The morning we decided to leave Nuwara Eliya to make our way to Ella, every other tourist in town had decided to do the same, including a German couple who had been on our train from Kandy. We were rather taken with them because the man looked like Olly Murs will in ten years.
The bus was cramped but such a short journey no-one minded. Dave got chatting to some lively Spaniards who were all wearing sarongs. They were telling him about our next destination Arugam Bay and also the ancient cities which was useful.
We got to the station just as a luxury coach full of wealthy (you can just tell), older package tourists did and found out there was only third-class available for the trip to Ella. We were so early; Dave and I bought our tickets (70p) for the four hour train journey and headed to a shack for some stuffed rotis and sickly sweet coffee. This turned out to be a mistake for although we headed back to the platform with plenty of time, no-one had told us that there was only one third class carriage making the journey that morning. The package tourists, who turned out to be German, had already got on board and claimed their seats (towels on sunbeds?) and although the benches could technically sit three albeit in a cramped arrangement, there was no sharing to be done. A kind local insisted I take his seat while he relocated to the floor outside the toilet, I did try and say no but he was having none of it and Dave stood…for a while. Then I readjusted my big rucksack in front of me and he sat on that after a while.
The views, when we could actually see them, were even more staggering than on the trip to Kandy and Nuwara Eliya. The reason we had limited views is because the fat guide in charge of the Germans knew when all the hotspots were coming up and gave instructions to his group who jumped up with their oversized cameras hogging every possible lookout. I eventually got the hang of when good bits were coming up by reading the guide’s face (he was sitting in front of me) and nudged Dave, or just encouraged him to stick his elbows out!
Luckily they got off about half an hour before coming in to Ella so the few backpackers who’d managed to get on, enjoyed the remainder of the stunning scenery in peace. And stunning it was.
The station was small and quaint and we could easily walk to our guesthouse of choice in the town. As we rounded down the hill and into the village, I knew we were going to like it instantly. It was so laid back compared to anywhere else we’d been and the air felt cleaner and it was cool. The small road was lined with guesthouses and eateries and the whole place was shrouded in looming mountains.
We chose Ella Holiday Inn (no connection to the chain), which was a little over our budget but we really liked the room and it was in the thick of things. We had some excellent curry and rice before heading out for our first exertion, Little Adam’s Peak.
This is more of a hill than a mountain and we were glad we’d cut out booze for it as although it was a short enough (45 minutes) climb, it was certainly sharp. Once at the top, the views of the more daunting Ella Rock opposite were beautiful – that was the following day’s task!
We slept reasonably well but were a bit put out by noisy neighbours and we were right next to the kitchen too. However, we dragged ourselves out of bed early and began the day’s trek. The first part of the morning we walked for about 2.5kms along the same railway line we had come in on. It’s a single track with trains going both directions but there’s usually somewhere to duck out the way if one comes. We were lucky both times we saw trains passing.
Afterwards it was the start of the uphill slog. You have to climb a hill first before crossing to ascend Ella Rock. We bumped into a couple in their sixties who were already on their way down with a guide. They gave me a stick (wasn’t sure whether to be insulted or grateful) and told us to bear to the right of Ella Rock for a less demanding ascent. We tried to follow their advice but got lost and ended up going up the steep way freestyle!
We felt quite proud when we got to the top and spent some time enjoying the amazing views before I decided I knew the best way down. I did not. We wasted a good 90 minutes following ‘my way’ down and then having to turn round and retrace our footsteps. Dave was very patient with me. By the time we found the steep way down, there was no-one left up top and the rain clouds were coming in and we got hit by drizzle. So much for the stick, I still went flying at one point and had a minor strop when I thought it was going to happen a second time.
We got lost again but eventually, six hours later, made our way stiffly back along the track to a very, very inviting hot shower!
We liked Ella so much we decided to stay for my birthday and I had a lovely day, despite it being wet all day! I got some lovely gifts wrapped in newspaper (why waste money) from Dave, lots of lovely messages from friends and family and had an interesting full body massage, facial and steam. All I will say, is when they say ‘full’ body, they really mean it here, I am just thankful that I was being ‘pampered’ by a woman. The steam bath was scary – like a coffin with my head poking out one end. I thought I was cooking at one point and had to be released but in a strange way, it was a pleasant way to spend a wet birthday afternoon.
Dinner was amazing. My brothers sent me some money to go out and we managed to spend £6.25 and that was trying our hardest to splash out!
We had ten tapas sized different vegetarian curry dishes with rice, pickles and chutneys and two fresh lime juices.
Unfortunately, we had moved rooms the day before because of the noise but we had actually without realising it moved to a damp room and I was getting a cold, so it was a very early night but a lovely day.
The next part of the adventure takes us back to the beach scene.
Kandy wasn’t the mystical place we thought it would be but this probably comes from unrealistic high hopes thanks to my childhood imagination! Coming to Sri Lanka with mum and dad during dad’s Gulf Air days, I couldn’t wait to go on the train to the city made of sweets but a bad bout of diarrhoea and vomiting made it impossible that time.
We arrived and ignored the train station touts, which turned out to be a bad idea as we ended up walking round in circles and hiring a tuktuk to take us the two minutes to our hotel of choice. He did have the good grace to go round the block a few times to make it seem almost worth the 100rps we paid him though so that was something.
The Olde Empire Hotel was also something, of a Sri Lankan Fawlty Towers, complete with its own Manuel who charmed us both. We had a large room with three hospital beds and windows in the ceiling which was a bit disconcerting and I was attacked two out of three nights by bed bugs who favoured my face, inner upper arms and eyelids. They’re not as fussy as mosquitos as they gave Dave a good chewing as well.
