There is a silence that is unique to cathedrals. It pervades the stones and muffles the chatter of tourists. Even the echoing harmonies of a men’s choir fail to fully pierce the blanket of peace, instead they only enhance it. The towering ceilings stretch high above the painstakingly decorated chapels and the connecting tunnels wind amongst them, creating an intricate maze.
This slice of silence in the middle of Moscow was St Basil’s Cathedral and well worth the steep entry price. It was a place of truly marvellous architecture, saturated with the feeling of spiritual presence. With the Red Square closed and some stadium inhabiting most of it, my first tantalizing glimpse was of the tallest dome alone. As I walked closer, I had to crane my head to take in all of it, squinting against the morning sunlight and jostling against various other tourists all trying to get a photo from the best angle. The interior was simply gorgeous and by far my favourite when compared to the other cathedrals I visited. The aforementioned men’s choir’s voices wound through the entire cathedral in a beautiful touch that completed the atmosphere.
With Lenin’s Mausoleum seemingly inaccessible, I headed around the corner and spent two hours queuing for tickets into the Kremlin. The actual access ticket that allowed one to see the cathedrals took only fifteen minute to get however, I really want to look around the Armoury museum and the queue for this was much longer due to limited tickets and because the two ticket booths seemed to alternate breaks such that only one of them was open at a time. With the vast crowds of tourists packing their interiors, the cathedrals, which are the main sights of the Kremlin, became a very unappealing spot to linger. Unfortunately, this meant I spent the same amount of time looking around the Kremlin as I did queuing for it, even including my look around the Armoury with its fantastic collections. Most notable were a number of historical gowns which had the most ridiculously tiny waists.
The next day, I decided to pick up a few gifts and continue my hunt for a nice furry hat. Hence I ventured once more into the beautiful metro stations of Moscow. I emerged next to the Izmailovsky Market. This was a strange world of plyboard facades creating the illusion of a fairytale castle with empty stalls crowded below. I expect that come the weekend these stalls would be crowded with furry hats and matryoshka dolls however, now most were silent and empty shells. Fortunately I was able to pick up my gifts and found a suitably fluffy hat for myself so I was able walk along the touristy Arbat Street on the other side of the city centre without diving into every other souvenir shop.
From Arbat I strolled down to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, passing through a sort of mini renaissance fair on my way. An incredibly imposing building on the Moskva River, I elected not to enter the cathedral, deciding that I had seen enough overly crowded cathedral interiors at least for a few days. Instead I crossed the river and wandered through the scenic Gorky Park, eventually stopping to rest my feet and read next to a pond.
The next day I visited the planetarium, which turned out to be rather disappointing. Despite having an English version of their website, the only English within the museum was a couple of exhibit labels such as “sextant” and “telescope”. It was only by trial and error with a lot of pointing at a Russian program that I managed to book a ticket to see Incoming! a short film about asteroids and comets within the solar system.
With my plans to browse the museum scuppered by the lack of English, I amused myself with the cafe’s WiFi until I could make my way up to the large star hall and trade in my driver’s licence for an English audio set. The full showing consisted of two parts, The Sky Above Us and Incoming!. Both were very good and almost made up for the disappointment of not being able to read anything in the museum.
My final day in Moscow I opted for some retail therapy and visited a couple of second hand stores and fabric shops as well as the GUM department store off Red Square . This was a nice way to just chill and relax, although I did shed a couple of tears over the £8 Louboutins that were just too small and some gorgeous organza that was £95 per metre.
Several days in Irkutsk saw me doing embarrassingly little. With the end of travels looming on the horizon and the exitement of horse riding in Mongolia over, I was not feeling in the most adventurous of moods. The fact that I had an extremely good book that stole away hours of my time the moment I ventured into its digital pages was an additional diversion.
After a good night’s sleep-my hostel had delightfully comfortable beds-I set out into the city, following the tourist walking route. The hostel desk had a stack of city maps with the route printed on them but when I reached a road on the route, I discovered a green line had been painted to mark the route. Hence I was easily able to wander the city and see each of the 30 sights the line snaked passed, reading the plaques that marked them. Had I been in more of a sightseeing mood I may have also entered some of the museums or churches but as it was, I was content with stretching my legs and seeing a little of the city. The plaques were a tad dry, being of the factual nature but I still enjoyed reading them and discovering the history of Irkutsk, it was interesting to see just how many of them had been damaged in a huge fire that took place in 1879.
At this point I would like to insert an aside to extol the virtues of having a walking route fully marked out on the road in addition to the more traditional “here is a map with a line drawn on it” method or the occasional “signposted when we remember” approach. For starters, tourist maps are notoriously terrible as they have an unfortunate tendency to forget the existence of many roads. Furthermore, they cannot be used if there is even the slightest hint of rain and in both the case of map and signpost, one inevitably ends up feeling lost due to a lack of suitable signage giving directions or road names. On a personal level, I enjoyed the opportunity to walk without having to stop and consult my map every minutes. All in all I think more places should adopt this sightseeing approach though perhaps they could include amusing anecdotes and local lore in addition to who built what and when.
Accompanied the next day by looming clouds and a steady rain, I caught the bus to Listvyanka on the shore of Lake Baikal. For a drive that takes between one and two hours I was happy to discover it cost a mere £1.60 each way. Before I eventually gave up at peering through the continuously steamy windows-somewhere between here and Singapore, condensaton switched back to forming on the inside of windows-I was surprise by how quickly the city ended and we returned to the countryside.
