Amritsar, Punjab – New Friends, New Headgear, and Very Serious Selfies!


Amritsar, Punjab New Friends, New Headgear, and Very Serious Selfies!

 

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My decision to leave Dharamkot and the mountainous hub of yoga, Tibetan culture, health food and chilled out cafés at first seemed very difficult. However after a few days of severe rain and downpours so heavy that ‘damp’ became my response to any generic question posed to me by either local or fellow-traveller, I decided that I owed it to India’s sheer size and to myself to see as much more of this vast and sensory-rich country as I can before departing for Sri Lanka. I’ll admit I was mistaken in thinking I would be satisfied with a month here. A month seems so miniscule when I think about how quickly the days have been passing, flying by in the squint of an eye against a haze of dust rising up from chaotic streets and overly potent onions.

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Peekaboo…The sun disappearing behind the entrance of the The Golden Temple

So I enlisted the help of Lakshmi Tours in Dharamkot, (the tour operators directly under Trek n’ Dine, probably the most recognisable landmark in the teeny town and some extremely yummy homemade muesli), and booked myself a one-way ticket to Amritsar, in the Western province of Punjab. A whim, a blessing, a sign, whatever you want to call it, I then proceeded to reserve a room at the first hostel that made it’s way to the head of my Google Search – Jugaardus Eco Hostel, and I have to say, for once, I did good. I’ve stayed at my fair share of dingy, anti-social, isolating and DAMP accommodation, but from the second I stepped in to Jugaardus I felt completely comfortable and welcomed, the graffitied walls of clichéd travel-quotes and creative-traveller-type masterpieces ‘just scribbled’ onto the walls reminding me of the Madpackers’ in Delhi in all it’s hipster and backpacking glory. The best thing about these hostels is definitely the social aspect, and the organisation of tours several times a day to places that would take a lot of wrong turns and mind-numbing sign language to find alone without a guide. The team at Jugaadus are also extremely friendly, open and welcoming to solo travellers and groups alike, and the included meals (donation based) were also a blessing!

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A well-timed group outing to The Golden Temple in Amritsar, home of the Sikh religion and one of the most stunningly beautiful areas of architecture and peaceful settings I’ve ever laid eyes on/stepped foot in, occupied the first evening. From being treated as tourist attractions ourselves and stared at, to being bundled into a foodhall and served chipattis in a clamour of splashing dahl and clashing metal plates as the next round of hungry mouths waited expectantly outside, only then to come out again to find the whole place suddenly lit by the reflection of real golden temples on the water where hundreds of Sikhs have just bathed and redressed the turbans and scarves of every colour imaginable…it really was an unforgettable experience, and one of my favourite outings in India so far. (That’s saying a LOT!) Beers in the local brewery (situated at the top of a shopping centre?) with new and familiar hostel friends ended the day nicely and the tourist in me was satisfied for another while.

 

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Foodhall in Amritsar’s Golden Temple
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So many colours!
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Bathing at the Golden Temple

 

Day two began with a fruitful breakfast and spontaneous jamming session in the hostel, before being whisked away on a food tour of the city, which lasted hours and brought us to some of the cheapest and most tucked away corners of Amritsar..I tasted the sweetest black chai of my life, and before even getting a chance to return to the hostel it was time to be picked up to continue the day of ‘touristing’ and go on the ‘Wagah Border Tour’. Another spontaneous decision, I only realised as we left the perimeters of Amritsar behind that we were actually headed towards the Pakistani border with India to witness a ceremony crossing flags and celebrating the two country’s heritage and peacefully maintained boundaries, as well as ironically symbolising their rivalry. unnamed-20Passports in hand and a kind of nervous expectancy hanging in the thick dusty air preceding sunset, we walked the long road-blocked entrance like that of a road headed into a music festival. Vendors painted Indian flags on our faces and sold bottles of water, fresh juices, mystery fried yellow things, and tables of other products outside.

When the stadium eventually filled to capacity and the sun had all but disappeared from the sky, Indian residents on one side of two iron-clad sets of gates and Pakistani on the other, thumping Bollywood music flooded the stadium and a troupe of dancers emerged in the road below.

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Indian supports at the Pakistani border

On spotting us taking pictures, we were pulled into the crowd by young students to join their dancing in front of the hundreds of spectators! Dancing to ‘Jai Ho’ in a mass of colourful saris and flowing black hair overlooked by a crowd of chanting Indians is something I won’t forget in a hurry!

Once the dancing ceased, drum rolls signalled Indian soldiers marching and high-kicking their way towards the Pakistani gate to a height Micheal Flatley would envy and with such conviction that it was difficult not to take it very seriously. Between the crowds chanting in Hindi, the drums rolling, the clip-clop of the uniformed officers and the opposing chants and singing coming from the Pakistani side, it felt like being a spectator at some kind of bizarre sporting event!

 

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2 sets of gates – India border vs Pakistan

After a lengthy marching routine, eventually the guards tired out high-kicking and opened the gates, where they swapped sides and lowered each country’s flag together, crossing them over in a sign of peace. And that was it. Back together the gates clanged, back down the stadium the guards skipped, and the Indian crowd’s chanting reached a peak to meet the final drum rolls end. Time to go home! It was back to Jugaardus for a shower to wash the dust away from tired feet.

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“Just one picture, Madame!”

My final day in Amritsar was spent catching up on sleep and online work, venturing into the madness of the city several times to explore local shops and market stalls! Back to Delhi now for a final night with the Madpackers and then onwards as my visa expires in a few days and I’ve yet to plan the next leg of my journey properly. Oops.

There is one thing I am sure of, however…

India, I’m not done with you yet!
I will most definitely be back. Onwards and upwards!

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Useful Links:

Trek n Dine Facebook / Trip Advisor
Lakshmi Tours India
Jugaardus Eco Hostel: Website / Facebook / Trip Advisor
Madpackers Hostel Delhi : Facebook / Trip Advisor
Gold Temple Amritsar Website

 

10 Times Delhi Made Me Go “Wow”

’10 Times Delhi Made Me Go “Wow”‘

Wonder is a great thing.
When you embark upon a journey into the wild, or on a safari, you expect to encounter wild and wonderous things and places. You choose to dabble in the unknown. Untameable, charming, ferocious, unstoppable, beautiful, completely alien in nature, enchanting in their distance and in the depth of our misunderstanding – it’s more than just language barriers. It’s communicative, instinctual, historical, habitual, and societal contrasts ingrained deep within the very cracks of the higgledy piggledy streets and contents of the stunning architecture, pungent sewers and aromatic street food stalls alike which tumble together and simmer to the surface to serve up unique experiences and interactions and form the somehow multifunctional city of New Delhi.

 This ‘safari’, for want of a better word, has been the most daring expedition I’ve embarked on yet. People coming to ‘find themselves’ by getting unfathomably lost in an unfamiliar and almost unsettlingly diverse country as a concept in itself has led me to consider the entirety of India in terms of a wild animal that I have yet to wrap my head around and tame by establishing a firm enough grasp on it. Even just in my head. There’s just so much to it.

In an effort to portray simply the ins and outs of just how intense and incredibly humbling my first encounter with India has been so far, I’ve compiled a short list of the things which most impacted me and made me literally say ‘Wow’ (in both the good and bad ways!) as I took that first tentative step into a city more vast and untameable than even my frizzy hair after a week of camping in a field in the West of Ireland.

1. Lodi Gardens

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Talk about finding calm in the chaos. Easily the most peaceful and least crowded place I visited in Delhi, these natural gardens contrast the chaos directly outside their perimeter by boasting spotlessly clean, quiet, organised and expertly maintained pathways and flowerbeds. Seemingly a popular hangout spot for young locals and couples alike, Lodi Gardens contain some of the most beautiful plantlife and temples unspoiled by litter or the everyday madness and pollution in Delhi. Bonus points for free entry and hosting outdoor yoga sessions every Saturday and Sunday morning! #Zen

2. Cables
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Cables. Cables. Everywhere. I stopped wondering why the wifi seems to disappear whenever it rains even a little bit. Everywhere you go there are crossing wires and open sockets and fuses boasting naked electrical goods that are really just crying out for a little bit of DIY to hide their modesty! It’s the kind of thing you have to just turn a blind eye to and ignore the instinctual discomfort ingrained by years of Irish paranoia that leaving the immersion on will see you meet your end. It won’t. I promise.

3. Market Madness

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It wouldn’t be a visit to Asia without a trip to the market, and Delhi’s markets don’t disappoint! Sarojini Nagar and the Spice market were favourite of mine, but you name it, you can buy it, most likely at a hilariously injust ‘special tourist price’ that newbies regularly fall victim to – haggling is key here! Start 1/3 of the price lower and don’t be afraid to say no and walk away – 80% of the time you will be called back with a lower price!

4. Hauz Khas Village

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Central to the ‘party’ scene of modern New Delhi, this hip section of bars, cafés, and nightclubs is the place to go after dark, if you can brave the whirlwind of a tuk tuk ride there and back. Our international group of ‘mixed vegetables’ as the driver labelled us from the Madpackers’ Hostel had a brilliant night here and pushed even Indian drivers’ boundaries by piling 7 into one tuktuk on the way back ! Despite my own reservations I actually did feel able to let go and have fun – maintaining awareness in late-night situations is key though, especially for girls (has to be said!), and our ‘numbers-system’ proved effective in ensuring we stuck together at all times!

 5. I Grew it Myself

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I won’t lie here. I’ve finally realised that I can’t go to any tourist attraction in India without becoming one myself. Red hair, pale skin and freckles seem to be on the checklist of all Indian visitors to their capital city and main ‘must-see’ sights, and they are certainly not shy when it comes to asking for pictures. Besides paying the substantially lower fee for Indian visitors into all these attractions, they also get to satisfy their curiosity for pale skin and hair…I now know what it feels like to be an animal in a zoo. Funny the first few times. Gets very uncomfortable after a crowd gathers and children cry when you say no.

6. Awky Momos

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Momos are great. Everyone should try them. These ones are even vegan.

 7. Bus Station

New Delhi Bus Station at night is a raving, romping, shouting, beeping, hollering, and chaotic melting pot of humanity, the contents of which departs sporadically every 5-10 minutes for destinations all over the massive, massive country and gets replaced moments later by a new influx of bodies. The heated atmosphere added to my already heightened anxiety ahead of a 12-hour bus journey, but thankfully things cooled down as we pulled away from the hub of disgruntled passengers of all shapes and sizes clamouring to be heard over the continuos din of the incomprehensible intercom announcments. Phew. I was stressed even writing that. No picture. No time for pictures here.

