Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Bewitched, bothered and bewildered in Varanasi!

Arriving in Varanasi, the spiritual heart of India was the realisation of a long standing travel dream for us. More than anywhere else in India, Varanasi had fascinated us, maybe even scared us a little. We had read that few people visited the holy city by the Ganges without falling ill. We had heard about the proximity to death, the funeral pyres, the floating bodies and also the constant hassle from touts and beggars. We had also heard about the beauty amidst the squalor - the river ceremonies, vibrant colours, the faithful pilgrims and floating candles. We decided that if we could survive Varanasi, both physically and emotionally, we could survive anywhere.

We had crossed the Nepalese-Indian border early in the morning. From the border, we took a bone-shaking, ten hour journey on a dilapidated bus in searing heat. We travelled at breakneck speeds and had one breakdown, when the passengers had to disembark and push the bus! We were eventually delivered at the sprawling Varanasi bus station around mid-afternoon. We were shattered.

We were approached by the well-spoken driver of a rather snazzy tuk tuk, which stood out from the others. It even had a regal sounding name in gold lettering across the front window, 'Princess of the Road', or something similar. We jumped in the back, and off we went anticipating the air-conditioned comfort of our pre-booked guest house by the Ganges. The temperature was one hundred and fourteen degrees, and we were already regretting our decision to travel in the extreme pre-monsoon heat!

Our driver proceeded to tell us about how the hotels by the Ganges use polluted river water in their tanks. Apparently, an Australian woman had taken a shower and accidentally swallowed some water. Her body became bloated beyond recognition. She was taken to hospital, but sadly died. Was this a true story or was it a ploy by the driver to take us to a hotel that happened not to be by the river and from which he would perhaps receive commission?!

Suddenly, we came to a halt on a quiet side street. The driver produced a folder, within which were page after page of recommendations for his tours. Having talked our way out of two days worth of tuk tuk touring, we were driven a little further and unceremoniously dumped. The driver told us that we would have to walk the rest of the way as the lanes were too narrow to drive through. He pointed vaguely in an indeterminate direction and drove off!


Despite not having a clue where we were, we wandered down an alleyway in the intense heat, grateful that neither of us were carrying full size backpacks. The lanes were full of activity and the tiny shops sold everything from mobile phones to bindis. Asking several shopkeepers "Which way to the Ganges?" resulted in blank stares or shrugs. "Ganga", we tried, knowing that we couldn't be more than a short walk from the revered river, but having no idea which direction that might be. We were hopelessly lost in the bewildering labyrinth.

We came to a clearing in the lanes, where we decided to take a bicycle rickshaw. Surely, a rickshaw driver would know where the Ganges was. Apparently not. After a five minutes of riding round in circles, we realised he clearly didn't understand where we wanted to go. A few words were exchanged - he had a surprisingly cocky attitude for someone who didn't know where he was going, and we jumped out and started walking again. We were no closer to the evasive Ganges than when we had arrived! If ever we needed help from Ganesh, the Hindu god and remover of obstacles, today was the day!

By now, we were dehydrated and exhausted. We went into a shop to buy some water. As we stood in despair, we spotted a group of men carrying a dead body. The body was draped in an ornate cover and the men chanted as they made their way through the chaotic street. If we followed the body, surely it would lead us to the river where it would be cremated! We would then be able to locate our guesthouse!


We followed the chanting mourners. Considering that they were carrying a body, they were moving swiftly. We were forced to run, our packs as small as they were, weighing us down and perspiration pouring from us. The alleyways became more intense. There were intriguing glimpses into ancient buildings and strange temples. Sadhus, beggars, pilgrims and cows wandered through the maze of lanes. A myriad of smells wafted through the thick air, incense, sewage, spices and garbage. At last, through the gaps in the buildings, we could see the River Ganges!

We arrived at the burning ghat, steps leading down to the river and the area in which cremations take place. "No photos!" shouted a man, standing by the entrance. The last thing in the world that either of us wanted to do was to take a photograph! In fact, out of respect, we would never consider taking a picture of a funeral pyre anyway. "We don't want a photo" I explained, "All we want to do is find our guest house!" When we mentioned the name of the guest house, the man said he would take us, so we followed him down to the river. He told us he was a Brahmin, a priest belonging to the highest caste. By now, the sun had gone down and glowing candles were drifting across the river, offerings to Mother Ganga.

