June 12, 2007

Kyoto: #1 Travel Destination

If you were to force us to agree upon a favourite city on this trip Kyoto would have to be it. Set in a valley and surrounded by forests, Kyoto has charm and culture. You can enjoy the bright lights and bustle one minute and a block later fi8nd yourself on a cute little street full of traditional houses bordered by a stream.


It was along one of these alleys that we saw a geisha. It was dusk, prime time for these ladies to be heading to appointments, and she and a friend were hovering in the doorway. Sadly, when she caught sight of Simon looking enquiringly at her with his camera in hand, she beelined indoors. Simon only managed to capture a blur of her fabulous green kimono and white socks. As a photographer, this distressed him and so we made another pass by the house. But stricken by a sudden shame of stalking this poor woman, our photographer engaged his attention self-consciously in our conversation and missed seeing her entirely! Clearly a career as a paparazzi is not, thankfully, in Simon's future. Still, I had to reassure him that some things aren't meant to be caught on film (or digitally!), including it seems, the mysterious and rare geisha.


Fortunately, he managed to get plenty of other shots he was pleased with - it wasn't hard in a city of 400+ temples! Though we saw plenty of buddhist temples in Southeast Asia, these were refreshing and different. Nestled in forested gardens, the temples are simple and tranquil. Most featured bubbling streams or waterfalls set amidst the mossy ground. Some have bamboo glades and other still contain stark carefully combed rock gardens. But they all seem to convey a feeling of contentedness. It's easy to feel happy after an afternoon in these surroundings.






This pretty much sums up our feeling about this place. I could go on with my rave review, but I suggest you save up your pennies and come here for yourself. You won't be disappointed!
















Posted by psy2099 at 11:15 PM

June 07, 2007

On the Beach Hammamatsu


What is in Hammamatsu, this coastal city with a small town feel? Sean Gibb, my cousin-in-law, Jenni's brother. Gratefully hooked up with another place to stay in our journey 'round the world, we spent a coupe of nights in this low-key and welcoming dwelling. Sean had been put to work on our mid-reno house ony 2 years ago in Toronto. He and my cousin Tom got very excited about drywall demolition and enthusiasticaly carried on their handiwork into an area that was in no need of modification. So Jenni heartily encouraged us to return the favour on our visit. But from our point of view, not only did the poor guy get suckered into some messy work on our house, he got houseguests to boot! You gotta love family - even the most extended kind!



Sean was an excellent host, having not just a room for us, but bikes, as well. He cut work to show us the sights and even translated a whole menu for our benefit. We marvelled at his 'suburban' home from his back deck - serenaded by frogs croaking in the surrounding rice paddies!


We were equally impressed with Sean's lifestyle in this paradise - an engish teacher, his classes are all scheduled for the mornings and evenings, leaving him to spend the afternoons on the beach, kite surfing with his friend, Matt. Simon also hit the surf for a little bodyboarding, but I reasoned that, comfortable in long pants and a fleece, I had no need to get wet.




Clearly, I find my pleasure in the simpler, less adventurous things - like the toilets! I'd been enjoying a plethora of clean, free pubic toilets in Tokyo, (no need to plan ahead or hold it here, a decent accessible loo, it seems, is the right of all Japanese, and a dreamland to me!) but it was at the public washroom at a video store in Hammamatsu that I got my first taste of luxury - a heated seat! The vessel also came equipped with several fancy buttons, which, as they were in japanese, I was too chicken to push. No doubt they provided even more decadent services, but for me, the toilet is no place to start trying new things. Ever efficient, some loos are even equipped with a sink on the back of the cistern, allowing you to wash your hands and fill up the tank at the same time.


It's easy to see, I'm sure, why Japan has scored so high in my books. But, truely, it's not just the W.C.'s that recommend it - just wait 'til we tell you about Kyoto!

Posted by psy2099 at 12:46 AM

June 04, 2007

I Think I'm Turning Japanese, I Think I'm Turning Japanese, I Really Think So

It was always Simon who wanted to go to Japan. I was reluctant, in part due to it's ledgendary cost, but mainly due to my aversions to the food. Since I can't eat eggs or seafood, I wondered how I would manage two weeks on this island. I seemed doomed as I watched with hungry eyes while my fellow plane passengers chose their breakfast: omlette or fillet of sole. But if we've learned once on this journey, we've learned twice - things are never as we expect. So it was that I discovered that Japan does have some food I can eat and enjoy, and moreover, that it is actually a super-cool place.




We touched down in Tokyo and were instantly in love. We noticed two things immediately; 1) This society really is as clean and efficient as reputed to be, and 2) The Japanese are really, really, REALLY friendly and helpful. These two things were a great source of peasure for us throughout our time in Japan.

Anne this is for you and especially Mike. The main Japanese convenience stores are Lawson Station and this, the heathier version.




When you look at a map of the Tokyo subway system, you may feel a small tremor of apprehension at having to navigate your way around this plate of spaghetti. But if you're a weary traveller, you will soon realize that all these twisty-turny routes are conspiring for your beneft, so that you may have a conveniently placed stop no matter where you wish to wander. Not only that, but at $1.80 Canadian per ride you're starting to realize that this is only the most basic example of how Japan is not nearly as expensive as it is made out to be. That's not to say you can't get rid of a lot of money here if you've got it to spend. In our visits to some of Japan's departments stores we did see some lovely pottery we could have had for $2000 CAD per rice bowl. Sorry friends, but don't expect these as souveniers!




We did a lot of wandering around this city. While frustrating to track down a specific address (They numbered buildings as they were built, rather that sequentially down the street), aimless meandering is a perfect way to soak in this vibrant city. We saw women in kimono and rebelious girls in goth or Bo-peep outfits inhabiting the same space. We went from the hub of high-tech (complete with floors dedicated to robots!) to the arena to see the centuries old tradtion of sumo wrestling. Simon even headed down to the docks to see the fisherman selling their impressive catch to the restaurants, just as it's been done for decades. If any society has figured out how to ook to the future yet retain it's unique roots, this is it. Japan is a gorgeous mix of east and west as far as we're concerned.