8. Humayan’s Tomb and the Red Fort 

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I’ve grouped the Red Fort and Humayun’s Tomb together as they’re fairly standard stops to tick off on the tourist checklist. The Tomb is like a mini Taj Mahal, which is good for those who aren’t prepared to take the day trip to Agra, but fairly repetitive for those who’ve already been. Steep entry fee for tourists also put me off!

9. Taj Mahal

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This may possibly seem like an obvious one and is technically not actually in Delhi, so I thought I’d leave it til further down in the list. The Taj Mahal does what it says on the tin. Even standing a few hundred feet from it, I found it difficult to believe it wasn’t photoshopped into my line of vision and wondered how on earth such a solid piece of beauty and representation of love could actually be real. The rain didn’t help, but it made for a funny day of singing in the rain with some new friends from Madpackers (see #10), who organised a day-trip for us to Agra and back.

10. Madpackers Hostel
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I can’t possibly write about Delhi without mentioning the Madpackers Hostel! Pranav, Mayank, and the rest of the team were honestly the most welcoming and hospitable hosts for the few days I stayed there, ready to help with any queries or struggle any of their guests had in a chilled and friendly manner. Met some amazing people and it really was a brilliant start to my time in India. Best hostel I’ve stayed at in a long time! Namasté!

 

 

Serenity Eco Guesthouse, Canggu, Bali

 

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Serenity Eco -Guesthouse, Jalan Nelayan, Canggu

I’m not going to lie. I could base myself absolutely anywhere in Bali and still probably end up wanting to stay forever. Even if anywhere meant the little shack on the beach just 150 metres down the road from Serenity Eco Guesthouse in Canggu.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.

 I took a taxi from the airport in Denpasar to Canggu, which took all of about 40 minutes once the driver had calmly arrived 30 minutes late and then proceeded to search the entire car and car park for a further 20 for any sign of his misplaced keys. This was my first encounter with the legendary workings of what they call ‘Bali time’, and let me tell you – it’s a real thing, people! 12388317_10153233258303483_515787682_n

40 minutes late here? An hour behind schedule there? “Sorry mate, I got carried away in the surf! Have you seen it today?”,Oh, yes, we are running late today. How would you like your eggs?”

Nearing Canggu, according to the signs I observed, I tried to commit directions and landmarks outside the window to memory in an attempt to get my bearings for when I rented my motorbike (60k IDR per day from Serenity, but available at a lot of nearby rental-sheds too).

Finally turning onto Jalan Nelayan in Canggu, we pulled up outside the bamboo thatched roof and awning of Alkaline Café, the line of motorbikes parked up outside overshadowed by a large timetable outlining a yoga-schedule for the day, and signs. My kinda place, I thought happily.

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Serenity Eco Guesthouse was everything I’d hoped it would be – and more. Initially only booking in for 3 nights, I ended up staying well over a week and making friends that I am still in contact with even now having returned home.

Maybe it was the fact that up until then I’d been staying in communal hostel rooms of up to 18 people, but the single room at Serenity was perfect. They also have double, privates, and a larger shared backpackers dorm. I splashed out on the single room. Spotlessly clean, secure, and cool even though there was no air con – December in Bali meant it wasn’t entirely necessary.

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Free breakfast and then other meals (not included) at the vegan/vegetarian Alkaline Café were honestly so delicious I was spoiled for choice every day, with the signs around affirming how to ‘Let Food Be Your Medicine’ really reassuring me that what I was getting was good, fresh, organic, and healthy concoctions of both western and Balinese dishes. My first time to try vegan ice cream was genuinely a very pleasant surprise, and I made sure to try almost every flavour of Alkaline’s homemade nice-cream.

Your choice of daily yoga class is only a small bit extra if you stay in Serenity, and the Ashtanga and Vinyasa flows proved both a challenging and refreshing change from the rather monotonous self-practice flow I had become accustomed to on my travels. A special ‘Yoga for Surfers’ is available too for those more inclined to be found on Batu Balong Beach than the yoga studio in the early hours, 150 metres down the road and only a short distance away from the popular Old Man’s, which really is the place to be during any visit to Canggu, no matter if you stay on past happy hour or not.12386743_10153233255198483_419303146_n

The staff were extremely helpful and friendly during my stay and I honestly couldn’t recommend them more – they even took care of me during an extremely rough dose of the 24-hour Bali-Belly bug, which floored me for over a day and meant I couldn’t even leave the guesthouse – DON’T eat at the dingey warungs down by Old Man’s!!

Serenity really caters for the needs of all travellers – proximity to the beach and local nightlife suiting those more inclined to surf for the day, or party at night, whilst the yoga classes schedule meant there was never long to wait before the next class. There were also a few families staying there which I thought was brilliant, the quiet surroundings catering for both young and old, whatever the daytime priority may be. As for me, I partook in all of these activities and more, exploring the local area everyday on my motorbike and returning in the evening for a relaxed chillout by the pool.

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Surf n’ Turf at Batu Balong Beach, Canggu

I really hope I can return to Serenity soon and partake in more of the yoga and meditation sessions- I made friends in the area too who showed me around many of the cool spots aswell as Old Man’s, such as Deus’, Pretty Poison, Betelnut, Café, and Crate, to name but a few (more on the Cafés of Bali HERE).

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My taxi on to Ubud at the end of my stay I shared with one of the many friends I’d made at Serenity, yet we parted ways on arrival as our itineraries differed slightly.

 Serenity recently uploaded this video online and it’s made me nostalgic for the time I spent there, and also made me more determind and eager to return as soon as possible!!

Until then,

Hati-Hati, and Namasté!!

 

 

 

Useful links:

Serenity Eco-GuesthouseFacebook/Twitter
Old Man’s Canggu – Facebook
Betelnut Café – Facebook
Pretty Poison – Facebook

What Happens in Singapore…Stays in Singapore

….until I blog about it.

There’s something I haven’t yet admitted to anyone ever about my ‘trip’ to Singapore. Something I’ve kind of just neglected to include in the recounting of the time I spent there. It’s nothing bad, nothing you wouldn’t expect from an easily distracted and excitable first-time solo-traveller…but it’s just a little bit embarassing.

To give us context, I’ll make it clear that I visited the city as part of a tour group which left from Changi airport (the most amazing airport known to man) during a ridiculous 20-hour stopover, promising to have us back in time to make each person’s individual connecting flight, regardless of which of the 3 massive and maze-like terminals they were departing from.

Beginning to see any flaws in the plan yet?

I hopped on the bus all the same, excited at the extra stamp in my passport and at the prospect of seeing a city which had not been on my original itinerary at all. I spent most of the traffic jam on the way to the main highway (look at me using fancy words for a big road!) deep in conversation with the mother and daughter of a delightful Chinese family, on holiday from Beijing and, like me, passing time on their stopover as they headed towards Kuala Lumpur.

Singapore’s orderly and functional traffic, rules of the road, basic rights of way and cleanliness were immediately obvious and an absolute blessing to experience after the madness of Cambodia and Vietnam. I gasped in wonder as a line of cars ACTUALLY STOPPED when a traffic light turned red, and flat-out gawped as a traffic warden, no less, was heeded as he stood bravely in the middle of the junction a little further on, hi-vis jacket almost rendered unecessary as the vehicles slotted in forwards and backwards and around him with their Sim-like precision and politness.

In fact, Sim-like is exactly how I’d describe Singapore. Sim-like and HOT. Swelteringly, stiflingly, breath-catching-in-your-throat kind of hot that no degree of near-nakedness can relieve. I’d gone from shivering uncomfortably in my flimsy white kafkan shirt and tiny denim short-shorts through several air-conditioned airports, to continuosly fanning myself and exhaling with puffed-out cheeks like a pregnant or menopausal lady caught mid-contraction or hot-flush – kind of ironic how those two things work in comparison to one another. Either way, one degree away from the equator is not where I’d expected to find myself spending the evening, nevermind in a city so vastly populated with sparkly lights and high-rise buildings shaped like Star Wars battleships.

It’s no wonder I got distracted.

Our enthusiastic guide, another soul native to Beijing who dubbed himself Mr. T., (‘Call me Mista’ T”!), epitomized the practicality and simple cheerful nature of many of the other Chinese, Malaysian and Singaporean people I had met already and was yet to encounter. His efforts to animate the slightly sterile air-conditioned interior of the unecessarily enormous tour bus genuinely made me laugh and added hugely to my enjoyment of the tour, as he randomly exclaimed things like ‘Oho!!!” and ‘Olé Olé Olé!!” after each description of and proud introduction to the locations we visited – completely out of context to the information he was narrating, and at times entirely sporadic.

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This is what I loved about Asia. There were a lot of things I did not understand, and a lot of what I did understand was so randomly unrelated to the actual context of where I was or what I was doing at the time that it would catch me unawares and throw me completely off-course and away from whatever I was actually focusing your attention on. Like right now. Where was I? Oh yes.

Singapore.

Mr. T’s energy reminded me of a cartoon character, and I found myself the only group-member participating in his guessing games as he posed impossible questions about the city to gage our knowledge of it – or possibly just to recite lines he had learned in ‘tour-guide training’ – it was difficult to tell for sure.
‘Who can tell me what percentage of Singaporeans are property owners?! Anybody? Nobody? Going once…olé! Going twice…olé! Goi-…Yes?”
‘65%?!!”
My random contribution was met with an emotionless stare from a French lady sitting opposite me as I looked to her jokingly for support, and an expressionless Dutch-looking guy with a camera behind cleared his throat awkwardly.
‘Oho!!! ‘berry close, ‘berry close! But, another guess?”
At least Mr. T had my back.
‘90%!?”
This time the smiley mother from the Chinese family chirped up, and gave me a slightly robotic yet jolly high-five when Mr T.’s immediate reaction to her answer made us all jump.
‘Olé olé olé!! We have a winna’!!! Hupp’ah!!’

Ignoring the distinct lack of enthusiasm from every other passenger on board, myself and the Chinese lady laughed and clapped along with him, our delight and amusement at our guides’ ‘acting’ skills and excellent English evidently either not shared or completely lost on our fellow passengers. The lady even gestured over to her husband and daughter, who were sat on the opposite sides of the bus to her in their own individual seats, cameras pressed to the glass of the bus as we passed several impressive looking buildings outside. I turned my attention outwards, as the bus lurched around a corner, and stopped rather suddenly in an orderly queue of traffic.
Comedy on pause, Mr. T suddenly became very serious.
‘Please be kind and do not stand up in the bus. I do not wish to stop at hospital.’
The Chinese father sat down after a few seconds as his wife translated solemnly.

