Tag Archives: Food

Guide to island hopping in the Gulf of Thailand

Haad Khuad/Bottle Beach, Thailand

Islands hopped: Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, Koh Tao

Duration: 2 weeks (May 2008)

Sawadee! (that means Hello! in Thai by the way)

Here is a guide to the islands in the Gulf of Thailand.  So why did I pick the islands in the Gulf of Thailand instead of  the more glamourous Koh Phi Phi or Phuket on the Andaman Islands side? Simply said, mother nature.  Depending on what time of the year you go, either the east or west side of southern Thailand will experience their monsoon season.  On the west coast (or the Andaman Islands), it often rains from April through to October.  On the east side where I visited, it rains mostly between September and December.

I didn’t have enough time to stay at different beaches on each island so I picked one beach on each island after doing some research in advance.  Do research which beaches to stay at depending on what type of experience you want.  Check out this site on a guide to Thailand’s beaches.  With the shear number of beaches and what each have to offer, you can spend weeks on the islands and have plenty of stories to tell your jealous friends back home!

Koh Samui – Chaweng Beach

  • Beach: I picked Chaweng Beach because it is the most developed beach on the Koh Samui and I wanted to be able to experience a mix of tourism and seclusion.  The beach was perfect – white sand and clear blue water.  There’s also enough shade from the palm trees to get away from the strong sun.
  • Accommodation: Jungle Club in Chaweng Beach.  I found this place online through sawadee.com and picked it because of it’s location away from the busy beaches of Chaweng.  Jungle Club is like a posh resort but at backpacker prices – the grounds are beautiful, well maintained and the staff are super friendly.  I stayed in the Jungle Hut which was very new and clean.  The restaurant opens out to a breathtaking mountain top view and there are plenty of places to chill (for example, in the gazebos perched on the edge of the mountain complete with plush pillows and lanterns or the sun chairs surrounding the infinity pool on the mountain edge!).  The staff are very friendly and welcoming and they definitely go out of their way to make you feel at home.  Travelfish.org and sawadee.com have lots of places to stay listed.  If you’re looking for more relaxation and peace/quiet, stay away from the main Beach Road area and out of Chaweng Beach where there is a definite party atmosphere.
  • Activities: beach and sun, do I have to say any more? Chaweng Beach is beautiful but more touristy than most beaches.  But then again, Koh Samui is more touristy than its neighbouring islands Koh Tao and Koh Phangan.  Beach Road, which is the main road that runs behind the beach, is especially busy with many tourist agencies, sunglasses stores, restaurants, bars/cafes and “Armani” suit shops.  Word of caution though: I doubt the store “Armane” which sells “Armani” suits is real.
  • Transportation: flew into Koh Samui from Penang, Malaysia via Firefly airlines.  A very convenient way to get to the islands from the mainland or from other islands is with Lomprayah High Speed Ferries.  This is the most popular company operating between the islands and the mainland.  They are very organized and a convenient way to go island hopping.  Since Jungle Club is perched on the top of a mountain, a 4×4 jeep is the only mode of transportation from the town below.  Within the town itself, it’s very easy to find songthaews, especially along Beach Road.  These go short and longer distances and are the cheapest way to get around (cheap as in less than $1).  If you don’t feel like finding/bargaining your own transportation, most accommodations can arrange transportation to and from the airport and the ferry dock (to get to other islands).
  • Food: Most resorts and places to stay have their own restaurants which have a variety of Thai and continental cuisine items on their menus (depending on the place) .  There are also multiple cafes along Beach Road which serve a mean mango shake.

Koh Phangan – Bottle Beach/Haad Khuad

  • Beach: I highly recommend staying at Bottle Beach for anyone visiting Koh Phangan or the Gulf of Thailand islands for that matter.  It is very secluded since it’s only accessible by long tail boat and has a sense of community since everyone knows each other. Walking down the beach, you’ll be greeted by name by locals and tourists alike.  As for the beach itself, the water is very shallow so good for wading around but be careful of the rocks.
  • Accommodation: Haad Khuad Resort (or more affectionately called Bottle Beach 3) in Bottle Beach.  There are 4 places to stay along the beach – three creatively called Bottle Beach 1, Bottle Beach 2 and..you guessed it…Bottle Beach 3 and are all owned by the same family.  The fourth place to stay is Smile Bungalows which is on the west end of the beach.  All are clean and have a range of accommodation from thatch huts that almost touch the water to larger 2 bedroom cottages further away from the beach.  I picked Haad Khuad Resort just because it was the newest one but walking around, they all seemed the same.
  • Activities: I’m a beach bum so of course, I just relaxed on the beach most days.  There’s also another nearby beach which you can hike to but be warned: make sure you stay on the path or else it’s very easy to get lost in the jungle (I did, which in hindsight is a funny story but at the time was pretty scary).  You should also have some cash on you because there’s a man who charges 20 Baht to cross through his land on the mountain which the path does.  At night in Bottle Beach, it’s a very different story! Each night, there is a poi fire show on the beach with dancers and drunk tourists who think they’re fire dancers.  You can also take part of the communal lighting of paper lanterns and drinking out of the communal plastic bucket of liquor (you do get your own straw though, we’re not savages here!).  And then there’s the Full Moon Party which Koh Phangan is famous for.  I’m not going to go into the details of what this is since I’ve heard and experienced too many crazy unbelievable stories to count so if you don’t know about it, just google it.
  • Transportation: The best way to get to Koh Phangan is via a high speed ferry.  Lomprayah (see Transportation section for Koh Samui above) is the most popular choice.  You can get around the island either by long tail boat, songthaews, taxis or by scooters (but be careful, the number of tourist deaths per year by scooter accidents is alarming).  It all depends on what your budget is and how adventurous you are!
  • Food: All four places to stay on Bottle Beach also have their own restaurant which serve delicious Thai food and ice cold drinks.  All the places are about the same in terms of quality of food so my suggestion is to try all 4 places.  Also, don’t forget to get an ice cold Singha while you’re lounging on the beach.

