind of service in the western world ;-).

Lunch was spent in a “cat cafe” on the water – also known as the Burmese Cat, Inthar Heritage House – a home, breeding facility and reintroduction program for burmese cats into the country as they had previously died out here. What could be better for 2 sad kitty deprived travelers – fried green onions with tamarind sauce and a lap full of spoilt, fat, lazy Burmese cats? :-).

Crossing back across the lake we passed through the floating gardens growing flowers, tomatoes, gourds, water hyacinths and vast quantities of lotus plants. Harvesting lotus plants is big business considering it takes 1000’s of strands of lotus “silk” extracted from the stems of the plant to make 1 small scarf!

The day ended (as did all of the following days ;-) ) sipping cocktails and ginger and lime juice whilst watching the sun set behind the village of stilted fishermen’s houses in the canal next to the hotel. Butterflies fluttered through the bougainvillea in the hotel garden and buffalo grazed at our feet ….peace, tranquility and serenity other than the clink of ice in Geoff’s G and T :-).

After 36 hours of being at Lake Inle, Geoff declared that this was the best couple of vacation days he could remember and apparently we were not going to return to the western world in April after all ;-). I wasn’t thinking quite that far ahead. After 36 hours of 5 star hotel, royalty service, a view to die for and top quality food I was considerably more distracted by the knowledge that we would have to leave our lakeside paradise and return to the utter chaos of Yangon in 3 days ;-).

Still, not everything in paradise is perfect. There is a little bit of a wild doggie issue along the lake which we noticed the first night when we awoke to the howling of a pack of “wolves” in the distant villages. The second night they seemed a little closer so we just dug our ear plugs in deeper and ignored it. By the third night things had deteriorated and I awoke to what sounded like the Hounds of Hell shaking the foundations of our stilted villa. I stuck my head out of the window and discovered we were literally sitting on top of a pack of howling dogs who sounded like they were hunting a screaming wild pig. We didn’t find this terribly relaxing (or terribly 5 star ;-) ) for 3 hours from 3am, so bleary eyed the following morning I decided to share with the manager my dissatisfaction that a luxury resort couldn’t keep out a pack of wild hounds.

Apparently it is “dog season” and it transpired that there was actually an unfortunate girl doggie (not a wild pig at all) literally 4 feet under our bed who was, in fact, enjoying the attentions (or not) of the village boy doggies. Hugely apologetic, the manager offered a complimentary Thai spa massage each to mollify us and promised he would station the hotel security guards by our villa that night to make sure we didn’t have another sleepless night disturbed by amorous stray dogs ;-)

It must have worked as we slept like babies and the following morning we overheard an American guest complaining about the “wild tigers” running loose around his villa all night ;-). We recommended he ask for the armed guard to spend the night under his villa .. and to check out the relaxing spa services which were exemplary :-).

Not all of my choices of activity at the lake were as well received as zipping about the glassy waters in a longboat watching the world go by. We rented bicycles to meander through the countryside, paddy fields around Maing Thauck, and the farmland and villages along the lake as far as the Red Mountain Vineyard. This sounded far more idyllic in theory than it was in practice (much like riding an elephant in Thailand ;-) !).

The upside was the scenery… like passing through a living 18th century Constable landscape painting…wooden farmhouses, oxen-powered ploughs… and kids riding water buffalo to the marshlands (not many buffalo in 18th century rural England, I will concede ;-) ).

In reality, the actual experience of cycling the lake was bordering on torturous. The road varied from pot-holed rubble track to pot-holed tarmac… not only did we have to navigate those but it was also covered in thick billowy dust which was churned up in choking, swirling clouds by the occasional truck rumbling by and the mopeds bouncing about all around us. The mountain bikes we rented turned out to be the crappiest, most uncomfortable old jalopies this side of the Nepali Himalaya. They were so badly maintained that they wouldn’t change gear without the chain falling off so we were stuck in 1 gear (which 90% of the time was entirely inappropriate for the road conditions – particularly the uphill parts ;-) ). By the end of our seemingly endless 3 hour bike ride we required surgery to straighten our backs, re-adjust our necks and straighten out our arms. Neither of us were hopeful we’d ever be able to remove the layer of Myanmar dust welded to our skin by the heat of the midday sun. Fortuitously it turned out to be nothing an intensive afternoon in the spa being vigorously salt scrubbed and pummeled couldn’t sort out, though our lungs will never recover….

The dusty tracks didn’t appeal again so we took to the water on the final full day to be glided about the pottery village where we were immediately pounced upon by a local potter as we clambered out of the boat. With no idea of where we were heading, we followed her like innocent children lured by the Pied Piper of Hamelin through the dusty tracks to her house. We were plied with tea and sugar sweets and were subjected (in a mixture of Burmese language and incomprehensible English) to the ins and outs of the pottery business sitting on the floor of the workshop in her house. She tried to sell us some wonky brown glazed bowls which we couldn’t imagine any use for whatsoever. Despite our refusal to buy her wares, she kindly let us use her toilet facilities (the least said the better about the sanitary facilities in the villages of Myanmar) in order to deposit all of the tea she had given us … and for once escaped with little damage done to our wallets :-).

Trade here is still relatively uncommercialised – everything is hand-made by crafts people sitting cross-legged on a dust floor and it seems that, in some cottage industries at least, they haven’t fully grasped the needs of western tourists…which is, I suppose, what makes it all the more appealing :-).

And so our 4 day trip to Lake Inle ended and heavy of heart we attempted to leave :-(. Luckily we discovered the 3 hour flight delay before we left the beautiful hotel and bounced our way back to the airport in order to enjoy it’s non-existent comforts for the afternoon ;-). Instead, I started to write the blog from the shade of the pool bar whilst we watched the longboats come and go and marveled at the kindness of a farmer leading his water buffalo to bathe in the canal and throw water over it’s head with a bucket. A happy buffalo :-).

The people of Myanmar are amazing – it is a shame the politics are such a mess. They are very friendly and always trying to chat. “Which country?”, “Where you go?” and every night at the hotel we were wished “Happy good sleep!” … which was inevitable so long as the Hounds of Hell were procreating underneath somebody else’s villa ;-).

One more night back in Yangon to catch the flight back to Singapore – the city hadn’t improved much in a week – just as chaotic and no cleaner ;-). We arrived in the middle of the Chinese New Year celebrations and got to see the Lion Dancers leaping about their tight-ropes and platforms high up in the air performing to a crowded, seething mass of hot and sweaty people. The lion danced and shook it’s butt, fluttered it’s eyelashes and winked at the appreciative audience as it performed to loud drum rolls and Chinese music. A bit like a giant puppet. Geoff was very excited to see it – unbelievably sacrificing a Saturday night Martini to rush out into the thronging masses ;-).

I’ll admit it really was quite fabulous to see a dancing lion, but by that stage we had pretty much overdosed on grime and crowds and I was far more excited to know that we would be heading out from the chaos to somewhere altogether more “me” than Yangon City in 24 hours – Melbourne :-).

Tokyo, Japan – February 2015

11 Feb
Shinjuku back-streets, Tokyo

Shinjuku back-streets, Tokyo

Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.

What a surprise! We didn’t have much of an idea what to expect here and other than the vague knowledge that Tokyo was on our eventual “to do” list – we would not necessarily have chosen to visit in the middle of winter!

Having spent my usual extensive research time studying where, when, how and why, I wasn’t entirely convinced that this would be a place for us. My in-depth poring over an online blog article called “25 reasons why you will hate Japan” (in preparation for the anticipated culture shock) probably didn’t create the most positive frame of mind for a visit ;-).

I am quite used to wandering around cities and countries alone whilst Geoff is hard at work but, in this case, I was more than usually concerned about my non-existent Japanese language skills particularly as I would be spending so much time alone. Whilst Geoff would be tackling the problems of the IT world in a warm cozy English speaking office, I would be wandering the wintery streets of one of the worlds largest and most populous cities with absolutely no idea of how to communicate or how to get around. I had already deduced that my usual fallback of walking everywhere to avoid public transport wasn’t going to work as it would probably take a week to walk from one side of the city to the other ;-).

Having survived the entire visit without a hitch I am happy to report to anyone contemplating a trip to Japan that you can safely ignore the above mentioned article (aside perhaps for a bit of background interest!) as there are at least 25 even better reasons why you will LOVE Japan rather than hate it ;-) :-).

I’ll concede that you probably won’t be able to read many of the road signs or some of the menus or a myriad of other useful information which might help you potter about the city, but Tokyo is a lot more western traveller user friendly than either of us were expecting.

That is not to say that one look at the Tokyo subway and rail system map didn’t have me contemplating shuffling back to bed on my first morning to hide under the duvet, but the sun was shining and it all looked far too exciting outside not to at least try to tackle it.

So, PASMO rail and subway pass in hand I headed off with some trepidation. I had already decided against struggling with buying individual tickets for each journey – one glance at the ticket machines and overhead map in the station was quite enough forewarning that that wouldn’t be fun ;-). Having checked out the recommended online Japan Rail and Subway route guide, shuddered (it looked far too challenging for a first run ;-) ), I decided to choose my own route and bit the bullet. My confidence was not initially boosted by a conversation with the receptionist on my way out of the door – she was adamant that I avoid the subway and told me she wouldn’t attempt it because it was just too complicated ….umm… great..

With hindsight, of course, I should have ignored her too!! ;-)

My fears and trepidation were tempered somewhat on arrival at the station.

Joy :-). In addition to being spotlessly clean (every day I saw an employee hand vaccuming the escalator and polishing the hand rail at our local station ) – there were signs in English.

I could read! I couldn’t speak – but I could at least read :-). Yippee! Station names, numbers, line names… it was all there in glorious technicolor English. Even better, when you are on the trains they have announcements in English and most have electronic displays which alternate between Japanese and English – phewy… this would be easy after all :-).

Of course, the ability to understand which station you have disembarked at is one thing – surviving the crowds is quite another. Tokyo stations are some of the busiest in the world…one stop up from ours , Shibuya station, handles over 3 million people every day… and it is only the third busiest in Tokyo…. 3 stops up, Shinjuku station handles 3.6 million people every day (it also has 36 platforms and 200 exits – yikes). Needless to say, that is one hell of a sea of people to get stuck in the middle of when you literally don’t know which way is up and which way is down ;-)

…but I wasn’t planning to stop at either of those on my first foray into the city, so all would be well ;-).

In essence, if you keep your wits about you, do your research beforehand and pin down roughly which of the choice of 20-200 exits you need so that you are (at least) facing in the right direction when you stagger up to daylight from the bowels of the earth, then there is a passing chance that you will be absolutely fine. And with luck your starved skeletal remains will not be stumbled upon in a decade somewhere deep in the under belly of this massive city ;-).

To be honest, the rail and subway stations are so supremely well organized it would have been quite difficult to actually get lost in any of them… the same doesn’t always apply at ground level.

Luckily, I had also read and digested that the Japanese do not read maps oriented in a northern direction like westerners – so their street locator maps are not as immediately helpful as you might think at first glance. Once you’ve worked that out all is fine… and for once Geoff couldn’t laugh at me for turning my city map round and round in circles like a big kid so that it (and we) and the street locator map were all facing in the right direction ;-).

Street names on the street signs weren’t always as westerner friendly as they might have been – some are written in English but then they weren’t always written on the maps..and vice versa! Still, anyone with a good map, a rough sense of direction, an ability to interpret the relatively frequent street locator maps at strategic points on the sidewalks (even if many of them are only in Japanese) … combined with a vague idea of where you should be heading would probably not get TOO lost ;-).

Believe me – I managed it for days all alone before Geoff joined me for the obligatory guided tour of the hot-spots.

Luckily, my first day all alone (wide-eyed and cautious) started and ended on a high note – thank goodness :-).

I gate-crashed a traditional Shinto wedding at the spectacularly serene Meiji Jingu Shrine :-).

You approach the Meiji Jingu Shrine via a long shady tree-lined walk passing under huge wooden Torii gateways; the peace and quiet is broken only by the ritual hand claps of those praying; there are wooden prayer plaques attached to racks in the courtyard and the smell of incense in the air. It was the perfect place to settle in gently into the city.

Heartened, map firmly in freezing cold hand, I wandered back to Harajuku with it’s crazy teenager fashion stores, beautiful eclectic (almost Californian) architecture. No two buildings are the same… steel, glass, wood, traditional and cutting edge all living together side-by-side in harmony :-).

I meandered through the back-streets checking out the coffee shops; chocolate shops (it’s a national obsession which happily resonates with us :-) !); boutiques; plastic food displays (more on this below!); crepe vendors and bars. It was a tough morning ;-).

There were teenagers with pink and purple pig-tailed wigs, sporting the very latest in pajama fashion and furry hats with Mickey Mouse ears. White painted faces with round rosy painted cheeks and bedecked with soft toys and cuddly back-packs they padded about the streets in animal shape bathroom slippers. Another was in a tartan mini-skirt, long black socks, pink stilettos with Greek goddess wings , a black leather jacket and topped with a peaked shiny black military cap (further adorned with chains, key-rings etc etc). She had dark painted cat eyes and I am sure she would have been quite beautiful but that was all  one could see as the rest of her face was hidden behind a  surgical mask which really ruined the look a little ;-). Apparently the wearing of the surgical masks is almost obligatory in winter in Japa…it’s not a look I think would wear well in the western world ;-). Another teen was dressed as Little Bo Peep although without the lamb in tow :-). The crazier the better, it seems!