The Singaporean adherence to safety measures and rules of the road became evident then as every slight movement was monitored and commented on in an almost joking manner, yet with an element of seriousness behind it. As we passed several other landmarks and more cameras were unfolded from the depths of hand-luggage, Mr. T was forced to repeat his request that we not move from our seats, and ‘please to be careful as in Singapore we have no insurance over who comes on tour and you must pay yourself if something happens.’ That put me in my place.

 It was getting dark as we neared Gardens By The Bay, visible from a distance as a futuristic mini-city of 50-foot high ‘Supertrees’ laden with multicoloured fairy lights and interspersed with connective bridges akin to something from Lorien, or the world of Avatar. Only a few days previously I’d visited the natural beauty of Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, and so this dream-like area of man-made ‘forest’ seemed even more alien to observe. Singapore is so organised it has even orchestrated the construction of its own forest! I thought, half in awe and half dubious at how artificial it all seemed. Still, what I could see from the bus was extremely beautiful and I was itching to escape the chilly air-conditioned interior and get exploring for myself.

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 Before we could do so however, Mr. T. laid out some strict rules of thumb.
‘Follow me to the entrance. At the entrance, I will point you in the direction of the gardens. From there, you will have freetime. Freetime will depend on our time of arrival. I will give time to meet back at the information desk and if you are not there at this time we will leave without you.’
Straight up and honest, I thought. I like this place.
‘In Singapore, we are punctual. We stick to time schedule and do not deviate.’
Fair enough, I thought again. I’m not going to pretend it wasn’t a relief to finally have some sort of order and reliable structure after becoming accustomed to the mere arrival of any form of public transport in Vietnam or Cambodia being a luxury – an hour after OR before the ‘expected time’ being almost customary. You just had to go with it.

 Singapore, however, is extremely different. Rigid rules, strict instructions, simple, basic guidelines to follow, and the entire city seems to function simply and effectivly. Mr T.’s description of the eco-friendly power-generating systems and recycling features were refreshing; so futuristic and straightforward that I genuinely did feel like I’d landed in Simville and was now a contributing member of a society so organised that stepping a foot out of line would be punishable by incredulous stares and unabashed Asian mutterings. Which it was.

Gardens by the Bay was incredible. As it was nearing Christmas, we got lucky in that the night we attended the park was the night they turned on the Christmas lights and had a special display for visitors. I entered the maze of towering Supertrees, Christmas lights merely adding to the fantastical display of colours and twinkling around me. The Supertrees were akin to giant versions of the dandelions we used to pick as kids to blow away their seeds. Only the seeds were still there. Each seed contributed to the constellations of multicoloured sparkling taking place above my head, and the low murmur of tourists all gazing skywards was interspersed with the first Christmas music I’d heard all year, along with everyone apologising for stepping on one anothers’ toes as we all gawped at the roof of the ‘forest’ above.

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I was taking pictures without looking at what I took. I was closing my eyes as each new song came on, brought back to a childhood where sparkly lights and Christmas music were enough to cure any kind of bad feelings or negative emotions. I was floating amidst the starry darkness, silently balancing upon the platforms of language barriers existing between the multitudes of tourist nationalities standing and wandering blindly around me, all murmuring incomprehensibly, yet focused upwards as one mass of human energy, in awe of pretty lights and the ironic juxtaposition of nature with our own technological advancment. The lights flashed in time to the music playing, and regardless of the artificiality of it, I was completely under the spell of the beauty of the Supertrees. It was like a movie. It was like a dream, even more so when I considered how not one single person was familiar to me here – I was completely alone, wandering through this sea of people and lights and music and life

 It’s no wonder I lost the group.

 I hadn’t seen them since entering the park, that much I knew for sure.
Not to worry, I thought, still in my blissfull, floaty state of contentment; I just have to find the information desk. There’s still loads of time.
So I wandered some more.
I wandered and took pictures and guessed the languages people were speaking, basking in the independence and strength I felt at having taken myself this far. The park was surprisingly large, and even though the lights were everywhere, it was difficult to identify specific buildings, turns, or pathways.
I went back the way I’d come (or thought I had), turned a few corners around trees I thought were familiar, using the battleship-skyscraper as a landmark; followed other tour groups down turns that seemed they’d lead to an exit of sorts but which actually brought us on to further ‘gardens’ and yet more inviting lights and music.
In short, I ended up completely and utterly lost.
At first it didn’t dawn on me just how alone I was – my larger backpack had gone on to Bali, bypassing Singapore completely. Here I was, one small backpack of hand-luggage and a duty-free bag of Cambodian Christmas tree decorations, wandering completely alone through an unfamiliar city, no physical money to speak of save a couple of thousand Vietnamese Dong which was utterly worthless here, and no knowledge of the language around me – no card or bus number of the tour I’d been with, no actual concrete evidence to place me in Singapore at all save a crappy ‘visitors’ visa’ stamp on my passport and my fellow tour mates’ eyewitness accounts…and they didn’t even know my name.

 I slowly began to panic, my brain irrationally jumping to the worst conclusions; picturing the reports of ‘Irish girl missing in Asia, last-known location in a fictional fantasy-land of flashing lights and trees and purpley-green dandelions…’
A few deep breaths calmed me.
No. Everything would be fine. Just find the information desk.
So I did. Wrong one.
Find the other information desk.

I tried. I really did. I found what I thought was the desk we’d agreed upon. No sign of anyone recognisable. No Mr. T.. No rude Dutch man with his camera larger than my head. No happy Chinese lady with her quiet husband. By now it was five minutes past the time we’d agreed to meet to return to the bus. A whole five minutes.
‘Hey!!!”
A shout came from behind. ‘You! Curly hair!”
It was the rude French lady from the bus. She hurried over to me and grasped my hand, and instead of being relieved to see her, her anxious stance made me actuely aware of how late it was. I could immediately tell she was equally as lost as I had been. She glanced around behind her and I recognised a young Vietnamese girl also from our bus hurriedly following her, looking even more lost than I had just felt and apparantly scared shitless; her English proved just about as advanced as my Vietnamese.
‘She’s lost too.’ Said the French lady in a thick accent. ‘She is very scared. She has never been away from home before’. Not even a ‘Hello! Thank god I found you too!”
Ah God. Okay. Time to sort this.
As I smiled at the girl and asked her name in a friendly manner, her eyes filled with tears as she glanced around the mass of incomprehensible tourists wandering the gardens in the dark. I empathized somewhat, but suddenly the fear of being ‘lost’ was replaced by irritation.
‘We’re only 10 minutes late!” I exclaimed, secretly relieved to no longer be alone, yet really just a bit put out that they’d actually left without us. How could Mr. T. have done this to me!?
‘Maybe we…wait? Maybe they return for us?” the French lady said hopefully.
Even as she said it I raised my eyebrows in disbelief.
“Yeh…yeh maybe.”

So we waited a couple of feet away from the information desk we all agreed was the one we’d separated at.
Ten minutes ticked into fifteen. Twenty. I didn’t want to be the one to point out the obvious, but someone had to.
‘I don’t think they’re coming back for us’.

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I couldn’t help but laugh at the situation, though Vietnamese girl and French lady could not have looked less entertained. How typical of me, I thought. Surprisingly ok with where I found myself, I raised my eyebrows and turned to face the exit.
Sure look, at least I’m not by myself.
‘Have you any money?” I enquired of my two unlikely and mismatched companions, one standing frowning at the world around her, and the other clutching tightly on to a schoolbag laden with badges of the red and yellow Vietnamese flag.
Vietnamese girl smiled awkwardly and shrugged.
‘I’ll take that as a maybe’.
“I have card.”
French lady to the rescue.
“Ok so, I guess we’ll just have to find our way back to the airport. I don’t know what the next stop on the tour was!”

Somehow I found myself the leader of the group, following signs in English out towards the entrance we’d come through only hours previously as part of an ignorant group of tourists. I felt less like a tourist now, and more of a character in a video-game – ‘Find-the-Taxi-rank” being my predominant quest to complete.
The heat was becoming unbearable at this stage, even though night time was well underway. Our proximity to the equator meant that the temperature was not likely to drop below 25 degrees, even in the middle of the night. It was a dead-heat that would be exhausting to experience even in a less-stressful situation. I managed to find a taxi-rank alright, but finding a driver who would take a French bankcard and drop us to three separate airport terminals happily proved another difficult feat.

Eventually after long wait and dealing with a lot of stares at our mismatched group-appeareance, we sat in silence in an organised traffic jam with a Malaysian driver; four completely different nationalies and backgrounds all brought together somehow in this impossible metropolis of lights and bizarrely strict regulations. I actually didn’t mind the French lady too much, who relaxed somewhat as we assured we were safely en route back to the airport and she told me she’d definitely be having a drink on her flight to relieve the tension.
I was merely proud of myself for having resolved the situation without panicking too much, and secretly extremely satisfied when Maria (French lady’s name) refused to take the 5 dollars of expendable currency I had found in my purse from me.
“I’d have been lost without you. Keep it!”
Well, that was nice of her.

As we went our separate ways back at Changi airport, each of us having returned in time to make our flights well in advance, I settled down to spend the remainder of my wait safely in the familiarity of a comfortable Starbucks’ armchair. Some things never change.

singapore

Ar Thóraíocht Taistil – Ho Chi Minus 1

****LEAGAN BÉARLA FAOI – ENGLISH VERSION BENEATH***

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An chéad rud a rith liom nuair a chuala mé an preabadh ísle, domhain i bfhad uaim is mé ag tógáil céime amach roimh éirí na gréine in Ho Chi Minh, ná go raibh an ‘oíche amach’ aréir nach raibh diúltaithe agam ach cúpla uair a chloig roimhe sin le mo chairde nua ón mbrú fós ar siúl. Bhí mé leath ag siúl go bhfeicfinn ag teacht ar ais iad leath-dallta timpeall an chúinne, nó ag léimt ó chúl ceann de na tacsaithe-moto nach molfainn d’aon turasóirí lena dtaitníonn a gcuid seilbhe luachmhara leo comh luath is a dúisíonn ceantar na mbackpackers in Saigon le titim na hoíche.

