Saturday, 17 August 2013

Borneo - Part 1: Settling Into The Groove

What do I mean by that?  Well, up to now Sally and I have been travelling by ourselves, sharing twin rooms, chatting to people in bars, but generally doing most things, such as visiting attractions, dining out and drinking as, technically, a couple.

This changed as soon as we arrived in Malaysian Borneo, and life began to change into something I am sure will become the norm for months to come.  And we also had our first mini hiccup with a delayed flight out of Kathmandu, a very slow baggage collection & a nearly missed connection out of Kuala Lumpur narrowly avoided by me running through the airport to tell the heck in desk that we had a bit of an issue and could they please just wait for us little bit thank you very much...

And so we arrived late at night into Kuching, the capital of the Malaysian state of Sarawak.  For reasons I still don't quite understand, Sarawak, and the other Borneo state of Sabah still have a very independent mindset - to the extent that even though we had just flown in from the Malaysian capital we still had to go through full immigration processes and get our passports stamped for Sarawak.  Why do I tell you this?  All will become apparent further down the page...

Kuching is very lovely.  Not a lot to do though, except a couple of (free!) museums on the states history & also a Natural History museum.  The State Museum was informative about the tribal culture and of flora and fauna of the area.  Which is just as well as the Natural History museum had shut before we could cross the road to get there, missing out on a stuffed crocodile which was apparently the best exhibit.  There was another Chinatown to see, which was a bit odd as the entire city appeared to be one big Chinatown, and also a few statues of cats (Kuching means cat in the local language and they are treated like royalty).  Most of the attractions of the area are outside the city, but as they were similar to ones we intended to see later in our trip we missed them out.

Importantly, this was my first experience of a dorm room in a hostel, although we only had one person there briefly on our second night before we departed & the other guests were less than friendly.  Even the owner said they were the least sociable people he'd had there!  The hostel was the Borneo Seahare and I would recommend it, although from what we have heard most of the hostels in Kuching appear to be very nice.

The same could not be said for Miri, our next stop after a very brief plane ride.  At the airport we met Rob who had been at Kuching and we realised had been at the same restaurant as us the night before and given us a friendly wave.  He had nowhere booked to stay so we took with us to The Highlands Hostel.  Oh dear...  Lonely planet and Trip Advisor both raved about this place, but it seems it had recently moved premises & was now in what appeared to be an empty office space over 2 floors.  Our dorm was on the floor without the reception area and was just a storage area for random stuff.  The staff were very unhelpful, not even knowing where the bus station was, and would leave huge knives lying around and find it funny.  I think the owner must have been away as I cannot believe he would leave the place like this!

Miri itself is not a great place.  It's very dull, but does have a reasonable beach nearby to lie on and try to get rid of my pastiness.  Nearby are the Niah caves.  Paintings in some of the caves have revealed that these caves were inhabited at least 40,000 years ago.  These caves were not open to us, but the Great Cave was. A World Challenge school group at the hostel had said that these caves were not spectacular - never trust 15 year old girls!  The caves went on through absolute darkness for a few kilometres.  Occasionally light would stream through holes in the cavern roof revealing the scale of them.

How you can fail to be impressed by nature when it makes you feel so small I have no idea.  Rob joined us on this trip, along with a couple of sisters staying at the same hostel.  And then we got drunk.

Sally and I had planned to go trekking in the Lembir Hills, but heavy rainfall and increased risk of leeches made us make an early trip to Brunei.  And this is where the fun begins.  (For reasons which will become apparent in the next blog, Rob decided to fly to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah).

We got a bus to Brunei.  Our passports were duly stamped to show this.  Brunei is pretty but has nothing to offer.  There is a nice mosque, built in a purpose made lagoon with a replica barge docked alongside, as well as a Regalia Museum.

As we had arrived late in the afternoon during Ramadan, these were both closed.  Brunei s under Sharia Law, so sale of alcohol is forbidden.  So we had nothing to do except be stunned by the fact that Brunei has more roundabouts than people and they accidentally banned sale of cigarettes by banning it for shops within 1km of schools and then finding out only two shops were left which could sell them.  So an outright ban was easier.  And a speeding ticket will set you back 1000 pounds!

We got a bus out of Brunei the next morning to go to Kota Kinabalu.  Are you sitting comfortably?  Then I shall begin the epic passport stamping event.  Brunei is split into two parts by the Limbang extension of Sarawak.  So, you exit Brunei.  Off the bus, stamp passport, back on bus, enter Sarawak, off bus, stamp, on bus, leave Sarawak again, enter Brunei, exit Brunei, enter Sarawak, and then, because the states are bizarrely independent, exit Sarawak and finally enter Sabah, getting stamped every step of the way.  I have a fresh passport, and they still couldn't get them on the same page.  Sally and Urs, a German we met on the bus, spent their time trying to guess where the next stamps would go in their rapidly filling passports, trying in vain to direct them away from the few empty pages remaining.

We had nothing booked in Kota Kinabalu between the three of us, but the bus operator, Danny, said his mum ran a hostel  - Lucy's Homestay.  The guidebooks were favourable and so we made our home there for our differing durations.

That was nine days ago.  Strangers have come, and friends have gone.  Sally and I went and came back again.  Adventures have been had and stories told.  But I am still here.  Now alone, but with new adventures and stories to come before I myself bid farewell to Lucy.  And as my tale here is not yet finished, you're going to have to wait!

