A Travellerspoint blog

It's not grim up north

semi-overcast 17 °C

What a difference a few days make. In Rajasthan and Punjab you could have fried an egg on a street cows back (maybe slightly religiously offensive), whereas in Kashmir I was surrounded by snow capped mountains with the temperature at a bone chilling 17 degrees. I'd not been this cool since sitting in front of the open mini bar in a Vietnamese hotel in an effort to cool off!

I arrived to the town of Srinagar in Kashmir to be greated by what seemed like half of the Indian army (they are a bit on edge in these parts owing to the proximity to their mates over in Pakistan) but more importantly a bloke holding a sign with my name, surprisingly spelt correctly, who was to take me to a houseboat I'd booked onto. Think a combination of Waterworld (the terrible film), Venice and being in India and that goes some way to describing lake Dal in Srinagar where I spent my first day in Kashmir. The lake was packed with houseboats, shops (both on stilts and on boats selling everything from postcards to beer, although a personal favourite has to be the floating kebab shop) and more gondoliers than rush hour at the Rialto bridge. I don't have the best sea/lake legs though so booked myself onto a 4 day trek into the Kashmiri wilderness starting the next day.

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My guide for the trek was India's answer to Bear Gryll's, except this guy didn't have a 5 star hotel to go back to at night, just a cow shed...more on the cow shed shortly. The guy was a one man army, whether it was gathering firewood, setting up camp, helping to make dinner (the other member of the entourage was a personal chef....fancy or what) or rounding up his heard of cows each evening after a days trekking, this guy did it all. The only thing I wasn't convinced by was his knowledge of the local wildlife...whats that bird Mr.Grylls...brown eagle...what are they fishing for...brown trout...what breed of horse is that...brown horse...I see, the Roy Walker catchphrase say what you see method of naming animals, this lot need some colour in their lives. We set up camp in Naranag valley, home to the local gypsy people, not the caravan towing brigade though, these guys were the real deal living in temporary shelters and travelling around with their huge flocks of sheep. I spent the next four days trekking through stunning countryside with Bear and speaking of bears, one evening when the three of us were playing cards (apologies for anyone that visits these parts and is subjected to playing Whist, I taught them and let's just say there may be a Whist equivalent of alcoholics anonymous in Naranag valley soon...they were hooked) he got a phone call saying one of his cows hadn't returned. He sprung into action, leaving the chef and I to play cards....literally until the cows came home. It was only the next morning that Gryllsy said this area was bear infested and they aren't all as friendly as yogi.

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Nice shoes Bear.....photography classes can't have been on the curriculum at Shepherd school.

As well as enjoying the scenery I was also a guest of honour at Bears house....I think he was homesick after a few hours everyday, as we dropped by more than once. The first time I was given the grand tour....one half of the house was for people the other half for the cows, although one of the cows must have forgotten the rules...how many times have you had to ask someone is it normal that a cow is in their living room? I was also 'treated' to a cup of salt tea and some home made chapati as well as the offer of gypsy water, which as long as it wasnt cursed or as salty as his tea I didn't mind. The rural dream however was extinguished when I realised the house was connected to the mains electricity....Bear had been summoned to fix the families one light bulb and also ensure the ability to charge the families barrage of mobile phones, including his state of the art smartphone was not compromised. I did wonder why he spent so much time on the phone though...either he was checking in on the cows or he was negotiating his mini bar bill from the 5 star hotel he used in his last survival series. Either way the families priorities were clear, the guy had no socks and terrible shoes, but at least they could watch youtube and upload their cow milking selfies.

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After the trek I returned to the relative civilisation of the houseboat for a well earned shower and a days recuperation before heading east to Ladakh...proper mountain country and a chance to test my lungs at high altitude. I was booked to travel in a local share taxi to head to the town of Leh, which on a good run was 12 hours away via winding mountain passes with huge drops to the valleys below ( Those with vertigo be warned). When mixed with the Indian driving style...drive as quickly as possible and only overtake when either a) on a blind corner b) when the road is too narrow or c) when a car is coming the other way, this made for an eventful journey....very eventful in my case. A combination of a 5 hour delay for a landslide, India's answer to lewis Hamilton bending the back wheel and subsequent repairs, his replacement driver who drove so slow I thought it was his first time behind the wheel and the car eventually breaking down completely in the middle of nowhere, meant that when the rescue car finally rolled into Leh, the journey had taken 24 hours instead of 12....I need to stop subjecting myself to these endurance events!

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A real highlight of the journey though other than the scenery was the roadside signs designed to focus the drivers attention and remind them that the roads they were driving on were a bit on the dangerous side. Here's my personal favourites in no particular order, courtesy of the Indian border roads organisation...I just wished my driver understood them:

Life is short, road is hard
Go easy on my curves / Be soft on my curves
Driving faster can cause disaster
Safety on road is safe tea at home
A cat has 9 lives but not the one that drives
Drive with care, life has no spare
Three enemies of the road. Liquor, speed and overload - rail must be gutted
After whisky, driving risky
Don't gossip, let him drive
Feel the curves don't hug them
God favours only sane drivers
Faster spells 'disaster' - countdown might have a word on this one...

