23 December, 2009

The Joys of Winter

Unless you've been living under a rock or have cut yourself off from all forms of media, you have probably heard about the big freeze hitting northern Europe at the moment.

So, you have read about all the transport troubles & accidents that have occurred?
Let me tell you my story - a real-life tale of winter...

The story started with a car. Daddy Sin offered to sell me his old car for a really good price. I eagerly accepted the offer - MY FIRST CAR!
Only problems were that a) the car was in France and b) I can't drive (have a licence, but haven't driven since i passed my test 12 years ago...) There was K & his car, but we needed another driver & Joe, our flatmate, very kindly agreed to be the second driver.
Then we discussed the travel plans. We had two options; stay Saturday night chez Parental Sins or do a day-trip on Saturday (about an 8-hour return trip).
We decided to take the second option (which was to be probably the biggest mistake of the day)

Travel plans sorted, we could relax, driver - check, car - check, plan - check!
But then on Friday night it started to snow. And snow. And snow some more. It was the first day that snow had actually stuck in south Stuttgart. Went to bed nervous that we would be snowed in & unable to drive to France.

Saturday morning, i opened the curtains with trepidation. Luckily, there it hadn't snowed much more & there was only about 5cm on the ground & the main road had been cleared.
So, off to the car, K's aged VW Golf. This car has been dying a slow & painful death, but has been soldiering on. Saturday though was too cold & Golf decided that, no, he didn't want to start.
No amount of cajoling could persuade Golf to start - too cold, too tired & too snowy. Personally, I don't blame Golf for not wanting to start. At this point the temperature was -8C.

Luckily, we had the keys for another flatmate's car, so we decided to use that car instead.
And yes, Saab decided that, yes, he would go to France. And so off we set.
But it was cold. And despite being a Swedish car, Saab didn't like the icy spray off the road, which stuck to the windscreen, froze & left frozen sludge & impossible to see through. This meant stopping every few km to pour anti-freeze over it or, once the anti-freeze had run out, cleaning it manually. This resulted in our 4-hour journey taking just over 6 hours.

But we got there. And had a lovely dinner.
Pretty soon after dinner, we left in order to get back to Germany. Daddy Sin did suggest again that we stay the night in France, but we all had decided on our plan to return to Germany. Again, this was a decision that we would regret...

We left my parents place around 8:30, aiming to be back in Stuttgart around 1am.
we set off with no problems & the first couple of hours were uneventful & stress-free. By this time, the roads were pretty empty, so there wasn't any spray to stick to Saab's windscreen. Also, the temperature had dropped to below -10C, so everything was solid.
Motorway was empty, everything was great. Looked like we were going to have a smooth drive home. But NO! Nothing can be that simple.

Daddy Sin had warned us earlier that day that my new car, Renault, had summer diesel in it, which had froze earlier that day. However, he's left Renault running for a few hours to warm everything up & topped the tank up with winter diesel & it seemed to be OK. And yes, Renault WAS fine for the first 3 hours. But then, while Joe was driving, the engine just stopped. We pulled over to the hard shoulder & he tried to start Renault again. No. So Joe & K swapped cars, the logic being that as K is an engineer maybe he would have some magic trick to get the car working.
Meanwhile, Joe took Saab to the nearest exit to stop safely (also, at some point during the day, Saab's indicators decided not to work - not a great idea to be parked on the hard shoulder at night with no hazards)
K tried to get everything going, but to no avail. Renault completely refused to start. By this point the temperature was -18C.
So, we were stuck on the motorway, in the middle of nowhere in France with no power in freezing conditions. Not only that, when had swapped cars, he left his wallet & coat in Saab. Not fun.
Called my dad & he gave me the insurance phone number (thank god for insurance and especially AXA insurance). Called AXA and luckily they had someone who spoke English. He explained, that while they could support us, they couldn't organise a tow-truck on the motorway, as the police are in charge of that. But once we off the motorway, he explained i should call him back & then he could help me out.
So i had to call 112 (the continental Europe emergency number) Called there, where no one spoke English & explained what happened in my broken french. Got given a number for the local gendarmes (that's french for police, that is...) In a side point, found it a bit discomforting that the emergency services didn't speak any English. Luckily, as i discovered that night, my french isn't as bad as i thought it was, so i could explain what was happening. But imagine if you're some stuck tourist? You'd be completely screwed.

Called the local police, who again didn't speak English, and they gave me the number for the depannage (breakdown service in French. I think i doubled my french vocabulary this weekend!!)

And so, on phone call number 4, i was finally through to the Depannage. He asked all the usual questions; name, car model & registration, what happened, where are we, etc. The 'where are we' was a bit of a challenge though, it was dark, we were in the middle of nowhere. I could tell him we were on the A4 heading towards Strasbourg. But where on the A4? Absolutely NO idea.
Luckily though, motorways are prepared for this kind of thing. Have you ever noticed the km markers? In France, they're in the centre of the motorway (not at the side, as K discovered while he was running around in -18C trying to find it) They are every 200m, so the Deppanage can find the broken down car with relative ease. He said he would be there in about 45 minutes; an hour later he arrived. We had never been so happy to see those flashing orange lights.
At this point, Joe was still waiting for us. I explained to the Depannage dude that our friend was waiting & could we stop there. He, not being very impressed with working in minus temperatures on a Saturday night, said, no, he wasn't going that way. This was because Depannage trucks can use secret exits off the motorway. And he had to pick up another car (a french couple who also had frozen fuel)

Finally, we get to the garage, dump our car(s), then head over the Depannage office. There, i called AXA once again & explained what had happened. The nice AXA man told me that they would provide a hotel & taxi to it & even organise everything. About 30 minutes later, the taxi arrived and took us to a Novotel about 20 minuteas away. When we got to the hotel, it was after 2am, but the staff were there. And the girl working in the bar, explained that the bar was usually closed at that time, but she thought that we probably needed a drink, so had stayed open for us. So we had a couple of beers.
And then went up to our nice clean room, had a shower to warm up & then crashed.

Next day was Sunday. And lovely AXA had also organised breakfast for us. FREE! Woohoo!
After breakfast, I called AXA to see what was happening. They said i should call the garage, but I explained that my french wasn't good enough, so the nice AXA man called on my behalf.
A while later, he called back with the bad (but not completely unexpected) news - the garage is closed on Sundays. we would have to wait until Monday, at the earliest, for the car to be ready. Luckily, the insurance covered up to 2 nights at the hotel. So, there we were having a mini-Hotel California experience; K had no coat, so going outside was not an option. Besides that, we had very limited money - all we had was my Xmas present money from my dad!
Luckily, this money was enough for lunch, dinner & a couple of beers.

And so Monday morning rolled around.
Once again, I called AXA. They, once again, called the garage. And AXA called back to tell us to wait until the afternoon. After 1pm, i called AXA again. An hour later, they called back. The car was READY! And AXA would organise & cover the taxi back to the garage. they wouldn't, however, cover any repairing fees.
Headed over to the garage, and the garage lady confirmed that, yes, the diesel had jelified (hopefully that's a real word...) But we weren't the only ones - lots of cars had had the same problem on Saturday (which turned out to be the only night that was that cold!!!) And when i asked how much it was, she said it was free! I guess all they had to do was warm the car up - they didn't to do anything mechanical or replace any parts; just de-jelify the diesel.

And then we were on our way & i am very happy to report that the last 2 hours were completely uneventful.
In the end, our day-trip to France took 3 days, but we had a free weekend away in a nice hotel & what could have been a complete and utter nightmare actually ended up OK due to the nice helpful AXA people, the friendly Novotel staff & the garage people. And i would like to thank my parents for making me go to French school when i was 7 because if i had had no French it would have been so much worse and WAY more difficult.

And while all this was going on, Sister Sin was stuck in London waiting for the Eurostar service to restart. Hopefully she has got to France now...

28 November, 2009

The Great Adventure: Day 61 to the homecoming

I have been a bit of a slacker & not updated what we were doing.
K & I are now back in Europe, but in different countries; he's off on a sailing weekend in Germany & i'm in France chez the Parental Sins (was in severe need of my winter clothes & they're all in boxes here - think i mentioned that before)


I think i left off in Ko Phi Phi (seems like a distance memory now that i am sitting here in a sweater with the heating on, looking out on a grey & drizzly day)

I wasn't keeping my journal towards the end of the trip, so things are a bit hazy. I will try my best to remember what we did...

Day 61: Tuesday 10th November
This was our last full day in Ko Phi Phi. K went diving, I had a Thai massage and in the evening we met up with K's dive instructor & co diver (Rob) and proceeded to have a stupid night. And yes, it did involve bucket cocktails...

