Friday, March 29, 2013

March 19th – Another Day in Paradise in The Maldives

Cruising to the Maldives offers two contrasting travel experiences – you can either have the stereotypical paradise island experience of sugar white sand, turquoise seas and amazing coral gardens; or you can visit the concrete jungle that is the capital Male, one of the most densely populated cities in the world, with 100,000 people crammed into its one square mile.

Having spent plenty of time in Male before, we sensibly went for the stereotypical island paradise option, by taking the boat trip out to the idyllic Kuda Island. So, in 45 minutes we were transported from the claustrophobic high rises of Male, to an absolutely picture perfect desert island. We claimed our spot under the shade of the swaying palms, and launched ourselves into the warm water with our snorkels to see what we could discover.

As soon as our heads were underwater, there were so many beautiful fish on display, in all shapes and sizes, and all the shades of an artist's palette, decorated in vibrant spots, stripes and smudges of colour. Just after we got to where the reef dropped off, I spotted a couple of large sting rays glide by into the depths, but they were my only encounter with anything menacing-looking.

After taking in the underwater sights, there wasn't much else to see on an island that you could walk around in 7 minutes flat – but, that was the point, we were here to relax. So, that's exactly what we did, until it was time to go for another snorkel, and then time to get the boat back.

If paradise is half as nice as the Maldives..........

Friday, March 22, 2013

March 17th – Exploring Kerala’s Backwaters

Today it was an early start to take the 2-hour drive south of Cochin to get to Alleppey where we were taking a boat trip on Kerala's famous backwaters. Even though it was a Sunday, the driver was in a constant battle with the traffic, overtaking cars on the wrong side of the road, honking his horn constantly, and being overtaken as he was overtaking – 3 cars going the same way side-by-side on a single carriageway road, with a car in the not too far distance coming towards us.

Somehow we got to the backwaters in one piece, and immediately we were transported to an utterly different world, where peace and tranquillity reigned. We climbed onto our luxurious houseboat, and began our glide down these beautifully quiet waters. As we chugged along serenely, the peace was only broken by bird calls, or the noise of people washing their clothes in the water, heartily slapping down the soapy clothes onto a rock and bashing the dirt out of it.

Of course, there were quite a few other houseboats sailing along too, but most of what we saw were ordinary people in canoes, the odd ferry boat passing us by, or families walking to church along the bankside. It seemed an utterly idyllic place to live, although there were very few amenities here – people washed themselves and their clothes in the waters, and with no roads, they had to take to canoes to get about.

It was all so utterly tranquil that people took it in turns to fall asleep, as they relaxed on their easy chairs and took in the sights. I think that three or four days of this would make for the most relaxing holiday in the world.

After a couple of hours of the most chilled out sailing I've ever done, we headed to one of Kerala's beach resorts for lunch. Kerala's not as famous as Goa for its beaches, but this one was pretty beautiful, even if it was way too hot to sit out on the burning sands. Instead, we sheltered in the shade and had our choice of delicious curries and local specialities – delicious.

Our ride back to the ship was marginally less manic than the ride back, and it was time to chill down my core temperature in the air-conditioning, before heading out again for the evening. From the ship, we walked to the upscale Taj Malabar hotel on the tip of Willingdon Island, for a sundowner. With the sun setting over the sea, the evening views were beautiful, the beer was cool and refreshing, and the hungry mosquitoes had a feast on our blood – there is always a price to pay for paradise.

In spite of the bites, we decided to stay for a curry, which was one of the best I've ever had - over the course of the past 2 weeks, I've had at least one curry either on board or ashore every single day, so I'm becoming quite an expert.

Incredible India has lived up to its title yet again – can't wait to come back this time next year.

March 16th – Cochin Curry

As we didn't get into Cochin till 4pm, we didn't have too much time to explore today, so we made the focus of our day, finding a good, authentic curry in Fort Cochin. Getting off the ship, we had to ignore the crowd of taxi drivers and tuk tuk drivers who surrounded us and tried to drag us into their overpriced taxis. We ignored their offers and headed to the ferry station where the price to get over to Fort was 2 rupees (about 1 cent US), as opposed to the $5-$10 prices we were being quoted. Not only was it so incredibly cheaper, but it was also quicker and a much more atmospheric way to travel, sailing across the tranquil waters of Cochin's harbour.

Once we got there, it was obvious that something was going on in town – an art exhibition called the Kochi Biennale was going on in various buildings in Fort Kochi. As we only had an hour before it was due to finish, we went to the main exhibition in the abandoned Aspinwall's warehouses just before you get into town. I'd always walked past these once-grand but now-crumbling set of buildings wondering what was inside, so it was interesting to walk around its complex of huge warehouses.

Rather than containing the spices and rice that once would have been shipped out of here, they were now home to some fairly weird and wacky installations that would have rivalled any of the bizarre stuff that we've seen in the Venice Biennale. To be honest, I had very little understanding of the artistic ideas being put across, but it went to show that the Indian art scene is every bit as advanced and bordering on pretentious as anything we have in the West. Maybe I'm just a philistine, but a lot of this stuff seemed like a case of the Emperor's New Clothes.