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Leh aka Tibet in India, where most of the residents are in exile from the disputed state of China, was a completely different world to the lush green surroundings of Kashmir. The land was largely barren and mountainous and was dotted with huge Tibetan monastery's. The high altitude also made walking anywhere feel like trying to run the 100 meters through treacle...best to take things a bit slowly. After negotiating a bit of Indian bureaucracy...a permit is needed to visit anywhere, but for this you needed at least two non-Indians to apply together...I managed to book onto a trip to see a lake deep in the Himalayas near the Chinese border. The next day I left with my group feeling safe that there were no dangerous people as we had our permits and weren't strange solo travelling types. Our progress was halted though, believe it or not, by snow...it appears the UK and India at least have in common an inability to cope with the white stuff. Change of plan...see the lake tomorrow and spend the day instead with the local monks at some monasteries....

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This chap also tugged on my beard, I'd like to think it was for luck but my real guess is he couldn't believe it was real.

The next day we did make it to the lake, another epic journey over mountains and through valleys. I could also see why this road suffers with snow....at over 5,000 metres at its peak it was a bit on the high side. After 4 days in the mountains it was time to head back to Srinagar (a quick word of thanks to a friend of a friend Nirmal who owned a local hotel I stayed next to and made sure I had a full list of things to do and a stomach full of local curry) and although they say the definition of madness is doing the same thing twice and expecting a different result, luckily in my case I proved the men in white coats wrong and made an incident free return trip on the same Leh to Srinagar road. The only hold ups being the various Sheppard's taking their sheep up hill on the road...this lot should enter One man and his dog...they'd clean up.

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Back to the Fawlty towers of house boats for three more days in Kashmir. Where you would ask to have dinner at 7:30 then it appears from a different guy at 6, powercuts happen after a gust of wind, let alone a storm, I had to help push the boats apart so they could be re-braced while half the staff slept and I was woken on a regular basis by the same staff members fishing outside my bedroom and probably arguing over who caught the biggest minnow that week. I also did two final trips out into Kashmir, including one to an Indian ski resort...if their driving is anything to go by skiing here would be a real 'experience'.

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It was time to leave the north and back through Srinagar airport. Home of the guiness world record for the most pat downs and security checks in a single building and where even a walking stick (not mine as a result of all that treking but an old chaps) needs a security tag....I think the Indians have been watching a few too many James bonds...the next stop Caroline's place, for two final days in India to celebrate her birthday Indian style.

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India trip complete it was time to head on to my next destination South Korea, where the North probably is grim in comparison to the South...I'm not falling for that propaganda Kim Jong...

Posted by stuhutchuk 07:56 Archived in India Tagged travel india backpacking kashmir srinagar ladakh leh pangong naranag Comments (0)

Chicken Tikka McSala

sunny 48 °C

It's here in India...Chicken Tikka Masala, and all those years I thought it was an invention by the McIndia restaurants elsewhere in the world. I didn't try it though for two reasons. Firstly, the waiter at the restaurant I saw it in said the fish curry was much better and secondly, I knew if I had it here I would be forever comparing it back at home in a Gordon Ramsey style...some thing's are best left the way you know them!

Back to the trip though and back to Mumbai where I arrived feeling as fresh as ever by train at 4am, decided to walk to my hotel, had to run after being chased by a pack of wild dogs (it was probably just one three legged chap, but when you were as knackered as I was it felt like a pack of wolves) and ended up checking in to the place next door as turning up 4 hours before I was expected at my booked hotel resulted in both the computer and hotel receptionist going into shutdown.

Mumbai felt like what India is trying to become, a real mix of the old and new with its colonial architecture, cosmopolitan feel and get this...no tuk tuks! On paper a great idea, less noise, less traffic, less pollution. In the hot season in India.... terrible, let's just say walking down the street at this time of year here feels more like doing the front crawl...its a bit on the humid side to say the least, and sitting in one of the many replacement non-air conditioned taxis was more like spending time in a sauna... I'm not sure wearing just a pair of speedos in this situation would have gone down too well though! I spent three days in the city seeing the sites, eating the local food despite the locals best efforts...a quick side story on what this country can be like sometimes and why you ideally need patience by the bucket load ....to set the scene I had already eaten at this restaurant about 5 hours earlier and spoke to the same people:

Me: Hello, I'm back can I eat again
Restaurateur: The winning blank look in an international blankest look competition
Me: I'd like some food, is there a table
Restaurateur: Still as blank as an empty sheet of paper
Me: Ermmmm
Restaurateur: Sir, we do have beer yes
Me: Ermm good, but I'd like dinner
Restaurateur: Ah food, come on in.

and last but far from least, watching an IPL cricket match...no train delay was going to stop me this time, surely the game hadn't sold out!