While American wrestling leaves me cold, Sumo is a dfferent story atogether. We spent four hours in the stands and it hardly seemed enough. We saw these men, ranging from massive to average, slowly lift their hammy legs and stamp them down to banish evil spirits from the ring. Then we watched as they faced off, smacking each other's fatty rolls, until one was propelled out of the ring or off their feet. These battles rarely reached the 30 second mark. The excitement of the day came when the Yokozunna (Grand Champion), winner of dozens of tournaments over the past decade, actualy lost his match. A situation like this dictates that the Japanese spectators must hurl their seat cushions into the ring. And so the day ended in a traditional rain of pillows.






While the formidable formery undeafeated sumo champion left to nurse his wounded pride, we hopped a bullet train for Hammamatsu, and rode the rails in speedy, roomy luxury.

Posted by psy2099 at 10:31 PM

May 12, 2007

So much to see in Siem Reap


From the depressing history of Phnom Penh, we moved on to the small city of Seam Reap, which experienced the same troubles recently, but is also home to the remains of a far brighter period in Cambodias history - Angkor Wat and the many other fantastic temples from the Angkorian Period (802 - 1309 AD).



This was the jewel in our travelling crown, the most exotic, exciting place we had only read about but would finally see for ourselves. Needless to say Simon wasn't too put off by the photographic prospects of it either! And it did not disappoint! These temples are immense and cannot fail to impress. Simon managed to capture them through the lens some 700-800 times. We visited perhaps a dozen different temples over three days, some needing only a quick meander through, others providing hours of wandering fun - we felt just like Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider (Filmed partailly at Prah Thom temple)! Perhaps our only tiny, very wee, miniscule complaint is that the ruins, while occasiionally over-run by a determined tree, have been largelycleared of hteir ju ngle surroundings (not to mention mines, thank goodness!) So it was a little less WILD than we had imagined. But this may be thanks to the fact that we only managed to get to the main grouping of temples. Apparently there are some less touristed far flung temples that may have been the stuff of our dreams. Next time, I guess!









To shake up our heavily templed schedule a little, we also took a trip to a silk farm - such beautiful and cheap goods (even the worms cocoons were lovely)! And of course to buy is to help the Non-Profit work-training initiative! (Note Pic) The colour of the cocoon depends on what the worms are fed (mulberry leaves produce this vibrant yellow), however, most thread is bleached to make it soft and then dyed to the desired colour.

We also visited the Cambodian Land Mine Museum. This mass of mines and UXO's used to be housed in a shack near to town. It was the initiative of Akira, a former child soldier for the Khmer Rouge and later the Vietnamese Army. Nowadays Akira spends his days dismantaling these explosives with a stick and screwdriver. He charges pennies per, as opposed to th e offical de-mining groups charge of $1000 each, and has disarmed and collected tens of thousands over the years. Besides displaying these war goods to curious tourists, Akira and his wife also take in children who have been victims of mines or orphaned due to them. most of these children would no longer be able to be cared for by their already impoverished, struggling parents, and would certainly not be able to be accomodated in public schools. Through the Land Mine Museum they are given a happy home and an education. With over 20 kids bunking in, the shack wasn't cutting it any more. With the support of a Canadian journalist the museum has moved it's collection of kids and mines to a fancier location. It is also now a registered Canadian NGO.






And that, my friends, is the end of our Southeast Asia adventure. Fast and furious, just like we predicted, for the last month, but enjoyable all the same. Given the inflexible schedule we'd had laid out, we must admit to being shocked that it all worked out - a minor miracle, surely, in a land where you learn to go with the unexpected flow and never watch the clock. We hitched a bus ride to Bangkok (where we were all treated to a lesson in reparing a flat tire at a roadside "garage"!) where we sent another box on it's way to Canada, and prepared ourselves for a week in Beijing!
























Posted by psy2099 at 09:25 PM

Phnom Penh

It seems that anything you do here helps a cause - eating at an Non-Profit restaurant, buying silk items from an NGO handicraft store aiding poor women and orphans, getting a massage from the disabled, or getting a ride from a cyclo driver - some of the poorest of the poor.



And are there ever a lot of good causes. As soon as we crossed the border from Vietnam we were confronted with the troubles of this, the poorest of the Southeast Asian countries. The six year olds begging with their infant sibling on their hip were more ragged, the ten year olds more corrupted - smoking as if they'd done so for years, and the limbless, unemployed adults everywhere. This is a place that requires a thickening of the skin to envision the horrors it has seen over three decades, and witness the heartbreaking result of so much struggle. It is not unusual to have to step around infants, seemingly abandoned in the middle of the sidewalk.

So Phnom Penh is not exactly a cheery place to visit from the get go, but our choice of sight-seeing spots didn't exactly help matters. We started out at the Tuol Sleng Mueseum, less of a traditional museum, more standing evidence of terrible years of rampant imprisonment and torture. This school was converted into an overcrowded prison in the early years of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge rule. As his vision was to return the country to a simple agricultural exsistence as it knew 400 years previous, he had his troops set about rounding up all educated and religious people as well as anyone involved in the previous rule. The boundaries of this group blurred and soon millions of people were being taken from their homes for the slightest reason. Finally, as Pol Pot realized his own forces were often recruited out of fear and intimidation rather than abject loyalty, Khmer Rouge soldiers were just as indiscriminately imprisoned. Tuol Sleng was one of the largest and most infamous of these mass detention centres.