Lake Baikal is the largest lake in the world, containing some fifth of the world’s fresh water, and it certainly gave that impression as I stood on the shore and strained to see the other side. With the low cloud cover, this was not initially impossible but after I had warmed up with some borscht and coffee in a quaintly maritime themed cafe, the clouds had cleared enough for me to make out the faint smudge of land. This was only possible because Lake Baikal’s true size lies in its length of 636 kilometres while its maximum width is only 79 kilometres. Due to my short stay in Irkutsk, I had decided not to visit the more scenic section of the lake around Olkhon Island because of the time constraints involved and given the grey weather I think this was indeed the best option as I doubt hiking around would have been that enjoyable and scenery is only good if you can see it. Instead, I nosed around the small market for a bit and sat on the shoreline enjoying the sound of waves as I delved back into the pages of my book.
My finally day in Irkutsk was spent lazing around the hostel and buying some food for the next leg of my trip along to Kazan. I settled on porridge sachets for breakfasts, instant noodles for dinners and then some bread and cucumber with salami to make sandwiches at lunchtime.
Beijing was an interesting city and even now I can’t decide if I liked it. Here, even more so than the other cities, the continuous security checks were apparent. Perhaps it was because I used the metro, excellently signposted in English, which has a security check at every entrance or that every street corner seemed to have a policeman standing on it. Either way it always felt a bizarre mixture between unsettling and ridiculously over the top. Especially with most security checks being incredible lazy.
I started off with two of Beijing’s most well known tourist spots, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. There is not much to say about Tiananmen Square, it is a square that even with hundreds of tourists still seems empty. I didn’t fancy visiting Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum so after taking a photo of its exterior, I turned round and ventured into the Forbidden City.
Getting tickets was far more work than should have been necessary. Paying by mobile phone using WeChat or Alipay is increasingly popular in China in fact it is so popular that the majority of Forbidden City tickets are sold by scanning a QR code and paying online. This method doesn’t really work for those of us who don’t have either payment method. Instead I wandered around the entrance courtyard with the vague instructions of “go straight turn right” to find the counter that sells tickets for cash. I eventually found it under the title of service counter near the entrance into the Forbidden City proper. While I imagine this method is considerably quicker, I do feel there could have been a signpost showing where to get tickets if one didn’t have the correct online payment methods.
I sped through the Forbidden City, perhaps I would have spent longer if I had decided to rent an audio guide but my patience for them fizzled out somewhere in Vietnam. As it was, I enjoyed looking around and reading the few signs that were up. The shear scale of the palace was truly impressive. I particularly liked the huge man made rock formation towards the back of the complex.
After refuelling with some beef noodles, I ventured into Jingshan Park which offered a marvellous view over the entire Forbidden City complex and, more importantly, a cold breeze. This was doubly precious since, as is generally the case, to get a good view one has to climb up a hill. It wasn’t a particularly challenging hill but the Asian sun makes mountains of molehills when it is pounding down from above. On the way up I ran into half of the Australian family that I had had such an enjoyable time with in Xi’an. This was my first time running into someone I had met earlier in my travels so I was very excited. I had begun to think of such events on an almost mythical level.
I spent the rest of the afternoon in Beihai Park alternating between strolling and reading my book: The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson. The park was lovely and open with a huge lake in the centre and lots of little buildings and temples that one could investigate. This was also my first time trying the Chinese yoghurt which came in a cute little jar and is drank through a straw. It was rather tasty to say the least, although I dread to think how much sugar was in it. I wrapped up the day with Peking duck and a very full stomach.
The next two days were spent on my Great Wall tour, which was absolutely amazing and made my bucket list one item shorter. I spent the afternoon of the second day making friends in my new hostel and wondering around the Qianmen area. This is quite a touristy spot with lots of hostels but the historical buildings (a fair few of which I am certain were just imitations) were very nice to walk among with lots of fancy tea shops and more affordable souvenir shops. As I was meandering I came across a group practicing some kind of dance. This is one thing I like about China; it is common to seeing groups practicing dancing or tai chi together.
The next day I visited the Summer Palace with another lass from the hostel. The weather was horribly muggy and turned to rain just as we were leaving so we cut short the rest of our day. As for the Palace, I much preferred it to the Forbidden City as there were a lot more trees and elements of nature throughout the complex, including a large lake. I also think the buildings seemed nicer: they had more historicity to reference The Man in the High Castle. The aged paint and weathered walls made the whole place feel far more real.
My final full day in Beijing, I visited first the Temple of Heaven followed by the 798 Art District. The temple was cool, I found the towering nature of it quite imposing and the symmetry was please but at the end of the day, I’ve seen a lot of temples and old buildings and sometimes they do tend to blur into one. The Art District of the other had was awesome. It was a lovely change from old Beijing to the quirky, new and upbeat modern Beijing (dare I say hipster).
Stretched throughout the complex of old factories are galleries, cafes and boutiquey shops selling artists’s wares. My eyes hardly knew which store window to stare through as I walked along and my window shopping game was strong as ideas for entire outfits sprung from single pieces of jewellery. The galleries were also amazing. I had two favourites; one which worked with melted copper, turning it into both abstract and more realistic sculptures, including one that just hinted at mountain peaks with trees sprouting from them; the second contained beautiful abstract paintings that again just hinted at an idea of form and shape creating a tranquil harmony. The district, while out of the way from a lot of the main sights, is a must see and perhaps me favourite spot in Beijing, although Beihai Park is a close contender.
In a way it serves me right, I should have known better than to talk of having good weather. However I do think it a tad unfair that the bad weather has pursued me so doggedly since Xi’an. As it was, I rocked up to my two day Great Wall trip with a slight drizzle accompanying me. After everyone had arrived, a German family, two Americans and two other Brits, we loaded into the bus and set off towards a wilder section of the wall.