It had....I tried everything, buying the ticket online, going to the ground, going to a separate ticket office, playing the 'I've come all this way for the sole purpose of seeing this game' card but in the end it was luck, and possibly pity that a local heard this unkempt and increasingly agitated and as a result sweaty tourist saying that he couldn't get a ticket and offered him a spare! I could have kissed the guy if I didn't think it would have scared him off so instead I paid him for the ticket, promised to see him later and took a quick snap just to show how happy I was!

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What a game and what an atmosphere! (Despite the small child next to me who must have eaten a life times supply of blue smarties before the game... hyperactive would be an understatement) The view I had was first class and Mumbai ran out winners against their arch rivals the Chennai super kings. Love cricket or loath it, seeing a game in India is a must do experience and in this case was a great way to cap off visiting Mumbai.

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The next morning I left Mumbai, dreams of Bollywood fame and fortune on ice (the talent scouts must have been on holiday), to head north into the deserts of Rajasthan. If I thought it was hot here, I was in for a rude awakening. Another train journey awaited but this time by the relative luxury of first class....I was soon to find out though that all this meant was you slept in a lockable cabin rather than in the open carriage, no one really wants to talk to you as they are far too important being first class passengers and all that, the tea sellers tend to leave you alone.....and its absolutely freezing! It would appear that the higher class you are, the colder it gets. I'm more than happy to 'slum' it if it means I don't have to go to hospital after a train journey for frostbite. I thought we were going to have to light the wealthy chap who I was sharing withs wad of rupees to make a fire for warmth.

This train experience heightened the feeling of walking into a blast furnace on arrival to Jodhpur in Rajasthan, a barmy 45 degrees centigrade. I only had the day in Jodhpur, which is also known as the blue city due to the colour of most of the buildings...Dulux must have had a great deal on peacock blue back when this lot were in decorating mode. I spent the day at the fort that looms over the city, with a Canadian guy Arthur and his Taiwanese sidekick who reduced his homesickness at lunch time by ordering pizza, ice cream and chow mein...not a bad selection for an Indian restaurant on the edges of the desert. Arthur and I kept it local and on the recommendation of the chef/owner/only member of staff went for a local delicacy...desert pickle. I'll be polite and say it wasn't very nice...it had pickle and it had the desert, who doesn't like a fair bit of grit in their meal. At least the Taiwanese guy was happy with his pizza/naan bread with some cheese and tomato on top. The city itself was excellent, a maze of market lined streets with plenty of character, but no time to dwell, I had a train to catch... Canadian friend in tow...the destination Jaisalmer, the desert city of India in the middle of a heatwave....

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We borded the train that evening and were greeted by the unusual sight of empty seats everywhere...such a sight wouldn't cause much concern where they are used to it, like a Mansfield Town home game, but this is India, home of the sold out train. To make matters more confusing the staff then proceeded to close all of the windows except where we were sat. This cued me to say 'this lot must be mad, we'll roast in here'...having checked this was the right train (about 10 times with various clipboard holding people) we managed to doze off only to wake up and realise why those windows should have been shut.....dust and sand everywhere, the beds, our bags, even in my beard. It would appear only the tourists are mad enough to visit at this time of year!

We arrived into Jaisalmer, and having shook the dust off and had the standard late night tuk tuk 'debate' when he changed the price on arrival at the hotel, were welcomed by our host Aladdin. Unfortunately though he informed us that there was no air conditioning and unfortunately this Aladdin wasn't accompanied by a genie in a bottle....the main wish being could you turn the Indian thermostat down a notch or two, followed closely by a request for some Marmite on toast (its been 4 months, the withdrawal symptoms are kicking in!). Jaisalmer was like a scene from a film, it had another worldly feel with its desert setting. At 48 degrees though this place was too hot to just sit around and slowly boil, so we took the 'sensible' option and booked a 2 day camel safari...with a choice of two recommended agencies, trotters or sahara we plumped for the latter - I didn't fancy a Dell Boy and Rodney esque experience in these conditions, let alone surviving on peckham spring water for 2 days, plus the sahara place was owned by this chap...

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More impressions time...this time Lawrence of Rajasthan, as we headed by camel deep into the desert. My cover only broken each time I opened my mouth to exclaim in a good old midland accent that it was a bit on the warm side and these camels aren't as comfortable as they look. We spent the night in the desert, and aside from the odd wild dog fight and a sandstorm at 2am slept reasonably well for two westerners in the desert. The rest of the day was spent back at Aladdin's place, before a night train for me to Amritsar (via Delhi) and Arthur back to Jodhpur.

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Just like in Germany they say you can set your watch by the trains in India...well the year part at least.