Kandy does hold some charm although it is a busy place and we enjoyed walking round the lake although it’s not a peaceful experience as traffic goes all the way round with you. We also went to some impressive botanical gardens though we were less impressed with the price; it had gone up from 50rps to 1,100rps for tourists in six years. This is the same for a number of attractions and is upsetting the hoteliers because tourists, particularly backpackers who bring in trade throughout the whole year and not just high season, are just starting to avoid these places and hunt out the places that are still free or reasonably priced.
Everywhere in Sri Lanka has a price for locals and a foreigner price which would be fair enough if the difference wasn’t quite so exaggerated. The cost for a local to get in the gardens was 30rps.
We decided not to go into the Tooth Temple for the same reason but did enjoy an evening of local dancing and fire eating and men walking on hot coals.
The train ride from Kandy to Nanu Oya (where we took a short bus ride to Nuwara Eliya) was heaving with backpackers. We had to change trains with a delay at a station on the outskirts of Kandy. The touts were hilarious. One sidled up to Dave and me with the usual opening gambit of asking where we’re from and where we were going. He then told us the train was an hour late but not only that it was coming from Kandy (totally wrong direction!) and would be full to the rafters, especially in 2nd class where we had bought tickets for, as there was only ONE carriage! He then went on to tell us that we would be standing in a cramped carriage for no less than eight hours as it was a ‘slow train’ – seeing our look of mock horror, he then quickly told us he was a tuktuk driver and could have us there in three hours. You’ve got to laugh. We watched as he worked the crowd but no-one paid any attention to him or his compatriots.
The train was full enough but it wasn’t long before we got seats together and the journey took less than four hours.
We walked in full packs for ages to find somewhere reasonable to stay and were instantly struck by the cooler temperature which after five and a half months on the go in sticky conditions was a welcome break!
We found a place called Victoria Inn that looked like a sixties art deco building and thought the owner was mad when he brought us two blankets, we found out later that he was not, it was so cold!
Nuwara Eliya is a colonial hill station and the guidebook wasn’t wrong when it said it is a place that seems more British than Britain itself. It was ‘discovered’ by colonial officer John Davy in 1819 and became singularly a British creation thereafter.
We spent a couple of nights enjoying the cool temperatures and taking in the quintessentially English buildings, racecourse, golf course and Lake Gregory. We also visited Victoria Park which was nothing like the Haywards Heath one I used to hang out in after school but provided some respite from the beeping tuktuks. The horses on the racecourse looked a bit pitiful but we looked on amused one afternoon when some had managed to break loose from their tethers and were tearing about haphazardly avoiding the poor stable hands desperately trying to catch them.
We were going to go to Horton Plain which is listed as an attraction but we found out it would cost $25 – just to go for a walk and see a dramatic cliff drop – and even our hotel owner told us in a roundabout way not to bother. He said he and other hoteliers were writing to the tourist board to try and get the price reduced because it was bad for business.
We’re glad we stopped off there though, it was so strange seeing a little bit of England and getting a little reminder of what our home climate is like!
Next stop Ella for climbing and birthday treats.
With an 0625 flight from Bangkok to Colombo and having to get a cab to the airport at 0325, we thought it was probably best to go out and soak up the night life near Khao San Road and not go to bed – more for fear of not getting up than anything else.
However, come 0430 at busy Bangkok airport, we were both feeling very differently and longed for somewhere to lie down. Luckily the flight was only two thirds full and Dave’s knee made an excellent pillow so I don’t remember much of the three hour journey – just not wanting to wake up for landing!
We were fully geared up (after reading various scams in the guidebook) to be told a number of high tales by touts when we got out, including a bomb had gone off and taken out our hotel, the hotel of our choice had been shut down due to rat infestation etc.) and had our strategy well-rehearsed. We found out in the first arrivals hall how much a taxi should cost to Negombo (a beach resort much closer to the airport than Colombo city) and walked out to the second arrivals hall to be greeted by…..not very much!
Despite the lack of sleep, it was almost an anti-climax. No-one really came near us and we found a driver (not sure he was official) to take us to our hotel for less than the tourist information counter had suggested we pay. Well, that was easy!
The place we had chosen gave me a price in US dollars – never a good sign but very common in Sri Lanka now. You also get given prices in sterling and euros – simply because the exchange rate is better. It’s quite frustrating. I just said ‘I don’t have any other currency than Sri Lankan rupees’ and started to walk away thinking that would do the trick but the chap just shrugged his shoulders and went back to picking his teeth.
Luckily the next place was slightly more reasonable, as in he quoted in rupees albeit many more than we’d hoped for, but after no sleep we were shattered so we took it and went straight to bed.
Negombo was our first experience of Sri Lanka and lacked one vital, much anticipated ingredient: Curry. If you wanted pizza, pasta, burgers, chips, lobster thermidor or any other non-Sri Lankan sounding dish, you were in the right place. We were astonished but put it down to it being because it was a touristy resort.
The next day was more what we had expected. Arriving at a busy bus station we were greeted by countless cries of ‘where you going’ before being shepherded up and down in mainly the wrong direction. The bus conductor of the bus we ended up catching told us his bus wasn’t going to where we wanted to go, yet three more randoms told us it was. We decided to chance it – and funnily enough it drove straight there.