And finally, to round off the day, I gazed at the futuristic, contemporary glass and steel stores along the tree-lined Omotesando-dori. From one end to the other littered with expensive flagship stores such as Dior, Tod’s, Prada, Louis Vuitton etc etc ….Omotesando-dori is Tokyo’s self-proclaimed version of the Champs Elysees.

Back towards the station I was accosted by a small gaggle of immaculately dressed 7/8 year olds in gold-braided school uniform clutching a clip-board. Ordinarily, I would feign deafness or stupidity in order to avoid verbal contact with anyone under the age of 18 but they were very persistent and really very cute. Even I had to admit that for an 8 year old to tackle a giant strange white foreigner in broken English to carry out a school survey took some guts and probably deserved a little more bravery from me too ;-). They were obviously very happy with my answers to their questions and we all bowed and grinned at each other … still bowing… and grinning as I backed away :-) How cute is that? ;-).

It didn’t take me long to realize that this is probably the coolest city in the world. If I had the chance to be a teenager again (God forbid ;-) ) Tokyo is the ONLY place to do it with real style :-).

It also didn’t take me long to realize that I was already hopelessly smitten and I could barely wait to see Geoff after his first day in the office to tell him I knew he would love it too :-).

Geoff, on the other hand, could hardly wait to share his observations of the day which were far less exciting ;-). I had an in-depth lesson in elevator etiquette and the ins and outs (and ups and downs) of the bowing culture. There is, for anyone planning a trip to Japan, a strict set of rules from which there is no apparent deviation if one finds oneself in an elevator with a Japanese businessman. Everyone must face in the same direction, that is, facing outwards towards the door, everyone must stand equidistant with those around you, head must be bowed, arms must be rod straight at one’s side, there must be no verbal communication at all and absolutely no eye contact whatsoever ;-). These rules still apply even if you have just spent a fruitful few hours chatting happily away with someone and then stepped into the elevator with them … elevator rules are not to be broken ;-). To make it more complicated, when someone exits the elevator, everyone must exit the elevator , one must file out in orderly fashion, eyes down, arms straight, head bowed, and then file silently back in again to continue one’s journey…So, there you have it – let it never be said that this blog doesn’t have its useful tidbits from time to time ;-) !

Day 2 – full of enthusiasm and feeling infinitely braver I decided to take on the full might of the Tokyo rail line AND the subway system. Is there no challenge large enough for me to tackle ??!! ;-)

Of course, this city is somewhat huge… 45 minutes of travel took me half way across Tokyo to Asakusa in Northern Tokyo from Southern Tokyo where we were based, in Ebisu. Following the stream of humanity from the subway it wasn’t exactly hard to locate the busiest, craziest, probably most ornate shrine in Tokyo – Senso-ji. Ram-jammed with school kids, tourists and locals making pilgrimages to the shrine – all crawling slowly along Nakamise-dori – it was absolutely chaotic. Chaos is not something you see much in Japan as it is usually notably orderly and peaceful even when you do get inadvertently caught up in the flow of relentlessly moving people soup.

The entrance to the Shrine complex is impressive to say the least – passing under Thunder Gate with its 1500 pound giant red paper lantern and flanked either side by bronze statues of the gods of thunder and wind. After shuffling through the billions of kids on Nakamise-dori you pass under the Hozomon Gate with it’s 3 giant lanterns. The highlight is, of course, the temple and the 5 tiered pagoda surrounded by busy stalls selling prayer papers, prayer sticks and incense sticks. In the centre of the courtyard is a large incense burner where visitors were waving the incense smoke over themselves for its alleged curative effects.

The central courtyard was filled with smoke and chatter and kids running around excitedly…. I guess it must have been a fun day trip out from school.. lucky me!! ;-)

The downside to being a very obvious foreigner in some of the more popular tourist sites in a city (which surprisingly didn’t seem to have that many western tourists – at least not in the depths of winter!) is that when you are spotted by a teenager wanting to practice English you aren’t spotted by just one…but by the whole class… This lead to some delays to the start of my long militarily planned day of city exploration.

After the second teen with the same set of questions pounced on me at the shrine I was rather hoping I could avoid what I knew was number 3 approaching me with a beguiling smile and an identical clip-board but unfortunately she was accompanied by her teacher who wasn’t going to let me escape. In the end it was one of the few moments of human entertainment I had that day (being the ONLY actual conversation I had all day in my own language ;-) ). At first, the teacher seemed to mistake me for a famous actress which made me smile – perhaps we westerners actually do all look alike to our occidental cousins??! ;-). Then he enquired if I were perhaps a famous singer (I was rather hoping he wasn’t mistaking me for Barbara Streisand) .. eventually he gave up trying to guess and asked me what I do for a living. I told him I was an artist at which point he squeaked to his student – “She famous artist – you hear? Famous artist! you hear?!” at which point he bowed so low I thought he was going to hit his forehead on the concrete path… they wandered off exclaiming excitedly to each other leaving me in peace ;-).

Left alone at last, only 10 steps away at the side of the Shrine, tranquility reigned in the Japanese garden where I finally had some time to wander amongst the Buddha statues and smaller shrines without being asked to take a quick (usually slow ;-) ) survey.

Continuing on through the back streets of Asakusa led to another world… older traditional buildings, some tourist shops and then on to Kappabashi-dori – an entire street dedicated to the sale of items used in the catering business. Each store specialized in one particular kind product: lanterns, neon signs, cutlery and hardware, tea-pots, and my favorite – the stores specializing in the production of highly realistic look-alike plastic food – ice cream, crepes and waffles with 100 different varieties of toppings (cherry, strawberries, cream, chocolate sauce etc etc… you name it there is a plastic replica of it!), pizzas with pre-cut slices suspended in mid-air, pasta with forks flying in mid-air, sushi, plastic meat, salad and vegetables with different colored dressings…. mind-boggling varieties of every possible type and combination of food stuffs known to man…. and not a single one which looked remotely appealing to either of us ;-).

Several miles of walking a roundabout route (I mislaid myself briefly ;-) ) further onwards took me to Ueno (another of the bigger and scarier stations according to tourist legend) and to my intended destination – the Ameya Yokocho Street Market. The stalls are literally underneath the rail line. A busy, traditional, working class market operating against the background rumble of trains overhead, the stalls sell fish, meat, dried food, seaweed, trays of tiny shrimp, fruit, vegetables, and many unidentifiable brightly colored sweets and desserts positively glowing with every variation of food coloring and jammed full of E numbers … they made me twitch even from a relatively safe distance ;-).

By the time I arrived in Ueno I wasn’t planning on actually walking further to my next destination – Yanaka – a more northerly suburb. I had fully intended to brave the subway again. Albeit generally bright and sunny in February it was freezing cold for our thin Floridian blood and I was in fear of hypothermia by mid-afternoon. However, one look at the confusing signs in the entrance to Ueno Station and I almost lost the will to live so I chose the lesser of 2 evils and braved the chilly winds instead.  Distracted by temples and shrines along the way, I hot-footed it across Ueno Park as the sun was beginning to dip in the sky. I started to wonder if I might have bitten off more than I could chew in one day when the previously vaguely helpful street locator maps suddenly dried up at the exit from the Park. As it got colder and darker and even more cold and even more dark – I began to notice that the street names were now only in Japanese. I was wondering if tourists weren’t supposed to wander this far alone ;-). With only my sense of direction (and not generally renowned for my directional prowess) and an almost completely useless map, it came as quite a surprise (and no small amount of relief) that I actually popped up exactly where I wanted to be :-).

Yanaka is a small mom and pop traditional township. Wandering the streets, one has absolutely no sense of actually being in the middle of a massive city… which is probably why we both liked it so much. Small traditional stores, cafes, fishmongers, back-street bakers, interesting winding alleyways and lots of very fat and happy street cats… what more could we want?!

For a moment, on my first visit, I almost felt as if I had walked onto a movie set in small town France. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why….something vaguely romantic about it, old world wooden stores, women cycling up and down the street with shopping in their willow baskets waving at friends on the sidewalk. I almost bumped into an older lady as I wandered aimlessly in a back street and she bowed, smiled and said something I suspected was probably “Good evening”.. although it could have been far less friendly, I guess ;-). Eventually, I realized I was listening to an almost subliminal level of piped music through the main shopping streets – they were playing Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” :-).

On the subject of piped music, the Japan Rail stations play an interesting collection of tunes as you arrive at each station – each one different. Unfortunately, our local station played something which brought to mind a cross between a tune from a Vaudeville freak show (a la American Burlesque of the 1880’s) and a psychotic killer clown movie (a la Stephen King genre of the 1980’s). It was a little disturbing and I’m sure played on my mind in the darkest hours of the night ;-).

And so the scene was set for the remainder of the visit – exploring for the purposes of the guided tour on Geoff’s days away from the grind of the IT world.

As I knew would transpire, Geoff was smitten too after an hour or so of highlights on the Grand Tour. He was, of course, taken on the very best “J Gardner Travel Service” guided tour without a hitch and so he didn’t actually get to experience the full joys of wondering which exit to take of the dozens available at each station ;-).

Together we re-visited my favorite spots and added many more in a whistle-stop whirlwind long weekend tour; Shibuya Crossing (which we enjoyed alongside all of the other 3 million people traversing it from the station to the surrounding high rise shopping malls ;-) ); Geoff also loved the crazy, busy Senso-ji Shrine and the back streets of Harajuku, Asakusa and Yanaka (which we both loved the most for its small-town stores, winding alleyways and what became our favorite coffee and chocolate shop (there is ALWAYS one!); Shinjuku and the seemingly endless thousands of flashing neon lights and business signs (this is, I suspect, what everyone envisages when they think of Tokyo); tiny shrines on street corners and hidden in unexpected back streets; Yoyogi Park where we smiled sweetly at two pretty maiko girls (trainee Geishas) and they obligingly smiled back at us for a quick photo :-); the view of the city lights at night from the Observatory of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building; Roppongi Hills and the Mori Building (the Art Gallery was closed for a few months which was mildly irritating as I was vaguely contemplating taking time out from my busy schedule of daylong exploratory hikes traversing the city to do something more useful… oh well.. the thought was there.. ;-) ); Ginza Crossing with the famous Wako Building and the luxury stores reminiscent of London’s Knightsbridge; the Zojo-ji Temple with its memorial statues of small infants where parents of still-born, aborted or miscarried children can choose one of the statues and decorate it with knitted clothing, knitted red caps, flowers and toys… a poignant experience with the children’s windmills spinning in the breeze and some of the older statues left to be consumed by moss over the passage of years – all under the shadow of the looming 333 meter high Tokyo Tower (taller than the Eiffel Tower but without the full visual appeal and glamour of the Parisian version – sorry guys ;-) ).

One of our favorite experiences was the UN University’s Farmer’s Market where we sampled our way round far too many of the home made cakes and cookies, pickles, green tea purveyors and homemade jam vendors. If we had a dog back home no doubt we would have been tempted to invest in the doggy salt scrub bar to go with the one intended for humans which I bought at enormous expense ;-). We managed to avoid the onset of hypothermia with one of the most delicious latte’s we have had in weeks from a converted VW camper van – who would have guessed ?! :-). In fact, selling one’s wares from the side of a VW camper is obviously de rigeur at this particular market – there was everything on offer from Indian food to sushi to a van with a built-in pizza oven! Although diminutive in scale, it is one of the best farmers markets we have visited – all home grown, home-made and immaculately tidily presented – even the vegetables were tied up like bunches of flowers :-).

The famous Tsukiji Fish Market is top of the list of most tourists “must-see” spots in Tokyo. Frankly, nothing can possibly be worth getting up for at 4am – perhaps the occasional flight to somewhere suitably exotic but definitely NOT a tuna auction – even if it is the largest in the world. Nothing could have compelled us to tear ourselves from a nice warm hotel bed to brave the below freezing temperatures in order to stand around in the icy cold and wet of the trader’s warehouses just to take a few snaps of a tuna auction – so we didn’t bother! ;-). Instead, we drifted through the outer market and wandered into the wholesale market long after the auction action was all over – and that was quite enough! Much more time wandering about there in arctic temperatures amongst the crates of tuna, twitching crabs already pre-coated with breadcrumbs and millions of other unfortunate sea-dwelling creatures and I fear we would both have taken the plunge into full blown vegetarianism. And that would surely have led to starvation in Japan because they don’t seem to sell many vegetables in their restaurants! ,That sentiment lasted however, as far as the first oyster stand – for Geoff at least – even starvation couldn’t convince me to swallow a giant, slimy, grey oyster ;-).

We felt compelled to tear ourselves away from the city for a few hours just because we thought we should explore further afield. So we took a train out into the wider scarier, non-English speaking world – and headed into the very kitschy but attractive town of Kawagoe. Unfortunately, my inefficient research lead me astray and we found ourselves at the wrong station – having disembarked one stop early… ooops..!

Before we had even turned our map around 3 times in a variety of directions trying to locate ourselves, a teenager with a sign around her neck saying “Ask Me!” was by our sides and pointing us in the right direction. We bumped into her again later in the day and she stopped to ask if we were enjoying the town and whether we needed any more help. Impressive. Where we were born and raised gangs of teenagers are more likely to run off with your handbag than offer assistance.