Arriving at the wall around midday, we had lunch at a farmhouse before setting off. Our guide said flat. This is not a comment I can agree with. Admittedly he did eventually add the caveat that there was an up bit at the start and a down bit at the end but even then the stretch is the middle was, to my eye, by no means flat. This isn’t really a complaint in true form as I suspect walking along a completely flat stretch of wall would get boring very quickly. With the gentleish rolling of the hills along which the wall is built it meant we had a constantly changing view of the wall as it stretched out in front and behind us.
The visibility was not amazing due to the weather but the real downside was that while for most out hike it had been only cloudy, with a storm predicted for the night, we could not camp at the wall and instead had to stay in a farmhouse. This meant that we didn’t get the chance to see a sunset or sunrise (I do acknowledge neither would have been any good with all the cloud) or do any hiking on the second day, instead eating breakfast before returning to Beijing.
As previously mentioned the view was somewhat limited by fog but this did not detract from the walk all that much as we, unlike our cameras, could still see a fair ways into the distance as watch towers slowly became nothing more than silhouettes on the horizon. This section of the wall hadn’t been rebuilt like some of the more popular sections, rather the opposite, as in the 1960’s the Chinese government encouraged farmers to take bricks from the wall to build their homes. Furthermore, our guide tells us that in world war two there was a lot of fighting in the vicinity of the wall so bombs had damaged other sections. Fortunately it was still possible to walk along the top of the wall for the entire way, although there were a few don’t look down moments.
All in all it was and enjoyable trip with the only real downside being the lack of hiking on the second day. For those interested, I went on China Hiking’s Gubeikou to Jinshanling Great Wall two day camping trip.
While my days in Xi’an were relatively lazy, I did do a number of interesting things. Not least among these was my visit to the Terracotta Army. Getting to the museum was easy: I merely had to get the 603 bus followed by the 306, totalling 8 yuan, which is less than a pound. Finding the entrance however, was more challenging. The exit and entrance to the museum were at opposite ends, so by the time I found a sign to the museum, having to wade through the crowds of the adjacent restaurant and souvenir shop area, it led me to the exit rather than the entrance. After walking all the way back down the side, I eventually found the entrance I made my way in. Sadly my student card did not seem to apply here and I had to pay the full 150 yuan (£17).
Personally I found that while impressive in age and history, the warriors were a little disappointing with all three pits still in the process of being excavated and the lines note that straight. There was also little signage, although I will give credit where it is due and admit I was impressed that, with the exception of the artefacts in the bronze exhibition, all Chinese information boards had a English counterpart. I suspect the limited signs was to try and keep traffic flowing in the big hangers (the air con makes it tempting to linger even with the crowds) and to encourage people to hire tour guides. At 200 yuan (£23) for a guide this would be reasonable if one was in a group but is rather steep when one is alone and as such, was an experience I opted out of. This also meant I could see the museum at my own speed instead of rushing from one spot to the next so worked well for me.
Something I would have really liked an explanation on though was why there was an exhibit all about Pompeii in the exhibition hall. I wrapped up my visit to the museum in the food street with the most amazing cumin meat skewers ever. While they were more expensive than the ones in Xi’an, three for 10 yuan instead of one for 1 yuan, they were absolutely amazing and definitely worth the extra, unlike the one for 10 yuan in the Muslim Quarter which were mostly just fat and gristle on a thick fancy looking stick to make people more inclined to pay.
The next day I relaxed in the morning, making a Guernsey poster to add to the hostel’s collection and chatted with an Australian family before spending the afternoon sightseeing with them. This was an excellent pairing because it was my third day in Xi’an so I had a good idea of where to visit and one of the daughters and her friend both spoke Mandarin so were able to negotiate and ask directions for us. Our first stops were the Bell Tower and its counterpart the Drum Tower. These offered impressive views out over the centre of Xi’an and included a live Chinese music presentation in the Drum Tower. I was particularly amused by the combination of traditional Chinese dress and bright white fashion trainers that the lead drummer was wearing.
From the drum tower we ventured further into the Muslim Quarter towards the Great Mosque. This took a while as we walked through a winding market and it was very easy to get sidetracked by the multitude of souvenirs on offer. When we reached the mosque, we had a peak through the main door but since the majority of what we could see was scaffolding, we decided to forgo paying the entrance fee and looking around.
Instead we walked down the main food street of the Muslim Quarter, enjoying watching the pounding of some kind of cake or sweet that looked a little like fudge and a lady who was pulling noodles before throwing them into her huge pot of boiling water. We eventually settled on buying some flat bread for the next day and a pulled lamb Chinese style burger which was absolutely delicious.
After refreshing ourselves at the hostel we set out again in the evening to cycle around the city wall. This was a lot of fun and it was great to see the city all lit up in the night. We had probably left this trip a little too late in the day as we spent more time cycling in the dark than in the light but honestly I don’t think this was such a bad thing as it was considerably cooler than cycling under the pounding heat of the sun.
The next day we had planned to head up Huashan Mountain together but between getting the wrong train station and disgusting weather this did not come to be. After much deliberation, the family went to see the Terracotta Army while I regrouped at the hostel before braving the rain and visiting the Tibetan Temple. The temple itself was a wonderful splash of colour in a very grey day but with such weather I decided to count my circuitous route to and from it as my sightseeing for the day and retreated to the dry haven of the hostel.
The next day I walked up Huashan Mountain, which I talk about in a separate post. In the evening I was relaxing in the hostel common area-cum-bar when I saw the most glorious words a food obsessed tourist can see, food tour, being written up for the following evening. Needless to say, my name was the first on the board closely followed by the young woman I had been speaking to’s.
The next day I did a little clothes shopping but spent a large amount of time taking it easy in the hostel, unwilling to push my self after the previous day’s hike. There was no way I was about to risk wearing myself out before the food tour. And what a food tour it was.
