Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Temples, skyscrapers and a whole lot of humidity...


Welcome to Kuala Lumpur! This trip is my first real taste of Asia, and with only a very short amount of time, we are determined to make the most of it...

Our first stop is this amazing city, with its incredible combination of futuristic skyscrapers and jungle landscapes, all contained within the geographical limits. It's only really a stopover, with many cheaper flights coming in and out of KL as a jumping point for the rest of SE Asia, resulting in us having only two days in the city itself (and then another one day on the way home), but it would have been criminal to have flown in and then straight out again without the slightest taste of Malaysia.

Arriving late at night, we dropped our bags at the guesthouse and headed out to experience the city after the sun sets. After a delicious meal from a nearby street vendor, we wandered around to get our bearings, amazed by the bright lights and the sheer scale of the buildings surrounding us. Although not a city person by nature, even I couldn't help but be awed by the size of the Patronas towers, the landmark of Kuala Lumpur, lit like a beacon and illuminating everything around them.


The following morning we started early, determined to visit the Batu caves before the crowds arrived. The cave complex, discovered in the early 20th century, is host to a number of Hindu shrines, brightly painted and surrounded by a cloud of thick incense. The humidity makes the climb up the 200-odd steps to reach the shrines hard work, but the result is definitely worth the trouble. Avoiding the scavenger-like monkeys darting around everywhere, we found a lovely quiet spot to sit and relax. Arriving early was a good decision - as we left the coaches had begun to arrive in droves and the area was filling up fast.


After a quick taxi ride back into town we took a stroll through Chinatown (stopping off for a quick fish pedicure - a bizarre but interesting experience!), with its many shops, restaurants and temples, although eventually we realised we were going round in circles, lost in a maze of deceptively similar streets, and decided we might get a better overview from above. The Menara telecommunications tower, nestled in a jungle reserve in the middle of the city, offers a 360 view from 270m high, and is the perfect position to appreciate the scale and size of the buildings stretching out as far as the eye can see.


Tomorrow it's back on a plane to the main destination of our trip, although I will be sorry to say goodbye to KL - although it's a busy, bustling and developing city, with an excess of skyscrapers, neon lights and noise, it's also aware of its roots, with many busy yet peaceful temples, and kind and patient locals (as demonstrated by the cars - we made the mistake of crossing the road as a car came round the corner a couple of times today, and instead of beeping as they do nearly everywhere else, the cars just slowed down). Strangers in the street have instructed us on how to reach the places we wanted to get to, the taxi drivers have given us good advice (and without a price!), and when my food was taking longer than expected to come in a cafe earlier today, the owner offered me a free snack to tide me over.

Humidity aside, I think this is a place I would be happy to spend a lot longer exploring...

Monday, 11 October 2010

Packing essentials

It’s just over a week until the next trip, and my mind is fixed on packing, one of those double-edged jobs – it’s exciting as it heralds the beginning of a new adventure, but when you actually have to do it, it’s one of the worst tasks of travelling (mostly because as you pack you realise that you will be repeating exactly the same job every day or two for the length of the trip…).

Anyway, the frustrations of packing aside, over the past few years I’d built up a collection of items that have become essentials – either because they have made life easier for me, or because they have aided in capturing the wonderful (and not so wonderful) moments as they happen.

Let’s imagine for a moment that you’ve bundled together all your clothes, have bought all the ‘mini’ versions of essential toiletries, have a sturdy bag and the ‘every eventually covered’ hiking shoes and flip flops combo (the grand total amount of footwear I ever travel with!). What else could you cram into the rucksack that makes travel complete?

Well, there are obviously lots of things, each depending on individual choice, but here are my top 10 gadgets/items for making life easier and more fun on the road:

- Packing cubes. These little objects from heaven are a very recent discovery for me, but will be accompanying us on all our trips in the future. I was a bit sceptical at first, reasoning that with some regular tight packing, there was no way that they would actually save enough space to be a good investment. On a whim I saw some on sale and thought they were worth a look (if only to satisfy my smug assertion), and when put to the test, we realised that they did, in fact, live up to their promise. Granted, it’s not a huge amount of space saved, but the added compression, plus their useful way of dividing up different types of clothing make a winning combination. In South America, after finishing with our winter clothes, we tucked them all into a couple of the cubes and didn’t have to touch them again, which made the daily re-pack easier and quicker.


- Netbook. For me, blogging and uploading my photos helps me to reflect and put into words my emotions and experiences when away. I have a notoriously poor memory, particularly when it comes to the names of towns and accommodation, and jotting things down has always been an important part of travelling for me. Being able to immediately label my photos and record adventures online seemed a natural transition, and I have the added security that should anything happen to my camera or computer, everything is backed up remotely. Despite being by nature a ‘holiday-means-no-technology-don’t-show-me-emails’ type of person, I’ve come to grudgingly (at first) admit that having the netbook with me has actually encouraged me to take the time to record thoughts and share experiences with my nearest and dearest while they are still fresh (and I can still remember them fully!). I don’t carry a mobile phone when away, so this is my big concession to modern communication.