It was with great relief that two minutes later, we arrived at our guest house. We gave the priest two hundred rupees, which we considered quite generous. He expressed discontent and demanded five hundred rupees. His shouts were ringing in our ears as we walked up the steep steps to our home for the next few of nights. Never had we been so pleased to be given the key to a room, and were especially grateful that we had booked an air-conditioned one! 

Our first few hours in Varanasi had been exasperating, but exhilarating and we had survived!  A good night's sleep by the Ganges was all we needed and tomorrow we would be ready to take on another day in Varanasi.



Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Final Countdown......

Back in steamy Bangkok!  Yes, two months had passed since we were last there and we had become acclimatised to New Zealand’s more moderate temperatures.  Thailand’s pre-monsoon heat had been building up during that period, and it was hot, hot, hot!

One of the things we had intended to do last time we were in Bangkok (but hadn’t got round to), was to take a day trip to the ancient city of Ayutthaya, one of Thailand’s former capitals.  Ayutthaya is a UNESCO world heritage site, 87 km north of the city.  In 1767, Siam had been invaded by the Burmese and many of the city’s temples had been reduced to rubble.

This time we were determined to get there.  It helped that our hotel was located opposite Hua lamphong railway station.  At 8.00 am, we boarded the train.  Roughly an hour and a half later, we found ourselves in Ayutthaya.

We caught the ferry across the river to the island, where many of the ruins are situated.  Despite the intense heat, we had decided that we wanted to hire bikes to explore the city, and we set off through the teeming traffic on a couple of old bone shakers.  The experience wasn’t quite as relaxing as our cycle rides around Sukhothai, as much of the time we were cycling on busy roads.  There were, however, periods of tranquillity as we cycled through some of the green areas, passing crumbled temples, Buddha statues, lakes and egrets that took off into the sky as we trundled along.

We saw elephants brightly painted for the forthcoming Songkran festival, lumbering along the streets carrying tourists on their backs.  Two of the main sights that we had wanted to see were the Buddha head tangled in the web of tree roots at Wat Phra Mahathat and the reclining Buddha at Wat Lokaysutha.  Both were as impressive as anticipated and we continued cycling and checked out a couple more temples until the heat got the better of us, and we decided to head back to Bangkok.

Three days after we had arrived in Bangkok, we flew to Kuala Lumpur, a new destination for T and a return trip for Ku.  Our flight arrived at 11.30 pm, and we took a taxi to the city.  After some fierce thunder and spectacular fork lightening en route, the heavens opened.  The road was flooded within minutes, and it was still pouring when we arrived in China Town, where we were staying.  Our taxi driver couldn’t find our hotel and had to keep getting out of the car in the pouring rain to ask people.  Eventually, we found it.  She had done a great job getting us there safely in such horrendous conditions!

We spent a couple of days exploring and orientating ourselves.  We checked out KL Tower, the Petrona Towers, China Town, Central Market and Little India.  We also visited the Hindu temple at the Batu Caves – it brought back memories of India – the garlands, brightly coloured saris, incense, aromas from the food stalls and a gigantic green Monkey God!  The caves are impressive and home to lots of mischievous monkeys and several shrines.


One of the most fascinating aspects of Malaysia is the hotchpotch of cultures – Malay, Indian, Chinese, all very evident.  It certainly makes travelling there an interesting experience.

From Kuala Lumpur, we took a bus to Malacca, which we really enjoyed.  More laid back than KL, we had fun wandering round the colourful old buildings built by Chinese traders.  There were an array of tempting shops and cafes centred in and around Jonker Street, the heart of the historical district.

Back in the capital, we pounded the streets around Bukit Bintang.  The Malaysians love their malls and KL had malls in abundance, very much in contrast to Jalan Petaling, the dusty China Town market, where we each bought a fake £3.00 ICE watch each!

We wandered through Perdana Botanical Gardens and Asean Sculpture Park, escaping the madness of the city streets.  In the Deer Park, we saw tiny mouse deer.  We at curry and potato puffs and sampled bandung, the bright pink concoction of rose syrup cordial and evaporated milk with ice, sold on every street corner.


In Masjid India, we had a fabulous lunch of paneer makhani, mutter paneer, garlic fried rice, garlic naan and mango and lime juices.

