Category Archives: solo travel

Living the Life of a Millionaire in Vietnam.

Becoming a millionaire happened instantly, or almost.  No effort involved.  Not even the buying of a lottery ticket.  How we all have mused about how we would spend these millions if we ever were to win the big draw… How our family and friends would bask in our generosity, charities of our choice would prosper,  just keeping enough for ourselves to see us through the rest of our days in reasonable comfort and luxury… Working would just be a pastime to stave off the boredom, no longer a necessity of life.

I was finally elevated to the Millionaire Club at an airport, Hanoi airport to be precise.  Having slipped out of China like a thief in the night, pockets and bags stuffed with the proceeds of several  months of relatively hard graft, Chinese renminbe (RMB for short ) would not get me very far on these new shores.  It was a neat little stash, admittedly rather decimated by my summer travel exploits, but when stacked up in one pile, it looked quite impressive…  It certainly helped that the highest denomination of a Chinese banknote is merely 100 RMB, roughly the equivalent of a tenner in the UK, so it takes a fair few notes to make a decent amount.

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As Chinese middle class citizens have taken to tourism and travel like oxygen-starved fish to water,  and Vietnam is literally just across the border, I assumed that a money transfer at the airport would not pose any difficulties.  After the first ‘money exchanger’ shook his head and sighed, ‘No, we don’t deal in RMB,’ I quietly began to rue my rash decision of clearing out my bank accounts in China…  Using my Chinese bankcards to withdraw cash had worked flawlessly in Japan and Malaysia…  Maybe I would have been better off using ATMs in Vietnam to extricate my Chinese money, readily dispensed in local Vietnamese Dong.  Luckily, not all money exchange facilities at the airport were reluctant to take the Chinese banknotes.

With an exchange rate of roughly 3500 VND to 1 RMB, my eyes boggled at the numbers…   (£1  roughly equates to 30,000 VND).  Although I thought it prudent not to exchange all my money – airports are notorious for their unfavourable exchange rates – I lost count of all the noughts on the screen…  Millions, loads of them…  Did I have enough room in my bags and pockets to hide all the notes and keep my cash safe??  But when paper money comes in denominations of half a million, it only takes two notes to make a million.  The stack put in front of me was rather underwhelming.  Was this what millions looked like??  It was in Vietnam….!!

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And then it began to disappear, like water cascading through my fingers.   A taxi ride into town set me back 400,000 VND; a local SIM – one of life’s essentials these days – cost another  few hundred thousand (I can’t remember the exact amount)…  Even before leaving the airport, I had already parted with my first million..  A simple Vietnamese coffee cost 30,000 VND in Hanoi and maybe a bit more for the famed Hanoi Egg Coffee (to die for.. ).  Lunches and dinners, sumptuous Vietnamese cuisine, set me back  another few ten- or hundred-thousands each.  I was fleeced by a fruit stall holder and paid 20,000 VND for 4 rambutan; not that I would have been any the wiser about paying an exorbitant price if it were not for the raised eyebrows of another Vietnamese customer.  Still, with no quick conversion to real and equivalent prices in the UK or China, I just handed out the notes like candy…   After all, this was Hanoi and I was still enjoying my last few days of holiday freedom.

These days I try to get by on a million a week…  I know, it still sounds extravagant, but I live modestly.  Eating out is limited to just a few times each week, but some days the long teaching hours take their toll and sap all our energy and it’s even too much effort to pour boiling water over the ubiquitous instant noodles.   Late night pangs of hunger are often sated with strawberry or mango smoothies in the few establishments in the neighbourhood that remain open after 9.00 pm, when we finally finish work.  And on the warmer evenings, we might just make it to the corner café and indulge in a beer, deliciously cooled and diluted as it is poured over large slabs of ice dunked in our glasses..

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What really makes our spending rocket is extravagant Western food tastes and preferences: colourful vegetables and sumptuous exotic fruits such as apples, potatoes, courgettes and peppers; and cheese and bacon and sausages (of some sort) and yoghurt…  I’m not complaining; it’s worth every penny and at least it’s available…  I could of course venture to the wet market and try my luck haggling over the price of garlic, ginger and even cauliflower, and maybe I will… soon… but for now, I stick with the sterility of the local supermarket.  At least here I know that the prices are the same for all the customers, regardless of the colour of their skin…

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But even millionaires can be penny pinchers.  So it was that on a trip to Da Nang several weeks ago I got totally incensed when the hotel staff overcharged me for my room.  ‘What? That is 5000 VND more than when I made the booking!!’ I argued.  Totally befuddled by too many noughts, it seemed a gross injustice.  It was only when I worked out that 5000 VND amounted to no more than around 16 p (UK £), I felt my cheeks flush…  Did I really make a fuss about 16 p?  In the grand scheme of things, would I even notice 16 p less in my purse???

Someone recently suggested that Vietnam should just simply chop off the last three zeros of its currency.   Not a devaluation, but  1,000,000 VDN would just become 1,000 VND with the same spending power…  No more notes of half a million, just notes of five thousand…  It would definitely reduce the number of millionaires amongst us, but at least our piles of cash would no longer feel like a mountain of Monopoly money…

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Riding the roller-coaster of Christmas.

