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Monday, 19 December 2011

Some conclusions from the last 3 months

Because it's my blog and I can    

       Starbucks and McDonalds are everywhere
·         And after a few weeks you’re glad of that fact
·         Actually, the same goes for 7/Eleven
·         The best I’ve had so far is FergBurger
·         The best burger outside of that and Gotts in SF is found at The White Lady in Auckland
·         Rotorua does the best brownie ever
·         Kiwis obviously do the best junk food in the world, certainly they produce enough of it, but somehow none of them are fat. The same cannot be said for Marv and I after 3 weeks there
·         South Park has ruined cuttlefish for me forever
·         Hong Kong smells awesome
·         Kuala Lumpur does not
·         Beer isn’t as expensive in London as we think it is
·         Hangovers are always worse in 95% humidty
·         Every decent country drives on the left hand side of the road
·         Fiji is the most chilled out place in the world
·         Kava is probably 95% responsible for this
·         Never Scuba dive with a Swede having a midlife crisis
·         This goes double if he gets a shark tattooed on his foot shortly after returning to shore
·         Young female Asian tourists will always make the ‘peace’ sign in photos and grin inanely
·         This does not increase my feelings of peace towards them
·         The guy with the SLR camera will always be in your way
·         And you will always be in his
·         All Australia nightclubs use the same mix CD
·         Some hostels are better than hotels
·         You can eat like a king for £10 in all the best cities
·         Always travel New Zealand by bus
·         Price may not guarantee quality where food is concerned, but it usually guarantees good bathrooms
·         It doesn’t matter what the dominant religion is in a country is out here; they all still love Christmas
·         The popularity of the Singapore Sling at Raffles has ruined it. Ordering a Vodka Martini, on the other hand, is a solid choice here
·         I will miss the Satay Club

And finally….

·         I still have no clue what I want to do with my life

Merry Christmas folks!

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Eating myself to death in Hong Kong (and Macau)

Hong Kong may well be the food capital of the world. In one week in this utterly mental, wonderful city I’m pretty sure I’ve piled back on the weight I’ve lost over the last three months. There is food everywhere, on every street corner and every other shop. It is easily the most delicious smelling city that I’ve visited in my time abroad, at every turn there’s something new enticing you with a delightful aroma. And the beauty of it is that it’s almost all so cheap.

The view over the city
My time in Hong Kong itself was spent mostly on the mainland area of Kowloon, home of the vast majority of the 7million people who live in the autonomous administrative area of China that makes up Hong Kong and my guesthouse (on the 8th floor of a tower block you learn quickly that towersare just as much streets as regular ground level here). But on my first full day in the city I took a ride down to Hong Kong island and up to The Peak aboard one of the vintage trams that still run the incredibly steep route to the top of the hill that overlooks the city and offers the best views of the region. Unfortunately, the smog that hangs over much of Hong Kong made any long-distance views impossible. Still, the short-distance was impressive enough.

Hong Kong may well be the only city in the world where you can accidentally go for Michelin starred food and not take a wallet-pounding as a result. I was already aware of Tim Ho Wan (the home of the cheapest starred food in the world) and had set myself the task of heading to his restaurant for breakfast one day. Yet in my quest to find a decent-looking and reasonably priced eatery with, and this became a running theme, a menu I could understand I happened upon Din Tai Fung. I got myself a number for the queue and, as there was only me dining, quickly jumped the hour-long queue. Not before I’d taken a look at the various recommendations outside the restaurant and realised it had the aforementioned recommendation from the tyre people. I can confirm the food was delicious and recommend anyone going to try the Xiao Long Bao dumplings.

Tim Ho Wan's buns
The next morning I made it to Tim Ho Wan’s eatery and realised that the reputation is not only well deserved, but also attracts staggering numbers of people. I arrived 20 minutes before opening and the queue was already to the corner of the street. An hour later I finally made it inside and found out why, the restaurant only seats 30 people at a time. However the wait was more than worth it, his pork buns were everything I’d read they were. So much so that I ended up back there on my final morning in Hong Kong for seconds (and an even longer queue).

Wednesday is free museum entry day in HK and I took full advantage, scouring the excellent Museum of History with its incredible recreations of Hong Kong’s past from prehistoric to modern times (Singapore and Hong Kong both excel in these museums that you’d expect to pay ridiculous sums for in the UK) and the Space Museum, a fun and interactive guide through humanity’s fixation with space.