Koh Tao – Haad Sai Daeng

  • Beach: I picked Haad Sai Daeng after looking through Travelfish’s guide to accommodation.  It is less busy than most of the beaches in Koh Tao and the one thing that attracted me was their close proximity to Shark Island where you can scuba dive with reef sharks.  There are only 2 resorts in Haad Sai Daeng so it is very peaceful.
  • Accommodation: Coral View Resort.  The resort consists of multiple island huts and villas tucked in a little cove along the water.  I stayed in the Traditional Island Hut which was rustic and still very clean but not as spotless as the huts on the other islands.  If you have the cash and are sensitive to noises (especially from crickets and geckos), splurge for the villas.  The main positive was the dive center – Coral View Divers.  The dive instructors are all very friendly and the groups are small so it’s more personalized.  In fact, I was the only student with the Dive Master, Robert, who was super nice and patient since it was my first time scuba diving.
  • Activities: Diving, diving, diving! Koh Tao is known as one of the best places in the world to dive so if you have the chance, go diving! Most resorts have their own Dive Center who can arrange everything for you.  They offer a variety of courses and dives ranging from those who have never dived before to pro-star divers.  If you’re still uneasy going scuba diving, you can also see lots just by snorkeling.  Most resorts can either arrange a snorkel trip for you or rent out snorkel gear so you can swim around to your little hearts desire.
  • Transportation: Coral View was very helpful in arranging transportation for me after being herded off the Lomprayah ferry from Koh Phangan.  There was a driver waiting for me at the pier holding a sign with my name on it even though I never told them what time I would be arriving.  I can’t comment on getting around the island because I mostly stayed in Haad Sai Daeng and got around on foot.
  • Food: Delicious as usual.  The green curry at the restaurant inside my resort was amazing! And as always, accompanied by a mango shake.  The view from the restaurant also drew in tourists who weren’t even staying at the resort.  There are lots of places to eat around the pier in town which serve a variety of food if you’re all Pad Thai-ed out.

So there it is, a quick guide to the islands in the Gulf of Thailand! For more information, don’t forget to check out travelfish.org or look through the many travel guidebooks out there (my personal fav is Lonely Planet)!

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South Africa’s Transkei: Fear and Loathing in the Wild Coast

Coffee Bay, Wild Coast, South Africa

So as a way to procrastinate for job hunting, here’s another blog entry from 2 months ago.  Enjoy!

Although it was hard to pry myself away from Neville’s hospitality and comforts in Southbroom, the scenery in South Africa’s Wild Coast or Transkei was definite worth it – they don’t call this the Wild Coast for nothing!

I hoped on a Greyhound bus for the 6 hour journey and found it very comfortable.  The further we got into the trip, the less populated the outside world was.  After chatting with the hyperactive child sitting beside me, I finally got a chance to look up and enjoy the ride.  As I looked out through the front-of-the-bus-second-level window, all I saw were rolling hills covered in green grass everywhere, dotted with small palm trees and indigenous shrubs and forests.  Scattered throughout the hillside were small villages of brightly coloured concrete houses and rondavels.  There were cattle and sheep and goats being herded by children and men.  Also, all along the road, there were people hitchhiking holding signs with acronyms on them.  I got “PE” for Port Elizabeth but what or where is “XB”? After being dropped off at a gas station on the side of the road, I met Rob the driver from Coffee Bay who herded myself and a bunch of grimey backpackers who had just arrived on the Baz Bus (**more on that here) into a small minibus for the 1.5hr ride to Coffee Bay on the coast.  Thank god I got to sit in the front and chat with Rob.  I mean, one of the backpackers was walking around the gas station barefoot playing a ukulele! And the conversation in the minibus highlighted everything I don’t like about backpackers.  Yes, they are the most laid back, fun and interesting people you’ll ever meet.  But occasionally, you get a bad apple like those backpackers who brag about how “hardcore” they’ve been traveling, all the drugs and alcohol they’ve been ingesting and how little money they’ve been able to live off of.  I was just happy to be sitting in the front talking to Rob about his family while he taught me about his people, the Xhosa.  When I first heard him speak, I was so amazed! Remember when Russell Peters made those jokes about Africans speaking in clicks? Well, he probably met a Xhosan because “Xhosa” is actually pronounced *knocking-click sound*-sa and the birthplace of Nelson Mandela is Qunu but pronounced *click*u- nu.  The road into Coffee Bay was windy and up-and-over the hills – it was beautiful! The only thing that detracted from the beauty was the truck in front of us with young men sitting in the flatbed.  One of these comedians saw a van full of foreigners, decided to drop his pants and moon us.  Welcome to Coffee Bay!