We had been warned that Kawagoe may not be the height of excitement by local Tokyoites but, if you ignore the cheesier of the stores selling penny candy (this town was once the supplier of confectionary for the entire city of Tokyo) it was fun for a few hours. The Edo-era (1600-1800’s) architecture of the renovated warehouse-style kurazakuri buildings was gorgeous; we warmed up on some of the sweetest sweet potato we have ever eaten purchased from a street vendor. This is not the sweet potato of our homeland USA but something more akin to hot candy :-) ); and our visit to the 538 Gohyaku Rakan statues (carved between 1782 and 1825) was memorable if for no other reason than the attentions we received from a supremely friendly ticket collector at the entrance to the Statues who clearly wanted to practice his English.

He was keen to discover in which years we were born and then proudly pontificated that Geoff was born in the year of the dragon and I was born in the year of the snake. Our task was to locate the 12 statues with 12 animals and stroke the head of the animal relevant to the year of your birth. This would apparently bring good luck. So Geoff hunted down the snake for me (my least favorite slithery creature on earth) and the dragon for him and we diligently stroked their heads – as per the photos – only to discover upon later online googling that he had got them completely wrong ;-).

Perfect! Goodness knows what kind of bad luck THAT is now going to bring us. For future reference – it transpires that Geoff was actually born in the year of the snake (1965) and that I was born in the year of the horse (1966) – my second least favorite creature, having been bitten by one as a child and harbored a grudge ever since ;-). Typical!

With Geoff back at work, my final sad day was spent exploring another area I know Geoff will love too … he’ll just have to wait until our next visit ;-).

Kagurazaka, wedged in between 2 stations is another small gem in the city with winding, cobble-stone streets and tiny narrow lanes, many of which meander and then just dead-end. Around any number of corners I found lovely, shady looking restaurants and cafes with tiny Japanese gardens decorated with pots of flowering camellia and miniature bamboo.

And so, finally we left Tokyo, heavy of heart and determined to return not only to explore more of this city (8/9 days really only scratched the surface) but also to travel further afield to Kyoto, Hakone, Osaka, Mount Fuji, Hokkaido and who knows where else….

Tokyo is a city of superlatives….

The most cutting edge architecture and the most beautiful traditional wooden buildings side by side in perfect harmony.

The best Italian food outside of Italy; some of the best Indian food outside of England ;-); and the best patisseries outside of Paris; the best coffee outside of Italy, France or our favorite coffee shop back home in Sarasota ;-); and the best sushi in the world :-).

The friendliest people – if you stand around looking lost for long enough – be that on a street corner with your map upside down, or staring blankly at one of the complicated ticket screens in the station – some kind soul with a smattering of English will try to help you out. I don’t think there are many Londoners or New Yorkers who would invest the time and energy to help out a confused looking lost foreigner when you are rushing to work.

It is, without a doubt, the cleanest city we have ever visited – even more spotless than Singapore!

For reasons we cannot fathom, we actually felt somewhat at home here despite the fact we could barely communicate. Mastering “hello” (konnichiwa), thank you (arigato) and “yes” (hai) doesn’t always cut the mustard for all of one’s travel and food related needs ;-).

What struck us most about the city is it’s subtle beauty. It doesn’t have the jaw-droppingly fabulous Manhattan skyline or the architecture of London’s Houses of Parliament or Tower Bridge, or Paris’s Montmartre  or other such obvious picture postcard images.

For us, at least, its beauty lies in the variety of its neighborhoods, the old and the new side by side in perfect harmony, it’s sense of peace and quiet, calm and serenity even in a crowd (Shibuya and Shinjuku aside!), turn a corner and you are as likely to spot a geisha in a fabulous kimono or a beautiful garden with a shrine, the smell of incense in the air and prayer papers fluttering in the wind.

And where else in the world can you watch (with some considerable admiration) people elegantly eating Indian naan bread or chicken legs with chopsticks; or listen to the sound of a waterfall in a public toilet when you close the door behind you (in order to preserve one’s bathroom related privacy, naturally ;-) ); or (as Geoff tested out with great enthusiasm) have your butt washed with a stream of warm water and then blow-dried by the world’s most complicated toilets with the flick of a few buttons ; or bump into 2 huge sumo wrestlers in a chocolate shop wearing blue flip-flops and carrying matching blue handbags?… or sit next to a beautiful Geisha on the train texting her friends?

It is a city of pure class, simple elegance, design and architectural innovation, history and style :-).

If only we could speak Japanese we would move there :-).

Did I mention just how much we love it? ;-) :-)

Singapore – January 2015

31 Jan
Little India, Singapore

Little India, Singapore

Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.

And so our first month in Singapore is over… We have grown to appreciate that city life has benefits and disadvantages – both of which are a novel experience.

Geoff has enjoyed working abroad again in a different culture with its various challenges and opportunities. Commuting to the office every day with 200,000 other overheated people on the subway has not been so enjoyable, I suspect ;-)

For one who wasn’t 100% convinced that I wanted to abandon my career for 4 months to head out for unknown pastures to a city I had not even considered as a potential vacation destination never mind a short term abode, I have to say, I do love it…. in parts … and more particularly, if and when, the sun shines ;-) :-).

It has been an absolute blast grabbing the map, my notes from endless hours of internet research, my MRT pass (the MRT is the cheapest, cleanest, most user friendly and efficient subway system on the planet) …and a pin – to stick in said map – and head out to explore a new area each day.

My purpose for each day’s research was not (despite Geoff’s suspicions) an in-depth study of Singapore’s coffee and cake shops, but instead, to map out routes for guiding him around the city in a seamless tour of its 4 corners at the weekends and evenings.

So, barely a minute wasted, I have diligently wandered the streets morning, noon and (sometimes) night in my task, returning only when I was simply too hot, tired and sweaty to stagger any further and would retreat instead to the cooling waters of the rooftop pool at our apartment.

It is undeniably warm here. We arrived in December to a torrential monsoon type downpour which left the skies grey and miserable for the first 2 days… I was beginning to resent having left my beautiful sunny, blue skied, floridian winter for the dark, humid, rainy misery of a Singaporean Northeast Monsoon season. This was compounded by my constant checking and dwelling upon the awful online weather forecasts.

However, by the third day I saw a glimmer of hope – the sun came out (and stayed out) and all was beautiful (mostly), albeit still on the hotter side of warm. I realized I was witnessing somewhat of a weather pattern… blue sky and sunshine all day until 4pm or 5pm then a torrential downpour (a la Florida in the summer) and then a nice evening…. and repeat….This could well be fine after all, I comforted myself …..

Having ascertained this, it was obvious that if I wanted to get any fresh air from being stuck in an air conditioned apartment – a world away from our outdoors floridian lifestyle – I would have do it in the morning and early afternoon and get back before the deluge flooded the streets and sidewalks and I wrecked another pair of shoes ;-).

As another few days passed without bothering to check the forecast (which I had already gleaned was always wrong) it became clear that even the anticipated daily downpours were drying up and, although the temperatures were beginning to reach 90F every day (with a heat index of 94F) and the humidity was high, it was actually quite bearable with light breezes and puffy white clouds. Most fortuitously, it was not at all hard to cool down by darting into one of the gazillion ubiquitous malls to enjoy the benefits of their free air conditioning. That said, we have 10 floridian summers of intensive heat survival training under our belts and I suspect that many people coming from drier and/or cooler climes would probably not embrace the Singaporean climate with quite the same relative enthusiasm.

So long as it doesn’t get too relentlessly grey and miserable again during the remainder of our few months here, I could perhaps contemplate living in this climate for a slightly longer period… but don’t tell Geoff because I really miss our furry children …. ;-).

On this note, whilst I was exploring the length and breadth of the city one day, fortified by latte and a large slice of Gula Melaka cake ;-), I made an interesting discovery whilst pottering through Boat Quay (a busy restaurant area close to the business district down by the Singapore river). The Cat Cafe :-). For the princely sum of $12 SGD an hour – other sad and lonely part-time ex-pats (like me) – deprived of their furry friends back from whence they came – can enjoy a delightful time stroking, bonding and playing with 13 fabulously gorgeous resident kitties. Tears sprung to my kitty-deprived eyes when I found the cafe – as I am sure they will also do to Geoff’s when he checks the MasterCard bill at the end of the month ;-) ….. unfortunately, I also found another cat cafe in the Arab Quarter where I spent most of my spare time.

Most interestingly, wandering this one (reasonably small) city has been a thrilling escape to various world destinations without actually having to leave the shores of Singapore at all. Aside from the more obvious glamours of the skyscrapers of the Central Business District and the lovely waterfront promenade with spectacular views of the skyline at Marina Bay, the most interesting parts of this city are its weird and wonderful foreign community enclaves – Little India, Chinatown and Kampung Glam, the Arab Quarter :-).

Our absolutely favorite suburb is Kampung Glam, a largely Malayan Moslem enclave with several square blocks of Arabic traders. The original village expanded outwards from the Sultan Mosque and the restored shophouses on Arab Street, Bali Lane and Haji Lane are filled with batik, swathes of silk and lace fabric, baskets and Turkish restaurants with blue-tiled tables. It’s small but fabulous. If we were ever to find time or the inclination to actually do any clothes shopping in Singapore it would be in Haji Lane which is overflowing with great boutique stores. Most importantly, our (my!) favorite coffee and cake shop is there too – Shop Wonderland :-).

Little India is similarly enthralling – wandering the alleys and shops with the sometimes overwhelming smell of heat and chaos and spices. I cannot confirm or otherwise, but Geoff tells me this place is very authentic – maybe I will have no need to travel to India and can now safely avoid contracting some ghastly sub-tropical medical complaint ;-). More likely, it has made the prospect of going there even more enticing!

We visited the busy but serene Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple with its stunning colorful carvings and adornments and watched Hindu worshippers busily performing their various rituals.

Something unexpected can be seen at every street corner in Little India – a shrine to Ganesh the Elephant God presiding over a fruit and vegetable stall; ornately painted and decorated buildings and arcades; strains of Bollywood dance music can be heard drifting from store fronts; elegant women drift by in swishing saris with twinkling sequins and beads; gold jewelry stores dazzle; fruit and veg markets are filled with produce we have never seen before; the chaotic “wet market” where you have to wade through puddles of water used to swoosh down the fish stalls all day long; dried food shops filled with delicious smelling spices; the scent of jasmine filling the air around the stalls selling intricate handmade floral garlands – tiny flowers and buds entwined with gold and red ribbon and leaves; and tailor shops filled with all manner of exotica – silks, saris and multi-colored fabrics.

Another of our favorite places to wander aimlessly is the Marina Bay promenade in the morning when the light on the skyscrapers is dazzling. The area is well-known for it’s modern architecture – not to everyone’s taste but undeniably striking – the lotus flower shaped Art Science Museum with its colorful lily ponds, the Helix Bridge – the world’s first pedestrian double helix curved bridge, the Esplanade Theatres on the Bay reminiscent of 2 spiky squatting hedgehogs or 2 half pineapples – as Geoff observed ;-) , the bizarre futuristic (I do hope not!) Gardens by the Bay with its (amongst other things) 16 story high Supertrees. Whatever the designer of the “Supertree” was smoking it must have been really good ;-).

The horizon of the Marina Bay area is dominated by the simply enormous looming towers of the 5 star $5 billion SGD casino-resort hotel for the well-heeled – Marina Bay Sands Hotel. The 3 towers are crowned by a 3 acre tropical park and infinity pool for swimming (almost literally) in the sky :-).

We are not quite sure why we weren’t housed there for our stay … perhaps we can put in a request for our return in March ;-).

As it is, we live very close to the (also) relatively upmarket area of Orchard Road – literally 20 paces from our apartment – a shopping mecca. Orchard Road is famous for its mind-bogglingly huge malls – 22 of them. If I loved mall shopping I would be in shoppers heaven but I prefer either a) no shopping at all or b) unexpected finds in small unobtrusive boutiques. Still, the architecture is impressive particularly at night when the malls are lit with colored lights. Some malls are more like night-clubs although the booming music blares from the sliding entrance doors at all hours of the morning, noon and night – which makes us feel quite old ;-).

Interspersed with the modern glass mall extravaganzas there are also pockets of older world charm such as Peranakan Place with its attractive bars, and Emerald Hill. Only a few paces from the crazy, frenetic, noisy nightlife on Orchard Road, Emerald Hill is a street of gorgeous restored terrace houses in the Chinese Baroque style with shutters, ornate shiny ceramic gutters and shady seating areas decorated with pot plants.

On the other hand, we aren’t quite as keen on Clarke Quay – a concrete and plastic jungle with all the appeal of a fairground at a cheap seaside resort – replete with a Hooters Sports Bar… ;-).

Some things are odd here … some places seems to have missed the plot: a reflecting pool with nothing reflected in it (quite an achievement!); there is a cute looking coffee shop in a park only steps from our apartment – with a display rack for delicious delicacies but never any cake actually on display … did they fundamentally miss the point of coffee being a liquid intended solely to absorb and negate the calorific content of a 1000 calorie slice of carrot cake?; there is also a great restaurant/bar conservation project of a former church close by – Chijmes – now a beautiful courtyard with the restored white church as centerpiece – but a tragic array of mediocre restaurants and bars around it – seems a bit of a wasted opportunity….

And then there is Chinatown, of course! Resplendent in fabulous color and lanterns which we always love – still, it is difficult to imagine any self respecting Chinese person actually parting with hard earned money in any of the trinket market stalls. The only people we ever saw in Chinatown (as opposed to some of the more authentic residential Chinese areas) were other tourists in amongst the piles of plastic mass produced junk. However, even we would have imagined that the Chinese Gate would be made of something more solid than hardboard – seriously, people?!

The Chinese New Year markets are a different story – busy all day with Chinese families buying New Year house decorations and gifts – the stalls are filled with beautiful decorated red envelopes which are given with gifts of money.