The Grand Lisboa...feeling queasy!
I couldn’t come to this part of the world without catching a ferry to Macau (and not just for the extra stamp it got me in my passport). Described in my guidebook as a “city searching for identity” it’s an incredible mash of Portuguese architecture, Chinese shops and stalls and a scaled-down version of Las Vegas, complete with Wynn and MGM hotels. The Wynn is even styled to be a smaller replica of the grandiose Wynn/Encore complex in the real Vegas. Macau was an easy city to fall in love with; the ruins of the old Portuguese castle looking out over the city, the proliferation of the ubiquitous custard tarts that every bakery seemed to offer and the chance to gamble all your savings away in the space of 2 sq km. Luckily I had to catch a ferry back to HK or I may still be there in the incredible Grand Lisboa (a structure capable of inducing vertigo just by looking at it).

Hong Kong is easily one of the most enjoyable cities I’ve had the privilege of visiting. Some day I will return, if only to pick up more cheap shirts at the night market and to gorge on Tim Ho Wan’s baked buns again.

Monday, 12 December 2011

The Land of Smiles, Seafood and Cocktails

In an effort to avoid the flooding in Northern Thailand (which I found out weren’t actually that bad about a week too late) I’d made the decision to hit two of the most popular and relaxed islands, Phuket and Koh Samui, to provide a contrast to the cities I’d been spending so much time in.

Kata Mobile Bar
I arrived in Phuket in the middle of a downpour, my very British luck with the weather wouldn’t change much over the next few days, but made it to Kata Beach, my base for the next few days. What followed was a few days of cocktails and de-stressing. Kata and its neighbour Karon are two of the smaller, but no less bustling, holiday destinations on Phuket and there were plenty of bars and restaurants to choose from, some of them without the almost endless supply of hookers that most seemed to offer. My personal favourite had to be the mobile bars encased in VW vans, which mixed some brilliant cocktails on the streets.

Patong Boxing Stadium
Of course what would a trip to Thailand be without taking in some Muay Thai, especially as they had a “special” card put together for the King’s Birthday on 5th December (the Thai people love their king). A short trip to Patong brought me to the Patong Thai Boxing Stadium. This was a full night of fights, involving Thai local fighters, International competitors, women’s boxing and even a child’s bout of two 10-year olds. Typically, the bout involving the 10-year olds delivered the most brutal KO of the night with ‘Rambo’ (for that was the child’s name) delivering a cracking right elbow to his opponent, causing an almost Rashad Evans like reaction.
Bar Tuk Tuk

The second half of the week was spent in Koh Samui, a lot quieter but with no less buzzing a nightlife in the main tourist centre of Chaweng. Having settled in, and found the fantastic Bar Tuk Tuk, I spent the first full day taking a tour of the various sights of Samui Island. These include the “Grandfather” rock, the mummified monk (complete with Ray Bans) and a trip to Naumang Safari Park with its elephant rides and tiger cuddling activities.

Sadly no Enterprise Fries
My inner geek was awakened when I was informed of Captain Kirk’s Seafood restaurant in Chaweng so I took a wander down. The food was good, the ambiance and location very nice but it seems that I was horribly mistaken in my expectation of a theme. Seems like the people of Koh Samui and I have different interpretations of who Captain Kirk is…

Thailand is an amazing country from the glimpse I was able to have (with an uncomfortably high amount of middle aged men hanging out with Thai girls). 9 days is obviously not enough, and I will no doubt be back in the future with Bangkok and the North still to visit. But onwards I need to travel as I enter the final week of my trip and it's time to fulfil a dream I've had for years: Hong Kong.

Friday, 2 December 2011

KL, TR and GT - Malaysia in 10 days

My first experience of Malaysia came 14 months ago with a 4 hour layover at Kuala Lumpur International at stupid-o’clock in the morning. It was not the best introduction to the country and I hoped for much more coming back a year later for a 10-day stint.

The Petronas Towers...big ain't they?
It did not start as planned. It’s a little known fact that there are actually two KL international terminals; there is the big, sleek and modern terminal for 95% of airlines and then there’s the LCCT (Low Cost Carrier Terminal) where the likes of Air Asia, my airline of choice for this trip, is housed. This is essentially a large warehouse with some immigration desks, a barely manned customs line and a mental taxi rank. Apparently a new modern LCCT is due in 2013; it cannot come soon enough.

The view from the hostel
The first 4 nights in Malaysia were spent in Kuala Lumpur. KL suffered from the problem of having to follow Singapore, a city I and quite a few others I met loved. It’s a bigger city, in many ways dirtier (although no dirtier than a lot of Asian cities) than Singapore and with a bit less to do. My time in KL consisted of wandering around photographing the various landmarks, taking my customary trip to the top of the observation tower (the most disappointing of all the observation decks so far- unfortunately the bridge at the Petronas Towers was closed) and spending my nights eating street food and drinking with the incredible view at the rooftop bar at my hostel. I was told that Reggae Mansion was a blessing and a curse as a hostel; it’s got one of the best bars in town and, because of this, you never want to leave it. What they don't mention is that trying to shift a hangover in 95% humidity is almost impossible.
Tanah Rata

Tired of the smoke and sweat of tropical cities, I headed to Tanah Rata in the Cameron Highlands for three nights. Here, and on the bus ride in on the incredible VIP service for RM35, you get to see so much more of rural Malaysia. A solid 10 degrees cooler than KL, Tanah Rata is not much more than a collection of food and tour stands around the main road through the mountains, with some guesthouses scattered around. It’s unusually proud of the local strawberry and tea crops (I could buy a Cornish Cream Tea from no less than 5 otherwise Malay cafes) and had a variety of walks into the mountains. I hit during the rainy season, which read to monsoon conditions every afternoon. This was fine by me, I was normally tired from a morning hiking around the local roads.

