The perils of an open air bathroom

Our accommodation on Gili T was a bungalow which was essentially a room with an open air bathroom attached at the back. By open air it meant high walls (for privacy) and a roof but a big gap instead of eaves. This meant that it was always the temperature of outside.

On the face of it this sounds lovely BUT there were drawbacks. Given that I am a critter magnet every time we went to the bathroom we ran the risk of flying biting things getting in the room who would then feast on exposed flesh all night (yes this did happen. My legs are not a pretty sight)

You have to accept that though as part of the tropical island experience. What we didn’t expect though was what happened on the morning of our departure.

Picture this, we had a 6.30 check in at the other end of the beach & we had to haul our cases 20 mins along the lumpy bumpy road as horse & carts were not awake. So we were up at 5.30am to pack. At 5.27 Kevin heard a scratching sound and he leapt up thinking that there was a creature in the room. Lights on and a quick search proved nothing. He said the sound seemed to be coming from the ceiling!!!

Anyway he strips off and nips onto the bathroom for his (cold) shower when suddenly he realised that he was surrounded by a swarm of bees!!!! Yes bees. Not a great position to be in when you are starkers. He dashed back into the room faster than I have ever seen him move.

Needless to say we were in a dilemma. Never mind the shower, how could we get our toiletries to pack them and we had very limited time????

I wrapped myself up and very bravely (I thought) made a forage at lightning speed to pick everything up. That morning was the first time I have brushed my teeth at the tap meant for washing the sand off your feet when you leave the beach.

Some bees followed us into the room and so we had to dress and finish packing whilst taking great care to avoid them. Our departure was rapid to say the least which was unusual for that time of the morning!

Fortunately we escaped without being stung.

On the positive side, the advantage of leaving so early was that we were able to witness the sunrise over the Bali Sea.

It’s not all plain sailing…

Being an intrepid adventurer is not always idyllic. Sometimes things don’t exactly go according to plan.

The plan was – transfer from Bali to Gili T by fast boat. Leave hotel 9.30 (reasonable time) 2 hours bus to port then 1.5 hours on a fast boat to the island.

God and nature however, had other plans. The day before we departed there was an underwater earthquake near the Gilis. Now it was an underwater earthquake which caused the tsunami back in 2004 so these events are definitely to be taken seriously. This one, although nowhere near as big was apparently causing swells of around 5ft so the harbour master cancelled all fast boats. We were given an alternative option.

What actually happened- 5.15am wake up call and check out at 6. Bus picked us up at 6.30 (late) and we did the 2 hour drive to the port arriving about 8.30. By 9 all the other displaced passengers had also arrived. We were walked through to the port area along with our luggage and put into a line behind barriers (so no option to move). Then another line then a sort of scrum. This went on for over 4 hours. Some people were extremely lucky and able to lean against the railing. Others suffered standing in the direct sun. It was pretty gruelling. I ended up sitting on my case for a while. Being a port, we were lined up alongside where the freight drove on and off the ferries. 4 ferries came and went before we could board. During that time we enjoyed the close proximity of the diesel fumes from the passing lorries!

At mid-day the company passed out some fried egg sandwiches with cold oven chips! I have never had cucumber in a fried egg sandwich before! Little did I know it would be the only thing I ate that day.

On board the ferry we were lucky enough to get actual seats. As you can see from the photo many people were outside on the floor. Mind you after 8 hours even the seats we were in became uncomfortable!

On arrival in Lombok (I should mention that both embarking and dis-embarking required us to haul our cases up and down 2 flights of steep ship stairs! That was hard) we boarded coaches for the next port. This was easily an hour and a half journey up the coast of Lombok. It was dark by then so we couldn’t see too much.

We got to the north of the island at 10pm from which it is a short 10 Min speedboat ride to Gili. Only problem was that there were only a limited number of boats available at that time of night and large numbers of us!!! We had to wait and wait for the boats to shuttle back and forth. Hungry and spaced out from exhaustion we landed at 11pm wading through the water with our bags. From there is was a short taxi ride to our accommodation. This was our taxi

The Gili Islands have no motorised vehicles so the only modes of transport are bicycles and horse drawn cart (which go at a fair lick). It was like stepping back in time to a pre-industrial era and had the tang of stables to accompany it.