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The annual dilemma.  How to spend Christmas Day??  If anything, my Christmases have certainly been diverse and eclectic over the last five years..

The first year, we (my kids and I) basked in the LA sunshine, cosseted by the warmth of our extended Indian side of the family.  Fun was the order of the day, laughter de rigueur.  In India I nursed the one and only bout of gastroenteritis I succumbed to in a whole year there.  Really, on Christmas Day??  But it summed up my feelings and luckily I was roused from the comfort of my bed just in time to witness the multi-cultural Christmas parade passing through the main street of the hamlet of Neyyattinkara.  For my third Christmas, I made it back to the UK relishing in a traditional English Christmas with my family.  Christmas crackers, board games and the opulence of too much delicious food.   Last year, the fourth Christmas morning, I lounged in the luxury of white crisp sheets in a plush hotel in Shanghai, before joining the band of singletons in Starbucks…  So what would Vietnam have in store??

Just like China purged religion with landownership and privilege during the Great Cultural Revolution, Uncle Ho* (or those who were of an equal  disposition) banished faith and worship to the periphery of  Vietnamese life whilst reforming the country according to the same communist principles.  The legacy of being the winners of the Vietnam War.  Contrary to widespread belief, there are plenty of Christians in Vietnam.  In actual fact, although the country is predominantly Buddhist, about 7% of its citizens are Catholic and Vietnam has the fifth largest Catholic population in Asia, after the Philippines, India, China and Indonesia.

But celebrating religious festivals is very much a private matter, and as in China, Christmas is definitely not a national holiday.  Schools are open and employees report for work.  Business as usual.    Local supermarkets and small independent shops have cottoned on though, as some Western customs and festivals are slowly gaining in popularity.  In the run up to the big day, vivid rainbows of tinsel and garlands showered the shops; vibrantly coloured baubles, deep-red Christmas stockings and artificial spruces in all shapes, sizes and shades of green festooned their ceilings and doorways.  A token of progress and development, of fitting in with rest of the world.  Vietnam on the cusp of a new and unstoppable revolution.

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Thoroughly modern Vietnamese Father Christmases no longer rely on Rudolph and sleigh for transport, but crisscross town on motorbikes to  deliver presents in broad daylight to those lucky children whose parents can afford to pay for such extravagance.  At the language centre where I work, children feasted on biscuits and crisps whilst being initiated into the secular language associated with the ‘birth of Jesus’ –  Jesus played no part in it.  The closest I came to conveying a Christmas message was showing a Sainsbury advert from a few years back:  Mog’s Christmas Calamity.  At least it was humorous and contained a suitable moral, ‘Christmas is for sharing’…  But whilst the teachers and office staff at my centre indulged in a Christmas Eve dinner hosted by our ‘boss’, the Christian populace of the town gathered in the town’s churches.  Not unnerved by the sight of Santa towering over the entrance, mass was eagerly attended and the churches’ naves rejoiced with exultant Christmas carols.

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Christmas Day itself turned out equally exultant indeed.  In the absence of family, we gelled together as friends.  After a late night – for some lasting into the wee hours – we got up early, very early, long before dawn, and piled into the waiting taxi on our way to Da Nang…  A three hour drive.  Having breakfast on the go, we explored the caves and pagodas of the Marble Mountains and took selfies with the tallest Lady Buddha in Vietnam (Linh Ung Pagoda).

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I cannot honestly say I was riveted by the thought of  a KFC Christmas Dinner, but after several  months of being deprived of proper Western food, it was a real treat…   And it comprised all the essentials of the authentic British festive meal!  What better Christmas Dinner than savouring mouth-watering, succulent popcorn chicken bites, soft chicken meat that I did not need to prise from the bone with my teeth (turkey…) accompanied by crisp, hot French fries (roast potatoes)…   And a choice of chicken gravy and ketchup.  Delectable.  So there were no Brussels sprouts, but who misses those anyway… ?

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Instead of hearty after-dinner walks in the countryside, or slouching on a sofa to watch Christmas specials, we spent our afternoon and evening riding the thrilling rides, rolling the corkscrew roller coasters and circling the giant eye of Asia Park, Da Nang’s amusement park…  And as Christmas was just a normal day for most of Vietnam, there were no queues…  We lost count of the number of times we were shaken, jolted, plunged, catapulted and swung…

A roller coaster Christmas.  Bring it on.

 

*Uncle Ho:  affectionate Vietnamese soubriquet  for  Ho Chi Minh, the driving force behind Vietnam’s struggle against French colonial rule.

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Life in a hammock. I think I could do it.

