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Thursday, 30 December 2010

Food for Thought

After a good few months of mostly surviving on fried noodles and rice it was a pleasant surprise to find that though, yes, there was still a lot of noodles and rice about the Indonesians really did something different with theirs. Menu's here are also spiced up with the frequent inclusion of repetitions; who'd want to order 'Tempe'? Not I - but 'Tempe-Tempe'? Hell yeah.
Our days of cheap eating-out came to a close here in Indo so we got stuck in good and roper and here's the best of the best;

Rob's Menu
Scrambled Eggs on Toast, Fruit Salad & Cup of Tea (Pondok Lita, Gili Trawangan)
Corn on the Cob (Lombok)
Nasi Goreng - spicy rice with vegetable & chicken (Gili Trawangan)
Fish Satay (Lombok)
Grilled Red Snapper & free Salad bar with Vegetable Curry
(Gili Trawangan, Mount Bromo)
*sometimes dinner is too good to have a dessert*
Bintang Beer (everywhere)

Kat's Menu
Banana Pancake with a fresh Fruit Salad & a cup of Coffee (Sonjas Lombok)

Mee Goreng - spicy fried noodles with veg (Lombok)
Corn on The Cob (Lombok)
Gado-Gado, steamed veg in a peanut sauce, with
Tempe-Tempe, puréed potato and egg in spicy little croquette-type pieces of joy
(Kuta & Gili Air)
Banana Pancake (yes it was breakfast too, but they are that good)
Vanilla Milkshake (Gili Trawangan)

Monday, 27 December 2010

Day 241-245:Paradise Islands

Good afternoon all! Hope you had a fantastic white Christmas. Well with the festive feasting over (apart from the turkey sandwiches that'll be good 'til they become the turkey curry around Wednesday) and the return to normal working life imminent, thoughts will no doubt stray to 'getting away from it all soon' so I thought I'd get in there with a quick post about the Gili Islands.

They got a little shout-out on our Chrsitmas-day post but, to be honest, they're so so bloody amazing I think they deserve some more cyberspace.

We took the short boat ride from Lombok to Gili Air, the nearest of the 3 Gili Islands, and took up residence in a small hut on the beach on the "quieter" Western side of the Island. 'Quiet' is a relative term here since the island only has a total population of 1,800 and there are NO vehicles. At all. No engines. No car-horns. No motorbikes. The favoured modes of transport are walking, cycling or the Gili Ferrari which is, when it comes down to it, a horse and cart.

We were told that you could walk around the entire island in under 2 hours; whoever was conducting this experiment had not hired a snorkel and fins for the day. We spent the best part of a day burning our shoulder blades and that bit you always miss behind your knees in various spots around the island and seeing all sorts of beautiful fish and coral but, unfortunately, none of the turtles that were rumoured to be "over populated" in the general Gili area.

After a couple of days of pure relaxation and some fantastic food we jumped on the Island Hopper boat over to Gili "the party island" Trawangan. No doubt avid Ibiza-lovers or even, closer to home, Bali-fans, may turn their beach-party noses up at this suggestion, but Gili 'T (see? it even has a cool abbreviation) is definitely the busiest of the Gili Islands.

Here the water is crystal clear ("I can actually see better through the water than I can though the air here", thanks Rob) and the beaches a made of the purest white sands. There is everything from the most luxurious of resorts and restaurants to the cheapest of food shacks that opened their wagons and set out their plastic chairs for dinner every evening. And every night one of the bars is the bar to go to tonight. There's always something going on.

We met up again with Brian, of Lombok bike-day fame, and invested in some more snorkelling which resulted in out first spot of the thus-far elusive hawksbill turtle (hurrah!) and some more incredible fishes that I couldn't even begin to describe.

Diving is big business on the island, and we did indulge in our Christmas-Day-dive, but snorkellers are by no means unable to really enjoy the marine life that surrounds the island. Even those that prefer to just lie on the beach have been known to catch a glimpse of a turtle surfacing for air.

Despite big plans to do so, we didn't make it to Gili Meno, the middle and most rural of the three islands, for a day of - you've guessed it - snorkelling off beautiful beaches. We hear it's incredible and, given its two neighbours, I can certainly believe it.

The Gili Islands really are a perfect holiday destination and I would strongly recommend it to anyone with a couple of weeks that wants to relax, eat well, drink too much, see some turtles and/or be in some of the most spectacular scenery on this side of the globe.

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Day 244: Merry Chrsitmas!

Massive hellos and lots of festive love from the Gili Islands!

Though no-one can accuse Team 365 of having a traditional Christmas, we are certainly having a very special one indeed...I'll keep this short because there is Bintang to drink and Nasi Goreng to eat and you probably have presents to unwrap and a turkey to baste.
This morning we started the day with a scuba dive through gorgeous coral and even swam with - not one but two - turtles, I even stroked one. I don't think any Christmas will ever be the same again.

We're thinking of you all and as our Christmas day come to a close and we know back in England it's just getting started, so have a wonderful day and a mince pie for us xx

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Day 238-239: Motorcycle Diaries; Greens and Blues

I was not sure what to expect when I arrived in Lombok after a rolling ferry journey and a bus ride that lasted 5 hours instead of the promised 2; but I was happy to be here and back with Rob. He'd even, ever so kindly, put in the ground-work and made some new friends as well as bumped into an awesome couple that we'd met in KL who had promptly checked into the same guest house.