We both really enjoyed our visit to Malaysia and found everyone very hospitable and friendly.  It was a strange time to be there, about three weeks after Air Malaysia’s missing plane incident.  All over Kuala Lumpur were posters and makeshift tributes.

From KL, we flew to Phuket, spent one night in town, before taking a bus to Bang Biang Beach in Khao Lak, where we had a very chilled few days.  The Andaman Sea was warm and good to swim, a refreshing relief from the heat. Whilst there, we did a short trek in Khao Lak National Park.  The trail followed the coast and finished on a beautiful, (almost deserted) beach.


We checked out the Tsunami Museum.  Three thousand, two hundred people died in the Khao Lak region and the area was pretty much destroyed.  They have done an amazing job rebuilding.  We also went to see the police boat, which had been moored a mile offshore when the 2004 tsunami struck.  It had washed inland nearly as far, and had been left where it was found as a memorial


At lunch times, we ate at a simple, but excellent restaurant on the beach.  A very cute puppy lived there, along with some friendly girls who served up the best Thai food we had eaten.

Our penultimate destination was Ao Nang, another place Ku had visited many years previously.  We took a long tail boat to Railay Bay, where the beach was overlooked by towering limestone cliffs.  Back in Ao Nang, Ku fell in the sea when attempting to jump off the boat, much to T’s amusement!  We explored Krabi Town, where we picked up some bargain trinkets, walked by the river, checked out a temple and had pad thai for lunch.


Returning to Bangkok, we made the most the last of our final weekend of the trip.  Much of the time was spent at Chatuchak market, picking up some last minute gifts (for ourselves and others!) and meandered through the huge maze of stalls.  We sampled street food, included skewered chilli beef and mango sticky rice (delicious!)  It’s an incredible place, where you can buy everything you could possibly think of and more.


Both days at around the same time, an incredibly loud clap of thunder, followed by torrential rain, sent everyone running for shelter.  We ran for the bar, where we enjoyed ‘cheery brandy’ and coke and bottles of Chang beer.  It was a great way to round off a fantastic trip, soaking up the lively atmosphere and enjoying Bangkok at its best!



Sunday, April 20, 2014

48 Hours in Malacca


 We decided to escape the bustling big city of KL for the more tranquil and smaller UNESCO World Heritage Site (since 2008) of Malacca (or the Malay spelling Melaka). It is known for its historical and cultural background from Portuguese, Dutch and British rule. It was an easy and comfortable bus journey of under two hours from KL. We made our way by cab to our accommodation – Hotel Hong (can be found on Facebook). It was only a small place, a hall of rooms, but we received a welcoming and friendly service. The cosy room was spotlessly clean with a new bathroom, fierce air con (required!) and brilliant, speedy Wi-Fi. We left our bags, armed with a map supplied from the front desk and via a well plotted short cut, we set off.

First, Cheng Hoon Teng Temple, literally a stone’s throw away from our hotel. Apparently it’s the oldest Chinese Temple in Malaysia. Ornately decorated and fully of ambience, atmosphere and the essence of incense, it’s certainly worth a visit. Walking along the streets, we realised we were right in the centre of the old city and all the action! Most of the houses and shops are nearly a century old, built by Chinese traders.  Many have fantastic details, such as beautifully painted plaster reliefs. Definitely worth a photo or two.

We found Jonker Street easily, it’s the heart of the old city and crammed with shops, cafes, antique stores, as are most of streets leading off it. Along with mosques, temples and houses, there was so much to look at. We came across the river and the bridge and then saw the fabulous sight of Christ Church, red in colour with the Dutch square in front of it. There is a fountain and more or less opposite it, the Tang Beng Swee Clock Tower – also painted in red. It was very picturesque and bustling with people. It was also where the Trishaws congregated, and seeing is believing! They are decked out in bright colours, decorated with fake flowers, and a few stuffed soft toys! Hello Kitty seems to be most popular! They are hysterical and are certainly a hit with children and tour groups, as they cycle off for a city tour complete with loud music booming out of an attached speaker!





There is something for everyone here, a Maritime Museum with a huge ship docked near the river, the Peoples Museum, Islamic Museum and Naval Museum. We went with the Architecture Museum, as we like architecture. It was housed in a lovely old red building and it was free!

We wandered around, enjoying the ambience and the sun. Within minutes from the Christ Church, we found ourselves in the modern part of the city, full of shopping malls. After a quick visit to one to escape the humidity and have a cold drink, we wandered back to the old city!

