Bagan Bound Myanmar: 27 – 29.10.2013

Our first overnight bus pulled out of the bus station perfectly on time; the steward came through giving everyone clean blankets and a little hot dinner with drinks, reclining our seats and switching our lights off. There was no loud music, no tacky karaoke, no hocking or spitting, no mobile phones ringing late into the night… just quiet as the bus rolled and bounced along, Bagan bound. Something seemed strange… it was too good to be true

Our luxury bus arrived into Bagan at 6am; the sky was just starting to show signs of light in the distance and rain was already falling. We stepped out and were immediately hit by taxi drivers and hotel touters at the ready; we’d arrived into tourist territory and again we were reminded that we absolutely underestimated this country.
We declined offers of “I’ll drive you the 6km to your guest house,” “just pay me how you like give me first customer lucky money”  and “It 3km away, too far for you”  and walked the 10 minutes along the road to a guest house.Taxi drivers are funny.
It was dark when we’d arrived but in minutes of walking the sky was getting lighter and lighter; we passed tea shops and small road house restaurants already brimming with people feasting on morning noodles, rice and Burmese tea.
The main road was pretty quiet; a few bicycles and motorbikes rode by, some stray dogs and the occasional woman carrying a basket on her head, but otherwise empty and silent.
Good morning Bagan.

Looking at the wet weather and feeling pretty tired from the overnight bus, we were not sure exactly what to do on our first day here in Bagan. It didn’t take too long for our guest house owner to help us out – he was straight to the point in saying that “Relax in your room today. Full moon day, no market. Everything close today. Rainy weather all day today, no clear sky. No good for temple. No good for Mt. Popa. No good for bike. Bad weather. You should be tired after bus ride. Relax today.”
Okay sir, will do…

The first day in Bagan was pretty much a nothing day; the rain continued to fall heavily all day and left the dirt roads nothing more than a flooded muddy mess. When we did attempt to explore the town on foot, large puddles forced us to walk through the muck and flowing rivers of water – our thongs acting like suction caps and flicking dirt up our legs and backs and motorbikes spraying us as they rode past.
Hoping the following day would be better weather, we planned to explore the temple area. E-bikes (electronic bikes) are everywhere for rent in Bagan and I was super keen to get my bum on one of those bad boys and zip and zoom all over this ancient city.

The next two days in Bagan offered us much better weather and an opportunity to explore the town and spectacular ancient temples and pagodas.

We started our second day by firstly paying an early visit to the large local markets which were still muddy and wet from the previous days’ rain. Within minutes mud had flicked up our legs and backs (and all over our clean clothing) and our thongs were suctioning us to the ground, causing us to near-miss falling flat on our asses in the mud. The markets were large, sprawling and smelling strongly of raw meat; that distinct smell that all Asian wet markets seem to have. People were everywhere and as we walked through the narrow alley way we dodged sick looking dogs and small playing children. Most of our concentration was taken up in an attempt  to step over and around the blood that was trickling down the meat market tables and spilling out into the mix of mud, water and filth on the ground. Whilst the many bare footed customers didn’t seem to worry about the blood and animal matter that spattered on their skin as they trudged through the slop, I did.
We watched as whole animal carcases were skinned, sliced and cut open, organs and gizzards hooked and hung out for sale, blood collected and pig head skins shoved out on display. The sellers were posed squatting in their lungis, bare footed, cutting and chopping with massive knives that sliced through entire animals in one loud chop. They talked and laughed and smiled as they handled the chunks of raw meat and fish – it was gutted and prepped and weighed, then shoved into metal dishes for sale. We were once again amongst the fascinating, foul smelling action. On the other side of the alleyway, all sorts of colourful vegetables and fruits were being sold. We turned a corner, away from the pungent smells that were forcing me to cover my nose and mouth with my sleeve, and were suddenly no longer in the locals area – we were in the tourist section. Damn.
“Lady, you want lungi, looking is for free” “You need wood carving? Laquerware? Bell? Metal thingy? Useless item? T-shirt with strange English translation? Ugly wooden cat?….”