When I finally arrived at Sugar Loaf Backpackers, I was given the best welcome ever – a sundowner (yummy cocktail drunken at sunset) by 2 old drunk Afrikaan men and a lesbian couple who run the place.  Again, welcome to Coffee Bay! The rest of the night was spent eating a delicious dinner at the dining table and talking with Wilson, Vernon (the 2 old men), Linda and Joet (the lesbian couple).  Wilson and Vernon told us stories about the apartheid and how they were conscripted as police or army men.  Talking to them was very interesting and like other older generation Afrikaans I’ve met so far in South Africa, there are still traces of racism and racial tension.  The whites still blame the blacks for their country’s problems and vice versa.  The next day, I wondered around the small village of Coffee Bay.  There are only about 20 huts scattered along the hillside and one paved road that runs through it.  After relaxing on the beach and chatting with a bunch of backpackers who just arrived on a big yellow school bus from AfrikaBurn (it’s like Burning Man but in South Africa), I grew tired of their “Burn stories” of partying and drugs.  I never thought that I would meet people straight out of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas! I should’ve known – apparently Coffee Bay is a drug and backpacker haven because it’s so secluded.  I started hiking up Sugar Loaf Mountain and didn’t make it very far when a little local boy started following me and kept on asking “Do you want to sing?”.  I thought it was some sort of slang for drugs but he actually started singing and dancing over my tired, out-of-breath heaving while hiking up this mountain.  Although it was a tiring hike, the view was amazing! There were huge cliff drops into the ocean all along the coast and behind me were rolling hills for miles, all dotted with brightly coloured huts and rondavels.

Sadly, I had to leave the next day to keep moving or else I’ll never make it to Cape Town! I was planning on changing up the scenery and making a stop in Hogsback up in the mountains.  Along the way, I met a fellow backpacker, Henry, from South Africa who was moving across to Cape Town.  And I thought I was traveling with a lot of stuff – Henry was traveling with 2 backpacks, a duffle bag, a mountain bike, a kayak and paddles! Along the way, Henry pointed out some very interesting sights like Mandela’s hometown of Qunu and a house he built near the freeway which is a replica of the cottage he lived in during his house arrest.  Henry also pointed out the Execution Rock where they used to throw people off and that the Transkei (Wild Coast) region used to be its own country until the end of apartheid.  We finally started moving away from the beautiful coast line and rolling hills to a more wooded region closer to Hogsback.  The small town nestled between the mountains is named Hogsback after the unusual shape of the surrounding mountains which, ingeniously, looks like the back of a wild hog (or a warthog).  The mountains were quite impressive – with tiny waterfalls scattered about and indigenous forests blanketing the mountainsides.  It actually reminded me a lot like Canada and definitely reminded me of the Canadian weather.  It was freezing in Hogsback – not freezing in the Canadian winter sense but cold for Africa.  I think I’ve been spoiled by the fact that I haven’t had to wear a sweater or long pants for the last couple of months that anything under 15C is considered cold now.