Day 62: Wednesday 11th November
Luckily, I hadn't booked ourselves on the 9am ferry to Phuket; we were on the 2:30pm. This meant checking out of our bungalow, having breakfast, hanging out on the beach & then making our way to the ferry.
In Phuket, we were met (eventually) by the driver from Khao Lak Scuba Adventures who took us to Khao Lak - about 3 hours from Phuket port. Once there, we filled out loads of forms & waited around for a while & then boarded out liveaboard. For those of you who haven't heard of liveaboards, they are boats for divers where you live & breathe diving. We had booked ourselves on a 4 night/4 day trip to the Similan Islands; which included 15 dives for K & snorkelling for me.
At around 7pm, we boarded our boat (Manta Queen II) and headed out to the Similans (one of the world's best dive spots, apparently. Jacques Cousteau has been here, so it MUST be good!)

Day 63 - 66 (Thurs. 12th to Sun. 15th November)
This was our liveaboard time. Everyday involved diving, sleeping, eating & maybe a few beers in the evening. There were 19 customers onboard & 18 were divers. And there was me, the only snorkeller, but it actually turned out OK. The boat crew looked out for me & i had my own tuk tuk dinghy that picked me up when i'd had enough snorkelling. As a snorkeller though, i saw pretty much the same things every time as i was always at the same (surface) level. The divers, however, saw loads of amazing things as they could go anywhere up to 30m deep. K told me about eels, shark, octopuses (octopi? Never sure which is correct...), beautifully coloured coral and that's just a few of the things he saw. Me, i saw squirrel fish, box fish, parrot fish & Nemos (anenome clown fish) It was a really good experience - the staff on board were really nice & helpful and the other divers were all really nice people.
Once we got back on Sunday evening, we met up with 2 other couples who were also staying in Khao Lak and had dinner & drinks. It was a fun evening, but i had really bad land sickness. Never thought about it - but i had got so used to being on the boat that once i got off & i felt dizzy & nauseous for about 24 hours. Was a really bizarre feeling.

Day 67 - 71 (Mon. 16th to Friday 21st November)
Once we got our feet back on dry land & after 4 intense days of diving, K decided that he wanted to continue his diving education & enrolled in a rescue diver course. This involved him first doing an Emergency First Response (EFR) course for one day, then 2 days of rescue diving. Both course meant lots of role-playing & dealing with panicking/unconscious divers. I had a quick flick through his manual, and it seems that most problems occur because of diver carelessness or over confidence. Just goes goes to show that you should never EVER underestimate the power of the ocean.
And while K was doing his rescue course, what was i doing?
Believe it or not, i was attempting once more to get my Open Water Diving License. And guess what? This time i actually passed it! I AM A LICENSED DIVER!!!!! WOOHOO! It wasn't easy & it was a touch and go for a little while, but once i had got through the skills (ie taking and replacing my mask off underwater or practicing an emergency swimming ascent) and gone underwater in the ocean, i was a lot calmer & began to enjoy diving a lot more.

Day 72 (Saturday 21st November)
K & me went diving together! We had a day trip out to the Similan Islands, had two dives & had Irish Dave the Dive Master as our guide (in K's course, Dave was the panicking victim for the role plays - was really nice having a Dive Master that we both knew & knew us - me the nervous diver, K the eager rescue diver).
On the first dive, K was in full Rescue Diver mode & was constantly checking to see if i was OK. With both him & Dave checking, i felt really safe & relaxed a lot more. It was also relaxing knowing i didn't have to practice/pass any skills. I could just enjoy the view.
On the second dive, K was a lot more relaxed too, knowing that i was OK. And so we both had a great day. It was so cool that i could finally enjoy diving with K. I wish i had managed to get my licence earlier in our travels, but i don't think i would have been ready. I needed to do a lot more snorkelling & build my confidence in the water before i tackled diving again. And the liveaboard experience was the turning point for me, as i was snorkelling on my own in the ocean. I felt a lot more comfortable in/with the water & could quite easily jump off the boat into the sea. Bear in mind that at the beginning of the holiday, i could only swim in shallow water...so i have come a long way during our 2 months travelling!

Day 73 (Sunday 22nd November)
This was our last full day in Thailand. And in Asia. And on holiday.
We actually didn't do much either. Just relaxed & enjoyed our last day there. We would have gone diving again if we could, but because of pressure changes & other technical stuff, you can't fly 18-24+ hours after diving. We decided to stay safe & have a mellow day - and even packed our bags the night before.
That meant we could enjoy our last evening in Khao Lak...

Day 74 (Monday 23rd November)
We had booked a taxi for 5am. We woke up at 5:30am.
Luckily, the taxi driver was still waiting for us, so we threw ourselves together (thank goodness we'd packed our bags!!!) Drove to Phuket airport, flew to Bangkok. Had 4 hours in Bangkok, then flew to Dusseldorf & back to reality again.
Was a long day, but it was a relatively easy day. Bangkok airport is well designed and it's really easy to change from domestic to international flights; just have to go up a few escalators. The only downer were the 2 annoying kids sitting behind us. They were constantly kicking our seats, moaning, fighting & basically all round little brats. I finally complained (politely) to their mother when one of the kids ended up UNDER my seat and was grabbing my flip flops. They were a bit quieter after that, but it made the 12 hour flight seem a lot longer...

And that was our great adventure. It was a great trip; sometimes frustrating, sometimes really hard, but mostly fascinating, inspiring, relaxing, and fun. I am really glad we went & i really had a wonderful time & met really lovely people pretty much everywhere we went. And i think that will be my overwhelming memory from this trip - the people. However, considering the fact that K & I did pretty much no sightseeing (e.g. we visited absolutely no temples) and spent much of our time diving/snorkelling/relaxing, people are the only local culture that we encountered. Then again, people ARE the culture.

But, yes, it was a fantastic adventure. And i want to go again...

10 November, 2009

The Great Adventure: Day 50 to 60

We're on the final stretch now - just 2 more weeks until we launch ourselves back into our 'normal' lives. Hard to even contemplate cold weather - the other day it was 28C here & both of us felt a bit chilly. Think German winter is going to be a nasty shock to the system...

Anyway - let me update you on our adventure:

Day 50 (Friday 30th October)
Still in Kuta, Bali
Had a slow day. Found a lovely Mexican called TJs. Great food, lovely decor & quiet despite being on Poppies I (one of the crazy noisy side streets of Kuta). In the evening, we had bangers & mash (there's only so much rice one can eat on holiday...) and then played pool.
We found a lovely little bar with no other customers & an empty pool table. The staff were at a loose end & racked the balls up for us every time AND gave us free garlic bread. Needless to say, we stayed there a lot longer than intended. Was defintiely a nice way to end out last night in Bali and the Southern hemisphere.

Day 51 (Saturday 31st October)
Headed out to Bali airport (aka Denpasar or Ngurah Rai airport, which makes things a bit confusing when you're looking for flights & each airline seems to use a different name)

We didn't have much Rupiah left, so had to resort to a cheap McDs lunch. And, yes, McDs is the same everywhere; cheap, cheerful & that's about it...
And on our way out of Indonesia, we had to pay $20 fee for something or other. Not really sure what, but it was another sneaky way of getting hard currency into the country...
Anyway, we got on our flight to Singapore - which left late but managed to arrive (nearly) on time. Note to everyone - if you use Air Asia, never EVER have a tight connection time. They seem to run late a lot of the time but are cheap & clean. Plus minus...
On arrival in Singapore, we took the train into town & went hunting for a guesthouse in Chinatown. Bad idea. Everywhere we went was full & there weren't many places to choose from. We ended up staying in a 'nice' hotel for the night after having a couple of (expensive) beers.

Day 52 (Sunday 1st November)
After checking out of our nice hotel, we took the train to Little India to try our luck in finding a place there. A lot better decision - Little India has a lot more choices. They are, however, expensive. EVERYTHING in Singapore is expensive. Well, except food maybe.
But we were expecting that, so it wasn't a nasty a shock as it could have been.
This day ended up turning into a sightseeing day. And we headed out to the west of Singapore to the "Singapore Discovery Centre (SDC)". That was one SCARY place. It was verging on propaganda-like; trying to instill in everyone how GREAT Singapore is and how Singaporeans are the best people on earth. And how important it is to be proud of coming from Singapore. While this may not necessarily be a bad thing, it was a bit creepy seeing this brain-washing on such a large scale.
To balance things out, we headed to the Singapore Army Museum next door (we got cheap tickets because we'd been to the SDC.
This was not quite as scary as the SDC, but did at times feel like an army recruiting centre ("Look how fun it is to be in the army! You too can jump out of helicopters and make great friends and wear shiny boots! And fire big rocket launchers!!") It was a a bit ironic though (for me) that the Singapore Army was only established in 1957 and has never been involved in any direct combat, but has, to be fair, taken part in a lot of earthquake rescue operations in South East Asia. It just seemed such a big space to dedicate to an Army that hasn't really done much. But maybe I'm just jaded...
In the evening, we headed out to the Night Safari. Yay! I LOVE the night safari. And i think K liked it too. And the bats are still just as cool.
And that was our first day in Singapore...