On any street corner, one might see silver or red tin burners with groups of worshippers rolling up gilded papers wrapped with red ribbon, throwing them into the flames and sending up a prayer.

And of course, fabulous golden Buddha effigies abound throughout the city – each one surrounded with burning incense and donations of food and drink……anything from cans of Coke to bottles of water, and from oranges to slices of cake….

Dotted all over Singapore there are wonderful pagodas and temples where the air is filled with the smell of smoking incense and the buildings are spectacles of color and craftsmanship….favorites are Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple and Wak Hei Cheng Temple.

Bugis has a thriving Chinese community and the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple was chaotically busy at any time of day. With the approach of the Chinese New Year in February, it seemed that some of the Buddhist temples were getting busier towards the end of January with a constant stream of office workers at lunchtime. A fascinating place, I could observe quietly from the shadows for hours as devotees performed their various rituals. Before they entered the temple, worshippers would hold 3 lit incense sticks (or a bunch of flowers) between their palms against their foreheads. They would bow 3 times in the direction of the temple, then turn to the right and then the left repeating this until they had bowed in all 4 directions. When it was very busy at the temple the smell of incense was almost overpowering. Then the sticks would be thrown into a bronze tub to fizzle out. Others would be kneeling on the floor, shaking sticks in a round container until one fell out, others were busily sending up prayers….

The Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple is surrounded by a bright, colorful marketplace of traders selling flowers, rolls of yellow prayer papers with gold foil wrapped in red ribbon, and incense sticks to the devout entering the temple.

Of the weekends we actually spent “at home” in Singapore each one turned into a (vegetarian) pig-fest at the restaurants which weren’t serving Chinese gloop. I say this with the conviction that anyone who is a fan of anglicized or americanized Chinese restaurants in the west would unlikely be a fan of “real” native Chinese food ;-). Luckily, we began to learn that there were a plethora of other food options to test out – in an average single weekend in our favorite parts of town we could (and usually did! ;-) ) enjoy Peranakan, Thai, French, Indian, American, Asian fusion, Indonesian and Turkish – in one form or another.

On or first weekend, poor Geoff got very excited about a trip out to a suburb, Simei, where his parents used to live with him as a toddler when his father was in the Royal Air Force in the late 60’s. He was hoping his former abode was still there – which seemed a long shot. It transpired that the former services quarters have undergone something of a transformation – his former home had obviously been flattened and somebody wealthy had built a multi-million $SGD state of the art house on it…but the “playground” of his youth was still there – a storm drain outside of the house …. looked like a biological hazard waste ground to me but he was very excited about it… bless… ;-)

We also pottered about in some of the lesser touristy visited residential areas – Katong was another contradictory mix – largely Moslem with halal markets and a hawker centre but every other shophouse on the main street was a night club or karaoke bar.

We had some fun nights out – meeting up with an old friend of Geoff’s who has lived here for years; finding an unexpected light and music show at Marina Bay at night (I guess I hadn’t done my research well enough as “Wonder Full” seems to be on in all its multi-faceted glory every night!); wandering the busy bars and cafes in Kampung Glam…. wondering how to re-finance the mortgage after the unbelievably horrendous bar bill for 3 drinks at a trendy new bar “Long Play” where you could lope around pretentiously on leather sofas and recliners listening to a DJ playing jazz LP’s; my choices of restaurants weren’t always popular – I kept forgetting that the Indonesian ones were Moslem and whenever we walked in and the other patrons were dressed head to foot in black burkhas we knew Geoff would not be enjoying a glass of wine with dinner ;-) … luckily I managed to make up for some of my inadvertent mistakes with offerings of interesting after-dinner bars instead ;-) …Geoff’s favorite became Bar Stories – a hole in the wall hidden away on the top floor of a shophouse in the Arab Quarter in Haji Lane – no menus, just 2 guys with a lot of imagination and creativity – tell them the flavors you like, they ask a few questions and then they knock up a masterpiece, decorate it with inverted lime skins, twigs and berries and set fire to it ;-)

Life in an apartment as opposed to the sort of indoor/outdoor lifestyle we enjoy in Florida has had it’s ups and downs. It really isn’t for us – too much like living in a gilded cage….cut off from the world but you can still see it all going on in the streets below. And by the same token, the biggest bonus is, of course, that the city is literally at our feet – the MRT station is all of a 2 minute walk and thereafter the whole of Singapore is at our disposal.

The advantage of apartment living rather than living out of our suitcases in hotels for 4 months are, however, priceless – the main ones being the achievement of some sense of normality, as opposed to being a homeless itinerant and the opportunity to stay fit(ish!) and healthy(ish!).

We have a tiny kitchen where I can still attempt to cook – albeit that there is a miserable selection of organic fruit and veg here and what can be located on the local supermarket shelves is limp, shipped in from afar (often from back home!) and 5 times the price of the US (we really miss our Sarasota organic farmers market :-( ). Many of the vegetables have exotic and unpronounceable names and we really don’t know what to do with them so we just eat everything raw and keep our fingers crossed …. ;-).

Surprisingly, food has been a little bit of a problem here. Generally speaking the supermarkets are filled with lots of horrendous looking packaged, dehydrated food “products” and very little that we would actually want to consume. No crops are grown in Singapore so food appears to be imported mainly from Malaysia, China (yikes) or the US.

Not being fans of Chinese cuisine (I use the term generously ;-) ) doesn’t really help as 75% of the population in Singapore is Chinese, as a result, oriental food tends to dominate the restaurant and supermarket scene.

My first rhetorical question upon being sent out to buy food supplies from the local supermarket – “Surely Singapore has better than the inappropriately named FairPrice chain to offer?” ;-) – remained pretty much the same during our residence…. I could, I suppose, have taken the subway to one of the wet markets in Chinatown or Little India but really I couldn’t be bothered to drag my weekly supplies (hot and sweaty across town) all the way home on the train… life is so different here from life in the US and the UK where we have the luxury of cars for every aspect of our existence.

On the matter of the local supermarket, it also took only one excursion to “FairPrice” to learn that asking for assistance was entirely fruitless. My first request fell upon deaf ears (either that or I was ignored – which is highly likely!) and my second and final attempt to elicit help – a request for the location of a tub of hummus was similarly unsuccessful. I was doubtful from the start to be honest but as this is a multi-cultural society I still clung to a glimmer of hope. However, this fairly innocuous question was greeted with a look of absolute disdain and bafflement – “Hoomos?.. what is?”…. “It’s like a paste made with chickpeas” I answered … “Naw” was the sneered venomous response… followed by a glare and determined concentration on continuing to re-arrange the non-organic apples in a huge pile rather than having to engage with the irritating foreigner any further ;-).

I scuttled away wondering if I might have committed some embarrassing cultural faux-pas.

Had I asked for pigs eyeballs or processed balls of chicken fat I would perhaps have received a happy smile and been pointed in vaguely the right direction….not that I would have needed any guidance as I had already spotted the vast selection of disgusting fatty balls next to the largest refrigerated container of Tofu known to man – apparently it comes in all shapes, sizes and configurations… pity we don’t eat that either ;-) !

Other benefits of apartment living – washing facilities (yippee – because dragging my undies to a launderette for months on end wasn’t going to wash… so to speak ;-) …)… but not exactly state of the art drying facilities so that the apartment looks like a chinese laundry most nights.

A gym (woefully inadequate compared to that at home in Florida) … but, on the upside, a challenging, mainly uphill, (and rarely down dale) 3 mile run in our local park every other evening. Fort Canning Park may well kill us both in the heat and humidity of a Singapore winter ;-) but we return from our runs the color of beetroots convinced that it MUST be good for us …. and …. even if it isn’t, it is a beautiful park full of exotic trees and shrubs, great views over the city, strange jungly creature noises at dusk, a labyrinth of confusing paths and many, many, many steep staircases ;-).

Luckily, Mr Slowcoach has only lost me once – and I won’t bound off again in future without checking to see where the lazy lump has got to ;-) I had to run round the perimeter of the labyrinth twice as it was beginning to get dangerously dark with no idea where I was, looking for him. Eventually, by some miraculous skyscraper “map” reading and both taking an educated guess as to where we might potentially meet if this sort of thing happened, we did eventually bump into each other and staggered home exhausted as we had both clocked up double miles running round in circles in the opposite direction away from each other ;-).

Some day-trips “out of the city” – that means anything around 15 minutes by subway from wherever you live – were a little less exciting than exploring the city itself. Such as, the Southern Ridges – hot, sweaty and nowhere near as lovely as I had expected from my copious and clearly inaccurate research. I suspect that those unlucky enough not to get out into the “real” wilderness too often are simply happy for the break from the downtown skyscrapers and tiny overcrowded apartments. In reality the Ridges is just a meandering paved pathway through some trees with intermittent views of concrete garden (city apartment blocks as far as the eye can see) and a pedestrian bridge called Henderson Waves made up of 7 undulating steel ribs and a dark wooden deck (for maximum heat retention which is ideal in this climate ;-) ) which garners far more attention in reviews than it actually justifies…hmmm…..

The Botanic Gardens were considerably more attractive but, again, way too hot and sweaty by the time we dragged ourselves over there and around it. More motivated to try out some of the cafes and restaurants in Dempsey Hill close to the Botanic Garden than continue to perspire inelegantly around the Gardens (surrounded by the noisy kids of a thousand equally sweaty day-trippers with picnics) we grabbed a cab and headed off starving hungry to PS Cafe which I had read wondrous things about.

Dempsey Hill is a former restored British army base from the colonial era – refurbished and re-identified as trendy bars, cafes, restaurants and stores….. a very appealing place to chill out on a Sunday afternoon (if you have the time and energy to wait an hour and a half for a table when you are starving to death). Good job the sticky date pudding with toffee sauce at PS Cafe was worth the wait or I might have been in trouble for insisting we join the Sunday brunch line ;-).

And, of course, any weekend involving walking for more than 10 minutes invariably ended with the obligatory Chinese foot massage as Geoff can’t seem to manage a whole day on his feet without insisting that he can stagger no further without one. They were, as always, exemplary, but it would usually end with me screaming silently into an umbrella gritted between my teeth as my balding reflexologist (with no english language skills whatsoever) grimaced sweetly at me from time to time with his toothy grin as he dug his fingers deeper into my calves. I am sure he only broke concentration long enough to glance up periodically to check to see whether I had actually passed out or not ;-).

Still, no pain, no gain and we always walked out from a decent session of Chinese torture on cushions of air :-).

We shall miss them as we head off into the freezing wintery weather of Tokyo….

Railay, Thailand – January 2015

19 Jan
Phra Nang Beach

Phra Nang Beach

Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.

Thailand has redeemed itself – saved by the Southern Thai Islands in the Gulf of Thailand :-). We have visited these parts 20 odd years ago – previously Phuket and the island of Phi Phi – the former of which we didn’t particular like for the usual seedy horrors and grime associated with many parts of Thailand – and the latter which were stunningly beautiful back then but badly damaged by the tsunami of 2004 and, apparently, not very sympathetically re-built. Also, now incredibly overrun with tourists by all accounts, we didn’t bother re-tracing previous steps to Phi Phi.

For a quick 2 hour hop from Singapore for a weekend break, Krabi  province – West Railay Beach in particular – and its environs didn’t disappoint – thank goodness – we would hate to have wasted a precious weekend ;-).

It is a very (very!) laid-back place and it took all of about 20 minutes to take a deep breath, relax and get into the swing of the no flip-flops, toes in the sand, dinner in a swimsuit and sarong lifestyle :-).

The beaches, limestone karst scenery, jungle and clear turquoise seas were also gorgeous.

Paradise had its downsides too, of course. Not the least of which was a voracious species of weird and wonderful bugs which came out to play at dusk and would only be (slightly) deterred by a liberal bathing in neat Deet. We have probably lost 10 years of fruitful life as a result of spraying and inhaling the nasty stuff every evening and morning but it beat the monster bites… at least in the short term ;-).

And then there are the crowds…. this island chain is very, very popular…. from 5 star tourists to backpackers… By some stroke of luck I managed to pick one of the slower periods for this time of year – still absolute height of season for perfect weather but too close to the recent Christmas and New Year holidays for many people to still be on vacation.

I cannot quite imagine how overrun it would have been a few weeks earlier.

We decided immediately upon arrival that the only way to see these beaches in all of their glorious pristine emptiness is either to drift about at your leisure in your own private yacht, or to get up with the lark and make your own way to them on foot or by kayak. The trick was to arrive and enjoy the calm before the storm – specifically before the arrival of the ubiquitous longtail boats and speedboats sped across the waters towards you destroying the peace with their noisy diesel engines. Each boat disgorged 20 or more screeching tourists with all their paraphernalia for a day at the beach – beach balls, umbrellas etc etc….. ghastly.

As luck would have it (or rather, as supremely good planning would have it ;-) ) our beach hotel on West Railay (itself a top destination beach) was a short 15 minute walk or a relaxing 10 minute kayak paddle on tranquil, clear waters around the headland to our favorite beach, Phra Nang. Before 9.30am it was the most perfect beach on earth – white sand, jungle, butted at each end by 2 imposing limestone headlands, complete with caves (and some diverting appendages at the phallus shrine in Princess Cave – a shrine to fertility), dripping limestone stalactites, views over the limestone karsts in the sea, swifts swooping, calm turquoise waters and total tranquility. From 9.30am onwards the ear-splitting arrival of the first longtail boat heralded the death knell to peace so we leapt back into the kayak and paddled away for the solitude of the offshore karst islands leaving the noisy hordes behind us – and – feeling a little sorry for them that they would never see it as we had….