Instead of going the the widely touted Muslim Quarter for food, we went to a food quarter preferred by the locals that used to belong to one of China’s historic Prime Ministers. This suited me just fine as while everywhere online claims the Muslim Quarter is the place to eat, I found the food not as good as the small local restaurants that are everywhere as well as being supremely overpriced. I expect there are a few very good stalls or restaurants however, I am inclined to believe that there is far more chaff than wheat and that sorting through everywhere to find somewhere good is not worth the effort. By all means go and soak up the atmosphere just don’t bother with the food. The only exceptions are if one wants savoury bread in which case the flat bread is a good option, and the green stall selling lamb Chinese burgers for 15 yuan at the entrance to the main street opposite the Drum Tower.
The food at this market we went to was absolutely sublime. We paired up for each dish to ensure we wouldn’t become full too soon. We started out sitting at a long table and digging into some excellent noodles. Fortunately my buddy and I both prefer a less spicy genre of food so were both content to pass the chilli bowl along without adding any to our bowl. It was very amusing to watch all the locals walking passed while filming and taking photos of us. To me, it is an experience of China that only other people experience as with my relatively dark hair and a tan that makes me darker skinned than half the locals, I make a very uninteresting foreigner.
While still at the table we tried a pulled pork bun where the pork is first cooked for hours and the bun was a wonderfully light and flaky pastry. This was so good that when a spare one was going free, I quickly volunteered to take one for the team and split it with the other guy who was interested. It was at this point that the bottle of Jack Daniels, produced by an American guy in order to celebrate the 4th July, made its first round of the group.
We then moved onwards, in amongst the buildings of the market and tried some roast potatoes, and a beef and cabbage bun similar to the pork one. The potatoes were good and I was surprised when the chilli covered ones weren’t actually too spicy. The only downside was I was hesitant to fully enjoy them, worried I would fill up before the end of the tour. We took a quick break from eating to pound mash potato with a giant hammer which was absolutely hilarious. The gentleman running the stall had a hat with a potato attached to it.
Our next stop also wasn’t food, instead being a drink of some kind of local wine. While the alcohol wasn’t bad the real joy was smashing the small earthenware cups it came in after we had finished. Next stop was a variety of grilled vegetables, the aubergine of which was my favourite and mushrooms least favourite. This was last of our savoury dishes and next we had was skewers of hard toffee coated fruit. The selection of fruit was a little odd with tomatoes, grapes and strawberries. The old adage that it takes intelligence to know a tomato is a fruit but wisdom not to put it in a fruit salad did spring to mind. The final stop was some nut paste filled pastries but these were sadly rather dry and our guide reckoned he would find something new for the next tour.
The evening wrapped up with a drink in the hostel and lots of full stomachs. Given the number of paragraphs I have devoted to food related topics in this post, I think it is safe to say that Xi’an has some excellent food on offer and I could quite happily go back and continue eating my way around town, especially with the number of places selling cumin seasoned skewers for 1 yuan.
The night before I left Phnom Penh, I came down with a rather horrible cold which I am still feeling the effects of now. This made travelling to Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as locals still call it, a rather miserable affair but aside from a slight delay at the border it was mercifully an uneventful journey.
My first stop the next day was the Ben Thanh market which was still setting up. However, this did not stop the calls of “miss, miss you want to buy T-shirt” following me around. It was fun to look at the souvenirs and some of the lacquerware was quite lovely. Grateful for my blocked nose as I passed through the butcher section of the market, I continued my walk up to the Siagon Central Post Office and the Notre Dame Cathedral. These were both excellent examples of the French colonialist architechture that Vietnam is so famous for but there is little to see inside the post office and the cathedral is closed to visitors during its renovation so they were both quick stops.
The War Remnants Museum was where I next ventured and is, by all accounts, a must visit in Saigon. Unlike many museums that cover a specific war, the War Remnant Museum focused more on the aftermath of the “American war” rather than the timeline and individual events that occurred during the war. To walk through it in the intended order, one starts on the second floor and moves down towards the ground floor. The top floor was mostly about different photographers on both sides of the conflict who lost their lives or went missing. Information about American war crimes and massacres appear on this floor and the ond below with some very chilling quotes.
The first floor had a large exhibt about the defoliator agent orange and the long lasting negative impacts it has on the environment and more tragically, on the people who were exposed to it and their children. Seeing the wide range of mental and physical disabilities the dioxin containing chemical causes was disturbing given how liberally the Americans sprayed it on areas of Vietnam. From talking to other people, I think it is widely agreed that this was the hardest floor of the museum to visit. The final ground floor talked of the bombs dropped and the efforts to clear them as well as showing posters and articles from different countries in support of Vietnam.
My last stop of the day was the Independence Palace which was fun to look around even if the explanatory plaques disappeared after the first couple of floors. I think I manage to see all the bits that were open to the public however with so many staircases leading to different sections it is hard to be sure.
The next day I had booked onto a tour to go and see the Cu Chi tunnels. These tunnels were inhabited by southern Vietnamese rebels during the war years and stretched for over 250 kilometres on three different levels. Our toilet break on the way to the tunnels was at a lacquerware workshop for disabled artisans. While a lot of the artwork was beautiful, what was more impressive were the prices; one set of panels I saw cost over £2000. When we got to the tunnels, our guide reminding us not to lose our wives (a favourite joke of his), we disembarked and began the walk around the museum grounds.
Our guide was a veteran who had fought with the Americans but seemed to enjoy telling us of all the ways he had tricked them into doing stupid things and reminding us how fat we all are in comparison to the Vietnamese. This was particularly apparent when he told us of a woman who had go stuck in one of the bolt holes used in surprise attacks. While he revelled in stories I did find myself wishing for a more factual approach in some areas, such as the traps. Of these he was rather dismissive, saying how they could only wound a soldier and not kill them, instead of discussing their strategic uses of forcing troops to bunch up as they tried to rescue a comrade and how the points were barbed and covered in excrement to slow removal and encourage infections.