Hogsback resembled the Shire from the Lord of the Rings (yes, that’s a geeked out reference) and had capitalized on this fact by setting up stores called the Ring Shoppe, Hobbiton Shoppe and Fairie Sculptures (the fact that their shops are all “shoppes” makes it fancier in itself).  I stayed at a hostel called Away With the Fairies which is comprised of small cottages along the cliff.   After putting on layers of clothing, I wandered around the garden and discovered a bath tub on the edge of the cliff overlooking the mountains.  How awesome is that?! I would’ve definitely taken a bath in such a unique location except for the fact that I would have to heat up the water by building a fire.  That just seems like too much work for a bath – that was my laziness flaring up again.  I hiked along this trail (in flip flops, not a good idea) and stumbled upon a ladder attached to a tree only to look up and find that attached to the ladder was a tree house 15m up.  Maybe I’m just getting old but the climb up and down that ladder almost gave me a panic attack.  However, the view from the well-built tree house was worth it.  You could see the mountain range, the valley below and just trees for miles and miles.   Once it got dark, it was dinnertime! I was starving so when the chef told me tonight’s dinner was going to be warthog and kudu (like a deer), I didn’t hesitate for a second before saying yes.  The warthog and kudu was surprisingly very delicious – although I tried my hardest not to think of Pumba or Bambi while chowing down.   After dinner, I chatted with 2 guys from Texas who were traveling/working in Africa.  One of them turned out to be an engineer (we’re everywhere!) working in Gabon.  Now, traveling in Africa may be a bit adventurous but working in Gabon is downright ballsy.  Paul, the bartender, was super nice and didn’t look at me funny when I introduced him to the best drink in the world – apple juice and Malibu (Tina and I discovered this and always had both stocked in our apartment).  We traded traveling horror stories (he won with being in a bus crash in Peru where the bus flipped over on the side of a mountain and the driver ran away) and gave us free shots of something called “Shit in the Woods”.  It was disgusting but just being able to tell Tamara that I had a shit in the woods was worth it.

The next morning, I decided to leave Hogsback because it was just way too cold and headed towards Tsitsikamma in the Garden Route.  I’m halfway through South Africa and already, I want to move here!

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Kenyan Coast: donkeys, dhows and doing nothing

Tiwi Beach, Mombasa, Kenya

It’s been awhile since I last posted anything – I blame the small towns and lack of internet and not my general laziness in getting my butt off the bed/hammock/sun chair/beach.  After Nairobi, Tamara and I boarded a tiny propeller plane for the 1 hour flight to Lamu which is a small island town off the north east coast of Kenya.  When we arrived in Lamu, we couldn’t believe our eyes.  First of all, the airstrip, and note that I didn’t say airport because it was literally a small dirt path in the grass where our plane landed, is on an island with no other buildings except for a sign that said “Duty Free” pointing to an abandoned hut.  The concept of airport security or screening is non-existent since anyone can walk onto the airstrip from all directions – no stress of body scanners! We then took a dhow (wooden boat) to Lamu Island where the town is situated.

Lamu Town is such a small town covered with Swahili houses and mosques.  There’s only 4 cars on the island (one of which is thankfully an ambulance) and everyone gets around by foot or by donkey.  We met Ali who works for our guest house, Jambo House, and he guided us through the narrow streets of Lamu.  Along the way, we discovered the friendliness of the people of Lamu since everyone we passed by said “Jambo!” (hello!) or “Habari” (how are you?) or “Karibu!” (welcome!).  They have an open sewage system but surprisingly it doesn’t smell – all you can smell is the occasional whiff of Swahili cooking or donkey poo (former better than the latter).  Jambo House is an old Swahili house run by Arnold, a German expat, who was super nice and spent the next 20 minutes explaining everything in Lamu including where to eat, what to see and do.  We then set off in the night to wander the streets of Lamu (it’s that safe!) with the aid of my headlamp – for those who made fun of my headlamp, I told you it would come in handy one day! We found a thatch-roofed restaurant by the seafront and ordered barracuda fillet with coconut rice and mango juice.  The fish was simply prepared (salt, pepper and lime) but so delicious because it was freshly caught that day by local fishermen! At night on the rooftop of Jambo House, we saw so many stars – such a surreal moment to be lying on a rooftop of a Swahili House in a small town on the coast of Kenya gazing at the stars.

The next morning, Arnold prepared us an amazing breakfast on the rooftop which helped fuel us for the scorching day of wandering around Lamu.  The town is situated 2 degrees south of the equator by the Indian Ocean so the heat plus the humidity made it feel like we were in a sauna.  That coupled by walking around the town, and I was sweating off all the food I had consumed in India.  Even with the scorching heat, most women are covered up from head to toe in a black bui bui since it’s a very devoutly Muslim town.  We walked along the main street which is as wide as an alley in North America, all the while people were super friendly and pointing us in the right direction whenever we got lost (which happened a lot since the streets are all so narrow and windy, imagine the chase scene at the beginning of Inception when Leo had to squeeze through narrow streets).  We also walked along the seafront and saw all the dhows, sail boats, fishing boats and speed boats.  Since there were not that many tourists here, by the end of the second day, everyone knew us and would ask us how our day went doing whatever activity we had planned.  That night, I treated myself to a much needed massage.  After months of sleeping on uncomfortable and saggy mattresses, my back had developed a permanent kink.  Charity, the massage therapist, was very nice and was able to pull off an intense massage even in 35+ degree weather.  While I got my massage, Tamara was beautifully decorated with henna paintings on her arms and legs by a local Swahili woman.  Her niece came along who sand us Arabic songs about the Prophet Mohammed and his mother Amina.