Luckily I sat by the window as hordes of people just kept cramming onto the bus, there was not a millimetre of spare space and the health and safety gods in the UK would have had apoplexy. At one point, Dave started pressing harder and harder into my side – and when I gave him a quizzical look, he said (through very gritted teeth) ‘I’ve got two men’s groins squashing into the side of my face,’ and if I’d had the lung capacity I would have laughed. A lot.
Our stop arrived. We had chosen to get the bus only as far as a place called Veyengoda as I was desperate to get the train the rest of the way to Kandy. There was just one problem when the bus stopped – getting off. It was rammed and the aisles were impossible to move through – just solid with people. Dave’s long legs made it easier for him to clamber over people but I struggled and no-one budged. I was trying to keep my small rucksack close to my chest (to protect my assets in more ways than one) while also trying to keep up my Thai fisherman’s trousers that had chosen this opportune moment to come loose. I was doing ok until I reached this one woman who just literally would not or could not move an inch – and she either moved or the bus went on with Dave on the pavement unloading the big bags and me still on it. It was a stand off until I stared imploringly at the man behind her who, with one strong shove, sent her forward just a few crucial inches allowing me to hoist myself further towards the exit.
Eventually, clinging on to my trousers for dear life and wiping sweat and hair off my face, I made it into the fresh (?) air. Gulp.
We had to wait a little at Veyengoda and still couldn’t find anywhere to eat. Eventually though we did find a grubby shack where we ate some sort of stuffed something or other washed down with a bottle of warm Fanta. We were doing ok until I pointed to a hole in the floor where a dirty great rat sat eyeing us greedily. Time to move back to the railway station.
The train eventually arrived but not before it had changed times and platforms several times – we had to keep asking people to help as we couldn’t understand the announcements. Dave befriended two no-nonsense female police officers who, when the train arrived, came and fetched us and then just waded through the crowds pulling us through until we found our second-class carriage. It was rammed to the rafters – and again, we could barely get on but there’s nothing to be done but shove and shove we did.
A man immediately gave up his seat for me while I wrestled with the bags Dave was passing me while still trying to get on board himself. I thought ‘how kind’ until the American woman next to me told me he had a third class ticket and shouldn’t have been sitting there!
Dave stood for about half an hour before another seat came free and fortunately we managed to enjoy some of the famous ride through the hills to Kandy. It was a little hazy so no good for photos but it’s a pretty dramatic climb with stunning scenery and plenty of dark tunnels to go through. As in India, you will never go hungry or thirsty on a train here. There were men selling corn on the cobs, oranges, samosas and a multitude of other local treats as well as cold drinks. The Italians opposite bought just about everything and told me enthusiastically that the food on the trains was better than in the restaurants and they weren’t joking.
Just a few short hours later, we arrived in Kandy for a short stop. But that’s another story.
(**This is now out of date thanks to lack of internet access in Sri Lanka but more up-to-date news to follow**)
So, been a while since I wrote a blog but I am lapping up some peace and quiet in historical Kanchanaburi after paradise in Phuket and bonkers Bangkok. It’s a calm place to sit and write.
We were lucky enough to stay, with mum, at an old family friend’s apartment in the Kamala resort of Phuket. We felt like millionaires and the apartment had amazing ocean views, an outdoor bath on one of the balconies (which sadly we never used) and luxurious furnishings but even just the novelty of having a fridge, washing machine and television after five months in budget guesthouses was fab. There was also a 25 metre infinity pool and gym that were also used!
We then had four more days in Phuket with mum at a hell-hole resort called Patong – it has few, if any, redeeming features, really not much to say about it at all. Moving on!
A night train to Bangkok brought back some memories from travelling years ago. I was lucky enough to catch up with some of mum and dad’s friends from France and enjoyed some fun meals with them while in the city.
It took me a while to recognise the good old Khao San Road, but I was eventually able to show Dave the old guesthouse I had stayed in 12 years before. I don’t think I could actually have stayed on that road now, far too chaotic and not a moment’s peace from lovely ladies trying to sell their goods particularly ribbeting wooden frogs (can’t bear to hear the sound anymore!), men trying to entice you to “ping-pong shows” with bizarre sounding menus (including “chop-sticks” – does not conjure up pleasant images), tailors trying to cut you a suit there and then and of course the ubiquitous Thai massage. You can’t move for salesmen.
There was some culture to be gleaned though – with a visit to the reclining Buddha at Wat Pho, emerald Buddha, Royal Palace and Jim Thompson’s house which was a refreshing change from temples. You can see too many temples in this part of the world!
After some party nights, it was time to get away for some peace, quiet and reflection and we are still in the perfect place. I’m writing from the balcony of a wooden hut on stilts with hundreds of lily pads below, reeds in front of me, tree houses and very loud songful birds.
It has become more touristy since my last trip with a road of bars including one especially sleazy corner which is a shame for somewhere so steeped in history.
Naturally, we walked across the bridge over the River Kwai (I seem to have developed a bridge phobia and found it a bit of a challenge with the fast flowing river below!) and visited museums. Dave spent a day visiting the cemeteries and other places on his own while I was having one of my ‘writing days’ that actually turned into a dozing day and more Jo Nesbo reading.
Sadly we also witnessed tourists paying to have their photos taken with a drugged up leopard – it’s common round here. There’s a Tiger Temple nearby where the tigers are so doped the staff have to lift their heads and plonk it on to the tourist’s lap for the £20 photo opportunity. Needless to say we have no intention of going. It’s the same with elephant ‘sanctuaries’- there’s been a spate of raids on genuine charities where elephants have been stolen by mercenaries setting up fake rehabilitation centres – getting the tourists’ money but abusing the elephants. We’re doing more research on those too with the aid of Born Free before we decide to go.