After a few days of private refection this was exactly what I needed and after a quick ride around Singgigi, on the western coast, and a delicious barbecued corn-on-the-cob (there are dozens of little stands on the road side where diligent fanning of coals and a hot chilli sauce produce amazing cob-based snacks) we all headed out for dinner and a few Bintangs..

The following morning began, as all days should, with a banana pancake and a hot cup of java before Rob, Brian and I set off on motorbikes in a northward direction to see what we would see. And there were some spectacular sights; a smooth road drew you into generously curving bays before sweeping you out again to the edge of the blue ocean like the curves on a never-ending jigsaw piece. Literally every bend in the road presented a picture-perfect view of another bay, endless ocean and even – because it was a incredibly clear day – the Gili Islands sitting like green smudges on the blue horizon.

Needless to say we stopped in a few of these coves for a dip in the clear sea before the smooth road gave way to a more familiar bumpy track, beach views became luminescent green paddy fields and mountains loomed large and grey in the distant, surrounded by heavy clouds. Quite without trying we even found a waterfall, a host of over-excited waving school children (the kind of which we hadn't seen since India) and an enthusiastic guardian of the magnificent falls who showed us around.

It was another fantastic day on two wheels, but our last for a while since we were heading for a strictly no-motor corner of the world.

***Apologies for lack of photos, the internet is tooooo slow***

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Day 237: Yoga for the inspired but achey

Ooooh it was an achey morning indeed! Was it my over-zealous approach to yesterday or does it only hurt if it's working? I don't know but hopefully the later...either way this mornings' class felt much harder than yesterdays. This time it was taken by a guy and instead of moving through postures in a flowing kind of way like yesterdays sun salutations, today there was much more of finding a relatively easy pose and then holding it for so long it became uncomfortable (see below - she's making it look good) There were again easier and harder variations given and I felt a little bit sad that I sometimes had to do the easy ones.

It just goes to show that Yoga is a wide and varied field and no two practices will be the same – in a way that's probably one of the best things about it, apart from when you can't feel your left ankle any more :)

Obviously 3 sessions was never going to be enough to 'get good' or even scrape the surface of Yoga but The Yoga Barn has given me a fantastic introduction to something I am (at least at the moment) keen to keep up. I haven't always looked after my body in the most diligent manner and this feels like a good way to try and reverse some of the damage already done and keep it functioning smoothly in the future. Maybe I'm just getting old?

Anyway, since I did only have 3 classes under my belt and what I was also seeking was some instant relief in the neck and shoulder region, I decided to invest in an Ayurvedic Crown massage. Ayurveda is – and I'm quoting from the pamphlet here – 'the sister science to Yoga', it's a 'traditional system of natural medicine practised by Indians for over 5,000 years.'

We had heard all about it during our time in India but never actually tried it and so, with the window of cheap Asian massages closing in front of me, I delved in. And it was incredible.

Oils were rubbed into my scalp, face and neck in soothing strokes and vigorous vibrations before water was added to the mix to create a paste that sounded like squelching through mud and smelled like heaven all over my hair. Warm towels were placed over my shoulders and my head was wrapped in some kind of stiffened material that no doubt looked ridiculous but felt great.

Then the real neck and shoulder massage kicked in – I can't even describe how good this felt. It even extended to my fingertips before a hot wet towel was introduced to rub the excess oil off my skin.

My hair was washed through and I emerged an hour later feeling all shiny and new and enjoyed the carefully selected tea on the balcony overlooking the paddy fields.

And all this before 10AM.

These two days, just me and the ancient arts, have been exactly what I needed. Though it may sound crazy to the average 9-to-5er; travelling can be tiring, both physically and mentally. 8 months of constant moving, battling with language barriers and the ever-present quest to not get ripped-off or robbed can wear you down. So a little bit of "me time" was perfect in the run-up to Christmas.

I mentioned in my previous post about Ubud that this would be an excellent place to holiday, to this I would now add that it would also be an excellent place to escape to and unwind.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Day 236: Yoga for the curious and uncoordinated

I'd been talking about this since Day 1, actually probably before Day 1, but after 8 months of hauling my body around Asia fuelled largely on noodles and cheap beer it was about time to show it that I still cared.

After some research and much deliberation, Rob packed his bag and departed to Lombok, and I committed to a 3-class package with The Yoga Barn. My first lesson was not called an Early Bird session for nothing, leaving my room at a sleepy 6am I made my way across town and down a small path to the beautiful grounds. The Yoga Barn is so-called because the room in which all the stretching happens was once a barn. Today the barn has 2 floors and only 2 walls, leaving a panoramic view of green rice paddies and allowing in all the sounds of nature. So far, so blissful.

Now as a total Yoga-virgin I had brought with me a series of concerns, these were;

  1. What if everyone else in the class were proper yoga-pros, you know the type, tiny shorts, impossibly stretchy limbs and that infuriatingly calm look of someone whose found 'inner peace' and wants to convey this through dead-eyes and slow nods

  2. I really hope the teacher doesn't speak in slooooow and reelaaaaaaxing huuuuussky tones about reeeeaaaallly feeeeling yoooouur iiiinner chiiiild aaaalllign with the myyyyyystical pooooowers of the moooooon

  3. What the hell do I do if I fart?

I needn't have worried. The class had about 20 very normal people in, spaciously spread over the wooden floor facing a stone statue of Ganesh and Uma, a pettite and beautiful Indian woman who was taking the class and spoke with an endearing rolling Indian accent and often made jokes. I did – you'll be happy to read - maintain bowel-silence throughout.