The next morning, feeling refreshed, we went on a cooking class with a local Swahili woman named Dida and she showed up with her adorable 3 year old daughter, Nana.  We first walked to the local market near the town square to buy the ingredients for our feast.  We went to the fish market and saw the local fishermen selling their just-caught fish.  It was so interesting to see that even the sight of hundreds of flies buzzing around didn’t turn me off.  Next was the vegetable market where we bought tomatoes, onions, garlic, chilli peppers, okra, carrots and potatoes for under $3! We also picked up some fresh coconuts, rice  and curry powder from a nearby store.  Then we walked back to Dida’s house – Nana leading the way – which is on the first floor of a old Swahili house near Jambo House.  Her grandmother, who is this sweet old lady (reminded me of the Aboriginal woman from the Simpsons movie) welcomed us and Dida gave us a tour of her house.  Her kitchen is a small room with only one window, a tap and a drain.  All of the cooking was done on the floor over a clay stove the size of a mop pail.  Dida loaded up the stove with charcoal and started a fire with kerosene.  Then we went outside to pick fresh bilimbi from a nearby tree – well, actually Nana did it since she was the only one we could hoist over the fence.  Bilimbi is a local vegetable which is a mix of cucumber and lime.  It was so good just eating it raw off the tree.  Back in the kitchen, Dida showed us how to grate a coconut using this wooden stool contraption specifically designed to grate coconuts.  Basically, it’s a small bench with a serrated knife on one end.  We gave it a try but since neither Tamara or I have much experience cooking or have any arm muscle, Dida put us to shame with her skills.  She then peeled and cut up all the vegetables using one knife (no cutting board!).  Another contraption she used was a woven sock-like tube made out of coconut leaves to get the milk out of the coconut grating.  Throughout the rest of the morning, while she was cooking, children and other women would come in and out of her house – some to say hi and others to get water from her tap.  A boy came in wearing a traditional wedding kurta so Dida started making fun of him saying today was the day he was to get married.  Nana popped in a bunch of times with her friends and always with a new candy that someone bought her since she’s just that cute.  Dida told us more about her life in Lamu and before we knew it, the food was all prepared and it was time to eat! We all sat down on her living/sitting room floor and dug into the tasty dishes she prepared.  First, we had grilled tuna with coconut rice and a tomato/carrot-based curry.  Then, stir-fried okra, bilimbi with onion and chili oil and to wash it all down, fresh tamarind juice.  It was the best meal we’ve had so far on this Africa trip and definitely did not taste like it was made on the floor of an old Swahili kitchen.  After eating and digesting over photos that Nana brought out to show off, we sadly said good-bye and promised to keep in touch.

With our swollen bellies, we took a speed boat to nearby Shella Beach.  Then spent the rest of the afternoon itis-napping on the beach and trying to digest our massive lunch by splashing around in the crystal blue water.  One of the local beach boys tried to get our attention by doing handstands and back flips on the beach which we thought was hilarious.  The hospitality of Lamu continued in Shella and when the beach boy got the hint that we weren’t going to fall in love with his gymnastic/acrobatic skills, he left us alone.

The next morning, we woke up early to take a bus from Lamu to Mombasa.  First, we had to take the public dhow to the main land and that was a feat in itself.  The dhow broke down in the middle of the 20 minute voyage and for a second, I just imagined how I would be able to swim with my 16kg pack to continue the journey.  After some tinkering of the engine by one of the boatmen, it started up again and we were on our way (or so I thought).  On the mainland, we boarded our bus and immediately realized it was a sauna on wheels.  The windows were a welcome break from the heat but with that also brought in all the dust from the dirt road we were bouncing around on.  After 10 minutes, we were covered in a film of sweat and dirt – how attractive!  Thirty minutes into our ride, the bus got a flat tire in the middle of nowhere and everyone got out to help/observe/take a bathroom break in the bush.  Surprisingly, the bus driver and some men from the bus got the tire changed in record time and we were finally on our way again.  Throughout all my travels, I’ve never been on a more interesting bus ride than this one.  Along the way, we saw small towns of just mud huts, small children suddenly appearing from the bush onto the side of the road, women balancing huge buckets on their head and we were just transported to a place that I couldn’t have ever imagined.  The coolest thing was seeing the rain (yes, surprisingly I welcome the rain, you would too in 35+ degree weather) and in Kenya’s rainy season, it doesn’t rain for long.  Only individual clouds would produce rain so if we drove by it or the cloud blew by, the rain would stop.  Another unbelievable sight was seeing local children and women scoop up rain water in buckets from puddles by the dirt road after it had recently rained.  With the water shortage in Kenya, this is normal.  Even with such lack of basic neccessities, the friendliness and helpfulness of Kenyans was amazing.  We picked up this little girl along the way and since she didn’t have a ticket, some of the people on the bus helped fashion a makeshift seat in the aisle using luggage and whatever else they could find so she could sit comfortably for the 8 hour trip.  As I was dozing off in the hot bus, all of a sudden, I heard a clucking sound and turned around to see a chicken! A man was traveling with his family and had a chicken in his hand while his wife was holding a baby the same size of the chicken.  I must have had a look of shock in my eyes because the locals around me starting laughing and were yelling, “yes, chicken chicken!” I would have never in my life ever thought that I would be sharing a bus ride with a chicken (that wasn’t in a KFC bucket).