People didn't stay shackled here for long, though. They were taken en masse to the nearby Killing Fields and piled into mass graves after being shot, or better yet, having their skulls crushed so as to save on bullets. Everywhere you walked here you could see pieces of bone and cloth from the victims. In this one spot alone they have found remains of 8890 people and it is only half exhumed.

The Chilling Photos





Over the years of the Khmer Rouge Genocide, estimtes put the death toll at over three million. But sadly, the tragic recent history does not stop there. The Khmer Rouge were slowing down on the mass killings when they were invaded and over-thrown by the Vietnamese in 1979. Though Cambodia was given power to rule itself again through puppet governments for many years, the Khmer Rouge stuck around as rebel fores until it fell apart in the mid '90's. Pol Pot was arrested in 1998 and soon there after died of an apparent heart-attack, sadly, getting away with millions of murders. Throughout these 30 years of warring, millions of bombs and landmines were deposited around the countryside; too many are still around today. We were to learn more about this in Siem Reap.
The Chillin' Photos


...and remember who gets hurt.


Posted by psy2099 at 12:55 PM

May 04, 2007

Saigon, where we did nothing.

No joke! We really did nothing. We found ourselves a little run down and our air-conditioned room had HBO and StarMovies, so we did nothing but order in food and watch movies. We walked around for about 3 hours one day and one other evening went to a delicious do it yourself Vietnamese BBQ restaurant, but besides that we did nothing.

I didn't even take one picture...not one...of anything!

In our defense, it was their National Days of Independence from French rule and the American Defeat and all of the museums were closed. But regardless we didn't try too hard and watched movies all day long. It was fun!

Posted by psy2099 at 05:17 AM

May 03, 2007

Hoi An - It's still my birthday week, right?!


What is there to do in Hoi An? Shop, shop, shop! Hundreds of tailors and shoe makers pack into the downtown of this quaint place, and any one of them will do their best to convince you that you should "...buy just one thing then come back for more! I make your size. Any colour!" How can a girl resist such an offer at such cheap prices? Or a boy for that matter. Simon came away looking quite dapper in his new suit (a little preview for the folks at Jody's wedding in July: let's cross our fingers he doesn't gain back those 40 lbs! Of course I suited up as well, in my own fashion.




We also enjoyed a splurge by staying at a fancy hotel with a pool, instead of our usual down and out guesthouse. It almost broke the bank at US$15/night! This price was matched for absolutely scrumptious meals of Vietnamese/Western fusion cuisine at our new favourite restaurant, The Mango Rooms.




As we savoured these indulgences - good food, clothes and accomodations, we admitted that we really are imposter backpackers, looking and sometimes smelling the part in luggage alone. When it comes to really living the life on a shoestring budget, we're only too keen to throw it all out the window and hob-nob with the best of the best!


...and a couple of missed out shots from "Hue-(in a Day)"





Posted by psy2099 at 10:45 AM

May 01, 2007

Hue (in a Day)

Proving that time really does go slower here than in our regular lives, just look at what we managed to accomplish in Hue! This is a lovely, well-kept town that was once the political capital and is now the cultural capital of Vietnam. There are many ancient sights to see here, making this area a UNESCO protected region.


We may only have had just over 24 hours here, but still, we managed to see some of these places for ourselves. First, undaunted by our night on the hard sleeper train berth, we set off on foot to see the citadel, the remains of the old fortified city. These days it's not much more than a few restored buildings, some ruins, and a moat now used for agriculture, but the place is decorated with beautiful traditional silk lanterns and must be quite a sight when it opens at night for festivals.





Claire said that I looked too somber in the picture before this one.


The next day, we spent the morning on the backs of motorbikes, being shown the area by a local guide. We took in a couple of budhist pagodas, and incense-making village, the huge get-away grounds and tombs of a Nguyen Dynasty emperor, and an old japanese style covered bridge. But perhaps the highlight of all the sights was simply the stunning countryside we travelled through and the cheery 'hello's from children along the way.








Posted by psy2099 at 01:41 AM

How Long 'til Halong Bay?

In this instance, our speedy schedule suited us just fine; we enjoyed a fine meal & hotel for my birthday, but apart from that we did very little here...that is, except for dodging traffic. And boy oh boy, can Hanoi ever provide in that department. It didn't take us long to see that, though scooters and motorbikes seem plentiful in the rest of Southeast Asia, here in Vietnam, they are an epidemic. Between those and bicycles and bicycle taxis (cyclos), there is little room left on the street for pedestrians. But hey wait! What are pedestrians doing on the streets in the first place? Shouldn't they be on the sidewalks instead? Don't be silly! Sidewalks are for parking your scooter with the other millions, or maybe for squatting into one of the child-sized plastic patio sets that sprawl the entire width of the walk, to enjoy a little meal prepared before your eyes by a woman with a makeshift kitchen. No, a relaxing meandering is out of the question in Hanoi.






So off we went for a more peaceful existence in the tourist mecca of Halong Bay. Here we were unceremoniously loaded onto a boat, ominopusly called a junk. But in actual fact, despite of opting for the standard, rather than deluxe model, our accomodations on the boat were rather spiffy. We spent two days touring around the breath-taking limestone vistas of Halong Bay. When finally our boat edged it's way through the dozens of other junks to the pier, we headed back to Hanoi to catch the overnight train to Hue.










Posted by psy2099 at 12:18 AM

April 28, 2007

The Birthday Girl Gets the Best Gift of all --- Lucky!

Not in that way - Get your mind out of the gutter! This is all about the border crossing and the trip to Hanoi that should never have been. But first we have to get there and we last left you on an overcrowded bus on the way to Phonsavan. We headed there to see the Plains of Jars. Everyone's heard of those right? OK, we hadn't either. Somehow, out of all the huge, imported, mysterious rock legacies, Stonehenge gets all the attention. But the fact remains that Laos has one of these ancient unsolved mysteries set in its glorious countryside. Instead of slabs of rock, though, they have huge urns. Whether these were used as massive funerary jars, or storage for food and lao lao whisky, no one can say for sure. In any case, the jars are interesting, if not awe-inspiring, and the setting is beautiful and calming.