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Sometimes when I look back through my photographs, I realise I miss the crucial ones.  Usually there is no shortage of sunset and sunrise snaps, or even stunning scenery, but the images that eventually help me to tell a story, I may not have thought relevant at the time.   In the case of my visit to Pulau Dayang Bunting, it was all there, full in the face, but overcome by a sense of shyness, I hesitated to take out my camera to take the shots that could  accompany the story.  The story of have and have-nots, the story of how little we really need to be truly content and happy…

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Shade was waiting for me at the quayside, as arranged.  Wiry and strong, he hoisted my suitcase up the steep and slippery steps on the way to his car.   From the pictures and description of the airbnb I had chosen, I was certainly not expecting to be collected in a luxury car, but Shade clearly lived modestly.  My suitcase comfortably fitted into the car boot, precariously fastened with a piece of string.  Rain was kept at bay by a large sheet of plastic covering  the back windscreen and fresh air pierced the taut tarpaulin stretched over the side passenger window.  But the engine was running fine, and on an island that mostly basks in sunshine,  who needs windows anyway when natural ventilation keeps everyone cool.

On our way to the house, Shade offered to give me a quick tour of the island.  Much smaller than the main island of Langkawi, Dayang Bunting did not take long to explore by car, especially as one side of the island is uninhabited and only accessible by boat, or on foot of course… armed with a machete to hack a path through the jungle.  A pity really, as that part of the island is home to the ‘Lake of the Pregnant Maiden’, a freshwater lake formed after the surface of a large underwater cave crumbled  and the cavity filled up with water.  Unfortunately, attempts to forge a hiking trail through the jungle had long since been abandoned, the thicket too dense and fast growing to turn it into a viable tourist attraction.

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The island itself was divided into two parts, connected by a narrow, seemingly sturdy bridge, but barely wide enough to allow motorbikes or bicycles to get past each other, let alone accommodate the width of a car.  At least this bridge was still intact, because the smaller one that we needed to cross to reach our final destination had recently collapsed and was under repair.  The bridge had been in a dire state for some time, and although all island dwellers had expected its imminent demise, it had not stopped anyone from using the bridge until it finally gave way…  ‘Just so you know,’ Shade clarified, ‘We now have to go through the school grounds…’  as he veered the car onto the school premises, passing through the school gate, skirting the playground and exiting through another gate at the other side, before turning into the last stretch to his home.

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My accommodation was comfortable, clean and with all the  essentials: my own private bathroom, a whirring fan to keep things cool, a TV and ample WiFi access…  plus a spectacular view over the bay.  As the main aim for this part of my holiday was relaxation, I spent plenty of time lounging in the hammock outside watching life at the seashore.  Local fishermen set traps to catch crab; others washed and rinsed their fishing nets after hauling in the early morning yield and the local ferry service was running smoothly, like clockwork.  Every morning, just before sunrise, the village water buffalo lumbered past my chalet, slowly submerging into the cool of the sea, looking for food.

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Intent on not lazing about all the time, I borrowed Shade’s bicycle and ventured to the other side of the island.  Not where the lake was, but just over the hill…  Unfortunately, the bike was not exactly in best shape lacking gears to get me up the hill, and brakes to make it safely down again.  I pushed the bike along on foot, not wanting to risk life and limb.  ‘Take the motorbike,’ Shade had recommended, but with vivid and recent memories of e-bike rides in China, I much preferred to give the bicycle a go.  Shade looked sheepishly on my return, and agreed that maybe the bike desperately needed a decent overhaul before he would lend it to another visitor…  ‘Although,’ he added, ‘most of the guests happily use the motorbikes..’

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Walking seemed to be the best way for me to check out the island and I do enjoy hiking.  But even this exploit came to an abrupt end when a well-intending local insisted on giving me a lift home on her motorbike…  So much for my endeavour to get in some exercise.  As we approached the entrance of Shade’s home, she stopped abruptly, motioning being frightened by the dogs which freely roamed the premises…  Malaysia being a predominantly Muslim country mostly adheres to Muslim rules and dogs are a big no-no.   Shade had needed a special dispensation from the local imam to be allowed his dogs.  ‘Well,’ he had argued, ‘living at the end of the road, the dogs are here to protect my home and property…’

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His Airbnb accommodation consisted of a few beach-fronted huts, a spacious indoor dining  room for entertaining guests, and a romantic, secluded area for al fresco meals by candlelight.  In his younger years, Shade had been a chef in a renowned hotel but had since made playing host to foreign and local patrons his purpose in life, leaving the cooking and kitchen duties to his wife.  Whilst his father scoffed at the way Shade lived, ‘Look at your brothers in Kuala Lumpur…  One a pilot, the other a flight attendant.  They lead a comfortable life…’, Shade relished in greeting his English speaking guests in an accent polished to British perfection.   His father had been employed by the British military when Malaysia was still under British rule, so mastery of English had been a must in the household, and something Shade took great pride in.  Visitors from far flung places, as well as Malaysian tourists, have become regulars at his airbnb, and rather than quenching his thirst for knowledge by travelling himself, Shade’s international guests and neighbours are his window to the world.

Would I recommend the airbnb on Dayang Bunting for a break?  Definitely!!  The food was sumptuous, the hospitality unrivalled, the relaxation real.  So much more Malaysia than the touristy stretch of Langkawi.

Life in a hammock, simple and uncomplicated.  Quite tempting.  I think I could do it, one day …  just not yet…

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In the wake of Typhoon Damrey.