I elected not to have a go at the shooting range halfway around the grounds, instead trying to rehydrate and replace some of my electrolytes. Going through the tunnel was the last stop at the museum and being short proved to be an advantage as we passed through a stretch of it that had been widened for us western tourists to pass through. The air of the tunnel was so hot and humid, that exiting could almost make one feel like they were entering a temperate climate. The bus back stopped at a “very cheap, very good” restaurant for a late lunch with everyone too hungry to disagree. While the food tasted good, even with my blocked nose, I had paid less the day before for lunch at a mid level cafe.
My last proper day was extremely relaxed and I spent a large portion of it at the hostel before venturing out to the Loft Cafe for an early lunch. The decor of the cafe was a well balanced blend of industrial chique and quaint rustic, I was particularly taken with the repurposing of bird cages for lamp shades. While my food was about average the lime juice was excellent and I had to restrain myself from buying a second glass.
From there I went to see the Ho Chi Minh City Museum which was almost deserted and in a lovely old building. It was enjoyable to potter through the exhibits and learn a little more about the history of the city and surrounding area. I was rather amused by the regular occurrence of the phrase “the American Diem puppet regime”. While I fully understand and respect the sentiment and history behind the phrase, I have never quite got used to the blatant propaganda some cultures employ, being far more used to the subtler hand of my preferred media outlets.
Aside from the hostel’s free evening food tour, which I attended every night of my stay, and a somewhat roundabout route back to the hostel, the museum concluded my forays into Saigon and the next day I set out to catch the bus up to Hoi An.
On the surface Bangkok does not offer much. There is a multitude of Wats and a fair number of museums but otherwise the standing agreement among backpackers is two or three days in Bangkok and then move on, maybe stretch it to five days. To an extent I agree, within the easily accessible parts of the city, there is little to do after the Wats have become a golden blur, each photo potentially belonging to a dozen different locations. However, Bangkok makes an excellent base of operations for visiting a number of other locations. In my case, I visited the Bridge on the River Kwai and Ayutthaya, which I talk about in two separate posts.
Upon dumping all my belongings at the hostel, I quickly left to fit in the famous solid gold Buddha at Wat Traimit. I bought my ticket and waited patiently to take my photos after climbing to the top. This took a while because the moment certain other tourists saw the spot directly in front of the Buddha was free, they were charging in and having a full blown photo shoot. The irony that they complained the moment I put a toe in their photos after they had just set up shop in mine was not lost on me. I was strongly reminded of the Chinese tour group I had encountered when taking photos of street art in George Town. Unfortunately, this is a part of being a tourist and when I find myself feeling frustrated, I take a breath, remind myself I am British and therefore that I know how to queue.
Something I was not aware of, and which wasn’t at all clear at the ticket booth, was that a different ticket to the small museum about the Golden Buddha on the floor below was needed. Hence, I decided to give the museum a miss since I knew the basic story of how the Buddha had been “discovered” when it was dropped while being moved and the plaster covering the gold cracked and fell away. Still tired from my train journey up to Bangkok, I called it a day and returned to the hostel for an early night via Chinatown and picking up some pad thai from a street vendor on the way.
The morning of day two in Bangkok found me visiting the Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho and the Grand Palace Complex with a guy from my hostel. Wat Pho was one of my two favourite wats. Whether because the design eased up on the gold paint or because it was the first wat I saw that day is hard to say for sure. Replacing all the gold were thousands of pieces of pottery, carefully arranged in intricate patterns. I was reminded of the Little Chapel back home, even if the pottery tiles here were each made specifically for the wat rather than random pottery shards slapped on at (mostly) random. The reclining Buddha was outstandingly huge. I particularly liked its lacquer and mother of pearl feet. Another winning feature of Wat Pho was that there was a reasonably large amount of it to see, unlike some wats where one feels that they enter, take a couple of photos, and then leave.
Despite plenty of offers, we declined a tuk tuk for the five minute walk to the entrance of the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew. Getting in presented more of a challenge than we expected. First the guy I was travelling had shorts which were too short. Fair enough, they only just brushed his knees. So back across the road we went to pick up a pair of the colourful trousers, ubiquitous to backpacking tourists in South East Asia. I was wearing a top which covered my shoulders and had a T-shirt collar. However, it only had very short sleeves so I had covered my arms the rest of the way with a shawl. This had never presented an issue before and neither has it since. Apparently this time it wasn’t acceptable though, even as I watched half a dozen other female tourists walk pass with their shoulders barely hidden beneath flimsy scarves. Five minutes later and some quick improvisation on my part to adapt my shawl into a pair of sleeves, we re-entered the complex, me blending into a group of Chinese tourists who never seem to get stopped. With my height, an umbrella to block the sun, and big sunglasses this was not too difficult and we quickly made it to the ticket office, both sweltering from the crush of bodies and the sun.
Wat Phra Kaew was undeniably impressive with most surfaces glittering gold and it was cool to see the Emerald Buddha but the heat was almost unbearable and we found ourselves taking “shelter” in the shade as often as possible. Personally, the sheer volume of people was beginning to border on overwhelming as at five foot one (two on a good day) it was impossible to see further than the back or head in front of me and I was at risk of getting carried along by the tide. Making it through to the palace was less crowded but beyond looking at the exterior, we couldn’t see anywhere to enter so went to eat some ice cream before parting ways.
I caught the orange flag boat over the river to look around Wat Arun and Santa Cruz Church. Wat Arun had also avoided the gold craze and I enjoyed craning my head back to try and see the top as it reached towrds the sky. Even including the nearby ordination hall, there was not much to see but I think it is still worth a visit as it is very different to a lot of the other wats I visited. Santa Cruz Church was closed, I presume as it was a Sunday, but the outside of the building was nice and I had a lovely little amble from Wat Arun to the church and then on to the boat station.