The 90-minute session was great. We began with breathing exercises and moved onto sun salutations which, I think I'm right in saying, is a series of stretches and postures that should be repeated each morning to awaken the body and the soul. Then we attempted some more strenuous stretches that included moves called Warrior 1, 2 & 3 and a head-stand. I cannot do a head-stand, but I do a mean Warrior 2. (for reasons mostly centred around my own dignity, there are no photos of me doing Yoga but here's someone else doing the Warrior 2 properly)

There was some “release all your pain and anxiety to mother earth” talk in a move that involved stretching upwards and then dropping your hands and head towards the ground with an impassioned “heurgh” sound . But it came with the explanation that we all have pain, we're human, and if we have pain we shouldn't give it to someone else by moaning at them because they already have their own pain. If we take our pain and give it to the earth through Yoga we'll all feel less pain/anxiety/anger – which kind of makes sense when you think about it.

I wasn't here on a spiritual mission so when the session was over I checked the time table and, since all the sessions are drop-in, decided to go for Restorative Yoga which promised to “bring about gentle release focusing particularly on shoulders hips and spine.” After 8 months of lugging 13kg of my worldly possessions around on my back I thought this was not only necessary but could help in the months to come.

Feeling suitably invigorated and awake I made it back to the room in time for breakfast, I'll confess the Gurus probably didn't have a banana pancake in mind as the most complimentary meal to a Yoga sesh but I am a big believer in the golden hour that exists after exercise in which a moment on the lips does not mean a lifetime on the hips.

Safe in the knowledge that my newly-enlivened metabolism was working overtime and my soul was at least a little bit cleaner, I put on some relaxing music and lay down.

I awoke to a clap of thunder at almost half 2 in the afternoon. Had I mistake 'invigorated' for 'knackered'? Maybe. But it felt good.


Right! Here I am writing from the other side of the Restorative Yoga class. It's about half past 8 and I figured I'd better write this now before I grab some dinner because if it's anything like last time, I'll be asleep in 10 minutes.

Again I really enjoyed the class though it was very different from this morning. It was much more about stretching particular parts of the body and relaxing the whole body in general. The session was run by a different teacher this time (but still no sloooow yoga-voice thankfully), an English lady called Bex, who stressed the importance of listening to your own body. In that sense she asked if anyone was carrying any injuries at the beginning of the class and tailored the postures to these. She also demonstrated each posture with a slight adjustment that made it easier and a slight adjustment “for the more flexible” that made it more strenuous. I was pretty pleased that despite this being only session 2 of my Yoga career I was able to do the standard position each time (here's another pic of someone else doing a posture we did in class)

I wish I could remember all of the moves and techniques that I've done (I'd like to say 'learnt' here but that's not really true) today so that I can continue to practice them on this trip. I feel like I can really see the physical benefits to this kind of exercise. To be fair, I haven't done any sort of exercise at all in the last 8 months (does messing around in the sea count?) and it feels really good to feel physically tired from actually doing something not just from being lazy or being on a bus for a day.

My limbs do feel looser right now, though whether this will turn into aches in the morning we'll have to wait and see...

Part II now here

Friday, 17 December 2010

Day 233-235: Motorbikes and Monkeys (not at the same time)

Leaving Lovina wasn't easy – and not only because heavy rain fall had left main roads looking pretty water-logged and the small side road that we were staying on was completely flooded. Water lapped onto the high pavements where failing drains kept water-levels at about ankle height. In the morning the sun was shining and the roads, caked with rippling mud, were being diligently swept by shop owners and restaurateurs alike.

We had loved the relaxed feel and beautiful scenery of North Bali but now we were heading south – not quite to the afore mentioned white beaches – but to Ubud.

Ubud sits surrounded by rice paddy fields and filled, I mean filled to the brim with artists. It has a similar feel to Pai in northern Thailand, where musicians were out-numbered only by tourists and even a fair share of them could play something... Here the artists are equalled by tourists and touts, walking 10m of undulating pavement here is equal to, I would say, 2 offers of taxi services and, after dusk, the same number for dance shows.

So we decided to escape the hubbub and hired our favourite mode of transport to explore the magical and ancient hillside. After an early breakfast (pancakes, fruit salad and coffee are included in our room rate, hurrah!) we set off on what would turn out to be a 60km ride to a sacred site near Pasar Siring, which lies just 18km north of Ubud.

Our detour did afford us this spectacular view and when we did arrive at Tirta Empul the sun had emerged and was bathing the temple and the crystal -clear waters of the surrounding baths – said to contain magical and healing properties – in a warm and hazy glow.

Naked men and women wrapped in full-length sarongs prayed and washed in segregated baths that sat between a huge and beautifully ornate temple. School children rushed excitedly around the grounds, either soaking wet or grouped in formal dress ready for lunch.

Exiting Tirta Empul was the only less than magical experience; visitors are shepherded through what must be at least 2km of winding path lined with souvenir shops. There must be 100 shops all selling exactly the same 12 items that seems to go on and on forever until you emerge no thankyou-ed out into the car park. Surely this must dirty even the most cleansed beings...?