It was at this point that we learned that the fast boat back had also been cancelled so we will have to do the same journey in return (joy!)

There are 3 Gili islands. We are in the furthermost one called Gili Trawangan which has a Cornish ring to it. But it was nothing like Cornwall. It is a haven for snorkelling and diving. Pretty much everywhere has diving lessons.

The 3 Gili Islands were uninhabited until about 50 years ago. No one thought of living on a place with long white sandy beaches, crystal blue water and year round sunshine until the tourist industry sprang up. Consequently there was no infrastructure and everyone who lives here works in tourism. There is nothing else.

Kevin had booked us into a budget place on the seafront called Mango Dive. It turned out it didn’t have any hot water!!! Can you imagine?!?!? Why would anyone offer accommodation to tourists without hot water? It’s crazy. Maybe divers like cold water. Maybe blokes feel tough showering in cold water & it’s a ‘macho thing’. Clearly people with next to no hair can manage a quick sluice but for me it’s different.

Our beach was lovely

But after a day of sweat, sun cream, sand and salt I needed to wash my hair. Not happening. I took the speediest of showers amidst squealing but couldn’t stay long enough to wash my hair. And we were booked in here for FOUR nights! It’s budget remember so not even a kettle that I could improvise with…

I don’t know about other ladies but when my hair is dirty, itchy and sticking up every which way it is quite stressful and I personally get a bit grumpy (as Kevin has discovered) I was tempted to hide in the room for the entire time because I feel so dreadful. What saved our marriage was the chance discovery of a small hair salon at the far end of the beach. A wash & blow dry has now been booked and I am willing to pay whatever it costs!! Anything.

Today we hired bikes and cycled around the island.

We found a beach swing which I’ve always fancied having a go on.

At the northern point we stopped for a beer & pina colada (only £2.50) which was a bargain (perhaps I should have had more!)

And later a couple of beers on the beach and a beautiful sunset

Balmy Bali

After an extremely enjoyable but busy year we definitely need a rest so have headed to the lush tropical paradise that is Bali (only 4 hours away from Bangkok) for a bit of R & R.

We were quite shocked on arrival to find the temperature only 24 degrees while London at the same time was 28 degrees!!!! Coming from sweltering 34 degrees + humidity in Bangkok we found ourselves actually a bit chilly!!!! This wasn’t what we were expecting at all & we had to rapidly calculate whether we had brought enough sleeves and trousers!! Fortunately for us the grey clouds rolled away and the weather improved over our stay.

We started away from the tourist beaches and headed straight to Ubud in the centre of the Island where our hotel was nestled in the rainforest. The picture above is the view from our room of the lush jungle.

And the infinity pool (which did wonders to help unwind)

The first morning we did a paddy field trek for 2 hours before breakfast. I am ashamedly ignorant of the rice cultivation processes so this trip was a fascinating learning experience.

The paddy fields are ploughed using traditional machinery.

The rice husks are in the soil at the bottom of the clump (which hopefully you can just about see) They are clumped together here so are broken down into smaller pieces to be planted where they will have room to thrive.

The rice grows and through a complex irrigation system the fields are alternately flooded or drained at various stages of growth. The rice is ready for harvesting after 6 months.

All around the fields are multiple shrines and ceremonial offerings are made to the rice goddess, Dewi Sri, frequently throughout the growing process. This is because rice is such an important part of the island’s culture and heritage.

Much of the work is done by women, particularly the harvesting. They traditionally use a small hand-held scythe so as not to frighten the rice goddess. Bless. In an interesting example of role reversal the housekeeping staff in the hotel were all men and the farmers were predominantly women!!

I love this picture below as it is so typical. Dogs roam freely everywhere. This one looks as though he is surveying the land.