- Camera. If I could only take one thing away with me (apart from my passport!), I think it would be my camera. I can spend days in the same set of clothing, go without most luxuries, but my camera is always with me and is a crucial visual memory which allows me to re-live experiences again and again. Although I’m not the world’s greatest photographer by a long shot, taking pictures always makes me happy and I hope to improve in the future.

- Spare camera batteries and memory cards. See above for the explanation – there’s nothing worse than running out of memory in an area where a card can’t be purchased easily and having to make the tough decision about what to delete to make space (I’ve been there – it’s horrible).


- Universal adapter. This one is common sense really, but I’ve managed to forget it a couple of times and find that when you really need one, there’s never one to be found… essential for all electrical items, it’s worth getting a half-decent one to ensure that all those can’t-be-without gadgets continue to work wherever you are.


- A washing line. This might seem a bit of a silly one, but in fact it’s been a real life saver on many trips. Not only is it good for the obvious – hanging up those bits and bobs washed hastily in the sink when you realise you really can’t wear that top for yet another day, but also as a way of securing bags that little bit more, a cord for fastening items to the front of bags when space gets tight after a major souvenir shop, an emergency tie cord to replace broken zips/string/handles – really indispensable without taking up hardly any space.


- Universal plug. Again, seems a minor worry, but when you’re faced with yet another room without a plug for the sink/bath, forcing huge wads of tissue/flannels/whatever else you can find into the hole and miserably watching it leak within seconds, a universal plug makes things that little bit easier. Cheap and easily tucked away into a small space, they are wonderful little things!


- Pens. Lots and lots of pens. The type of thing that always seems to fall down the black hole of doom whenever you need one; I tend to take upwards of 10 pens with me at all times. Excessive? Possibly. Being the most popular person around when it’s time to fill in the visa form? Definitely.


- Sealable waterproof bags. Be they plastic, or more eco-friendly alternatives, small-ish bags can hold still-damp clothes, electrical equipment when travelling in the rain, leaky bottles of shampoo/shower gel, important documents and countless other bits and pieces. I always carry a few different sizes, and always end up using them all.

- A cheap, water-resistant watch. This might not make much sense at first, but hear me out: firstly, it’s a security risk wearing a more expensive time piece, particularly if it’s a loved one. Secondly: A good one is bound to get damaged at the first sight of an adventurous activity. If it’s an ultra snazzy, can take anything watch, it was probably expensive, leading back to the first point. Thirdly: when haggling at a market/shop, the most common thing I’ve been offered is an exchange – what I want for my watch. Why watches? Who knows. Maybe because they’re visible. Fact is, it crops up often as possible payment. At the end of a trip, when that final souvenir is screaming for me to buy it, an exchange for my inexpensive watch seems like a pretty good deal to me.

(all pics google images)

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Rapa Nui: Do's and Don'ts!


Well, it's the last in the series - a summary of what I learnt about visiting Rapa Nui, a major highlight of this summer's trip and somewhere I really hope I can return to one day.

Do's

- Explore the island without a map! It’s difficult to get lost with very few actual roads, and everything eventually leads to Hanga Roa anyway, so put on some walking boots and head out there!

- Watch some hypnotic dancing. The traditional dance show is a fantastically fun evening out, keeping musical traditions alive. Definitely well worth it!

- Check, Re-check and check your flight again. Flights to Rapa Nui are notoriously overbooked, and the queues build up fast at the airport – the key is to re-confirm a couple of days prior to flying, check in online, and then arrive at the airport early regardless (we’d heard of people who had checked in online, strolled up to the check-in desk and been told they were too late and their seat had been passed on…). Anything to get on that plane! (Coming back is no problem however, no over-booking in the other direction)

- Hire a local guide one day for some of the big sights. We booked one day with a guide after realising that our time was short and there was so much more to see, and it turned out to be the best decision we made – our guide was knowledgeable not only of the sights but of the landscape, political situation on the island and some of the less-visited areas, which made for interesting discussions and a wonderful day.

Don'ts

- Touch the statues. After an awful incident a couple of years ago when some idiot tried to crack off an ear, there is huge concern over the welfare of the artefacts – please be aware and keep a reasonable distance.

- Just stick to the main sights. They are fantastic, but there are also loads of small caves, petroglyphs and other hidden treasures to find if you have the time.

- Expect a tropical island! Rapa Nui is rugged, quite bare and hosts only one beach. But it is one huge open-air archaeological site, and is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to.

- Forget your camera! Around every bend is a great photo opportunity, with the overwhelmingly powerful Moai, volcanic landscape and gorgeous sunsets. Take an extra memory card…

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Peru: Do's and Don'ts!


Peru completely exceeded my expectations and then some...I'm probably a little biased as the country hosts some of the most spectacular archaeological sites in the world, which is always enough to make me happy, but the diverse landscape and exciting range of activities on offer add even more to its charm. Here are the must-do's and please don'ts!

