A Travellerspoint blog

Review

Such a massive trip, and extensive blog, obviously requires a concluding review. Globo Trip began almost exactly one year ago, when I departed Tullamarine International Airport for Africa. On that early post-Christmas morning, I farewelled Mum, Peter, Nick and Andrew in the terminal and boarded the aircraft for my first ever independent trip. I intended to travel until Christmas 2013, though with no flights booked, I left open the option of returning home early in case I discovered that travel was not my passion after all. That possibility was quickly dismissed and the idea of returning permanently to Australia became an almost unbearable thought for most of the year. Before I left, I planned the first half of the year in extreme detail and actually stuck to the day-by-day itinerary rather closely. The third quarter of the trip required ample planning while I was travelling, because of various meetings. In the final two months though, I allowed for much more freedom and flexibility with plans (deciding movements only a couple of days in advance, as a maximum), which is how I intend to travel in the future.

Prior to the trip, I had virtually no fears whatsoever about travelling independently in Europe and Middle East, but I was petrified by the group tour through Southern Africa. That fear was quickly allayed as I was fortunate to have a tremendous group of people to enjoy the tour with; many of whom had also experienced such anxieties. The tour was so fantastic that I postponed my departure point by another three weeks. Unsurprisingly to me, this six week block was certainly the best period of Globo Trip.

Despite the positive experience though, I am loathe to ever join an extended tour again (excluded Antarctica or activities like trekking in Nepal). The enjoyment of an overland tour is entirely dependent on how you connect with the group, so I can appreciate how tours can easily be horrific ordeals. Also, I didn’t really feel like I was properly “travelling” until after I had departed the tour in mid-February. I certainly prefer planning, deciding and controlling where I go, how long for, what I see and what I eat independently than mindlessly following the directions of a tour leader.

Once I departed sub-Saharan Africa, I truly was travelling independently and quickly became accustomed to it. I have been asked numerous times (usually with a hint of condescendence or utter perplexity) this year whether I liked travelling alone, to which the answer was always an adamant “yes”. That’s not to suggest I don’t enjoy travelling with other people, but I rarely have any issues being on the road on my own. And most backpackers in the hostels seem to have the same mentality.

The route of my trip this year was rather convoluted, for an assortment of reasons (the visa-free period for Australian tourists in the Schengen Area had the most significant effect; also weather, meeting people, financial). I travelled from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe to North Africa to Europe to North Africa to the Middle East to Europe to the Middle East to Europe to Southeast Asia. Accumulatively, I visited forty countries across three continents.

This year has certainly lived up to my expectations and exceeded my hopes. I refuse to concur with the common defeatist mentality that something like Globo Trip is “a once in a lifetime experience”. I have met too many people who have devoted their lives to travel.
I think comparative lists, which I have quite an affection for (along with statistics), are the perfect tool to summarise the myriad aspects of Globo Trip. So enjoy analysing the plethora of lists I have compiled!

Statistics of Globo Trip

- 3 continents
- 40 countries
- 52 cities with a population over 500,000 (that I stayed at least one night in)
- 88 UNESCO World Heritage sites
- 362.75 days

Summation of Globo Trip (chronological order)

South Africa (4 nights)
Highlight: Summit of Table Mountain
Best Food experience: Spinach and feta omelettes

Namibia (11)
Highlight: Namib Sand Sea
Best Food experience: Chicken curry by Cook Charles

Botswana (6)
Highlight: Flight over the Okavango Delta
Best Food experience: Eggplant chips by Cook Charles

Zimbabwe (6)
Highlight: White-water rafting on the Zambezi
Best Food experience: Boma buffet dinner, sampling many different types of game meat

Zambia (7)
Highlight: Spotting leopards at South Luangwa National Park
Best Food experience: Chips (it wasn't a great country for food!)

Malawi (5)
Highlight: Swimming at Kande Beach on Lake Malawi
Best Food experience: Roasted pig and condiments

Tanzania (8)
Highlight: Evening in Stone Town on Zanzibar
Best Food experience: Tropical fruit juices on Zanzibar

Netherlands (4)
Highlight: Canals of Amsterdam
Best Food experience: Pea and bacon soup

Belgium (2)
Highlight: Grand Place in Brussels
Best Food experience: Three course lunch: pate and condiments, rich beef stew, chocolate mousse and unlimited crusty bread

Spain (13)
Highlight: Bari Gothic district of Barcelona
Best Food experience: Patas Bravas in Madrid

Portugal (8)
Highlight: Riverfront of Porto
Best Food experience: Francesinha

Morocco (17)
Highlight: Camel-trek at Erg Chebbi
Best Food experience: Moroccan eggplant "moussaka"

Italy (27)
Highlight: Afternoon of walking to the great sites of Rome
Best Food experience: Four course meal with Davide: raw sausage, tasting plate of beef three ways, ricotta ravioli with a cream sauce and selection of four cheeses

Monaco
Highlight: Sipping wine in front of Monte Carlo Casino

Vatican City
Highlight: St. Peter's Basilica

Tunisia (10)
Highlight: Colosseum of El Jem
Best Food experience: Meal in Tozeur with Nadia: Tunisian salad, harissa, bread, olives, chakchouka (chicken, chickpeas, rice sauce and pancakes) and stew of salty fish, lentils and beans

Egypt (23)
Highlight: Pyramids
Best Food experience: Kushari

Jordan (7)
Highlight: Petra
Best Food experience: Hummus, labneh, fattoush salad, mixed grill and pita... too much food (first night, was not used to their portions) but delicious!

Israel and Palestine (11)
Highlight: Old Town of Jerusalem
Best Food experience: Shwarma in Ramallah

Denmark (6)
Highlight: Mont Klint
Best Food experience: Traditional Danish meal prepared by Nadia: frikadeller (pork meatballs), smørrebøred (open sandwich of pickled herring, curry salad and rye bread, stew of sausage, sour cream, tomato and paprika, chocolate brownie

United Kingdom (16)
Highlight: Reunions
Best Food experience: Roast beef with potatoes, green beans, Yorkshire pudding and gravy

France (9)
Highlight: Cruise on the Seine
Best Food experience: Roast duck with puree apple and sauteed potatoes

Germany (13)
Highlight: Walking tour in Berlin
Best Food experience: The Giant Schnitzel Meal

Czech Republic (3)
Highlight: Views of Charles Bridge and the Old Town of Prague
Best Food experience: Spicy sausages with horseradish for entree, beef in paprika sauce with mouth-watering potato dumplings

Austria (3)
Highlight: Imperial architecture of Vienna
Best Food experience: Sacher Torte

Turkey (21)
Highlight: Hiking in Cappadocia
Best Food experience: Creamy eggplant dip covered in burnt butter and doner kebab with rice tomato sauce and yoghurt (very rare occasion I was impressed by food in Turkey)

Bulgaria (6)
Highlight: Tour to the "UFO" building
Best Food experience: Tarator (cold yoghurt soup)

Greece (13)
Highlight: Views on Santorini
Best Food experience: Taverna meal with Shamba: fava bean salad, stack of grilled haloumi, vegetables and basil pesto, pork stew, zucchini fritters, mastic cream with rosewater syrup and orange cake

Macedonia (4)
Highlight: Old Town of Ohrid
Best Food experience: Macedonian baked beans and cevapcici (plate skinless sausages with pita and grilled peppers)

Montenegro (4)
Highlight: Hiking in Durmitor National Park
Best Food experience: Fried pork stuffed with cheese and ham

Serbia (2)
Highlight: Listening to the Hawthorn anthem after winning the Preliminary Final against Geelong
Best Food experience: Roasted peppers with garlic

Bosnia and Herzegovina (5)
Highlight: Bosnian Tour from Majdas Hostel
Best Food experience: Boreks in Sarajevo

Croatia (9)
Highlight: Views on Vis Island
Best Food experience: Tasting plate of seafood and cheese and peka (slow cooked lamb and vegetables)

Slovenia (5)
Highlight: Vintgar Gorge near Bled
Best Food experience: Venison goulash

Hungary (5)
Highlight: Views of the Danube
Best Food experience: Porkolt (paprika stew) with fresh pasta, sour cream and fried pork lard

Finland (3)
Highlight: Evening in Helsinki
Best Food experience: Mousse balls with beetroot, mash and game sauce and beaver stew with root vegetables and mash

Vietnam (16)
Highlight: Cruise on Halong Bay
Best Food experience:

Cambodia (21)
Highlight: Tuk-tuk tour around the Temples of Angkor
Best Food experience: Fruit shakes (mango, pineapple, coconut or banana)

Laos (16)
Highlight: Kayaking at Si Phan Don
Best Food experience: Deen's Indian restaurant in Nong Khiaw (authentic experience, we'll just say the sticky rice)

Malaysia (15)
Highlight: Seeing cohabitation of multiple cultures
Best Food experience: Where to begin? Hawker food in Penang

Top 20 highlights of Globo Trip

1. Group dynamic on the Cape Town to Zanzibar overland tour
2. Safaris at South Luangwa National Park, Zambia
3. London, United Kingdom
4. Hiking at Petra, Jordan
5. Afternoon walk between all the great sights of Rome, Italy
6. Excursion to the Pyramids and tombs at Saqqara and Dashur, Egypt
7. Bosnian tour from Majdas Hostel, Bosnia and Herzegovina
8. Contrasts of Jerusalem, Disputed Territory
9. Canoeing on the Lower Zambezi River with countless pods of hippos, Zambia
10. Temples and tombs around Luxor, Egypt
11. Paris, France
12. Greek cuisine, Greece
13. Hiking up dunes in the Namib Sand Sea, Namibia
14. Chilling in Dahab, Egypt
15. Food in Florence, Italy
16. Santorini, Greece
17. Hiking in Cappadocia, Turkey
18. Cruise on Halong Bay, Vietnam
19. Barcelona, Spain
20. Three countries in twelve hours with Davide Sordella: Italy, Monaco and France

Top 10 favourite countries

1. Italy
Close between the top two, but the vastly superior cuisine tips the verdict in Italy’s favour. The beauty of the architecture in Italian towns is unparalleled in the Western world, the ancient sites and history is remarkable and character of each region is intriguingly different.