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The sun was out this morning, hesitantly, briefly, still having to battle with persistent clouds…  Flood waters are receding and the tiny vegetable patches across the road are breathing again.  The mountains are  visible in the distance, wisps of cloud dressing their flanks.  It is three days after Damrey first made landfall in Southern Vietnam.  The unrelenting downpour of the last few days has fizzled out, yesterday a mere drizzle, heavy rains only rearing up their ugly heads once in a while…  Schools are still closed, the government is not taking any chances.  But we are a private school where profits have been hit hard by cancelled lessons.  Maybe today we will have our normal schedules again…

Strengthening to the equivalent of a Category 2 hurricane before reaching land, typhoon Damrey wreaked havoc and brought destruction to the Southern province of Khanh Hoa, and much of Southern and central Vietnam. At least 27 people were killed, 22 missing.  Houses collapsed, trees were uprooted and electricity cables snapped in its wake.  For two days, violent squalls of driving rain trailed ferocious gusts of winds, its effects extending as far North as Da Nang, and the picturesque town of Hoi An, which I visited just two months ago.

Quang Ngai City, where I live, is near the coast, in the centre of the country halfway between Da Nang and Khanh Hoa.  The town was not directly in the typhoon’s path, merely on the periphery and thus was spared the most damaging high winds that pummelled the more southern areas.  A few  sudden early morning gusts, strong enough to rip out a tree in the park, but no major damage to buildings, at least not in the neighbourhood directly surrounding the school where I work.

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But Quang Ngai City is in a low-lying region, hemmed in by the sea on the East and mountains on the West, and there was significant threat of serious flooding from the heavy rains accompanying and following the tropical storm.  And flooding it did.  Not only did the infrastructure struggle to cope with the amount of rainfall in the town, there was also the water flowing down from the mountains adding to the deluge.  Roads became quickly inundated, drain grills clogged with leaves and debris and unable to swallow the flow.   Street cleaners no match to the task…

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Floods are not uncommon in this part of the country so roads have generous kerbs, and houses and shops are built slightly elevated to avoid being swamped.  Luckily,  the waters did not burst into too many houses in Quang Ngai, but the normally bustling street market  was disrupted.  Street vendors moved to higher ground to sell their wares, whilst shop keepers sat forlornly at their shop fronts waiting for customers who stayed away. Only those with a real reason to be out, ventured through the flooded streets, fiercely pedalling their pushbikes, riding motorbikes at speed or slowly to escape stalling or braving the waters in the safety of their four-wheel drives..

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On Saturday, we – the teachers – stayed indoors, relishing in the unexpected day off.  No one had thought about stocking up on food; few of us make it a habit of daily watching the news or the weather, and let’s face it, there was hardly a reference to Typhoon Damrey on BBC World News…  We only learned about the impending storm when on Friday evening an email was sent notifying us there would be no classes on Saturday.  Cause for celebration, rather than shopping…  We played cards, read books, watched movies… a day of relaxation.

With no easing of the rain in sight, and the fridge looking distinctly bare on Sunday, we braved the tempest and walked to the nearby supermarket…  We waded through ankle  –  and in places almost knee – deep water, got drenched by passing motorbikes and emptied the pockets of our raincoats after the trickle and drip of rainwater funnelled in.  The supermarket was open, all but deserted but the shelves were still stocked…  We did not explore the older quarters of town beyond, where flooding was causing more serious problems, as we learned from Facebook posts from our Vietnamese colleagues.  Just getting in some basic staples to see us through the next few days was enough of an adventure.

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Monday saw better weather, a little respite from the savage rains.  After three days of leisure (Friday was my normal day off), it was good to get out and about.  With the roads to the supermarket quite passable, I wandered further, eager to explore different parts of town.  It quickly became clear that other areas of the city had suffered much more serious  flooding than my neighbourhood… But in these places, where insurance for natural disasters is probably unheard of, life has to go back to normal as soon as possible and livings have to be made…

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I went out again this morning, Tuesday.  The flood waters have dissipated, leaving roads damp and cluttered.  Piles of accumulated debris still litter the streets.  But the market is back to normal, maybe a little busier as people need to replenish their food stores.

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A new tree has already been planted and the uprooted tree chopped up and removed.  Workmen on ladders are repairing stretched and broken cables.  The kids are making the most of another day off from school…

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By tomorrow, everything will be back to normal in Quang Ngai, but maybe not in other parts of the country which have been much harder hit…

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Residents are transported by boats through floodwaters in Hoi An after Typhoon Damrey made landfall. Picture: AFP/STRSource:AFP

 

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Just two months ago…

In the touristy town of Hoi An, just 100 km further North, people had to be evacuated by boats from  houses and hotels as flood water cascaded through the town.  The damage there is much more widespread and the effects more long lasting.  We had a lucky escape, it could have been so much worse…

 

Travelling with the locals in Malaysia.

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After a short couple of weeks in China recharging my batteries, I was on my way again in mid August.  Malaysia this time and travelling solo.  After all the rushing around, it was intended to be the relaxing holiday, go-with-the-flow-and-see-what-happens.   A bit of culture in the main cities of Kuala Lumpur and Penang, catching up with some friends followed by a spell on the beaches of Langkawi and Pulau Dayang Bunting.   The perfect way to spend two weeks on my own.