Our other port of call in Ubud was Mandala Wisata Wenara Wana, most commonly known as The Sacred Monkey Forest Temple. Unfortunately apart from the sign at the gate that asks visitors to respect those that worship there I couldn't really see any thriving trace of religious importance; it's just a really good place to go to see extremely cheeky monkeys up close.

The many primates that call this home are not the kind that will shy away from delving into someone's bag in search of bananas or, as Rob found out, making a leap for your bottle of water mid-sip. Sitting down here is not really an option, constant movement is really the only way to avoid coming under a fairly rigorous stop-and-search. It's an excellent hour-or-so entertainment.

Ubud is a very varied town. A (genuine, not fake) Dolce & Gabana shop sits on the same road as a sprawling market where every type of clothing or souvenir can be bought for next to nothing. Ancient temples sit along side swanky restaurants. You can by a meal for 15,000 Rupiah (just over 1GBP) 200m from a place where a mojito costs 10 times that much – during Happy Hour. No prizes for guessing which side of the divide we're on.

Ubud would be a great place to come on holiday; when you've got less time and more money. I'd recommend it to anyone.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Day 228-229: Under the Sea

Upon leaving Java, we had decided to shun the white-sanded and (so we'd heard) horrendously touristy beaches of south Bali and headed to the northern stretch of quieter, greyish-sanded (volcanic, not dirty) beaches of Lovina. Though the beaches weren't our main motivation, as the title of this post may suggest, we were here for the diving and oh were we in for a treat.

We found ourselves a cheap room that allowed us access to it's fancy sister-hotel's pool (ace) and also gave us suitable lee-way for some bargaining with the sister-dive shop. We opted for a 2-dive trip to Menjangan Island that left the following morning. We spent a very sunny and very rainy afternoon in the pool in excited anticipation.

We left bright and early for the drive NW towards the island, also diving with us was Jo – a wonderful English girl who had recently completed her Dive Masters in Koh Tao and had been diving all over the world [hereafter for 'Jo' read 'hero']. As well as being a font of information about the DM course, and having an awesome underwater camera the best thing about diving with her was that she could identify almost all of the fish we saw...and there was lots to see.

The 2 dives were based around the 'wall' of coral that surrounds this tiny island; after rolling off the boat in our gear we were greeted with fantastic visibility (10-15m) and an abundance of brightly coloured coral and a thriving metropolis of fishes in all shapes and sizes. Without just listing a bunch of names that won't mean much to most, the highlight spots of the dive were; a massive barracuda, 3 bat fish, clown fish (nemo) playing in an anemone, a scorpion fish and a very friendly sucker fish that swam with us for ages, rubbing itself against us with particular attention to Rob's crotch.

All in all, with a break for lunch in between, we were under the water for 2 hours. Did we still love diving? Of course we much so that after further price-negotiations we signed up for a further 2 dives the following day.

This time we were heading to the East of the island to dive in the sunken wreck of the USS Liberty at a dive site called Tulamben. This was our first wreck dive and Jo was diving with us again (hence, the amazing pics). Again the views were just incredible, over the 2 dives we were able to circumnavigate the broken pieces of the wreck (the Japanese bombed it some 50 years ago) and swim actually into parts of the ship.

Sometimes it was almost impossible to tell that it was a ship because the coral growth had all but completely covered each surface. There were places where parts of the structure remained, jutting out at awkward angles, and rooms with 2 or 3 walls still in place; swimming though these darker waters into the light was truly magical. It felt like being in The Little Mermaid.

Again the sea life was spectacular, with sightings of a tiny nudi branch, stingrays, flounder fish (unfortunately these are not like in The Little Mermaid, they are small, flat and exactly the same colour as sand though so the spot is still a good one), moorish idols, an octopus (only I saw it as it changed colour from purples to creams, pulled all it's legs in and disappeared into a hole in the sand), a leaf fish and many, many more.

It was incredible and we have to say a massive thanks to Jo for letting us steal her photos and for teaching us so much.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Day 224-225: This is when we were interviewed for Indonesian National television infront of an erupting volcano

Oh! It's all in a days work for your intrepid Team 365... :)

Let me start at the beginning - which is in the dark and distant past before a 12-hour day in a number of minibuses from Yogyakarta to Ceromo Lewang, a small and sleepy village positioned in the Javanese mountains with a picture-perfect view of Mount Bromo. We had heard of lots of scams (faux break-downs conveniently next to high-charging hotels that were mates with the driver etc.) on this particular route but - apart from sever numb-bum experienced by all - our trip went without a hitch. We even managed to negotiate ourselves a discount for the drive to Mount Bromo in the morning.

And it was an early start; we left our wonderful guest house, Yoschis, at the un-godly hour of 4am and made the short and winding drive up to the view-point in the dark. From the viewpoint we got our first glimpse of Bromo; surrounded by soft white mist like an island in a cloudy ocean, the sight was spectacular. From the view-point we walked about 2km further up the mountain (4x4s can't go there but horses and feet can) for an even more panoramic view. By now the sun was rising and the golden and pinks in the sky were turning to blues.