We passed the Duck Boat (just like the one in London UK) and also the striking Taming Sari Revolving Tower that takes people up 110m and offers them 360 degree views of the historic city and the coastline. It looks futuristic, but somehow there’s something a little 1970’s about it!

Eventually we surrender to the sun and humidity and call it a day!

The following day was allocated as shopping day! Firstly, we went to the city’s Little India, full of colour and activity. We also visited Saint Paul’s Church. Not another church I hear you cry, but this one is on a hillside and gives us fantastic views of the city and the coastline – who needs to go up in a revolving tower! The church itself is actually a fabulous old relic, dating back as far as 1521 and then became a fortress - which makes sense considering its position. It is worth a wander around. A few local artists have set up shop up there, plus a few friendly stray cats and a few kittens too, always a bonus! And then the Masjid Kampung Hulu – the oldest functioning Mosque, built in 1728. Lovely white building.

And now to the shopping, and its plentiful. There is a thriving local artists’ scene, plus many antiques, even a few boutique shops and plenty of places to grab a drink if the heat gets too much.


We stopped at the Geographers Café for something to eat. It had a kind of funky ambience and was playing a real assortment of music from Celia Cruz to Manu Chanu to one of Ku’s favourites, Joni Mitchell! The little girl serving was smiley and efficient and we were treated to some fabulously tasty food, veggie curry, naan bread, chicken satay, rice and fresh spring rolls – yum! If in Malacca, definitely go! You can find them on Facebook.


We had a fantastic time in Malacca, and it was worth staying for a couple of days. Hotel Hong’s owner even gave us a lift to the bus station, helped us buy our bus tickets and got someone to escort us to the correct terminal, all for free. It topped off a lovely a couple of days for us.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

T and Ku hike the Abel Tasman Costal Trail!

We returned to Nelson, where we stayed with our friend, Steve, for a couple of nights prior to setting off on the Abel Tasman Coastal Trail.  The day before we were due to leave, we wandered around Pac n’ Save, the local supermarket, stocking up on supplies.  Basket overflowing, we couldn’t believe just how much we would need for a four day hike.  Cheese, eggs, coleslaw, tomatoes, carrots, apples, almonds, crackers, bread rolls, Nutella, tortilla wraps, hummus, chocolate chip cookies, granola bars, a party mix bag of sweets and of course bottles of water all went in the basket.  We certainly wouldn’t be going hungry!  But would we be able to carry it all, along with our camping gear and everything else?!

We usually travel light, so Steve leant us a huge tramping bag.  Into this, we packed our tent, roll mats, tarp, duvet and clothes.  The other bag, a 30 litre day pack, contained food, water and everything else.  Although we had completed the Inca Trail in Peru a few years back, on that occasion we didn’t have to carry our own gear.  This would be different.  Fully packed, the bags were barely manageable.  We weren’t confident we would make it to the bus stop, let alone to the end of the 46.5 km trail!


Day 1

On the long awaited day, we set off at 7.15 am on the twenty minute walk to the main road, where the bus was picking us up to take us to the trailhead (Yes! We did make it to the bus stop!)

About an hour or so later, we were dropped at Marahau, the tiny village, where the trail begins.  We were surprised to find a café there, and decided to enjoy breakfast before hitting the trail.  The café was cool with hippie vibes, and the delicious breakfasts went down a treat.

And then we were off!  The trail wound itself around beautiful bays, glimpses of which we saw through the native trees.  If it hadn’t been for the weight we were carrying, it would have been a walk in the park.  The trail was fairly undulating, but Ku, not being accustomed to the weight was feeling pressure in certain areas after an hour or so.  Even though the trail became increasingly challenging, the twinges disappeared after the first day, so it was probably just a case of physically adjusting to carrying the heavy pack.

We passed Tinline, Coquille, Appletree, Stillwell and Akerson Bays.  12.4 km after we started, we had a late lunch of cheese rolls on Anchorage Beach.  We were just half an hour from our final destination for the day, Te Pukatea Bay, where we would be camping for the night.

Te Pukatea was a great choice of campsite.  From our tent, we could see the golden sands and rocky headland of the small bay.  There were cool rocks on either side of the beach, and the water was incredibly clear.  We sat on the rocks, feet in the sea, enjoying the coolness of the water and watching a school of tiny fish.  A small prawn-like creature nipped T on her big toe.