And I bet you're wondering what happened to Rob?  Well...

Monday, 5 August 2013

Almost at 'The Top of The World'...

I had always wanted to go to Nepal.  Don't know why.  May have been the mountains, the shrines and prayer flags along the mountain paths, the breathtaking scenery in all the photographs I had seen growing up.  Needless to say, I barely saw any of this...

We had been told Kathmandu was a bit mental.  Clearly these people had never been to India.  While the traffic still weaved around the pedestrians, and mopeds still beeped their horns, it was a lot more relaxed than we had expected.  Our accommodation also took a few steps down as we chose more basic guesthouses.  In Kathmandu we stayed at the Madhuban Guesthouse.  Inexpensive and with no air-con, it is close to the main tourist area of Thamel where most bars and hostels are located, and also many shops selling clothes, souvenirs, other tat and fake North Face etc equipment.  Worth the risk if you're not expecting too much from them.  Thamel itself is a maze of narrow roads and alleyways, also used by the locals for day to day living, and has a definite charm.

The few sights to see can be done in a couple of days.  The Kathmandu Durbur Square (one of three but the most lively to see) is just south of Thamel.  Which we found out after going it completely the wrong direction after thinking it was something else on the map...

It is a complex of 49 temples, strewn through the streets, with market stalls selling jewelry and ornaments, all in a fairly small area.  Also near here is 'Freak Street' where the hippies first stayed back in the '60's.  I can't imagine it's changed all that much.  A further walk took us to Swayambhu, a Buddhist temple also know as the Monkey Temple due to the number of monkeys that live here - and harass the tourists.  A climb up over 300 steps brings you to a large stupa with further shrines dotted around.  Prayer flags flow between the buildings and trees to all quarters.  There are also great views over the Kathmandu valley.

Two further temples are worth a visit.  Boudhanath is the centre of Buddhist learning in Nepal.  A central stupa is surrounded by a circle of shops and restaurants, but alleyways lead off to hostels and monasteries making it feel more austere.  A 20 minute walk takes you to Pashupatinath, a Hindu temple to Shiva.  It is considered so holy that non-hindus cannot enter the main temple, but the whole complex is pleasant enough, although maybe not warranting the high entry fee...  Due to the great importance of this temple cremations regularly take place (three were ongoing as we visited, and another (shrouded) body was being washed in the river).  On the other side of the river (and up more steps) is the temple of Goraknath.  Again we could not enter the main temple, but could walk through the many shivalaya in the forest.

From Kathmandu we got a tourist bus (different from a local bus - it's comfier) to Pokhara.  A much more relaxed city located next to Phewa Lake, it is the starting point for many treks around the western Himalayas and the Annapurna range.  As it was not trekking season, and we only had a few days, this was not an option.  We did, however, get to do a little day trek...  A path winds its way from the south end of the lake up through the forest to the World Peace Pagoda.  It is definitely worth the walk for the views alone!  I found the route to the top to be a great analogy for peace processes - there are many paths, not all go to the right place and it is very easy to get lost!  After appreciating the views we made a critical error - we continued walking, aiming for a village called Bhumdi with the intention of walking around the lake.  It turned out to be a lot further than anticipated...  After walking for miles, mainly uphill, with no food and little water, using only vague directions from helpful locals ('that way - 2 hours', '2 and a half hours', 'just another 2 km'), we eventually started going downhill.  It was late and was thinking about raining when we found a bus.  They said it was still 2 hours to the bottom of the hill, let alone back to Pokhara - so we got the bus home.  Three to a seat, down the very steep rocky roads we had achingly walked up for 5 hours...

The next day we decided to do something more sedate - paragliding!  This was amazing!  Not only did we get our only sight of the Annapurna peaks above their clouds (apparently only seen twice in the previous few weeks) but it was a truly wonderful experience.  My pilot, Elli, was unable to find any thermals to get a decent flight, something which had never happened to her before.  This meant only one thing - we packed up, hot-footed back to the top of the hill and went again.  This may have been the most awesome time of my life!  Finding the thermals this time, Elli took me into the bottom of the clouds, went over the lake and treated me to a few little acrobatics.  This second flight had given me a chance to talk to her about the sport and to appreciate more than a single flight may have done.  The feeling of freedom floating through the air is incredible, and as long as you can find the thermals you can fly for as long as you want.  The result?  She let me fly her kite for a little bit and I am now completely hooked!  I will definitely be going back to take a full course and become a qualified paraglider!

The rest of our stay was spent having massages, having a boat trip on the lake, eating and drinking.  The only thing you have to get used to here (and in Nepal in general) is regular power cuts.  But as the bars usually have their own generators this is a problem quickly fixed...

Our stay here was greatly enhanced by our choice of guesthouse.  The Pushpa Guesthouse is family run (the children will want to play with you) and the owner is very knowledgeable about the excursions on offer - he will not try and sell you the most expensive, unless it's the best, or something that he does not feel would be suited to you.  Highly recommended!

This left only a bus journey back to Kathmandu (staying at the same guesthouse, enabling me to return their purloined guidebook) and flight back to Malaysia.

Nepal has left me wanting more.  I want to see the mountains.  I want to go on week long treks.  I will be back...