2. Egypt
Phenomenal country that provided the only big “culture shock” I have ever felt. Crowds, pollution, traffic and general chaos of Cairo: what an incredible city. The Ancient Egyptian sites are far more impressive than I expected and totally unique. Diving at relaxing in Dahab offered another brilliant experience.

3. Zambia
Three of the most astonishing natural wonders I have ever seen were in this beautiful country.

4. Greece
Greece boasts sensational food, ancient history, Mediterranean lifestyle, sublime scenery (Meteora and Santorini) and pristine beaches (Naxos).

5. Namibia
Another natural wonderland: a barren and desolate land with surprising diversity of landscapes and an abundance of life.

6. United Kingdom
My “rest” period came half-way through the trip in a country with the culture I am used to. I caught up with several great friends in the UK and London is my favourite city in Europe.

7. Vietnam
Everything you expect: hospitable people, colourful markets, dramatic landscapes, endless paddy fields and tasty and light cuisine.

8. Germany
I love the food, everyone loves the beer, I love the unpretentious attitude of modern Germans and I love the contrast between the country’s two great cities.

9. Morocco
Intensely busy and vibrant medinas and a diverse range of spectacular empty landscapes are all in the same country.

10. Jordan
Seven days (or one) was enough to be encapsulated by this (very very safe and stable) Middle Eastern country.

Top 10 favourite cities

1. London, United Kingdom
2. Rome, Italy
3. Jerusalem, disputed territory
4. Paris, France
5. Cairo, Egypt
6. Barcelona, Spain
7. Florence, Italy
8. Berlin, Germany
9. Istanbul, Turkey
10. Munich, Germany

Top 10 favourite hostels

I definitely prefer small and family-owned hostels. I found it much easier to meet interesting people at these establishments than the big warehouse-size hostels. Including a decent breakfast (not just toast and jam) in the price is another meritous aspect (only 8 & 9 failed on that count).

1. Bob Marley Hostel, Luxor, Egypt
2. Hostel Mostel, Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria
3. Majdas Hostel, Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina
4. Dahab Dorms, Dahab, Egypt
5. Porto Spot Hostel, Porto, Portugal
6. Aslan Guesthouse, Sanliurfa, Turkey
7. Dina’s Hostel, Cairo, Egypt
8. Jazz Hostel, Bled, Slovenia
9. The Magic Sponge, Kampot, Cambodia
10. Hostel Mancini, Naples, Italy

Top 10 favourite man-made wonders

1. Petra, Jordan
IMG_9005.jpg
2. Pyramids of Dashur, near Cairo, Egypt
IMG_8082.jpg
3. Pyramids of Giza, Egypt
IMG_7978.jpg
4. Colosseum, Rome, Italy
IMG_6534.jpg
5. Old Town, Jerusalem, Disputed territory
IMG_9385.jpg
6. Temples of Angkor, Cambodia
IMG_8015.jpg
7. Pantheon, Rome, Italy
IMG_6242.jpg
8. Temple of Hathor, Dendara, Egypt
IMG_8335.jpg
9. Alhambra, Granada, Spain
IMG_4824.jpg
10. Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence, Italy
IMG_6094.jpg

Top 10 favourite natural wonders

1. South Luangwa National Park, Zambia
IMG_2843.jpg
2. Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe/Zambia
IMG_2615.jpg
3. Namib Sand Sea, Namibia
IMG_1605.jpg
4. Cappadocia, Turkey
IMG_2828.jpg
5. Lower Zambezi River, Zambia
IMG_2705.jpg
6. Halong Bay, Vietnam
2D51D8052219AC681742F2811988946D.jpg
7. Todra Gorge, Morocco
IMG_5293.jpg
8. Okavango Delta, Botswana
IMG_2015.jpg
9. Matobo National Park, Zimbabwe
IMG_2309.jpg
10. Si Phan Don, Laos
IMG_8229.jpg

Top 10 favourite “views”

1. Namib Sand Sea from atop Deadvlei, Namibia
IMG_1668.jpg
2. View of Porto and Dom Luis Bridge, Portugal
IMG_4225.jpg
3. Santorini Caldera from Oia, Greece
IMG_4199.jpg
4. Cappadocia from Goreme panoramic view, Turkey
IMG_2746.jpg
5. Petra from the mountain behind the Royal Tombs, Jordan
IMG_9061.jpg
6. Sunrise from the top of Mt Sinai, Egypt
IMG_8690.jpg
7. Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo, Italy
IMG_6093.jpg
8. Flight over the Okavango Delta, Botswana
IMG_2199.jpg
9. Victoria Falls from the Zambia side, Zambia
IMG_2633.jpg
10. Venice from any vantage point on the Grand Canal, Italy
IMG_5940.jpg

Top 10 favourite places of worship (still active)

Christianity wins, congratulations.

1. Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence, Italy
IMG_6094.jpg
2. St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice, Italy
IMG_5858.jpg
3. St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City
IMG_6296.jpg
4. Cordoba Mosque-Cathedral, Cordoba, Spain
IMG_4742.jpg
5. Kairouan Mosque, Kairouan, Tunisia
IMG_7399.jpg
6. Saint Chapelle, Paris, France
IMG_0897.jpg
7. Al-Azhar Mosque, Cairo, Egypt
IMG_7921.jpg
8. La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain
IMG_3777.jpg
9. Il Gesu, Rome, Italy
IMG_6608.jpg
10. Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey
IMG_3338.jpg

Top 10 museums and art galleries

1. Prado, Madrid, Spain
2. Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, Israel
3. German Historical Museum, Berlin, Germany
4. Louvre, Paris, France
5. Army Museum, Paris, France
6. Vatican Museums, Vatican City
7. Doge’s Palace, Venice
8. War Cabinet Rooms and Churchill Museum, London, United Kingdom
9. The Grand Egyptian Museum, Cairo, Egypt
10. Museum of the Risorgimento, Turin, Italy

Top 10 favourite countries for food and beverages

1. Greece
Greece covers all the bases with aplomb. Excellent street food, fresh fruits, cheeses, pastries, bakeries, quality cheap restaurants and diversity of dishes are all widely available. I was impressed with literally every meal I ate in Greece.

2. Malaysia
Almost a dead heat for first place. Malaysia boasts three sensational cuisines (Malay, Chinese and Indian) in one country. I need to nit-pick in order to separate. The quality of red meat is certainly inferior in Malaysia. Another problem is that all the food is made to be eaten immediately, which is not beneficial if you have an eight hour bus journey.

3. Italy
Italy also covers all the bases and the heights of Italian cuisine exceeded the two ranked above. But Italian food is often overpriced, undersized and hit-and-miss. Tourist trap restaurants are quite difficult to escape from in this country.

4. Jordan
The best country I travelled to for Middle Eastern food, which I love (when cooked well!). Tasty, fresh and generously proportioned meals were hallmarks of Jordanian fare.

5. Palestine (including East Jerusalem)
Almost as good as Jordanian, but food was slightly more expensive in Palestinian territory. Pastries are AMAZING! Dare I say they taught the Israelis to cook?

6. Vietnam
Freshness, colour, diversity of dishes and lightness of flavour make Vietnamese a distinctive cuisine. Lack of traditional desserts hurt its ranking

7. Tunisia
One of the biggest surprises of the trip was Tunisian cuisine. Excellent street food and fresh fruit, interesting range of dishes I hadn’t sampled before and wonderful sweets

8. Germany
Mmmm stodgy meat, potatoes and cabbage… what more could you want? Beer! And the world’s best bakeries

9. Croatia
This was another surprise in the culinary stakes. Croatia achieves high marks in the diversity of dishes and as the best country I have travelled to for seafood

10. Hungary
Hungarian cuisine has all the key attributes of Central European food, but the liberal addition of spices and sour cream gives Hungarian greater complexity. Horrifically unhealthy though!

