Monday, February 25, 2019

February 23rd – A Relaxed Day in Kaohsiung

If you had to put together your list of Asia’s Top 100 cities, I doubt whether the unspectacular port city of Kaohsiung in Taiwan would get close to it. This may be Taiwan’s second largest city and the 13th busiest container port in the world (not normally a recipe for urban beauty), but there’s not a great array of must-see sights on offer here.

However, once you’ve lowered your expectations accordingly, and you’re prepared find pleasure on the city’s more provincial offerings, you find that Kaohsiung is actually a very pleasant and relaxed city to explore. In an overwhelmingly modern city, the architecture isn’t exactly amazing (apart from the tall 85 Tower peering out of the hazy pollution), but with its wide streets and mostly low-rise layout, the city has a spacious feel to it.

We caught the subway from the rather grass-less Central Park, up to Zuoying to see the Lotus Lake with its collection of temples and leisure facilities. The metro was quite crowded, but it didn’t have a pushy feel to it – people were constantly giving up their seats to people older than them, and everyone was incredibly polite. I think you can tell a lot about a city’s level of sophistication from its public transport system, and Kaohsiung seems to be pretty advanced.

As we walked from the station to the lake we came across a really lively street market selling all kinds of colourful fruit and veg, meat and fish. Again, everyone was really friendly (even though hardly anyone spoke English).

The lake itself is probably the city’s most picturesque sight, surrounded with lots of different temples – the highlight being the modern Ciji Temple, where to ensure good luck, you enter through a giant dragon’s mouth, and leave through a tiger’s mouth. In other tourist cities, this wouldn’t rank too highly on a list of must-see sights, but here in Kaohsiung it made for a pleasant place to visit.

We caught the Metro back to the Formosa Boulevard station in the centre of town – apparently, this station has been voted “The Most Attractive Subway Station in the World” (who votes for these things I don’t know), and it is indeed a very attractive station – underneath a colourful dome of light, looking a bit like a Tiffany lampshade.

As we recovered from the excitement of this attractive station, we decided to walk through town back to the ship, taking in the re-developed riverfront, and passing through the old warehouse (Pier 2) district which has been turned into an artsy area of galleries, restaurants and art installations. While the centre of town had been pretty quiet (we were told this was because it was the end of Chinese New Year), Pier 2 was full of promenading families and groups of well-behaved young people enjoying themselves.

Kaohsiung may not be a thing of beauty, but it’s a thoroughly agreeable place to explore. What kept on striking me was how different this place is from mainland China – much more polite, people have a better idea of personal body space, and a much more egalitarian atmosphere than its (supposedly Communist) big brother. If China ever does get its way, and Taiwan becomes part of the People’s Republic, it would be interesting to see how it gets integrated. To me, Taiwan is Chinese, but it’s not China.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

February 21st – Walking Manila

I've never thought that Manila was a particularly pedestrian-friendly city, and today proved that that had been a 100% correct assessment. Having "done" all the historic sights of Manila in the past, we had decided to do a walk along the waterfront of Manila Bay. In most places, the waterfront is the focus of the city (even crumbling Alexandria in Egypt makes the most of its waterside setting), but here in Manila, it's almost like the city has its back to the sea.

There is one stretch of about one-mile of pedestrian walkways, but no-one seems to use them (during the day at least), apart from the homeless families living in the bushes. To be fair to Manila, the city is at least trying to clean up Manila Bay – there were some mechanical diggers along the water's edge who seemed to be doing some dredging. However, the result of this was that they had stirred up one of the foulest smelling stenches that I've ever experienced. The signs saying "No Swimming in Manila Bay" seemed fairly redundant – you surely wouldn't last for long in those foul waters.

So, faced with the smell of death on one side, and an 8-lane highway the other side – packed with polluting jeepneys, thundering container trucks, and hooting cars – in sweaty 30 degree heat, this wasn't proving to be the most invigorating of strolls. However, we ploughed on for a couple more kilometres, until we didn't even have the smell of raw sewage to take away from choking traffic pollution, and the number of homeless people got to be a little threatening.

So, we hopped into a cab and got him to take us to the huge Mall of Asia (the 4th largest Mall in the world). It was like we had arrived on another planet. From chaotic traffic, we had arrived in the ordered environment of an American style Mall – from dirty streets, we were in sanitised retail therapy.

