Sunday, 29 July 2012

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Having enjoyed the delights of Pattaya and Bangkok, we decided to finish Thailand off in Chiang Mai, our favourite place in Thailand. Getting here is super easy from Bangkok with loads of options but the best one is the train as you can actually get a nights sleep and not have to play catch up once you've arrived.

Arriving in the early afternoon, some three hours late (maybe not the best option then) we got a sangtheaw and headed to a small guesthouse we knew from before. However, it had been renovated and the once beautiful price of £4 a night had been quadrupled, disaster. Thankfully there was a cheap place just up the road so still managed to avoid the main tourist drag.

Relaxing spot outside the room

Having been to Chiang Mai a few times over the years, it was more of an opportunity to unwind and relax more than anything, no point going mad trying to see everything that the city has to offer, even though there are plenty of options up here.

On the outskirts of the city lies the Chiang Mai zoo, a pretty good really, especially for two pound entry, no complaints. Been before but missed the pandas so was looking forward to seeing them here as there are three. Unfortunately they decided to hide/ sleep/ do nothing so I got one photo of one of them, shame. Apart from that, walking around the grounds was my best workout in a long time, got to feed elephants and giraffes and watch two pairs of turtles mating and making E.T. noises, bonus.

I said no more bananas
Lazy bugger
Not overly enthused
Nice one mate
Greedy baby

In the city itself there is the night bazaar, a market that is on every night where all the usual dross being sold in Thailand is available, plus there is the Sunday market which is in the heart of town by Thapae gate, a little cramped and always incredibly busy, this market sells pretty much the same things but there is a more relaxed, friendly atmosphere to proceedings. Buskers take up half the street playing traditional instruments, the nearby temple is aglow with colour from locally made lanterns, and hawkers sell fresh fruit, shakes and all manner of snacks.

Among other sights, there is Doi Suthep, the temple on the mountain just out of town. Easily accessible by taxi or moped, it's great for sunrise views over the city and the steps to the temple itself are a decent workout so you appreciate the temple more. A little further afield is Doi Inthanon, the tallest point in Thailand, and plenty of scenic routes to take to explore the northern most reaches of Thailand.

See anything you like?
Fresh corn and mango
Night bazaar under cover

Of course, I don't think it's possible for me to write a post without mentioning food at least once or twice, but I really do have ot stress how good this food was. Going to India next means that my options for halfway decent Western food are limited (not that I want any with all the curry goodness coming my way), but still the allure of a tasty burger is always there. Cutting straight to the chase, if you ever go to Chiang Mai, go to 'The Dukes' restaurant, there are two. I think the pictures do the talking.

The one and only, apart from the other one
Chilli burger and chips
Sandwich and onion rings

Having come to the end of my South East Asian part of my trip, I am filled with new memories from places old and new. Sumatra was a real treat and I know I will be back there again, for Lake Toba and to explore more of the island, I hear the diving north of the island is incredible.

There really is so much to see in this part of the world and I know I have barely touched the surface. I still haven't even been to the Philippines, the Palawan time. As for now, time to pack up and get ready for my second trip to India, only this time to concentrate on the north and west of the country. 

Next stop, Delhi, and this time I will see the Taj Mahal.

Here Come The Boys - Pattaya, Thailand

Tiffany’s Cabaret

With its famous reputation, it was only fitting that we go to the renowned Tiffany’s caberet show, Pattaya’s finest and most fabulous ladyboys performing as they only they know how.

We got a ‘songthaew’, a Thai-stye taxi, to the theatre. We bought our tickets before immediately being swamped by a couple of the dazzling performers who towered above us in their ridiculous heels and fancy costumes. We had some photos with them before they started harassing us for money, refusing to let go of us until they got just a little something. We then headed up to the balcony area where we took our seats. No photos were allowed during the performance so only before and after shots of the ladyboy beauties.  

Me and the girls

The performance kicked off with a voiced over introduction from a rather plump ladyboy trying her best to mime the words and look coy as she ate up the stage. She was surrounded by a handful of male (real!) backup dancers before they left the stage to applause. The curtain then rose to introduce the first of thirteen acts.

The first act was a fusion of colour, with the dancers wearing incredibly flamboyant headdresses and outfits. The theme for the act was Pattaya, an homage to the area where the show is based, with an outrageous backdrop teeming with colour and bright lights like the Las Vegas strip. 

There were three different types of outfits, each with a similar aesthetic design but differing wildly in colour: gold and black feathers, black, red and white diagonal striped patterns, and neon pink, green and yellow dresses that resembled a pack of Stabilo highlighters. Each group took to the stage individually, dancing and ‘singing’ and standing to the side when the next group came out. Once all the performers were on stage at the same time there was a ridiculous amount of twirling and dancing which caused a sudden colour sensation on stage.  

The second routine was divided up into three parts and had a traditional Thai theme, including dancing and music, and a backdrop of a typical Thai style temple. Each part involved three elaborately dressed ladyboys in dazzling dresses, miming to the words surrounded by their back up dancers. There were three of these parts, so nine dancers in total until they brought out all the dancers and performers for the finale of the act. This included one last ladyboy who was clad in the shiniest white dress you’ve ever seen. 