Pretty much the same story pertained to our own beach – West Railay – before 10.30am it was beautiful and again after 4pm when the longtails revved up their enormous engines and started to ship the day trippers out again leaving us a beach of relative calm where you could grab a bamboo mat and sit on the sand, candles flickering in the breeze, listening to the gentle waves lap on the shore whilst watching the sunset. A cocktail in one hand and a can of Deet in the other … what could be more blissful? ;-)

So the best place to be between 10am and 4pm is either visiting somebody else’s beach with the masses, snorkeling, kayaking or enjoying some impromptu rock and jungle climbing :-). I had already read about the lovely viewpoint over the Railay beaches and headland cliffs but I was also concerned that the climb may be a little heavy going and most likely the kind of hike which would be out of my usual range of acceptable exertion. Whilst I can walk for days (without stopping) on the flat or on a slight incline – give me anything with a sheer rock face and a tangle of vertical jungle tree roots and I am unlikely to be first in the queue to scale it ;-).

Stupidly, I had mentioned to Geoff that we might spend an hour checking out the viewpoint if it hadn’t rained in the previous few days – having read that even a slight trickle of precipitation would leave the uphill route a treacherous bog where only the insane would venture.

Perhaps unfortunately it hadn’t rained ;-), so I agreed we should check out the bottom part of the climb to see if it was really as nasty as some people had said for those amongst us who are less nimble and prone to be paralyzed with a fear of slipping and breaking our necks.

Geoff scaled it like a pro ( hmmmm… great.. I guess all those year in the Boy Scouts paid off). I dragged somewhat behind fighting my (according to Geoff) irrational fears with every uphill grope and slip, muttering under my breath. To be fair the climb was quite fun and certainly interesting in parts – the best way to survive was to cling onto the ropes which had been attached at strategic points or grab a hand hold in the rock or just trust your neck to a root. I almost enjoyed the climb as it was quite exhilarating for a vehement non-climber like myself – so I was quite proud of my achievement as those much younger and more agile scaled past me (looking sympathetic ;-) ).

However, there were moments when I had ascended something unimaginable only to start to imagine how impossible it would be to descend it again on the way back to horizontal terra firma. This is my real fear…. not the up so much as the impossible down! ;-)

With various encouragement and inelegant hoisting at the less appealing parts we made it to the top where I hoped we would stop, take a quick snap, re-group and start the descent.

However, Geoff had seen the alternative route to a lagoon (which I had really hoped he wouldn’t see ;-) ) and I already knew from my research that beasties lay ahead that way… To add to it, many people were back-tracking half way and giving up on the final descent into the lagoon.

Naturally, I lost the battle to return immediately to the crowded beach and we pressed on through the buggy undergrowth to a downhill section which looked more treacherous to me than descending K2. I put up some resistance – to no avail – and was “encouraged” to grab the rope, lean back and start scaling down. I managed it without breaking my neck but seriously contemplated breaking Geoff’s instead ;-)

Surely, we couldn’t be far from the damn lagoon?…. It was only then that we started to notice the flip-flop graveyard littered all around us… Surely nobody in their right mind would have followed the route we had taken in a pair of flip-flops? It seemed that many people had indeed and once they had (unsurprisingly) ripped the thongs out of the foot or they had simply become too water and mud-logged to take another step forward they had simply been abandoned… Nice that the scruffy backpackers (everyone else was in walking shoes at the very least) couldn’t be bothered to carry their smelly trash out with them…

Not more than a few minutes further on we saw a gaggle of hikers peering straight down a vertical shaft and chattering about whether to go or not… my heart sunk :-(. Luckily, even Geoff realized at that point that “No” meant “No”, so I found a semi-comfortable rock to perch on whilst he hopped over the rock edge into the abyss and scaled down on a rope.

Younger people passed on the opportunity to follow but then again much older people with bare feet leapt over the side too with no hesitation. I hope they were at least bona fide rock climbers – the Krabi area being a major destination for climbers the world over because of the sheer rock faces of the limestone cliffs.

I was quite proud of him when he returned hot and sweaty some 30 minutes later having managed the descent into the murky depths of the lagoon and the subsequent ascent without killing himself :-). I didn’t feel I could moan too much about my own forthcoming descent which I would have to make shortly after that… I think he was quite proud of me too when I managed it (slowly) but without actually crying, albeit with some further assistance ;-).

I was not born to climb – show me the top of a mountain and I will blithely run off it attached to a large kite – but don’t ask me to walk down a slippery, slidy cliff face with treacherous roots to trip over and sharp rocks to impale myself on, clinging on for dear life to a mangy old rope ;-).

A more sedate alternative to escaping the crowds on West Railay was to take a longtail boat trip to Hong Island to join the crowds there instead ;-). It was a long, slow and very noisy boat trip and we stopped en route to snorkel with a large school of friendly fish, then stopped again at another even more busy beach than the one we had left behind, and then finally arrived at Hong Island where we grabbed a kayak – allegedly to explore the famous lagoon. However, the stupid longtail boat driver (with obviously no idea of tide times and perhaps even less interest in keeping his clients happy) had taken so long to actually get to Hong Island that the tide was out and we were faced with exploring a muddy swamp on foot rather than paddling around a pristine clear lagoon…perfect… ;-)

Hong Island beach was beautiful but there were already 1000 odd longtails on it with previously disgorged passengers (I may exaggerate but we were getting fed up with the crowds by this stage). Almost all of the other tourists were of apparently Japanese nationality and all attired in bright orange life-jackets. I have never seen a nation so utterly terrified of drowning. Some of them were at least in the water – all 6” deep of it – but even more tragically others were still wearing their life jackets sitting in the sun on the beach…

If we never see another life-jacket clad Japanese tourist again during the remainder of our 3 months out here we will be happy….There is no hope of that, I fear.

We will also be happy to return to a country (Singapore!) where there is no trash or mess or grime … as much as we were sad to leave beautiful West Railay and the Gulf of Thailand, we were definitely not unhappy to leave the occasional ankle deep piles of garbage behind us.

Tip-toeing through the accumulated detritus of a few 100,000 tourists and the resident Thais who simply can’t be bothered to clear up the trash was wearing thin.

Whilst the beaches were relatively pristine at the times of day we were enjoying their benefits at least, the interior walkways and the labyrinth of pathways connecting hotels to restaurants and shops etc on Walking Street and further into the peninsular were, frankly, appalling – a veritable playground for the macaque monkeys to scavenge through :-(.

Thankfully, our hotel was tropical, beautiful, very peaceful and immaculate in every way – the rest of the Railay peninsular needs some attention. We would suggest a little more than the collapsing, dilapitated hand-painted sign (which made us snigger) promising that the area was being cleared of trash… we didn’t see much evidence of that! Come on guys – it would only take a handful of underemployed locals a couple of days of graft to have it all tidied up – then the scruffy backpackers might have more of an incentive not to throw their water bottles and cigarette butts into the undergrowth for the rest of us to trip over ….

Still, we managed to make our way every evening through the debris and scuttling monkeys to some outstanding restaurants. Walking Street is a dirt, sandy track lined with ramshackle bars and shops with a distinctly relaxed beach feel which was perfect :-). It meandered on (through the trash) to the restaurant area – also ramshackle bamboo huts but with 2 of the best restaurants we have eaten in during the last month of travel. The Kohinoor Indian restaurant was outstanding for 2 deprived curry lovers (I don’t want to say how many curries, naan breads and onion bhajis we consumed in a weekend because it was relentless piggery – if they had opened early enough we’d have eaten curry for breakfast too ;-) ). However, the absolute best meal was at the Wan-A-Rouy fish restaurant – run by what looked like 2 very industrious teenagers with a smattering of english who explained the fresh fish options of the day (proudly displayed on a tin rack outside the restaurant) and they would then cook it, however you would prefer, on an old half oil drum BBQ in the street. It was amazingly excellent – ruined only by the 2 irritating 20’something spoilt american girls who insisted on supervising the preparation, cooking and sanitary conditions of their fish. They seasoned it (grabbing the seasoning from the chef’s hand), pushed her out of the way and wrapped it all up in tinfoil and then stood guard over it on the BBQ — presumably to ensure that the filthy locals didn’t get access to their dinner again…. absolutely outrageous… They then demanded plastic cutlery – clearly out of fear that they would contract botulism from the restaurant’s own cutlery. If only .. ;-)

It was a performance to behold. We were sorely tempted to intervene just in order to protect the sanity of the 2 kids running the place who were working their fingers to the bone, talking the finer points of fish and sauce options with customers in a difficult foreign language, taking orders, cooking it, preparing and serving drinks etc etc. They, nevertheless, maintained excellent humor but must have been baffled by the tourist’s rudeness and I suspect their paranoid, loud, obnoxious and controlling behavior did little to encourage interracial harmony… Sigh…..

So…it was with a tinge of regret that we boarded our longtail boat back to reality after a wonderfully relaxing weekend break (well… perhaps aside from the rock climbing ;-) ) but happy that we could leave Thailand this time around with warmer, fuzzier feelings than we had a few weeks earlier :-).

Chiang Mai, Thailand – January 2015

6 Jan
Ran-Tong Elephant Save & Rescue Center

Ran-Tong Elephant Save & Rescue Center

Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.

As we flew in over Chiang Mai from Laos, we realized just how huge and sprawling this city is. Not exactly the diminutive ancient templed city in the jungle we had envisaged.

Things didn’t improve on the drive to the hotel ….. lots of run-down inner city 1970’s buildings, traffic chaos and general disarray. Not a great start…. it seemed to have all the most unattractive parts of western culture – distracting and unattractive western style advertisement hoardings and backed up traffic crawling through traffic lights…lots of cars getting nowhere fast ….

Oh well, not people to fall at the first traveller’s hurdle we grabbed a tuk-tuk and headed down to the Saturday night “Wualai Walking Street” Market in the hope of finding some local color. It was pretty disappointing and seedy aside from one lonely vendor selling authentically hand made crafts rather than items produced in their thousands in a backstreet sweat shop. I couldn’t fight the sense of doom and the impression that Thailand rather seemed to be the China of South East Asia with all of the negative images that conjures.

Pressing on, we stumbled across a food market which was the hub of Saturday night activity for locals and tourists alike. People were sitting at tables in a concrete park wedged between the main road and the wall to the old city sampling the food vendors various options. Geoff braved something deep fried but I wasn’t convinced I wouldn’t get dysentery so I abstained ;-)

The highlight of this part of the city was undoubtedly the Silver Temple (Wat Sri Suphan) – which was tiny but spectacular and the first silver temple we have seen. It is decorated with highly intricate images and frieze scenes created by the silver craftsmen who work on site.

Still, the atmosphere is so different from the Laotian Wats – busy, noisy, no sense of peace, tranquility nor calm, multi-colored plastic banners adorning the surrounding buildings, scaffolding… and women are not allowed inside the chapel so Geoff was sent in with the camera instead :-( … umm … it wasn’t like that in Laos!

We continued on to the Old City inside the ancient walls but didn’t find anything there which greatly appealed either…aside from a couple more temples it was just as dirty and run-down as the market area… ho hum.. this wasn’t going quite as planned! The grimy bars were filled with equally scruffy and grimy looking back-packers and I was seriously beginning to question the wisdom of agreeing to Geoff’s request to stop here at all rather than just get the connection straight back to Singapore.

Presumably suffering from some element of guilt ;-), Geoff was busily trying to convince me it would all look better in the morning when we weren’t so tired.  I wasn’t so sure… I just didn’t feel any kind of affinity to the city at all but I was prepared to concede that anywhere would be hard pushed to compete with Luang Prabang.

In reality, the only reason I really agreed to stop in Chiang Mai is that I had read about all the elephant conservation centers in Northern Thailand which piqued my interest. I thought it might be fun to ride an elephant and get up close and personal with these amazing creatures for a day and to learn how to be mahouts (elephant carers :-) ) so I had pre-booked a tour a couple of weeks earlier when we had arranged the trip out to South East Asia.

In the meantime, we decided we would make the best of the intervening day and head off to Tiger Kingdom early in the morning (again, against my better judgement) and then spend the afternoon exploring the countryside in the nearby mountains. So we booked a cab for the following morning to take us out of the city in the hope it would cheer us up. We hit the sack a little disenchanted but not without hope for a reprieve for Northern Thailand, if not for the city itself.

Up bright and early and getting ready to catch the cab something niggled in the back of my mind to make me check the paperwork for the elephant booking … we had just had so much going on for the last few weeks that I hadn’t had a chance to double check the bookings and plans for Thailand.

Yikes – the cab to Tiger Kingdom on its way to collect us, breakfast not yet consumed and dressed all spic and span for a casual day stroking tigers and sitting in the air conditioned luxury of the most expensive private cab in Thailand, I realized with dawning horror that I had made a massive booboo. I had got all my days and dates confused (duh!) and we actually had about 10 minutes to change clothes, re-pack the backpack for an entirely different sort of excursion, grab breakfast and catch the mini-bus to go and play with the filthy, dusty, muddy elephants for the day. Oops… ;-)

Disaster (and the loss of a huge deposit) was averted, we caught the mini-bus, and headed off for what turned out to be one of the most singularly exhausting days of our lives ;-) An hour and a half cramped into the back of the mini-bus we headed out of town into the mountains. I have absolutely no idea where we actually went as all the road signs are written in Thai script. That may sound like an odd thing to comment upon but the town and village names in both Cambodia and Laos were also written using the latin alphabet so we could at least read the road signs albeit we couldn’t pronounce them and we could , more importantly, locate ourselves on a map :-).