There is some sad irony in this: Amongst the scenery lurks tens of thousands of unexploded bombs. The only reason we can visit these jar sites is because they have been meticulously cleared by an NGO of these unexploded ordinances (UXOs). "Why is this tranquil setting marred by so much danger?" you ask (or maybe you don't. Maybe you know all this already, in which case please skip the short history lesson to follow). For the simple and sad reason that, although illegal by the Geneva convention and despite the USA's acclaimed ignorance at what it's military was up to, they led what is called the "Secret War" upon Laos at the time of the Vietnam War (or American War on this side of the pond). In an effort to stop the flow of Vietnamese into Laos, and often just because they needed a dumping ground for the live bombs that they were not able to drop on the Vietnamese side of the border, the US devastated this country. In fact, Laos is the most bombed country in history: a map recording the drops is appalling to look at - a sea of red dots.



Though the massive craters decorating the countryside are sobering enough, the true horror lies in the war-time souvenirs that can't be seen. Many of the bombs never exploded and need only to be hit with a hoe, or tossed about by a curious child to fulfill their deadly purpose. Though there are some 3000 lbers out there, most are cluster bombs - "bombies" as they are known. These are the size of a tennis ball and fell by the hundreds from each larger bomb cannister, amounting to millions in total. Many failed to detonate then but are just as powerful if they do so today - these are designed to kill, not maim, as in the Cambodian land mines.
Where they don't kill, though, bombs of all kinds are collected and used in a variety of innovative ways. This stuff of warfare is an everyday sight, repurposed as fence posts, house stilts, planters, lamps, and otherwise melted down to make tools. It is a slightly surreal experience to find a pinapple bomb in your guestroom, let me tell you.



But let's move on to cheerier things...like my birthday!


By all rights this should have been a terrible day. We'd chosen to take a direct route east from where we were into Vietnam, across to Hanoi. It made the most sense to us. The only problem is, that this border crossing opened to tourists only a year ago, so while the guards are not yet corrupted into intimidating and demanding money, there is the downside that there is no transportation infrastructure to Hanoi yet. But from what we'd read, it sounded like there were options in the way of minibuses and shared tuk tuks, just a little on the infrequent side.


Fortunately, we were not forced to find out just how infrequent that was. Upon arriving at the border, we asked the only other foreigner in sight where he was going and how he intended to get there. John, as it turned out, is a vintage car rally race organizer, and had arranged a minivan to Hanoi. And yes, he did have two extra seets, and no, he wouldn't take any payment for them. As we exited the Vietnam side, we walked into a deserted parking lot, save for said van. It was hours before we saw any kind of public transport, and a full eight hours to get throught the mountains the seemingly short distance to Hanoi. Clearly, our plan was insanely optimistic, and my birthday would have been spent in some tiny middle-of-nowhere town, had it not been for a huge dose of serendipity and our kindly good samaritan. We landed in Hanoi in time for another fantastic French dinner (Brutal rulers in these parts, but sure left behind their fine influence in the way of food!).



So 31 begins with the very reassuring feeling that someone, somewhere is looking out for me.




Posted by psy2099 at 08:07 AM

More photos from Luang Prabang...



















Posted by psy2099 at 07:29 AM

April 25, 2007

"It's January Month!"

This was the reply to my querry about the sudden, abrupt (and seemingly unnecessary) attempt of the police to clear a road in Chaing Mai. Puzzled at first, we eventually recognized that this translated to New Year's. The only place in this region that this festival does not seem to be celebrated is on a slow boat up the Mekong River in Laos. Thank goodness for that, as two long days of 100 people on a sparse wooden boat with small hard benches is challenge enough to the inner meditative calm of a most un-monklike group of young tourists. That is not to say that the trip was unbearable. The scenery was attractive, the mood languid and the company friendly. When not dozing, reading or watching the countryside pass by to the soundtrack of our ipods, we were making fast friends of a Dutch couple, Mariel and John Patrick. When the boat finally docked at Luang Prabang, we stuck with these two as the rest of the boat load scattered about the town, making for the unusual experience of us having acquintances all over town.


By now New Year's was in full swing. We didn't even make it from the dock to guesthouse without a pail dumped on our heads. This is how it went for three days - wet, damp, wet, damp, wet, damp...Hmm I wonder why I have a nasty cough now! With all this festiveness, we got an unusual experience in this normally sleepy town, but it did make it a bit tricky to see any of the sights. We did manage, however, to climb to a hilltop Wat (temple), Mariel and I dodging the home-made lao-lao wiskey offered up on the way, Simon and John-Patrick feeling not so good after consuming some of this local treat along with some grilled pieces of bone. Yum! But we saw the fine buddha's at the top, along with one of his footprints (if size is any indication, Buddha was a Yeti). We also rented bikes and cruised around the area, only to discover that this made us excellent targets for water tossers. And yet we got no discount for giving the bikes a good wash!

As the festival went on, the water guns started coming out later and later as revellers paid the price for their partying. This meant that mornings were usually safe for a bit of dry strolling around. We even pulled ourselves from our beds before 6 one morning to see the monks collecting alms, a lovely citrus coloured sight in a town with hundreds in robes.


On our last day in town, there was only the odd water gun to be seen, and apparently we missed these waterworks, because the four of us decided to go to the nearby waterfalls. This turned out to be a fairly busy, but stunningly beautiful spot - hands down the most gorgeous place I have ever swam. It was as if someone had requested a hollywood set of a tropical waterfall paradise.