Top 10 favourite places for food and beverages

1. Florence, Italy
Simply put, every single dish I ate was absolutely extraordinary.

2. Georgetown (Penang), Malaysia
This is the only city I have ever travelled to where food is clearly the main reason for visiting. Hawker stalls are everywhere! Eating three meals are day in Georgetown is simply not an option. Chinese dim sum for breakfast, Chinese-Malay noodles for morning tea, Indian-Muslim noodles for lunch, Indian sweets for afternoon tea and Malay curries for dinner… what a day!

3. Athens, Greece
Outrageously cheap gyros, excellent tavernas, colourful markets and top-notch sweets shops

4. Hoi An, Vietnam
Vietnamese flavours reach their peak in the refined contemporary dishes of this beautiful town of mixed cultures

5. Munich, Germany
The beer

6. Naples, Italy
The pizzas

7. Vienna, Austria
The cakes, schnitzels and snags

8. Melaka, Malaysia
Indian, Chinese, Chinese-Malay… even Portuguese! Hard to go wrong

9. Naxos, Greece
Delicious rustic cuisine that emphasises simplicity and fresh fresh fresh island produce

10. Budapest, Hungary
Deliciously unhealthy Magyar fare

Top 10 favourite food “experiences”

1. Noodles at Hawker stalls in Malaysia
Hawker stalls line every corner in Penang and serve a multiplicity of delicious and inexpensive noodle dishes (either fried or in a soup)

2. Hummus, Jordan, Israel and Palestine
Bowls of mouth-watering hummus everyday

3. Neapolitan pizzas in Naples, Italy
Thin base, fresh tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, basil and maybe some ham. Why are these glorious pizzas found only in Naples?

4. Gyros, Athens, Greece
Slices of pork, chicken or beef roasted on a spit and served in grilled pita bread with tomato, onion, chips and tzatziki

5. Falafel, Jordan, Israel and Palestine
Either a plate of falafel, or eaten in a wrap with fried eggplant, pickles, tahini and tabouli

6. Kushari, Egypt
Rice, pasta, noodles and lentils, mixed together with a spicy tomato sauce, crispy fried onions, chickpeas and lemon juice

7. Shwarma, Jordan, Israel and Palestine
Slices of beef or chicken of the spit and served in a leffe wrap (almost like a pancake) with pickles, tahini, chilli sauce and tomato and cucumber salad

8. Makroudh, Tunisia
Very sweet pastry made from semolina, flavoured with dates and soaked in honey

9. Francesinha, Portugal
Grilled sandwich of thin steak fillet, bacon, chorizo and cheese with a fried egg on top and lashings of a spicy port wine-based sauce

10. Boreks in Turkey, Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia (lunch staple)
Pastries of flaky dough and filled with cheese, cheese and spinach, meat, potatoes or sour cherry. Comes in a variety of shapes

Top 10 favourite beverages

1. Fresh tropical juices and fruit cocktails, Tanzania
2. Augustiner beer, Germany
3. Hot chocolates in Granada, Spain, Turin, Italy and Vienna, Austria
4. Banana, apple and date smoothies, Tunisia
5. Mint tea, Morocco and Tunisia
6. Strawberry juices, Tunisia
7. Fruit (mango, coconut, banana or pineapple) shakes, Vietnam and Cambodia
8. Sugarcane juice, Egypt and Jordan
9. Beer with banana juice, Germany
10. Juice cartoons (pomegranate or apricot) in Turkey

Top 20 "off the beaten track" destinations

1. Matobo National Park, Zimbabwe
Phenomenal landscapes and yet usually omitted from overland tour itineraries in Southern Africa.

2. Canoeing on the Lower Zambezi River, Zambia
Perhaps a once-in-lifetime experience and certainly one of the highlights of the year was canoeing on the Zambezi in a remote area of Zambia. Modern development is absent from this area, which has preserved the pristine environment despite not being a national park.

3. South Luangwa National Park, Zambia
One of the primary reasons why I booked Dragoman’s overland tour was because it visited this national park, which is not common. We spotted four leopards (very difficult), hundreds of elephants, hyenas and many other species in this beautiful park. Our tour guide labelled South Luangwa as his favourite national park in Africa. We were basically the only tourists there.

4. Porto, Portugal
I think this city is massively underrated: one of Europe's most beautiful

5. Skoura, Morocco
Expansive oasis with the Atlas Mountains as a backdrop. Most tourists go straight past on the Marrakech to Todra Gorge route

6. Tozeur, Tunisia
Intriguing vernacular architecture, proximity to beautiful oases and gorges: long way from the resort beaches of Tunisia

7. Colosseum of El Jem, Tunisia
One of the most stupendous structures I have seen, almost as impressive as the Colosseum of Rome. There were five other tourists there when I visited with Nadia.

8. Dougga, Tunisia
My favourite Roman ruins site after Pompeii, dramatically situated at the top of a hill overlooking a verdant landscape. Foundations are remarkably preserved. Half a dozen tourists there.

9. Pyramids of Saqqara and Dashur, near Cairo, Egypt
Superior experience to Giza. These pyramids are situated a long from Cairo in the desert and a long way from hasslers.

10. Dendera, Egypt
One of the most impressive temples i have ever seen. 2300 years old and structurally sound. Remarkable carvings and vivid colours. Absolute travesty this is not World Heritage listed. One other tourist present.

11. Wadi Mujib, Jordan
I only visited this spectacular canyon because a Korean i met was very enthusiastic about it. That would have been a terrible oversight. The vivid red canyon is thin and high and features a clear warm stream at its base. Scrambling up waterfalls was great fun, descending not so much.

12. Hebron, Palestine
History and the present of the city are tragic. Great experience to visit the epicentre of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

13. Ramallah, Palestine
Surprisingly vibrant seat of administration of Palestinian Authority. Locals were bursting at the seams with delight to see a foreigner

14. Mont Klint, Denmark
Pure white cliffs, emerald green forest above, black-pebble shore below and a rainbow over the sea. For Danish day-trippers

15. , Lokken, Denmark
,Beautiful old beach houses overlook a windswept coast. Has an "end of the world" feeling to it. Vacation destination for Scandinavians and Germans, but not backpackers.

16. Ulm Munster, Germany
This cathedral is massive; in fact it boasts the world's tallest spire. It totally dominates the skyline of this small city and the surrounding country. I was really impressed by this structure. Ulm is definitely not on the tourist trail. I visited only because I had a contact there.

17. Sanliurfa, Turkey

18. Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

19. Zabljak and Durmitor National Park, Montenegro
Lovely small town and spectacular national park. Only just being discovered by tourists.

20. Kampot, Cambodia
Quiet riverside town that just enough foreigners have discovered, so it has a nice travellers' vibe without being ruined

Top 10 worst experiences

Obviously it wouldn't be possible to travel for a year without a few unsavory ordeals. The review of Globo Trip wouldn't be complete without some reflection on these memories. One "negative" list I think will suffice.

1. Writing “Globo Trip”
2. Missing the ferry departure from Egypt to Jordan because the ticket seller told me the wrong departure time, forcing me to stay in a post-apocalyptic town overnight and at the port for ten hours the next day
3. Being hit with a $250 visa fee for Tunisia, when I expected it to cost only $30. I’m quite certain the border officials robbed me, but you don’t really have a choice but to pay in that situation!
4. Food poisoning in Seville. This resulted in the most painful and definitely most voluminous vomiting episode for the year
5. Suspected food poisoning in Siem Reap. Fainting in public was not pleasant
6. Shared an eight-person dormitory in Granada with a seven-person band. They came in at 4:00am each night and were very obnoxious!
7. Hassling in Tinerhir (service town for Todra Gorge, Morocco) and encountering a physically aggressive and abusive deranged man
8. Crazy dogs in Savannakhet, Laos
9. Hassling in Cairo, especially at the Pyramids and the Islamic Old Town
10. Suspected food poisoning at Si Phan Don, which made me desire an end to the trip

Top 10 things I miss about Melbourne (other than the corny stuff)

Its not all doom and gloom returning home, there are a handful of things I miss

1. Public lavatories are FREE
2. Public lavatories are EVERYWHERE (I don’t think you appreciate this until you leave Australia)
3. Population not dominated by Asian drivers
4. Footpaths are pedestrian-only zones
5. Barriers (fences and gates) separate me from crazy dogs
6. Tap water
7. Bowl of cereal everyday (including my special breakfast bowl)
8. Never greeted with “G’day mate!”
9. Motorcycles are seldom seen on the road
10. The streets generally don’t smell of waste water (as the pipes are deep in the ground and not exposed beside the footpaths)

Thank you everyone for reading this blog, it really means a lot to. I've strategically placed this message at the end of a very long entry, so only committed readers receive the gratitude!

That's all for now but hopefully not forever!