We didn’t stay much longer.

Deciding we would head out to the temples, we started walking… Why not? It was about a 4km walk to the Old Bagan area and it was nice weather.
It’s hard to explain how it appeared and felt when we began to see these ancient ruins start popping up along the sides of the roads, through the over grown jungle grass and surrounded by thousands of dragon flies, but it was pretty spectacular. These 4000-odd Buddhist temples that are dotted about a massive area of land could be compared – in their own magnificent way – to the temples of Angkor Wat, and were truly stunning.
I think you are supposedly meant to pay $15 USD for a week long general entrance ticket to the temples but there was no ticket seller around anywhere and no one checking tickets, so… awesome! I checked this later with the guest house manager and he said “no one is checking so don’t buy.” Love it.

Walking along the roads and dirt tracks, we took time to move about the little temples and structures as we chose. There are so many of these marvelous structures, it’s not hard to find one that is completely empty and it was amazing to have such an area to explore by ourselves. We found one temple that, when we climbed up the dark narrow staircase, offered us a stunning view over a large area of Old Bagan and surrounding temples. Thousands of them seem to just sprout up from the greenery to give a view that is spectacular; one that no words – or my dodgy camera – can do justice…

We spent our third and final day in Bagan zooming around on bikes and exploring the temple areas. Whilst I chose a gnarly looking e-bike (a tiny bike with a massive battery on the back that whizzes along at a surprisingly fast speed), Jake chose a pedal bicycle. I tried to get him to hire an e-bike; I wanted us both to have the opportunity to speed around on one of these bad boys, seeing as we don’t get to back home, but he was eager to stay “traditional.”

Trying to negotiate the muddy, wet, pot-holey roads and the many unorganised road users – human and animal – with an e-bike was at first a little bit daunting, but before long I was speeding along at a “medium speed”… (actually a lot faster than I was expecting).
We headed out towards the area we had visited on foot yesterday, planning on travelling much further down through Old Bagan to the area where there are lots of these stunning ancient structures (although, there seem to be lots everywhere!) but, of course, Jake’s bike tyre went flat about an hour into our explorations. We’d been to just a few temples before we were forced to turn around and walk the hour or so back into town – me pushing the bike and Jake riding my e-bike at a walking pace alongside me. “Should’ve gotten an e-bike…”

Back in town, Jake selected another bicycle from the pretty dodgy selection and again we were off. We took a different road to get to some different temples – the road that runs parallel with the main road was much quieter and in a much better condition – and we had a lot of fun zooming down the flat stretches of road. We hopped from temple to temple, walking bare foot through ancient ruins and structures with murals from hundreds of years ago covering the bricks. Again, no words to describe it.

We met a young Burmese guy who was very eager to tell us where to see the best views and what temples we should go to; he was super kind but… no, we don’t actually want to buy any paintings, sorry.
Back on our bikes, we zipped over the road and up a very muddy and wet dirt path – almost getting bogged more than once along the way – towards the Buledi Stupa. Supposedly with some of the best views over the area, we climbed the several steep stairs up to a view point that literally left me awe struck. There are just so many temples… so many. Breath taking.
We stayed up for a while just trying to take in the view and the structures that dotted around us for such a far and wide distance. Shiny golden pagodas peeped through the greenery, along with the red-coloured bricks of the ancient temples and massive structures.

As the sun was setting we took in our last views of the scenery before hopping back on our bikes to head back into town before dark… but of course, we couldn’t just have a leisurely non-eventful ride back– Jake’s bum was obviously too heavy for these Asian-made bikes and he bent the actual metal bike seat pole: it just folded all of a sudden like a piece of paper crumbling. I was riding along and heard a sudden loud noise and then “shit!”…

We arrived back into Nyaung U town at peak hour where we shared the road with all sorts of people and animals and vehicles. It was dusty and chaotic and there were roosters strutting about, children playing on the road side and water spilling out from somewhere unknown… people riding on the opposite side of the road, women carrying large baskets and dishes of goods on their heads and restaurants gearing up for the evening rush. We rolled into the bike rental shop where the faces of the staff members dropped when they saw Jake’s bike… and then changed from a state of shock to a state of laughter whilst the male staff member said “too strong” and tensed his biceps. Jake went next door to the conveniently located bike repair shop and bought a new pole for 1500kyats ($1.50c)… so, not so damaging on the wallet, thank goodness.