Day 53 (Monday 2nd November)
This day was a totally decadent day. We went over to Clarke Quay & firstly went book shopping at Kinokuniya. Then we found a Vietnamese coffee shop & stocked up on caffeine (never sure when you'll see a proper coffee machine in SE ASIA). After that, we went and had ramen. PROPER ramen. With gyoza. Yummy. And extremely filling. But oh so satisfying.
Afterwards, K & i managed to find ourselves a happy hour (happy hours seem to last at least 4 hours for some reason. So why don't they call them "Happy evening" or "Happy Monday" or "Let's see how drunk you can get on Monday night"?) at a Microbrewery place on the Quay and proceeded to get very happy...

Day 54 (Tuesday 3rd November)
K & I surprised ourselves by actually waking up at a reasonable hour, despite our happy adventure the previous evening. Kick started the day with a curry lunch (we were staying in Little India after all) and then headed off to Singapore Zoo. There, we spent around 3 hours wandering around, watching animals doing animal things (which for lions means sitting around looking bored and listless). Our favourite area was the walk-through rain forest. Here, mousedeer, lemurs, big birds, strange pigeony things and, best of all, the Malayan Flying Fox. All of these creatures (plus butterflies & other animals i missed) were wandering around freely. The lemurs were really tame and came up and walked by everyone without a care in the world. The Flying foxes were hanging right in front of us doing shocking things, ie peeing while hanging upside down and licking parts of their body in public (and enjoying it in a very obvious male way)which they really shouldn't. Needless to say, The German and i, being serious responsible adults, didn't find this amusing at all and didn't chuckle about it for the rest of they day. Oh no...
On our way back to our guest house, we stopped at a steak restaurant to eat huge chunks of meat with potatoes (again, you never know when you'll find a good steak in SE Asia...)

Being in Singapore this time was interesting. I had already visited Singapore 4 times, when the Parental Sins were living there. But it was interesting to see how my perspectives on Singapore had changed because or both where i was coming from & why i was going there.
When i visited there before, i was coming from Tokyo, was staying with my parents & there for 2 weeks. Yes, it was expensive. Yes, it was hot. Yes, it was city. But it was a breath of fresh air coming from Tokyo.
This time, i was coming from Indonesia & staying at a guesthouse. It was still expensive (even more so because i wasn't staying chez mum & dad) . It was still hot. It was still city. But after being on islands & relatively quiet places, it was a tad overwhelming. But i still like Singapore - it just isn't SE Asia. It's Europe in a hot place.

Day 55 (Wednesday 4th November)
Another travelling day.
Took the train out to the airport & then bus to the Budget Terminal at Changi. Was expecting a huge shed/hangar type place, but the budget terminal was actually really nice (and new). It was even nicer than Bali airport!
Got our flight out of Singapore to Krabi in Thailand (West coast). On arrival at Krabi airport, we booked a taxi into to town. Here the taxi driver took us directly to a travel agency so we could book a guesthouse. At first, i thought this was all a bit dodgy, as we hadn't asked t be taken to a travel agency. It turned out to be a great decision though. The agency found us a nice place in Krabi, booked our ferry tickets to Ko Phi Phi and reserved a guesthouse there too. And all within our budget requests (500 Baht/night). AND the taxi driver waited for us to have lunch then drove us to our Krabi guest house. All in all, great service.
Had a pleasant evening in Krabi & despite what the guidebooks say, Krabi is nice place. Not the most beautiful of towns, but there's stuff to do & the people are really friendly.

Day 56 (Thursday 5th November)
Had to get up early for our 10am boat to Phi Phi (early = anything before 11am). Was a smooth uneventful ferry ride - nice big boat & smooth waters. When we arrived on Phi Phi, there was a man waiting to take us to our guest house AND he had a trolley to put our bags in. Hurrah.
Once there, we had a siesta, looked into diving/snorkelling trips, had dinner and watched a lady-boy cabaret show at the local Irish pub. While watching the Ladyboy show, the only question on my mind was, "Where do they put their 'bits'?" This was swiftly followed by "Do they even have bits?"
Interesting evening.

Day 57 (Friday 6th November)
Didn't really do much. We did change guesthouses though. The first one, while clean & relatively big, didn't have any wind/breeze access; neither did it have a balcony. So we decided to up grade a tad & moved up the hill to the appropriately named Uphill Cottages.
The rest of the day was spent siesta-ing, eating & having a couple of quiet beers.

Day 58 (Saturday 7th November)
Had a REALLY early start: 7am wake up! Went on our half-day diving/snorkelling trip. For me, it wasn't great as the current was quite strong on the surface & i had trouble swimming in the right direction. But as i had a life jacket on, it wasn't too stressful. K, meanwhile, had a good time and saw a turtle and lots of sharks. Everyone, in fact, saw the sharks except me. I am not sure whether it was an eyesight thing (can't wear glasses AND a snorkel) or just plain ignorance. Luckily, K's dive master took lots of pictures with his underwater camera, so we bought a copy of the CD from him. So, yeah, i saw the sharks...
After having a siesta (we are really getting into the whole siesta thing. I think it should be introduced into the ordinary working day), K & I had dinner in town & then wandered over to Reggae Bar which is probably the most touristy bar on Phi Phi. Here there is a Muay Thai (aka Thai boxing) ring and tourists can beat the crap out of each other & get a free bucket cocktail. Thing is, Reggae Bar always has 2 for 1 bucket cocktail promotions, so you'd be getting in the ring for the equivalent of about 4 Euros (or less). Still, it was entertaining in a kind of 'car crash on the motorway' way.
Afterwards, we managed to find a quiet bar on the beach. This was no easy challenge, what with fire dancers, bucket promotions, lap dance competitions and limbo dancing.

Day 59 (Sunday 8th November)
Another restful day. Then again, Sunday IS the day of rest after all.
Somehow managed to catch some Ultimate Fighting on TV at lunch time. I have never seen anything like it. It's totally & utterly MAD. It was like bar brawling, except that these guys are getting paid for it & none of their mates stop the fight. It was nasty. And i thought K1 was scary. Oh, how wrong i was. UF is nasty.
In the evening (after our siesta, of course) we played Connect 4 for hours & i drank silly cocktails which managed to delete my memory & made me get aggressive while playing Connect 4. CONNECT 4! The most non-aggressive game ever. Ah, the wonders of alcohol.

Day 60 (Monday 9th November)
Once again, we had a really slow day. Went for a wander on the beach until it started raining (rainy season may be over here, but it rains for about half an hour everyday - not necessarily a bad thing).
Had coffees in the afternoon, and both K & I had caffeine highs, which actually weren't that fun. Impelled us to go back and lie down for our siesta...
The evening was a quiet one; alcohol-, caffeine-, pool-, bar- free. Believe it or not...

And now we're on day 61. K is off diving for most of the day & I'm updating the blog. Later, I'm going to try & book our tickets onwards, have a massage & exchange some books. And then have my siesta... Ah, life is hard!

30 October, 2009

The Great Adventure: Day 36 to 49

Sorry about the big gap in updating you all on our travels - been getting lazy & too distanced from technology. Do you realise that i haven't watched TV for weeks & weeks? I haven't even listened to my ipod much. Most of the time i read, sleep, relax & not do much at all. But isn't that what holidays are for?

Anyway, here's what we've been doing for the last 2 weeks...

Day 36 (Friday 16th October)
K went off for a morning dive (i stayed in bed) and finally saw a big shark - about 2m long. He also saw a couple of turtles. He was well chuffed with that dive!
The rest of the day was spent sitting around reading & relaxing.

Day 37 (Saturday 17th October)
K had another dive & saw even more sharks - white-tip sharks; not dangerous even if they are 2m long (apparently - don't think i would be too relaxed if a 2m shark came anywhere near me...)
In the afternoon, we decided to rent bicycles & cycle round the island (Gili Trawangan). K predicted it would take us half an hour or so, seeing as the island isn't that big. 2 hours later, we managed to make it back to our bungalow. What we didn't figure was that the road round the island is only paved in certain bits. The rest is just sand. Soft loose sand. Have you ever tried cycling on that kind of service? And on an ordinary bicycle? It definitely wasn't fun & we nearly ended up with heatstroke. But we can say we did it!!