The religion in Bali is a fusion of Hinduism and local tribal customs. Apparently Bali is the only part of Indonesia which isn’t Muslim. Every living compound has an ornate gateway, the more lavish the gate the richer the occupants. This one is from the Palace

I thought this statute that we saw on one was brilliant …

Most female statues are of nubile pert figures representing fertility etc but this was much more realistic!!! (& honest)

Many statues are skirted with checkered cloth. This is very symbolic as the white squares represent good and the dark ones evil but together they are balanced in the pattern as they are in life. A good reminder I thought.

Ubud is famous for its Monkey Forest in the centre of town. Quite a substantial area is given over to providing a home for semi- wild monkeys. Hundreds of them.

For a small fee (£2.50) you can wander amongst them and watch them roaming around their natural habitat. There are big signs warning tourist how to behave as wild animals can be unpredictable. We were told not to feed them but we saw stupid people ignoring that & offering tidbits (which of course the monkeys grabbed but which weren’t necessarily nutritious).

We were also told not to panic if one jumped on you but to carry on walking calmly and the monkey would jump off. So guess what we saw… yep!!!

Panic and screaming!

The monkeys however were not stupid. They knew that the flow of tourists provided goodies, so like any reputable member of Fagin’s gang they attempted pick pocketing and were quite adept at undoing backpacks!! We even saw a couple carrying off treasures that they had purloined.

Tomorrow we set off for the Gili Islands. Our hotel there apparently has no hot water (!) so I am betting that WiFi will be non-existent. It might be quite refreshing to completely get away from it all. I will let you know.

Update: our pre-booked fast transfer to the island is cancelled due to bad weather!!!!! We have been moved to the slow boat….

Exploring Chiang Mai

146 miles (by road) south of Chiang Rai is Chiang Mai (which literally means ‘new city’). We travelled there by bus, which was quite spacious and had an attendant just like on an aeroplane although she only served a bottle of water and a pineapple biscuit. I didn’t dare use the loo though!!!

Chiang Mai is quite renowned for its night markets so it presented a unique shopping experience which needless to say, we took full advantage of…

Sights here include the Hmong tribal village in the mountains. These people are descended from southern Chinese tribes as the borders between the two countries were fairly amorphous at one point. In times past these people supported themselves by growing poppies for the opium trade but nowadays they have preserved their cultural heritage through tourism.

Their traditional dress was brightly patterned and they wore it with pride

Even the little boys

I was delighted when I found some cross stitch explaining the various tribes (I am always delighted to find cross stitch!)

For any entomologists among you here is a gorgeous little caterpillar which looks just like blossom. There are lots of them clustered on this leaf and one is hatching. If anyone knows their actual name do let me know.

In other natural news the countryside was surprisingly lush and verdant and the flowers up in the mountains were stunning. Trumpet flowers

… but I don’t know what these are (apols)

Another day, another temple. This one is called Doi Suthep and is the highest temple in Thailand. Legend has it that the then king put a relic of the Buddha (piece of shoulder bone allegedly ) in a little stupa on top of a white elephant which then walked up the mountain, circled 3 times and sat down so that was the spot where the temple was built.

This monk (below) is famous for being able to meditate under the ocean (!) and people who revere him will apparently become prosperous.

It made a nice change to see a non- Buddha statue. Behind you can see devotees circling the stupa carrying lotus blossoms and chanting special prayers in order to make merit.

But the highlight of the whole trip has to be the Kanta elephant sanctuary 50 mins north of Chiang Mai. On arrival we were asked to change into the ‘uniform’, this was not only to protect our own clothes but I suspect that with their poor eyesight the elephants are able to see who is a visitor with food!

You can see our cloth bags which we had filled with bananas and sugar cane. All carefully measured out so that the elephants have the right amounts of the right kind of food.

The elephants here had been rescued from logging enterprises and the entertainment trade. Some places treat the elephants very badly with hooks and chains. Elephant rides may look fun but to train them the mahouts are often cruel behind the scenes.