In any case, wherever we were, the countryside was far prettier than the city – thank goodness.

So… somewhere out in the boonies, we spent the day at the Ran-Tong Save and Rescue Centre “learning how to feed” elephants (seriously?). Feeding an elephant is not something that actually requires a lot of learning as they have the ability to sniff out a banana (or a left over skin inadvertently left in someone’s back-pack) at 1000 paces and snaffle it with no assistance required from a human to “feed” it at all. Before you can blink an enormous dribbling proboscis will have found its way straight to its targeted snack and woe betide you if you don’t hand it over immediately otherwise you might just get belted by a 3 tonne mammal.

That part of “training” over, we then had to learn 6 verbal commands – in Thai of course as these heffelumps don’t speak a lot of English. Unbelievably, they can understand the voice commands of their own particular mahouts and know the words for “stop” (our rather disobedient ‘phant (named Pui) got lots of practice with this one), “reverse” (same again) ;-), “lie down”, “go”, “turn right” and “turn left”. How clever is that?!!

And then for what I thought would be the hardest bit of the day (silly me) – learning to clamber onto Pui bareback. That wasn’t too difficult although you do have to perform some contortions but when Pui lurched to stand up and I had only a lonely looking rope to cling onto for dear life I began to spot the precariousness of my position… Geoff got to nestle up behind his ears without the benefit of anything to hang on to at all.

I don’t know which was the most terrifying position – they were both suitably scary perched up on the very lumpy, uncomfortable and prickly back of an enormous beast.

To be fair I was reasonably relaxed on the flat and it was quite fun lumbering around in a field looking at the view. However, it didn’t take long to realize that Pui had a mind of his own and was really only motivated by where the next banana was coming from. If there was no banana within sniffing distance he re-focussed his attentions on some distant delicious morsel of greenery – whether on the nice flat designated trail or not (mainly not ;-) ). So, we got to practice “Hao” (=STOPPP!!) and “Toy” (=reverse) quite frequently.  Generally speaking, Pui liked to reverse backwards down hill and happily away from some lethal precipice – which was interesting. If he had been a toddler he would have spent most of the day standing on the naughty step ;-)

Pui took us a number of detours for which I haven’t fully forgiven him yet and by the end of the second half of the day we were both covered from head to foot in sweat, mud and dust. For purposes of elephant entertainment, I suppose, he also enjoyed rubbing his 3 tonnes of prickly, sandpapery flesh up and down his equally huge prickly, sandpapery elephant friend. He didn’t seem to much notice if there was a stray human limb being crushed or any delicate human skin being abraded in the process. I suppose I should be grateful that I didn’t actually break a leg squished between them and in the end the only injury sustained (aside from 16 various sized bruises up and down my legs, calves and thighs) was the loss of the top half of my big toenail ripped off between the 2 of them rubbing up and down each other….nice…

Overall, I THINK it was fun – Geoff certainly enjoyed it ;-). He enjoyed it so much he could barely tear himself off the poor creature and was still impressing our mahout with his elegant mastery of mounting and dismounting by trunk (for experts) when I had already long given up and retired to lick my wounds in the shade ;-)

Whilst it was a wonderful experience (in parts!) I wouldn’t rush to do it again as for several days we were both still nursing some strained muscles in unusual places and my legs looked like a patchwork quilt of multi-colored abrasions. If only our chiropractor weren’t 9248 miles away as we could both have done with some hip re-alignment maneuvers.

The following day we were back on schedule with the drive through the mountains which was far more sedate and far less painful. En route we made the, with hindsight, somewhat dubious decision of visiting Tiger Kingdom – we struggled with it before, during and after the visit because we are so anti-zoo. All animals should be in the wild and even though it was an incredible experience to get up close and personal with baby tigers and the fully grown man-eating kitties themselves we have to question the morality of it all. Tiger Kingdom purports to be a “conservation of species” facility but we both felt it was more of a Dismal Disney experience and in the end we regretted going. The upside is that the tigers were all well cared for, well fed (thankfully!) and seemed pretty chilled out with the constant attention from hundreds of tourists a day cuddling up for a photo shoot. During one peaceful stroking session of a simply magnificent creature he turned slowly to look me in the eye – he was one of the most beautiful animals I have ever seen. I wasn’t sure whether to look away out of respect for my knowledge that he was a top predator and I was dinner but I couldn’t tear my gaze away from his face. It crossed my mind in a split second that this was all wrong and I nearly had a coronary ;-) He should have been in the jungle running wild with the wind in his fur :-( And when I lay cuddled up on the back of his similarly captive friend (an even larger, lazier reclining adult) for a photo he should have ripped my head off – as would be the way of the natural world ….

The drive through the countryside was very pretty – mountain passes; hairpin bends; farms growing mangos, macadamia nuts, strawberries and bananas; paddy fields; tea and coffee plantations etc etc. We cooled off at a Hang Dong Tea House (Doi Chaang) where I tried a lemon tea so thick with sugar that I feared my teeth would rebel and drop out before the last sip. We tried to burn a few calories by taking a walk down to a farmers field because Geoff had spotted a couple of water buffalo which he thought needed feeding (??!) and he didn’t mind trespassing to do it ;-) So he spent a few minutes harassing the local wildlife before we headed back on the long (=boring=stuck in stationary traffic) journey home to run the gauntlet of the mosquitoes back at the hotel…..

Did I mention they have somewhat of a mosquito problem in Thailand? Whenever we entered or exited the suite a cloud of some 2 or 300 ravenous mozzies would swarm in. We would then entertain ourselves for hours with a fabulous invention – the mosquito “swatter bat” which would electrocute the little monsters in mid flight. It made a satisfying bang and sizzle every time we executed one :-) Not very Buddhist, for sure, but then neither were the expletives when either of us were zapped yet again on some painful part of our respective anatomies.

Our final evening was frittered at the Anusarn Night Bazaar – more ghastly sweat-shop imports; women dressed up like exotic dancers who I could have sworn were lady boys; snail facial spas (seriously – why would anyone pay good money to have snails crawl over their face?); fish spas where tourists dangled their feet in huge grubby looking fish tanks and allowed hundreds of tiny fish to nibble at their trotters – umm… again…over my dead body. I don’t care how good snail slime or feeding the fish with your feet is for you – both of those activities would be in my top 10 of  “1984- type” nightmarish experiences.

So… if I’m honest, in the final analysis I really didn’t feel it for Chiang Mai – Geoff was slightly more positive but he couldn’t convince me.

The architecture is mainly bland and in need of some sprucing up.

The traffic is bad, the roads are over-crowded and the cars are stationary even on a green light because of all the other oncoming vehicles jumping the red lights.

Though it has some attractive temples they are rather marred by the brightly colored banners advertising goodness knows what and the scaffolding everywhere…

I just don’t get the perennial tourist attraction of this city :-(

Usually, even in the face of travel related adversity I can find something to be positive about but I jut can’t recommend this city – young back packers obviously like it for all of the outdoor activities Chiang Mai has to offer and the bars and nightlife but even the old city didn’t do it for me… it is just plain grubby and grungy.

Apologies to anyone who loves it – I guess diversity makes the world more interesting.

We did have one notably excellent Thai curry here though (Pum restaurant ) – the rest were awful…

So, if you want to see fabulous temples in all of their serenity and ancient beauty just go to Laos! If you want to learn to ride elephants … go to Laos … and if you want world class food ….. just go to Laos :-) !

Laos – December 2014

31 Dec
Bamboo Bridge over the Nam Khan River

Bamboo Bridge over the Nam Khan River

Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.

Luang Prabang… a beautiful UNESCO World Heritage city…wow – what a difference to Siem Reap – spotless streets, flower filled gardens with fences, everything clean and tidy… this had to be too good to be true! And, of course, it was – we found the morning market – phew …. we didn’t want our Laotian adventure to be too sterile ;-) :-) !

….even so, albeit that the market was thronging with locals, there was still a remarkable sense of calm and almost no chaos for a typical food market ….. how strange….

Despite being height of tourist season (and every hotel being fully booked) due to the spectacular weather at this time of year, we barely passed another tourist… those we did were equally enthralled by the bowls of live back beetles, chargrilled laotian rock rat on offer, live laotian rock rats in a lidless plastic box (obviously not top of the rat chain for brains as they made no attempt to climb out and scuttle away for their lives) and bowls of fat wriggling silkworms.

I wasn’t quite as enthralled with one small boy’s plaything – a huge live stag beetle on a string which he delighted at twirling in the direction of unsuspecting foreigners … little tike ;-)

Around every corner something spectacular dazzled us during our 5 days in the city – buddhist monks in their saffron robes and sandals scurrying though the streets; young novice monks playing together in the gardens of their Wat; the sunlight catching the bright robes drying in the breeze on laundry day; trays of rice cakes, sticky rice and bright green Mekong River weed drying in the streets; the sun glinting on the gilded decorations of the temples; there are 32 Wats in all – each gilded, hand decorated, carved or mosaicked; brightly painted tuk-tuks; ATM machines with pagoda rooves ;-) ; hundreds of gold statues of Buddha surrounded by candles, marigold flowers and gifts of food and drink (anything and everything from packets of Pringles and bottles of Coke to the more health conscious offerings of fruit and rice ;-) ); catching a glimpse of a monk crossing the bamboo bridge to a Wat on the hill at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers; the Night Market selling arts and crafts every evening; the colored paper lantern lights and twinkly lights decorating the bars, shops and restaurants at night; river boats puttering up and down the Mekong River; fishermen in their long boats on the Nam Khan; beautiful French colonial and Indo-Chinese architecture; tranquil residential backstreets where chickens picked at seeds on the ground; cockerels crowing; elderly locals playing cards on tables outside their houses; women and young girls washing food and cooking in the streets outside of their homes; the mist rising on the Nam Khan River early in the morning and the breathtaking sound of a lone monk chanting in the distance…..

I could wax lyrical about this tiny, peaceful, tranquil city forever…. we absolutely loved it :-) It was one of the most relaxing places we have ever visited.

We sipped coffee in French sidewalk cafes, lunched on Mekong River weed and chili sauce overlooking the Nam Khan River, drank lemongrass and ginger tea through a bamboo straw and sampled croissants almost as good as the real thing in France :-)

The young novice monks (some as young as 8 years old) were a constant source of inadvertent entertainment … catch them unawares and they will be huddled in giggling groups texting on their smart phones – but when they spot you and know they might be photographed the phones are hidden under the folds of their robes and you are treated to their serene little faces with the beatific Mona Lisa smiles ;-)

Due to the dim and distant connection with the French (and the fact that several restaurants are still run by French and/or other european expats) the food was excellent… just like Siem Reap :-) Except for the first night when we arrived too exhausted to explore (big mistake) and sampled the dreadful and overpriced offerings of our hotel. The experience wasn’t enhanced by the truly appalling asian cover versions of well-known western songs…. it was hard not to choke on the worst curry in the world whilst enjoying such well-known classics as Stevie Wonder’s “I jus’ crawl’d to say I ruv you …. ” ;-)

Of course, too much tranquility and perfection isn’t good for a traveller so we decided to take our lives in our hands and rent a motorbike for the day to explore the surrounding countryside and visit spectacular Kuang Si Waterfall . Easier said than done ….. it took most of an afternoon, endless enquiries and a circuitous tuk-tuk ride (with a driver who didn’t speak a word of english) to actually find a bike rental shop outside of the old city which had a real motorbike for hire rather than the more ubiquitous mopeds. They simply didn’t look sufficiently comfortable (or stable) for two fat european/american bodies to bounce their way through the mountains. Eventually, we lucked in, left Geoff’s passport in the (hopefully) safe hands of the store owner and headed out of town. How the mighty have fallen – from the luxury of a 1450cc Harley Davidson Electra Glide Ultra Classic in Teton National Park, Wyoming in August to a 150cc Zongshen bike upon which which to navigate around the potholes of Laos ;-)

I was a little anxious to start – whilst the temples and back streets of Luang Prabang are serenely peaceful the roads out of town most definitely are not. Nothing travels at great speed but we had already spotted that the general rule seems to be to pull out onto the main road without looking in either direction… which is a little unnerving. This applies to cars, vans, bikes, mopeds….absolutely nobody looks for oncoming death mobiles when they enter a main road…. how bizarre. Geoff assured me that as a driver there was actually a flow to the traffic and this seemingly crazy system did work without anyone coming a cropper. Miraculous in my view!

We saw early morning mist rising on cultivated fields, passed villages of bamboo shacks, market stalls and farms growing rice, sugar and immaculate rows of vegetables. We bounced and jolted our way through a maze of pot holes big enough to swallow a small car and consumed enough street dust that it would surely knock 20 years off our lives.