I arrived to Amritsar surprisingly on time and headed straight to what would turn out to be one of the best hostels I've ever stayed at. I booked myself onto tours to see the main two sights in this part of the Punjab, the Wagah border with Pakistan and the blingest of all the temples....the golden temple. First up the border, via an excellent meal at a local restaurant where I successfully told one of the others in the group what to order to avoid the spice, only for her to take one mouthful and head straight for the water bottle...oops! The border played host to a daily closing ritual, involving lots of patriotic shouting, marching where freakishly tall soldiers attempted to kick their legs higher than their cross border rivals and finally a bizarre lung capacity competition where with a single breath the winner was the person who could make the longest noise. All this was played out to a stadium of people on both sides, no Simon Cowell style judging required, although putting him in the middle of this lot might have made for some good entertainment!

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The following day it was on to the next reason for heading to Amritsar, the golden temple. Made of enough precious metal to bail out a small European country (I'm guessing the guards here are to keep those pesky Greeks out), the temple was a sureal sight. I spent a few hours wandering around the complex, watching the locals go for a spirit clensing dip and also taking in the atmosphere of one of the daily prayer rituals. My stomach though was getting impatient and on leaving one of the great temples of the east, that well known temple of the west led the way...

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It was time at last to escape the heat and head even further north into the Himalayan foot hills...Next stop Kashmir.... The first time for me in this area and the first time I've been asked on a plane where I am flying too....not the brightest bunch maybe, but if its 20 degrees cooler I'll be a relieved man!

Posted by stuhutchuk 03:52 Archived in India Tagged trains travel india mumbai backpacking jodhpur jaisalmer amritsar rajhastan punjab wagah Comments (1)

Marmite India

semi-overcast 38 °C

This was my fourth visit to India, a definite Marmite country as discussed with fellow travellers, and much like the spreadable black gold I love this place. There is never a dull moment here, whether its the amazing scenery, great food (it just isn't the same back home) or the millions of people going about their day to day routine, this place packs a real punch (no boxing puns this time, this is the land of Gods own sport, Cricket)

My first port of call following a late arrival from Kuala Lumpur, was my friend Carolines place in the city of Visakhapatnum, or Vizag for short to help make it a bit more pronounceable. I didn't have long here though as I'd arranged a whistle stop tour of the middle of the country to catch up with old friends and see some new places before heading further north.

You can't beat a good train trip as a way to see a country, and this is especially true of India. So with that in mind I'd booked myself on a train the next morning to Hyderabad with the hope of seeing an IPL game (Indias take on t20 cricket...basically 3 hours of music, cheer leaders and raucous crowds, where the cricket is a side act). I had forgotten two key things though about Indian trains...this lot have never heard of windolene, let alone that classic tune 'when I'm cleaning windows'....so its pot luck if your views are a bit on the smeary side but more importantly never bank on them being on time.... and true to form having been sat at a German sounding station, Guntur junction (not a bratwurst to be seen) we rolled into Hyderabad not with 2 hours to spare before the cricket as scheduled, but just as the players would have been enjoying some post match Kingfisher beers in the bar.

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The next day also reminded me that you should never be surprised by anything in this place. If it's going to happen it will happen here. Within less than 12 hours of arriving in Hyderabad I was driven around on a scooter at 2am to chose from a selection of hotels/hovels, hired a tour driver who I then had to argue with to take me to any sights rather than just straight to the airport (he was checking his watch nervously from 6 hours before I had to be there, up until dropping me off 1 hour too early - I didn't have the fight in me any more), was in more pictures with locals than I can remember ( including one family in particular who had about 10 group shots including one where they wheeled grandma out, then insisted I eat lunch with them while filming it) and finally I had to pay the driver an extra 100 Rupees to cover a bribe to a policeman for parking in the wrong place. Pause to catch breath and proceed to Bangalore to meet up with some old work friends.

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First up I need to thank my hosts in Bangalore...Krishna, Shiva and Ram. I had two days of catching up, watching cricket on the tv, being whisked around town on the back of bikes and enjoying a proper Indian take away....not a korma or tikka masala in sight! The whistlestop tour though continued and after the two days I headed back to the coast and back to Vizag, to see more friends and have a few days by the sea before heading in land.