Ash was billowing out of Mount Bromo at a fairly constant rate, with occasional bigger bursts and even a few puffs from the volcano behind it (apologies, I'm not sure of the name) - it was incredible. Now I've never seen a volcano before so I can't really compare but surely this is one of the most breath-taking views of tectonic activity that it is safe to see in person?

Which leads me on nicely to the interview. Was it our good looks and charm? Our obvious on-screen chemistry? Was it that they recognised us from those Bollywood roles that bagged us this slot on Indonesian TV? Who knows...though I would hazard a guess that just being English was what swung it. We shared our awe at Bromo and confirmed that we felt perfectly safe in its presence.

Little did we know that the safety-line of questioning was probably because Bromo has only done the ash-billowing thing 3 times in the last 10 years (last in 2006) and what we were watching and happily smiling-for-the-camera in front of was considered an eruption. A real eruption. A very unusual, real, volcano erupting - and us. Finally it seemed our luck with volcanoes was in!

Some people arrive in the evening, like we did, see Bromo in the morning, like we did, and jump straight onto a bus to Bali; we did not do this. Instead we decided to spend the day wandering around Ceromo Lewang - there's not much going on, but the locals are friendly and the cool climate was a welcome relief, I'd definitely recommend it. It's certainly better than back-to-back days on a minibus.

This was one of our shortest stays but it was certainly one of the most memorable.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Day 222: Hurrah! 365 hearts Indonesia again

Team 365 is happy to report that since escaping Jakarta on a very cold train, Indonesia has been kind enough to gift us a beautiful town to call temporary-home.

I'm writing from Yogyakarta (pronounced Jogjakarta) that boasts a daily market that goes on and on. And on. Even better, at around the stroke of 10pm it transforms into a food market that goes well, not so far, but further than any other straw-mat-and-low-table-street-stalls-serving-nasi I've ever seen before. It really is a fun place, you can't go far - and you certainly can't eat a meal - without a guy and his guitar serenading you with what I imagine is Indonesian hits or cheesy ballads from the 90's.

The town is also home to the Palace of the Sultan of Java; the grounds are a sprawling mini-city and the Sultan himself still employs around 25,000 people who live in the grounds and work for him, tax free. We met a few of the traditional puppet-makers and enjoyed a wander round the streets, which were indecipherable from the main town really, but beautiful in a small, meandering graffiti-splattered kind of way.

Now, Team 365 has not always had the greatest of track-records with volcanic eruptions and little did we know that as we made our way on a selection of buses to a particular beautiful temple, that we were within days of the whole thing being closed to us thanks to the another volcano. I'll explain, when Merapi erupted in November it caked the whole monument in volcanic ash and a specialist team in protective clothing (not monks praying, as I excitedly observed from a distance) were there to clear it up.
Unfortunately this meant that we couldn't climb up the structure but we had more access than those who'd come before us, and it was still stunning. Often compared to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, it was , for me, a much smaller more intimate experience. The stone carvings are similar but Borobudur, built around a hill in beautiful lush green lands is spectacular in its own way.

We spent a gloriously sunny afternoon exploring the temple and the strange selection of Museums the Indonesians deemed worthy of inclusion (a magic museum with walls of photos of bizarre world record holders such as lady with the longest tongue/a 2-headed horse/child that could bounce balls...why??)

It has been great here and tomorrow we embark upon a long journey to the edge of an active volcano. Brave or stupid? You decide...and I'll confirm back with you in a day or so :)

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Day 221: Hello Indonesia / Goodbye Jakarta

Not many complimentary things have been written about Jakarta and, though I do not wish to begin our Indo-blogs on a low note, this blog post is not going to change that.

Determined though I was to visit Jakarta and file it under Vientiane in the list of 'Places with a bad rep for no apparent reason' it has to be said; the place is, as reported, dirty, polluted and over-crowded. Not that I have anything in particular against places with which these adjectives could be used; India is currently sitting pretty at the top of my list of 'Favourite places we've been so far'. Maybe it was coming from the super-shiney Singapore that made it seem that little bit worse.

Now, enough of this negativity. Must say something complimentary...hmm...I will say that the food around the Jalan Jaksa area, where we were staying, was cheap and delicious. Furthermore - another plus point for the city nick-named the 'Big Durian' - the Busway system does make travelling from one filthy part of this shithole to another both quick(er) and easy.

1 night here is more than enough...let's get outta here.

Food for Thought

You know the drill by now...we've eaten our way around Malaysia and Singapore and now we compile a day-long set menu that is way beyond our eating capabilities but well within our dreaming. You may spot a few old favourites here but we haven't got lazy, honest, the populace here is a veritable mix of Indian, Chinese, British and native Malays and the cuisine reflects this perfectly. So here goes...

Rob's Menu
Egg Masala Thosai (Cameron Highlands)
Samosa & Chickpeas (Little India, Penang)
Spicy Vegetable Curry in a creamy Coconut Sauce (Mama Chops, Taman Negara)
Roti Dal (Little India, Singapore)
All-vegie Chinese Buffet with Chicken Wings (KL & Qqafe, Singapore)
*Rob claims to have never had a desert*
Peach Sofa (Going Om, Singapore)

Kat's Menu
Roti Chanai (this one's for Sarah...Cameron Highlands)
High Tea (Scones, Cream, Tea...the works, Cameron Highlands)
All-vegie Chinese Buffet (KL)
Samosa, Chickpeas & Onion Baji (Little India, Penang)
Vegetable Murtabak with Rojak Salad (Cameron Highlands & Newton Food Hall, Singapore)
Fruit Platter with Ice (CBD, Singapore)
Mango Mojito (Marina Bay Sands, Singapore)

Friday, 26 November 2010

Day 219: "Asia's favourite playground"

Our monorail ticket told us we were headed for "Asia's favourite playground" and the friendly female voice on the monorail told us we were "...just moments away from Santosa Beach, alight here for white sandy beaches, exciting activities, relaxing resorts and Santosa's finest shopping and dining experiences." Just as the doors opened and a gust of warm salty air finally won the battle with the uber-aircon, we were all advised to "have fun!"