Is mé an leanacht liom ar an tslí aitheanta anois don pháirc láirneach, ag trasnú sráid Le Loi nach raibh ach ábhairín níos ciúine ansin ag 4 ar maidin is a bhíonn i rith an lae, bhí muintir na sráide gafa ag ‘glanadh’ deannaigh ó áit go háit ar an tsráid le scuaib fite, is iad ag réiteach le haghaidh trácht na maidine. Thug mé le fios nach cur isteach drochbheasach ón oíche roimh ré agus ‘Happy Hour’ ag leanacht ar aghaidh go ‘All Hours’, a bhí sa cheol leanúnach a chuala mé ag briseadh ‘suaimhneas’ na cathrach, ach a mhalairt san iomlán a bhí i gceist. Bhí orm athbhreathnú a dhéanamh sular thuig mé i gceart a bhí os mo chomhair – grúpa ollmhór d’mhná meanaoiseach Vítneamis i lár spás oscailte sa pháirc, gleasta in leggings agus tléinte ildáite, agus iad uilig ag gluaiseacht le chéile ar nós airm aisteach polyester, in am don chuisle leanúnach nár shíolraigh ó áit ar bith faoi leith go bfhaca mé – ní raibh sé fiú geal faoin am seo. Faoi dheireadh d’airigh mé go raibh cead agam stanadh a thabhairt ar ais do dhaoine a thugann dom iad comh minic sin anseo, mo chraiceann geal agus gruaig rua mar chúis grinn do go leor daoine áitiúla – tuigim go bhfuil mé aisteach, ach ní bhíonn mise ag déanamh aeróibicí sa pháirc ag a 4 ar maidin!!

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Bhí trácht cloiste agam ar an nós seo sa Chambóid, ach ní raibh sé feicthe agam ag tarlu go dtí seo, agus bhí sé deacair an gáire a sheachaint nuair a chonaic mé cúpla bean a bhí tar éis achar a chuir eatarthu fhéin agus an cuid eile sa lár, le casadh agus lubadh leo fhéin ar nós Sims ar an gcosán. Le firinne bhí mé ag iarraidh damhsa leo! Chuir sé an Hokey cokey i gcuimhne dom ón scoil sa Chambóid, ach amháin gur na céadta mná Vítneamis a bhí ann ag bogadh leo féin le púis orthu is iad i mbun cleachtadh coirpe na maidine seo roimh éirí na gréine agus an teas meanlae, seachas grúpa páistí. Is dóigh go dtugann na gluaiseachtaí rialta seo cead dóibh an bia friochta agus oiliúil sin a ithe gan mórán iarmhairtí freisin..
Aisteach.

Is dóigh gur mar gheall nach raibh mé ag súil leis is mé fós leath i mo choladh ag iompar chuile rud gur liom ar domhain faoi láthair a tháinig an oiread sin ionadh orm iad a fheiceáil ann, ach seans mhaith freisin gur mar gheall nach raibh mé tar éis an cathair a shiúl comh luath seo riamh, agus toisc gur ‘early riser’ mé fhéin ar aon chaoi, ghlac mé nár tharla aon rud sular éirigh mise – cé comh mícheart is a bhí mé!

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Thaitin Ho Chi Minh i bfhad níos fearr liom an uair seo, ach amháin an dorm le 18 duine eile sa mbrú buiséadach – ach ar $3 in aghaidh na hoíche, cé atá le gearán faoi? Cé nár éirí ro-mhaith liom roimhe sin mo bhealach a dhéanamh ann, an uair seo go tobann bhí mé go breá in ann na sráideanna a loingsiú go héasca le níos mó muiníne agus píosa cleachtadh taobh thiar dom. Thaitin an ‘World Food Festival’ liom a bhí ar siúl sa pháirc don deireadh seachtaine áirithe seo, thug sé neart deiseanna dom níos mó bia aisteach a thriail agus freisin tuilleadh nósanna aisteacha fheiceáil nach bhfuil mé cinnte a bheadh riamh in ann teacht i bhfeidhm anseo!12351388_10153218838373483_843405117_o

 

D’éirigh liom cúpla bronntanas Nollag Víteamise deirineach a fháil ( níl pictiúirí agam, mar….bronntanais!) le seisiúin crua ag stangaireacht in Aonach Ben Thien sa lár, agus d’fhág mé le tuilleadh ábhair ná mar a bhí ceannaithe agam riamh ar bheagáin airgid. Táim ag dul i dtaithí ar seo!

12348755_10153218958898483_772053028_nSílim freisin go bhfuil mé ag dul i dtaithí ar na nósanna bóithre atá acu…tá feabhas tagtha orm ag transú na bóithre gnóthacha leis na sruthanna gluaisrothair agus gluastáin beaga nach stopann le teada – nílim ag iarraidh ‘jinxáil’ a dhéanamh ar seo, ach tá feicthe agam go n-éiríonn níos fearr leat do chuid spáis fhéin a léiriú le beagán muiníne, seachas a bheith ag braith ar chomhghlacaithe nó turasóir eile an bealach a dhéanamh duit. Chuir mé le líne tráchta is mé fós mar lucht siúl – ag seasamh le gluaisrothar ar gach taobh díom, bhí orm fanacht go dtí gur chas na soilse glas chun leanacht ar aghaidh – chuile fhear (nó bean) dóibh fhéin a bhí ann, agus bhí orm léimt ar thaobh chuig an gcosán comh luath is a lean mo réamhthachta ar aghaidh.

Is mé ag scríobh anois táim i mo shuí in aerfort Changi, Singapore, go héasca an t-aerfort is fearr le cúpla uair a chloig (nó 28) a chaitheamh ar domhan. Táim ag súil leis an gcathair a fheiceáil anois i gceann píosa tar éis an cupáin caife Starbucks seo (an chéad ceann le beagnach 2 mhí!!), agus mar sin fágfaidh mé é seo anois go dtí go bhfaighim áit an ceallaire a luchtú!! Vietnamasté!

 

 

***********LEAGAN BÉARLA – ENGLISH VERSION ********* 

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My initial reaction to hearing a distant, low thumping beat as I stepped out into the 5am pre-dawn of Ho Chi Minh’s ever-chattering streets, was that the ‘night out’ with my new dorm-friends I had reluctantly declined merely hours beforehand had still not come to an end. Early-morning flight-jitters aside, I half expected to meet them stumbling in around the corner, or jumping off the back of otherwise ill-advised moto-taxis that prey on tipsy tourists once the nocturnal backpacker district of Saigon awakens with the dusk.

As I continued on the now familiar route to the central park-area and traversed the only slightly less chaotic dimly-lit Le Loi street as its’ occupants swept dust from one place to another with wicker brushes and geared up for another rush hour, it became clear that the music I was hearing was not in fact an intrusive occupation of an otherwise peaceful morning by the extension of a nightclubs’ ‘happy hour’ to All Hours, but frankly quite the opposite. I had to look twice before I could comprehend the abnormally large gathering of middle-aged Vietnamese women in a central clearing of the park, all dressed in leggings and coloured polyester tshirts and moving robotically in sync to a monotonous and crackling throbbing ‘beat’ that was coming from nowhere within my available line of vision – it was barely even beginning to get bright at this stage. I finally felt a sort of justification and permission to return the stares I am so regularly subjected to over here, my pale skin and ginger hair proving a source of great hilarity to many locals – I know I’m weird, but I don’t do aerobics in the park at 4.30am!!!12351274_10153217909993483_2020078173_n

I’d heard of such practices in Cambodia, but had yet to witness it actually occurring, and I found it hard to hide my amusement as I passed several women who had distanced themselves from the main congregation to thrust and wiggle by themselves to the ‘music’ in a Sim-like manner along the sidelines. I’m not going to lie – I kind of wanted to join in! It reminded me of doing the Hokey Cokey with the kids in the school in Cambodia, only this time it was hundreds of anonymous early-morning Saigonese women shaking and gesturing with frowned and scrunched up faces in what I can only assume is a regular exercise regime that both avoids the midday heat of the sun and also helps to burn off excess calories supplied by the inclusion of oil and grease to every single dish and meal.Bizarre.
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I think the fact that it appeared out of nowhere as I blearily trudged to the bus station with all my worldly possessions (or at least, everything I currently carry with me) was probably the main source of surprise, yet it may also have been due to the fact that this was the earliest I’ve ever roamed the streets of the city, and being accustomed to my name as an early riser had pretty much just assumed that nothing much happened before the hours I found myself outside. How very wrong I was!

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Ho Chi Minh this time around was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, despite the rather dodgy 18-person dorm room in the budget hostel – but for 3 dollars a night, who’s going to argue?! Previous navigation having not proven so beneficial, I all of a sudden found on my return that I knew where to go and had the confidence to somehow find the things I needed, and the timely occurrence of a World Food Festival in the central park during the day and evenings was a fantastic find when it came to securing cheap eats and yet more bizarre interactions with customs and trends that I’m really not sure will ever properly reach our side of the world…!

12348755_10153218958898483_772053028_nI managed to secure some final Vietnamese Christmas presents (no pictures, coz , yknow, PRESENTS) in my most intense haggling-session to date in the Ben Thian Market, and proudly left with more plunder for my money than I have ever before! I’m getting used to this!

I also think that since being alone I’ve become more accustomed to and adept at crossing the roads and incessant torrential flow of motorbikes and vehicles that do not stop or cater for pedestrians whatsoever in their narrow span of vision – I don’t want to jinx this, but I’ve found that in literally just asserting your space and striding with a bit of confidence instead of looking to a companion or fellow tourist to pave the way for you, I’ve had more success crossing the roads and have even found myself adding to a line of traffic as a pedestrian – locked in on four sides by motorbikes, I literally had to wait for the lights to go green before I could walk in any direction – it was literally every man (or woman) for themselves, and I quickly had to leap to one side as soon as my predecessors revved forwards.

 

As I write now I’m sitting in Singapore airport – easily the coolest place I’ve ever had to kill a few hours. Hopefully I’ll get to see a bit of the city as my flight onwards doesn’t leave until the early hours of tomorrow, so I’ll write a post on that as soon as I find a free plug socket….! Vietnamasté!!!

Ar Thóraíocht Taistil – Fánaíocht le Ho Chi Minh

***Leagan Béarla faoi (English Version below)***

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‘Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost…..”….Bhí mise!

Fánaíocht fánaíocht fánaíocht. ‘Sé an t-aon rud a dhéanaimse na laethanta seo. Níor thosaigh mé amach le plean faoi leith. Níl aon rud faoi leith bainte amach agam go fóill seachas meas níos láidre ar mo chuid scileanna loingseoireachta agus cumais féin, agus freisin an t-eolas go bhfuil mé go breá in ann aire a thabhairt dom fhéin agus mo bhealach a dhéanamh go dall (nó bodhar) trí chuinsí nach bhfuil leagtha amach go cinnte romham.