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Back to Carolines place, who has been working out here for the last 14 months...always good to see a familiar face, although with my ever increasing facial hair and travel hardened look I'm not sure how familiar I look any more! I also visited another friend Kalyan, who gave me a tour of the local sites...the place felt like the Matlock Bath of India with its cable cars (Heights of Abraham) promenade (River side walk), Hindu ruins (Riber castle) and ice cream parlours (Smiths ice cream van, where once upon a time worked a fresh faced youth, me, dreaming of eating ice cream in India and the day those local chavs will stop rocking the van). I was also treated to a home cooked meal, cheers Kalyans mum, and a tour later that day of his dads office.....the work experience feel was to continue the next day as I spent the afternoon at the clothing factory where Caroline worked....I never knew how much effort went into making a pair of pants! It was then Carolines turn for work experience at the local hospital, where she witnessed me getting my back prodded and then x-rayed by the local quack...the conclusion, a pinched muscle, the resolution, take these three hypochondriac-acetamol tablets a day for three days. An entertaining evening at least and a unique picture of Mr. Stvart Hutchings (my Swedish alter ego) spine to add to my travel log. On my last day in Vizag we went to the local zoo, which despite showing the signs of a huge cyclone that hit the year before, was one of the better zoos I had been too...and all for the bargain price of 20pence! I wasn't at all concerned about the 'missing' snakes and alligators following the huge storm... The day was rounded off by going to a hindu wedding party, an excuse for more curry, lots more photos and a chance to wear a new shirt I got as part of my work experience at the factory...I'm sure they wondred who the hillbilly getting a free chapati dinner was. More thanks again to Kalyan and Caroline, I'll leave the thankyous there before this starts sounding like some kind of award acceptance speech....and the winner of the award for complaining about how hot it is all the time goes too....hopefully I'll have aclimitised in time for my return to vizag in a month.

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Time for the next destination, the capital of Bollywood, Mumbai (fingers crossed they are looking for extras in the beardy white guy category)...all that stood in my way, 30 hours of train time...and a family of four asleep on my single bunk, with its all important open window...vital as its pretty toasty here, even in the small hours. Being the reasonable chap I am, I admitted defeat and set up camp in the sauna esq top bunk...no health club membership needed for this luxury spa...and I managed to get some sleep, thanks in large to the kingfisher strong/rocket fuel that was snuck to us at the wedding.

The next morning I finally bagged myself the window seat (the one I had generously given up the night before). All I had to do...let the bloke from the family borrow my bed, he even sweetened the deal by letting me sit next to his increasingly sprawled out wife. The grandstand views of the vast central Indian plains were worth it though, before I headed up the train to one of the AC carriages for the second half of the journey.

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29 hours later the train rolled into Mumbai, my home for the next few days, before heading up North. I'll leave it there for now and if I could play music to the credits of this blog it would be a certain Johnny Cash classic....it burns burns burns....got to love this place!

Posted by stuhutchuk 22:57 Archived in India Tagged travel india train bangalore backpacking hyderabad vizag Comments (0)

Thrilla in Manila

Island hopping Filipino Style

sunny 36 °C

Onto the Philippines and the apparent must see destination in South East Asia....my decision to travel here was based purely on the volume of ear bashing I'd had from countless people I had met! A country of islands, beaches and boxing...a quick note on the boxing:

The place idolises a boxer called Manny Pacquiao and to be fair its warranted as he's pretty decent. To give you an idea of how much they love him a local joked with me, 'When Manny fights even the criminals stop working' (I think there are the statistics to back that up as well). He is also a politician over here, but unlike that other well known politician/boxer combo John Prescott, this chap is loved and unlike Mr Prescott, when this bloke lands a punch you know about it. That egg chucking protester might just have scrambled his eggs instead, rather than wasting them on Prezzas ill fitting suit. To top it off I'd timed my visit with one of his fights!

Back to the country and on arrival I was treated to my best bus experience to date. The music was all classic UK hits from the 80s and 90s and the hawkers on the bus were selling peanuts, pies and boiled eggs. All that was missing was a quiz and a pint of John Smiths - a pub on wheels, you heard it here first. I then met up with a friend called Miko, a local, who drove me around town and we went on to a roof top venue with live music Filipino style, courtesy of a local singer. Unfortunately when I requested scatman, she advised this was beyond her vocal range...at least we got a wonderwall sing along going...shame on us.

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The pub theme continued the next day, as in my search for local food (surprisingly difficult owing to the large western influence and the admission from certain locals that the local food in Manila isn't the best) I ended up in a place called Gilligan's...a very traditional name in the Philippines I hear. My dish of choice, a pork sizzler called Sisig. What I got.....deep fried pork scratchings in sauce with rice. I didn't think pork scratchings could get any more unhealthy....how wrong was I!

I really enjoyed my short time in Manila, the hustle and bustle of a true Asian metropolis, where every inch of land has its use (mainly American fast food joints, malls and the occasional midgit boxing venue). Riding in the jeepneys (converted Jeeps crushed full of locals and decorated in unique styles) was a real highlight, including joining in the conductor routine, where you help pass money back and fourth between punter and driver much to the amusement of some of the locals. Enough of the big city though, it was time to head to the islands for some serious beach time and to recharge those travelling batteries.