These elephants ranged in age with the oldest being 56 and one of the younger ones was pregnant. They are allowed to roam freely and they love being fed their snacks

They liked it if you patted them so long as you avoided their eyes. Each elephant has its own caretaker so although it was slightly scary when these huge beasts lumbered purposely towards you we were all quite safe. These men are paid approx £340 per month to do this job.

Some of them were quite cheeky and knew that there were more snacks in our bags!!!

Then it was playtime. Elephants don’t have pores in their skin so they cool down either by covering themselves in dirt or by going in the water. This was our cue to help splash and scrub.

They loved it (& the elephants had a great time too)

It was good to be supporting community initiatives and helping to keep the elephants safe and happy.

The Colours of Chiang Rai

I have to say that from the outset this trip with the Toner rellies has been stunning. After a very pleasant flight we landed at Chiang Rai airport only to find one of the most beautiful baggage claim areas that I have ever seen. What you can’t tell from this photo is that there was also a 6 piece Thai band playing welcoming music too. We weren’t sure if they always did this or if there were important dignitaries arriving due to the world media attention on the rescue of the boys from the cave.

My overall impression of Chiang Rai is one of colour. Our first port of call was the acclaimed White Temple

This stunning modern temple was designed and built by a local artist called Mr Leung (his nickname). He made his fortune as an artist then decided to give something back to his home town. By funding the entire project himself he has ensured artistic control. Every detail is all down to him and it was a wonderfully symbolic experience.

Firstly at the front are various images which graphically depict hell. I particularly liked the grasping hands, some with bowls imploring you for help. Other sections are just contorted ugly faces.

Then you cross over a bridge flanked by demons to the main Buddha hall

Inside you see a mural on the back of the entrance wall depicting the mouth of hell. Interestingly this contains images such as the twin towers, Pokemon, superheroes and other trappings of modern life which prevent people from seeing the truth about the environment or themselves. We couldn’t take pictures but this is a detail scanned from the guide book.

Here you can see Manga and the Matrix and a transformer!! At the top of the wall are two demon eyes each containing a face. On the left is George Bush and the right is Osama Bin Ladin. Facing them are two Buddha statues one in gold and one in white representing the way to heaven and spiritual freedom. It was really quite moving.

In this part of the world temples are usually opulent edifices of gold symbolising wealth and splendour but this temple goes against tradition and is all white because Mr Leung felt that wasn’t what Buddhism should be about. He used white to represent purity and the effect is magnificent. He has used gold but only on the toilet block (which is now the most splendid place I have ever had a wee!!!)

Then it was onto the work of another local artist who favours the colour blue. Unsurprisingly this one is known as the Blue Temple!

Check the ceiling out folks!

After that we visited the work of another local artist. He had not been encouraged by his family to pursue an artistic career so he had had to support himself through art college in Bangkok by living in empty properties where there was no electricity for his studies so under the influence of all the darkness his favourite colour to work with was black.

A short drive away and we came to the Golden Triangle which is a confluence of two rivers (Ruak and Mekong) and the border between three countries: Thailand, Laos and Myanmar.

It is know as ‘golden’ because much money (gold) has changed hands here as part of the drug industry. And so next we visited the Opium museum (who knew that one even existed!!!)

Poppies look so pretty but are the cause of so much suffering. Legend has it that a village woman was so ugly that no one wanted to marry her. When she died she claimed that two flowers would grow on her grave, one was a tobacco plant and the other a poppy. Before she died she prophesied that one would bring great pleasure but also great tribulation (she wasn’t wrong there!)

We finished the day off in a local food market where they tried but failed to persuade me to eat either silk worms or crickets!!!!

On the drive back we passed fields of pineapples. They grow really tiny sweet ones here

And acres of tapioca plants (I’d never seen those growing before)

This picture is of lychee trees and underneath are coffee plants. The coffee grown here is Arabica which is very smooth and mellow and not high in caffeine.

These are the tapioca plants which look remarkably similar to marijuana (I’ve been told!)

Tomorrow we are all taking the bus to Chiang Mai to see what that has to offer. Whatever it is certainly won’t be as colourful.