Liam

Posted by Liamps 20:11 Comments (1)

Cameron Highlands

Malaysia photos

Between visiting the culinary heavens of Melaka and Penang, I stopped in the Cameron Highlands to dabble in a spot of exercise. The Cameron Highlands are situated around four hours north of Kuala Lumpur in the interior of Peninsula Malaysia. Logically, the area is substantially cooler than the lowland coastal cities because of the altitude. The Cameron Highlands are thus a popular holiday destination for foreigners and locals alike (remember, Malaysians are very affluent for Southeast Asia). The area provides respite from the perpetual heat and humidity that typifies most of Malaysia. That was the justification for the British to found the Cameron Highlands as their most extensive hill station in the 1920s (colonial era). The highlands are thus dotted with English-style buildings, gardens and establishments; in the heart of Southeast Asia. The Cameron Highlands are the perfect antidote to the heat and incessant crowds of the coastal cities.

The small town of Tanah Rata serves as the base for tourist in the Cameron Highlands. After I arrived in Tanah Rata in the mid-afternoon, torrential rain bucketed down for the rest of the day and evening. This restricted me to this pleasant but uninspiring town for the first day. Since I was travelling in the monsoon season for Eastern Peninsula Malaysia, I was rather pessimistic about my chances of exploring the nature the next day without being completely saturated. Nevertheless, I enjoyed a relaxing afternoon at my guesthouse overlooking their manicured English garden.

Fortunately, the weather cleared up the following morning and remained dry for the entire day. I exploited this opportunity and decided to hike on “Trail 10” through the “jungle”. In the Cameron Highlands, every conceivable physical activity is heavily promoted (including hiking). Given this, I was somewhat surprised to discover a complete lack of signage for Trail 10 and had difficulty in locating its starting point. For those interested, the trail connects to a café garden situated behind a complex of derelict holiday apartments and car-parks. Despite the hordes of tourists in the area, it was quickly apparent that few opt to hike the jungle trails (or at least Trail 10), as I was continuously clearing spider webs that were blocking the path. The trail ascended a small mountain which overlooked Tanah Rata and the broader area. The views were not particularly spectacular for me, as cloud-cover affected clear vision. Predictably, the trail disappeared at the summit. I scrambled up an almost vertical slope next to a huge power-line (kind of spoils the natural aesthetics) and identified a new trail (or the second section of the previous trail?). The trail led me through an ethereal and isolated world of moss and dampness. Tree canopies completely enclosed this area from the outside and the light was noticeably dimmer. Tree trunks, branches and exposed roots were draped in thick moss. Clumps of moss hung from the trees like vivid green beards. I left this enchanting realm and descended through the rainforest. The path abruptly terminated at a power station and I was required to find my way back to town following the unsigned roads.

The Cameron Highlands is particularly renowned for its tea plantations, because of both the quality of the tea leaves and the scenery of the plantations. In the afternoon, I walked to Cameron Bharat Tea plantation located about five kilometres from Tanah Rata. Despite having to walk on the windy main road/highway, it was quite a pleasant excursion as I passed numerous fern gullies and Tudor-style mansions. The scenery of the tea plantation was really exception. I find it amazing how this particular crop can look so attractive when viewed en masse, because individual bushes are rather ho-hum. Several hillsides have been completely deforested and now feature monotonous seas of manicured tea trees. Symmetrical paths perpendicularly divide the trees from each other, creating a “checkerboard” effect. I strolled through the plantation briefly, but this was not overly interesting because the main appeal is the panoramic views.
On the next day, I joined a tour of attractions located further afield. The Sungei Palas Tea Estate was the constitute component of the trip. The scenery at Sunei Palas is even more dramatic, because is sprawls across a rugged landscape of mountains and valleys. The tea trees were planted in the 1920s, although they can live for more than two hundred years. Naturally, they grow to more than four metres and the leaves grow in less dense clusters. Consequently, the trees are continuously pruned to keep them below waist height. Black, white and green tea leaves are all produced from the same tree. We also hiked through another mossy forest near the summit of a mountain. Everything was covered in lime green moss, including the ground. The surface was therefore very soft and squelchy.

Since the Cameron Highlands is such a touristic area, I had limited expectations about the quality of the food. Yet even here, the Malaysian kitchens delivered. My disappointment at the weather on the first day was abated by a delicious bowl of Malay noodle soup, consisting of chicken, vegetables and thick spicy broth. In the evening, I shared a “steamboat” dinner with a Frenchman at a Chinese restaurant. A large metallic vat was placed on our table that featured two boiling soups inside (chicken soup and tom yum). We were given plates of chicken, fish, squid, fish-balls, prawns, crab sticks, bok choi, fried tofu and noodles to cook in the soups. At the restaurant, I also discovered that star-fruit makes a sensational juice: refreshing and substantially more tasteful than when the fruit is eaten solid. I decided that indulging in afternoon tea was a necessity in the Cameron Highlands, so I went to café promoting Christianity and drank passionfruit-flavoured tea with a scone and homemade strawberry jam. In the evening, I ate chicken tikka and an assortment of other sub-continental dishes, though this was the most disappointing Indian food I ate in Malaysia

While eating is ultimately the number one priority for any traveller to Malaysia, the Cameron Highlands is a pleasant reminder that the country offers more than just plates and plates of delicious hawker food. The rainforests (especially the mossy areas) and tea plantations are exceptionally beautiful and highlights of my trip in Malaysia. One aspect of the Cameron Highlands that I am less enthusiastic about is how the solitary main road is festooned with touristy souvenir shops and attractions, such as strawberry farms and butterfly houses. But it is easy to escape the crowds, because most visitors are too lazy to hike any of the “jungle trails”.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Malaysia photos

Posted by Liamps 20:04 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Kuala Lumpur

Malaysia photos

Arriving in downtown Kuala Lumpur was such a relief. “I am back in the developed world! Hooray!!!” Steel-and-glass skyscrapers, neon lights, English advertisements, garbage bins, the Big M… I had definitely returned home to the West. I didn’t quite “miss” Western society in Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos), but the subjective normalcy of sighting international brands, modern infrastructure and functional systems in Kuala Lumpur delighted the senses. Even the atrocious weather of intense downpours failed to dampen my sudden surge of enthusiasm.

Throughout Globo Trip, I have “jumped” between different regions (sub-Saharan Africa to Europe, Europe to North Africa, Middle East to Europe etc.) and felt energised by striking changes. This certainly occurred when I travelled between Indochina and Malaysia, as I discovered how surprisingly dissimilar these regions are. Malaysia is on target to become a “developed” country by 2020 and the people are noticeably wealthier than other Asian societies. They wear contemporary clothes, use the latest electronic gadgets, drive nice cars or motorcycles (i.e. no 1970s Datsuns pollute the streets) and are often rather chubby (indicative of prosperity). The affluence of the local population removes the awkwardness felt by Westerners in countries like Cambodia or Laos, where extreme economic disparity is obvious. Trucks converted into public buses, carts pulled by water buffalo, stray dogs, flocks of chickens, piles of burning garbage, broken pavement and derelict buildings are absent from the streetscapes of central Kuala Lumpur and any city of Peninsular Malaysia. This is an ultra-modern country (aesthetically at least) with all the vestiges of capitalist development mixed with Asian ethnicities, languages, religions, architectures and cuisines. Sure, Malaysia is full of Asian drivers, so like any Asian country the roads are still hardly safe for the innocent pedestrian. But lines and arrows are painted onto the tarmacs, so at least these inept drivers have some guidance. Malaysia was a suitable destination to conclude Globo Trip in, as it provided a comfortable transition back into Western society.

Undoubtedly Malaysia’s most appealing attribute is its remarkable diversity (well, perhaps after the food). Malaysia is a multicultural society composed of three predominant ethnic groups: Malays, Chinese and Indians. Malays form a slight majority, while the Chinese account for nearly a quarter of the population and Indians approximately a tenth. However, the proportions seem virtually identical to the ignorant traveller. This is because the Chinese and Indian communities are particularly concentrated to the cities (where tourists go), own the businesses and work in the tourism sector (where tourists meet them). The multicultural dynamic is quite different to other countries with ethnically diverse populations, such as Australia and the United Kingdom. While ethnic and religious minorities in Australia are free to practice their traditional customs, I think there is an unofficial expectation for everyone to assimilate to a common “Australian” society. There are certainly governmental desires for the manifestation of a homogenous “Malaysian” identity, but the reality is that three very distinct and very independent cultures live within the same country. Malaysian Malays are obviously native to the Malayan Archipelago; they are Muslims (as defined by the constitution) and speak Malay as their mother tongue. Malays are distinguished (to a Caucasian’s eye) from Chinese by their skin colour (darker) and attire (women wear colourful Islamic headscarfs). Malaysian Chinese (most historically migrated from Southern provinces) are generally better educated, dominate the business sector and account for sixty per cent of national income. The Chinese religion incorporates elements of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and ancestral worship; but worldly success is given greater veneration (they are thus quite Western). Malaysian Indians (most historically migrated from Southern states) constitute a disproportionate percentage of the professional workforce, particularly in the medical and legal fields. They are usually Hindu, listen to Bollywood music clips and the women wear colourful sub-Continental attire. Racial tensions have certainly flared up in Malaysia since Federation, but on the surface the three ethnic groups seem to coexist harmoniously. Businesses usually employ Malay, Chinese and Indian staff members simultaneously, which is completely different to the situation in Bosnia (Muslims, Serbs and Croats live in complete separation and in hatred). “Malaysia truly Asia” is an apt promotional slogan for this country, as the continent’s two great civilisations are present in this Islamic Southeast Asian nation.