Finally, we spent yesterday climbing seven tiers of waterfalls at a place called Erwana. The climbing was tough but not as tough as seeing the thousands of Russians parading around in too-tight Speedos and thong bikinis when they really shouldn’t have been, shouting and smoking in and around the waterfalls – one comment in the visitors’ book said ‘beautiful place but too many Russians’ which made me smile. The waterfalls were lovely and after the hot climb lowering yourself into one gracefully (yeah right!!) to cool down was much-needed, although I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the onslaught of fish that seemed to be pecking at my chest and back – don’t know if they were being friendly or wanted me to get out! It didn’t hurt but felt strange. Of course, like the mosquitoes, they weren’t really interested in Dave.
In other news, after the random visa application, we can finally go to Sri Lanka – next Liza Laws blog from there I guess.
The Philippines is now behind us. We stayed one night in Kalibo, a strange town that you probably wouldn’t stay in unless you needed to use its airport. We had a morning flight from there to Manila with Zest Air where we would catch a Cebu Pacific plane to Kuala Lumpur. We were anxious when they said our first flight was delayed as we didn’t have that much time to play with at the other end but thankfully half an hour actually meant half an hour - which makes a refreshing change for Asia!
Coming in to land at Manila was interesting - the smog was unbelievable - and the sprawling shanty towns spread as close to the runway it just looked dangerous.
Our one and only experience of Manila outside of the airport was the supremely aggressive taxi driver who took us from one terminal to the other. Dave had already agreed the fare on the meter but as soon as the bags were in, the spiel began.
“You pay me 150 pesos ok? I am doing you a favour. Gasoline is so expensive. Look at the traffic, it will take me forever to get back to another fare. You’re lucky I picked you up.” ETC. Dave stuck to his guns and we kept it on the meter and the taxi driver could not wait to spit us out of his cab. It cost 70 pesos as suspected…
That made us glad we didn’t waste much time in Manila - from everyone we have heard it is the same story over and over again - and makes travelling very tedious and difficult.
Getting back to KL was great - I’d always liked it but Dave didn’t take to it immediately but this time we had about a week to kill until mum arrived and so we threw ourselves into doing all the things we’d missed last time - Batu Caves, massive Hindu statues - and of course the caves. We went to Menara Tower - the fourth largest telecommunications building in the world - and travelled to the top in a lift - amazing views! A market with cows heads on platters and splashing fish and all manner of things to make your tummy turn!
On the day of mum’s arrival we caught the coach to the low cost carrier terminal and were there very early! It seemedto take forever for her to get through but eventually she did wearing a purple ‘leizure’ suit - she was in very good spirits but obviously tired.
We got a taxi back to KLCC and as we were entering the city, dad rang which we were surprised about as it was the very early hours of the morning in the UK. He had received a call from a local man to say mum had taken his case! Turmoil!
Dave spoke to him on the phone and it was agreed that someone would bring the case to mum’s hotel to do the swap. We put mum to bed for a while and waited for the case to arrive. TWO hours later, we got a text saying it was going to cost RM250 (£50) for the airline to bring it! Poor Dave then trudged back to the airport on trains and coaches!
Apart from that, there have been no other dramas - mum took a few days to acclimatise and get over her jetlag but she has loved all the culture and curries. Yesterday she went on a tour of a traditional Nyonya house- it usually takes 20-25 minutes but because she was the only one there, she had the guide to herself and emerged an hour later full of knowledge!
So that is KL and Melaka done for her first time - and our second. Next stop is Phuket for a luxurious break from travelling for us and a beach holiday for mum - we will be there for eight days at least - what a treat!
So, next blog from Thailand, ciao.
We were told it would be a sin to leave the Philippines without going to Boracay beach, voted second best in the world and first in Asia – and an almost unbearably enthusiastic Cebuano insisted it was essential to save the best until last, so we did…
We stayed a night in Iloilo after leaving Bacolod before getting a six hour bus-ride to Caticlan, the jump off point for ferries to Boracay. Iloilo was quite a cool place; we stayed in a sprawling guesthouse that had a secret bar hosting pretty cool live bands at night. We had a good time there.
The bus to Caticlan was largely uneventful but long and we arrived at the ferry terminal still raring to go. The ‘ferry’ was actually a large Bangka boat but it was a very short journey. The terminal was heaving with tourists of every shape and form and we were handed a map that advertised heavily some of the ‘attractions’ on the island including parasailing, spas, Indian and Mexican restaurants, so we knew it wasn’t going to be a ‘backpacker stop.’
Unusually, we weren’t harassed when we got off the boat, the tricycle drivers set a fare and if you don’t pay it, you don’t go to the beach. Dave gallantly tried to haggle but the drivers just went back to playing draughts or picking their fingernails. In the end, watching everyone disappear from the port, we caved and hopped in.
Boracay is split into station, three being the cheapest and one the most expensive. Naturally, we were deposited in three. We had an inkling finding a room was going to be really hard and the first few places we tried were way over our budget. Then a woman acting as a friendly local (when will I learn?) latched onto us and said she could find us a cheap room. We tried and failed at a few of her suggestions and then independently spotted a place called Bora Bora Inn. Dave went, alone, to ask for a room and came back with a relatively cheap price. I had been waiting with our new ‘friend’ who tried to hold my hand (!) and so I went to look myself. It was big with a private bathroom and small television (not that we’d need it) so I agreed to take it. The owner then came and asked whether our ‘friend’ had led us to her and we said no, we’d found it from the book independently. Turns out if the woman had taken us there, our room would have cost 25 per cent more per day! Touts, you’ve gotta love ‘em.