Santosa, a small island that lies south of Singapore and plays host to luxury apartments, a Universal Studios theme park, numerous hotels and a Casino and the auspicious title of "the southern most tip of continental Asia" - or so the same friendly voice on the free island tram told us.

We were there to have a look around and meet up with some friends. First we hit the beach, a thin strip of imported but, yes, white sand that is dotted with (not naturally-occurring) palm trees and a multitude of bars and cafes. The sea is surprisingly clean, considering that southern Singapore is basically one big port and, in fact, it's funny to look out to sea and see the looming shadows of ships docked not very far away at all instead of the usual endless blue line between the sea and the sky.

As with much else in Singapore; entertainment is at the forefront of commerce on Sentosa and apart from the theme parks and casino, the promenade is packed with fun ways to fill your day. We tried our hand (and our nerves) at Megazip; an outdoor-ropes-adventure type thing that had us stepping of a 5-storey building (spot Rob, above) and flying 450m across Sentosa on a zip-line. Which was fantastic. We also wheeled around on Segways (pictured) and sped down the awesome Luge track when it got dark. We need here to say a massive thank you to Mykel for woo-ing our way into all of the above.

And what better way to end an action-packed day than to relax in a bar, with a pool, on the beach, drinking a beer?

Yeah, so everything there is nothing au natural about Sentosa, who cares? It's a 24-hours a day, 365 days a year, money-making machine. I don't mind. I can see where the ticket stub in my pocket is coming from; it is just one big playground...for everyone. There's no age limit or budget limit that couldn't mean a great day out. Which is, I think, what it's meant to be about. A trip to Singapore simply wouldn't be complete without a visit.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Day 214-217: I'm in love with Singapore

Never had the saying about the best laid plans ever seemed more apt. Team 365 found itself with time to spare on Sarah's 2-week holiday since the darned cyclone had swept across northern Malaysia and Thailand, churning up the sea as it went, and rendered the planned scuba-diving excursion impossible. Never mind, we thought - let's go to Singapore. As you do.

We arrived through clean, organised and efficient customs, boarded the clean, organised and efficient SMRT tram system and found our clean and cosy hostel. We were, indeed, in Singapore.

After a quick shower and a change Team 365 was out again and on a trip to one of Singapore's newest attractions. In fact, the Marina Bay Sands hasn't completely finished being built yet - but one cannot be disappointed with the huge casino, numerous restaurants, museums, shopping malls and three 56-storey hotels that already exists on the 20-hectare plot of land right on Singapore's coast. Not to mentions the 340m-long Sky Park that sits on top of the 3 hotel towers and actually over-hangs the edge of Tower 1 by 67m; officially the worlds largest cantilevered platform (pictured above). I could go on; I have (as the long-suffering Rob and Sarah will no doubt happily confirm) become slightly more than obsessed with this structure since watching a program on it's construction.
So I was in my element; at the top of the building of my dreams while the sun set over a city/country I was already falling in love with. What could have possibly made this any better? Ah yes! Cocktails in one of the Marina Bay Sands numerous bars. Unfortunately we had to return to ground level to sip our Singapore Slings (only hotel guests can use the roof-top restaurant and pool...oh! the pool!) What a way to begin our time here!

The next day we were up bright and early and spent the day wandering around different parts of town. We visited Chinatown, Little India and the Muslim quarter, Kampong Cham which were all beautiful but notably more...well, how to describe this? They were just more Singaporean than other Chinatown's or Little India's that we'd previously seen. Everything just seemed like it had been more thought out; food stalls still sold cheap and local delicacies but the seating was under-cover (no more crouching on the curb or hiding under shop awnings) and there were staff who cleared the tables, fans were positioned to keep diners cool, one drink stand served drinks to all diners regardless of where they bought their food or sat. It was just so un-Indian.
Mosques and temples were beautifully maintained, sculptures gleamed on street corners where graffiti or drunks may have gathered, locals strolled past in designer sunglasses and sparkling flip flops. And every time you looked up you saw the tops of soaring skyscrapers along the horizon; a perfect synergy between old and new, traditional and modern. It was awe-inspiring.

Singapore likes to be the best. It's a country that likes to do things first, or be the biggest, or the newest and so we went to see what a country that is also slightly obsessed with cleanliness (eating or drinking on the rail system incurs a $5000 fine) would do with a load of exotic animals. And the results were incredible. Singapore Zoo is simply the most wonderfully designed space; animals are kept in enclosures - not cages - and regular token feedings and shows meant that we could easily see almost all of the animals up close and personal. There are reams and reams of photos that you can browse through here - but here's us hanging out with some parrots to get you started...