Kuang Si waterfall was busy but lovely – a very popular swimming hole but way too cold for our floridian blood (we had 3 layers and our raincoats on as it was, to avoid hypothermia ;-) ). The water is milky turquoise and the area is full of shallow pools, water rushing through half submerged trees… all very exotic looking …. apparently a place of contemplation for buddhist monks … Unfortunately, we didn’t get to share it with any buddhist monks… we got a bus load of noisy, stupid Korean tourists who tried to feed the bears at the rescue centre en route to the falls with biscuits. We nearly ended up starting the Third World War with them as we kept yelling “No” to them and pointing to the signs (even if you didn’t read lao or english one would have to be very hard of thinking not to understand the picture) which clearly explained that feeding them was a really bad idea…. I feared Geoff was actually going to grab the packets of biscuits out of their hands and end up in fisticuffs with one of the most obstreperous of the party but in the end the offending idiot gave up as we shooed them all out of the bear enclosure…. ;-)

On to Tad Sae waterfall via a “detour” – initially to look for gas (the 2 gas stations we actually found directly en route had run out of gas…ummm…OK…maybe the rest of Laos isn’t quite as perfect as Luang Prabang ;-) ) – but ultimately because I had missed the turning and failed to consult the map at the strategic point … so we bounced onwards through the dusty countryside gazing at the scenery and blissfully unaware that we had passed our intended (and even dustier) track miles back. By the time we had worked out where on earth we were on the map we were running short on daylight. We quickly retraced our steps, paid an exorbitant “parking fee” – basically protection money for the bike as bike theft is prevalent in Laos – ran down the dustiest track in Laos coughing and spluttering all the way to the boat dock, convinced a driver to shuttle us across the water before closing time at the waterfall and hang about for us whilst we ran round the waterfall…which was horrible – full of smelly backpackers having their annual bath and not worth the effort at all!

Dusty and broken, back in town, we staggered into the nearest spa (I use the term loosely) in the hope that we could be straightened out again. Most of the street “spas” are, on the surface, quite attractive at street level but they hide a sea of horrors for those of us with a cleanliness obsessive compulsive disorder. I tried to ignore the almost certain knowledge that the towels and sheets used on the massage beds weren’t changed between clients and probably didn’t see the inside of a washing machine more than once a month ….. still you get what you pay for and when you are only paying $3 US for an hour of ministrations you should probably expect fleas ;-) The massage therapists were tiny torturers – particularly good for ones so young – but neither of us were too enamored of the last place we tried. We bought the deluxe massage which included a shower – which I was certain I didn’t want. Needless to say the bathing facilities weren’t quite up to Gardner scratch – Geoff’s apparently had all the charm and malodorous delights of a urinal … I am still trying to blot mine out. In the “luxury” private massage room the sheets were definitely not clean, the forehead head rest was so repulsive it makes me shudder even now … but it wasn’t all bad as my masseur was quite cute and muscle bound – the strong but silent type – largely due to the fact that neither of us could speak each others language….. Geoff’s masseur was a touch more dubious – I was convinced “she” was a “he” with really terrible make-up and it seems he/she spent rather too much effort concentrating on groinal muscles rather than shoulder muscles which (he says!) he found disconcerting ;-)

In addition to the out of city biking adventure we left the old city twice – once to cross the Nam Khan by rickety bamboo bridge (only usable in dry season as in rainy season it drifts off down the river and has to be re-built every year in winter) for lunch at Dyen Sabai – a restaurant built into the trees and surrounded by jungle.

The second time we took a ferry boat across the Mekong to Xiang Mene (circa 1750) which was notable in its stark and unbelievably dusty difference from relatively glitzy, “modern” Luang Prabang.

We passed many hours exploring the quieter of the Wats in the old city – you can basically come and go as you please into the temple grounds, poke about, stick your nose (politely) into doorways, sit down and contemplate the universe, watch the monks’ unusual world go by and photograph whatever you like – although most monks are a little shy and are not supposed to actually pose for photos – which is why they seem to have all mastered the same serene passive expression when they know they are being paparazzi’d.

Geoff was sporting his cat magnet as usual wherever we went and discovered that even the rattiest of street cats were very used to human love and attention. If I am ever reincarnated as a cat (but I am not lucky enough to find myself in the lap of luxury living in Florida with two doting humans to respond to my every whim) I would be quite happy making myself comfortable in a Wat in Luang Prabang cared for by buddhist monks :-)

Our strangest interaction of the trip was a conversation we struck up at one of the landmarks (Buddha’s footprint) on Mount Phousi (a famous overlook for the city and the rivers). Normally very reserved and prone to look away rather than engage eye contact with foreigners, we came across a couple of monks practicing their english with some tourists. Unlikely to ever pass the time of day with a Laotian monk again we stopped to join in and ended up chatting with one young man for a good half hour or so after the other tourists had disappeared. It was amazing that for a 17 year old raised in the countryside he spoke english almost fluently and was able to distinguish accents between the gamut of english speaking countries and non-english speakers speaking english, to boot. That’s more impressive than the average american citizen – many of whom automatically assume we are Ozzies! So we learnt a bit about life as a monk and schooling etc and Geoff cautiously, so as not to cause offense, asked if he could have his photo taken with Bee – which is a little unconventional. He agreed on the basis he could have a copy too which confused me for a second – I just laughed at him and said “Sure if you give me your email address!” whereupon he promptly wrote it down for me and said he’d check his account for the photo next time he was in the library…. that was just so very much NOT what I expected of a Laotian monk ! :-) ;-)

Whilst that interaction didn’t quite fit the picture of abstention, austerity and piousness I was expecting of the average buddhist monk, our 5am start the following day to watch the dawn alms collection was infinitely more in line with my vision. Freezing cold (wrapped up in the same 3 layers required for the early morning motorbike ride and looking the height of fashion with one of my silk beach sarongs wrapped round each of our necks ;-) ) we wandered bleary eyed in the pitch black up to the main street with a couple of other bleary eyed tourists toting cameras to observe the Tak Bat ceremony.

The streets were starting to fill with locals who perched on child-size plastic chairs with buckets of rice in front of them… and, of course, the ubiquitous tour bus tourists who were also going to take part in the actual giving ceremony were beginning to throng excitedly. I hope at least that they were buddhist and weren’t just joining in for a photo shoot but it was difficult to tell. They were mainly Japanese and Korean (so they probably were buddhist) and their tour organizers had pre-set rows of identical kneeling mats with rows of identical rice buckets in front of them ready for the disgorged bus passengers to grab a mat and wait for the monks to emerge from their respective wats.

We couldn’t bear the cacophony by the tour buses so meandered away from the 2 primo Wats and headed toward one of the smaller ones where there were more locals and young children sitting on the sidewalk with empty baskets in front of them. Slowly, the monks (around 200 over the old city) began to emerge simultaneously to the sound of a beating drum. The procession of bare-footed monks made it’s way down the length of the devotees in solemn silence, the only sound being the manic clicking of camera shutters from the audience to this daily ritual. The offerings varied – from bags of chips (who would give a monk a bag of chips?!!), to fruit, bank notes and balls of sticky rice which the alms givers waded up in their sticky paws and placed in each passing monk’s silver bart bucket. By the time they made their way to us the buckets were full to overflowing (how much rice can one small monk eat in a day? ;-) )

There was no eye contact between the monks and the alms givers but when the monks reached the small children with the empty baskets they dug into their baskets and gave food to the children. There seemed to be some kind of black market trading going on at the same time with food exchanges whereby some locals gave them rice and the monks, in turn, offloaded the biscuits and bags of chips they didn’t want in exchange for more rice….. good choice ;-)

It was quite an emotional and humbling experience to observe this ancient cultural tradition dating back to the 14th century. The donors are giving alms effectively to earn more spiritual credits which may help them to come back in a higher life form in their next life. The idea is that the donors “make merit” and the monks collect food for their one meal of the day. Moving, even for spiritually challenged people like us :-)

And so, hopelessly enamored with this thoroughly charming tiny city, it’s peace and quiet and serenity; a window to a world a million miles away from our lives in Florida, we left heavy of heart en route to Chiang Mai, Thailand.

At least that was the idea…. it was touch and go for a few minutes that we would actually arrive in Thailand due to the failure of the idiot receptionist at our hotel to book a cab to the airport, the very late arrival of an alternative cab, the queue out the door to check in to the flight (having been advised by said idiot that it was a very quiet airport and no need to panic about getting there 2 hours beforehand… fat chance of that in any event by the time the driver had actually arrived to collect us!), a hugely inefficient check-in girl and an antiquated computer system. In the end, having stood in a barely moving line for over an hour as we watched the clock tick towards take-off and there was still absolutely no sense of urgency visible from the check-in girl (who must have known half the passengers wouldn’t make the flight at her present speed), I queue jumped the business class check-in and told them I wasn’t moving until we had our boarding passes…. being a very passive, charming and subservient people they obliged and we ran hell for leather to the immigration control where the immigration officers dawdled about in true banana republic style, checking our exit papers with great scrutiny and re-photographed us (why?!!). Grinning sweetly for the camera we tried to explain our plane was imminently about to depart without us …. to no avail… still… we managed to make it to the gate with 1 minute to boarding time to spare and were first to walk onto the plane ;-) The irony of the fact that it took twice as long to get through the check-in process and immigration than it did to actually fly to Chiang Mai didn’t escape us!

Cambodia – December 2014

29 Dec
Bayon Temple, Angkor Wat

Bayon Temple, Angkor Wat

Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.

I’ll admit we had high expectations of Cambodia – just as we did of Hong Kong – and happily we were not disappointed :-)

To be fair we were both pretty hooked on our descent into Siem Reap International Airport as we flew low over the Great Lake of Cambodia – Tonle Sap. We could see the red tin roofs on the stilted houses and colorful floating houses dotted about the water… miles of marshland and inlets weaving down to the body of the lake… The watery landscape then gave way to the emerald green of the rice paddy fields and farmland. This was obviously going to be the South East Asia of our dreams :-)

The stars still in our eyes, we de-planed full of anticipation and were dumped unceremoniously out onto the tarmac with 400 other hot sweaty passengers (all incoming flights timed perfectly to arrive at the same time for maximum chaos). We stood in the searing 90F mid-morning heat while we waited to be shuffled through a human funnel to have our passports checked by 2 (yes – only 2) equally sweaty airport officials who then channeled us into another long chaotic line (albeit we were now just about inside the building with at least partially effective air-conditioning – yippee!). Naturally, no-one had any idea of which way we should be heading in the chaos and noise or what we should be doing save we knew that there was a visa application fee to be paid (the usual banana republic money generating process). Our passports removed from us – along with our $60 visa fee – we were then herded another 10 feet further along to congregate in a larger chaotic mass whilst we watched our passports and visas pass through the hands of no less than 15 very official looking government employees in intimidating military uniforms. Some half hour or so later our well-manhandled passports were returned to us by a smiling official who bellowed our names out – or some version of them – luckily Geoff was close enough to the desk to see my photograph as the nice man had decided to invert my fore-names and was bellowing “Susan” at the top of his voice ;-)

Still, we were then, at least, the proud owners of visas to enter the Kingdom of Cambodia and we were very happy….

This sense of euphoria lasted only as far as the meeting point where we were expecting to find someone with our name on a plaque for the Angkor Miracle Resort and Spa. We managed to locate the driver but he had no idea who we were (maybe not the best start but these things happen). He kindly guided us to his partially air-conditioned van and offered to drive us to the hotel anyway. At check-in we handed over the usual documents and waited impatiently for our room key as I had already warned Geoff that we would hit the ground running and head straight to Angkor Wat as we had so much to squeeze in during our 4 days in Cambodia.

After 10 minutes or so of sitting in reception whilst the lovely check-in lady kept looking at her screen and frowning and looking up at us and smiling beatifically, she eventually found the courage to break it to us that we had arrived a day early and they were fully booked. Umm…. I don’t think so sweet heart! I showed her my confirmed booking and she smiled sweetly again and said that there must have been some confusion with the booking…. no kidding honey… ;-)

Having done my research and discovered that this very peaceful nation of mainly buddhist persuasion peoples don’t respond well to anything other than total calm and relentless smiles and hand wringing, we remained surprisingly well behaved (for us) and after the frittering of even more of our valuable sight-seeing time the equally charming manager arrived with an even more lovely and beatific smile, much groveling and som pas’ (the traditional Cambodian greeting whereby one puts one’s hands together with fingertips pointing towards the chin and a slight bow of the head). He explained that there was indeed a mess-up with the booking and that they were fully booked for the night. Perfect!

However, we would be housed for one night in the neighboring sister hotel and then we would be upgraded for the remainder of the stay into one of the luxury suites in the hotel we had actually booked into – which he emphasized we would most definitely like (even if we didn’t really like the night in the sister hotel next door)! “OK … deal .. just get on with it so we can get the heck out to the see the Wat sometime before tomorrow” ;-)

In the long run we did most definitely “like very much” the luxury suite and the gifts of wine and fruit etc etc …so all turned out well in the end :-) Not that Geoff was entirely thrilled with our first night “next door”. After an immensely hot and sweaty day running around the Wats we got back to find out there was only enough water for 1 shower – and that was mine ;-) I suspected things might not go well when it took 20 minutes to wash the shampoo out of my hair as the water spat at me and then dribbled to an almost complete stop….by the time Geoff tried to squeeze any more drips out of the shower head it had completely dried up…. oops…

And so finally to Angkor Wat – the very purpose of our visit to Cambodia – we grabbed a tuk-tuk (a Honda step-through moped towing a modern day 3 wheeled rick-shaw with a canopy), agreed a price with our driver Mr Bit (who became our devoted and dedicated driver for 4 days) and headed off at full pelt through the manically busy, overcrowded, dusty streets of Siem Reap on our 15 minute journey out to the temple complex. This was going to be fun – the wind in our hair, the smell of 2-stroke fragrancing the warm air and 2 pounds of red dust filling our lungs. Eventually we got used to the suicidal darting about, swerving to avoid craters large enough to drop an entire tuk-tuk into, banging over kerbs at speed and at such an angle that we actually had to hang on for dear life so as not to be propelled out onto the road and under the wheels of another passing tuk-tuk. It WAS really good fun though !! :-)

The first time one sees Angkor Wat – the temple itself rather than the Angkor complex which contains many smaller (and infinitely more exotic looking) Wats over an area of several square miles – it does rather take your breath away. More so if you can see it during a brief respite from the hundreds of tour bus visitors. Luckily, because of our unanticipated extended check-in process we managed to time our arrival during the slightly slower hours of lunchtime when only the insane would be hiking round in the 95F heat.