Anyway, for an hour it was interesting to do something a little different here in Cochin, and then we wandered into the Fort area to take our obligatory shots of the famous Chinese fishing nets – they looked particularly photogenic as the sun set behind them. Our next stop was Tracy's favourite Cochin shop, the imaginatively-named Shop 'n Save, where she bought a year's supply of ayurvedic lotions and potions. I doubt that the friendly shopkeeper has ever sold as much cosmetics in one go, so he treated us like royalty.

After calling home in an internet cafe where I got eaten alive by mosquitos (just my left knee has 9 bites on it), we headed to a restaurant we've eaten at before, called Dal Roti. As we approached, the long queue of customers waiting outside was a good and a bad sign – it meant a wait of about half an hour, but it did mean that the place was good enough to attract plenty of customers (and plenty of locals) who thought that it was worth the wait.

As ever, the food was delicious (and pretty cheap), and the only reason that it didn't score higher marks on my Chicken Jalfrezis of the World Index, was that I couldn't wash it down with a beer – not that many restaurants in Cochin actually serve alcohol.

By now, it was too late to get the ferry, so we had to begrudgingly spend $5 on a taxi back to the port.

March 15th – Meeting Sri Lanka’s Elephants

From Colombo, today we were taking the ship's tour to visit the elephant sanctuary at Pinnawela. This wasn't just any old coach trip; instead Silversea had hired our own private train to take us there – so, we were taken to Colombo's busy Fort Railway Station, and boarded our own private elephant express.

As we shook, rattled and rolled our way past Colombo's sprawling suburbs and into the open countryside, it was a very relaxing way to get out of the city. Once at our destination, we then had a short coach ride to the elephant sanctuary. Unfortunately for us, it was some kind of school holiday, where all the schools take their children out on day trips, and it appeared that most of the country's schools had taken them to Pinnawela. The approach to the Sanctuary was choked with schoolkids in their neat white uniforms, although it must be said that they were all very well behaved – if this were Britain, the volume levels would have been about 10 times higher.

Actually, it appeared that most of the children were on their way out, so by the time that we got down to the river where the elephants were bathing, the crowds had thinned out appreciably. Because, in the water right in front of us, were about 40 elephants bathing, playing, lumbering and wrestling away in a compelling display of elephantine antics.

It was the kind of thing that you could stand and watch for hours, as the younger elephants attempted to playfully wrestle each other off the rocks, like sumo wrestlers in elephant suits. They got up to the kind of antics that you'd see human children do in any playground around the world – all competing to be king of their particular castle.

Most of the elephants carried on plunging themselves into the water totally oblivious to the crowds of us watching them, but a few of them obviously thought that they could get some food from us, so would snake their trunks up over the ledge to see what they could sniff out. It was a strange experience to pat the elephant's rough trunk, and try to avoid his snotty nostrils trying to curl up our legs to give us a good investigation – the little children next to us shrieked with an equal mix of delight and fear every time the trunk got close to them.

After a delicious curry lunch overlooking the river, we headed over to the area where the elephants are fed. Here, we watched the juveniles glug down litres of milk, and saw a couple of tiny orphaned babies looking super cute with their thick black hair sticking straight up like they'd just got out of bed.

All too soon, our entrancing elephant encounter was over, and it was time to head back to the train for Colombo. What a great experience to be so close to these incredible and intelligent beasts.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

March 12th – A Warm Welcome in Sabang

Sabang is not a place that people visit very often. There's a number of reasons for this:
1. It's the most northernmost part of Indonesia, sitting on the little island of Pulau Weh, just off the tip of Sumatra – this makes it a fairly out-of-the-way spot.
2. Pulau Weh sits in the province of Aceh, which is most famous (or infamous) for its long and bloody rebellion against the Indonesian government, which only finished in 2005.
3. In 2009, Aceh instituted a very strict interpretation of Sharia Law here, which is hardly something to attract the tourists.

So, on the face of it, with little in the way of must-see sights or attractions, Sabang wasn't a very promising stop on this world cruise. However, what turned the port into an unexpected delight, were its warm and wonderfully friendly people.

As we sailed into the harbour, we could see a big marquee had been set up – it wasn't for us, it was for the hundreds of locals who'd turned up to welcome us in. As the ship edged its way towards its berth, you could see people streaming to the harbour to greet us, while dance groups on the pier put on energetic shows for us. On a steaming hot day, it was lovely to be so warmly welcomed.

Once we got off the ship, we were treated like film stars, people rushing up to us wanting to have their photos taken with us. Normally it's us wanting to take pictures of the locals, here it was the other way round – there was such a refreshing innocence to their curiosity in us and in their overwhelming, smiling friendliness. I've never been photographed so much before, and I've never felt so tall – the people were almost all fairly tiny.