Just one of Penanag's 1000 churches
I finished my time in Malaysia in George Town, located in Penang in the North West of the country. It’s much smaller than Kuala Lumpur, in spite of being the second biggest town in Malaysia, and is the Hanoi to KL’s Saigon – much less developed with very few pavements meaning you work your way around amidst the traffic, but retaining the charm that only a city of this size can. It’s also overrun with churches, mosques and all sorts of mid 19th Century buildings to admire as well as the likes of the Red Garden food court, where Christmas classics were blaring out in 25 degree heat as I ate Japanese BBQ. The surreal experiences out here never seem to end,

It’d be amiss of me to not recommend the excellent Penang Museum. Charting the history of George Town from its beginnings as a British settlement and documenting the various races who make up the city, it cost RM1 to get in (£0.20) and passed a diverting hour.  All in all Penang may well be my favourite stop on the Malaysian leg of the journey.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Singapore, Satay and Slings

Singapore strikes you as everything that a modern city should be; it’s clean, it’s efficient and it’s by and large very safe. I landed on a Friday evening and thanks to the MRT (metro) system was at my hostel within 35 minutes. It’s like a mash of cultures; traditional Asia meets the Western ideal of a city.

Singapore is known as a ‘fine city’ with good reason, the following all carry penalties of at least S$100: Spitting, Drinking or eating on the MRT, Chewing gum, Littering, Jaywalking and failing to flush a public toilet. Unfortunately government guidelines do not advise you on the subject of floaters. I can only assume you’re meant to stay with it until the end, although the majority public toilets have a flush that could kill a small animal.

The SCC...and $Billions of real estate
Having spent my first night quickly scooting around Boat Quay and the financial district near my hostel in Chinatown I set off early the next day for a proper wander. And so I spent the first two days in the city; literally wandering from one incredible sight to the next. I took in the views on the Singapore Flyer, the world’s largest observation wheel and with a queuing system that puts the London Eye to shame as you wander through an interactive gallery detailing the building of the wheel. I was also delighted to find that the Start/Finish straight of the F1 track is open for anyone to wander around and took a stroll here. The Botanical Gardens also offered a fantastic free experience, allowing you to wander amongst varied flora and also providing a guide to the evolution of plants in a walk that you'd normally expect to pay for.

The onset of Christmas was never more apparent than wandering around Orchard Road, the Regent Street of Singapore, as there were a dozen huge shopping malls selling Armani, Versace and DKNY all geared towards Christmas blaring out Band Aid and the like whilst I slowly melted in the heat of the midday sun. Christmas shopping in this weather is even worse than in the cold of London.

The elephant show at Singapore Zoo
 Escaping the madness I headed to the Singapore Museum (complete with half-priced entry thanks to my HSBC card) which featured an incredible exhibit on the founding of Singapore told from both historical and personal perspectives. After 2 ½ hours of wandering I felt like I’d barely scratched the surface and that there was so much more to see. A very good use of S$6. Another excellent tourist attraction is the justifiably world-famous Singapore Zoo, where the majority of animals are kept behind moats rather than cages and apes swing from the trees above your head. A day out well spent.

The Satay Club in action
Whilst I was here I felt I had to sample some of the things that have made Singapore famous over the years. Monday night (after an abortive search on the Saturday night) I finally found the Satay Club, a street full of Satay vendors all selling delicious barbecued meats and rich satay sauce. It was absolutely delicious and my dinner cost me £10 in total, including beer (normally found at £7 - £8 a pint!). On Tuesday night I treated myself and headed to Raffles Hotel’s Long Bar, home of the Singapore Sling. The bar itself is very cool, and provides another chance to throw peanuts on the floor, but the fact that the Singapore Slings are mass produced (everyone is drinking them) sort of killed the illusion. Still a very tasty Sling and I followed it up with a well-made Vodka Martini before being utterly fleeced at an American-themed deli in the hotel with a good reputation but prices that made me glad I’d had a stiff drink before I got there!
The Raffles Long Bar

From here I head on to Kuala Lumpur and a 10-day stretch in Malaysia where I’m trying to get from KL to Penang using local transport and every Singaporean has told me to “watch out for your bags”. This can only go well…

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Swimming with reef sharks

The final leg of my Australian trip began as I landed in Cairns at 7:30pm after a 12 hour trip from Surfer’s Paradise. I was here for one thing and one thing only; the Great Barrier Reef and to get some diving done.