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Hotels can be a little isolating for the lone tourist, so I stayed with friends and relied on airbnb instead to guarantee some human contact and guidance from locals along the way.  Apart from my flight to and from KL and accommodation, I left every bit of detail to the last minute…  I figured there would be trains, buses, ferries and even taxis to take me from A to B, so why worry…   Not having a fixed itinerary meant I could change my plans on a whim and see where sudden impulses would lead me.  It was an interesting and unexpectedly liberating experience…

Of course, not everything went swimmingly, to the contrary.  In Kuala Lumpur I got stranded at a bus stop near the Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM) after hiking on my own along cobra infested trails.  I admit, at the time I wondered about being the only one on the path, but I had not been able to locate the visitors’ centre and assumed that a clearly signposted track would have been safe…  I decided to turn back at the point where the path blended into the jungle and I had to clamber over trees and tree trunks and hoist myself up on ropes…  and a suspicious rustling in the undergrowth warned me of company ahead.   I was not brave enough to find out whether it was friend or foe, and retreated rapidly to the tarmacked road and other signs of civilization.

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In the afternoon, I took no risks and found a guide from the centre before  further exploring the forest and its waterfalls.  Despite an unpleasant encounter with leeches, it was a great way to learn more about the conservation and restoration of a little area of jungle just outside the Malaysian capital.  The guide dropped me off outside the centre, next to a nearby shopping centre.  ‘You will easily find a taxi here,’ he argued, but every taxi driver I approached, shook his head and refused the fare.  ‘Too far,’ they claimed.  ‘I am not going in that direction,’ another one insisted…  I plonked myself down on the bench at the bus stop, not sure how to proceed.  I had yet to work out how to use taxi apps such as Uber and  Grab…  Conversations in broken English with the locals were not very fruitful either.  It then dawned on me that if I were to change my destination to another local touristy spot nearby, Batu Caves, I might be in luck with the taxis, especially as from there I could easily catch the train…

‘No need for a taxi,’ a young man exclaimed, face beaming, ‘You can get the free bus to Batu Caves’.    ‘You mean ‘free’ as in ‘I do not have to pay’????’ I queried…   There is such a thing as a free bus???  As if summoned by magic, the free bus appeared within minutes and the young man immediately boarded to explain to the driver where I wanted to be dropped off.  It was a long journey; the free bus clearly did not take the most direct route but I certainly saw plenty of the not-so-touristy-areas on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur…  Feeling a little nervous, I kept an eye on good old Google Maps  (local SIMs and plenty of data are an absolute must these days…) to help me decide the most optimum point to get off and when I felt Batu Caves was within walking distance, I signalled to the driver that I had arrived at my destination.  I took a quick peek around Batu Caves and found ‘India revisited’ with its Hindu Gods, bright yellow garlands and Southern Indian food on sale: massala dosa and  parotta…  before sauntering to the train station to continue my journey …

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Most of my travel around Malaysia went flawlessly.  Kuala Lumpur itself had an extensive and efficient public transport system consisting of monorails, commuter trains and light rail transit, as well as city buses …. with rules befitting a predominantly Muslim population.  Taxi fares required some prior negotiating, but once I had figured out Uber and Grab, taxis were definitely reasonable.   In Penang, when walking was not an option, they were the best way to get around .  And with fares for internal flights at rock bottom prices, even flying to Langkawi and back was very affordable.

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I only spent a short while on Langkawi itself, opting instead to stay a few days on the quieter, neighbouring island of Pulau Dayang, in a small airbnb establishment, Barkatt Chalets.  After a hectic summer I was looking forward to peace and tranquillity, to lying in a hammock watching the ebb and flow of the sea, to being away from the hustle and bustle of tourist fare and noise.  The island was home to only 200 people, mostly fishermen;  a small hotel attracting mainly Malaysian visitors; and Barkatt Chalets.   Airbnb reviews had been glowing, describing Shade, the owner, and his wife, not only as perfect hosts, but also as perfect cooks.  I would be in for a treat…  if I could get there…

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Access to the island was by ‘local ferry’, a small fleet of speedboats shuttling the islanders back and forth for work or shopping.  ‘Let me know when you get on the boat, I will be there to pick you up,’  Shade had promised me.  ‘Just tell them you are going to Selat Barkatt, they will show you which boat to take.’   Having left the touristy beach stretch of Langkawi in the morning, I arrived at the small ferry terminal by taxi, but decided to first purchase my onward ticket for Penang to use later that week.  A fellow traveller at the Sweet Monkey Backpackel Hostel,  where I spent the previous night,  had had her ferry trip to Langkawi delayed because tickets had sold out.  ‘Better safe than sorry,’ I thought, as one of the shopkeepers in the small terminal offered to look after my suitcase whilst I trudged to the other, bigger building just down the road.    ‘Don’t worry,’ she put my mind at rest, ‘if you miss the early ferry, the next one will be around  2 pm.’