Day 38 (Sunday 18th October)
K had two dives, while i slept then had a massage - which was very welcome after the previous day's cycling activities.
In the evening, we headed to the Irish pub in the island to their DVD shacks/gazebos (whatever you call them). Here, you can watch any DVD (the pub has about 200 to choose from) for free as long as you order some drinks and/or food. Can't remember what we watched, but do know it involved guns & war (guess who chose that movie...)

Day 39 (Monday 19th October)
While K went out on a morning dive, i was in charge of getting money. Despite what the guidebooks say, Gili Trawangan now has an ATM. But it's a fussy old thing and only takes certain cards. And it didn't like K's (German) cash card. However, our flexible friend, Visa, was accepted. But, K didn't know that number. Luckily, his mum had sent him the pin number. So, i had to check K's email, find the number, remember it & get some cash. But i only had 2000 Rupiah (14 cents), which isn't very much money at all. Now, this might not seem like a problem - but i needed to pay the Internet cafe. I got into K's email, found the right email, got the pin # in 5 minutes. And guess how much that cost? Exactly 2000 Rupiah. Miracle.
Anyway, to cut a long ramble short, i got the money.
Rest of the day was spent sipping cocktails & chatting.

Day 40 (Tuesday 20th October)
A complete non-day. Really didn't do much at all.

Day 41 (wednesday 21st October)
Had a slow start to the day, but in the afternoon we went snorkelling again. And this time i didn't use a floaty (life jacket). I got a bit nervous, and held K's hand most of the time, but i actually went in the ocean and snorkelled, all in deep water with out freaking out. And, best of all, i saw a turtle. And a big eel & a lionfish (which are really weird looking things)

Day 42 (Thursday 22nd October)
Today was laundry day, so i lugged everything off to the nearest laundry service. Everywhere we've had laundry done, they do it by weight, but on Gili T, they itemise it. I wasn't prepared for that, but it wasn't really that challenging - just meant emptying out dirty clothes all over the floor & counting everything. Not the most fun task ever, but definitely necessary...
In the afternoon, K & i went snorkelling again & i didn't hold his hand much at all. Am definitely getting more confidence in the water - yay!
In the evening, we had a DVD dinner at the Irish pub & watched 'This is England'. I really recommend it to anyone who grew up in England in the 80s. It reminded me of home, but also reminded me why i don't live there anymore.

Day 43 (Friday 23rd October)
In honour of K's sister's birthday, K & me humiliated ourselves on the beach by making a Happy Birthday video with my camera. It really is embarrassing to sing into a camera, knowing that people around you are watching... The bugger was that the video was too big to attach to an email. So, Sarah, if you're reading, i still have the video in my camera, so I'll show to it you when we get back. And Happy (belated) Birthday!

Day 44 (Saturday 24th October)
As this was going to be our last day on Gili T, we booked tickets off the island to Amed (Bali). Also got some new reading material & paid all our outstanding bills (bungalow & diving - NOT bar tabs, OK?!)
Had another DVD dinner, and then headed off to Rudy's, the best bar on Gili T. We'd spent quite a few evenings there & the staff had come to know us & were really funny & friendly. They spent half their time flirting & the other half dancing behind the bar - but still somehow managed to serve drinks. While we were there, a waiter at our regular beach cafe, Madi, came to join us. He was a really lovely man, fiercely proud of both his home (Bali) and his religion (Hindu), but in an open way - he really wanted us to enjoy & understand both. Still, i didn't fully understand his story about how the gods chose Bali to be a holiday island - something to do with stars & aeroplanes...

Day 45 (Sunday 25th October)
Left Gili T on a speed boat (still not my favourite means of transport...) and on the way we stopped briefly at Gili Air. We got off the boat & wandered on the beach so we could say that we had visited another of the Gilis...
The crossing wasn't too bad, but it still scared the pants off me. I really don't like how speed boats thump across the water; i find it very nerve-wracking. However, about three-quarters into our journey, the boat crew started cheering & smiling & the captain slowed down - a shoal/troop/school/whatever of dolphins was playing around the boat. There were about 10 of them swimming around & splashing in & out of the water. It was wonderful to see. I don't know who was more excited the passengers or the crew!!
Once we arrived in Amed, one of the boat crew recommended a place to stay in Tulamben (our desired destination). And so we arrived at the Mata Hari resort in Tulamben, East Bali.
In the evening, we found a local bar with a pool table & played until there was a power cut all over Tulamben...

Day 46 (Monday 26th October)
Was a bit of a non-day as both of us were feeling crappy (Bali Belly), so just hung, slept & read a lot.

Day 47 (Tuesday 27th October)
Both of us were feeling pretty much back to normal, so K headed out to the USAT Liberty wreck (the main reason for coming to Tulamben).
In the afternoon, K went out on another dive, while i (once again) went out on a money mission. In Tulamben, there are no ATMs. Also, due to the unreliable electric & telephone connections, no where takes credit cards. Lonely Planet, however, omits this important information. So, for 100,000 Rupiah, the hotel provided a driver, Agus, to take me to the nearest town with an ATM, Amlapura, about 30 minutes away. We get there, and i try all the ATMs in town (all 3 of them) and NONE of them work - cash card OR Visa. Arghh!! I had visions of us washing dishes forever at the hotel...
But Agus knew another bigger town, Semarapura, with more ATMs. And finally we got one that worked. Then we had the long drive home - in all, it took 4 hours. Despite all that, it was a nice afternoon. Agus pointed out lots of things on the way (monkeys, pigs, weddings, chili plants, durian stands, amongst other stuff) and i saw beautiful rice paddies, a really odd huge statue of a bull which had a bucket under it's boy parts. Not really sure what that was about. Actually, i don't think i want to know what that was about!
Also saw some villagers cock fighting. Oh dear, that really came out wrong.
They had fighting cockerels & the cockerels were fighting. Only saw it quickly in passing, but was a bit shocked - but i guess it's part of the culture here.
The biggest thing though was seeing the difference in environment. In 1963, the area was devastated by the eruption of Mount Agung the highest mountain/volcano on Bali. This means that the area around Tulamben resembles a moonscape with a few random palm trees on it. But then you go over a mountain pass, enter the next valley & it's back to green lushness again. Really interesting to see the massive changes.

Day 48 (Wednesday 28th October)
In the afternoon, we went snorkelling together. The USAT Liberty wreck is kind of rare in that snorkellers can also see it as it's only 50m of the shore and, at it's shallowest, is only 5m below the surface. It was really cool to see and especially to see how the marine life have taken it & made it their own. On the minus side, it was hard getting in & out of the water as the beach was really rocky - doable, but a tad painful.

Day 49 (Thursday 29th October)
Booked a driver (turned out to be Agus again) to take us back to Kuta. Enjoyed the 3-hour drive there, through winding mountain roads & rice paddies (half of the journey I'd already done on my ATM mission...) Also 'enjoyed' the Pussy Cat Dolls album THREE TIMES! Agus only had one CD & he just played it over & over. I don't even know that people actually bought PCD CDs. Well, they do in Bali. Surprisingly though, it wasn't quite as bad as we had anticipated, still 3 times was enough.
In the afternoon, i booked flights out of Bali for 31st. AirAsia is GREAT! Their website is easy to use & everything is really hassle free. So, on Saturday we are heading to Singapore for 4 days. Yay!

And that brings us to today, Friday, which I'll update later. We have just over 3 weeks left on our travels & i am really NOT looking forward to heading back to Europe (no offence to anyone, i love being warm & hate European winters). And especially as all my winter clothes are in boxes in France & I'm going to be in Germany...

16 October, 2009

The Great Adventure: Day 28 to Day 35

So here I am again, sat at the computer while the sun is shining outside. Do hope you all appreciate the effort I'm making...

So here's what we're been doing for the last week:

Day 28 - Thursday 8th October
This was the day that we left Tioman & headed to Kuala Lumpur (or KL as everyone calls it) The journey involved taking a speed boat to Mersing, on Penninsular Malaysia. there, we had to hang around for 3 hours until hour express bus to KL. Here was where i updated my blog last time.
Got on our (on-time) bus to KL, with a supposed journey time of 4 hours. It wasn't 4 hours - it was 6. Have now (finally) come to the realisation that whatever the predicted journey time is, add at least 2 hours and then you'll know the actual journey time. Luckily, we had lots of time & didn't have any connections to make. The bus ride itself was interesting - we travelled through miles and miles of palm tree plantations; i assume they are for palm oil. May sound strange but for me (& K) seeing palm trees neatly planted in long rows just seemed weird. Palm trees are supposed to be exotic & wild, not neatly arranged.
On arrival in KL, we followed one of our fellow bus passengers, Tammy, to a guest house that she'd been recommended in Chinatown. After that, the 3 of us went out for dinner in a nearby Chinese restaurant (what else do you eat in Chinatown, eh?) After that we went to a Beatles bar that played house music, then to a reggae bar playing pop. Go figure...

