A wander around Georgetown

Georgetown in Penang is full of contrasts, sounds, smells and sights.

We are here for 8 days before heading to Cambodia and back to our original schedule. Last time we were in Penang, we stayed outside Georgetown but this time we’re at the very heart of it all.

Georgetown is busy, but we’re on a very quiet street with just the squawking of birds. It is full of lovely old colonial mansions that sit right next to some not so pretty high-rise flats & hotels. There is a finely designed Tao Chinese temple in the same street as a mosque, a buddhist temple and a church. There is street-art everywhere.

This is the place to stuff your face with spectacular Chinese, Malay, Japanese, Indian and Western food. We have had a delicious local speciality, Laksa, that cost us less than £2 each at the lovely Laksalicious. We’ve treated ourselves (at only £12 each) to huge amounts of fresh sashimi, sushi and perfect tempura prawns at Zanmai. There are places selling Wagu steak for £50 upwards and, for those craving a taste of home, there’s even highly-rated bangers & mash available at the nearby Irish pub.

There are fantastic clothes markets tempting Allan to buy shirts for less than £3, but also air-conditioned huge shopping malls that have high-end shops (Rolex etc.) that successfully tempted Chloe to a pedicure. The mall we went to today was hosting a competition where, as part of Penang Food Week, 30 competitors raced against the clock to create the best artwork on top of a café latté for a prize of £500.

Underneath this tourist friendly place is other serious businesses. Penang is known as “the other silicon valley” where, amongst other tech, almost all microchips for Intel are manufactured.

We are here for eight days and doubt whether we’ll run out of things to do in this most fascinating of places.

From tropical to arctic, and back, in one day


A one night layover in Kuala Lumpur and we were off to Penang on the new super fast train. It now takes a mere four hours to reach the Penang ferry terminal, but it’s a journey of extremes.

Random impressions include: lugging rucksacks through a hot and humid KL; blessed cool in a seven storey shopping mall; confusion at Sentral Station as platforms are changed without warning; a bright and modern train carriage that transmogrified into a moving freezer as the air con blasted us at temperatures we haven’t experienced since New Zealand; a kid with a yell that liquefies our frontal lobes; the baking, fume-soaked, dusty maze of footways that connects Butterworth Station with the ferry; blessed breeze on our ten minute crossing; relief at the decision to get a taxi to our hotel; gratitude that, though on the fourth floor, we can at least send up our bags in a lift; the excitement of real vegetables for dinner (Java was surprisingly short on veggie options); overheating on the ten minute walk home, even at 8pm; lying under the fan in our room in our pants to cool down (this is our diary and you read it at your own risk!)

Too hot for more. That is all.

A return to Borobudur after 27 years

Allan first visited this part of Indonesia many years ago. This was Allan’s first holiday outside Europe, an eye-opener to an entirely different part of the world and his almost constant wanderlust can probably be traced back to that trip. One of the highlights of that trip back in 1990, was coming to Borobudur.

We tried to visit here back in 2010, but the nearby mega-angry Volcano (mount Merapi) decided to blow its top, resulting in severe damage and loss of life. So, it was a relief when our Bob Marley loving taxi driver delivered us to our guesthouse in the small town of Borobudur, only seven years later than planned.

Our guesthouse (Efata Homestay) is reasonably basic, but perfect and a breakfast that I’m sure Buddha Himself would approve. Our hosts are lovely and genuinely want us to have the most perfect of times. They fuss after us with coffee, get us to try new things such as snake fruit, provide reading materials on the temple and give us recommendations for cafés and restaurants. What a difference from our bland, musak nightmare of a hotel described in the previous post and half the price as well!

Onto the main event. Borobudur Temple. This is the biggest Buddhist temple in the world and was built around 1300 years ago. There are mysteries around this site including exactly when it was built, why such a huge Buddhist temple was built in Java (thousands of miles away from India) and why the site was totally abandoned not long after it was finished. It’s massive. 9 stories high with over 500 buddha statues and the base is over 100x100m. From the top we can see the temperamental Mount Merapi and many other mountains in all directions.

Weekends at the temple are very busy with local tourists. So, we sensibly decide to go on a Monday instead. However, our knowledge of Indonesian public holidays isn’t what it should be, so we end up going on a very busy day. It really didn’t matter, in fact, seeing loads of people having a great time was good fun.

Being western tourists, we get stopped numerous times by friendly locals who want photos with us. We ask, “Really? Are you sure you want red-faced, sweaty tourists in your photos? Are you really sure?” and the answer was always a very smily “Yes”. We must be in hundreds of photos.