We finally reached Mombasa which is on the south-east coast of Kenya and caught a Likoni ferry to cross on our way to Tiwi Beach.  There were so many people waiting for the ferry that I felt like we were in that ferry scene in War of the Worlds (clearly from all the movie references in this post, I watch a lot of movies).  I saw old ladies, who moments ago were hobbling around, outrun young men for a spot on the ferry – and carrying large bags too! We finally crossed and jumped into a taxi to take us to the remote Tiwi Beach south of Mombasa.  When we got to Coral Cove Cottages, it was already dark but a security guard showed us to our cottage.  It was massive! There were 2 rooms, a full kitchen, dining room table/chairs, a L-shaped couch and coffee table and a huge veranda with a perfect view of the beach.  We spent the next 4 days cooking food (tried to emulate Dida’s cooking with some success), lying on the beach, lazing around on the veranda, talking to local beach boys (and counseling them on their love lives – many have long distance relationships with tourists from/in Europe and they don’t understand what they want) and trying to keep the monkeys out of the cottage (there are menacing monkeys that hang out in the trees by the cottage and they are quick!).  For food, we bought fresh fruits, vegetables and sea food from locals that would come by every morning on their bicycles.  It was such a relaxing couple of days and so peaceful since there was no one else on the beach.  It rained a few times but definitely a welcome break from the stifling heat.  The beach was very nice and perfect for sun bathing in the late afternoons because it was so quiet.  Even after visiting so many beaches around the world, there’s something different about beaches in Africa.  Maybe it’s the relaxing atmosphere devoid of any distractions, technology or stress but I could spend hours on the beach just doing nothing at all.  I better get used to it because next we’ll be traveling to Zanzibar Island in Tanzania for another string of beach bumming!

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Dubai: mirage of luxury in the desert

Burj Al Arab, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

As much as I loved India and all the amazing experiences, the North American side of me was also dying for a nice hot shower that wasn’t over a toilet, not having to watch my step for cow poop and paying the actual price on the tag/menu without having to bargain.  So I was extremely happy to be stopping over in Dubai en route to Africa! That and my sister who lives there just got engaged (congrats Adria and Hussein!).

Mike and I left Delhi super early in the morning to avoid the traffic jam because the Holi festival and boarded our flight.  When we landed in Dubai, I already knew that we were stepping up – not only in terms of luxury but also in hygiene – by the marble columned arrivals hall.  Farrah (future sister-in-law and reader of this blog, thanks Farrah!) picked us up and we went back to my sister’s fiance’s family home to stay for the 2 weeks.  Their place is very baller – with all the comforts of home (i.e. TV, internet, stocked fridge, hot water shower in an actual bath tub etc).

So for the last 2 weeks, I’ve mostly been relaxing, sleeping in and lapping up a life of luxury until the shock of Africa surges over when I landing Kenya on Monday.  Since this was the first time Mike has been to Dubai, we went around to all the touristy places for the week he was here.  First, we went to Madinat Jumeirah which is modeled after an old Arabian town with man-made waterways.  Only in Dubai are they able to design and build a place with no natural water at all to look like the often-flooded city of Venice.  Next we went to the Mall of the Emirates, which surprisingly is not the largest mall in Dubai even with its indoor ski hill (Ski Dubai).  It’s astonishing how many brands the malls in Dubai carry, they not only have all the North American brands, but also all the European and Asian ones too.  If only I wasn’t carrying my entire life around with me in a 15kg backpack for the next 3 months, I would have definitely gone shopping crazy!

Then we went to the older parts of Dubai called Bur Dubai and Deira to walk around the souks (markets).  We first took the abra across Dubai Creek and then walked around the spice souk, textile souk and finally the gold souk.  These markets seemed so clean and tidy compared to the chaos we experienced in India! The gold souk was the most interesting with stores along stores filled with gold jewelery and diamonds.  For dinner, we went to a fancy dress party at one of Farrah’s friends house to celebrate her wedding and Adria/Hussein’s engagement.  Considering my fanciest clothing is a sundress and a pair of flip flops, I had to borrow clothes from my sister and was still the most under-dressed amongst the fancy cocktail dresses, sky high stilettos and designer handbags.  But everyone was very friendly and the food was amazing! Especially the dessert which was 3 cakes (one made out of profiteroles) and gourmet ice cream!