Day 29 - Friday 9th October)
K & i indulged ourselves in a full on Western day. We started off by taking the train to the Twin Towers (or Petronas Towers, once the tallest building in Asia). Here, we went to the medical centre as both K & I had insect bites that had got infected & knew that we needed antibiotics. Under an hour later, we had had our bites cleaned, received a week of antibiotics & antibiotic cream. (And now, a week later, both of us are healed up)
Then we treated ourselves to a nice lunch (K was craving steak & proper coffee; you can buy Nescafe EVERYWHERE here, but if you want a real coffee, it's a real challenge). And then it was off to Kinokuniya for some extreme book shopping. We spent ages there in the air-conditioned world, safely cocooned off from the real world.
Once back in our guest house, i booked our flights out of KL - Air Asia is great. The cheapest prices & a load of destinations available. And you can do everything on -line. Where did i book us to? Keep reading...
In the evening, we hit the night spots of KL. Not really sure where to go, we asked a taxi driver to take to a bar/drinking area. Think he took us to the posh area because everyone was posing & we felt a bit out place. Then again, maybe that's what everyone does in KL? Later on we found an Irish bar a bit out of town, which was a lot more our style.
And so another day ended.

Day 30 (Saturday 10th October)
Unsurprisingly, has a slow start to that day. We walked to Little India to have a curry lunch - again, what else would you eat there?!
This restaurant specialised in something a bit different - Southern Indian food. Or was it Northern? I can't remember which it was; all i know is that most Indian restaurants specialise in one type, and this one specialised in the other. And it did taste different. It still tasted like curry, but more earthy & it was good too.
The afternoon was a bit of right-off, both of us went back to sleep in readiness for the evening. In the evening, we (once again) satisfied out Western food cravings in a BIG way & went to TGI Fridays. Ever since K had their Jack Daniel's glazed beef ribs in Japan, he has been craving them again. So off we went. And i had a really good steak & mashed potatoes. Cravings satisfied, we found a cavern of a bar with live music, called Rum Jungle. Was a fun place & we discovered that the service improved wonderfully once we started tipping the staff. Our glasses were never empty & staff were always available for an order. Tipping isn't really done here, and similar to other (Asian?) countries, people don't really pay the staff much attention, let alone courtesy. So, by being nice & tipping, we ended up having an enjoyable evening.
But it wasn't over. I wanted to see the England vs Ukraine game (in hindsight, it wasn't a good decision) so we got a taxi to the Irish pub (again). On the way there, we had the wonderful & entertaining driver, a 3rd generation Indian Malaysian. He told us about his family & that he has 9 kids. Yup, NINE! He also told the funny story about how he and his wife had trouble getting pregnant for the first few years of their marriage. They went to the doctor & had lots of tests & stuff & finally she pregnant. Then again & again & again. Finally, taxi driver went back to the doctor (after baby number 4) and asked the doctor to stop them getting pregnant. The doctor said, "First, you ask me to help you get babies. And you get babies. But now, you ask me to STOP you getting babies?! I kill you!!!" The taxi driver driver went on to comment that " the factory is now closed". He was a really lovely man & seemed full of life & joy, despite working a hard job & hours.
After that, the England game was a disappointment. Luckily, I beat K at a few games of pool afterwards, so the evening wasn't a complete waste...

Day 31 (Sunday 11th October)
This day marked exactly one month of travelling. Seemed like ages ago since we left Germany & we certainly have entered a different world.
Today was another travelling day, luckily this day didn't involve buses but aeroplanes. First of all, we got ourselves to the airport, which was a bit of a challenge because, for some unknown reason, K's cash card wouldn't work in any ATMs. Meant we didn't have enough money to even GET to the airport. But we took the train one stop & found out that we could buy tickets for the airport express train with Visa card. Yeah for plastic Santa! Once we arrived at Kuala Lumpur International Aiport (KLIA), we had to take a shuttle bus to LCCT (Low Cost Carrier Terminal - they really like their acronyms here). The bus driver was completely crazy - i think he was a wannabe NASCAR driver or something. Was very glad (& grateful) to reach LCCT in one piece.
Checked in, had lunch, then waited at the gate. And guess what? Our plane was delayed. Luckily, it was only delayed about 40 minutes, so nothing too horrible.
And then we boarded. LCCT is very Low Cost. They have no passengers bridges to board the plane - everyone has to walk outside to their plane & walk up the stairs. I think it would even be quite easy to walk to the wrong plane & end up somewhere you weren't planning to go because no one checked out ticket once we were on the plane. Luckily, we did get the right plane & two hours after taking off, we arrived in...

We are finally in the Southern hemisphere; K's first trip, my 4th. Hello everyone down here - nice to be in your half of the world...
We decided to stay in Kuta - lots of choices to stay, eat, drink & relatively easy to get out of. On arrival into town, both K & I were a bit overwhelmed & immediately wanted to leave. It was just too much - noisy, crowded, busy. All the tourists there seemed drunk, all the locals were trying to sell you stuff - it was a bit too much. I wasn't expecting the chaos of Bangkok in a small place like Kuta. But that's what it felt like. Mad.
However, K & I soon realised that being in Kuta is a "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" And once we found out where the Happy Hours were (i think it's possible to drink at a Happy Hour somewhere for 24 hours in Kuta), things rapidly improved. Kuta is not a place to relax & enjoy nature/beach. It's the Australians Ibiza or Mallorca. You need to let go of any pre-conceptions, morals, healthiness & just enjoy the craic.
And here's a question for any Australian out there - WHY? You have such a beautiful country, with beautiful weather so why would you choose to go Kuta?

Day 32 (Monday 12th October)
Today was a day of anniversaries, one sad & one happy.
Being in Kuta, it's hard to miss the memorial to the 2002 Bali bombings. It's right in the middle of the drinking area, near where the bombings occurred. 12th October is the anniversary of the bombings & there were tributes in town & family members came to the memorial. It's pretty sobering looking at the memorial, seeing all the names listed by country, with Australia having the majority. Having wondered around Kuta, it's hard to imagine how things must have been that night. Already Kuta is a crazy place, but trying to imagine how emergency services got anywhere near the scene is impossible.
On a happier note, today was our two-anniversary. Two years of Germany vs England. And still smiling - yeah for that!
The day itself was pretty uneventful, although there seemed to be extra police (with bug guns) wandering around. And each club/bar seemed to have at least one security guy with a big gun. And by big gun, i don't mean a pistol. These guys had semi-automatic machine guns (so K reliably informed me). K also noticed that every bar had a security check for all local males. They all got patted down, while the drunken foreigners could stagger in unchecked. Makes sense i guess (in hindsight)
K and i again sampled the delights of various happy hours and had a fun evening. At one point, a very very drunken Australian came over to our table with (for some unknown reason) a German style military tin hat on. He offered it to K to try on, which he did & then we had the following (bizarre) conversation:
Oz Guy: You look German
Me: He is German
OG: Yeah, I hate f**king Germans!
Me: No, he REALLY is German.
OG: Yeah, I hate f**king Germans.
Me: No, this guy here REALLY is German. From Germany.
Here, Oz Guy started processing what he was hearing, in a very slow way. You could virtually see the cogs rotating. Then, there was a look of realisation on his face; he high-fived Kevin, took his army hat & wandered off back to his mates (who he said were f**king Swedish)
Ah yes, the joys of drunkenness...

Day 33 (Tuesday 13th October)
Today was another slow one - that's what seems to happen after an evening of happy hours; surprise surprise!
But we did book our tickets out of Bali.
And in the evening, K & I satusfied our Japanese food cravings, by going to Fukutaro ("The Best Japanese food on Bali" apparently) K had ramen & gyoza; I had natto-maguro & sushi; we both had miso soup. And it was good! I forgot how much i love the sticky stinkiness that is natto.
We ended our evening by buying a couple of convenience store beers, heading back to our place & playing poker on the balcony.