There really isn't much to see in Sabang, but it was enjoyable to walk along the waterfront, past shops catering only for the local market and constantly have people come up to us and say hello. The chief architectural points in town were its mosques, but even though this is a place living under Sharia Law, it didn't appear to have an oppressive atmosphere in the slightest.

We saw a few relics from the Dutch colonial times – from the times when this was one of the world's most important coal stations. Supposedly, before the Second World War, Sabang was a more important (or at least as important) port than Singapore – hard to believe when you see its lack of development and sleepy atmosphere today.

Sometimes it's good to come to out-of-the-way places, and to meet people who aren't jaded with tourism in the slightest, even if that means there isn't much in the way of a tourist infrastructure. In Phuket the day before, you got the impression that many of the people you met just saw you as a big walking dollar $ign – here in Sabang, they were truly glad to see us.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

March 11th – Phuket

Most visitors come to Phuket for sun and fun on its glorious beaches; and so, the fact that this is actually a fairly historic place with a fair amount of culture tends to get forgotten. Our mission today was to explore the forgotten historical and cultural side of the capital, Phuket Town.

Unfortunately, to get into to town, you have to run the gauntlet of the rapacious taxi drivers who have managed to stop any ships running shuttle buses here. Instead, they aggressively try to overcharge you for the smallest journey, and would rather walk away from a deal at a decent price if they can't get you to pay an inflated rate.

After working our way through about 10 drivers, we got someone to agree to take us there and back for $20, which I knew was over the top, but in this kind of heat you can only argue so much. So, we finally got a lift into town, and started to explore. We headed first for the town's food market, which turned out to be one of the smelliest that I've come across in a long time, but it had a good array of exotic fruit and veg on offer, and lots of different curry pastes by the bucketload.

We then explored the historic streets of the old town, where the architecture of the rows of 2-storey shophouses was very similar to the historic architecture you find in Penang and Singapore – not surprising, when you think about the trading links between these towns in the 19th century, and given that the population of all three towns back then was predominantly Chinese.

Back then, there must have been some serious money to be made (mostly from the island's lucrative tin mining industry) judging by Phuket Town's array of grand mansions that have survived in varying states of repair, dotted in amongst the shophouses and the modern developments.

By now, it was seriously hot and steamy, so we sought some air-conditioned respite in one of the larger malls in town, before heading back to the Old Town for lunch. We ploughed our way through large amounts of delicious Thai food – the spicy green curry almost causing as much perspiration as the extreme heat outside.

After a bit more wandering through the historic streets, visiting quirky little boutiques and souvenir shops, we could take the heat no longer, and rendezvous-ed with our waiting driver for the return drive to the ship. Considering the huge amount of tourists on the island, there were surprisingly few in cultured Phuket Town itself – I guess that's their loss, and our gain.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

March 10th – Penang

If it's Sunday, it must be Penang – after 7 days of non-stop touring in hot and humid weather, I'm really looking forward to a sea day in a couple of days time. However, the interesting sights are keeping me going, and colourful Penang is a great place to explore.

I joined a tour which showed us different sides of this cosmopolitan little island. Although this Malay island was colonised by the British, the dominant cultural force here has always been Chinese, so we started with a trishaw ride around the streets (thankfully pretty quiet because it was a Sunday), before ending up at the fascinating Peranakan Mansion Museum.

As soon as the British took over Penang, they imported Chinese to do much of the hard work; and, many of those commercially minded Chinese began to do as well as their colonial masters – particularly those who got involved in the lucrative opium trade. The Peranakan Mansion belonged to one of those Chinese drug dealers, who clearly had plenty of money to spend on decorating his palatial mansion in a striking fusion of eastern and western styles – much of the design was dictated by feng shui, yet many of the modern features (like ironwork imported from Glasgow) were European.

We next went to the Penang Butterfly Park, which was full of these colourful and delicate creatures fluttering by. To be honest, I'm not particularly into butterflies, but the whole thing was very well done.

After the obligatory Penang retail opportunity at a Batik factory, we stopped in for lunch at the Shangri-La, which had the best buffet I've been to in a while – a wonderful showcase for the different culinary influences on the island over the last 200 years – Chinese, Indian, Malay and European.

It was now so incredibly hot, and I was now so incredibly full that I could scarcely move, however we had a couple more visits to make – stopping first at the Thai and Burmese temples, which enable me to fulfil my usual daily quota of reclining buddhas and golden stupas.

Just as we were on the point of flagging, we had possibly the best stop of the lot – a visit to the Khoo Kongsi Chinese Clan House. This was the historic meeting house and community hall of one of Penang's major families – the Khoos. Considering that they'd all originated from a fairly insignificant village in China, 12 generations ago, the family has clearly been very successful, and the ornate clan house was a showpiece for this. Inside its delicately-carved pavilion, the achievements of the various clan members were proudly shown off, and provided an informal history of the city of Penang along the way.

The great thing about Penang, is that it packs in so much history and so many different cultures into a fairly compact city – a place that seems almost designed for whistle-stop tours.