Tuigim go maith freisin agus airím na rudaí beaga sa bhaile – frása a usáidtear i bhfad ró-(Ho Chi) mhinic(!) ach faoi láthair comh fíor domsa gur féidir liom an t-aistear abhaile a shamhlú agus dinnéar na Nollag le fataí breá na hÉireann os mo chomhair a bhlaiseadh cheana féin – is i bhfad ó rís agus soy sauce a togadh mise! (#Notions)
Cairde réidh le casadh tar éis téacs scioptha i ndiaidh na hoibre; bia réidh le hollmhú sna cófraí; nósanna coitianta; ranganna íoga le freastal orthu agus coinní rialta nach bhfagann mórán le bheith buartha faoi ó thaobh athruithe gan fógairt; córas taistil a bhfeidhmníonn sách maith agus caighdean slándála nach dtugann cúis imní ar bith d’germaphobes ar nós mé fhéin…leanann an liosta ‘home comforts’ ar aghaidh. Ach fós, is láidre an maitheas ná an t-olc leis an gcineál taistil, slí bheatha féin-cruthaithe seo, agus mar sin is féidir liom glacadh leis níos fearr anois agus é a shlugadh siar, mar a deirfeá. Níos tábhachtaí ná haon rud eile anois ná gur féidir liom sult a bhaint as na ‘droch’ rudaí freisin, seachas díreach iad a fheiceáil mar gnéithe a bhfuil orm cur suas leo.

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Turtle Tower (yep, sin an t-ainm atá ar!) i lár Hoam Tiem Lake

 

Is príomhchathair Vítneam í Hanoi a bhfuil tréithe cosúla aici le roinnt príomhcathracha eile atá feicthe agam, sa chaoi is nach bhfuil an iomarca deacrachtaí ann í a thrasnú…tuigim go bhfagann an pictiúir atá in éineacht leis an bpóstáil seo a mhalairt le tuiscint, ach thug ár mbrú (Drift Backpackers’ Hostel) léarscáil dúinn (comh maith le bricfeásta agus beoir saor in aisce!) a bhí sonraithe go maith agus a chuir go mór lenár gcúpla lá ann. Níor chaith muid pingin ar iompar taistil an t-am uilig is muid ann, agus fós d’éirigh linn na pointí spéise is mó sa chathair a fheiceáil agus a aimsiú, ar nós Hoan Kiem Lake (Sword Lake), leis an Turtle Tower agus Huc Bridge a mhaireann ann ón Ming Dynasty, iarsmalann Ho Chi Minh, iarsmalann Staire, agus Airm Hanoi, agus Mausaleum Ho Chi Minh (sa phictiúir). D’éirigh linn teacht ar an ‘Bia Hoi’ san oíche freisin, le cúpla deoch ‘al fresco’ i measc na sluaite daoine áitiúla ag stanadh orainn ach ag baint sult as an oíche, muid uilig inár suí ar stólanna beaga plaisteacha ‘nós na cinn a bhí againn sa gháirdín sa bhaile is muid óg, a bhí mar dréimirí dúinn don doirteal sa leithris.

Theip orm teacht ar an studio íoga a chonaic mé ar líne, ach ní gan iarrachta ar mo thaobhse a tharla sé- chaith mé uair a chloig ar fánaíocht thart timpeall an cheannscríbe a leag Google Maps amach dom, ag cuartú in aisce an Zenith Yoga Café nach bhfuil ar an bhfód a thuilleadh, de réir dealraimh. Is ar éigin a d’éalaigh mé ó roinnt mná ag seastáin a bhí ag díol maisiúcháin Nollag bándearga, a d’iarr mé orthu go neamhurchóideach faoin áit – arís leis an bhfánaíocht – sular éirí mé as an iarracht le seacláid te a cheannach ar an mbealach ar ais – tá sé ag éirí fuar i Vítneam! Níor cheap mé ariamh go ndeirfinn na focail sin!

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Bhí roinnt cómhráite thar a bheith spéisiúla agam le grúpaí mic léinn a bhí beartaithe i hataí, cótaí agus geansaithe móra cíbe uair a thóg ár gcosa in aice an locha muid. D’iarr siad cead orainn go cúthaileach pictiúirí a glacadh linn, cómhráite a thaifead ar ghutháin chliste agus taibléidí, agus go bunúsach labhairt leo i mBéarla go nádúrtha faoi rud ar bith – faoinár mbaile fhéin, ár nósanna, tír, agus teanga. D’inis siad liom a gcuid freisin, agus dúirt siad go raibh siad thar a bheith buíoch as an t-am a thug miuid dóibh – ach le fírinne, ceann de na rudaí is spéisiúla le tamaill a bhí ann domsa comh maith! B’iontach spreagúil an díograis a bhí acu i dtaobh foghlaim teanga, agus bhí an cur chuige díreach ceart acu comh maith – labhairt go nádúrtha le cainteoirí dúchasacha, ar bhonn neamhfhoirimiúil…d’fhéadfaimis go leor a fhoghlaim uathu!

Bheadh lá nó dhó eile an chathair a thaisceáladh go deas, toisc gur laghdaigh an fhaitíos a bhí romhainn dul i mbun rudaí a chuartú nuair nach raibh muid cinnte cén treo le tabhairt faoi, ach san iomlán fós thaitin Hanoi liom i bhfad níos fearr go Ho Chi Minh (Saigon!). Chuir sé seo ionadh orm toisc gur Hanoi an phríomhchathair, ach b’fhéidir léiríonn an chaoi go bhfeidhmníonn sé agus an chaoi go bhfuil gach rud comh héasca le loingsiú go leor i bhfábhar an teideal seo. Tá sé fós ina cíortuathail, ach cíorthuathail faoi a thuilleadh smachta atá inti!

Mar fhocal scor, tá cuma melodramatic ar an abairt seo ach caithfear a rá go bhfuil rud eicínt thar a bheith teiripiútach ag baint leis an tuiscint a aimsiú go bhfuil tú go hiomlán caillte agus leat fhéin i gcathair iomlán éagsúil agus i bhfad ón bhaile, agus teacht ar an eolas go bhfuil tú in ann do bhealach a dhéanamh ar ais go háit nó sráid aitheanta faoi leith. Cé nach raibh muinín agat ionat fhéin in aon chor, is mothúcháin thar a bheith láidir é. Cinnte, tá go leor le rá faoin gcumas agus umhlaíocht a bhaineann le ceist a chuir i gcomhair treoireacha nuair nach bhfuil an léarscáil ag obair i gceart (ní mise atá ann, I swear!!) agus tá an dorchadas ag titim go scioptha timpeall ort. Fós is fearr liom an rogha seo a choinneál mar ‘Plan B’, ach sa chás seo, airím go láidir gur fearr i bhfad an modh ‘tástáil agus earraid’ a chuir i bhfeidhm is tú ag taistil thar aon rud eile.

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Ag mausoleum Ho Chi Minh é fhéin

 

 ************LEAGAN BÉARLA *** ENGLISH VERSION 

 

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‘Not All Those Who Wander are Lost..”..I fecking was though! 

Wander wander wander. It’s all I ever seem to do these days. I set out with no specific plans. I’ve achieved no specific sense of anything just yet other than a greater respect for my own capabilities and navigational skills, and also the knowledge that I am actually perfectly able of taking care of myself and finding my way blindly (or deafly) through a lot of seemingly impossible situations. Okay, so maybe I have learned something.

I’ve also come to really appreciate the little things at home – a phrase used all too often, but so true for me at this moment in time that I can vividly imagine Christmas dinner and fine Irish roasted potatoes on the table in front of me – it’s far from rice and curry I was rared! Friends ready to meet at the drop of a text message, food ready to prepare in the cupboard, routines, yoga classes to attend and regular plans that leave little to be apprehended regarding last minute changes, functioning transport systems, general cleanliness and standards of hygiene that give those with germophobic tendencies such as my own no reason to be sent into overdrive…the list goes on. But still, the good outweighs the bad in this kind of travelling, self-induced lifestyle, and as such I’ve also learned to better ‘suck it up’, for want of a better phrase, and most importantly of all enjoy it, instead of merely enduring.

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Hanoi is a city akin to several other capital cities I’ve visited in that it it is actually fairly managable to navigate…I know the initial picture and caption in this post suggests otherwise, but our hostel (Drift Backpackers’ Hostel) provided us with a map (along with free breakfast and beer!) which honestly made our few days there seem so much easier. We didn’t spend a dollar (or dong) on transport the entire stay, and still managed to find and see some of the main attractions the city has to offer, including the Turtle Tower and silver Pagoda, the night markets, History museum, Ho Chi Minh museum and mausoleum (pictured), Women’s museum, and Bia Hoi old quarter for several beverages ‘al fresco’ – seated at night along a crowded street on tiny plastic stools like the ones we used to have in the garden and use as stepladders to reach the sink in the loo at home.

Considering the streets all have actual names, instead of numbers which don’t match up to any neighbouring street or follow any sensible sequence of address or postal code (ahem, here’s looking at you Phnom Penh..!), we actually found ourselves not needing the map to find the more local places after a day or two!

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Hidden gems and doorways around every turn...

 

I failed to find the yoga studio I’d located online, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying or any failure on my part – I wandered the 100 metre area of where Google Maps had led me searching in vain for the non-existent Zenith yoga café, asked numerous people and even ended up almost buying some tacky pink Christmas decorations just to fend off a particularly pushy vendor lady whose shop I unwittingly wandered into on a whim – again with the wandering – before accepting defeat and buying a hot chocolate on my way back. It has actually begun to get cold in Vietnam. I never thought I’d say thse words!

Fascinating conversations were had with local students wrapped up in hats, coats and scarves who approached us nervously whenever we strayed near the lake, looking to record conversations with us in English, pose for photos, and mostly hoping to maintain a sensible conversation with a native speaker for more than a few minutes. Their dedication was frankly inspiring, and I thoroughly enjoyed talking to them and exchanging knowledge, traditions, and facts about our own countries that couldn’t have been shared otherwise. They also had the perfect way of approaching language learning, which was fascinating to see in practice – speaking naturally and informally to native speakers in a casual setting. We could learn a lot from them….

I would have liked a bit longer to explore the city as I felt once we got a grip on the basic layout of the place it became an awful lot less daunting to go searching for things without knowing exactly where they were, but in general I much preferred it to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)! This surprised me considering Hanoi is the capital, but maybe it’s functionality and general heightened sense of accessibility says a lot to support this choice. It’s still chaotic, but nowhere near the rat races of Ho Chi Minh!