Since we are leaving Bagan tomorrow headed for Mandalay, we spent some of the final evening cleaning up our mess: after two nights here we’ve “somehow” managed to spread our (my) belongings across the entire room. I had done some laundry that wasn’t quite dry, so had it hanging over the furniture. As I sat there amongst the mess and drying clothing in my mud-splattered trekking pants, treating a bottle of water with the steri-pen, I thought to myself… “We’re really here. We’re true backpackers…”

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Deer Japan: 9 – 10.10.2013

Saying goodbye to beautiful Kyoto and our new friends, we were sad but excited – we were Nara bound with just two nights and just one full day to explore the city. Again we were couch surfing; our fourth hosts in Japan and our first family with children. Megumi, Koji and their two young children Nazuna and Tsubasa are very experienced hosts, and knew how to look after us. Both the children speak very fluent English and are extremely outgoing and energetic; they really seem enjoy spending time with other people.

The two nights we spent with this family were a great experience for us; we spent a lot of time with the kids playing various games, we had some great conversation and shared some absolutely incredible home-cooked Japanese food.

Our one day in Nara went by way too fast and was thoroughly enjoyable. Awake early after another late night (Japanese people seem to sleep a lot later and get up a lot earlier than we are used to!), we were tired as we boarded the train to Nara City station, but as we stepped off the train we were ready to explore for the day.

It was incredibly hot today – 31 degrees – which is very strange for October, we’re told.  Actually, we’ve been really lucky; it’s been beautiful weather and often very hot every day since arriving in Japan (besides the morning on the day we left Kyoto, where it rained heavily for a few hours due to a typhoon some distance away), so the jumper I bought in India to wear in Japan has not yet been of any use….

We began our day by simply walking around Nara city; it was reasonably familiar to me and I could remember quite a lot of the places and directions from my stay there last year which was good. Last time my mum and I were here in Nara we visited a community centre that housed an earthquake simulator and a lot of insightful and fascinating information about earthquake-proof building foundations, which I really wanted Jake to see. Close by I knew of a really beautiful restaurant that served Nara specialties – a type of sushi wrapped in leaves, and a delicate soup with thin noodles. I wanted to find these places at some point today.

We walked around the town which was beautiful in the sunshine and stopped to pet the many sweet deer that were strutting about, occasionally head butting tourists who refused to hand over their deer crackers. Very funny animals that make a very cute sound.

We visited a pond filled with turtles and surrounded by a stunning view, explored several temples, took a stroll through the streets and stood awe struck by the massive 5 story pagoda – built without using any nails!

Walking around the town was just so beautiful, seeing the deer and the people and everyone so happy. The sunshine bought out ice cream carts and little food vendors, and lots of tourists. I loved watching the deer congregating around the little ‘deer cracker’ vendor’s stalls, as if so hopeful they might just get lucky by looking oh so cute and get given a snack.

We eventually found our way to the community centre, and I was so glad we’d found it. We had a look around the centre and both took a seat in the earthquake simulator, which was quite terrifying when imagining how this would’ve been in reality. From there, we sat for a bit enjoying the air conditioning, free green tea and wifi before heading back out into the heat of the day.
Nearby, I recognized the restaurant I’d been looking for and we ended up eating a delicious lunch there, where we met an older Australian couple who were rather funny.