We literally spent all day at the Zoo. We could have stayed on longer to do the Night Safari (another new edition to Singapore's bulging entertainment offerings) but we were meeting up with a old school friend of Sarah's who lives here. We met Rosemary at her beautiful apartment near China Town and headed out for dinner with a few of her housemates in the CBD where a road is blocked off each night and hawker stalls serve every conceivable type of food and drink to groups of smartly dressed colleagues, families and incredibly stylish teenagers. It was a fantastic evening.

But that was unfortunately Sarah's last night with us and early the next morning we bid a sleepy and sad farewell to her. Sarah's Singaporean adventure was over but, it seems, ours had only really just began.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Day 210-212: Penang, sunshine and rain

And so your motley crew of mostly-MDT's rolled out of the faux-English country side and onto some Island living. Specifically Penang Island, which lies just off the north-west coast of Malaysia and is easily accessible by a beautiful bridge from the mainland (does this diminish it's status as an island? discuss.)

Penang is very different from the Cameron Highlands in a number of ways but the first one that hit us was the heat; below the benefits of altitude we spend out days running from shop awning to shop awning almost melting into the pavement under the sun. It was great.

It's also much busier and it was a pleasure to explore the bustling pockets of the community. As with many other Asian towns and cities that we have visited, areas were here loosely sorted by origin and income; there was Little India (with all the culinary delights that you might imagine and more), China Town (billowing incense sticks, red lanterns and all), the super-rich (malls the size of villages) and the slightly more skanky (where we were staying.)

There isn't a beach per say - basically all available space has been used in the far more profitable business of building giant ports, which was a bit of a shame but a wander down the tiny strip of rocky coast to see locals fishing was well worth it.

We spent our days trying to stay cool and the nights trying to stay dry and as the rains came down we decided where our adventure would take us next, and it was a little further afield than even we had initially expected...

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Day 203-209: Sarah in Malaysia

Some people would have been forgiven for thinking that two people who packed their backpacks and said goodbye for a year didn't want to see their nearest and dearest for a good while. Well, if the wonderful liaison with friends wasn't enough to dispel these rumours, Team 365 is way overexcited to announce the arrival of Sarah, my best friend and big sis.

We spent our first days together exploring Kuala Lumpur, a city that is as beautiful and modern in parts as it is derelict and crowded in others. We were staying in China Town, where the largest and cheapest vegetarian buffet (look! it goes further than the camera can see!) kept us going between wanders through the park, ventures into Bangkok-style huge malls and speeding around town on the 'Rapid KL' sky-train (more transport geeking. Apologies.)

But Sarah had come from the big smoke and the weather hadn't really improved too much since our 'Samui days so we headed to, well, yes, a rain forest actually. But not just any old rainforest! A very old rain forest - 130 million years old to be precise. Taman Negara, which we travelled to by bus and a stunning 3-hour boat ride, has remained unchanged by ice ages or tectonic activity and we were going to trek through night.

It was only a short night trek that we did but it was brilliant; by torchlight we saw snakes, huge spiders (pictured), moths and even 'fished' for scorpions which basically involves enticing them out of trees just long enough to blind them with a thousand camera flashes before they return to the safety of darkness.

We also undertook some less scary but definitely more strenuous walks, which lead us to some beautiful vistas and some murky waters. It was brilliant, but with the only 2 weeks to spend in Malaysia with Sarah we were keen to head on.

And onwards we headed to where strawberries, scones and tea are the order of the day, the weather was cool and the hills rolled in glorious shades of green; no, not England. I am writing from the Cameron Highlands (not to be mistaken for the Cameroon Islands...Sarah)

Here we have been happy to indulge in some cream teas (who needs Wimbledon to be on? So good!) and a great tour of a local tea plantation, strawberry farm, honey farm and a butterfly farm that also offered the opportunity to get close to some over-sized and very well camouflaged insects.
It has been so good having Sarah with us and, scarily, we are already half way through her holiday - but rest assured that there is plenty more fun to be had and we'll be telling you all about it.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Food for Thought

Thailand is probably the country on our itinerary that is most famed for its delicious local cuisine - and it did not disappoint at all. We fell in love with sizzling curries, spicy soups and salads that sound like they are made of fruit. But best of all, with plenty to try and not that much to spend on the experimenting, there was also always a cheap place to get a good Thai meal - almost any day of the day or night. Long live the man with the tiny cooking station attached as a side-car to his motorbike! Anyway, here's our pick of Thailands finest bites.

Rob's Menu

Stir-fry beef (Pai)
One whole potato swirled on a stick (pictured...but how do they do it? - Chiang Mai)
Pineapple fried rice (J'Nee, Koh Tao)
Pad Thai (Koh San Road, Bangkok)
Massaman Curry % Papaya Salad (Mr Phu's, Koh Samui)
Mince pies & custard (massive thanks to Miri, Will & G-unit for
bringing an end to 6-months of cravings)
Jagermeister & Coke (also thanks to W, M & G)

Kat's Menu
Vegatble & Noodle Soup (J'Nee's, Koh Tao)
Samosa (Mr Samosa, Koh Tao)
Penang Curry with brown rice (Pai)
Free salted peanuts served by ladyboys in 'Miss World' outfits
(Mui Thai Fighting, Chiang Mai)
Suki Yaki Soup and Massaman Curry (Mr Phu's, Koh Samui)
Mango Sticky Rice (Cooking Course, Chiang Mai)
Twice as much Sangsom whiskey as was necessary & coke
(thanks Spooner & Rob, Pai)

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Day 193-200: Friends reunited

This was a week we were very excited a relatively last minute decision and at great Koh Samui vs. Koh Phi Phi debate two of Team 365's very best friends were coming to visit.