We quickly settled into life in Boracay. It was hard not to really. The sand was white powder while the sea was like being in a swimming pool, only clearer. The food was more expensive but there were cheap ways round it (eating twice a day and opting for non-meat dishes) and almost every bar competed for customers with some pretty good happy-hour deals – vodka and orange, gin and tonic, bottle of beer – all 50p.
We definitely felt like we were on holiday more than travelling, which is fine every once in a while but as with other parts of the Philippines, we started to feel our money evaporating.
There’s no question about it, the beach is amazing and the sunsets are to die for – the best we have seen on our Asian adventure but I would personally recommend it as a cheap, luxurious holiday rather than a travellers’ getaway. Every time you walk anywhere someone is offering you a trilby or cowboy hat, boat trip or parasailing, string of pearls or watch, massage or pedicure…and if you’re on a budget and don’t want to spend your money on these treats, it can get wearing.
Saying that, we are glad we have been there and done that!
After Boracay, we caught a short bus to a dusty city called Kalibo where we stayed one night before our journey back to KL. We caught Zest Air to Manila and all we saw of the dreaded city was from one terminal to the next but the prize a-hole taxi driver was enough to make us glad we didn’t stay any longer!
Finally it was Cebu Pacific to KL where we are happily ensconced in Chinatown gorging on curry and waiting for mum’s arrival in a few days.
Leaving Siquijor was unpleasant, largely due to the 4.30am alarm call followed by an eerily quiet trishaw drive to the ferry port through dark, deserted back roads. It is probably one of the only times I have been scared since we came away, especially when a motorbike appeared behind us and seemed to be trailing us – still, a few Hail Mary’s soon sorted that out!
We arrived at the port with 40 minutes to get a ticket and onto the boat but unfortunately everything was running on Filipino time (slow motion) so there was a massive, painfully slow moving queue weaving its way round the front of the boats…one queue to give your name and destination, another queue to collect the printed tickets, a further queue to pay the ‘terminal fee’ and unbeknownst to us, a fourth queue to get a seat number. We had minutes to spare once we’d paid the terminal fee and legged it to the departure area where we were met with a very disgruntled member of staff who wanted us to go back and queue for a seat number but at 5.55am and the boat leaving at 6am we just shouted while running past that we didn’t give a monkeys about a seat and would stand on our heads. The guy had clearly had a sense of humour failure though! The boat staff were even more annoyed and told us that although we’d paid the same as everyone else, we couldn’t sit downstairs in the cool as we hadn’t followed the rules but once again we ignored them and settled in to an air con chair.
The boat stopped in Dumaguete on the island of Negros and was followed by another motorcycle rickshaw, then the first bus that threw us out in a town where tourists clearly don’t go that often. We had 45 minutes to spare before the second bus which we shared with a number of people proudly stroking their cocks much to Dave’s annoyance – he was convinced we’d catch bird flu. These birds are treated like deities and they act like spoilt brats too – pecking away at their owner’s chests if the stroking stops. Surreal.
The scenery on the buses was amazing. Negros is beautiful. Stunning lush greenery with amazing mountains if you looked out of one side of the bus, and a dramatic drop to the brilliant blue ocean if you looked to the other. Despite inhaling a lungful of dust and looking like Wurzel Gummidge when I got off, courtesy of the open windows, we both loved the journey.
We were later dropped at the side of the road in the middle of nowhere where we negotiated with another rickshaw driver to take us to a river where a child rowed us about six metres across for about 50p, he was shrewd! After the river we had to climb round a small cliff and once round the corner we finally saw what we had been travelling all day for – Sugar Beach. How we ever, ever left that place will always remain a mystery to me, it was paradise.
We stayed at the wonderful Driftwood Village owned by Swiss-German Peter and his lovely wife Daisy and the place ran like clockwork. All the girls who worked there were so friendly and kind and did their best to remember everyone’s names. The room was a simple wooden hut but it was so cute – and cheap. The whole front of it was a hatch so you could open it up completely and there was a lovely hammock to chill in after a hard day at the beach.
The days went so quickly – reading, swimming in the best sea we have had so far, sunbathing, having the odd rum and coke or beer and I even had a Chilean merlot for less than £2, bargain! Peter banned laptops from communal areas because, not only did he not have wi-fi but he wanted people to totally disconnect and enjoy the whole Robinson Crusoe experience. Fine by us.
It was an adventure getting to Sugar Beach and harder to leave and that is one of the places we will endeavour to get back to one day – and we might even stay a month next time!
Next stop in Negros was Bacolod, a sharp shock to the system indeed after there. We didn’t stay long but did visit a breeding centre to see hornbills, leopard cats, warty pigs, flying foxes (amazing), owls and eagles. A really cool place trying to do its bit for endangered animals.
We are currently in Panay en route to the Philippines’ biggest tourist attraction, Boracay Island. We are not sure whether it will be our cup of tea but it’s one of those places that ‘has to be done’ so we’ll see.
Iloilo was our first stop – not bad for a city and included a pretty cool bar with some good live bands, haven’t seen any of those for a while. And then we made a misguided detour to a mini island of Panay called Guimaras. Expensive as….and not much to see, because the main attraction – the mangoes – are out of season.
Ah well, more from Boracay!