After lunch, we spent some time wandering through the little shops before heading towards  a famous temple, past thousands of beautiful ancient stone lanterns covered with moss. It was shady in the forested area, deers were bleating and it was so serene. In the temple, we came across a wedding taking place and stood for a while watching the brides elaborate hair, make up and outfit being adjusted, as well as everyone else in the wedding party. The photographers smoothed every crease and fold in the material, and combed every hair into place; this precision took a long time but the wedding party looked amazing. I felt a bit guilty standing there photographing them, but a million other tourists were too – I guess they chose to have their wedding in a touristic city, in a touristic area, in a famous temple…

We wandered back into town eventually, and before we knew it it was late afternoon and time to head back to our host’s home to spend and enjoy the time with their family and share another delicious home-cooked Japanese feast.

Our time in Nara was quick, but wonderful.

Memorable Kyoto: 8.10.2013

Today has been incredible, and I’m so excited about the fact that it was all possible because of couch surfing. It was a wonderful chance to spend time with new friends and end our time in Kyoto on a high.

Karim, Jacob and I all woke up feeling pretty gnarly after last nights mammoth ramen; all that oil, fat and salt left us dehydrated and with grumbling stomachs – even Yudai and Hiroki felt a bit rough around the edges. We attempted to remove the garlic taste from our mouths with copious amounts of toothpaste and breath mints and empty our stomachs of those ramen demons; that noodly beast left us feeling as though we’d had a big night out on the booze… in reality, it had been a big night out on noodles, bean shoots, garlic, stock and chunky fat. I’m still not sure what’s worse for the body….

It’s Yudai’s day off today so the four of us are spending it together exploring this amazing city and it’s surrounds. First stop was Doshisha Univeristy – Yudai’s University – where we had the opportunity to see what a Japanese university looks like; in particular, how amazing a Japanese university food hall is. With all of us still suffering as a result of last night’s ramen explosion, we passed on the food and took advantage of the free water.

Semi-hydrated, we moved on from Doshisha and took a bus to Nijo Castle – a UNESCO World Heritage castle that is famous here in Kyoto… and probably in Japan now that I think of it. The castle was very beautiful and pretty spectacular, really. I was certainly impressed, but then again, I’m always impressed by Japanese architecture. It’s pretty awesome.
We spent a while wondering through the castle and the surrounding gardens; it was beautiful and we had a lot of fun taking photographs and strutting about in our little group, even if it did start to rain a little.

Following on from Nijo Castle, we headed by bus to Shijo Street again where we had lunch – wait for it… not at Yoshinoya!… Instead we went to Karim’s budget Japanese food chain of choice, Sukiya, where meals are similar in both price and content to that of Yoshinoya. I ordered the usual beef bowl but was evidently still too full from the ramen to eat it.

Another bus ride took us out of Kyoto to  the suburb of Arashiyama, which is a pretty spectacular place and probably good for at least a half-day visit, if not a full day. Unfortunately we’d arrived pretty late in the afternoon and had just enough time to visit the beautiful bamboo forest area and take a short stroll around the area. Judging from the number of temples and sights to see on the tourist map, the many cute shops and the countless beautiful looking food stalls and eateries, you could really go to town here. If I wasn’t dying as a result of ramen poisoning or on a tight-ass budget, I may have treated myself to some hand-made yuba tofu… or a green tea ice cream… or maybe even a mix of the two – who’s to say?

As a group, the four of us had a lot of fun. There was always something to talk about or laugh about, a stupid pose to be made in front of someone’s camera and a lesson to be learned. We had great conversation and it was brilliant to explore Kyoto with new found friends. It’s fantastic being able to spend time with locals – it opens up this country to us in a completely different way, and I really am grateful for this opportunity.

As the sky turned to dark the four of us hopped onto another bus and traveled back to Kyoto, back to Shijo street, where we visited a traditional Kyoto sweet house and enjoyed more free tastings of yatsuhashi as well as bought a few as gifts.
Yudai took us a few doors down to visit a “plum shop” where we tried sour and sweet plums and plum juice that was oh so delicious!!! Again… if I wasn’t on a budget… Oh Japan, why must you always tempt me?