Day 34 (Wednesday 14th October)
An early start as we had to get the boat out of Kuta. We decided to take the easiest option, which was also more expensive. But it was worth it. We got picked up at our place, driven to the port, had our bags put on & taken off the boat & at 7:30 in the morning, all that service was VERY welcome. Our boat ride was 2 hours over rough seas, as we had to cross the Lombok Strait (in between Bali & Lombok) Luckily, the weather was good, so the crew said that we had a relatively smooth crossing. Still, for me, it was a tad scary...
And now, here we are in the Gili Islands, on Gili Trawangan.
Here is really beautiful, a real tropical paradise. No cars, no motorbikes, nothing with any kind of engine (except the generators). The only forms of transport round the island are foot, bicycle or horse.
On our arrival here, I volunteered to go and find ourselves a place to stay. I wandered off in the direction (or so i thought) of where the majority of place to stay are. I managed to go in completely the wrong direction. Now, that's not too shocking, but if you look at the map of Gili Trawangan, you have, basically, two choices - clockwise or anti-clockwise. Somehow, i managed to get us a place at the North end of the island, instead of the South (where i had intended on going). Luckily, the island isn't very big - only 3k long and 2k wide, so it isn't too much of a hassle. Actually, where we are is a bit nicer because we away from the action & it's a lot less developed at 'our end' of the island. Also, we have an outside bathroom which i am enjoying a lot more than i expected. There's something really nice about taking a shower in the sunshine.

Day 35 (Thursday 15th October)
A nice slow day with lots of sleeping time.
K did manage to book some diving though. And we had a nice dinner overlooking the dark waters in between Trawangan & Meno.
What's really interesting here in the Gilis is that the landscape is completely different than in Bali. Apparently, the Gilis/Lombok is the edge of a different zoogeographical area, with a mix of Asia & Australasian wildlife, whereas Bali & eastwards is purely Asian wildlife. And it is very apparent - here the trees are more bush-like & the environment isn't as lush as we've been used to up till now. Still, it is really beautiful but in a different way. If you want to learn more search for "Wallace Line" on the internet; he's the guy that first identified this difference & put his name to it.

And that's where i am today, sitting in an internet cafe. But if i look to my right, i can see beautiful blue ocean with little boats bouncing around, with Gili Meno lurking in the background. And i do have to admit that i am enjoying my rare moment of air-con while i update you all...

08 October, 2009

The Great Adventure: Day 18 to Day 27

Sorry about the delay in updating our adventures; internet connections off the mainland aren't that good & pretty expensive (12RM per hour, instead of 2RM)

Anyway, let me update you on what we've been doing since the last update...

Day 18 (Monday 28th September)
(Still on Perhentian Island)

Both K & I adapted to the island life style & spent much of the day reading or napping. Not the most exciting of experiences to share, but we ARE on holiday after all!
In the evening, K headed out for another night dive. He enjoyed this one much more and even saw a shark. Yup, a real shark (admittedly it was a small one & didn't look like a proper shark. For those interested, it was a Bamboo Shark)
And that was pretty much Day 18.

Day 19 (Tuesday 29th September)
K started of the day with a wreck dive, which he really enjoyed but came back wanting more, so signed up for another one the next day. The wreck site was a cargo ship that ran into the reef during monsoon season, not as exciting as a WWII wreck, but interesting all the same...
In the afternoon, K headed out for another dive; this one 'just' a reef dive, looking at various fishes & corals.
Meanwhile, i hung out at the shack, watched the afternoon squall from the comfort of the shelter of the balcony. Also watched mad little squirelly type things jumping madly around the trees. They look like squirrels, but have the colouring of chipmunks, with the white stripe down the side. There were also a lot of beautiful butterflies in loads of different colours. Lovely.
Also saw a big monitor lizard (about 1m long) hanging outside of the reception of the place we were staying. Not sure if it was checking in or out...

Day 20 (Wednesday 30th September)
K headed out for his second wreck dive and had a much better time.
In the afternoon, we had planned to gout snorkelling again, but a really big squall hit the island. There was thunder & lightning & everything. It was all tad scarier, but made all the more scarier by a tree falling over onto the bungalow next door. Scared the crap out of the two Swiss girls who were inside at the time. Luckily, neither of them were hurt but their toilet was destroyed.
Ah, the excitement never ends, eh?

Day 21 (Thursday 1st October)
We got up relatively early in order to catch one of the earlier speed boats out of the islands.
About 10 minutes into our journey, a Malaysian air force jet came flying over. Nothing too exciting about that, but then he (assume the pilot was a he because no woman would do the things he did...) proceeded to do a series of completely & utterly crazy manoeuvres. For example, two of the things he did were a full stall, then later simulated a strafing run at our boat. It was like having our own private air show. Have to admit it was pretty scary though.
And did the excitement end there? Oh no!
Maybe 10 minutes after our Top Gun experience, one of the boat engines packed in. This meant our boat was going REALLY slowly & i thought our 30 minute ride would turn into an epic journey. Luckily, a replacement boat came along & we all changed boats. IN THE MIDDLE OF THE OCEAN!!!!!!! This did not amuse me in the slightest. Open water? Changing boats? Not my idea of fun at all. Luckily, it was a really calm day & wasn't that hard at all.
Finally arrived back in Kuala Besut about an hour after leaving. Not too bad.
Took the public bus back to Kota Bahru, which was nice. Took about 90 minutes (our taxi in the opposite direction took under one hour) but it was a nice slow ride which was infinitely pleasing after the morning's boat adventures...
On arrival in Kota Bahru, we decided to buy our bus tickets out again for the next day. I went to the ticket office - which was complete mayhem, with no clear queues or anything - perhaps i'm too British, i need order! We'd completely forgot what day it was & everyone was getting ready for the weekend & buses were selling out on Friday (the next day). Finally, i got myself to a sales clerk & requested 2 tickets to Mersing (S E Malaysia. He told me the price. I DIDN'T HAVE ENOUGH CASH ON ME!!!! I was really frustrated by this point, but asked the clerk if he would save the tickets for me & i have to admit i didn't expect much.
Anyway, K & me decided to stay at the same place in Kota Bahru - the Ideal Traveller's House. Once we'd unloaded, we ventured back to the bus station via a cash machine. Managed to talk with the same teller and guess what? He'd saved our tickets! What a lovely man! Really didn't expect him to do that, but he did! Yay!
Also made a quick trip to a pharmacy to stock up on medical supplies & the staff their were also really helpful. For me, Malaysia is a crazy & disorganised place (not as crazy as Thailand though), but the people are really helpful & nice which kind of balances things out.

Day 22 (Friday 2nd October)
Had to take a taxi to another bus station. Apparently Kota Bahru has 3 different bus stations. Why, i have NO idea, but it is a bit confusing.
Got there in time for our 8:30 bus. The bus wasn't quite as nice as our last long distance bus, but it was relatively comfortable - which was good, because today's bus ride would last 12 hours. Yippee!
Still, despite being 12 hours, it wasn't that bad. The drivers would stop every couple of hours or so for a pee break & we had a longer lunch break too. Only thing was that the drivers didn't tell us how long we had, so was always a bit pissed off when one of the travelling foreigners was still in the toilet when he wanted to leave.
At around 8:30pm, the bus stopped. Then the driver made an announcement & all the (Malaysian) passengers got off. Us foreigners were all sat there feeling a bit clueless, then the information filtered down that the bus was broken, something to do with electronics. SO, once again, K & I had to change modes of transport. This meant grabbing our rucksacks from the baggage hold whilst standing on a steep slippery grassy verge in the dark. I was not impressed. We got on the new bus, travelled about 10 more minutes and reached our final destination. I really don't know why the first bus driver couldn't have driven 10 more minutes & have avoided all the hassle of us unloading everything. Well, we had arrived safely & that was the most important thing.
Before crashing, we managed to book our boat tickets to Tioman Island the next morning. Decided not to get the early boat (7am) and stick with later one at 11am (a much more humane time).

Day 23 (Saturday 3rd October)
Got the ferry over to Salang on Tioman Island (SE Peninsular Malaysia). One of the reasons for going to Tioman was the slow pace of life & quietness. Actually, that was a lie. The main (but not only) reason is that for some unknown reason, Tioman is duty-free zone & beer & smokes are half price compared with the mainland. Woohoo - party time!
On arrival to the island, we enjoyed our first duty-free beers. 5RM. Nice.
Found a nice place to stay - Ella's Place. Was really nice & quiet there & with a sea view. Was really relaxing to be able to go to sleep to the sound of the ocean every night.
In the evening, we found the one and only bar in Salang, the 4 S Cafe. Salang was described as the "Party Beach" in Lonely Planet, but one bar? Is that what qualifies as a party beach? Admittedly, it was a fun place, with friendly locals & foreigners alike.

Day 24 (Sunday 4th October)
Had a typical 'island day' - read, slept, ate some food, went for a swim & then went to 4 S for cheap beers.