The New Year has started with a new – and much better – chapter in the Philippines. Feeling a bit disillusioned after so long in Panglao, being surrounded by wealthy holidaymakers and dirty old gits, we felt like we needed to sample the ‘real Philippines’ and so we headed back to Tagbilaran where the ferry terminal was, on January 2. Unfortunately the rest of the world had had the same idea and it soon became apparent we were not going to be getting off Bohol that day.
However, the next day was much quieter and we bought tickets to our new destination, Siquijor (pronounced sickie-whore), famed for its witches and spiritual healers. Unfortunately the boat didn’t leave until early evening and took about three hours so we didn’t arrive until reasonably late as well as in pitch darkness. That didn’t stop the touts being out in force to greet us but they seemed a friendlier bunch than most.
We tried our first choice of accommodation which was full, possibly a blessing in disguise, as we were so pleased with where we ended up, a place called Hambilica in San Juan. Although when we’d checked in, the staff didn’t seem pleased that we were hungry as it was so late but they still managed to grudgingly whip us up a tuna omelette with rice of all things…
The only way to get around in Siquijor is to rent a bike, which we did and which I grew to hate with a passion. Horrible, little, yellow Honda has ruined my backside for life. Still, I suppose it served its purpose getting us to some pretty cool places like an amazing set of waterfalls, a cute beach and in fact round the entire perimeter of the island. Dave is very pleased he can now ride a manual and I have to say, I always felt safe on the back and there’s not much traffic to avoid at all.
The thing that instantly struck both of us about the island is the incredible friendliness of the people – almost every single person we passed (and there were many in two days) waved, smiled and said hello. I had veritable face-ache at the end of the stay but it was so nice – and barely a dirty old git in sight – hurrah!
We found some decent food (a mean feat in the Phils) courtesy of Russell and Gail – a local couple who run a café in a park next to a natural spring used as a public swimming pool and also Erick the Viking, a Swedish ex-pat who had his place tucked away near the beach in San Juan, the area we stayed in.
Day two was spent going up and down a mountain in the middle of the island on what were sometimes roads and sometimes tracks and sometimes just stones and pebbles or sand. Interesting… Many, many times I had to yell in Dave’s ear ‘it’s time for a bum stop’ which was when I fell off the back of the bike, barely able to walk yet forcing one leg in front of the other until the feeling came back to my poor posterior. There was the odd minor tantrum, I will admit, which may have tarnished Dave’s easy rider experience but it was either that or pushing me round in a buggy for the rest of the trip!
Still, the sunset on the final leg was worth the aching and better was still to come. The owner of the guesthouse, an attorney in Manila is a really helpful hostess and is really keen to share the magic of the island. We had just settled down to read for a while before going out to dinner when one of the staff knocked at the door and said ‘mamasan wants to know if you’d like to join her in the pavilion to watch the fireflies’ – we had been dying to see them since Malaysia and now we could – and even better without paying for it!
They were so beautiful. We sat next to the sea watching these specks of light buzzing round a couple of the trees next to the shore, it was pretty amazing stuff.
Sometimes we have to pinch ourselves on this trip but we never forget to remind ourselves how lucky we are.
A very short and sweet stop in magical Siquijor – next stop, Negros.
We’ve been in the Philippines for 18 days now and to Bohol, Panglao, Alona in Bantayan and back to Panglao.
After Cebu, Bohol (an island in the Visayas) was a bit of light relief. Tagbilaran is quite hectic but we based ourselves there to do the obligatory sightseeing that included a very cool hanging bridge made of bamboo, very Indiana Jones, the amazing chocolate hills that despite the dank weather were still very special and of course the uber-cute tarsier monkeys that look like gremlins. It was a full day out with eight stops that also included a butterfly sanctuary, church, monument plus the offer of a boat cruise with buffet that we declined as it was too expensive.
There’s little to say about Tagbilaran and where we stayed apart from the beds being the hardest in the whole of Asia and the room being the hottest and noisiest.
Panglao is a dot of an island at the bottom of Bohol and has a beautiful beach, really white powdery sand and clear water. There’s not much to see in the way of snorkelling or not as far as we have been so far – apart from an abundance of fat, dotty starfish and menacing, black sea urchins. We will take a trip to a nearby island to see more soon though.
The food is good here, we enjoy barbecues, have had a French meal, excellent Thai curry and even a not too bad chilli. There’s a relatively high amount of hassle from people selling sunglasses, massage, pedicures, boat trips, etc on the beach but easy enough to pretend to sleep. Hard life!
We decided to head to Bantayan island for Christmas which, in hindsight, was a mistake. We’d spent so much time emailing the owner of our resort, asking questions to make sure it was as perfect a Christmas as it could be, that it was a bigger disappointment when we arrived. To get to it, we had to travel through some pretty rough, rural paths and once we were there, it wasn’t easy to get out. The restaurant shut at 9pm and that was that. Plus the beach wasn’t nice and the cottage flooded when we had a shower!! All in all a bit of a bad choice – but it was easy enough to move and the next place seemed better and was in the heart of Santa Fe, described in the Lonely Planet as charming but after too many experiences with moody staff, we actually found it charmless!
Christmas Eve was the highlight for all the wrong reasons. We met a mad Swede and openly self-confessed sex tourist called Gustav who spent his time yelling obscenities at people in the Swedish bar we’d stumbled upon while handing out shots of some unidentifiable brown, slightly salty liquor before being tasered by his friend up his fat posterior without any effect. Surreal is an understatement. He then latched on to Dave and I and insisted on showing us two karaoke bars – the second being a shack in the middle of a pretty much deserted road where a transvestite pretty much forced us to sing a Carpenters song we didn’t know in front of at least 100 people. I felt quite hysterical by the time I got home gone 3am.