Many of the dancers seemed to be just going through the motions, doing this show twice a day, every day, must take its toll, but it’s nice to see the odd dancer throwing his very soul into every dance move he does. One guy in particular stuck out. I imagine he irritates all his co-dancers with his unnatural enthusiasm.

The third act was performed in front of the curtain as the crew behind no doubt prepared the stage for the following act. A much simpler routine was played out here, with one main performer and six back up dancers who were spread out in a line along the front of the stage wearing suits and top hats. As the routine continued they disrobed, pulling off parts of their suits until finally just the lead dancer was wearing only her bikini, all the while tossing her long dark hair back and forth, not in time to the music, just because she liked doing it I suppose.

As the third act finished, the fourth began and from the get go it was obvious the theme here revolved around fans, with four giant ones covering the stage and every performer holding one. The main performers had them sewn into their dresses so they could hold them outstretched so they looked like wings. I’m guessing the country theme here was China. There were many dancers, with one in particular clad in white, while there were male dancers constantly banging on their gongs, possibly the only real sounds coming from the stage.

Act five was very simple; as the curtain descended one of the performers came on stage dressed as Tina Turner and mimed her way through three of her classics. I didn’t realise she was miming at first until I noticed the sequin covered prop microphone. Hopefully I wasn’t the only one who was almost fooled. My only excuse is I was so enraptured, hoping and waiting for ‘Simply The Best’, which was sadly not forthcoming.
The seventh act was probably the most outrageous, or at least that one time you really wanted to sneak a photo. The ladyboy who came on stage was in a giant sparkly silver shoe wearing a blue sequin dress and a silver headdress which was a bird cage containing two doves in a huge black bonnet wig, singing ‘I’m your drama queen tonight’. Say no more.

At this point the show became a dancing tribute to other countries and their cultures with the stage changing to reflect the country on show; these included India – lots of belly dancing, Vietnam – lots of bicycles and pointy hats, Russia – lots of big warm looking dresses and Italy – lots of Pisa, a giant leaning tower taking centre stage.

In between two of these acts, the lights went out causing the theatre to fall into complete darkness with just background music playing, a male and female duet, and a flashlight directed at the stage. Out of nowhere, the light caught a male performer dressed in a tuxedo miming along to the male parts and then in the blink of an eye, the flashlight was on a woman in a red dress as the female singer’s voice came to life. As these exchanges continued, the crowd started to murmur as it became apparent that the two performers were in fact one and the same person, a ladyboy dressed up like Tommy Lee Jones in a case off Two Face suit. The audience began to applaud and once the game was obviously up, the lights came back on to reveal the performer who was clearly revelling in their role, a real treat. 

To conclude, all the performers came on stage, all the ladyboys and male backup dancers in all kinds of regalia and bowed for the audience as what can only be described as the Tiffany’s theme song played in the background. With lyrics like, ‘Is it a man or is it a woman?’ I can only assume it is one they came up with themselves. All of the ladyboys were dressed to kill, with more than a couple falling out of the tops of their dresses, one size to big, or too small, depending on how you looked at it. 

Nice orderly line outside to take photos of the girls

Serious face

Okay, smile for the camera...

Thank f**k she's gone

Any more takers?

Come here...

Once outside, many of the more modestly dressed ladyboys had congregated outside of the main entrance and were posing with the audience, holding on to big wads of cash they received from passersby for their performance and the opportunity to be in a photo with them. Constantly hooting and cat-calling to the men to join them on the raised platform for an experience only Thailand could possibly serve up, this was a pleasant change from the more common ladyboy fair that is so usually the norm here; no deadbeats after poor unwitting drunks here, only classy ladies.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Chatting with students by the lake

“Hello mister. Hello Miss. Could we talk to you for just five minutes please?” With such good manners and innocent faces, it’s hard not to stop and chat, even if it’s the third time since breakfast.

It’s the weekend and all the local students have come flocking to Samosir island on Lake Toba, Indonesia. A stunning location to come and while away the time amidst clear blue waters, lush green hills and the beautiful Batak architecture indigenous to this area, not to mention to  practice your English.

It’s the same each time. The more confident English speakers tentatively get your attention, and when they have you hooked, their minions come flooding in around you so there’s no escape.

Always smiling and eager to learn, they each want to shake your hand and introduce themselves, but as their excitement builds, it just becomes a blur of greetings with each student trying to say his or her name at the same time.

Questions come thick and fast, many rehearsed as they want to get the basics down.
“What’s your name?”
“Where do you come from?”
“Do you like Lady Gaga?”
These are some of the standard questions from giddy teenagers who clearly love interacting with foreigners. Just don’t let them know you have actually heard of Rihanna or Lady Gaga or they’ll be requesting renditions of everything from ‘Umbrella’ to ‘Bad Romance’ and won’t let up. I don’t want everyone to know I know the words!