It will sound silly, no doubt, but for us, one of the highlights of Luang Prabang was the food. With a strong French influence, bread and cheese were available to us (& delicious) for the first time in ages. We wound up eating almost all of our meals at a bakery/cafe that did wonderful salads and sandwiches etc.. This may not sound terribly exciting to you in the land of such goodies, but months of rice and noodles and curries are adding up by now and I've pretty much had my fill. We even splurged and treated ourselves to a $35 french dinner with wine! (about 10x the price of an asian meal, but worth every darn U.S. dollar!)


Life sounds pretty perfect in Luang Prabang, doesn't it? We certainly though so. Friends, food, festivity. What more could a person want? It was a blissful stop in our wild year. If we had had the luxury to stay longer, I wonder if the contented, relaxed feeling would ever dissipate. Perhaps we'll have to come back some day and put it to the test. For now, we had places to go and things to see. So with reluctant goodbyes to our friends and the town, we headed east by bus - fortunately we were not the lucky people on plastic stools in the aisle for the 10 hour journey!


Posted by psy2099 at 09:41 AM

April 16, 2007

Familiar Faces & Relaxing Places

We have implemented a new policy in our lives: when friends (especially ones who live far, far away) propose to meet us somewhere in the world & it is reasonably feasible to do so, plans will be rejigged and we will do it. This is how our beach holiday with Kevin and Varnya on Palau Tioman came to be. As is predictable; unpredictability proved fruitful - not only did we get a lovely visit with friends, but we also got to explore the beautiful and surprising country of Malaysia and intriguing Singapore to boot!



Palau Tioman is a relatively low-key tourist centre off the eastern coast of mainland Malaysia. It has very few locals, whose only industry is to make life grand for the holidayers. et this is all done quite tastefully in the villages dotting the coastline, consisting of family run cabanas and restaurants. The only way between these centres is by boat or the odd footpath. We knew none of this before K&V suggested we meet them there.




To be honest, we were surprised that our Austrailia - dwelling friends would be looking for a Southeast Asian beach holiday. True, they are snorkelling fanatics & Malaysia has plenty to offer in that department, but we suspected there must be more to it. So we were delighted but not surprised when Varnya announced that she had a "crumb in the oven". A crumb, indeed! - at three months the lanky V's belly didn't hold a candle to mine! But we are very excited for them & look forward to yet one more "cool parents" example to bring us around on the issue.


With the help of these two cool cats, we relaxed in good company. There were the usual beach, swim and feasting activities but there was also some fascinating encounters with creatures under the sea. We were first treated to the sight of a cuttlefish - a bizarre creatyure with a body like a frilly ottoman and a tentacled face like Davey Jones from Pirates of the Carribean II. We also found amusing the huge, blue fish with a large lump on it's head - the Napolean fish. But the most exciting and for me, unnerving were the 'harmless' Blacktipped Reef Sharks we saw. I knew they were in the area and my heart sank when the group before us reported seeing some. As my father can attest to, I am entralled but uncomfortable with snorelling and tend to stick VERY close to my companions. I was virtually on top of Simon when he pointed into the depths at the fluid motion of that familiar form. But I was buoyed to realize (thus allowing Simon a breath) it was only about three feet long and felt immensely reassured until Kevin and Varnya reported seeing a pair twice that length. Fortunately I was out of the water by that point.


But a premature end was put to this fun by the hard-working Singaporeans, invading the island & filling every guesthouse for the Easter Long Weekend. So off we went, parting ways with K&V, to the island city of Singapore. We were greeted at the border by a sign warning against jaywalking. We were also extra careful not to inadvertantly litter for fear of incurring the hefty fines of jail time. But we did see signs of Singapore loosening is famously tight laces - one can now even possess small amounts of chewing gum!



We spent a quick two days in this beautiful, lush city, enjoying it's permanent tropical climate, it's shiny shopping malls (that foster the city's main activity), it's excellent and varied gastronomic offerings (we're tiring of noodles & rice) and it's fabulously green vistas. We even had time to take in the unique night safari (read nocturnal zoo). Highlight: seeing the lion roaring - a sound familiar from our visit to Etosha in Namibia, but which formerly lacked the impressive visual of the dropped jaw and shaking mane.



And just like that, we were headed north again, flying to the Thai city of Chaing Mai.




Posted by psy2099 at 06:47 AM

April 10, 2007

The Real Jungle Experience...

A warning right off the bat: this post may be boring in comparison to it's predecessor.


The reaction to our April Fool's post has made me realize that perhaps a little de-mystification is in order. I'm sure it is easy to romanticize our travels when faced with 9-5 jobs, but our 'adventures' are actually quite tame in the grand scheme of travelling. We do not take risks or stray far from the Lonely Planet beaten path. Maybe this is sensible, maybe it is missing out, but regardless, it is our nature. I hope that this hasn't crushed anyone's fancies, but more curbed the potential for worry.



Now that that caveat is out of the way, let me tell you the plain facts of our experience in the jungle. First off, we arrived in Taman Negara via a bus from Kuala Lumpur. We'd flown to KL from Phuket rather than trained it due to a) time limitations & b) disturbing terrorist activities in Thailand's muslim south (when asked if they would travel through the region, four fresh young tourism trainees vigorously shook their heads with wide eyes and chorused "Oh No!") - See? No risks! -

But we did actually travel the 3 hrs upstream into the park in the primitive riverboat. This was not so much dangerous as uncomfortable - lacking the yoga training, Simon cannot sustain a crosslegged sitting buddha pose for long, if at all. Though our guesthouse's comments book logged such experiences as finding a 7 ft Dog-Toothed Cat snake (don't ask me!?) on their porch, we saw nothing of the kind. A few monkeys, bats and wild boars pretty much sums it up. Still we had some fun times all the same. We...