Needless to say the majority of Christmas Day was a write-off which wasn’t a problem as there wasn’t much going on and it wasn’t beach weather.
We had drinks and dinner with a couple from Slovenia before all agreeing that it was time to exit Bantayan. Dave and I had decided to go back to Panglao for NYE as we knew we would like it and the Slovenians (Yanni and Manya) decided to come with us.
So after two choppy boat rides and a three-hour bus ride in torrential rain, we made it back by Boxing Day evening.
All was looking good until on night two of being back, during dinner, we spotted (from a distance) mad Gustav. I am just not sure I have the energy for him, he’s so full-on.
Here’s a taste of one of our first conversations:
Me: So, what brings you to the Philippines?
G: The cheap women.
Me: So you’re a sex tourist?
G: Yes, what’s wrong with that? I suppose you’re one of those types who fights for women’s rights chanting with a banner?
Me: Yes, and I’m proud of that and can just see we’re going to get on like a house on fire….
I wonder if we’ll have to go undercover and disguise ourselves or if we are destined to be in the same place as Gustav…I might just have to post a picture of him if I can bring myself to.
I have to say the amount of really old men who sit around leering and drinking to excess from about 11am onwards has taken some of the shine off the Philippines for me, it’s really hard to avoid. Unlike in other countries where you can just avoid certain areas – here it is literally everywhere.
However, we’re only three islands in to more than 7,000 so I suppose I should plough on giving it a chance! Siquijor and Negros next I think…but not for a few days.
The Philippines – wow, what a place and much-needed really good ice-cold water shock to our journey! Malaysia is amazing and we both love it for its people, grub, sights and much more but it was getting easy for us and we decided a challenge was in order – and we certainly made the right choice!
We arrived in the middle of the 7,000+ islands at a place called Cebu in an area known as the Visayas. We chose this route as we were desperate to avoid Manila, a city that has apparently no redeeming features and a lot of deterrents.
The flight from Singapore to Cebu was breath-taking, I’d nodded off into my window half way through the Tiger Airways journey but woke up just in time to take in the southern Philippines from about 15,000ft up – I never thought a sight like it could be real. Scores of randomly scattered, different shaped islands, each with a deep green, tropical centre, entirely circled by white sand with a good outer circumference of the brightest turquoise water before the contrast of the midnight blue ocean. Absolutely mesmerising. We were both very excited about our new adventure.
Cebu Airport was fun – absolute chaos and multiple cashpoints that didn’t work, not a good sign. We befriended an Estonian couple from our flight who had spent the previous night roaming the streets of Singapore to save money on accommodation – Cebu was their first, real Asian experience – a brave pair. No bank cards worked and Dave and I even walked across to a casino and through a metal detector to try and get cash but in the end, we changed some Malay Ringgits to tide us over to the next bank.
The taxi driver was (in hindsight) hilarious. Big, toothy grin on his face, as soon as we got away from the airport police, he turned his meter off and told Dave it was Christmas and therefore he was naming his price. Joy.
We’d all pre-booked hotels so we drove to ours first as we were the only ones with money and were delighted with our huge, air con room for not a bad price – although this sadly was not a premonition of cheap times in our travels.
We finally all found a bank that agreed with our cards and parted company with the exhausted and shell-shocked Estonians, I actually worried about them – it doesn’t seem the easiest city to travel in.
Dave and I found a pub (just to clarify the beers were as cheap as we’d heard mind you) before heading back to Villa de Mercedes where we discovered we had a plethora of movie channels on our TV, this was a surprise.
The hotel is in a strange area – uptown as opposed to the rougher, seedier downtown. Although we stayed right next to a slum – and most of the people were really friendly…just one teenage boy who gave us a lingering dirty look, can’t say I blame him. Lots of local men sat at plastic tables with their much-prized cocks drinking all day – can’t say I blame them either. Cock fighting is a massively popular pastime in the Philippines and these birds, dare I say it, probably get treated better than some of their owner’s children.
Cebu on our first night didn’t feel great, we were pretty shocked to see shops, banks and restaurants with armed guards outside – and we didn’t feel the warmest welcome.
In total contrast to Malaysia and Indonesia, we also couldn’t find much food!! We walked round the vicinity of the hotel, a bit on edge if I’m honest, until we finally found a buffet for 188 pesos each – about £3. I think we were a bit out of sorts, we only had one plate of food each, not that unusual for me but absolutely unheard of for Dave!
The other disturbance was the absolute abundance of (usually American, often German, occasionally English) Dirty Old Men (or DOMs as we call them in public). Sometimes it makes me very cross – these old gits preying on vulnerable women whose choice is tolerating them or a life of poverty – and sometimes it makes me laugh. Old, more often than not very ugly men, sitting there arrogantly presiding thinking that these stunning women are actually interested in what they’re saying.
It is strange but the Chinese owned and run Ayala Centre is the worst place for DOM spotting. Probably because, as much as I hate to say it, Ayala is a bit of light relief from Cebu city. You have to go through airport-style security to get in (and leave your firearms at the entrance) but the mall is the biggest I’ve ever been in. There’s also a vast array of places to eat. It houses Mango, Topshop, Marks & Spencer as well as a huge supermarket.