The day had started off overcast, but by the time we reached Te Pukatea, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.  That night, we had the most amazing view of the Milky Way we had ever experienced, and fell asleep to the sound of the waves lapping at the beach.

Day 2

As we packed up the tent, the sun came up in spectacular style over the Tasman Sea.  We left Te Pukatea at 8.00 am and were planning to cross the Torrent Bay Estuary.  When we arrived, not only were we early for low tide, but it wasn’t very obvious as to where to cross.  We therefore decided to take the high tide track trail which was a little hilly, but we took our time, had a breakfast stop and enjoyed the scenery.

Again, we had glimpses of enticing beaches below.  The vegetation was lush and we passed rocky waterfalls and crossed over small streams.  Birds sang and sometimes flew alongside us!  The weather was fine, just a little cooler than the previous day.  The packs were already feeling lighter.  We knew we would be able to obtain filtered water at the next two campsites, so we drank fairly freely.

At Falls River, we crossed the first of two swing bridges.  We decided not to visit Sand fly Bay for obvious reasons!  We had only just recovered from our last assault from these mini Draculas when camping near Milford Sound.  We knew we would be encountering them again at some point on the trail, but thought a visit to Sand fly Bay would be asking for trouble!


We made it to Bark Bay by lunch time, where we pitched up, had something to eat and sat on the beach for a while.  It was a little chilly, so we retired to the tent early and read by torchlight.

Day 3

Again, we left at 8.00 am and took the high tide track, rather than cross at Bark Bay Estuary. We didn’t want to hang around another couple of hours for low tide and it only took us about fifteen minutes longer to walk around the bay.  We crossed our second swing bridge.  Between Tonga Quarry and Onetahuti Bay, the trail looked down upon the most sublime turquoise water we had ever seen.  On the beach, we came across a dead albatross, its wings spread as though in flight.  It was huge.  We sat on the beach (not too close to the dead albatross!) for a break.  Walking along the sand carrying a heavy pack was quite exhausting!  Not the same as a barefoot stroll!

The trail then headed up, up and over to the large Awaroa Inlet.  It was toughest climb yet.  As the trail levelled out, we spotted a sign for Awaroa Eco Lodge.  Offering open sandwiches and all sorts of delicious food, we were tempted enough to go off trail and find the remote lodge.  After a detour of about half an hour, we arrived, only to discover they weren’t serving food!  We settled for a coffee and a coke, and headed back to re-join the trail.

We eventually hit Awaroa Inlet, and continued to walk along the sand until we came to our campground at around 2.30 pm.  We pitched up and tucked into cheese and tomato tortilla wraps, followed by chocolate chip cookies for dessert.  We had found ourselves a nice sunny spot and spent the afternoon recovering from our 15km walk (including detour) and fighting off sandflies.


Day 4

Awaroa Inlet was the one place on the trail that didn’t have a high tide track, so we had to wait for the tide to withdraw before we could cross.  At about 12.00 pm, we walked across the wide stretch of sand to the water and prepared ourselves by taking off our hiking boots and socks.  We waded into the unknown, knee deep, the tiny shells hidden in the sand, sharp against our feet.  We made it to the other side in about twenty minutes or so, and then trudged through a mud-like substance into which we could feel ourselves sinking if we lingered a second too long.

The trail continued through the bush and was fairly level, coming out at Waiharakeke Bay, where we walked along yet another perfect golden sand beach.  The final beach we hit was the lengthy Goat Bay, where we passed interesting rocks and native sea birds.

The last leg was over the hill to Totaranni, our final destination.  As is often the case, the last part was the toughest.  Due to erosion, a lower track had been closed and we were forced to take a more elevated route.  A series of seemingly never ending steep slopes took us to the summit and finally down again into Totaranni Bay.

We had made it!  We had completed the Abel Tasman Trail without any rain, injuries or mishaps! We had one more night in the tent before being picked up the following morning, and had just enough food left! 

That evening, a family of wekas came to visit us.  They are extremely inquisitive birds and checked out our belongings thoroughly!

The beauty of the trail certainly lived up to expectations.  Although it was only a few days, it was wonderful to escape from traffic and technology for a short while.  Being in nature gives a sense of peace and detachment which is impossible to find in everyday life, and the Abel Tasman Trail provided nature and beauty in abundance.