-walked 40m of the ground in a series of suspended walkways among the forest canopy


-scambled around a cave full of guano and bats. This was an experience with a repetitive sound track eminating from yours truly: "I don't like this! Did I mention I don't like this?"




-snikering at the Japanese shaking and inapecting their shoes and socks for leeches (very common in the rain forest), only to sheepishly find that we had several frantically traversing our boot/sock region onto bare legs.

-hiked and sweated and hiked and sweated. Really I don't think I've ever been so moist in my life.



And that pretty much sums it up folks. I admit that I was a little disappointed - not that we didn't encounter tigers and pythons, but that this rainforest looked, for the most part, like most forest familiar to Canadians. In retrospect, it's easy, I suppose to see how our last jungle post seemed so credible - the word jungle certainly sets the imagination working.







Posted by psy2099 at 06:27 AM

April 05, 2007

And the prize goes to...

Miss Lauren Cruikshank and Ron and Toos Reid who all have a healthy level of skepticism ...

So umm yes, with our tails firmly between our legs, we are offically admitting to be boys crying about wolves....April Fool's!

Thank you for the outpouring of support, but everything went fine in the jungle and we boated in with no problems. It would be a rare traveller, indeed, who managed to come accross tigers and pythons in the jungle. The scariest we had were leeches and bats. We fancied that the story was so fantastical that everyone would be sure to cotton on to the joke, before even getting to the telling last line. so, um, "GOTCHA"... We are sorry (now) that we didn't write the truth earlier and left so many people hanging, but we are on a tiny island with expensive and slow internet. We never imagined such hulabaloo back home! Are April Fool's pranks a thing of the past? Are we all becoming too complacent to the trickery of the day? We were well in the spirit of the day and even still fell for Google's Paper Archive prank for a minute or two---did anyone else catch that one?

So many appologies for causing you any concern...we realize we haven't the history of such pranks, but these days we are footloose and fancy-free and have nothing but time to stir up trouble, it seems! Hope there are no hard feelings!
A repentent but mischievous Simon and Claire

Posted by psy2099 at 06:23 AM

April 01, 2007

Wild Times in the Wilderness

What a turn of events we have had, dear readers. I suppose this is the kind of adventure that makes for memorable travel, but it is not the kind we would choose to repeat. Thankfully, though, we are both safe.



We decided that on our way to our beach vacation with our dear friends Kevin & Varnya, we would see what the Malaysian Jungle had to offer. We headed by bus to the nearest town, where we and fifteen tourists boarded a river boat for the 3 hr ride to Taman Negara Park. If you're thinking that this boat doesn't look study enough for all this weight, you're thinking the same thing I was.


But who knows it might have been alright, had we not hit that log...

The force of the impact was enough to capsize the boat and fracture apart the boards and tar to boot. Down went our luggage while we frantically grappled for life jackets and valuables. It was not wet from the river; Simon shed some tears as he said goodbye to camera #2 - it was soaked through.

The last shot...how prophetic!

Fortunately, the river was not terribly deep & everyone made it to shore safely. We decided to wade in after our bags. This was not the easiest process as already heavy backpacks become extremely so when water-logged! Moreover, some of the bags had scattered in the swift flowing river and it was too muddy to locate anything visually. My pack never did turn up. It was during this exercise that the concept of being in the jungle dawned on me in a nasty way. Though I was wearing my crocs (I was very glad I had them!) I stepped on something large. Something moving. Out of the water in a flash came a large snake head and lunged at the American girl standing beside me. Somehow she managed to avoid getting bitten, but we were all out of the water instantly and I was shaking uncontrollably. We watched as a massive python ("reticulated"-we were later told by out boat driver) pulled itself from the river and made it's way into the forest. Now that I was fully aware of the kind of company we were in, you can imagine how I felt when the boat driver announced that his mobile was also water-logged and we were about a full days walk from civilization. This was around 7 pm with the sun going down and a light drizzle falling.

We decided our best bet would be to cobble together some kind of make-shift camp and stay put for the night. It is either a testament to the MEC water-resistant packs, or due to the extremely tight packing job that is required to fit all of our stuff into said pack that we found a few mostly dry items of clothing in the middle of Simon's pack. We gratefully changed into these and passed a few others around. We shared a depressing meal of bits of food people had with them and curled up on the palm fronds we'd laid out, trying to ignore the tickle of insects in the dark. You can imagine how well we slept.

Alas insects were not all we had to worry about. We spent the night listening to movement in the bushes around us. The thick foliage did not allow the almost full moon's light to let us see what was so curious about us. We tried to imagine that they were harmless monkeys for a while until we heard the unmistakable rumblings of a large cat. Yes, there are tigers in these parts. I never did see them, but from the tracks we found the next morning we figured that we'd been investigated by at least a pair of these beasts.

The next morning, dear reader, for the second time this trip, I ate fish - fortuantely our boat driver proved to be more able at fishing and fire making than at navigating. I was hungry enough to abandon my usual squeamishness and wolf it down. I was not the only one to whom the smell of the fish on the fire appealed, we were visited by precocious monkeys at our breakfast. Let me tell you 'cheeky monkey' is not just a figure of speech! These little guys helped themselves to part of a fishbefore we managed to chase them away. How quickly they can go from "cute" to terrifyingly teeth-barring!

After waiting by the shore for a couple of hours we were able to hail down the morning boat which took us, sodden and hungry, but relieved, back to the jetty. This was more jungle than any of us had bargained for.

Let me tell you, dear readers, April 1st, 2007 is not a day we will soon forget...