Of course, by the time I returned to collect my suitcase, the local ferry was a mere speck on the horizon.  With just an hour left till the next one was scheduled to leave, I sat down with the shopkeeper for a refreshing cold drink…  ‘No need to wait at the pier,’ she explained. ‘ I have already spoken to the ‘captain’.  He will let me know when everyone is ready to board.’  We whiled away the hour and were joined by the ‘local’ American lesbian who made it everyone’s business to know her business.  With no sign of the captain or life on the jetty, we had another drink and listened to the tales of woe of being an American lesbian at sea and living on a boat.  ‘Don’t worry,’ the shopkeeper kept on reassuring me, ‘the captain is probably waiting for some more people before he wants to leave…’

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It was a sultry afternoon and rainy season in Malaysia..  Outside dark, menacing clouds had gathered  and it did not take long for the rain to start.  A trickle at first, but soon it came bucketing down.  As the conversation with the shopkeeper had all but dried up, I ventured outside to keep an eye on things, just in case a ferry might make it across the water…  I sat patiently, resting my feet on my suitcase, whilst the heavens opened even further.

The advantage of being a solo traveller is the ease with which you strike up random conversations with random strangers.  So it was that I initiated a chat with a British couple who had recently retired to the smaller island, part-time I should add: winters in Malaysia and summers in the UK.  Their presence this summer was merely due to the building works going on at their new house, stilted to keep it safe above rising and receding water levels.  ‘Ah, yes,’ they explained, they had given up on the ferry service, and purchased their own boat…  You could be sitting at the terminal for ages waiting for a ferry to arrive or leave…  Unfortunately, as they were expecting a full load of wood to be delivered, there was no room for me in their boat to take me across…

Eventually, the downpour subsided and the captain gathered his passengers onto his boat…  I sent a message to Shade to alert him that my departure was imminent and it looked as if I would make it to the island at long last…   The ferry was not exactly the lap of luxury, but rather a small motorboat kitted out to take passengers.  We walked down the slippery steps on the quay side and the captain helped with my suitcase, whilst I negotiated the gap between the edge of the jetty and the rim of the boat…  By then I was already quite damp, so I did not care too much that the benches inside had rivulets of water streaming down the back and immediately soaked my clothes.  The tarpaulin stretching over the door was clearly not that effective in keeping out the lashing  rain…

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Shade, being a gentleman of his word, met me at the quay side and hoisted up my far too heavy suitcase…  Maybe for a trip like this, a backpack with just life’s essentials might have been more appropriate…

And if you are wondering whether getting off the island was any easier…  On Friday, Shade dropped me off early, at 8 am, in time for the first ferry of the day, at about 8.30am.  After a three-hour delay, watching more heavy showers before finally the sun came through, we were finally picked up.  At least I only needed to catch a ferry to Penang in the afternoon; the rest of the passengers would be very, very late for work…  No one worried, it was part of daily life.

Was a visit to the island of Dayang Bunting worth the endless waiting on the quayside…??  Next post…

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Kyoto: the mystery world of Shinto and Geishas.

 

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Of course, we didn’t uncover the mysteries of a geisha, nor could we even be entirely sure we saw a real one, but we certainly visited Kyoto, the former imperial capital of Japan which is considered the birthplace of the geisha culture.  The peace of Kyoto, famed for its ancient temples, traditional Roykan  Inns and centuries-old craftmanship, offered a welcome reprieve from the futuristic and hedonistic world of Tokyo.

Although our Airbnb accommodation in Kyoto did not pretend to be a ‘traditional Roykan Inn  complete with own “onsen” facilities’, we stayed in an old-style Japanese house just outside the centre of town.  Built at least a couple of centuries ago in an era when people were much shorter, even M and I had to fold ourselves double to make it through the front door.  Our room was located through a set of sliding doors, just off the main corridor.  As in many Asian countries, shoes were not allowed in in-door areas and slippers were provided at the entrance of our sparsely furnished room: a low table with cushions for sitting, a rack for hanging some garments, a chest of drawers and Japanese style bedding…  There was no need for a bed as the tatami matted floor was both pleasing to the eye and pliable to the touch which made sleeping on the soft ‘futon’ quite comfortable.  I am not sure whether we felt we missed out on the ‘onsen’ experience…  somehow, shared bathing in the buff is best enjoyed with the right company, so we happily made do with a normal, shared bathroom at the other end of the house.

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With only two full days in Kyoto, we had to prioritise and choose which tourist attractions to visit.  Taxis in Japan are on the expensive side, so we opted to  make ample use of public transport and Google Maps to navigate the town.  Suffice it to say that even with the help of Google Maps, it was a time consuming exercise and maybe with hindsight we could have covered more if we had been less stingy.  On the other hand…. with so many Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in the vicinity, almost three months on from my Japanese trip, it has all become a blur of red painted posts festooned with red lanterns and guarded by an army of dogs, foxes and lions..