On first impressions, Kuala Lumpur reminded me somewhat of Hong Kong. Not necessarily as amazing, but I thought the similarities were there. Glitzy skyscrapers tower over fading British colonial buildings; tangles of expressways, railways and monorail lines snake through the dense urban fabric; tropical trees and gardens provide greenery and freshness to the concrete jungle and exclusive shopping malls dot every district. Kuala Lumpur is a quintessential East Asian metropolis where the technological advancements of the present and the future define the city more so than the past.

East Asian cities characteristically lack a centralised core; and Kuala Lumpur is no exception. The layout of Kuala Lumpur is somewhat confusing to Westerners accustomed to logical urban plans. Instead of commercial and administrative entities being concentrated into a specific district, they are scattered across a vast area. Skyscrapers have sprouted up throughout the metropolis and thus many areas of Kuala Lumpur tend to feel “semi-downtown”; not suburban, but also not the nucleus. Several mini centres have formed in Kuala Lumpur including “Chinatown” and “Little India”, which are found in every Malaysian city. As the name connotes, Chinatown is brimming with Chinese eateries, souvenir stores selling “Made in China” merchandise, gaudy Chinese lanterns and, well, Chinese people. But there is also a bombastically colourful South Indian Hindu temple and many Malay workers. Most budget travellers stay in this area, which also serves as a transportation hub. Little India is located just to the north of Chinatown. I don’t really understand why this area is considered “Indian”, because the majority of people I encountered were not of that ethnic group. Little India is very busy and primarily consists of cheap department stores. Further north still is Kampung Baru, a traditional Malay village. The elders of the community have resisted corporate ambitions to develop the land and consequently preserved a suburb of antiquated one-storey dwellings bizarrely situated in the heart of Kuala Lumpur. Kampung Baru is surrounded by skyscrapers on all sides, including the Petronas Towers to the southeast. The Petronas Towers held the title of the tallest buildings in the world (through dubious criteria) for six years and remain the tallest twin towers. Aside from their extraordinary height, I also think the architecture of the buildings is quite beautiful. The architect was inspired by Islamic symbols and designed the floor plan as an eight-point star. Bukit Bintang is Kuala Lumpur’s shopping and entertainment epicentre. Swanky retail stores, neon lights, overpriced restaurants and dodgy street hasslers define this area.

Not everything about Kuala Lumpur is modern and glitzy; quaint remnants of the British colonial past continue to exist in certain areas of the city. British presence on Peninsula Malaysia began in the late eighteenth century, though interests were primarily restricted to the coasts. By the early twentieth century, the British Empire had formerly colonised all the Malay states and designated Kuala Lumpur, established in just 1857, as the capital. Say what you will about British colonialism, but they appear to have bestowed a positive legacy upon their former possessions in Pacific East Asia. Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei are vastly more developed and democratically advanced than the countries of French Indochina or Indonesia, a former Dutch colony. Malaya (Peninsula Malaysia) gained independence in 1957 peacefully, evolved to Malaysia with the addition of Sarawak and Sabah on Borneo and have maintained amicable terms with the Commonwealth ever since. Fortunately, the evil of communism failed to entrench itself in Malaysia, which has thus allowed the nation to enjoy greater prosperity than every mainland Eurasian country east of the Urals, with the exception of South Korea. But let us return to Britain’s architectural legacy in Kuala Lumpur. Unlike the French in Indochina, the British opted to “fuse” European buildings with Eastern stylisation (Orientalism), with Mughal architecture of North India and Moorish of North Africa particularly used as sources of inspiration. This initiative resulted in the creation of several whimsical but also spectacular institutions in Kuala Lumpur. The style is manifested magnificently in the city’s most elegant mosque, the Masjid Jamak, designed by an Englishmen. Merdeka Square is a vast green square lined with Tudor-style buildings and was used as a cricket pitch during the British epoch. It is also evident in the KL train station and the Sultan Abdul Samad Building (characterised by copper cupolas). Typical Victorian and Edwardian shophouses can also be found scattered throughout Chinatown, decaying from the humidity.

The gastronomy of Cambodia and Laos were rather uninspiring, so I was hopeful Malaysia would provide slightly more interesting culinary offerings. Malaysia easily exceeded all hopes and expectations and established itself as one of the best countries I have travelled to for food. The ethnic composition of Malaysia has basically resulted in the country consisting of three sensational cuisines (Malay, Chinese and Indian) instead of one. Another wonderful aspect of Malaysia’s food scene is the complete absence of tourist restaurants. Every eatery (of which there are unthinkable amount) is always packed with locals, which keeps the prices low and the quality high. Comfortable furniture and fancy décor never feature, unless you’re stupid enough to eat at expensive establishments (this is a country where luxury tourists should eat at the same places as budget-minded travellers; especially in Penang). My first stop in Kuala lumpur was a “Mamak restaurant”, which are 24-hour diners that Indian-Muslim food. Roti canai is their particular specialty; flatbread cooked on an iron skillet with copious amounts of oil and served with curry sauce (usually South Indian-style dhal, which is quite thin). I also happily consumed a plate of nasi goreng, or Indonesian spicy fried rice. Later in the evening, I ordered Hokkien Mee from a Chinese hawker stall. Thick yellow noodles (mee) were stir-fried with chicken, bok choi, chilli and thick soy sauce. I lunched at a typical Malaysian Chinese restaurant, composed of several hawker stalls, and ate delicious char siew pork (barbequed meat seasoned with honey, spices, hoi sin sauce and sherry wine) with ginger-infused rice. I went to a fantastic Malay night market in Little Indian (see how that area is not really “Indian”) with dozens of hawker stalls. I bought a bag of deep-fried squid, battered potatoes and battered tofu, which were smothered in a delectable peanut sauce. I also bought satay skewers of an unidentified meat, which were disgusting (since this was a Muslim market, I suspect the meat was offal rather than a strange animal). A cowboy-themed vendor coerced me into eating a bowl sumptuous noodle soup with a potent fish broth. The Malay working at his stall were particularly interested in me (the spoke to each other in Malay) and laughed continuously at my beard. For sweets, I bought a couple pieces of kuih. Kuih are usually gelatinous Malay sweets made from coconut milk and steamed. On my final full-day in Malaysia, I finally sampled the national dish (at least for the Malays) of Nasi Lemak. This breakfast meal consists of fragrant coconut rice served with several condiments of your choice. I opted for a typical selection of sambal cuttlefish (cooked with chillies, mildly hot), sambal chicken (cooked with chillies and anchovies (becomes a sauce), medium hot and sweet), cucumber and a fried mixture of peanuts and anchovies. I went to a traditional Chinese café (very unassuming and all about the food) for lunch, although I ate Malay food. I sampled a sensational beef rendang. Rendang is a dry curry rich in spices (ginger, galangal, turmeric leaves, lemongrass, chillies, garlic) and coconut milk. The meat is slow-cooked so all the liquid evaporates. If rendang is prepared properly, it is an absolute knock-out dish. The last delight I had in Kuala Lumpur was a crispy pancake that enclosed peanuts, a Malay-Indian specialty.

I half-expected to find Kuala Lumpur a characterless modern city without intrigue or charm, but I came to like it. Kuala Lumpur is the energetic heart of a rapidly growing, democratised and diverse nation. The awe-inspiring futuristic skyscrapers shelter equally impressive colonial buildings from a bygone era. Malays, Chinese and Indians coexist harmoniously, and each group enriches the city with their respective religions, fashions and cuisines. With Air Asia unbelievably low airfares through Kuala Lumpur, I have no doubt I will return to this city.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Malaysia photos

Posted by Liamps 09:52 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Northern Laos

Laos photos

While Laos’ most populated provinces are located in the South and the national capital is situated in the Central region, the North is the country’s true heartland. Northern Laos’ mountainous landscape, geographical isolation and historical circumstances have preserved its authenticity from industrialisation and generic commercialism. Peaceful tranquillity, slowness and rural culture thus permeate and distinguish this region from the crowds and rampant development of neighbouring countries. To me, these are the quintessential aspects I expected to find in Laos, but did not really feel until I travelled to the north of the country. After departing Vientiane, the landscape quickly changed from monotonous flatness to dramatic mountains and valleys. I read somewhere quite an eloquent description of Northern Laos as resembling a scrunched up piece of paper. The scenery is therefore undoubtedly spectacular, but this remarkable landscape also lends itself to horrific bus rides. Imagine the Great Ocean Road for ten hours plus in a cramped minivan or bus and you will basically have a picture of what such journeys were like. Nevertheless, such arduous trips were worthwhile in order to experience the serenity of a relative oasis in the middle of chaotic Asia. I stayed in Luang Prabang, the ancient royal capital of Laos, and a small town and a large village further north.