Day 25 (Sunday 5th October)
Another Island Day.
But in the evening, K booked himself on a diving trip & i found out that i could join him & go snorkelling.

Day 26 (Monday 6th October)
Went out for our dive/snorkel trip.
Was a half day thing from 11 to 3pm, with a lunch break & two dive sites.
The first dive site wasn't that good for snorkelling as the water was too deep. This meant that i couldn't really see much, just a few fish swimming by. Luckily the boat was 'parked' nearby, so i got back aboard & waited for K. K had a better time, being able to go deeper & see different things than me.
Then we headed off to a coral beach for lunch which was really nice. Think it was an uninhabited island, so we pretty much had the beach to ourselves. Was really nice.
The second dive site was MUCH better. The water was a lot shallower, so there was so much for me to see; a rainbow of fish, coral & sponges. It was also possible to swim in between huge rocks & see different things on the other side. It was so cool!
After getting back, we had a siesta and then headed out for dinner. And then after dinner... you guessed it, 4 S again, where we mistakenly joined in with the drinking games going on...

Day 27 (Wednesday 7th October)
Had a very VERY slow start to the day. Drinking games seem fun at the time, but extremely stupid the day afterwards...
One of the problems of the small islands is that they have no ATMs. Not only that, they have no banks. We had stayed on Tioman a little bit longer than we had planned & therefore ran out of money (another way of looking at it is that we drank all the money away...) Anyway, we needed to find somewhere that would change money. We tried 3 places that were recommended by islanders. All three said, "Yes, we usually do currency exchange, but we don't have enough Ringgit today". Crap. Finally, we went to a little kiosk on the pier to inquire about bus/ferry/plane tickets. And asked her where we could change money. And miracle of miracles, Kiosk Lady could change money AND had enough Ringgit for us! YAY! Meant that we could have food and even a few sneaky beers...
While we wandering around looking for Money Exchangers, we found the famous river where the Monitor Lizards live. And yup, there they were. They were swimming lazily up & down and were very impressive, about 1.5m. And did i have my camera with me? Of course not...

And that leads me to today. Day 28 which is only half way through.
K & me are on our way to Kuala Lumpur & I have to end here as we have to catch our bus. Only a 4 hour bus ride today...hopefully!

27 September, 2009

The Great Adventure: Day 9 to Day 17

So, it's been a while - but considering i am a) on holiday & b) in countries where the internet is not so readily available & expensive, think yourself lucky that i'm writing anything at all :)

Anyway, here's the diary of what we've been doing up till now...

Day 9 - Saturday 19th September
K took a day off between diving courses, so we rented a bike & toured the island of Koh Tao. That took us all of 3 hours (with drink breaks...) The roads on Koh Tao are really bad, so K gave up the idea of teaching me how to ride a motorbike. Instead i just held on really tight, hoping we wouldn't hit a dog, coconut or some random person riding on the wrong side of the road. No worries though - we ended our tour uninjured.

Day 10 - Sunday 20th September
K started his Advanced Open Water Diving course & started off with two dives: advanced buoyancy & navigation. Not really sure what advanced buoyancy is - something to do with floating properly, or not drowning. The navigation part involved compasses, and that's about all i know...
I just relaxed on the beach, wrote postcards & read. Nice.

Day 11 - Monday 21st September
K had a really early start & did his deep dive, which involved going down to 30m. He really enjoyed this dive; said it was amazing looking up & seeing another group of divers 10m above. Also did his multi-level dive which involves working out remaining air & bottom time & other technical things like that (which i don't fully understand but K the Engineer loved)
In the evening, K went out on his night dive, which was by far his favourite dive so far. He said it was like being in some spy movie or being an astronaut. While he was doing that, i read up on the symptoms of decompression sickness, just in case. No, nothing happened - K was perfectly fine & thoroughly enjoyed a stupid night out on the beach afterwards.
Yup, bucket cocktails. Woohoo!

Day 12 - Tuesday 22nd September
Had a mellow day. We decided where to go next & booked our tickets (keep reading, you'll find out where i am now..)
Then we just hung out on the beach most of the day.

Day 13 - Wednesday 23rd September
Bit of a long day, this one.
We'd booked ourselves on the night boat out of Koh Tao (9pm) but had to check out of Big Blue at 10. This meant a lot of hanging out time. Also meant no swim time, because we didn't have the use of a shower.
So, we ate, drank coffee, had a massage (damn good), played poker, played billiards & enjoyed an all day happy hour.
Headed down to the port at 7pm (when our taxi came - have NO idea why they book the taxi TWO HOURS before the ferry - to only takes 10 minutes to drive there, but hey)
But our bags onto the boat - a ramshackle wooden scary looking thing. This kind of freaked me out (those of you who know me, know that i have a severe aversion to water and boats, so seeing this thing was not good for me)
Anyway, the boat left on time, and was surprisingly OK. Felt a tad like a refugee ship as the deck (inside) was completely open with numbered floor spaces for everyone to sleep. Surprised myself by sleeping really well. We arrived 7 hours later in Suratthani (4:30am)

Day 14 - Thursday 24th September)
On arriving in Suratthani, a driver picked us up. There wasn't enough space for all the travellers AND their luggage, so he threw all the bags on the roof. There was no roof rack, so i spent the whole journey checking the road behind us making sure i bags hadn't fallen off...
He left us at a travel agent, and here we killed an hour waiting for our next bus. A mini-van came to pick us up & this one drove us to Hat Yai, a Thai "border town" which ius actually about an hour away from the border. Here, we were dumped at another travel agency to await our next mini-van.
30 minutes later, our van arrived and took us first to the border. Here, we had to get out of the van at the Thai border, walk through the passport control, get back on the bus, drive another kilometre, get off the bus AGAIN, walk through Malaysian immigration & get back in the van again.
BUT, it wasn't that simple, two vans drivers had decided that it was better for their drive that K & me change vans. So once again we changed vans. I have no idea why, but the drivers' negotiations took a lot of arm waving & sighs until they finally agreed.
4 hours later we arrived at that day's destination of Butterworth (North West Malaysia, just across from Penang) Here, we booked our bus tickets for the next leg of the journey (keep reading...)
Then we set off on a hotel/guest house hunt. First place we came across was truly horrible (for me). It reminded me of a modern day opium den & for some paranoid reason i was sure that if i stayed there, i'd either end up with fleas or being sold into white slavery. A tad of an over-reaction on my part, perhaps, but i refused to stay there. We ended up finding a slightly better place, with a less opium-den feel.
I really wasnb't impressed with Butterworth. All it has going for it is the bus station out of it & the bridge to Penang. It felt like Penang's poor downtrodden relative. It's hard to believe that only a bridge separates them. I will never EVER recommend visiting there. Don't even stay the night there - go across to Georgetown. Much nicer.

Day 15 - Friday 25th September
Headed back to the bus station for our 10am bus. Had breakfast in the food court nearby - and i have to say that the people there were really friendly. And the bus station people too. It's just the town that's depressing.
Got on the bus, and embarked on our (supposed) 5 hour bus ride. Was a really nice bus ride through the mountains & jungle. Beautiful scenery & a smoker friendly bus driver who stopped every 90 minutes or so for a smoke & a leg stretch.
Maybe that's why our 5 hour journey took 7 hours!
Anyway, we finally arrived in Kota Bahru (East Malaysia) in the early evening.
Found a nice guest house with both friendly guests (lots of Germans - they're EVERYWHERE!) and kind owners.
Now, you may be wondering why we went all the way over to the East of Malaysia from West Thailand, only to come back to West Malaysia. Well, apparently, South East Thailand is a bit dangerous with Muslim gangs running around causing chaos. I thought it would be safer to go the long way round & avoid the dodgy bit. In our guesthouse, we met a guy who'd come from Koh Tao the 'dangerous way'. It took him about 10 hours. It took us 2 days...

Day 16 - Saturday 26th September)
Another day of travel.
Took a taxi to Kuala Besut, the main port for our final destination - The Perhentian Islands. Taxi was a complete nutter, but he got us to the port in time for our 9:30 boat to the islands. Was pretty on the way though - lots of greenery & it seemed pretty prosperous round there.
Then it was boat time again (yippee!) This boat was a small speed boat. Oh My God. For me, it was like being on a roller coaster wtih no reassurance that it wouldn't crash. Kevin The Sailor, on the other hand, thoroughly enjoyed every scream & bounce & splash.
Finally, after what seemed like ages (was only 30 minutes!) we arrived.
Had a look at what was available & decided on Panorama Chalets - close to the beach & with their own diving school)
We're currently staying on the Small Island (called Kecil) & it's nice & quiet. It kind of feels/looks like the island from Lost. Except with chalets, dive schools & no monsters. No cars though. No bucket cocktails either. In fact, beer is pretty hard to come buy AND bloody expensive (10 ringgit for a small can; about 2 Euros)
Don't think we'll be staying here too long - especially as there are no ATMs here either...