It sounds fairly cheesy, but there is something extremely theraputic about getting completely lost in a strange city and managing to somehow find and guide yourself back to an area of relative familiarity, taking a chance at each turn and trusting basic instincts to lead you right again. Of course there’s also a lot to be said for being able to admit defeat and ask for directions once it starts getting dark and you can no longer see the street signs or map in front of you, but I like to think of this option always as Plan B – in this case, I feel trial and error is always the best way forwards.

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At the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh himself..!

 

 

A Ginger’s Guide to South East Asia, or any Inconveniently Hot Country

A Ginger’s Guide to Southeast Asia, or any Inconveniently Hot Country (aka how not to look like Mr.Crabs after a couple of minutes spent outside the shade)

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Shade-bathing is my new favourite pass time

There comes a time in every gingers’ (or just fair-skinned person’s) travelling experiences when he/she just has to admit defeat and accept the fact that beneath a burning midday sun in Asia is maybe just not the most ideal place for them to spend a lot of time. Having occupied the unwanted tan lines of society for many years already and met with others of my kind who’ve dealt with the ‘orange hair’ and ‘carrot top’ teasing as a kid, it’s the last thing on many ginger, redhead, or strawberry blondes’ (as I used to insist) list of preferred activities when on holiday or abroad to actually sit out beneath the sun and intentionally try to ‘get a colour’, as other breeds of human have taken to practice. Sunbathing as a way to pass a day in a foreign country (let alone South East Asia) is simply not an option for people of my skin type, and it’s often been difficult to explain this to my sallower, darker-skinned friends who live for a day spent ‘tanning’ and ‘lapping up the rays’. I say each of this phrases with a tone of disdain and immense jealousy that I cannot engage in such activities with them, instead cowering in fear beneath the nearest parasol and shining beacon-like with my latest applied layer of factor 80. Yep. Factor 80! I’m in Asia!

Once this lack of tanning potential has been dutifully noted and accepted as just the way it is, it becomes so much easier to implement measures to ensure my continued paleness is not tainted by anything save some new freckles and a stark contrast to many of the locals I find myself interacting with around here. Over the past few weeks in Asia I’ve proudly managed to secure only extremely minor sun damage by adhering to some of these strict and rigid guidelines, many of which are really just common sense. As we all know however, once a bit of sun and potential holiday fun and exploring gets in the way, this sometimes gets left by the wayside in the heat of the moment (pun entirely intended), and we’re left regretting not getting up those 5 minutes earlier to apply the suncream we forked out a ridiculous amount of dollar for. Here’s a short list of guide-lines I’ve compiled which have helped me avoid some unnecessary discomfort!

  1. Shade.

Shade is key. Shade is your friend. Shade is vital to your continued enjoyment of both life and this trip abroad which you’ve saved long and scrounged hard for with all that money you saved on spray-tans (because let’s face it, they just don’t look natural on you). Seek it out wherever you go. If you find yourself waiting to cross a road somewhere for an unspecified length of time and you feel the heat of a hundred thousand suns burning between the hairs on your pale white scalp, it’s time to find the thin shadow cast by the traffic light pole you’re waiting at and stand behind it. I’m not kidding. You’ll thank me. When exploring, make sure you walk down the side of the street that’s most covered over by stalls, canopies, buildings, or anything else that casts a safe stretch of shaded road ahead of you. If you played ‘The Floor Is Lava’ at any point during your childhood (or college years) you should be perfectly well able to adapt to this style of jumping from shaded patch to shaded patch in avoidance of the dreaded sun. It’s extra fun if you have a ginger-buddy with you to compete against! (Please consume sunrays responsibly!)

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Welcome to my cribbb..we’ve got shade here

 2. Layers.
Like ogres, onions, parfait and cake (thank you Donkey!), another thing us gingers must always remember is that layers are a MUST. Always remember that Sweat > Burning. I’ll choose a few sweat patches over a few red patches any day – a little extra heat from a light layer of clothing to cover your arms is totally worth the excess sweating and slight discomfort it may cause. At least you can remove it and wash sweat off once you’re indoors, instead of standing/lying/crying stock still for days on end because it hurts to move while you wait for a new layer of skin to grow. For people as pale as I am, it’s wise to always carry a light scarf/shawl/jumper of sorts in case you find yourself unwittingly enjoying some happy hour Pina Coladas and getting caught in the rays…. yeh I went there.

                                                  3.  Wind Burn is a real thing.

Beware of the sneaky rays that will catch you unawares as you cruise on a bike/motorbike/boat/tuk tuk with the wind blowing in your hair…sure it might not FEEL hot enough to burn, but I’ telling you now – it IS! The breeze created by the wind (even in Asia!) as you move is only masking the heat of what you usually can feel when you begin to burn, and it pays to pre-consider this before undertaking any trips or tours which will expose you for any length of time. This is not to say you can’t enjoy them, just be aware of what you’re getting yourself into so you can adequately apply sunblock before stepping outside. Any exposure to the sun can affect ginger skin and so it’s worth asking when you book how long you’ll be spending in an exposed situation.

  1. Choose your beach/pool time wisely
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I’ll stay right here thanks!

Another one that seems like common sense, but that is surprisingly very often ignored is to avoid sitting at a pool or on a beach during peak hours of heat – midday sun is a fairly obvious one, yet depending on the climate you’re in, midday heat can last anywhere between 11am and 3pm. This can often prove problematic, especially when travelling with a group or several others who see this time of day as ‘optimal tanning time’, and you’re left either sunbed-hopping as the sun rises and relentlessly chases you, or you’re forced to occupy yourself with a non-sun related activity for the day. These are surprisingly easier to find than people may expect, and often mean you’ll actually get more out of your day and travelling experience instead of a mild tan and ‘a little bit of redness – but don’t worry, it’ll fade to brown!’

  1. Rise early to get the most out of the day
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Sunrise over the Mui Ne sand dunes (*note the shawl for the return journey!)

A similar point to the one above, most Asian countries begin their day at sunrise, and people can be found going about their daily business from an earlier time in the day in order to avoid the glare and discomfort of the midday heat. Rising early ensures you get three main sections of the day to fill, the middle one of which may be slightly less busy in order to cater for the heightened heat and natural afternoon-lull of extremely hot countries. Siestas are definitely a thing here, but they’re just not given the name and are generally signified only by people lounging around in hammocks on the sides of the streets as the ‘3 o’clock slump’ hits slightly earlier and lasts a couple of hours.

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Morning scene at Mui Ne fishing village..

 

  1. Be prepared for the STARES

Local people in Vietnam and Cambodia so far have been extremely welcoming to us. While many children stare and point as we pass, in general we’ve found that returning their stares with a warm smile and a wave has broken some sort of unspoken tension, and we’re rewarded with an even bigger and toothless grin as they wave and proceed to follow us down the street or offer us whatever local produce they’re selling. If you’re someone who gets uncomfortable by being watched and looked at (something I quickly had to get over), be prepared to be the subject of much gossiping and incomprehensible giggles amongst young people when they spot you. Ginger hair is simply not a thing over here. I’ve been asked are my freckles an illness, is my hair real, and my sunburn (when I did unfortunately get some) was the cause of much interest and concern among the locals. Try to remember that it is only out of interest and genuine fascination that many locals stare, and most of them probably don’t even realise they are doing it! To them, tourists are a source of income, and so the very sight of pale-skinned wanderers causes a ripple down the street of local shops and markets, and before long everyone is out to have a look.

  1. Suncream is EXPENSIVE

Bring as much with you from home as you can, because out here it costs an arm and a leg (and you’ll pay with that, if you don’t invest in some!) to buy in local supermarkets. It’s clearly a ploy for foreigners, seeing as suncream is not generally a thing required by the people out here, but just be aware that if you fail to pack it or else run out you will be paying nearly 3 times what you would at home, even in the markets.

  1. If you do get burnt, prepare to be made aware of it

‘Oh my GOD your SHOULDERS…what happened?!”, ‘Oh! Someone got the sun today!” ‘Lookin’ good lobster!’ – I’ve heard them all over the years, and they’re not exactly helpful! Yes I’m aware I was slightly careless today, yes I’ll be more careful next time, yes, contrary to what you may think it is actually painful and yes I can feel how hot it is from an inch away….I don’t want your pity or concern…just get me some Aloe Vera!!
People will be concerned, it’s only natural, but at the end of the day it’s up to you to ensure you’re correctly prepared to face a day outside, and that all exposed skin has been touched up each morning before you leave your accomodation.

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We all just want to see the sun rise….

  1. Don’t Let People question your travel motives

‘Why on EARTH would you go to such a hot country if you can’t handle the sun?’ Why on earth not? Why should I let my skin type stop me exploring the world and experiencing things? If I’m careful enough and aware of the consequences of exposing myself to the sun for too long, surely it’s as ok for me to come abroad as it is for the next person who spends their days trying to get brown, which by the way is also seen as sun damage – any change of colour due to the sun can be seen as sun damage and by avoiding it completely I am in fact lowering my risk of it whatsoever! We’re all winners here!

  1. Finally – ‘Water Resistant’ does not always do what it says on the tin

I learned this the hard way. Sure, go for a dip, wade in the sea, get accidentally pushed in or else swept away by an unexpected wave – it’s fine! I’ve waterproof factor 50 on!
Not always the case.
While some brands are better than others in the level of protection they provide (I’d better word this carefully or it’ll end up sounding like I’m talking about something else), not all suncreams are as reliable as they’d like you to believe. While sunblock implies it supposedly blocks out all sun and refuses to let it impact you at all, suncream merely promises to prevent sunburn, and often is actually tailored to ‘encourage tanning’ – enticing the sun but actually controlling what it does to your skin? Sounds a bit dodgy to me…. I’ve found that in general, the strongest and most reliable sunblock to get are the ones advertised for children. Kids’ skin is notoriously more delicate than adults’ and as such it makes sense that their sunblock is stronger than ours. It may be extra gloopy and white and take that little bit more time to rub in correctly, but in the end it’s worth the shiny face and smelling like a baby when you reach sunset each evening with a smile just as pale and ghostly as you began the day with.