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Japan has two main religions: Shinto and Buddhism.   Whereas Shinto is regarded as the indigenous religion of the Japanese people and is as old as Japan itself, Buddhism reached the island much later.  It was imported in the sixth century as a gift from the friendly nation of the Korean kingdom of Kudara.   After some initial difficulties and conflicts, Shinto and Buddhism have coexisted fairly harmoniously in Japan and most Japanese consider themselves either Buddhist or Shinto or even both.  In any case, religion is not that important in Japanese daily life and most people only visit temples or shrines to mark special occasions and festivals.

Shinto was, and still remains, a mystery to me.  I was made aware of its very existence and initiated in its vague rules and customs by the Swedish bartender of an Irish Pub, ‘The Man in the Moon’,  in Kyoto.  Escaping from the stifling heat, I needed a drink and when ‘Witte Hoegaarden’ was promoted by an Irish Pub, I could not resist.  As I was the one and only customer that afternoon, the ex-sailor who made Kyoto his home, was only too pleased to fill me in on the details of his adopted new religion.

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Without a founding figure, nor any dogmatic guidelines, Shinto is an ‘optimistic faith’ believing that people are intrinsically good and evil is the work of ‘evil spirits’.  Most traditions and rituals therefore focus on warding off the evil spirits through purification, prayers and offerings to the ‘kami’, or Shinto gods.  Kami are sacred spirits embodied by elements important to life: wind, rain, mountains, trees, rivers and fertility and when people die, they are revered by their relatives as ‘ancestral kami’.    Shinto Kami are mostly shifty beings, flitting from one place to another,  and devotees who need their attention are often seen pulling the bells hanging in front of the shrines to alert the Kami and request their presence so prayers can be heard.   Not all shrines need bells, though.  Some shrines have been built in the midst of a forest, or on a mountain top where kami have taken up permanent residence and are always at hand…    However, one thing all shrines have in common are huge torii, vermillion painted entrance gates that mark the transition from the profane into the sacred.

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Of all the shrines in Kyoto, the most famous and interesting one is the Fushimi Inari Pilgrimage Circuit, the backdrop for some scenes in the film ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’.  Thousands of torii, donated by wealthy individuals and companies,  straddle hiking trails leading into the wooded forest of Mount Inari, which at just 233m above sea level is not exactly a challenge… although it involves a fair amount of steps.  The leafy tree canopies provide plenty of welcome shade and halfway up the mountain, at the Yotsutsuji Intersection, any hiking effort is rewarded with views across the city.  Not many visitors venture past this point, so the last stretch to the top is less crowded with more opportunities for photographs of the many dog or fox statues guarding a multitude of smaller shrines.

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Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples are mysterious places, especially to the uninitiated, and whereas some of the rituals and traditions can be easily understood, others are definitely baffling.  At the main entrance of most Shinto shrines, a stone washbasin is available for purification, and devotees rinse their hands and mouth before approaching the deity.  Sometimes people gather around large incense burners and waft the purifying smoke over the heads.  Inside the grounds, small stalls attract visitors who buy a talisman to bring good luck or keep evil away.  Lucky charms, protective amulets and wooden plaques magically help students pass exams or sick people recover from illness.  And if fortune telling pieces of paper suggest a stretch of bad luck, the paper is tied to special racks where the flutter of the wind and time can disperse its spell.  But the ritual that perplexed us the most was watching devotees crawling through a hole in one such rack…   Had fate dealt them a particularly bad hand and was this best way to dispel the inevitable???  We did not ask…

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Not only does Kyoto boast a lot of shrines and temples, it is also one of the best places to get a glimpse of the mysterious geisha.  And ‘geishas’ we did see.  Plenty of them, only they probably were not real ones, but just tourists who dressed the part for their brief stay in town and wanted to have the pictures to prove it.  At every shrine and on every street corner, we bumped into ‘geishas’, dressed in colourful kimonos fastened with an obi (a large waistband), cameras or phones poised for selfies.  But rather than teetering around in okobos, the impossibly high platform footwear normally worn by maiko or apprentice geisha, they strutted around in normal flip-flops and certainly did not have the usual geisha make-up on.

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‘Your best bet for seeing the real thing,’ another tourist advised us, ‘is to go to the Gion district, around six or eight in the evening.  That’s when the geishas leave their okiyo (houses) to go to work.’  It sounded like good advice, so we checked our map and set off.  The place was crowded.  Not with geishas, but with tourists all eager to spot one.  And everyone was ready to observe the strict ‘don’t-touch-the geisha’ rule.  After all geishas have their jobs to do and are not a tourist attraction.  At the front of one of the houses, an older woman – most likely the kami-san or mother of the geisha house  – stood quietly surveying what was happening outside.

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Eventually, our patience paid off and a single geisha, dressed for work and lips pursed almost disapprovingly, strode across the street, meekly followed by her assistant maiko.  It is possible we encountered other ‘real’ geishas around that time, but without the tell-tale make-up it was impossible to be sure.