The lack of ethnic homogeneity in Laos complicates the assessment of history in this country. The history of the “Laotians”, as a conceptualised nationality rather than an ethnicity, is intrinsically entwined to the town of Luang Prabang. The first state which encompassed all nominally “Lao” territory was the Kingdom of Lan Xang, or the Kingdom of a Million Elephants. In the mid-fourteenth century, a disenchanted prince of Luang Prabang fled the court and returned with a Khmer-backed army to seize control of the town He subsequently conquered all Lao speaking regions in the Mekong Valley and introduced Theravada Buddhism. Luang Prabang was the capital of Lan Xang until it was relocated to Vientiane in 1560. Lan Xang grew to become the largest entity in mainland Southeast East Asia, but its glory was short-lived. The kingdom collapsed in the early eighteenth century from continual warfare with the Vietnamese, Burmese and Siamese. The Laotian lands were splintered into three weak kingdoms that paid tribute to Siam. The arrival of the French in the nineteenth century ended Siamese domination and instigated the sense of an encompassing Lao national identity (distinct from the Siamese) for the first time. France recognised Luang Prabang as the royal residence, although Vientiane was the administrative centre. To the French, Laos was just the first step in annexing all of Siam, but the 1904 Cordial Entente agreement with the British Empire (officially ended a millennium of hostilities and established the alliance that would win World War One) ended such plans (Siam became a buffer zone between French Indochina and Burma, part of the British Raj). Consequently, France’s interests in Laos depleted and far less money was invested into Laos than the other protectorates of Indochina. The Kingdom of Laos gained independence in 1954 and Luang Prabang continued to serve as the monarch’s seat.

The Geneva conferences of the 1950s and 1960s guaranteed the independence and neutrality of Laos, but opposing sides in the Vietnam/American War contravened these declarations. The North Vietnamese heavily supported the communist Pathet Lao and the Ho Chi Minh Trail passed predominantly through Laotian territory. The Americans backed the royalist government of Laos and sought to destroy the North Vietnamese route through the country. The CIA’s “Secret War” in Laos resulted in the dropping of two million tonnes of ordnance over this impoverished country between 1964 and 1973. Laos is thus the most bombed country on Earth, per capita. That accounts to a plane load of bombs every eight minutes for nine years. Up to thirty per cent of the bombs failed to detonate, so unexploded ordinances remain a serious issue in Laos. This despicable campaign was kept private from the US Congress, media and international community, and the tragedy that continues to plague rural Laotians is forgotten in modern consciousness. The bombings were ultimately futile, as Pathet Lao eventually triumphed over the royalists and formed the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. Throughout its existence, the regime has been dependent on the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, although the influence of China has grown in the past decade.

The name “Luang Prabang” conjures mystical allusions of a beautiful and grand town isolated in the rugged highlands of Northern Laos. The stunning historical buildings, vibrant Buddhist culture, naturalistic setting and, most importantly, the placid atmosphere have bestowed the town with the status as the “Jewel of Asia”. Luang Prabang’s visually captivating location is at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers and amid forested mountains. Locals fish the surrounding waterways with traditional tools and techniques. Bamboo bridges connect each side of the Nam Khan, at least until the flood waters wash the structures away (annual event). Unoccupied land is heavily vegetated with grasses, palm trees, bamboos and other shrubbery. Although this is the fourth largest city in Laos and the spiritual core of Laotian civilisation, nature is ever pervasive. Despite the arrival of mass tourism, Luang Prabang still exudes a sense of calmness as traffic and hassling are both infinitesimal for an major Asian holiday destination.

The old quarter of Luang Prabang, situated on the peninsula between the two rivers, is a World Heritage-protected zone. The rich heritage in Luang Prabang is reflected in the harmonious fusion of traditional Lao vernacular architecture with European stylisations. Th Sisavangvong is the defining thoroughfare in this narrow but long area, with subsidiary streets jutting off to either river. French colonial brick villas line Sisavangvong and the riverside roads. The architecture of the colonial era buildings is generally quite restrained, usually with two-storeys, simple façades, light coloured walls, wooden balconies and shutters and pitched roofs. Traditional buildings, located in the side streets or outside the core, are wooden structures with minimal ornamentation. A circular hill is strangely situated in the centre of the old quarter and it provides wonderful views over the enchanting landscape. At night, the main street is transformed into a night market. The Hmong (ethnic minority) women of surrounding villages gather to sell their artistic wares to tourists.

Luang Prabang is perhaps best characterised by its Buddhist identity. The town has served as the official or ostensive centre of religious learning in Laos throughout the country’s history. Consequently, there is a high concentration of Buddhist temples in the old quarter that exhibit tradition Laotian architecture. Wat Xieng Thong (Golden City Temple) is the most impressive, although each temple complex features similar plans and details. The precinct consists of pavilions, shrines, residences for monks and gardens. The main temple, originally the royal temple where the monarch was crowned, is quite small in comparison to Khmer temples or Western churches, but immensely beautiful. The roof system defines the external appearance. It features three layers of roof that each slope in a convex manner and almost reach ground level. The roofing itself is not ornamental, though lustrous green nagas (mythical snakes) and golden spires embellish the central roofline. The gabled façade is intricately decorated with golden iconographic painting and sculpture. The interior is decorated in a similarly lavish fashion. Wat Xieng Thong, along with other temples in Luang Prabang, does not feature the riotous cacophony of colour and unnecessary abundance of ornamentation that Khmer Buddhist temples usually do. Instead, greater emphasis is bestowed on the beauty of the structure itself, while decorative details are restricted to specific areas of the design. The temples in Luang Prabang are populated by dozens of male youths serving as monks for three months to three years. Shaved headed and orange-robed monks are an omnipresent sight on the streets of Luang Prabang. They often walk with umbrellas, despite the sunny conditions. The alms giving ceremony is performed on the main street each morning at sunrise. A parade of monks walks silently and solemnly past a line of people that place a spoonful of sticky rice into the bowls that the monks carry. The rice forms an integral component of their diet.

After Luang Prabang, I journeyed further north to the small riverside town of Nong Khiaw. When I arrived at the bus station on the periphery of town, I was impressed by the high karst mountains that engulf the area. Once I reached the river, I was stupefied by the most sublime scenery I sighted in Laos. The residential area of Nong Khiaw basically consists of one dusty road stretching from the bus station to the bridge. From walking along this road, it was apparent that I had left a major tourist hub and arrived at a more typical Laotian settlement (Nong Khiaw is not quite off the beaten track, although only “travellers”, rather than “tourists” filter through). The wooden houses are quite rudimentary and without superfluous ornamentation, but not without charm. This area was particularly atmospheric in the early afternoon when children returned to school after their lunchtime breaks (I suppose they would be atmospheric in the morning too, but I was never up for that). The small tourist (I should say “traveller”) area is situated on the opposite side of the river and connected to Nong Khiaw by a massive bridge. The settled areas are high above the water level on either side, which explains the enormity of the structure. The views from the bridge and the balcony of my bungalow were superb. The river is aqua blue and its banks and sandbars are covered thickly in vegetation. The river is bordered by towering karst mountains, which dwarf the structures of Nong Khiaw nestled into the landscape. I climbed one of the mountains for scintillating views of the area. A sign at the entranceway warned against straying from the path, as unexploded ordinances (UXOs) were apparently still in the area. For approximately one third of the hike (thirty minutes), I continuously passed thick cobwebs with spiders inside, which was much more frightful than the perceived threat of being blown up. I met several interesting characters in Nong Khiaw, including a British couple from Melbourne who are now citizens of Australia. They were travelling back to the United Kingdom to show up unannounced for Christmas for the first time in seven years. I also met a theatrical American and Austrian woman who is returning home for Christmas begrudgingly only because of her son’s request.

I caught a long boat upstream to the large village of Mong Ngoi Neua. This was a rather uncomfortable experience. Twelve large Westerners and our luggage were squished into a 1.5m wide boat and seated on hard wooden benches. The journey on the river felt as though we were leaving civilisation and entering a “lost world” where Mother Nature still dominates. Laos is quite a naturalistic country, with approximately fifty per cent of its territory covered in forest. Mong Ngoi Neua is just a tiny stretch of isolated development amid an almost unblemished environment and domineering karst mountains. The village consists of one car-free street that runs parallel to the river. Most of the guesthouses and restaurants overlook the river scene in stilted wooden structures (presumably to protect against flooding). Although electricity and an access road (dirt track) have recently been connected to Mong Ngoi Neua, less desirable aspects of Western culture like hedonism are yet to tarnish the character and friendly vibe of this rural village.