From there I made way to the Golden Mount, pausing at a few wats I passed on the way. This was my second favourite wat. Not for its towering gold stupa but for the wonderful views of Bangkok that it offered in all directions. After descending the awkwardly shallow stairs, I realised I couldn’t stand the thought of another wat so walked past Democracy Monument and explored Khao San Road, collecting some mango sticky rice for a very belated lunch. Dinner was with another guest from the hostel and then bed.
I spent the next day and a half visiting the Bridge on the River Kwai and Hellfire Pass, detailed here. Upon my return I had hoped to visit the Medical Museum however it was closed on Tuesdays and I ended up not going at all. Instead, I spent the afternoon getting a Thai massage (very relaxing) and a henna tattoo (a bit of fun).
Wednesday’s visit to Ayutthaya is also described in a separate post, here, but suffice to say it was a good visit even if it left me so exhausted by the time I got back to Bangkok that I slept half the next day away. To account for this, I only visited one place, the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles. Entrance to here was included in my ticket to the Grand Palace from a few days before so it made sense to visit. The museum isn’t huge, with one section detailing the long and peaceful relationship between Thailand and the US, showcasing some of the gifts exchanged between the two countries over the years. The second section appealed to my inner seamstress and was a variety of restored pieces from Queen Sirikit’s wardrobe, the majority from her visits to the US and Europe in the 1960s.
My final day in Bangkok was spent taking a breather and resting up for my 0100 night bus to Siem Reap where I then transferred down to Phnom Pehn.
My day and a half trip to the Kanchanaburi and the Bridge on the River Kwai started off less than smoothly. I had hoped to get the boat across the river and then walk the remainder of the way to Thonburi Station. However, I was informed that there was a fifteen minute wait for the boat and Maps.me reneged on its previous prediction of a ten minute walk from the pier, instead opting for a twenty minute slog. Reluctant to push my timings, I opted to grab a taxi. This would take four minutes according to Maps.me, which steadfastly ignores the existence of traffic, or twenty minutes according to the official advice online. With just under forty minutes until the train left, this seemed a perfectly viable option.
Despite my best efforts to say where I wanted to go, including vigorous pointing at my map and the Roman script of the station written down, I think the taxi driver closed his ears the moment I uttered the words train station. Ah, train station! Naturally this foreigner, this white girl, could only want Hua LamphongStation. Why should I listen to her anymore? Or look at the map she is showing me? Why let her speakandexplain where she wants to go? I will saychuu chuutoher and wave with my arms until she gives up and gets in the car. Perhaps not the politest picture to paint but if a city has more than one station, it makes sense to clarify which one is required and I fail to see how two stations on opposite sides of the city centre not to mention a river could be confused on a map.
Fortunately my lack of faith in the taxi driver meant that the moment I watched us drive straight pass the correct turning on my map, I knew we were headed for the wrong station. It took less than a minute for him to pull over and understand that I wanted Thonburi Station with me showing him exactly the same props as the first time. Imagine if he had just listened initially? Missing that crucial turning meant a long detour before we could join the major road that passes Democracy Monument and crosses over the river, all of which was spent stuck in traffic.
Creeping closer to the station with nose to tail traffic wreaked havoc on my nerves as I painstakingly watched the seconds tick by but thankfully we made it with two minutes to spare. Fortunately, Thai railway stations are a laid back affair and there were only a dozen or so metres between the ticket booth and train so I had plenty of time to buy my ticket to Nam Tok and board. Naturally the train did not leave for another ten minutes, but this was not a concern as I was onboard so, short of a breakdown, I would be making it to Hellfire Pass and the Bridge on the River Kwai eventually.
Riding the train to the end of the line was a relaxed affair as I alternated between reading and watching Thailand fly by outside the window. To visit both Hellfire Pass and the bridge within my rather constrained time limit I rode the train all the way to the end of the line in Nam Tok and visited the pass before catching a later train to return to Kanchanaburi and visit the bridge. This route meant I also rode the train across the perilous Wampo Viaduct. Watching everyone lean out of doors and windows with nothing to stop them toppling out as we crossed the sheer drop, I could not help but imagine the fit English health and safety would throw.
Arriving just over half an hour late in Nam Tok gave me about two and a half hours to visit Hellfire Pass before the train left. I was initially confused as the websites I had read implied that the Pass would be right there when I disembarked however it was in fact necessary to get a taxi to the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum. This created another point of consternation upon my return to the station as it turned out the taxi driver who had said 300 baht for both ways, supported by his refusal to let me pay at the museum, actually meant 300 baht each way, a classic trick to pull and one I should not have fallen for but by that point it was rather too late to do otherwise without causing a scene.
The Museum itself was under renovation but there were still boards to read about the plight of the 60,000 prisoners of war and 250,000 Asian labourers who were forced to work on the Burma – Thailand railway by the Japanese during the second world war. It was incredibly sobering to read about the forced marches, brutal treatment and horrendous hours worked all while the workers neared starvation and had little to no medical treatment.
Standing in Hellfire Pass, I imagined it lit with torches at night during the speedo period; listened to the hammers clanging onto the tap drills, forcing them into the rock, focusing on this rhythmic racket instead of the sounds of the guards administering a beating; smelt the caustic scent left by dynamite and exploding rock, tried to ignore the stench of festering wounds; felt the weariness and hopelessness seep into my bones, pain and gnawing hunger radiating throughout; and finally rolled the sour taste of bile and dehydration around my mouth.