As we answer, they become more comfortable speaking and their confidence grows. Little factions are established with small groups forming around the foreigner of their choice. Half of the thin road is now blocked, much to the chagrin of the locals trying to get past with their mopeds stacked high with timber, old women balancing outrageous piles of food stuffs on their heads and families driving past in their old four-by-fours, but to the delight of the other local children who gather around too.

As the interrogation draws to a close one of the final questions posed is, “what do you think of the new generation?” At first I think this is another band I don’t know before I realise they are referring to themselves. I am a bit surprised by this as I’m not all that much older than they are. Some of them are university students, so I just say I am in the same generation.

They look stunned and almost horrified by this claim, as if there is no way this is possible. “I’m only 27” I tell them. “Oh sir, you look 20! Very handsome, very handsome!” the chorus rings out, a sudden cacophony of compliments.

As they round off their inquisition with a final flurry of questions, they pose for that all important group photo and leave in a procession of “thank yous” and “good byes”. Polite, well mannered, and incredibly friendly, they’ve been a welcome interlude from the peace afforded by this beautiful country.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Lake Toba, Sumatra, Indonesia

Following an incredibly relaxing five days in Jogjakarta, the prospect of heading into the busy capital Jakarta and then onto the island of Sumatra, which would have meant up to fourty hours on a bus, didn't sound all that appealing so a four hour flight to Medan in the north of Sumatra seemed much better. From there, five hours away by bus, lies Lake Toba, one of the many places high on my list to visit.

Map of Lake Toba
Arriving late at night in the sleepy village of Parapat, we were unable to get the ferry over to the island so had to stay in a pretty dismal excuse of a guesthouse before boarding the ferry early the next morning.The crossing takes around 30 minutes to complete the 8km to the other side, but as well as being super cheap, the ferry drops you off at the accommodation of your choice. With so many beautiful looking options to choose from, it could be very hard to narrow down your choice so we just went with the one advertised the most at the pier, although the little village, Tuk Tuk, has a stupid number of guesthouses available.

One of many Batak style buildings along the lake front

Drifting along to our accommodation

Coming into Samosir Cottages
Samosir Cottages

Considering the day before was a travel day and I'm so used to a laidback lifestyle now, it seemed appropriate to have a rest day at our new lodgings and peruse the local area. The food in Indonesia has so far been delicious so expectations were high, thankfully, this little island didn't disappoint. After having rendang curry back in Jogjakarta, I felt it was only appropriate to compare it to some local renadang on the island.

Fair to say it was the best food I tasted in my whole month in Indonesia so obviously the only thing to do now was ask the chef if I could watch her make the meal again and write down the recipe. She was only too happy to show me so I went back the next day to watch the cook prepare the meal again, taking notes and tasting along the way.

Cooking lesson
As much as I would actually like to do nothing for a week besides eat, there was an island to be explored. Samosir isn't a big island, about 100 km by 30 km but the roads on the west coast are pretty shocking so you need to take your time if you want to circumnavigate the island which can take a whole day, depending on how many stops you make or whether you get lost (which is pretty hard to do).

I was expecting it to be a pain to hire a moped because I didn't have my International Drivers Permit which you generally need in Indonesia, but the guy renting out bikes didn't even ask for my name or anything, just asked for the bike to be back before six, no worries then.

Decided to head to the east side to check out some hot springs we had heard we cool so mounted up, got our helmets on and started out that way. Driving around here is significantly easier than a busy city and with the roads being pretty good this way it was an enjoyable ride on a sunny day offering sumptuous views.

On our way to the hot spring
Along the road you pass through small villages with their own unique attractions such as Ambarita with it's old stone chairs where local council meetings were held and executions decide,d and Simanindo where a Batak museum, with traditional Batak performances,  lies next to the water.

About 40 km from Tuk Tuk is the islands main town, Pangururan, and it is around here where you find the hot springs. Locals have access to them but only the custom built simming pool will you give you full body access, be careful of the naked men though who have no idea what a changing room is.

Hot Spring
Having driven around the west side of the island, it wasn't long before the moped was calling again for a day trip around the island. Starting off clockwise, 2km out of Tuk Tuk is the village Tomok, where the tomb of the ancient Catholic King Sidubatar lies. Unfortunately, the tour is not in English so once you have seen it, there isn't a whole lot else for you to do there.

Tomb of  King Sidubatar
Once out of Tomok, the road quality deteriorates at a serious rate and you have to take it very slowly for the next 40 km or so, in no rush to get a puncture, although we did get one on the decent road later on, go figure.

As the roads get steeper, the views becomemore amazing, and with the weather being so clear, we had great panoramic views of the lake and the mainland. Sadly, I haven't figured out the panoramic feature on my camera yet, so just imagine the final three photos in a row.

View from the road

Panoramic view 1...


...and 3

Breaking up the time having day trips on the moped was definately a good idea, as it was too easy to just stay in the luxury of the hotel and the surrounding area. Ample room to relax, far too much good food and perfect lounging weather for those close at hand Bintangs. Leaving was difficult as Lake Toba has always been a travel highlight for me, only now I've been I still don't know why. All I know is I will be back to enjoy the peace and tranquility of this beautiful place again.