I explored the surrounding countryside twice by following the access road into the karst mountain landscape. Most of the lowland areas are used to cultivate rice, while the mountains are covered in dense rainforest. Streams of pristine waters flow through the rice-fields toward the river. As I walked along the road, I regularly passed locals chopping down banana leaves, hacking away at overgrown bamboo or carrying bundles of rice on their backs. I never encountered four-wheel vehicles on the road and motorcycles sporadically sped past maybe once every twenty minutes. This is certainly a remote area with very few vestiges of the modern world. I visited two small villages that were one to two hours from Mong Ngoi Neua. Both villages were bustling with people; while the rice fields were almost empty! The surfaces at both villages consist purely of exposed earth and are completely stripped of vegetation. The structures are built on stilts and feature wooden floors, thin walls weaved from bamboo and thatch roofs. Pigs, chickens, dogs and cats wander freely through the villages. Virtually no one in the villages speaks English and I assume few have enjoyed the privilege of education beyond primary school. I did met one English-speaking villager that owned a guesthouse and restaurant and was obviously very keen for me to eat at his establishment. Fortunately I am always willing to eat and he offered me several swigs of locally distilled “Lao Lao” (rice whiskey) to sweeten the offer. I felt somewhat awkward in the villages, because I wasn’t sure if I was welcomed or if I was intruding (dozens of tourists visit each day from Mong Ngoi Neua). It is difficult to articulate how rural and cut-off the countryside seemed, as I have never experienced an inhabited area quite like this before.

I am writing this entry from one of the best culinary destinations I have travelled to and am thus finding it difficult to reminisce enthusiastically about Laotian cuisine. As previously mentioned, tourists have limited opportunities to sample traditional fare, as generic Asian dishes are the standard options at restaurants. In Luang Prabang, I opted to dine at a relatively expensive restaurant (note the word “relatively”) that specialised in serving traditional Laotian flavours in a contemporary manner. The acclaimed restaurant is owned by a local Laotian chef and his Australian wife. For entrée I enjoyed a refreshing cucumber salad with cherry tomatoes, peanuts and a tart dressing, which was texturally complimented by rice cakes. Throughout northern Laos, you see circles of rice (I assume uncooked) on banana leaves left outside to puff into rice cakes from the sun (I assume that’s how it works). I also ate Mekong fish steamed in banana leaves with herbs, which melted in my mouth. Grilled meats marinated in local spices are particularly popular at night markets in Laos. In Luang Prabang, I sampled pork sausage and water-buffalo sausage. The pork sausage, flavoured with lemongrass, was one of the tastiest sausages I have ever eaten. The water-buffalo sausage was grainy and disgusting. I do not recommend trying water-buffalo meat! The French influence is certainly evident in Luang Prabang with quality bread and delectable croissants. Dozens of stalls line Luang Prabang’s main street and serve baguettes with salad, mayonnaise (French influence), chilli sauce and your choice of protein (unfortunately vegetarian have the option of selecting just salad). It occurred to me that although baguettes are such a Western food item, I have never seen baguette stalls anywhere else in the world.

Despite the advent of tourism, Mong Ngoi Neua remains an isolated area disconnected from the modern world. Consequently, it was here that I was finally exposed to traditional food in abundance. For breakfast, I ate ball-shaped pancakes (look similar to Dutch pancakes from a two-dimensional perspective) made from rice flour and flavoured with coconut, which were absolutely sensational. A northern Lao specialty is a salad of shredded green papaya mixed with carrot, tomatoes, garlic, lime juice, fish sauce and loads of chilli. While I thought it was very tasty, for some reason my eyes reacted very badly to the papaya salad and would not stop tearing up until it disappeared. This forced me to gobble it down rapidly, which was an arduous task because the salad was blow-our-head off hot. Surprisingly, pumpkins are a commonly eaten vegetable in northern Laos. I ordered a pumpkin curry accordingly but was underwhelmed. I tried a simple local dessert of sticky rice cooked with coconut cream and mango, which was decent. In one of the small interior villages, I ate fried bamboo with a bowl of sticky rice (that’s one food I will miss from Laos). Edible bamboo is actually quite pleasant to eat, crunchy and somewhat like onions. The best dish I had in Mong Ngoi Neua was sweet and sour fried river fish with tomatoes and pineapple, although it was not strictly a Laotian dish. Easily the culinary highlight of my journey in northern Laos was not a particular dish but Deen’s Restaurant Nong Khiaw. This establishment produced outstanding North Indian cuisine, so amazing that I ate there three times! And I wasn’t the only person that returned: basically every tourist in the town showed up for every meal! I was a little sympathetic for the empty restaurants owned by local Laotians, but those curries were too damn good to ignore. Malai korma, Aloo gobi, dhal, chicken tandoori, chicken masala, mutton rogan josh, the naan… oh that NAAN!

Northern Laos is definitely the country’s most appealing region and is quite distinct to other areas of Southeast Asia. The beautiful and historic town of Luang Prabang is the heart of this enchanting land, although personally I think the “Jewel of Asia” is slightly overrated. There must be hundreds of old quarters in Europe with more impressive architectural ensembles than that seen in Luang Prabang. I think the lack of regional competition in that category has heightened Luang Prabang’s reputation a bit. Nevertheless, the town is still worth visiting, especially for the Buddhist culture and atmosphere. But the highlights for me were the dramatic scenery at Nong Khiaw and the rural ambience in the area around Mong Ngoi Neua. It was at these destinations that I finally felt as though I had found the “true Laos”.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Laos photos

Posted by Liamps 23:29 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Southern Laos

Laos photos

The sleepy landlocked nation of Laos was the penultimate country I travelled to on Globo Trip. I did not initially intend to visit Laos, but geographical convenience and financial considerations persuaded me otherwise. Laos features a deurbanised population of 6.5 million, which is relatively miniscule for Asia. It is an isolated nation without access to the sea, international train connections or major airports. These factors have undoubtedly contributed to the lack of economic development in Laos, while giant neighbours boom. Nevertheless, the serenity of Laos is unique to the region and it has a placid and rural character. The territorial “shape” of Laos is rather unusual: slender, long and slightly more bulbous in the north (similar to Vietnam). I journeyed from the Cambodian border in the south to the far north, an itinerary which required several arduous bus trips. Laos is a diverse nation with 132 different ethnic groups and contrasting landscapes (interminably flat in the south and mountainous in the north). The identity of Laos is integrally linked to the Mekong, Southeast Asia’s greatest river, which flows through the entire length of the country (defines most of the Lao-Thai border). This trip enabled me to “complete” my jaunt through the former French Indochina. Although the cultures and pre-industrial histories of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos are all quite different, connection exists between the three countries particularly in relation to the French era and the turmoil that ensued in the decades immediately after. I spent two and half pleasant weeks in Laos, soaking up the slow life.

The Mekong River reaches her widest span directly north of the Cambodian border. The area is called Si Phan Don, or the Four Thousand Islands, and is Southern Laos’ most appealing and popular destination. It is an immensely beautiful natural attraction and a wonderful place to enjoy rural life in Southeast Asia. As the name denotes, thousands of islands are scattered throughout this area (although the definition of what constitutes an island needs to be applied liberally). This makes it somewhat difficult to appreciate that the countless channels of Si Phan Don form one mighty river. The principal island for tourist purposes is Don Det. The northern tip of the island is congested with *backpacker-oriented businesses and is thus an undesirable area to stay. Dozens of guesthouses are located at intervals further along a bike path (no four-wheel vehicles on the islands) on the eastern “sunrise” side of Don Det. Together with the three Swiss I met at the Cambodia-Laos border, we stayed at a guesthouse ideally situated in a rural setting but still accessible to the town only twenty minutes away. I occupied a private riverfront bungalow for four nights (unfortunately I had a second bout of sickness, which slightly lengthened my stay. Si Phan Don is hardly the worst place to relax in though) and enjoyed the sunrises from a hammock on each morning I was willing to wake up early (once). Don Det, like all the large islands of Si Phan Don, is completely flat and covered in rice fields. Thick vegetation grows in any pocket unused by human development. Massive water buffalo are omnipresent on Don Det and one regularly grazed below my balcony each morning. Most people explore Don Det with a bicycle, but it only takes two hours to circle the island on foot.

Don Khon is a larger and wilder neighbouring island. It is connected to Don Det with a bridge constructed during the French colonial era. The French optimistically planned big things for the region, as they intended to establish the Mekong River as a great highway between China and their Indochinese capital and maritime port, Saigon. However, navigating the channels of Si Phan Don is virtually impossible because of rapids and waterfalls. To circumvent this issue, the French constructed a railway across Don Khon and Don Det (the only railway in Laos until 2009), which allowed for the transportation of goods between ports on either ends of the two islands. The bridge, the railway and the loading bays are the surviving vestiges of this project on Don Khon.

Small villages of colourful stilted houses, plots of agriculture with bamboo fences, rice fields and water buffalo abound on the island. Yet jungle covers most of Don Khon and the numbers of inhabitants and tourists alike are much smaller than Don Det. The island is thus more naturalistic and pleasant to gander around. On the eastern side of the island, there are French-built artificial channels that were used to direct logs through the rapids. The concrete foundations are now overgrown with vegetation. Some of the natural channels between Don Khon and surrounding islands are narrow and placid, while some are wide with rigorous flowing water. I scampered along forgotten forest trails (not always such a great idea: I came a foot away from walking straight into an orb spider that was half the size of my face) on the western side of Don Khon and came to a deserted field of black jagged rocks bordering a raging channel of the Mekong. The dramatic scenery was totally uninterrupted by human activity. The Tat Somphamit waterfalls between Don Khon and Don Det were my highlight of Si Phan Don. Stilted fishermen’s houses are perched above the calm water upstream of the falls. This peacefulness is totally forsaken at a series of cascades and rapids that collectively form Ta Somphamit. The heights of the drops are not particularly noteworthy, but the volume and power of the gushed water make Ta Somphamit so impressive.