95% humidity, 30c heat, the numbers of people and the many sellers of tourist tat didn’t spoil Borobudur. It is still a magical place – but if you plan to go, just look up dates of Indonesian public holidays and get ready to smile for the cameras.

The strange case of the lift with no music

We enjoyed our hotel in Sanur so much that we decided to move back to it after our trip to Ubud. Four days and nights passed with very little to report apart from short visits to the beach and dinner at some lovely Indonesian places – including the café barely 20m from our bungalow. Talk about winding down.

Next up was Yogyakarta in Java. We flew here to save some time and it promised so much as it is the home of culture, batik and meant to be a shopping paradise. Allan came here 26 years ago and found it a charming, if slightly grubby, town where he purchased some magnificent batik prints and equally magnificent shirt and trousers.

Unfortunately we didn’t find that charming town from all those years ago. We found a grimy, dirty, hectic, traffic-heavy and, frankly, stinky city. Seeing a squashed rat on the side of the road beside various food outlets probably did more to turn our respective stomachs that anything on this holiday so far and has even turned Chloe vegetarian for the short-term. I’m sure if we were 20-somethings this wouldn’t be a huge problem, but for us 40-somethings it definitely is.

What hasn’t helped our general lack of bonhomie was our choice of hotel. We chose a mid-range hotel called Lynn Hotel. It promised “world class hospitality with an Indonesian flavour”. Quite a promise and, no, we didn’t fully believe that, but…

What the hotel did deliver was:

  1. A hotel with over a hundred 16-year-old school kids in residence. To be fair they weren’t being bad, but that many kids staying in a hotel that obviously thought any sort of sound-proofing was an optional extra is pretty disturbing
  2. The many staff who thought the idea of hospitality is to open a door for us. Not cleaning up room service that had been left outside rooms for over 24hrs or other such basics
  3. On the map, it suggested a short 10 minute walk to the main tourist shops & restaurants. It took a lot longer due to crappy pavements and don’t forget to avoid the squashed rats!
  4. Wifi. Simply don’t even bother.
  5. Hosting corporate events including Karaoke blasting out from 8am in the swimming pool area. At least it stopped us hearing the musak (see below)
  6. The strange case of musak (you know, that annoying lift music). Well, Lynn Hotel’s idea is to play it in the room corridors at loud volume from 5.45am until late at night. And not just room corridors, it was in reception, it was in the restaurant and even outside in the swimming pool area. In fact, everywhere apart from the lift. How bloody odd

Ok, we know are moaning now. So here’s some good bits.

We did find a lovely restaurant called Via Via that did great Indonesian food and even a bit of Jazz on Friday nights. We had an Indonesian language lesson. We saw spectacular lightening and very loud thunderstorms. We loved the battle of the “call to prayer” between two nearby mosques.

And, of course, Allan did finally buy another magnificent shirt – so all is well with the world again. Tomorrow we go north to Borobudur and say our not so fond goodbyes to Yogyakarta.

Ubud: botany, bikes and bikinis

It’s no surprise that Ubud is busier than the last time we were here. It’s not even surprising that the number of businesses appears to have doubled. Ubud has a reputation of being artsy, cultured and ‘right on’ – the hippy capital of Bali. What is surprising, then, is that the visitors who throng the streets looking for a taste of the ‘real’ Bali are now mainly offered cocktails, toasted sandwiches and the chance to shop until they drop. Many behave as if they were at a beach resort, including walking about shirtless or bikinied, which is a bit shocking when you need not pay too much attention to see how modestly everyone dresses. We’re all for wearing what you want but when in Rome and all that.

Given the heat and humidity, we decide to be realistic about what we’re likely to achieve while we’re here. Even a relatively short walk tends to be accompanied in short order by the need to lie down under a fan. Luckily for us, there are a few interesting things to do nearby.

For a start, our hotel is on a pretty little side street. Its start is unpromising, a slightly bleak concrete road up the side of Starbucks, but it soon gives way to little houses, warung (local restaurants), B&Bs and other businesses. As it narrows, temples punctuate its length and tall bamboo ‘penjor’, put up during the latest Galungan festival, overhang the road. The only sensible vehicle here is the motorbike, but that does’t stop the unaccountably wide tourist taxis from giving it a go.