Not be put off by a little heat and humidity (this being dry season, I kept having to remind a hot and sweaty Geoff that he didn’t actually realize how lucky he was that we were seeing Cambodia in such clement weather) I had a detailed, complicated and militarily planned strategy for seeing the highlights at specific hours determined by the position of the sun and hours of copious research on likely times to avoid large crowds at the major Wats etc etc…

I caved at the first Wat with trying to explain my grand plan to Mr Bit (who only spoke a bit of english – albeit a lot more than my Cambodian which basically amounted to smiling sweetly and wringing my hands ;-) In the end I told a very relieved Mr Bit that all he had to do was to make sure he took us to all of the Wats on my non-negotiable list. To give him his due he did as asked and it was a very long day for all three of us ;-)

A potted run-down of the Wats follows:

Angkor Wat – (jaw-droppingly huge, imposing, mind-boggling in scale and by far the least appealing of them all. It is absolutely crawling with 1000’s of (mainly) Japanese tourists – our favorite part was when we headed off to find a toilet behind a dreadful tourist market and fell upon something far more interesting – a Buddhist Temple and a Buddhist monk’s school. A very cute little trainee Buddhist monk wrapped up in his saffron robes saw us hovering about and he smiled and waved us up into their school prayer room. He then beckoned us into the back to see their dormitory – hammocks strung from the wooden rafters. He opened one door onto a large dormitory and we peered in to see about 8 small boys in orange robes cuddled up on a bed … I’m not sure they were as delighted to see us as we were to see them and our inviter obviously thought it was the height of hilarity that he’d dragged 2 westerners in to see his mates sleeping. Obviously it’s not a rigorous training schedule as it was pushing 4pm and they were still all lazing about in bed! Boys will be boys I guess – even buddhist monks in training ;-). Oh …. and there are a lot of monkeys running around in Angkor Wat too…

To be fair the kings of the Khmer and their minions could knock together a pretty impressive temple in the golden years between AD 800 and AD 1300. Some of the temples are Buddhist and others were dedicated to Hinduism. Much of it was built by King Surayavarman II who was a very busy boy during his short 40 year lifetime between 1112-1152, and also by the Buddhist King Jayavarman VII in his even shorter 39 years on earth – he was an even busier boy and reputed to be the most prolific builder of the Khmer Empire.

Angkor Thom – the Great City (at the height of its power and wealth supporting some 1 million people) with its 5 monumental gates, entered by causeway over a moat and flanked by 54 huge demon statues and 54 gods.

The Bayon – famous for its gothic towers embellished with over 200 giant smiling heads of Avalokiteshvara … and intricate carvings at every turn – it was absolutely fabulous :-) There were even brief moments of respite from the crowds where one could find solitude to sit, take a deep breath and imagine what might have taken place in this temple centuries ago.

Preah Khan – (the Temple of the Sacred Sword) and Ta Som – eerily quiet save for the chatter of monkeys in the jungle, the chirp of cicadas and the birds way up in the trees. Left in their more jungle-engulfed condition they were fascinating and beautiful in an “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” kind of way. Amazing to think these wild and wonderful places exist in the world and have been pretty much untouched for more than a 1000 years…

And the piece de resistance – the top visited site after Angkor Wat is Ta Prohm (“Ancestor of Brahma”)- made (more) famous by the movie Tomb Raider (not that we could care one hoot about that). This temple is unique in that the Cambodian archaeological authorities chose to cut back only part of the jungle letting the roots of huge banyon, kapok and strangler fig trees, the jungle and undergrowth swallow up the temple. It was truly stunning (so long as you can time your visit towards the end of the day when the tour buses have hit the road). We found areas of total peace and tranquility from where we could contemplate the power and scale of nature and its ability to re-take what belonged to it in the first place as it consumed these amazing stone buildings, covered in bas-relief carvings and intricate decoration. In it’s day the temple would have controlled over 3000 villages.

It was a very long and very hot day (I can only imagine the joys of the summer temperatures in this part of Cambodia) but we wouldn’t have missed it for the world :-)

We stopped en route back to town for fresh fruit sold by vendors at the side of the road – no need to worry about the non-organic provenance of the fruit here (paranoid as we are!), the mangos, pineapples, bananas and coconuts were harvested by families straight from the jungle to sell to the starving, dehydrated tourists for a $1 each. They were probably the best, most delicious fruit we have ever eaten. We soon spotted that the currency we had changed at the airport had been totally unnecessary – nobody wanted their own Cambodian Riel – only US $ – and everything from a bottle of water to a piece of fruit was $1. We gave up asking prices after a few hours here as we already knew how much everything was going to be ;-)

The journey back to town was peaceful, the breeze through the speeding tuk-tuk cooling us down (vaguely ;-) ), we passed women working in the paddy fields, water buffalo and zebu (the exotic looking white cows with the fatty humps on their backs) grazing in the marshland and the sun setting on the fields….

I guess it was a perfect day :-)

Mr Bit, never one, to pass up the opportunity to spend our money for us, thought it would be perfect to deposit us at the local training school for budding massage therapists (not exactly $1 but still an absolute bargain for $20 – or so we thought!). Anyone stupid enough to go anywhere near our feet after 6 hours or so of hiking over hot rocks and through dust and jungle undergrowth deserved danger money in our considered opinion. It was a little odd – quite different to a Chinese massage – lots more slapping and sticking strange implements (prodded without warning) into the pressure points on the soles of your feet – there were some interesting moments! The girls were very young – maybe 15 or 16 at the most – with tiny little hands of steel, they were listening to music on their iPods with semi-bored expressions and an occasional attempt to communicate stretching to “ you OK… ? “ …. and …“ oh solly “ while inserting their teeny fingers into some sensitive part of your delicate anatomy.

Anyway, so far so good with Cambodia – now the litmus test for us – was the food going to be better than the awful gloop in Hong Kong a few days before? Not much of a challenge I’ll admit but happily they pulled it off. The food in Cambodia was absolutely delicious – thank goodness!

We stuck to restaurants with a philanthropic element – employing and training locals kids from disadvantaged backgrounds to cook and run a business – and they were all amazing. Everything was extremely fresh, lots of vegetables and fruit, freshly squeezed fruit juices, fresh vegetable spring rolls (not the horrid fried stuff or the glutinous Hong Kongese horror – but wrapped in real ultra thin rice paper, spicy sauces, fresh fish and sweet curries (Amok is the traditional Cambodian coconut fish curry and I think we will probably both dream about it for years to come :-) ).

Being a bit Wat’ed out after a day or so, Mr Bit took us on a tour of town. I suspect he was trying to avoid the less attractive parts of town and obviously failed dismally to realize that the grungier the better for us ;—) But he was a very accommodating driver and always stopped when requested and waited patiently for us in the shade while we wandered off down the labyrinth of side streets. As usual we were drawn to the local food vendors market and watched women prepare and cook batches of rice, noodles, fish, curries and battered plantains to sell to local workers. We followed 2 monks as they passed by various stalls collecting alms from the devout (free rice for monks!). We were also tempted by the delicious fruit of the lotus flower – at least by the sample the vendor gave us – so we bought a couple (for $1- surprise!) but she conveniently failed to mention that ours wouldn’t be ripe for another month or so we donated it to Mr Bit to enjoy at a much later date ;-)

We grew to appreciate Mr Bit – aside from his dodgy massage recommendation he was highly reliable (though probably also highly overpriced). He always turned up on time with a giant smile – and wherever we left him in town, or at the entrance to the various temples we visited, he always seemed to be able to find us in the thronging crowds at some other meeting point – waving frantically at us from a distance and bobbing up and down so we couldn’t miss him. It was always fun and games traveling by tuk-tuk – aside from the near death experiences. We were introduced to the concept of the Cambodian tuk-tuk driver’s hands-free cellphone – basically a cellphone wedged under the driver’s helmet – seemed to work but it must have been a bit noisy. Clearly, there are no rules of the road in Cambodia at all. It appeared to be quite normal to just pull straight out onto a main road directly into the path of fast moving oncoming cars, trucks, mopeds etc etc and then play a kind of game of “chicken”. Being a very peaceful people the drivers wouldn’t actually engage in combat armed with their vehicle of choice but they would just keep pushing until someone backed down and death was thereby avoided :-)

On our travels we kept passing stands at the side of the road selling the obligatory bananas, coconuts, packets of brightly colored food items and racks of Johnny Walker bottles containing an unidentified yellow liquid which definitely wasn’t Whisky. We saw rack after rack of these bottles on street corner after street corner. We surmised it was probably some evil local hooch brewed up in people’s backyards – and Geoff was desperate to try some! ;-) …but as they are not a great boozing nation we eventually gave up trying to guess what it was and asked Mr Bit (who clearly thought we were idiots). It turned out that they were bottles of petrol – obviously! :-) The more sophisticated gas stations had large canisters rigged up with hand pumps and tubes and a miscellany of levers and valves – it looked as if they were in danger of igniting at any moment in the roasting hot sun.

Back in the more tourist frequented area of Siem Reap we visited the Old Market which was fairly rough even by (more familiar to us) South American standards. We tip-toed around women sitting cross-legged on the floor gutting fish, next to hairdressers primping young girls and women having manicures, next to fruit sellers, next to butchers hacking up slabs of meat, next to women preparing and cooking lunches for locals…etc etc… it was very busy, very crowded and very noisy!

On our last day we headed out to the “Great Lake” of Cambodia – Tonle Sap – to visit the stilted and floating fishing village of Kompong Khleang. On the journey out we passed women harvesting rice in paddy fields, grazing zebu, wooden shacks with palm fronded or red tin roofs, pots of bougainvillea adorning the steps of stilted houses, open-air barbers shops, marshes filled with bright pink lotus flowers, streams with kids fishing, dusty red soil roads and hay stacks shaped like bee hives reminiscent of Monet’s impressionist haystacks… There were endless stalls along the road selling sticky rice – a mixture of rice boiled in coconut milk with black beans stuffed into a piece of bamboo before roasting (we tried it and it was yummy!).

We were overtaken by mopeds carrying wide loads of chickens and pigs in crates, construction pipes and planks of wood, cans of gas, melons 300 deep … apparently there is nothing too unwieldy to be transported by either moped or tuk-tuk.

We stopped at a wet (fish) market at the village of Phsaa Thnal Jaek for a wander and a pee. I won’t elaborate too much on how ghastly that experience was. It is Cambodian tradition to take one’s shoes off when entering a building – thank goodness Geoff had convinced me to ditch the flip-flops for the day and wear something a little more sturdy because the shop keeper (and proud keeper of the only public toilet in town) took pity on me when I started to take my shoes off because I was wearing socks and he knew they would get very damp padding around the open sewer that was his toilet – it seems it’s perfectly acceptable to make the foreigners wander round in bare feet but not in little white socks – thank goodness ;-)

And onwards to the fishing village of Kompong Khleang. The start of the village is where the wealthier fishermen live in tall spindly stilted houses – between 20 to 25 feet high. Some 6000 people live in the village – with their own schools, 3 pagodas and a hospital. In dry season the houses stand way out of the water but in rainy season the water laps at the floorboards and the villagers move about everywhere by boat. They survive entirely on the fishing trade – hundreds of different kinds of fish – and the streets in front of the houses were covered in mats with tens of thousands of tiny fish drying in piles in the sun and others individually and painstakingly skewered for smoking on huge open fires. Further on we boarded a boat to visit the lake and headed out to see the Vietnamese floating village – an entire functioning village with gas stations, hairdressers, local shops, a school, medical facilities etc. This community is less wealthy than the owners of the stilted houses and they move their entire village about in the mangroves with the rising and waning waters of the lake. The farmland surrounding the mangroves was planted with beans for the dry winter season – in summer the whole area would be flooded again. The towns were fascinating and although it must be a hard existence for many, the local people were very friendly and smiled and waved at us. The kids all wave enthusiastically at the foreigners and say “Bye Bye” – I understand they think they are actually saying “Hello” which is kinda cute ;-)

We packed our bags to leave Cambodia with quite some sadness but an unspoken agreement that we would definitely return and head to the south and central parts next time around :-) We absolutely loved the people, our time there and everything we saw. It is a fantastic place to visit – beautiful, exotic and traveller friendly :-)

To ease the passage of our sad departure we did at least breeze through check-in, security and immigration with total efficiency. We were expecting it to be the usual palaver with irritating bureaucracy, at least 4 check-points all searching the same luggage by hand, re-packing it and then re-checking it all over again 10 paces further along and the even more irritating request that every electronic item is powered on etc etc… So that was a refreshing change – as was the flight (both in and out of Cambodia, as it happens). These small tinpot airlines have something to teach the US airlines about happy smiling staff, food quality and efficiency – we actually took off 25 minutes early, were given delicious food, fresh fruit, edible salad and a wet towel on 2 and 3 hour flights… a far cry from a bag of peanuts served with a sneer on American Airlines… What luxury :-)

…and so on to Laos…

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