I joined a group kayaking excursion around some of the islands of Si Phan Don and shared a boat with one of the Swiss ladies I was traveling with. We started from the northern tip of Don Det and kayaked along the eastern shore in the same direction as the water flow. We were required to negotiate a stretch of “grade 1 to 2 rapids”, but the water was so tame that everyone suspected it was somewhat of a dubious classification for advertorial purposes. The greater challenge was weaving the kayak around the trees, roots and bushes growing in the river (it was like canoe-slalom). Our kayak was the only one in the group (including the guide) which never got stuck, thanks to some inspiring steering by yours truly. We landed on Don Khon and walked along the eastern side to avoid the waterfalls. We continued kayaking in safer water and eventually reached a vast “pool” between the south of Don Khon and Cambodia. A handful of Irawaddy dolphins inhabit this pool, which is the northernmost part of their range in the Mekong River (they cannot swim further upstream because of the rapids and waterfalls). The subpopulation in the Mekong River is critically endangered with only 70-80 dolphins in existence (although the species as a whole is only listed as “vulnerable” as there are thousands in the Bay of Bengal). Fortunately, we enjoyed several glimpses of these beautiful creatures. The Irawaddy dolphin is grey, features no discernible pattern and lacks a beak. Quirkily, we landed on the Cambodian shore and enjoyed lunch overlooking the pool. The guide had to endure jokes about our presence in Cambodia without visas from my hilariously clever group-mates, which he undoubtedly hears every day. We kayaked back to Laos and jumped in the Mekong to cool off. A “local bus” (truck with three parallel benches in the back) transported us to a massive waterfall (by width and volume of water) and then upstream of Don Det, allowing us to kayak back at sunset.

I caught a “local bus” from the mainland town that services Si Phan Don to Pakse, the major transport hub in Southern Laos. Only thirty minutes into the journey, smoke suddenly billowed from the front of the truck and all passengers, Laotians and Westerners alike, charged off maniacally in fear that our bus was about to explode. It turned out the oil tank was leaking quite profusely. The driver patched the tank up and wanted to continue, but one of the Laotians demanded another bus come because the situation was too dangerous. Us Westerners were told that we would only reboard the bus briefly, as we needed to be transported to a key junction to change vehicles. Three edgy and uncomfortable (dreadful seats) hours later, we arrived in Pakse.

I was forced to adjust my travel plans in Southern Laos after my ill health on Don Det. I opted to avoid overnight bus trips, to prevent a repeat episode of vomiting to occur in a rather uncomfortable situation. I decided to break up the long journey to Vientiane, the capital of Laos, by stopping at the colonial city of Savannakhet for two nights. I adopted the precautionary principle and chose to relax in a languid riverside town instead of motorcycling to Kong Lo Cave as I was originally intending. I hung around with two Scotsmen I met at the guesthouse and encountered the first Swedish person on Globo Trip! Savannakhet is situated on the Mekong River and faces Thailand. The centre of town is primarily composed of charming French colonial buildings with faded façades. This area is devoid of activity and the glory of Savannakhet’s (if there was ever any) has certainly been long lost. Several elaborately decorated and bombastically colourful Buddhist temples are located in Savannakhet. The architecture resembles modern Khmer prototypes rather than the more restrained and stylish Laotian temples in the country’s north. They feature terracotta roofs, golden nagas (mythical snakes) on the roof lines and red and gold doors and window sills. The interior walls and iconography are painted in a kaleidoscopic range of colours. Unfortunately, the streets of Savannakhet stink because waste water drains are exposed to the atmosphere at intervals of every ten metres.

The only occasion all year that I have felt genuinely unsafe was in Savannakhet. I may have previously begrudged leaving accommodation in certain cities, but only because of climatic reasons or annoying hassling (or supreme laziness). But in Savannakhet, I developed a debilitating fear of their insane dogs. The dogs of Savannakhet are presumably trained to protect their owner’s property, so they bark schizophrenically at any strangers walking past. Scarily though, the dogs are rarely locked behind gates and are free to roam the streets. Three times I needed to pretend to throw something at dogs to stop them from charging at me at possibly biting. This clearly demonstrated the danger of dogs to society and how cats, who do not pose a threat, should be man’s best friend.

Vientiane, the nation’s capital, is not located in Southern Laos. But since Vientiane also does not “belong” to Northern Laos and is not sufficiently interesting to warrant its own entry, I will briefly discuss my time in the city here. I arrived in Vientiane in the evening after an all-day bus trip from Savannakhet and left the next morning. I returned to the capital for one day just prior to exiting Laos, which enabled me to “see” the city to some degree. Vientiane is a small city of three quarters of a million residents and it feels much smaller as there is minimal traffic (people actually follow road rules) and no congested areas. The tourist area is conveniently packed into a dense area beside the Mekong. Most of the streets in this area are relatively quiet and free of rubbish. This tourist zone of guesthouses, restaurants, cafes and bookshops is actually quite pleasant because it lacks the raging bars and endless junk souvenir shops. The central area also features a smattering of French colonial buildings. Vientiane became the capital of the Laotian state in 1563 and was used as the centre of French administration during the colonial era. The nation’s most iconic and holiest structure, Pha That Luang, was built in 1566. This massive four-sided Buddha stupa is covered in gold-leaf and features dozens of small towers surrounding one great tower. Patuxai is Vientiane’s moderately impressive equivalent to the Arc de Triomphe. It was constructed with concrete that the United States donated for developing the airport; and hence the nickname “vertical runway”. The view from the seventh view provided a decent view over this boring city.

Guidebooks and restaurant menus convey that the food of Laos is based heavily on Thai cookery, which is inherently not true. For whatever reason, Laotians seem reluctant to showcase their culinary traditions at tourist eateries and instead serve generic Asian dishes. The fundamental difference between Laotian and Thai cuisines is essentially the variety of rice they use. Laotians usually consume sticky rice (different species of rice), which they eat with their hands. Consequently, typical dishes are “drier” than Thai dishes to maintain cleanliness (Laotians are very clean people and they wash twice a day). So coconut milk for curries and copious amounts of oil for frying are not indigenous components of Laotian cuisine. The most distinctively Lao dish is laap, a spicy salad made with minced beef, pork, duck, chicken or fish (or no protein if you choose to be weird). It consists of finely chopped mint, dill, shallots and chillies and is mixed with fish sauce and lime juice. Unfortunately, this was the only meal I ate in the south of the country that was definitely Laotian. I went to a German-owned restaurant on Don Det and ordered Weiner schnitzel with cream sauce, mash and vegetables. While the meal was absolutely delicious, I vomited it all up during the night (I’m certain that was not the cause). The guesthouse I stayed at in Savannakhet cooked fantastic servings of fried rice. At a neighbouring café with connections to an NGO, I drank a scintillating honey lassi. In Vientiane, I ordered “Vientiane style” beef, which was beef fried with chilli, ginger and curry leaves (probably influenced by Thai cuisine). On my final night in Laos, I bought a skewer of grilled pork from one of the numerous street stalls and ate the skerrick of meat on it (majority of pork was fat) with jeow, Laotian chilli relish of many varieties.

Si Phan Don is one of the highlights of mainland Southeast Asia; a natural wonderland of islands, rocky outcrops, patches of jungle, rice fields, water channels, waterfalls and rural life free of modernity. Unfortunately, the location of Si Phan Don is incredibly inconvenient for most travellers to Laos. The country’s other constituent attractions are in the North, where I believe the true character of Laos is found. The South is substantially more populated than the North, but to me the culture just felt generic “Asian” and not uniquely Laotian. Nevertheless the twenty hour bus trip from Vientiane (still not quite situated in the North) to Si Phan Don in Southern Laos is definitely worth the detour.

That’s all for now,

Liam

  • Backpacker: Mutually exclusive to “traveller” (traveller is permitted to use backpack and not be classified as a “backpacker”). Youth between the age of 18 and 30 who travels only to major tourist destinations and tends to stay at party hostels. Particularly attracted to drinking, even if it compromises the ability to visit sights or partake in activities of the destinations travelled to. Converses about such destinations with a cringe-worthy lack of awareness or intellect. Smoking weed or taking other illicit substances is considered the height of coolness and the primary justification for travel. Often ornaments their person with an array of hideous tattoos and piercings and may fashion an intentionally outrageous hairstyle. Eagerly wears daggy clothing bought at markets to demonstrate how they “fit in” to the local culture, yet will also expose an unsuitable amount of skin relative to their destination. Wear T-shirts with beer labels or the names of supposedly cool destinations or activities (like “tubing” in Van Vieng; a popular pursuit to get drunk on the river in Laos, and sometimes killed). Almost certainly speaks English as a first language. Liam is not a backpacker.

Laos photos

Posted by Liamps 07:50 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

(Entries 1 - 5 of 84) Page [1] 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 .. »