Our street is so quiet that, on our balcony, we are treated to a constant soundtrack of birds, drums and gamelan music. The wildlIfe even seem to have a schedule: first are tiny swifts scooping up the early morning insects, then the cicada chorus begins and the larger pigeons start to coo, dragonflies and massive wasps get their hour at about 10am. As evening draws in, moths and mossies appear along with their natural predator the gecko, while bats dart among the trees.

A little further up the street is Ubud Botany Interactive, where we take a class in ‘botanicals’, essentially how to make our own shampoo and deep heat out of local ingredients. In a town full to brimming with a lot of nonsense, its founder is a science graduate. She wanted, she says, to find out whether there was evidence to support the efficacy of traditional preparations used here for centuries. The answer is sometimes ‘partly’ and sometimes ‘definitely’ – she will make no unsubstantiated claims. However, beyond efficacy there is a conversation to be had about economic, social and environmental sustainability. All ingredients grow locally, all are safe to eat and none will tax the local infrastructure to breaking point. Besides which, we got to squeeze aloe, pound galangal, sniff essential oils and generally make a right mess!

Just past the end of our road is the Ubud Art Museum. As we walked into the gardens, more like a palace grounds dotted with various mini galleries, our visit seven years ago all came back. No photography is allowed, so you’ll have to take our word for it that there are magnificent examples of Balinese art here, largely from the mid-20th century onwards but with enough older pieces to help us understand how styles and techniques have developed. Chloe remembered a particularly arresting sculpture of rice goddess Dewi and (hoorah!) it was still there, so we looked our fill and tried, tried, tried to fix it in our brains. Imagine the sculpture on the left reimagined by Rodney Matthews drawing Michael Moorcock’s Elric.

And the Starbucks? We won’t lie, we purchased lattes with extra shots a couple of times. But at least Allan had the decency not to wear a bikini when he went in…

Arrival in Bali

We have good memories of Bali. It was our first stop for Hardcowtravels Part One, back in 2010, and we ended up staying a whole month.

A five hour flight from Melbourne and we’re here. The humidity and heat hit us immediately, even though it is 10pm. It feels like Bali has enveloped us in a big, wet hug.

 

 

 

 

 

We book the same hotel as on our first stop six years ago – Flashbacks – and it is exactly the same calm and leafy oasis. The staff are friendly, the food is fresh and excellent quality. The town we’re staying in, Sanur, is still pretty much laid back especially compared to the party town of Kuta a few miles away although has got a bit more lively. Three nights in Sanur passed without very much happening, which, to be fair, was our plan.

Now onto Ubud. During the journey the clouds get darker then, suddenly, rain comes down in a deluge the likes of which we’ve rarely seen in the world. Roads flowing like rivers, house steps running with waterfalls and drains struggling to cope. Homes and streets are largely designed to cope with torrential rain, funnelling water through an exit and putting living areas up a few steps. However, thank goodness we’re in a reliable 4×4 with an extremely good driver.

 

 

 

 

We wake up this morning and, apart from the 90% humidity, it’s like the rain never happened. It’s sunny and bloody hot. All that greets us is the noise of birds and insects with a view over the trees to the distant summit of Mt Batur, the volcano Allan climbed last time we were here. And, being on the third floor of our hotel, there are no loud cockerels prowling around outside our balcony to wake us up at 5am. Nice.

 

The Melbourne Identity

Aussie Rules

Life upside down has been great. Melbourne was a lovely contrast to the wilds of New Zealand’s South Island and we felt at home almost immediately once the shock of heavy traffic wore off. So, time for our “three things” feature on Melbourne and Australia, although to be fair, we were only in Oz for one week.

Things we’ll miss

  1. There are trams, trains and all forms of cheap public transport. Although often crowded, it was a relief being able to get to places without having to break the bank for an expensive taxi.
  2. Cost and variety of food and drink. Prices were around 50% cheaper than New Zealand. And, OMG, the coffee was superb, the restaurant food a decent cost and even our big splurge of a ridiculously chic Italian on our last night was a very reasonable 100AUD for a truly tremendous meal including the best Octopus we’ve ever had.
  3. Huge amount of things to do. Being the state capital, we expected a lot to choose from, but there was so much interesting stuff. And the comedy festival was on. Museums were fantastic, sights you’d expect from a big city and a lot of pre-1900 history.