Eventually, after much staring at every passing taxi, Miri and Will arrived at our hostel in Koh Samui, a larger island south of Koh Tao. It was amazing to see them; after 6 months of only Skyping when Will was meant to be working, to actually be with them in person was incredible. There were hugs all round before we were told they'd brought us a gift and then Gunit (uni housemate, best friend and favourite favourite) stepped out from behind the waiting cab. Safe to say this trumped the pathetic pack of sweets that had "lets party" written on them which we had bought for the occasion.

Once we had recovered from the surprise (we still haven't really recovered from the joy) of all being together again we got down to the serious business of catching up. I shan't bore you with the details but I must say a massive thank you to those that sent cards, letters, gifts & teabags - I promise to reply soon.

Samui is a much bigger island than Koh Tao and so we were able to move from district-to-district and thus recreate the notion of travelling without having to waste precious days actually getting to another island/province. First we were in Chaweng, which was scarily touristy in parts but offered the best beach and (little did we know), weather-wise, also our best beaching opportunity.

Then the party moved onto Bo Phut, in the north of the island, which was lovely. The waves that we had frolicked in at Chaweng Beach now completely consumed the sand at Bo Phut so we hired motorbikes and after a few false starts (Team 365's first flat tyre!) we explored the whole of the island finding cool waterfalls, crowded markets and plenty of opportunities to try the local cuisine.

Finally we changed location again to Lamai; when we arrived it was raining and it basically proceeded to do so for the entirety of our intended 2 day stay and the unintentional 3rd day that we remained slightly marooned on the island.

We passed our days without electricity or water, which quickly changed from romantic to inconvenient, without knowledge of the full extent of the flooding in Thailand, eating lots and playing cards by candle light. Then we found that all the ferry's (Rob and I were booked to travel to Malaysia) had been canceled and flights (Will Miri & Gunit intended to fly to Bangkok) were not leaving either. In fact, W M & G had to go all the way through flooded roads to Samui airport to buy a ticket for the following day...we didn't mind; the rains had just bought us another evening with three of our favourite people.

Finally we did depart on our separate paths; W M & G made it to Bangkok (we hope) and we booked a flight to Kuala Lumpur (we didn't see them at the airport so we guess they made it.) Despite the slightly shoddy weather and the absolute lack of tanning (especially disappointing for Miri) we had a marvelous time. After 6 months away it's amazing that when your with such good friends it can really feel like no time at all; it was so good to see you guys, love love xx

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Day 182: Half way!

Another wonderful thing that happened in Koh Tao that I reckon deserves the prestige (?) of a blogpost is that Team 365 made it half way to the ultimate aim of 365 days away on this incredible trip! So we took a break from diving to surface for a quick cocktail.

It really has been the best six months of our lives and even more excitedly - there's still six more glorious months to come.

So thank you to everyone for sticking with us thus far. Lots of love, 365 xx

Monday, 1 November 2010

Day 186-191: Underwater adventures

From the buzz of Bangkok we departed to tiny Koh Tao; covering about 20 square km it's famous for being one of the best - and cheapest - places to dive in the world. And that is exactly what we were there to do.

As proud holders of the PADI Open Water certificate, the first level of diving qualification, all we needed to do was get a refresher course to swim with the fishes but we weren't going to settle for that. Instead we opted for the next level; the Advanced Open Water certificate which meant five dives over two days including a deep dive (30m below sea level, baby!) and a night dive (here we are wetsuited and overexcited after the dive, below) as well as necessary navigation, buoyancy and fish identification skills.

We lived and dived with Coral Grand; a company that had not only an awesome team of divers but a beautiful pool (pictured) to learn in and a spectacular beach-side location.

The island itself is lovely; small enough to bike around in about half an hour, on the rare occassions that we were not diving, we explored the islands other beaches and snorkelling hot-spots.

But to the diving! Which was just incredible. We were so lucky to enjoy 6 days of clear blue skies and, most of the time, excellent visibility. We swam with beautifully bright fishes of all shapes and sizes and really got into trying to identify them and learn the hilariously-literal hand signs that are used to communicate under water e.g. angel fish = circle a finger above one's head like a halo, pipe fish = play an invisible pipe. All good fun.
We saw stingrays, hermit crabs and coral of every shape and size that you could imagine and more that you couldn't.
We also - most importantly - SWAM WITH A TURTLE; literally my dream experience. The gorgeous hawksbill turle was happy to swim with us near for a good 15 minutes, it was magical.

All in all we extended our five-dive stay by three extra days and 4 extra dives; we literally couldn't tear ourselves away and with every dive that passed Rob and I became more and more sure that diving is going to feature heavily not only in this trip, but in the future in general.

The next step in the dive-certification ladder is to become a Dive Master, and after hanging out with the guys at Coral Grand (thanks again Joe, Dave, Phillis, Nad & Co) it's become #1 on our ever-extending To Do list.

Koh Tao; we'll see you again soon.