Do's

- Hit Machu Picchu as early as possible. If not on the Inca trail then jump on the first bus available - until around 9am the site was relatively quiet, but soon after thousands descended and some of the magic was lost.

- Bring some anti-nausea tablets/wristbands for the Nazca flight – nearly everyone we spoke to felt ill, and it’s not surprising – who knew a tiny plane could flip so much in just over half an hour…?!

- Shop around for a good guide for the major sites. It’s definitely worth the money having one, but walking around Machu Picchu I heard a couple of guides telling their groups what I know to be incorrect information. A good, passionate guide can make or break a visit, and we were very lucky with all of ours.

- Go sandboarding. Some of the best fun I’ve had, the sand is warm and soft and the descents steep and fast – a great combination!

- Try the local delicacies. Llama, Alpaca and Guinea pig are all common and cheap in restaurants and all worth a try – especially the delicious and tender Alpaca.

- Help the environment. We were appalled by the amount of litter we found along the Inca trail and at some of the major sights. It was really upsetting, and by the end of one day alone, we had picked up 10 large plastic bottles, not to mention the numerous wrappers and plastic bags we found tossed aside.

Don'ts

- Scrimp on time in Cusco. There is so much to do and explore that a few days just isn’t really enough – I wish we had been able to spend some more time there.

- Forget the mozzie repellent. The Inca trail was probably the worst as I kept forgetting to top up, but the Amazon, Machu Picchu and around the sacred valley all added to the ever-increasing itchiness covering my body.

- Say to any Peruvian: ‘I thought Chile was the birthplace of Pisco?’ Just don’t...

Bolivia: Do's and Don'ts!


Bolivia was a country I was very much looking forward to visiting, but knew relatively little about compared to Chile and Peru. We ended up enjoying our time there immensely - the beauty of the landscape and the warmth of the people. Here are the do's and don'ts!

Do's

– Get tacky! A small fluffy Llama is perfect for those all-important salt flat pictures – let your imagination run wild!

- Spend some time in La Paz. One of the loveliest capitals I’ve been to, with lots to do and see, La Paz is warm and welcoming with plenty of Bolivian spirit.

- Be respectful. The landscape around the salt flats and Atacama Desert is incredible, with spectacular rock formations – please don’t contribute to the mindless erosion of the natural treasures by climbing on top of rocks (as we saw a couple of times…)

- Try coca leaves to help with the altitude. If you can get over the intense bitterness they do have an effect! Just try not to swallow…

- Go against your flee instinct. Take a ride down ‘death road’, but with a recommended tour company – the lack of helmets and body protection we saw on some groups was very worrying, whereas we felt completely safe for the whole time. It is worth it though!

Don'ts

– Go rushing around. The altitude increases rapidly and can hit anyone at any time – there’s far too much to do and see to be stuck in bed ill!

- Be surprised if you have to alter your itinerary. We were caught up in two protests in the space of one week, and we heard of many more in the weeks/months prior to our arrival – stay flexible!

- Underestimate the weather. It is difficult to imagine just how cold the salt flats really are at night – take a good sleeping bag, pile on the blankets and prepare for anything up to -20…

Next - onto Peru!

Chile: Do's and Don'ts!


With the trip all over, it's time for the obligatory do's and don'ts...first stop: Chile.

Do's

- Take some extra thermals. It gets cold (and if you are there around July/August time, I mean cold) at night and hostels/hotels rarely have heating so unless you want to get yourself in the unfortunate position we found ourselves in, wearing the same thermals for days on end, pack an extra set! (In fact, this is the same for Bolivia too)

- Explore using local transport. Chile has a great bus system and the Santiago metro in particular is fantastic – take advantage of the cheap fares and see where you end up!

- Say hello to the galaxy. The star-filled skies in Chile are incredible, stretching out as far as the eye can see – a trip to one of the observatories is truly a highlight.

- Try out your Spanish. A little goes a long way and is always appreciated! Even if it’s just the token few words that I picked up during our trip.

- Guzzle some wine. Chile is home to many fine wineries, all offering tours and tastings at good prices, so take advantage and find out firsthand what makes the growing region here so good!

Don'ts

- Expect Chile to reflect ‘typical’ (or perhaps I should say stereotypical...!) South America. It’s very westernised, particularly in the bigger cities, and this is reflected in the buildings, transport, shops and interests of many of the locals. Chile has its own charm, but it was only once we headed north that I saw the picture I’d always had in my mind come to life.

- Be put off by the huge hordes of tourists in San Pedro. The jumping off point for the Atacama, San Pedro is absolutely heaving, but walk just 10 or 15 minutes out of town and you find yourself alone, in a beautiful desert landscape littered with archaeological memory.

- Get too upset by the number of stray dogs. From what we saw and heard during our time in South America, the dogs are another part of the community, with locals feeding and often clothing them, and in fact most looked lively and healthy and were extremely friendly.

So there you have it! Chile was a great starting point for our trip, although I would have loved to have been able to head south to Patagonia which is supposedly incredible - perhaps next time...!