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And these ones, taking photographs of each other mid-day??  They may have been real geishas, fully made up and just indulging in a bit of me-time…  They certainly looked too much the part to be tourists in the act of dressing up.  We did not stop to ask, but were grateful to be able to take our own shots of what may have been two real geishas…

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Nightfall cast a mysterious spell over the geisha districts, both Gion and Pontocho.   Hushed lights warmed the brown hues of the wooden panelling along the traditional geisha houses, often punctuated by white and red lanterns.  Restaurants and bars were busy inside, where the A.C. kept everyone cool.  Outside the tourists melted away, leaving the area peaceful and quiet.  Geishas had reached their destinations and entertained their paying guests in the obliqueness of dimly lit rooms, barely noticeable through obscured windows.

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Our closest encounter with a geisha was in a restaurant, Issen  Yoshoku (Kyoto), the one with just a single dish on the menu executed to perfection and its notoriety as the restaurant featuring the boy with his trousers down…  And if that was not enough to entice customers in, there were plenty of geisha mannequins to keep us company, and a plethora of interesting plaques on the wall to keep us amused…

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A place called ‘home’…

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There comes a point when living out of a suitcase takes its toll…  Admittedly, my ‘living out of a suitcase’ may be stretching the truth a little.  I have always had a place to unpack and  call ‘home’.

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In India ‘home’ was the ‘far-too-large-for-one’ ground floor of a huge house nestled amongst the coconut trees.  Did I really need two grand bedrooms with en-suite, two reception rooms and a kitchen large enough to accommodate a handful of staff…  But for all the abundance of space, it lacked suitable, cosy furniture or useful kitchen equipment to make life more comfortable.  The walls remained bare, shelves unadorned.  I made do.  And even then, when at the end of my first year the time came to move location, the floor was scattered with heaps of to-be-abandoned belongings.  India taught me to live frugally, not spend money on unnecessary things because they will not all fit in my suitcase at the end.

During my first year in China, ‘home’ was an apartment on the 10th floor of a modern block of flats: spacious, bright and airy.  More wardrobe space than I could fill!  A kitchen with cupboards, but no equipment… not even something to cook on or in.  I invested in a few bare essentials,  and inherited some along the way.   For a whole year, I managed with one plate, one bowl and four cups – four cups definitely not a luxury as each coffee or tea brew deserves a clean receptacle and life is too short to spend it at the sink doing the washing up….  Not much crockery you think, but still I bought more than most: why dish up food on a plate when you have a bowl or pot …  Dinner parties were strictly ‘bring your own plate and utensils if you do not want to eat with your hands out of the cooking vessel’.. and who needs a glass when you can use a cup or mug??  Does beer not taste better straight from the bottle or can??  I tried to jolly up the place with a few hats and candle holders from Ikea, but the flat never felt like home, just a place for temporary residence… I never intended to stay more than one year.

My second year in China spurred on a change of heart…  maybe there was some merit in making a house into a home, even if I would only be here for a short while.   It didn’t need to cost the earth either and some small purchases could go a long way.  Having moved into a shell of a flat, still being refurbished by a new homeowner/landlord, gave me a little scope: I just might be able to encourage her to add the right comforts and luxuries…  With a little patience, and lots of prodding via my agent, I extracted hot water for the kitchen – definitely not something you should take for granted in a modern Chinese kitchen.  Windows have now been fitted with mosquito screens so I can let in the breeze.  A small electrical heater appeared to fight a losing battle with the damp and cold permeating the flat…  Luckily I have a few months to work on more lasting and effective measures to keep the room temperature up before the start of the cold and damp Chinese winter…

Rather than waiting for the big teacher exodus at the end of June when all things useful and Western can be bought at rock bottom prices from expats parting with China for good, I paired down the essentials of homely living to an oven…  I cannot  profess to ever having been the greatest fan of cauliflower cheese, but there’s something comforting about the version of bubbly cheesy sauce oozing around tender-to-the-bite cauliflower topped with oven-crisped breadcrumbs..  Or proper crunchy pizza; not the floppy, soggy variety reheated in a microwave…  And an oven has the great versatility of toasting bread, baking bread, cakes, and scones; roasting potatoes and decent portions of chicken; grilled asparagus and salmon à la Jamie Oliver…  Living in an affluent city in the shadow of Shanghai means that although not all Western tastes and flavours are catered for, there is access to a reasonable supply of ingredients to ward off the worst of food-homesickness…

When putting nails and tacks in walls is strictly forbidden, lifting the spirits of white and grey surroundings required a bit more inventiveness.  A white, old and smelly cupboard could be transformed into a display cabinet with the help of a borrowed screwdriver to remove doors, and a lick of paint courtesy of B&Q (yes, B&Q!!) around the corner…  I was even able to select my own shade of baby blue, choosing from a colour palette to match Dulux’s own in the UK.  Family snapshots and favourite photographs from my travels printed out at school now smile back at me in cheap and cheerful photo frames from the local Ikea store.  Shawls bought in Thailand last summer add a splash of colour; blankets and cushion covers conceal the dreary brown of the sofa-cum-sofabed… And although I have no intention of stockpiling Chinese mementoes in the coming months, maybe I will just buy a few interesting knick-knacks and spruce up the room with fond memories of the exciting places I visit and friendly people I meet.

At least for the next 8 or 9 months, my apartment will feel a little bit like a home to me…