My imagination will never encompass the true suffering endured but it is enough that I will not forget the 12,399 POW and 70,000 to 90,000 civilians whose lives were lost to build the railway. I finished paying my respects to the fallen in the pass and solemnly made my way back to the train station in Nam Tok. With the misleading nature of the taxi driver and a slight cloud over my head from visiting the pass, I ended up giving the Sai Yok Noi Waterfall a miss, instead reading my book until the train back to the Bridge on the River Kwai arrived.
The bridge was a somewhat less sombre stop, mainly due to the sheer number of tourists wandering back and forth across it and posing sitting on the tracks. I was almost surprised not to see a collection of pre-wedding photo parties claiming some of the lookout points. Nonetheless, it was an impressive feat to look at especially considering the limited materials and tools available during its building. I will confess that I remain unclear on just how much of the original bridge remains and how much has been replaced due to damage from bombs and time but to span the river was an undeniable feat of engineering.
Before walking the half hour to Kanchanaburi and my hostel, I tucked in to a particularly good plate of chicken and cashew nut stir fry at a small restaurant just off the main square. I chose it for the presence of locals (or patrons at all really) as all the other restaurants appeared to be deserted with the exception of the more expensive “floating” one on the river.
Knowing that to see both bridge and pass I would have to miss the last train to Bangkok, I had booked a hostel for the night next to to train station so I could catch the early morning train back. This resulted in an enjoyable evening where I finally got round to trying some durian, an experience I have know intention of repeating. While all bar one other in our group seemed to be able to tolerated the repulsive smelling fruit, I barely resisted the urge to throw the vile textured stuff straight back up, much to the amusement of the others. At least it can now be ticked of my somewhat cynical list of how to be a tourist backpacker in South East Asia.
The next day dawned bright and early and I and two other girls had the pleasure of a relatively on time train journey back to Bangkok. Sadly the Medical Museum, which I had intended to visit of the way back to my hostel, was closed on Tuesdays so I never did get a chance to visit it.
Taxi to Thonburi Station from near Khao San Road: 200 baht
All trains: 100 baht each, 300 baht total.
Taxi to Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum and back: 600 baht – a mistake on my part and should have been negotiated down.
From Melaka, I caught the bus up to Kuala Lumpur for a few days. Arriving on the first day of Ramadan, I was assaulted with the delicious aromas of curries and BBQs from the array of food stalls directly outside my hostel. They were set up and selling food every afternoon for the month of Ramadan. On my way to Bukit Nanas Forest Reserve, I indulged myself in wondering through this small market in the process of setting up. Eventually finding my way to the reserve, I bypassed the Kuala Lumpur Tower, deciding that once one’s been to the top of one telecoms tower, one’s seen them all. Besides the visibility is normally much reduced and somewhat disappointing in comparison to the views promised in brochures and I imagine that the low hanging afternoon clouds of Malaysia do little to aid it.
Instead I ventured along the canopy walk, praying the looming storm would hold off long enough for me to finish the walk. Naturally I was halfway along the first bridge when the first roll of thunder peeled out like the battle drums of an approaching army. I picked up my pace and tried not to think about the warning signs not to enter the park during storms. Chased by thunder and darkening clouds, I found myself wondering about the likelihood of being struck by lightning and, if I survived, how cool the lightning scars would look. This was perhaps a tad morbid but standing on a metal bridge in the treetops with a storm rapidly approaching will do these things to you. I made it safely back to the main road just in time, with the rain still holding off.
Meeting a group who had entered the park just as I exited later that evening, they said how lightning had struck a couple of trees just over ten metres from them and I have now resolved not to be in any forests after about three thirty, the earliest thunderstorms normally start in Malaysia. Making my back to the hostel, I was admiring the lightning as it flickered on the horizon and waiting to cross the road when I felt the first drops of rain begin to fall. By the time I made it to shelter on the opposite side of the road, I was soaked through and a wall of falling water curtained off the outside world. Unwilling to venture out, I settled on a bench in the shopping centre I found myself in and read my book while I waited out the storm.
My first day in Kuala Lumpur finished with scrumptious samosas and a huge chicken and tomato skewer, devoured at the table in the hostel as I talked with other guests.
Day two dawned bright and early and found me planning where to start my explorations. Setting off for the Islamic Arts Museum, I caught the purple line of the GOKL buses, a free bus system the runs in the Kuala Lumpur city centre. Getting off the bus at Pasir Seni I passed the National Mosque as I walked the remainder of the way to the museum. I was unable to enter the mosque because the time I was passing by coincided with prayers, but just walking around the outside was enough to be impressed by the vast scale and simple but elegant architectural style.
The Museum cost MYR14 and was well worth a visit in my humble opinion. Unlike the art one would expect to find in the Louvre, Islamic art focuses more on making everyday objects into works of art themselves. Upon entering, I perused the models of famous pieces of Islamic architecture, including the Taj Mahal, as the melodic sound of a recitation of the Quran played in the background. The next section showcased breathtaking examples of illuminated Arabic script. In many cases the Quran but also a number of Firmans, edicts of sorts, from the Ottoman empire. Of particular delight to me is this section were a number of astrolabes and navigational tools as well as the intricately detailed ink pots and matching quill boxes.
Moving on there was a wide range of artefacts to illustrate the blending of different cultures with Islamic art, in particular, Malaysian, Chinese and Indian. This included everything from textiles and furniture to jewellery and weapons. While paintings and sculptures may be far less common in the world of Islamic art, there is no doubt in my mind that the objects created are just as beautiful as any painting, if not more so for their practicality.
Exiting the museum, I made my way to Masjid Jamek, another mosque, via the Hindu Sri Mahamariamman Temple. The temple was pleasant to look around briefly and the mosque was certainly impressive from what I could see of it, even though I could not enter. Instead, I headed to Merdeka Square where Malaysian independence was declared and which is ringed by and impressive selection of colonial era buildings and headed by a huge flagpole, proudly supporting the Malaysian flag.