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After a short flight, including some mid air entertianment to win a goody bag....'who can name 3 types of beachwear', unfortunately they hadn't heard of a mankini (obviously the British stag do hasn't made it this far yet), I arrived with a newly met French/Mexican compadre to the city of Cebu. We then headed on a ferry to our destination of Bohol, an island some 800km south of Manila. A short ride later in the locals transport of choice a tricycle, basically a motorbike and sidecar covered in a colourful garden shed, we arrived to what would be home for the next few days, Bohol Coco Farm. I was then shown to my room by the Philippines answer to Graham Norton, camp as a field of tents, one of the nicest people I've met to date and with plenty of that all important local knowledge.

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This place really was picture post card, here's me doing my best Robinson Crusoe / pale English bloke on the beach impression on the first day there.

It was also a local holiday when we arrived so we were treated/subjected to some beach side karaoke mixed in with the odd Eminem song...as relaxing as it gets! To top it off it off this wasn't any old holiday but their local 'fiesta' meaning we were invited to a feast of spit roast pig and other local delacacies back at the farm, including some coconut wine which tasted like Scrumpy Jack cider on a bad day! This also meant it was three out of three for the last countries I have visited having their national holidays/celebrations whilst I was in town, all this celebrating is taking its toll...hopefully I won't turn into Bez from the Happy Mondays!

The following day something more active was in order....a day trip by scooter to a place with a name straight out of Willy Wonka, the Chocolate Hills. A group of 5 of us set out, including Mr Norton, with me at the helm of one of the scooters doing my best Bob the builder impression, the only helmet left was a builders hat, to which Miguel Norton said I looked like a miner....at least he didn't opt for member of YMCA. (I should also point out I wasn't first choice to drive, but anyone who is familiar with the inbetweeners and the scene with Jay on the motorbike will understand why I politely refused the offer of being driven by one of my friends, for anyone that isn't familiar basically he turns his bike on and drives straight into the thing in front of him). The Chocolate Hills were a bizarre landscape and not an umpa lumpa in sight, instead what we saw was one of the worlds smallest primates the tarsier, which has an uncanny resemblance to a gremlin. Apparently they are renowned for being suicidal as well....I think I would be too if I had a load of Chinese tourists thrusting iPhones on the end of selfie sticks into my face!

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The following day I continued with my inability to just relax by the sea and booked onto an island hopping trip, where among other activities we chased a pod of dolphins, went to a sand bar in the middle of the sea (unfortunately this wasn't the kind of bar selling cocktails with small umbrellas in them) and also visited an island where you could snorkel with sea turtles. The turtle visit did mean we had to pay an extra 100pesos environmental fee, something I was glad to see being put to good use....the boats all mooring on the coral reef and an army of tourists (largely Chinese in this neck of the woods....watch out world, the red invasion is coming) being allowed to walk all over the reef. See this place while you still can!

The day of the big boxing match then arrived and we piled into a local resort along with droves of the locals to cheer on the main man Manny. Unfortunatly though in this pantomime the villan won, much to the horror of the partisan crowd. The atmosphere was good though, and on a selfish note had Manny won I doubt there would have been a sober driver in the country capable of getting me to the port for my ferry onto Cebu within the hour. Beer on ice I left Coco Farm to head for Palawan, another island and a few more days playing castaway.

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I arrived to Palawan where the scenery was straight out of Jurassic park and the weather straight out of an opening day to the English cricket season.... slightly moist to say the least! The town I had headed to El Nido, turned out to be another travellers mecca. The place felt like it was bursting at the seems and like at the end of an all you can eat buffet, needed an extra notch on its belt to accommodate its contents. The club Vang Vieng tubing crew were also in town (see earlier blog on Laos), however unlike in Vang Vieng there was a lot more on offer to get away from the crowds and unlike in Vang Vieng the power went off regularly here, meaning the likelihood of the bars showing family guy and friends is reduced...who could handle the power going off at that vital moment of friends, that you have already seen 20 times....

My first port of call in town was the Doctors (without going into too much detail, I had a bit of a wound on one of my feet). For the 'bargain' price of 500pesos (roughly £8) he swabbed the cut with disinfectant and put a plaster on it. I also asked him if I should keep it dry to stop infection, to which he answered 'if you don't get it wet, you won't enjoy your vacation' sound advice from the Philippines answer to Dr Nick from the Simpsons. I didn't even get a lolly for being brave when he put some nasty iodine on my cut! Health system tested and potential amputation avoided I opted to put my prior scooter training to good use, and headed out to drive across the north of the island. What an adventure this proved to be, a 7 hour epic across road, gravel, mud and sand. Move over Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boardshorts, this trip had it all....finding an empty beach (probably empty as the field I cut through to get there looked like some cattle rustlers had just cut the fence to get to it) incredible views across to some neighbouring islands, confusing the local population as the only tourist mad enough to drive out that far on a small scooter and finally a BLT sarnie and cup of Yorkshire tea....not a heat induced mirage but a chance lunch stop in the middle of nowhere at a resort run by an English couple. Afternoon tea polished off I powered on to see yet another dramatic sunset. It also hit me that I had spent rather a long time in the sun....fortunately no lobster impersonation followed, but a dose of heatstroke did...cue a day off to recover.