Day 17 - Sunday 27th September (TODAY)
Today i tried snorkelling for the first time. I wanted to try for the first time with K, just in case i had a freak out in the water. But i didn't! I loved it too. Saw Nemos, Barracudas, Zebra fish, sea cucumbers, coral & loads of other fishes that i don't know. It was like swimming round in an aquarium. It was SO cool!
And so there we are, up to date again.
K is out on a night dive now, and the Singapore Grand Prix is about to start, so i'll sign off here.

Hope you're enjoying about our adventures as much as i am being on them.

18 September, 2009

The Great Adventure: Day 1 to Day 8

Before we left, K was filling in the forms for our travel insurance. To do that, he needed to calculate how many days we would be away. It's 74. Yes: SEVENTY FOUR!! From 11th September to 23rd November. Cool.
Anyway, while we're away, i'm going to try and update my blog on a weekly basis so everyone knows where we are & what we're up to. I won't be uploading many photos, because the Internet connection is a bit slower here & I'm too impatient to wait...

I've been keeping a diary as we've been travelling around, so here's what we've been up to for the last week:

Day 1: Friday 11th September
Probably one of the safest days of the year to travel on nowadays, but still a tad unnerving to be sitting in Dusseldorf airport watching the 9/11 memorial service on TV.
We flew with Air Berlin direct to Bangkok; 7 and a half hours. For those who don't know, Air Berlin is one of Germany's budget airlines. And it is BUDGET. Before we got on the plane, K exchanged all his Euro for Baht, not realising that you have to pay for beer on board. Not only that, there is enough legroom for Hobbits, but not many other people. For all 192cm of The German, those 7 and a half hours were torture. Added to the the fact that our overhead lights weren't working & they only show movies on the big screen, it wasn't the most fun of plane rides. BUT saying that, the food & service were OK and they arrived pretty much on time.
Day 2: Saturday 12th September
Because of time differences, we arrived in Thailand a day later, at 9:30am. We got a taxi from the airport into town (Khao San Road). Then we wandered round & found a cheap guest house (500 Baht/night; about 10 Euro); had lunch - of course Thai; had a 5 hour afternoon nap; woke up and had dinner - Thai again; played some poker (K's favourite new pass time...) and then went back to the guest house and crashed.
Not the most exciting of days, but we were so tired from the flight that we needed an easy day.

Day 3: Sunday 13th September
We decided to go to the famous weekend market, both to see what it was like & buy a few holiday essentials (sun hats, walking shoes, mini-towels). K said we should go by Tuk Tuk, and after convincing the Tuk Tuk men that "No, we REALLY didn't want to go and see his friend's gem shop", off we went. This was my first Tuk Tuk ride. Wow. Those guys are a tad crazy, weaving in and out of buses/taxis/cars/other Tuk Tuks. Felt a little bit like i was in an action movie, but it was fun.
The weekend market was an overwhelming maze of stalls selling EVERYTHING. The customers were a mix of locals & tourists and i found it all a bit too much - too many people, too hot, too jet-lagged. But despite this, it was fascinating - impossible to see everything in one go though, i think.
After all that exercise, we needed a nap so Tuk Tuk-ed our way back to the guest house & crashed for a few hours. Woke up in time for dinner (ramen, Thai style - ie not very ramen like at all, but tasty all the same).
Once again played poker; I did say that it's K's new hobby...actually, i won't bother writing about our poker games for the rest of trip. Just assume that we played, and i probably lost. But i will say that playing poker is a wonderful way of meeting people. So far (until today, 19th September) we've played with an Israeli couple, an American guy & a Swiss guy. And have had curious bystanders come by & see what we're doing. And don't worry, K & I aren't going to come back with huge debts & Thai mafia hunting us - we have our own poker set & are playing with chips. No money involved!!

Day 4: Monday 14th September
We'd decided we didn't want to spend too much time in Bangkok & wanted to get out asap. Proper Bangkok site-seeing there can be left till the end of our trip.
We'd decided that we wanted to go down to south Thailand & hit the islands down there. After a little research, we decided that train would be the best way: more legroom for K, not much more expensive than the bus & only a tad slower. Still, it was 8 hours. Longer than Dusseldorf to Bangkok. We got the train down to Chumpon - left Bangkok at 1pm & arrived at 9pm. It was LONG, but on-time & air-conned.
Chumpon is not one of Thailand's most beautiful towns, it serves as the port for Koh Tao, Koh Phangan & Koh Samui & most tourists get out as soon as possible. Because of our late arrival, we had to stay the night there (there was the option of a night ferry, but after spending 8 hours on a train, we didn't really feel like 6 hours on a boat).
Found a place to stay - nice lady was standing outside the station offering cheap rooms, free taxis & ferry booking. Think we paid about 1400 B for everything. Had dinner in the small night market in Chumpon then crashed pretty early.

Day 5: Tuesday 15th September
Got up bright and early to get the 7am catamaran to Koh Tao. Arrived in Koh Tao's main port, Mae Hat, at 8:30, in time for a English Breakfast. I know i should be eating local food, but sometimes you really can't beat baked beans, bacon & fried eggs...
We wandered up the island to find a place to stay. We'd already decided that we wanted to try diving while we were in Koh Tao (apparently, it's one of the best & cheapest places in the world to learn & issues yearly the most diving licences worldwide) and found Big Blue, which i'd already read about in Lonely Planet. Talked to one of the guys there & i explained i was a bit nervous about diving & being in the ocean and he was really reassuring, so we decided to stay there. And because we signed up for diving courses (a 3 and a half day PADI open water course), we got free accommodation.
Our course started the same day, with our first theory session. Did you know that diving's safety record is one of the best of all active sports - in or out of the water?
Was really interesting & i was looking forward to learning/doing more....

Day 6 (Wednesday 16th September)
Had our second theory session in the morning. Again interesting stuff going over the basics & the pieces of equipment.
In the afternoon, we headed out for our first diving experience; a swim test, treading water test then onto basic diving manoeuvres - mostly oriented towards safely suing the equipment & dealing with problems. K, with his sailing experience, got through everything like a fish. Me, i managed the swim test & tread water for 10 minutes. But, when it got down to the actual diving part, i found i really couldn't do it. I just couldn't fully immerse myself in the water - even though it was only 160cm deep. I had a full on panic attack & had to be taken back to the boat. And there ended my diving experience. I was really disappointed, but i am really glad i tried. Now i know that diving definitely isn't for me. But i am planning to try some snorkelling while i'm here. K, on the other hand, fell in love with diving & enjoyed every moment in the water.

Day 7: Thursday 17th September
K was continuing on with the dive course & i was left to my own devices. we both decided this was actually good thing because we'd actually have something to talk about at the end of the day!! In the morning, K had another theory session & i stayed in bed. Erm, yeah, lots to talk about!!
In the afternoon, K went out on his first 2 dives. He came back totally in love with the whole experience & wanting to do more, so signed up to do the advanced open water diver's course from Sunday.
Meanwhile, i went for a Thai massage & foot scrub. The massage was great, although a bit scary when i heard my spine crack. Felt great afterwards. The foot scrub made my feet all smooth and shiny and got rid of all the crusty dry skin (the masseur"s comment about my feet was, "Too hard"). Think i fell asleep and snored through the foot scrub because when they had finished and woke me up, all the masseurs were smiling at me...
Day 8: Friday 18th September (TODAY)
This morning K went out on his final two dives to complete his Open Water Diver's Licence. At lunch time, he came back really excited about all the things he had seen; fish, coral, bubbles, meeting other divers underwater and so on. He said it was like flying underwater.
He & his classmate, Stefan from Switzerland, have both signed up to do the Advanced course together from Sunday.
Right now, K is completing his final exam & by the time i see him (in about 15 minutes) he"ll be a qualified diver! Cool! Meanwhile, i am updating my blog & picking up the laundry...not much different from Stuttgart, eh? Except here there is a beautiful view, great people, wonderful weather & no work.
Tomorrow, K is taking a break between diving courses, so tonight we're planning to sample the nightlife of Koh Tao. Tomorrow, we are planning to rent a bike & explore the island a bit. But that plan could change depending on how much fun we have tonight...

Not sure where we're going next, but i will keep you posted so watch this space!

All pictures are of Sairee Beach, Koh Tao, from the restaurant of Big Blue.