And, before you accuse me of copping out by just going to a shopping mall, I should point out that visiting a Shopping Mall is one of the definitive Filipino experiences – always packed with the shopping mad locals. So, when in Manila, you should do as the Manilenos and wander around the mainly-western brands, at prices pretty similar to what we have back home.

As ever, today proved that Manila's a lively blend of the First World and the Third World, a fascinating mix of East and West, and a jarring juxtaposition of poverty and wealth.

PS. In the evening, we had an excellent local show of song and dance – again mixing Spanish influences, with Chinese touches, and Muslim traditions.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

February 19th – Orangutans and Sun Bears in Sandakan

When you're looking across at the feeding platform, as the orangutans work their way through a bunch of bananas, there's something compelling about their remarkably human behaviour and characteristics – you just can't take your eyes off them. They do share 97% of their DNA with us humans after all.

As I watch, I spend my whole time giving them human emotions – as they jealously guard their food from each other, they mischievously poke each other, or angrily push away the one who's been annoying them. Then, when you look across at their soulful eyes, you decide that they have a touch of sadness about them – undoubtedly a reaction to their natural habitat being endlessly destroyed by man.

Actually, the orangutans here seemed to be on pretty fine form, giving us heavyweight gymnastic displays as they swung down from the trees, that left you in awe of their strength and acrobatic abilities. Seeing the infant orangutans in the nursery was incredibly entertaining – constantly annoying and wrestling with each other like a group of human siblings. Every now and again, the handlers had to step in like teachers, to separate the naughtiest children. Just incredibly entertaining to watch.

After the Orangutan Sanctuary, we walked across to the neighbouring Sun Bear Sanctuary, just as the heavens opened and the RAIN-forest well and truly lived up to its name. With sightings proving elusive, I speculated that maybe because he's got the "sun" name, the bear doesn't like to come out when it's raining – however, it appears that this mainly black bear gets his name from a patch of light fur on his chest which supposedly looks like the rising sun. Actually, in spite of the name, the bear is mostly nocturnal, which explains why the fleeting glimpses that we got were mostly of bears sleeping in the undergrowth.

These small bears are about half the size of the American bear, and the most interesting fact I found out about them is that their skin is so loose, that if they are caught be a predator, they can somehow turn around within their skin and attack their attacker. I'm currently eating so much on this cruise, that I have plenty of spare flesh that might help me do the same in an emergency.

I got quite a few shots of bear backsides, so I have to admit that Tracy's pictures of the proboscis monkeys that she saw elsewhere are much better than mine.

Sandakan (our cruise port) as a town might not have much going for it, but the chances to view Borneo's unique wildlife are just amazing. Another wonderful day.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

February 16th – R&R in Bali

Sometimes it's good to take a break from the sightseeing. And, in a place like Bali where you can have a choice of temples and cultural sights, or beaches, spas and restaurants, sometimes it's easier to take the path of least resistance (especially when you factor in the terrible traffic situation, which can make getting anywhere a real chore).

So, today was about a few simple pleasures and necessities. We went to our old backpacker stomping ground, Sanur (which is getting increasingly upmarket these days) to visit a spa where Tracy had some treatments and I had the toughest massage that I've ever had. It was a "deep tissue" massage that was so deep, I thought she'd pushed through my muscles to the other side – no pain, no gain seemed to be the mantra.

After this pummelling, we went to an old favourite, CafĂ© Batu Jimbar in Sanur for some great value spicy Balinese food – delicious.

You can't see temples every day – a bit of pampering can be just as good for the soul!

Friday, February 15, 2019

February 15th – Dodging Dragons in Komodo

It was a little bit like a plot line from a B-Movie, or a rejected screenplay from "Lost". A bunch of pampered cruise passengers get stranded on a beautiful, but deserted mysterious island. As they explore the dense jungle-like vegetation, they hear strange noises in the undergrowth, and notice the tracks of animals the like of which they've never seen before.

Someone spots some droppings which consist of the ground up bones of other animals; and it's so hot and inhospitable that the group gets strung out as the stragglers struggle to keep up. Slowly it becomes apparent that this island is home to a diabolical man-eating creature that likes to ambush its prey, slice them open with its razor sharp claws, and eat them alive.

Yes, this is your standard shore excursion on Komodo Island – home to the most evil monsters on the planet.

There's always a thrill to visiting Komodo, a quickening of the pulse as you enter the Dragon's Lair, a sense that you don't know quite what's going to happen around these dangerous beasts. Of course, you are protected – you have a couple of rangers with you who are used to being around dragons, but they are only armed with long sticks to fend off these natural born killers.