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My new best friend

Temples, Tombs, and Touristy Tipples – From Connemara to Cambodia

Whatever about budget accommodation and shared dorm-rooms, there’s nothing quite like being woken up to about 9 different phone alarms ringing from various corners and muffled covers of a 16-person hostel room, signalling a trip to see the sunrise behind the Angkor Wat temples. One after another, the Samsung and iPhone default alarm settings become the soundtrack to my morning in Siem Reap as I lay in wait for my own – because it surely can’t be 5am until my own device says so!?
It’s been happening all week, as our fellow travellers blindly seek their way to the bathroom in the semi-darkness to prepare for a long day of ‘being  tourists’, Siem Reap being possibly one of the earliest rising cities in the country purely for the fact that its main attraction is a daily naturally occurring phenomenon. Our turn comes on a day when I’ve already been awake for a short while; I’m an early riser anyway, and so the premature sunrise and subsequent sunset during the Winter in Asia actually came as a shock to me not so much because it always seems to be slightly earlier than you’d think, but because for once the entire population and world around me rises with me, instead of afterwards, and I don’t feel guilty or apprehensive for waking people up.

Ten minutes after I shamelessly pull the girls from a deep slumber by employing the age-old tactic of shaking them ’til they groggily tell me to stop, we’re swerving around a street corner in a rickety trailer attached to the back of an old an noisy motorbike, as our tuk-tuk driver silently traverses his morning commute down what appears to function as a one-way street before sunrise. We find ourselves unintentional participants in a rat-race of identical vehicles, all surging forwards akin to a playstation game where the goal is simply to get to the finish line first, in our bid to reach the entrance to the temples before the sun peeked it’s head above the eastern-most tower. I’ve never seen anything quite like the huge mix of families, backpackers, elderly couples, middle-aged wanderers and still-drunk party-goers who presumably haven’t slept yet but have impressively managed to find their way to the temples after pre-purchasing a ticket, all disembarking from the assortment of tuk-tuks and motorbikes that line the streets at the main entrance to Angkor. We join the throng of camera-clad sky-gazers shuffling along the pathway in the morning darkness as many drivers settle back into their vehicles with newspapers and smart phones, preparing to wait for their charges to take some pictures of a view they merely glance at as regularly as I see the Leapcard machine on Dublin Bus when I’m at home. This might not be a fair comparison, given that sunrise at Angkor Wat is ultimately slightly more picturesque than the interior of a Dublin Bus, but you get the idea.

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We all stood and looked at the sky for a bit

It’s an odd sensation as this particular days’ visitors to the temple gather in silent expectation around the little lake outside, hoping to catch a glimpse of the reflection in the water as well as the black silhouettes of the 5 towers of Angkor Wat. I hold up my camera blindly and press the button several times. I do this every couple of minutes. I’d say everyone else does too. I watch the sky change from a burning orangey-red, to a slightly brighter pinkish hue, suddenly joined by flecks of yellow and an undercurrent of purple and blue. Around me, photographers of varying levels of seriousness watch it all through the lenses of cameras that probably cause more hassle than anything to carry around, my trusty Android providing me with pictures just as good (if not better!) than some of the pictures I’ve seen online.

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Angkor Thom

Once the sun has properly made herself visible through the cracks between the Eastern towers, an anti-climactic trawl back through the crowds leads us to follow one of the many pushy vendors along the pathway inside to have breakfast at their ‘restaurant’ – various pop-up eating houses ridiculously named with the intention of enticing hungry foreigners to sit there. We follow ‘Nelly’ to his café area, passing Lady Gaga, Spiderman, Ronaldo and Harry Potter on the way, and unfortunately having to tell Micheal Jackson that we’ve received a better offer.

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Hurrah! Sun’s here

After this, it’s time to start exploring properly, and together with some Canadian friends we bump into that we’d made in Mondulkiri, we source a guide outside to bring us around the Angkor Wat temples for a cheap enough rate each, given there’s now a group of us. It proves an interesting and well-executed tour, but the heat of the sun now properly risen means that I have to cover up pronto, the lack of clouds having proven beneficial during the actual sunrise itself now frankly uncomfortable on my white freckled skin.

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Lilies and Lotus flowers in the lake

I spot various monks around the temples, some clearly sightseeing, others presumably local and going about their daily practices. One agrees to bless us and tie a red woollen bracelet around our wrists, taking specific care not to even graze the skin with the tips of his fingers as he does so – monks aren’t allowed to touch women’s flesh, the consequence of which would result in their banishment from the monkhood! Talk about extreme measures…. We finish the Angkor tour, and after a quick refreshment, this time from Harry Potter, we negotiate a tuk-tuk ride onwards to the next temple, Ankgor Thom. This one is by far my favourite temple, the stone faces and maze-like tunnels reminding me of The Road to El Dorado and providing both a fun and cultural way to spend the afternoon, not to mention plenty of photo opportunities!

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I had to stop myself calling him ‘Avatar’

Good intentions and map-reading aside, we get well and truly lost in the final temple, Ta Prohm, or ‘the one from Tomb Raider’, as it’s more commonly known.

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Cringe, but a must – Tomb Raider pic in Ta Prohm

A combination of heat, fatigue, awful sense of direction and an array of nooks and crannies to explore meant that four or five times we backtrack on ourselves and have to extract directions to the exit fragment by fragment from a security guard with extremely broken English. It’s been a long day…..but it’s only 3pm! Naps are in order, and even the breeze of the tuk-tuk ride back to the Mad Monkey Siem Reap fails to wake us up properly.

**************

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‘beatnik speakeasy’ – my new favourite bar ever

We’d arrived in Siem Reap and spent the day exploring the city a day prior to undertaking Angkor Wat, and I have to say I liked it a million times more than Phnom Penh. Not only is it cleaner, less crowded, and more catered to visitors, but it’s actually fairly easy to navigate, and I’ve felt ultimately so much safer walking around here than I had in Phnom Penh. Everything is clearly labelled, from the ‘Night Market’, the ‘Day Market’, to the neon lights of ‘Pub Street’, meaning less time spent wandering around aimlessly searching for places even tuk-tuk drivers don’t know where to find. The “Beatnik Speakeasy” was an absolute gem of a find on Pub Street, my fascination with Jack Kerouac being clearly represented on the wall inside (the actual quote I’ve been using for this blog since I began it!) along with original beatnik-inspired cocktail concoctions, and we enjoyed a happy hour tipple or three here, for once completely surrounded by other Westerners and tourists alike, and actually feeling like we could relax a bit.

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I’ve really become more comfortable with every aspect of this travelling thing now, our experiences before having felt more like pre-organised group outings, rather than independent and self-fulfilling navigation and exploration. We are so much freer to do and go where we please now, our decision to purchase visas to Vietnam being heeded on a whim and promising an unexpected twist for the next leg of our unplanned adventure.

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Angkor Selfie (standard)

With a bus booked to Ho Chi Minh city the following morning, the few nights in Siem Reap were over far too quickly, and after an evening socialising in The Mad Monkey I hastily repacked my bag with the clean laundry (hurrrah!!!) I’d finally managed to get done behind the counter, and attempted to get some much sought-after sleep.

Next stop, Ho Chi Minh City……!

Elephants, Eco-tourism, and the Express Bus from Hell

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Jungle Overview…

“If we were meant to stay in one place, we’d have roots instead of feet” – Rachel Wolechin

Modes of transport vary from country to country, city to city, year to year and even day to day if you’re lucky enough to live in a place that offers them all at a low cost. Buses, trains, cars, trams, taxis, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, rickshaws, bicycles, and not to mention the good old reliable two feet attached to our own bodies, it seems we have built industries and businesses surrounding the very nature of human kind to move about from place to place.
It’s ironic that as I write this in an illegible scrawl on pages of a notebook containing my budget for the next week I am actually en route to Ho Chi Minh city, having decided not to renew my Cambodian visa and instead use the remaining time I have in Asia to do just that – move about and see as much as I can see. This particular bus is honestly the most comfortable and luxurious form on transport I’ve taken since being here – it’s a new service with Virak-Buntham Travel which connects Siem Reap in Cambodia directly to Ho Chi Minh city, bypassing the MarioKart streets and crazy traffic of Phnom Penh completely. The discovery of this route was a godsend, especially after our fairly dodgy experiences organising buses so far- our journey to and from Sen Monorem in the East proved a particularly painful (physically too!) stretch of 13 hours in total, with necessary stops in Phnom Penh leaving us feeling we maybe should have reconsidered our route. This was the only service available at such a price, however, and the prospect of meeting the elephants of Mondulkiri at the side of the cramped, uncomfortable and downright dangerous journey was enough to make me suck it up and convince myself the distinct pong of urine combined with ageing fried food and unwashed feet was actually a cultural delicacy that I was privelged to be experiencing.

We were crammed into a rickety piece of metal alongside our bags, several packages with Khmer addresses scrawled across them, sacks of potatoes under each chair and a dubious looking plastic bag containing a mystery kind of gooey substance, the level of English of our fellow passengers ranging from awkward nod to expressionless blinking and complete silence.
Think of the elephants”, I found myself chanting along in time to the din of Cambodian wailing coming from the phones of the teenage girls behind us, who had spent a good 15 minutes staring at my skin before proceeding to provide a DJ service (free of charge!) for the entire bus.

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Tree Lodge Guesthouse

‘Mr.Tree’ from the Mondulkiri Elephant Sanctuary and affiliated Tree Lodge Guesthouse picked us up from the station in Sen Monorem, darkness having beaten us there and prevented us from grasping a good bearing in the directions from town. I’ve never been a fan of arriving places at night time purely for this reason, but I think we were just so relieved to be removed from our foetal positions aboard the death wagon of appalling aromas that it didn’t really matter what time it was.
The family-run Tree Lodge Guesthouse provides treetop accomodation just outside Sen Monorem town and overlooking the mountainous forests of Mondulkiri. Childhood fantasies come true, sleeping in treehouses with hammocks and access via ladders and steep wooden steps was made all the more exciting with the prospect of trekking with elephants the following morning – even the giant bugs and flies who shared our dinner and room for the evening couldn’t dampen our spirits at have made it this far. A local menu including avocado and fresh fruit shakes cheered us up immensely too.

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Trekking in the Forest

Next morning we woke to a cockerel crowing, bugs and birds chorusing a new day in the forest. Humidity and Monica Gellar hairstyles aside, I was pleased to note a significant drop in temperature as we’d ascended the mountain, and the cool breeze which billowed out my clothy overshirt was refreshing as we sat in the back of Mr. Tree’s open-top jeep on our way into the jungle.

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Have you guessed I love elephants?!