The next day we went to the Dubai Mall (which is the world’s largest shopping mall) and walked around for the entire day.  We didn’t even see every single store in the mall and it took us over 6 hours of just walking around! The mall is so huge that there’s a free shuttle to take you around like in airports.  We also went up the Burj Khalifa which is the tallest building in the world (sorry CN Tower) and it was so cool! From the observatory deck, all the of the buildings look like miniature models and it’s amazing to see a modern city in the middle of the barren desert.  At the base of the Burj Khalifa, there’s a huge fountain (the Dubai Fountain) similar to the one in front of the Bellagio in Vegas and an area called Old Town (which surprise! is not really old but designed to look old) with restaurants to just chill, smoke shisha and enjoy the hot weather.

Since the weekend in Dubai is Friday and Saturday, we did one thing on Friday that Dubai’s apparently known for and that’s all-you-can-eat and drink brunch! We went to Zuma which serves Japanese food which was amazing – not just amazing for Dubai but amazing Japanese food in general (3rd on my list after Tokyo and Vancouver)! That mixed with all-you-can-drink sake, wine and beer and by the time 4 o’clock rolled around, most of us were hammered or falling asleep from itis at the table or both.  It was such an interesting afternoon activity so we ended up going for shisha at the 360° Lounge at the Jumeirah Beach Hotel, which is a lounge with perfect sunset views of the Burj Al Arab (7-star sailboat hotel).  The venue was very nice but the crowd was a little off – not sketchy or anything but quite Euro-trash.  There were girls dressed in scandalous club wear and the sun hadn’t even set yet.  And there were lots of skeezy looking guys trying to look hard and cool with bottle service.  After that, it was a quick trip to McDonald’s for a McArabia (Mike likes the Maharaja Mac from India better but I beg to differ) then finally headed home after a long day.

On Saturday, we decided to spend the day at Aquaventure Water Park which is in the Atlantis Hotel on the Palm (island shaped like a palm tree).  It was like going back to our childhoods – floating around in the lazy river and screaming at the top of our lungs while plunging down water slides.  The water park is so clean and not too busy so there weren’t any lineups for the slides.  It was so much fun I didn’t even realize that we spent the entire day there! For dinner, we went to eat Lebanese food – I’ve been waiting since my last trip to Dubai a year ago to eat Lebanese food! It was so good – my favourites were the arayes, mango juice and hummus with meat.

On Mike’s last day in Dubai, we woke up early and went dune bashing in buggies which was so much fun! We were driven 45 minutes outside of Dubai and dropped off by dune buggies (they’re like bigger go-karts with metal protective cages) in the middle of the desert.  At first I was a bit scared because I had heard stories of people rolling their buggies on the dunes.  But it was so much fun! We had a guide who helped us navigate the desert because apparently, lots of tourists get lost every year – even GPS won’t help you out there.  The guide was great, he didn’t slow it down for us so we were flying up and down and over sand dunes!  We even managed to get stuck in the sand a bunch of times, all while dodging bushes and shrubs which apparently is a big hazard.  The guide told us that a tourist had crashed into a shrub the day before in the middle of a sand storm.  You have to wear a balaclava, googles and a helmet since there’s sand flying around everywhere – that didn’t help much so I was stuck digging sand out of everywhere afterward!

We came back to Dubai and watched a movie in the Gold Class cinemas at Mall of the Emirates.  For those who don’t know what Gold Class is, it’s a type of theatre where all the chairs are lazy-boys, they give you blankets and there’s a call button where you can order food from a waiter (and not just popcorn but chicken fingers, burgers etc) at any time during the movie! So basically, the comforts of your own home plus your own waiter and with a theatre sized screen and sound system – also great for people who have perfected the art of chilling which I think I came close to during my trip to Dubai.

Sadly, Mike left on Monday (of last week) and since then, I can’t say that I’ve done much :).  A little relaxing by the pool here, a little eating/shisha smoking there, mix that in with the occasional trip to the mall, and that’s basically all that I’ve accomplished.  I keep telling myself it’s resting up for Africa but who am I kidding, I’m just lazy.

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Shimla: green and clean town among the mountains and monkeys

Shimla, Himachal Pradesh, India

It’s been awhile since my last post but the last week has been super busy! We’ve been staying with Mike’s family in Ludhiana and they’ve been super welcoming – I never knew I could eat as much as we’ve been eating for the last week!

We were able to sneak away from family duties to go to our very first hill stationShimla! We boarded a bus from Ludhiana to Shimla which took around 6 hours but thankfully, Mike’s cousin Jyotika packed us a tasty picnic basket of puri bhajis, grilled cheese sandwiches and Fanta – mmmm breakfast of champions.  We felt like school children with packed lunch boxes being ushered onto a school bus for a school trip!  The bus ride up the mountain lasted 4 hours and it was so scenic.  There were small towns dotted along the lush green mountainside and cows grazing on farm land that stepped down the mountain.  The roads were curvy and barely wide enough for 2 cars, let alone 2 buses.  Throw in normal Indian driving of swerving and honking and the ride itself was an adventure! Thank god I didn’t get car sick like some of the children on the bus – I had to hold the window shut at times as a vomit splash guard.