Posted by psy2099 at 09:10 PM

March 21, 2007

Delhi/Agra - in which the backpackers are WELL looked after

Now that our time in India is just about up, we have one last thing to see before we can leave...the Taj Mahal. And fancy this bit of luck - my parents tour group will be there the very same day. My folks generously arranged that we should join them, not only to the sights but for the meals and in the delightfully swanky hotel, as well. Thanks to this arrangement, we turned over all of our usual concerns to the travel company the minute we arrived in Delhi. We are met in the airport with tickets for the train later that day and a car to take us to some local sights in the meantime. Thus, we visit a hindu temple, the Ghandi Memorial Museum (where we were herded through bizarre high-tech displays by over-eager guides - what would Ghandi think?) and finally the fantastic Humayan's Tomb - a mini Taj Mahal.

A ride on the train to Agra - oohh proper seats in an AC car! - and we are met once more and transported to the hotel where my parents have just arrived. I am so excited that Simon complains about keeping up with me dispite my heavy pack. A reunion - Yay!


We spend the next day visiting as much as possible, eating some fantastic food, seeing a marble works, the red fort and let's not forget, the fantastic Taj. Ohh La La ain't life grand!




Part 2 - Claire and Simon and the no good, awful, very bad day!

But boo hiss all this fun must come to an end. The following day sees us say goodbye to my folks for another 4 months:(. We have a few hours to kill in Agra before our train back to Dehli so we head to the internet (I know, I know, you didn't even get a post out of it!). We fly to Bangkok this night so maybe it's time to do some research. Aha - reassuring news It seems due to several bombings in the past few months, and the anticipation of more, many countries advise against non-essential travel to Thailand at the moment. We further intimidated ourselves by reading about the corruption & border crossing extorsion/intimidation nightmares between Laos and Vietnam. A grey cloud is starting to descend. My belly is acting up so we try to track down some food, an impossibility in this area it seems, so we settle for soup at the hotel. But aieee! it ain't cheap! We hand over our remaining rupees that were supposed to last us the day and agonize a bit about the implications of this - no tip money in a situation and society that demands it!

Dropping my watch (only $20 Walmart but so perfectly simple and with indiglo!) on the swish marble hotle floor seems to be the last straw, the petty downers have added up to too much for this away from home homebody. I experience some traveller's blues of the "I want to go home" variety. I do manage to collect myself by the time we are met to head for the train, but it seems that the day is not done with me. Our train is 2.5 hours late and once we board it progress is slowed even further. Each station involves an hour long wait. We eventually find out that there has been a derailment, but by this time our 3.5 hour journey has turned into seven hours and unless our airplane taxis to the station to fetch us, we have missed our flight.
It is midnight and we are defeated. But the travel gods haven't abandonned us, it seems, or at least my parents travel company hasn't! Kumar (don't know about Harold or White Castle?) meets us at the station. He has a hotle lined up for us and has talked to Thai Airways about our flight. Over the next 24 hrs, he deals with all of our issues as we enjoy a metro ride and wander around Dehli. Some backpackers may eschew the organized travel, but we are thoroughly sold on it. But, Darn it, the budget certainly doesn't allow for this luxury and the next night we are on the flight to Bangkok and on our own again.





Posted by psy2099 at 11:12 AM

March 17, 2007

The Only Thing Scarier than Indian Roads are the Mosquitos


Though it was tempting to cancel the rest of the trip and stay in Varkala, visiting only beaches is perhaps missing the "Indian" experience. So we moved on just a little further up the coast to the backwater town of Kollam. This area of Kerala is famous for it's man-made and natural canals and salt-water lakes...which we saw from the relative comfort of a traditional canoe. We also saw some of the local industry - coir rope, boat making, coconut & cashew processing and prawn farming. Or rather, we saw where these activities take place. As it was the day after a local festival, much of the local population was quietly nursing their hangovers - inducing jealousy from Simon who can't seem to get a beer anywhere! (he hasn't yet learned the trick of ordering a "special tea")



Moving on again, we tested the Indian travel system with several hours on a train, followed by several more on a bus. We found the former to be about what you would expect, bench seats & cockroaches, though comfortable enough with seats to ourselves. The latter was a much more trying experience. Imagine an old ('60s) city bus with no windows & seamingly 2 people benches intended and used to hold 3 (Indians are a LOT smaller than us!) Don't forget the intense heat (the air buffeting you from open sides is still stiffling!). Now imagine this bus driven by a teen-aged video game enthusiast - lines on the road mean nothing, passing on blind cornersis the norm and the name of the game is speed.

Finally, imagine four hours of bracing yourself to stay on your tiny portion of bench (so as not to squash the tiny Indian next to you) as
you mount and descend mountain switch-backs at this frantic pace. The only thing that can save you from a terrible accident is the driver's best friend, the ear-drum popping horn - used with NO reservations.


All this was endured in order to get to the town of Kumily in the Periyar Wildlife Preserve. There we took a tour of a tea factory and plantation, a flower garden and local spice garden.





We also spent a day hiking through the jungle and cruising down a beautiful fresh water lake on a bamboo raft. Though we lunched with some elephants and sighted some boars and bison, we only saw tracks of the elusive tiger & leopard.




As far as other wildlife goes, though it is generally cooler here in teh mountains than by the coast, there is still a plethora of mosquitos. Despite the nets we hung over our beds (thanks, Tom and Jenni!) Simon still wound up with 72 bites on his foo where it pressed against the mesh - Yikes!



With these and a few more souvenirs, we packed it up and did the bus/train trip in reverse, heading for Trivandrum, where a super-low budget flight awaits to take us to Dehli - cross your fingers we get off the ground (and that Simon fits on the plane!)

Posted by psy2099 at 06:44 AM

March 12, 2007

Just the Two of Us...We Can Travel India If We Try...

After bidding my folks farewell, we decided we'd better come up with a plan of our own. Ok, well there was a little more forethought to it then that, but just barely. So we hopped a kingfisher (the King of Beers - life is good on a brewery airline!) flight to the city of Trivandrum in the southern state of Kerela. Evidently we had decided that starting out the summer season in anything other than the southern most part of India would be foolish. I must be suffering from heat-induced delusions, because my body looks the same, but I could swear to you that I am a puddle...