Our first sighting was right by a restaurant, where a huge dragon looked like he had passed out (presumably having eaten a couple of children). But, as we got closer, he sprung into life and his horrible yellow forked tongue started flicking the air as he got to taste the smell of new meat approaching him. When he started to advance towards us (we were about 4 metres away), you could sense the alarm growing amongst our group, as a primal fear kicked in – I was firmly in the flight, rather than fight category.

This was just the starter, we now started our trek around the trails that lead you around this section of the island. It was phenomenally hot, and it wasn't long before a few of our group found it hard going. Hearing odd noises coming out of the trees was a good incentive to stay together, but the group was getting separated from each other, which left me at the back in charge of keeping us safe – and I didn't even have one of those forked sticks!

Our first encounter with a dragon on the trail was someone stepping in some fresh dragon poo – even its droppings are diabolical, they smell worse than death. Then someone saw a baby dragon scuttle past us across the path and into the undergrowth. Even the babies are scared of the full grown adults who like nothing better than to eat their young – they have to spend their adolescence hiding up trees to get away from their parents who are desperate to turn baby into dinner. And I thought that I came from a dysfunctional family…

After a lot of sweating and a gradual build-up of anticipation, we finally got to the water hole, where there were about 7 dragons waiting for us. Just as we arrived, I saw all the guides spring into life to fend away a dangerous dragon who was advancing quickly towards a passenger with a walker – these evil dragons are clever enough to know who to pick on for their next meal.

Even though there's lots of people sharing the views with you, there's still something unnerving about being so close to these creatures. There were 5 lying in front of us, but 2 hiding right behind us in the bushes – you always had your back to at least one of them.

But, you even if you'd wanted to, you just can't take your eyes off them – armour-plated monsters left behind from the Jurassic Age – born to kill, and afraid of nothing. It was exhilarating and fascinating, slightly scary but unmissable.

This is why we cruise – it's incredibly difficult to get here by any other means. I love history and culture, but sometimes the natural world is unbeatable.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

February 12th – Darwin By Helicopter

Darwin in the Top End of Australia is a city that always has a remote, frontier feel to it – but, it's when you see it from the air that you fully appreciate that this place sits in complete and utter isolation.

On the one side, you have the sea – it looks inviting, but it's inhabited by so many man-eating crocodiles and sharks that Darwinites are afraid to get back in the water. On the other side, the city is surrounded by wetlands and dense green wilderness where you scarcely see the imprint of man.

I was invited to join a couple of super-generous friends who had hired a helicopter for the day, so I was able to get this unique perspective on the Northern Territory. We did a circuit over the harbour and flew along the coast. From up there, it looked as beautiful as the beach-lined coast we had seen north of Sydney. Yet here, there were zero developments along it.

There are a number of reasons for this:

Firstly, the climate here is so oppressively hot and humid, plus the soil is so thin and sandy, that the area is just not suited for either industry or agriculture.

Secondly, pretty much all the surrounding land belongs to the local aborigines, who zealously guard their traditional land from any development.

Thirdly, there are crocodiles everywhere. From a low of 5,000 in the 1970s, there are now thought to be 150,000 crocs in the Top End (more than Darwin's population). Over 400 crocs were removed just from Darwin's harbour last year – most going to the crocodile farms to be turned into handbags and shoes.

As we zoomed towards the Litchfield National Park, it was the huge open landscapes that struck me – stretching for miles were wide open expanses of green forests and wetlands spreading across a largely flat floodplain, interspersed with undulating hills. Our pilot sought out fields of "Magnetic Termite Mounds" – hundreds of grey tombstone-shaped termite colonies, looking like spooky abandoned cemeteries. We saw lines of huge "Cathedral Termite Mounds" – termite skyscrapers up to 4 metres high. We swooped over cascading waterfalls, and we buzzed over wild buffaloes running through the waterlogged fields.

We called in for a drink at a resort on a picture perfect white sand beach, (which didn't look quite so idyllic when we saw the "Beware of the Crocodile" signs). And lunch was in an Outback pub that surprised us with how good the food was for an out of the way place like this – to be honest, just a cold beer on a bakingly hot day would have sufficed.

Our last few days in Australia have shown me that this country looks pretty good for the ground, but from an aerial perspective, you get a much better sense of the sheer scale of the country, and for its magnificent array of vistas. It's cities are pretty great, but they're just a small part of what this utterly vast country has to offer.