Having rested up from the heatstroke I booked on to a boat tour around some local islands. The scenery of limestone cliffs coming straight out of crystal clear blue waters was unreal. Man was though at it again, doing his best to limit the appeal of the place...the vast majority of the reef destroyed by years of dynamite 'fishing', and by pumping in far too many tourists including the 'red army' from China who were back out in force, this time being dragged around the various reefs as they snorkelled as none of them could swim. The Chinese can train some of the best athletes in the world, but if you're not one of the lucky ones its a life vest and a very patient Filipino tour guide/human life raft for you.

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Island adventure complete, it was time to stop playing Robinson Crusoe and head back to Manila for a final blow out Filipino style. The land of beaches, basketball and boxing has been good, but I'm ready for a change, I don't play the role of beach bum very well...maybe bum though thanks to my friends at Bangkok airport confiscating my beard trimming scissors. Roll on the capital of non stop action...India!

One final note on the Philippines...
It was really nice to come to a country where their national sport wasn't the English Premier League for a change, and I didn't get the associated, 'Your English....Manchester United'. Instead they are obsessed with basketball, although when I asked someone about his Chicago Bulls shirt he gave me a blank look and I'm sure contemplated saying, 'your English....Accrington Stanley'......'who are they....'

Posted by stuhutchuk 12:29 Archived in Philippines Tagged islands travel philippines palawan boxing manila cebu backpacking bohol panglao tarsier chocolatehills Comments (0)

I want to be a Burmese monk...

sunny 38 °C

Why you may ask? Well these guys have got it all....smart phones, motorbikes, free train tickets and a free breakfast every morning courtesy of the locals as part of their morning walk around (unlike in Laos there were no tourists here, and unlike in Laos these monks weren't forced to accept out of date chocolate). OK so its not all supermodels, iPhones and free grub but it seemed a pretty good gig to me...not quite how I pictured a life of religious study and reflection...'Oi Dave, can you stop praying so loudly, I can't hear the latest epsiode of breaking bad I've just downloaded to my tablet'. More on the monks later.....

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So on to Burma, or as the locals have rebranded it, Myanmar. The land of the pagoda and more monks than an episode of Cadfael...my first stop Mandalay, where on arrival it became apparent that the water festival I had left behind in Bangkok was still in full swing. This once again denied me the chance to use my camera...the kids in these places have had years of practice and are a crack shot with a water pistol, and a westerner with a camera is like a red rag to a bull. I also wondered why my drink at dinner seemed to be bottomless, but unlike the more traditional restaurant bottomless cup, where you need to get out of your seat to replenish, I had table top up service courtesy of a local water pistol sniper/future novelty bar owner!

On my first morning in Mandalay a group of us took an early cab to see the sunrise at one of the world's longest wooden bridges and also one of the many pagodas in town.... this one complete with a huge lying down Buddha, he had the right idea, far too hot for site seeing. There was also a legion of iPhone wielding monks on hand....when your not praying you might as well be on candy crush I guess. On my return to the hostel I was then convinced, pretty easily I should add due to the early start and associated sleep deprivation, to join a group and board a truck to hit up the water festival Burmese style. This was a new level of getting soaked, in particular what must have been the local fire department area where they were pumping the local lake onto everyone that passed with their hose pipes...a day off for the 999 service, not a day to fall asleep on your sofa with a ciggarette/your cat to get stuck up a tree. Bangkok had nothing on this place for quantity of water...maybe cleanliness though! Bar two others we were also the only westerners involved with the throng of locals, cue a licence to douse whoever we wanted and still get a huge grin in return...they of course more than returned the soaking and some might have to ask their English teacher to translate 'the little swine just got me right in the crown jewels' in their next lesson! The festival was rounded off at the hostel with some traditional dancing and a 'traditional' game of rice ball chilli roulette....imagine the deer hunter. Your bullets some rice balls, your weapon of choice a spoon and for the loser a red hot chilli centre!

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I must be backpacking.... someone is playing the guitar at 8:30am and butchering wonderwall. This was my last morning at the excellent Yoe Yoe Lay guesthouse in Mandalay, where our host, Mama, fed and watered us (beer rather than the water festival soaking) for two days before waving us off to Bagan. All aboard the first Burmese bus! Drum roll for the road conditions...and who would have thought it, the roads were excellent. A little bumpy, but finished, and they also came with sporadically placed toll booths consisting of two semi conscious guys in sunloungers and a small outstretched peice of wood you could easily drive around, honest bunch these Burmese. The route to Bagan was scenic but showing the first signs of commercialisation.... a new highway under construction, the odd industrial park, the dreaded palm making an appearance, fingers crossed this place stays the way it is for a long as possible, I'm sure this is how the rest of south east Asia felt before the package tours rocked up.