Back to Budget accomodations again, we lost all sense of perspective and somehow found ourselves agreeing to stay in a mouldy, filthy hotelroom where I offered up my body to the mosquito gods and crossed my fingers that my anti-malarials were working.



Escaping this homey atmosphere, we managed to take in a visit to the local zoo and the nearby beach of Kovalam. We endured 2 nights in Trivandrum before eagrly hopping a train to Varkala.




If Goa is THE hot spot for middle-aged British holidayers, Varkala is the Indian beach destination for international wandering youth. Though still dominated by tourists, it has the advantage of a fabulous setting on a beachside cliff, and a slightly less glossy atmosphere then Goa, thanks to the comparatively limited funds of the backpacker brand of traveller.





After waiting, in hammocks, for our cliff-side hut to be ready, we were contemplating the merits of staying here forever, beaching, swimming and doing yoga. The only downside to this plan is that the sea here is known to be dangerous, frequently carrying swimmers out to sea with powerful rip-tides. So in a life-time of doing dips here, with this as our only life line...our number might evenutally come up...







Posted by psy2099 at 09:50 AM

March 07, 2007

Goa, the new comers are hit hard!


According to the Lonely Planet , 30-70% of travellers to India will experience the dreaded Traveller's Sickness within their first 2 weeks in the country. Nevermind that that statistic has some committment issues, we are proving it to be conservative. Mom spent her first night in Goa being violently ill, while Dad couldn't stray far from the loo on his last day here. In between we did manage some beach, swimming - pool and ocean - the latter far less appealing after discovering a monstrous, bloated dead rat awash in the surf!, fine dining, sight-seeing and a little R&R.






Though we had been warned that this part of the country was not India at all, but more a spot to sight portly, pink British vacationers, we found nothing of the sort - the beach was absolutely packed with Indians enjoying the sun and surf in their briefs (men) and saris (women). Still there were enough foreign tourists about that I didn't feel out of place in my bikini!



The reason for all this Indian revelry could have been the fact that they were celebrating Holi, one of their biggest national festivals. Apart from some worshipping at the temples, this seemed to consist mainly of smearing everybody in sight with colourful dyes. As these can stain skin and clothes, Mom, Dad, and I abstained from this activity - Simon was not so lucky.






But of course, the good times are gone in the blink of an eye and too soo we had to bid our farewells to my Mom and Dad. We were heading south to the state of Kerala and they were off to Dehli to join their small tour group for and exciting 3 wks in northern India. But as luck would have it, our paths will cross again on this continent - at the Taj Mahal in 2 weeks!

Posted by psy2099 at 10:14 AM

India - The Lap of Luxury? (alternative title : I'm Back!!!)

Well the lap of luxury might be a bit of an exageration. But since meeting my Mom & Dad at the Mumbai airport we have enjoyed the bliss of pre-arranged travel. There certainly is something to be said for having all rides, hotels and sight-seeing booked for you. We revelled in the relaxation of having nothing to worry about beyond how much to tip someone.


The the invite has been open to any and all to meet us anywhere in the world, my folk s are the only ones to have taken us up on the offer so far (unless you count us crashing Kevin & Lucinda's honeymoon numero deux in Mallorca!) I guess it helps to be retired avid travellers! But we certainly do appreciate the effort and expense they've put in to brighten our trip at it's halfway point. Moreover, it made our introduction to India a smoother experience than we had expected.


That being said, I'd no sooner had stepped off the plane into India then I experienced the notorious Traveller's Illness! While I recovered from a night spent in the loo, my folks hit the town for a tour and Simon raced around looking for a deal on a camera. He got the latter, though mot much of the former. It seems that high-end photography equipment is the one thing you can't negotiate for in India. Still, he was grinning like a fool to have his buddy back in his hands again.


By early afternoon, I felt sufficiently recovered to join the tour of Mumbai an dSimon was keen to put his new tool to use. So we met my folks and our guide and took in some Bombay highlights, including Ghaandi's house, a Jain temple, the Dhobi Ghat, where thousands of men beat clothes into a supposed state of cleanliness. After a fabulous (though admittedly non-indian, Mumbai is very modern) dinner that night, my illness was just a distant memory and we were quite impressed, i think, with our first day in India.



The one downfall, I suppose, of organized travel is the necessity of setting an alarm (something we are not used to lately!) and rising much to early for our tastes! But, Oh! the things you can accomplish when you do this! We flew to Aurangabad and were immediately collected by another guide, who took us to one of the city's attractions - Daulatabad Fort.



This is the remainder of what was once meant to be the capital city. It's first ruler even went so far as to march the entire population of Dehli the 2000+kms to populate it before discovering that there was a severe shortage of water. Fortunately, we were better perpared in this respect, as we dragged my parents through the heat and bat filled halls, up to the fort's lookout. By this time we were throughly exhausted and spent the rest of the day napping and gorging ourselves on Indian food.




Up early again the next day (could explain why Simon and Mom are suffering from colds) we had some even more ambitios sightseeing plans. We spent the morning at the Ajanta caves - Fantastically ornate hollows in a canyon wall, built for Buddhists beginning in 200BC.




The afternoon was dedicated to the Ellora caves, similar constructions that date after Christ, and were temples for not only Buddhists, but Hindus and Jains as well. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this place was the Kailasa temple - the world's largest monolythic sculpture. It took 150 yrs and 7000 workers to complete. Hopefully it wasn't the same bunch the whole time...;)



Now that we are so learned and cultured (our guide had multiple master's degrees in archaeology and history and imparted to us more than we could ever possibly absorb) time for another side of India...the famous beaches of Goa!

Posted by psy2099 at 09:11 AM