Continuing on, I backtracked past the National Mosque and made my way to the Butterfly Garden. At MYR25 I felt the cost was a little steep but enjoyed my time wondering around the miniature garden jungle even if there were less butterflies than I had expected to find. Halfway round I again found myself frantically dashing for shelter as it began to rain. Fortunately there were a number of small seating areas within the garden and I was able to read my book even as the rain poured down all around me.
A quick stop to look up at the Petronas Towers and I headed back to the hostel for the evening.
My last full day in Kuala Lumpur saw me teaming up with another guest to visit the Batu Caves. We set out around nine thirty in the hopes of seeing the cave while the temperature was still somewhere around sweltering instead of Mordor on a bad day. Sadly our cunning plan was not to be. Being backpackers on something vaguely resembling a budget, we had elected to get the train rather the a Grab car or taxi. We did not however account for the varying train times of Kuala Lumpur. I for one, am used to inner city trains running on a regular and frequent schedule and did not think to check train times. Then again, I am not convinced checking train times would have made a difference.
We waited twenty minutes for the monorail to KL Sentral while two went in the opposite direction. At KL Sentral we were redirected to a free bus shuttle that was running to KTM Sentul instead of the train. We sat on the bus (blessedly air conditioned) in the station for another fifteen minutes before being told to switch to a different bus. Upon making it to Sentul we waited a further half hour before the train drew out of the station on the last leg to Batu Caves. We finally arrived a mere one hour and forty five minutes after we had set out compared to the fifteen/twenty minutes it would have taken by car.
Thus we found ourselves climbing 272 stairs up to the main cave with the sun doing its best to cook us alive. The cave was impressively huge, even with most the manmade structures within it cocooned in scaffolding. However, for me the cave was a little disappointing because aside from the size, the geological features were not amazing and almost everything else was behind tarpaulins. Furthermore, the smell of monkey urine was rather unappealing. Neither of us was particularly inclined to see all the insects and bats that call the Dark Cave home so we skipped over visiting it.
The journey back was somewhat quicker and we parted ways at KL Sentral, agreeing to meet again later. I had another long journey ahead of me. This time walking to Thean Hou Temple where the nearest public transport spots were all a uniform forty minutes away. Despite this I really enjoyed walking around the temple, perhaps my favourite in a while. It offered excellent views of Kuala Lumpur and had counteracted the fading and peeling of paint that strikes all buildings in this hot and humid climate with a fresh coat of paint. This meant lots of brightly coloured dragons perched on the eaves looking as if they could come alive at any moment.
With the long journey times these were the only attractions I visited during the day, venturing out with the same young lady that evening to watch the sunset at the Heli Lounge. Our plans were foiled once more, this time by the weather. A light shower meant we could only go up to the top deck for a brief round of photos before being ushered back down into the bar. With clouds blocking the sunset, it was something of a wasted trip although my gin and tonic was quite pleasant. The day ended with delicious feast of mango and mangosteens from a nearby food market.
Arriving in Melaka the evening before, I eventually resorted to getting a taxi to my hostel instead of the bus as it seemed the majority of buses had stopped running for the day. Another thing that seemed to close extremely early was the majority of restaurants, which all seemed to be closed by six. Fortunately not everywhere closed and I had some noodles in a little cafe on Jonker’s road. The rest of the evening was spent chatting with other guests and the staff on the rooftop of my hostel, a group of mostly solo travellers making for a sociable crowd.
Breakfast devoured, I set out into Melaka. It was something of a false start as about five minutes later I found myself huddling in a five foot way sheltering from a sudden downpour. A chapter of my book later and the rain cleared so I was able to resume my exploring. There is not a huge amount of things to see in Melaka, unless one has a deep and passionate love for all kinds if museums, so I very quickly saw the key sites which were of interest to me.
Not yet willing to return to the hostel, I went to the Maritime Museum. This was a lot of fun as the first half of the museum in a replica of the Portuguese vessel the Flor de la Mar that sank off the coast of Melaka. It was also fascinating to read about the rise of Melaka from a fishing village to a major port of trade. How the colonisation of Melaka, first by the Portuguese, then the Dutch, and finally the British, combined with their varying religious persecutions, changed the port from one of free trade to a state monopoly of declining significance was well explained. However, the order of reading for the information plaques a little unclear in some cases.
A (very) late lunch of scrumptious pork satay later and I spent the rest of the afternoon reading my book before getting ready for the hostel’s cycling trip to Masjid Selat Melaka, the “floating” mosque, for sunset. On our way, we briefly stopped via a group of locals play a cross between volleyball and football with a wicker ball. Kicking the ball back and forth over the volleyball net required an impressive level of flexibility and foot eye coordination. At no point were hands used to hit the ball but there were a few well aimed headers.
Watching the sun set as we sat next to the Straits of Melaka as the call to prayer rang out, was a beautiful experience. The lights of the Masjid Selat Melaka gradually strengthened as the light of day slid from the sky which faded from blue to orange to purple and finally black.
Heading back to the hostel with a flat tire rattling my joints out was slightly less fun and mildly terrifying as all road signs were ignored by our guide and most other road users. The solo travellers from the bike tour grouped together for dinner. Electing for an Indian place the hostel owner had recommended, we all satiated the appetites we had worked up cycling with the self serve plate, none of us quite brave enough to pick something unknown off the menu. This was just as well a fish complete with heads and tails was a menu option I saw someone ordering and is a meal I intend to never eat again if at all possible.
The day concluded with a round of beers and Cards Against Humanity on the hostel roof, so while there may not have been much to see in Melaka, there was still a great many people to meet and laughs to be had.