Three we won’t miss

  1. There seems a very ambivalent attitude to current affairs, domestic and international politics from Australians in general. This was confirmed by people we met, if they were in the UK, would be definitely be politically active. Maybe it’s because generally Oz seems to be reasonably happy with itself, with no economic issues. There was no credit crunch here. “If we get short of cash, let’s just dig up some diamonds/uranium and sell it to the Japan or China.” sums up the attitude.
  2. A definite undercurrent of ignorance and racism. Neera summed this up by telling the stories of the general attitude of people including post office workers and her lecture attendees (she’s an employment lawyer) automatically expecting her to speak in an Indian accent or, in the case of the postal workers, expecting that her parcel was being sent to India. I’m sure she’s had a lot worse. And don’t get us started on Aboriginal rights and general attitude towards what their life expectations should be.
  3. Not a criticism of Oz, but on a round the world trip we have to have a reduced budget compared to a 2 week holiday. Melbourne blew our budget, but we did so much, so this wasn’t unexpected!

 

Funnies, flapper detectives, friends and fun art

Melbourne has so much to see and we leave knowing that that we need another 4 weeks to see everything. But we try and fit in as much as possible.

First up, it was lovely to have the time to meet up with Neera (and her partner Ains), for the first time since we met her on a very drunken night in Borneo over 6 years ago. We have a hasty meal down one of the many hidden lanes in Melbourne followed by seeing the very angry, but hysterically funny, Josie Long at the Melbourne Comedy Festival. Great fun and great to see Neera again.

 

Yes, it’s Melbourne Comedy Festival. Fortunate timing on our part and an absolute bonus. We take full advantage and book in further budget-busting nights to see Andy Zalzman and James Acaster. All three of the funsters were great, with probably James Acaster shading our mini laughter competition. Who would have thought that Chilean miner stories would be so funny?

We also pack in a full day out seeing a couple of places where the TV programme Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries is filmed. For those who haven’t seen it, Miss Fisher is a 1920s flapper detective, she’s unfeasibly glamorous, independently rich and gets up to all sorts of japes with the poor old Melbourne plodders trying to keep up. A defintion of “easy TV” and great fun to watch.

We saw beautifully kept hundred-year old massive houses on a normal side street in the suburbs (I think we found our dream house..) and an old country manor that has been lovingly kept in a time-warp of 1930s Melbourne. A guided tour by the National trust volunteer was informative and with some interesting stories such as the feisty last owner fighting with the local council to prevent ABC taking over some of her land. We also spot Lambeth connections from the original owner that remind us of home.

Onto the last day in the big city and we have time to kill. Our flight is not until early evening and we have to be out of our apartment over 8 hours earlier. After unsuccessfully fighting against the technology of the left luggage lockers, we at last find a place to drop the backpacks off to allow us a last look at the city. This involved a pretty stereotypical Melbourne day of splendid coffee, a hipster lunch of a gorgeous raw seafood and veggie salad bowl, a nose around the hidden lanes and a visit to a magnificent (and free) museum. We chose the Ian Potter NGV museum.

We must have spent three hours at the museum. It included everything from fantastic photography, spectacular aboriginal art, Australian paintings from 1830 onwards, huge displays of very modern art and just, well, random stuff such as a collection of books with titles with the numbers 1 through to 20. We rushed a number of exhibits and could have easily spent all day there. A truly magnificent museum and a rival to Auckland’s national museum as the best of our holiday.

However, just to remind us that big city life isn’t always as fabulous, a short “20 minute” bus ride to the airport on the Skybus took over three times as long because of bad traffic jams and roadworks almost all the way. And not a kangaroo in sight.

 

Friends, Footie & Fruitbats: a few days in Melbourne

Aussie Rules

One week in Melbourne is all we’ll see of Australia, so it will just have to represent the entire country. We already know from My Kitchen Rules that Melbourne is home to hipsters obsessed by coffee who smoke lamb ribs on their city apartment balconies. Sounds great. Where do we sign up?

We’re staying in Richmond, just a quick tram-hop into town (public transport!), scattered with great coffee shops (all walking distance!) and a big supermarket (affordable food!) You can’t walk more than a few metres without encountering a smashed avocado, waxed moustache or flat white. Even the launderette has an air hockey table, massage chair and wifi. It’s lovely.

On our first night, we meet up with William (Chloe’s old work friend in the UK) and his partner, Betty. It’s been a couple of years since they’ve seen each other, but it takes about 2.5 minutes to start talking about politics. Ever the champion of transparency and accountability, William now has Australian politicians in his sights. Be afraid!