Bagan, home to thousands of pagodas and also E-Bikes. Think your grans mobility scooter crossed with the dakar rally. The group I was now travelling with: an Englishman, a Frenchmen and an Australian (doesn't quite have the same ring to it as the usual home nations trio) hired these for the day and sped out in the pre dawn across road, dirt and sand...I'm sure these bikes were designed for the city. The bike gods though must have been on my side (about time) because unlike my compatriots who suffered flat batteries and tyres, my trip mechanics wise was incident free. The only dramas I had were getting lost and having to navigate what felt like the sahara desert following some debatable directions from a local...probably pay back for not going to her cotton making shop. This place felt like it was from a different planet and I could have stayed longer (hopefully the picture below goes someway to showing that), we had to though leave the next morning on another bus, however unlike in Laos or Cambodia, with these roads that was like waking up for Christmas morning.

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'Christmas' morning came and the bus to Kalaw (the next stop where me and the Frenchman had planned a three day trek) provided a new form of torture for the weary traveller.....the Asian version of the Eurovision Song Contest on TV and in full surround sound. At least the roads were smooth, unlike the voices of most of the entrants! After picking up half of rural Burmas population enroute and the usual Asian bus routine where right before your destination your bus turns into a local taxi service / vegetable/livestock delivery service, we pulled in to the hill station of Kalaw, some welcome relief from the furnace of the lower lands, and headed straight into town to book a trek. Our choice of agency Uncle Sam, no connection to the US government although with a face/pose like this Hilary Clinton best not count her chickens just yet.

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The trek started the next morning, the destination Inle Lake, the distance 58km, the group made up of yours truly, two Slovenians and three French...a distinct Gallic feel. Apparently this is one of the most popular treks around and I could see why. For the next three days we wandered through rural Burma, meeting the locals, taking in the scenery and for me listening on why French food and wine is the best in the world....I dared suggest that British cheese was better, sacrilege! 'Off wiv iz ed' the French cried! On the two nights of the trek we stayed with local families in their homes, a real insight into local life and also a chance to get to know my group even better owing to the cosy sleeping arrangements. I must have looked half Arctic explorer with my sun browned face and icicles hanging from my beard (it was a bit chilly believe it or not) and half Peter Stringfellow with my long tussled locks and new French bossom buddy cuddled up next to me (a chap in case you wondered) .

A special mention to the monks we met on this part of the trip as promised earlier....Chesterfield FC, aka the mighty Spireites, need to get their scouts to the village of Setkya Kone asap. We chanced upon a game of football with skills fit to grace any pitch back in the UK. The Chinese firework research team also need to get themselves out here, as whilst one lot of monks did their best Lionel Messi impressions, the rest were busy demonstrating to us their ability to blow this small part of Burma back into the stone age!

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The final day of the trek complete, we travelled across Inle lake by speedboat. Cue more photos of both picturesque scenes and locals performing everyday tasks, which back at home we wouldn't look twice at, but all of the sudden a man fishing or a woman picking cabbages becomes the must have shot in the Panini sticker book of Asian photos...If anyone has the great wall of China shiny, I'll swap them 5 blokes plowing Vietnamese fields.

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The next morning, aching limbs rested, we boarded our home for the next 30 hours, the non-sleeper (at least they are honest around these parts) to Yangon formally known as Rangoon. I'd been told previously that the train was a bit bouncy as the track wasn't in the best condition....that was an understatement, they should call it the trampoline express and remove the word express while they are at it as the average speed is around 20kmph to make sure the the train stays on the rails! I should also mention the price of the ticket, a bargain at 9400 kyats (9.4 US dollars) made up of the fare 9395.96 kyats and life insurance at 4.04 kyats, beat that price moneysupermarket! The royal wave was also back out in force, with hoards of locals waving at us at the various pitstops the train made, this was made more hazourdous though by the windows being open to the elements, ideal for waving, not so ideal were the low hanging branches/brambles....where are the ground force team with their hedge clippers when you need them! We finally 'bounced' into Yangon the next afternoon and were greeted by a city full of character, old British arcitecture and the biggest temple to date, covered in enough gold to deck out an army of jewellery wearing rappers. The temple seen, it was time to head to the airport. A lay over in Kuala Lumpur and then the Philippines awaits!

One final note on Myyanmar. The people here have the worst teeth I've ever seen, even worse than Vietnam, even worse than Nobby Stiles. They have a habit for eating betel nuts, which are red in colour and among other nasty side effects make you look like a part time vampire...one chap in particular doing his best Dracula impression for me, red marks at both sides of his mouth and looking rather too closely at my 'succulent' neck whilst serving me lunch. No need for any sweet nothings to be whispered into my ear/neck here!

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Posted by stuhutchuk 17:14 Archived in Myanmar Tagged travel train bagan burma mandalay yangon myanmar backpacking kalaw inle Comments (1)

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