The brilliant thing about the Mondulkiri Elephant Project is that it has been set up as a means of providing care and rehabilitation for abused and mistreated elephants. As Mr. Tree explained in perfect English during an extremely passionate introduction to the project, it remains one of only two organisations in the whole of Cambodia which does not exploit their elephants in any way or use them against their will as modes of transport, one-trick circus animals, or decorative additions to a money-making tourist scam. This is eco-tourism at it’s finest. 100% of the funds generated by the Mondulkiri Elephant Sanctuary is pumped straight back into the care and maintenance of the elephants, their highly skilled mahoots, and the upkeep and security of the 123 acre forest itself in which they reside. Mr. Tree stressed the importance of the forest to his tribespeople, and explained how they managed to push a decree through in October 2014 prohibiting any intrusive, destructive, or building work within the existing perimeters of the forest, something he firmly believes would not have been possible without the success of the Elephant Sanctuary Project. In a symbiosis which has worked thus far maintaining peace and balance within the forest, it seems they have slowly but surely gained the trust of their 4 previously abused and tortured elephants in a similar manner.

For centuries the elephants in Cambodia have been used as a means of getting both very heavy and very important things from A to B. one only has to look at the ancient stones which pave the way in the Angkor Wat temples (more on that in the next post!) to see the holes in each where they were fastened using bamboo shoots and rope to elephants who pulled them for miles at a time to reach their destination. In order for these giant and powerful creatures to actually succumb to this work and be controlled by the humans who conscripted their service, they underwent cruel and brutal ‘training’ in their youth, which involved them being chained up for days on end and beaten when they attemped to escape. This is still happening today.

Though the chains are stronger than the young elephants at the time of imprisonment and succeed in keeping them stationary despite their struggling, Mr. Tree described sadly how as the elephants grow to a strength and power easily matched to the bonds of their chains, their struggling and will to escape lessens as they gradually stop trying to push against the chains. They are then seen as trained and fit to serve the owners, whips also being used to ensure their diligence and loyalty.

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Happy

You cannot ride the elephants in Mondulkiri, and the tour description of ‘jungle trek’ is really a glorified explanation of what they actually do here.
Because these elephants are free.
It makes such huge and wonderful sense to simply provide visitors with a glimpse into the lives and natural habitat of the elephants and their mahoots. Instead of forcing a route upon them day after day and camera-clad gawping Westerners stopping at set intervals to take pictures of them, visitors to Mondulkiri go where the elephants go. The mahoots act merely as satellite dishes to keep track of their elephants’ whereabouts in order for a tour group to find them, observe briefly and tempt with bananas, then follow at a distance as soon as the elephants have gotten bored and decided to wander onwards. It’s such a humane and natural system which benefits everyone within the community that I honestly am so so proud and happy to even have had the chance to experience it.

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Gentle Giants

In treating the elephants as the majestic, gentle and highly intelligent creatures that they are, the mahoots and staff of Mondulkiri have earned their respect, and Igot the impression they even enjoyed being fed huge bunches of bananas at a time, and followed to the streams to swim. After observing Lucky, Princess, Sophie and Ginzaag for a time as they filled up on branches and shoots and leaves of the protected forest, we were treated to a lunch of rice, beansprouts, spinach and vegetables in the treetop Jungle Lodge. An hours’ chilling in the hammocks there split the day up nicely, after which we followed the mahoots’ whistles to the riverside to find the elephants bathing. Although we were lucky in that our day for the tour seemed to be a fairly typical day for them, the success and value of the treks here really is at the mercy of the elephants themselves. It just further goes to show how fair treatment, equality and balance lead to a happier and healthier environment for all living things to exist in harmony (forgive me for sounding like a tree hugger here!)

12243634_10153183145423483_167972287_nAfter an exhausting yet exhilarating day at the Elephant Project, it was back to the TreeLodge and our friends Mr. Bathroom frog and Balcony Bat for what was one of the deepest and longest sleeps I’ve had in weeks. We awoke refreshed and ready to power through another 6 hour hurtling Gringotts’-cart shuttle van ride back to Phnom Penh. This time the pictures of our new elephant mates kept us occupied, along with various games of ‘guess the marinated insect’ at the market stalls of the hourly toilet breaks. I wouldn’t dare taste any, but it reminded me of Timone and Pumba’s jungle-introduction for Simba in The Lion King.

I felt somewhat better about taking the bus and putting my life in the hands of someone who doesn’t speak my language knowing that it meant I’d helped ensure that even some of Cambodia’s remaining wild elephants are still free roam where they want, responsible only for the transport of themselves from watering hole to the groups of Westerners they must see as irritating yet reliable banana-vending machines.

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Princess

I’d urge anyone to visit the Mondulkiri project, the tours and information provided is extremely well-delivered and easy to understand, and the accomodation, though you don’t have to stay at the Tree Lodge (not to mention fun!) accomodation. Bug spray is a must, as well as comfortable walking shoes and bum-pad for the bus journey there!!

Useful Links:
Virak- Buntham Travel
Mondulkiri Elephant Sanctuary
Mondulkiri Elephant Sanctuary Facebook
Tree Lodge Guesthouse

 

Bokor Biking and Fireflies – From Connemara to Cambodia

Bokor Biking and Fireflies

As I tentatively tugged the right handlebar of the heavy 2-wheeler towards me, I felt a surge of power and heard the grumble of the engine cut through the silence of the morning like the sudden snores of a drunkard sleeping with his mouth open after a particularly heavy night out. It was a feeling of power within my grasp that I’d never quite encountered before, and as I pulled back further and further on the throttle, gradually releasing more and more power and feeling giddy at the speed I was gaining, I couldn’t help but smile.
I’m free!!!
I took ten to fifteen minutes before leaving to circle the grounds of the yard, just to get to grips with the controls, but by the time it came to leave and follow our guide through the narrow streets of Kampot and up toward the shadow of the lonely Bokor Mountain (I couldn’t help but compare it to ‘The Lonely Mountain’ from The Hobbit!) I was raring to go, and more confident than I’d ever thought would be possible for me on such a vehicle.

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Motorbiking up Bokor Mountain

We rented the motorbikes from The Mad Monkey Kampot’s own rental company who, as we learned the hard way, are NOT great at negotiating group prices and /or tour guides. Eventually, after almost an hour discussing prices and trying to keep ‘cool hearts’, we were sorted with our bikes and two ‘guides’. Terrified as I was of losing my balance on the motorbike and causing a pile-up on the narrow and steep uphill climb to the peak of Bokor Mountain, I persevered and was gladly rewarded with a stable confidence after a few minutes of initial terror. We were informed on the way that we’d have to stop and pay for fuel refills ourselves, which we did begrudgingly, yet also got free rice crackers to keep us going on the way. As we drove further and further out of town towards the countryside and the beckoning heights of Bokor Mountain, I actually grew to really enjoy the biking, and made sure to get use of the 24 hours I’d rented it for by taking short trips to and from the shops and breakfast the next morning! It wasn’t for everyone, however, as the prospects of riding a motorbike in Cambodia after witnessing the madness of Phnom Penh understandably put us off somewhat. We managed to get through the entire trip with no major incidents, a massive downpour of rain drenching us to the bone as we passed through a cloud on the way down the mountain being the worst of it, only to emerge just as suddenly to heat and sunshine on the other side which dried us off almost immediately.

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Even The Buddha needs a bit of work sometimes!

Seeing the giant statue on top of the mountain clearly having some work done made me laugh and ironically made me think of how even The Buddha needs some TLC sometimes! I felt balanced and controlled at the summit, and proud of the fact that I’d made it up so far with only a minor burn from the exhaust pipe on my left leg to show as signs of battle.

In Kampot we ate in local restaurants The Rusty Keyhole, Veronica’s, and of course The Mad Monkey’s own yummy bar area at varying intervals. The Rusty Keyhole proved a popular favourite amongst our party, yet also quite small – they had no room for us at dinner, and so we were forced to make a booking for the following morning for breakfast!

On the final evening we all booked a private boat for a sunset tour up the river in Kampot – The ‘Fireflies’ tour which lived up to it’s name as we stopped at several points along the way to observe and catch the fireflies which lit up the shrubbery along the banks in a Christmas-tree like display of twinkling and shimmering. The old man and his son who steered and moored the boat were amazing guides, pointing out and explaining all points of interest and even giving us basic Khmer lessons – my day was MADE to discover that ‘nom’ in Khmer means ‘cake’! I was so thrilled to discover that literally saying ‘nom nom nom’ means ‘cake cake cake’ in Cambodian that I didn’t stop saying it all night!

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River-cruising in Kampot

The good company and beautiful scenery brought a lazy close to a busy day as the sun set behind the Elephant Mountains, the fireflies providing a trail of fairy lights to lead us home. This tranquility and festive atmosphere kind of made me think of home briefly and how everyone will be gearing up for Christmas in the next few weeks, and my mind was filled both with contentment at the proximity of the holidays on my return, and with a strange emptiness that I am not there to experience the build-up this year – often the best part of any major holiday. It only took a blink or two however and a glance around at my present surroundings to shake these thoughts from my head and focus on the amazing opportunities and experiences that are currently within my reach.

We enjoyed good food in Veronica’s, a glass of wine or two drooping the eyelids of weary travellers’ eyes like the slow ebb of a tide not yet sure if it’s on it’s way in or out to shore. It was expensive enough in comparison to some of the local food places, but it was a nice way to mark the end of a fun weekend. There was a pool party in full swing on our return to The Mad Monkey, but I stayed only for one more before calling it a night, if it could be called that with the music playing late into the night….One thing The Mad Monkey is not is being a place for catching up on lost sleep!

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Waterfall – another stop on the Bokor Mountain trail

Tours to the summit of Bokor Mountain in The Elephany Mountains and motorbike rentals are available at various places throughout the village of Kampot, though ours was organised exclusively through The Mad Monkey’s own operators at reception, which was easier seeing as there was a large group of us. It worked out at $6 each per bike, and a further $3.50 for the Fireflies cruise (group rate for a private boat).

The Giant Ibis Bus company to/from Phnom Penh worked out the most affordable form of transport, and worked out at $8 one –way for all passengers. (Most Cambodian bus companies charge extra for ‘foreigners’, but Giant Ibis have regularized all fees, hurrahh for equality!!) Buses leave

Phnom Penh – Kampot: 8:00 a.m, 2:45 p.m.
Kampot – Phnom Penh: 8:30 a.m., 2:45 p.m.

Useful Links:

Mad Monkey Website
Mad Monkey Kampot Facebook
Rusty Keyhole
Veronica’s
Bokor Mountain Tours (With Mad Monkey Kampot)
Fireflies Tour Kampot
Giant Ibis Transport