Day two takes us to an Aussie-rules football game with Will and Betty. The Hawthorne Hawks and the Adelaide Crows battle it out at the legendary MGC. Aussie-rules is fast, high scoring and the fans are passionate, but the atmosphere is pretty relaxed, the sun is out occasionally and there is beer, coffee and donuts. Chloe says it beats proper football any day. Allan is disappointed in her (but agrees it’s bloody good).

That night, before we set off for dinner in another hipster neighbourhood, Will and Betty take us to a little picnic spot on the banks of the Yarra, just ten minutes drive from their house. Hundreds of fruit bats hang from the trees, and with sunset approaching they’re starting to stir and stretch. For an animal that’s hefty, hairy, leathery and clawy, they are remarkably endearing. Love them bats! Allan, who once spent two full weeks in Sri Lanka trying to get a photo of a fruit bat, cannot believe he didn’t bring his camera.

On Sunday, Will and Betty very kindly drive us down the coast towards Arthur’s Seat – the far end of the vast bay on which Melbourne sits. Their big white and ginger cat is making the trip to Betty’s parents for a few weeks, and he sits calmly in the back footwell for the entire journey. Remarkable. This means we also get to meet Betty’s lovely family, see their beautiful self-built house (even more full of animals than usual!) and discuss each other’s travel plans.

While Betty heads to McDonald’s for her niece’s birthday treat, the rest of us head out to a winery, stop for lunch at a craft brewery (more smoked meat and beer-tasting platters all round, except poor William who is driving) and take in the view at Arthur’s Seat. Distant Melbourne looks like a mini-Manhattan across the misty water of the bay. Even in cloudy weather it’s stunning.

And then it’s time to say goodbye. Since William and Betty are heading to the UK the next day, while we’re bound for Indonesia, it could be years before our paths cross again. Chloe feels a bit weepy. It’s been a great weekend. Betty has shown remarkable tolerance in the face of discussions about local government finance (sorry!) and Allan had to sit through a number of lobbying-related discussions he must have heard before. But we got a taste of Melbourne we never would have seen without them.

The weekend ends with stir fry, My Kitchen Rules and the challenge of working out which of William’s 248 recommendations we’ll do in the next three days…!

Goodbye New Zealand, we’ll miss you

 

We only saw a relatively small part of New Zealand. We didn’t go north of Auckland, didn’t go to Fiordland and didn’t go to Wellington. It is a big old place, especially with us not driving and we did want to take our first trip here slowly and take in the places we did stop off.

We’ll do this for all the countries we’re going to, but here’s 3 things we’ll miss and 3 things we won’t miss about New Zealand. Excuse the totally generalities.

Things we’ll miss

  1. We’ve seen sights both landscapes and wildlife that would be a set of highlights for 5 month never mind a 5 week visit. Penguins, sea lions, albatross, seals, huge glaciers, snow covered mountains, multi-coloured lakes and geothermal activity – but no earthquakes thank goodness.
  2. The Kiwis. Without fail, everyone we met had the time of day to say hello, have a chat, recommend places to see and do and help us out. This was from the people we passed on the street, the owners of the properties we stayed in and even went as far as the airport officials at security at Christchurch airport passing the time of day (they weren’t that busy) and recommending that we should come back and live here.
  3. We were told before we came by all the Kiwis that their pies are something else and far better than the pastry covered delights we get in the UK. They were right.

Things we won’t miss

  1. We really intended to learn how to drive before we came here. We didn’t and did regret it a little. The blank looks when asking about public transport, the vast distances even in the small towns and the cost of taxis did stop us from doing the odd thing. Local buses, apart from Auckland and Christchurch, are almost non existent and places such as Dunedin, a large and very spread of out city, didn’t even have public transport from the 30km out of town airport to the city centre.
  2. Cost of food and living is extremely high in New Zealand. Even the Kiwis complain that they are paying export prices. This is not just restaurants, but supermarkets and it is for everything not just luxury items. A small bag of salad for $5 (£3)?  A beer for $9 (£6)?  Pub/restaurant main course $30 (£20). We reckon costs are around 50% more compared to the UK.  And a special mention to New Zealand Marmite. Come on Kiwis, what the **** was that meant to be?!
  3. Free-to-air TV was shockingly bad. There was little debate, little actual reporting of news in any depth and just really bad UK and Australian soap/lifestyle magazine programmes were the order of the day.

We would love to come back to NZ, it’s made a fantastic impression on us and we still have an awful lot to see. Sounds obvious, but it is an awful long way from the UK, so careful planning will be needed. We’ll miss you New Zealand!!