We finally arrived at Shimla in one piece (although slightly heavier since we demolished the packed food that was supposed to last the entire day) and set off looking for a place to stay.  What no one told us (or we were too oblivious to notice) was that all the roads in the town are windy and we had to walk uphill to the town above us.  By the time we got to the city center, we were winded and ready to just pick any place to stay.  Thank god we found Hotel Dreamland which not only has clean rooms and a TV but a gorgeous view of the mountains.  People had warned us that it was cold in the mountains but being proud Canadians, we brushed it off with the reasoning that if we can handle -30C Canadian winters, we can handle what they considered “cold”.  Boy were we wrong! Maybe it’s because we had become accustomed to boiling Indian 35+ degree weather but we were freezing – and it was only 15C! At night, we had to wear all our clothes, sleep in the hostel sheets and cover ourselves with thick blankets (and my nose was still frozen).

The plus side was the the high altitude brought along such fresh and clean air! Also, Shimla made such a good effort to be  green.  There were garbage cans everywhere (something I hadn’t seen anywhere in India), pedestrian only roads (so not only no air pollution from the car exhausts but also no noise pollution from the constant beeping horns) and the entire town has been non smoking since last year.  It reminded me of a quaint Swiss town nestled in the Alps except our backdrop was the Himalaya Mountains.  Probably because it was founded as a summer vacation town for the British.  There are mountains in every direction and for miles and miles – truly breathtaking! We watched the sunset from our hotel balcony and it was a sight to see! The sky changed colours with every passing minute with such vivid blues, reds, oranges and purples.  The way the sun set, there were shadows all around it and at times, it cut the sun in half – something I’ve never seen before.

We found a very cute coffee shop that was started as a cooperative by coffee farmers back in the day called the Indian Coffee House.  The coffee was sooo good! Shimla is the state capital of Himachal Pradesh so the coffee shop was packed with government workers on a coffee break.  For dinner, it was so cold outside that I decided on hot & sour soup, hot chocolate and Manchurian chicken just to warm up.  Since Shimla is close to China, the Hakka food was amazing there (for those who don’t know what Hakka food is, it’s a mix of Chinese and Indian food, like spicy Chinese food).

The next day we hiked up the mountain to Jakhu Temple.  The hike was a good 30 minute uphill climb which required some breaks or as we tried to mask them as, photo ops.  There’s a sign at the bottom of the hill that says if you’re under 30, it takes 30 minutes for “absolutely fit” people to go up the mountain so I guess we weren’t that bad although I didn’t feel fit at the top when we were out of breath.  It’s probably a combination of the thinner air (elevation of Shimla is 2200m above sea level) and all the delicious food we’ve been eaten this entire trip.  The temple has a giant statue of Lord Hanuman who was the monkey lord which is exactly what surrounded the temple! There were monkeys everywhere – it was like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds but with monkeys.  There were at least 50 monkeys all around the temple grounds, some older, some younger, some fatter and some of them just babies but it was insane! We had to be on guard everywhere we walked because the monkeys are known to attack people.  Using the same calm strategy as Cesar Milan on Dog Whisperer with dogs, I tried to keep my cool but monkeys would claw at my pants and hiss! I would just push Mike in front of them since he has his rabies shots and I don’t.  🙂  We calmly and slowly moved around the monkeys and took some photos before going back down the mountain, which was so much easier than our uphill climb.

The next day, we left Shimla but the main attraction is actually the toy train that connects Shimla to the town of Kalka at the bottom of the mountains (the railway and voyage is actually an UNESCO World Heritage site).  The toy train is really cute, it only has 6 cars which seat only 25-30 people each and an engine that used to be powered by steam until 2 years ago.  Too bad it changed because the engine pumped out exhaust for the entire 7 hour trip which I blew out of my nose for the next day in the form of black snot.  However, the scenery was worth it! The track winds around and even through the mountains – over rock bridges that reached 4 stories in height and through over 100 tunnels.  Passengers would yell as we passed through the tunnels to hear the echoes from the stones.  Some of the turns were 45 degrees so you can see the entire train turning with a sheer vertical drop on the side.  We passed by many other hill station towns, some bigger than others but all with that quaint town feel.  There were children who would wave and run along with the train or men would appear out of nowhere and wait for the train to pass before continuing their journey up the mountains.  I stuck my head out of the window to catch the views of the mountainsides the entire ride – so much so that my neck started to hurt! Although it was a long journey, I was sad when we finally arrived in Kalka on flat ground.

So for the only hill station we visited in India, Shimla was amazing – definitely worth it!

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