Cairns City Centre
Having checked in at my hostel and slept off the journey, I awoke to explore Cairns, which is pretty much the Queenstown of Australia. You can do anything here; Bungee Jump with AJ Hackett (the purveyors of my Auckland Bridge Jump), skydive the beach, head in to the rainforest, white water raft or head out to the reef. All this means that Cairns itself is pretty devoid of anything to keep you entertained during the day, save the fantastic outdoor pool by the seafront. Cairns lacks a proper beach to speak of, so this is your substitute.

My own BCD for the trip
However this was no matter as I was able to fill my time by reading, sunbathing, watching Junior Dos Santos KO Cain Velasquez and generally bumming around until my 6am pick up on Monday to head out to the reef. Booked through Pro Dive Cairns we departed for 2 nights and 11 dives at 3 different reefs around the whole of the Great Barrier. Sufficed to say that diving that many times in such a short period comes with a lot of accompanied exhaustion. All you do on a Pro Dive trip is eat, sleep and dive. But this is what I came to do and it seemed pointless having my freshly minted PADI qualification and coming all the way to North East Australia if I didn’t get as much diving in as I could. After an initial nervous first couple of dives (still coming to terms with the idea of actually being under 18m of water) I hit my stride and was soon neck deep in sharks, stingrays (not this kind) and sea turtles.

There's sharks in there somewhere
One of the many highlights of the trip was taking my first two night dives. The second night dive involved the crew of the ScubaPro II throwing a load of fish food in to excite the fish around the boat. This had the effect of attracting half a dozen fairly large (1.5 – 2m) reef sharks and the dive, as much as it was, consisted of hanging 5m under the boat and watching as they circled around you, eyeing the fish up for a snack. The best times to see the reef it seems is very early in the morning, when there’s a lot of cleaning going on and schools of fish are everywhere, and late at night when the waters are dark and some creepy critters come out. At one of the dive sites we picked up an interested Green Humphead Parrotfish, which hung around the underside of the boat occasionally giving divers a shock whenever it appeared over their shoulder. I couldn’t help but notice the similarity to the Aquahibian Terror Fish (5 minutes Googling well spent).

After 3 days of intensive diving we returned to land for our final dive – into beer. Our final swansong as a dive group was as chaotic and disgraceful as you’d expect from a group who have spent the last 3 days on a boat or at depths. Sufficed to say my last clear memory is of dancing on a table in the Woolshed.

So onward I travel tomorrow; with a 10am flight to Singapore and the next leg of my journey into the unknown world (to me) of South East Asia. 

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Surfer's Paradise in 2 days and with a hangover

Surfer’s Paradise is the kind of place that needs to be seen to be believed. For starters, that any country would have a town named Surfer’s Paradise is slightly strange to me as town names are meant to have deep and ancient meanings (San Diego named after Saint Diego, Dartford named after the fording of the River Darenth, London named after the Belgian town of Nodnol) but as part of a marketing campaign in the 1930s the town changed its name and by gum did it work.

Surfer’s Paradise today is like Blackpool, uprooted and moved to the Gold Coast of Australia and then injected with steroids. It is, as one fellow traveller aptly put it, Skeg-Vegas. Giant  gleaming high-rises overlook miles and miles of golden beaches. Tattooed, muscled surfers are everywhere. Never have I felt less tanned in my entire life…and I used to live 5 minutes’ drive from Essex.

Skypoint City
I arrived at Surfer’s with the intention of chilling out for a couple of days before my long trip up to Cairns. This intention was shattered when I was coerced into going clubbing at 10pm by some of my new room mates. Several beers, jager shots and hours later I crawled into bed at 3am. Quite the set up for my first full day in Surfer’s; spent mostly meandering around the town and continuing my trend of visiting high rise observation deck . Tuesday proved slightly more fruitful with another venture to the top of the Skypoint for my ritual ‘coffee in a high place’ and a trip to the highly recommended Infinity attraction; a sort of funhouse of mirrors and special effects. Estimated ride time: 40 minutes. Actual time for me to get around: more like 20minutes. Sufficed to say this is something it’s probably better to do as a group; not that it’s in any way bad. It was a lot of fun. Just a bit short when done on your own.

Surfer’s Paradise is really geared towards the long-term visitor. In the brief couple of days I was there I got the sense that a week here (complete with an all-access pass to all of the local theme parks) is the definitive getaway for a lot of folks in this area. As it was, I merely spent a relaxing couple of days bumming around and attempting (and on one day succeeding) to drink my hostel bar dry of Tooheys.