But it is incredible the amount of DOMs that frequent it. It is more common to see one of them with a girl on his arm (usually at least young enough to be a granddaughter) than a local couple. Dave and I certainly felt unique.
Anyway, that’s enough of the Greer slant on our trip, I don’t really hate men!
So, that is our introduction to the Philippines. We have been here a while now and taken in an island and we’re slowly falling in love – so new blog about island life coming soon.
We were sad to leave Melaka but it was definitely time to leave Malaysia, we could get stuck there, it’s such an easy place to travel but there’s half the fun gone.
The bus to Singapore was relatively painless; the only nag was getting on and off the bus to get through two sets of security plus the obligatory Malaysian bus ride food stop. Even if you’re travelling for an hour, there has to be a food stop, Dave loves it.
We decided to walk to find a guesthouse once we were deposited at the last stop, which is always fun mid-afternoon with full pack on – especially when the humidity is reaching its peak just before a monsoon downpour! We got to the several chosen places to find they were all full, including dorms which I didn’t fancy anyway before stumbling upon a great Chinese hotel for a mere $65 (about five times the most expensive place we have stayed in so far but a relative bargain). It had air conditioning, a hot shower, cable TV and a kettle…luxury in a shoebox!
By the time we’d settled in and stopped sweating post-shower, we realised it was getting late for our whistle-stop tour of the city. As I’d been before, it was a rare opportunity for me to have control of the guidebook and map reading. Crikey.
We made our way to Raffles which was just stunning. The bars, the hotel, the hotel shops, all just lovely. Despite feeling massively scruffy, I insisted on going into the souvenir shop where a pack of playing cards cost more than our room…sadly, after indulging in Penang’s sister hotel a few months earlier, we decided to forgo the Singapore Slings at $26 a go.
Onwards to the Colonial district, Merlion statue (don’t tell my nephew), riverside opera houses, Clarke Quay, Raffles Quay and finally Boat Quay. We both really liked the city but the huge expat community was daunting, plus the obvious money being earned made us wish we’d both paid more attention in school! Boat Quay reminded me of Canary Wharf on a Friday night. We even stumbled across a ‘traditional English fish and chip shop’ called Smiths…and there were definitely more western faces than Singaporeans.
It is like a microcosm and hard to believe it is so close to other cities we have been to recently. Sadly it is just too expensive for us to explore further. If you’re in the thick of it, you’ll pay $16 for a pint and god knows what for a glass of wine.
The MRT (underground) was good – a long list of what you’ll get fined for on the walls including eating and drinking on the trains ($1,000) and eating durians – agree with that one.
If we hadn’t had a 5am start to bring us here to the Philippines the next day, we would have spent months of money in days.
It’s very liberating waking up every day for months on end wondering how you’re going to fill the day I must say – but sometimes it’s amazing how quickly the days go by.
People might think travelling is idle and certainly if you’re staying at a beach then yes, it can be pretty indulgent. Wake up, choose where to eat breakfast, pack towel and book, find a spot on beach, alternate between reading, swimming and snorkelling – then repeat the next day. This is all very well for a while but we have discovered that we also love coming to places with history and culture – like Melaka….we love it but we’re not sure what sort of impression we have made on it so far!
The city is steeped in culture and a bit like in Ireland where there’s more pubs than houses, there’s more museums here! Some less appealing than others but you could spend a fortnight doing one a day and still not get round them all.
The first one we went to was the Baba Nonya Heritage Museum – a traditional Peranakan town house where we were shown round by the ancestors of the original owners. The guide was clearly suffering from a cold and spoke in a robotic monotone but Dave tried to get involved and show enthusiasm by pointing to one of his ancestor’s photo portraits asking ‘who’s this guy?’ – the guide looked a bit surprised so Dave asked him again – ‘the guy in the photo, the bloke up there’ but instead of a friendly explanation, we were tartly informed ‘that is not a man sir, that is my great-great-grandmother.’ I wanted to leave the tour there and then because I wanted to laugh very loudly for a long time.
Another tour we went on was through another traditional house where we were shown round by the charismatic charmer, 75-year-old Abdul. He liked to tell us how famous he was every five minutes and made a big ceremony out of letting us bang his gong and make a wish. Dave was concentrating so hard on hitting it properly that he forgot to make a wish, so I made him do it again – you can’t waste these opportunities! Perhaps Abdul picked up on my moderate PMT but when we signed the visitors’ book he decided to tell us that not only was he a celebrity but a psychologist who could read people and their writing too – and according to our handwriting, I am moody and Dave is simple…did I say charming??
Last little tale for now is ‘the man who can push his forefinger through a coconut’ and before all you cynics out there insist it’s a trick, it really isn’t. We saw it with our own eyes and watched the dude’s finger swell up to almost twice its normal size – and all that to promote his miracle oil.
Kung Fu master, Dr Ho Eng Hui (Google him!) knows how to work the Jonker Walk night market crowd, that’s for sure. He spent an hour building up to his trick – and the banter started off being quite funny but then came 45 minutes of hard selling his oil before he had even busted his finger forcing it through a coconut! It was pretty impressive when he eventually did it but it clearly really hurts him as he was bent double panting for some time before marching round the crowd showing off his deformed, red, throbbing finger…then he rubbed his oil on it and then came the real magic, the swelling went down –just like that! He was due to pierce another coconut but started losing the crowd as he went on to his next product pitch ‘don’t go, don’t go, you’ll miss the show’ he barked through his Britney mic but we had seen enough.
I wonder what else will happen here in magic Malacca/Melaka, we’ve enough days to find out!