We walked through Pontocho street – the famous street in Gion – which was lit up and busy with people; the street lined with spectacular houses and traditional buildings, as well as many bars and restaurants with high, high prices. Looking out from Pontocho street over Kyoto’s Kamo River, we watched as couples sat along the banks – somehow leaving the same distance between each of the couples, making it quite a sight to see. It’s quite romantic really, and the sound of the river is beautiful at night…

Eventually night time got the better of us and we headed back to Yudai’s by bus, once again stopping by the supermarket for discounted sushi and instant cup noodle soups. We spent our last evening in Kyoto chatting and laughing; this couch surfing experience has been absolutely wonderful and we have really loved every moment of being here. Yudai has been such a wonderful, generous host and we couldn’t have had a better experience. As well as also having Karim to share it with, making a new friend whilst traveling is always a wonderful experience. It feels as though our travels have been made all the more richer through couch surfing and spending time with locals; whilst I’m sad we have to say goodbye to Yudai, Karim and Kyoto tomorrow, I’m so happy there’s more of this to come!

Ramen Kyoto: 7.10.2013

After too many late nights we were in need of a sleep in, and woke well after 11am. We cooked rice for breakfast/lunch and doused it in soy sauce and kewpie mayonaise – what I would consider a gourmet meal for us cheapskate backpackers.

It wasn’t until around 1pm that the three of us decided we should get a move on and actually do something today! Our plan was to go to the Golden Pavilion – Kinkaku-ji – which is meant to be the most spectacular temple complex in all of Kyoto (and Kyoto has a LOT of temples, so it had to be pretty bloody impressive!)…
Eventually leaving the house, we headed straight for the convenience store to get a coffee, and somehow ended up lost and in front of a supermarket; even better! Supermarkets are cheaper and have a much bigger, better andmore interesting range of foods. [Another “Japan on a budget” tip – buy your food stuff and drinks, if you can, at supermarkets; most of the time they have a hot and fresh made selection of things like sushi, tempura and fried goods at super cheap prices.] I love Japanese supermarkets – they are so interesting and every time I go into one it’s like I’m going in for the first time; I’m always discovering something new.
We walked out with sushi, onigiri, a massive bottle of water, juice, milk tea and cold coffee; the three of us were ready to start our day.

Nearby the supermarket we stopped to eat our food; as it so happened we managed to park ourselves right next to a large public tourist map of the area, and quickly discovered that we were surrounded by temples galore. The area surrounding Yudai’s home is really beautiful; full of lane ways and small streets, beautiful old traditional houses, little shrines and statues, quaint outdoor gardens and old bikes parked next to modern cube cars. Just walking through the streets was a joy, but to discover this area offered so much in terms of beautiful temples, shrines and parks was exciting. The Golden Pavilion was momentarily put on hold.

Finishing our sushi and onigiri, we turned a corner and entered a very large and beautiful temple complex that is the incredibly majestic Ryoan-ji. We spent a long time wandering through the area and enjoying the stunning ancient, intricate buildings and temples, the scenery, a bamboo forest area and silent, perfectly manicured gardens. Lots of sections of the complex were no access areas, but never the less we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly, getting lost amongst the massive structures and trees surrounding us.

Moving on from Ryoan-ji, we wandered through the streets and laneways, attempting to navigate our way towards the Golden Pavillion – Kinkaku-ji, admiring the little houses and shops, the streets and the buildings. We stumbled upon tiny temples and historic landmarks and buildings, and almost walked straight past a little home with a very open shop front, before backtracking to take a closer look.

Amongst piles of wood, scraps of materials, work benches and tools, a little man was hard at work building traditional tatami mats. We stood at a distance for a minute or two simply admiring his work space, when suddenly I heard “please come in!”… Stepping into his work shop, the little man was busily measuring up – with beautiful, old looking tools – a tatami mat that looked and smelled so beautiful; it smelled just like Japan to me.
He stopped his work to show us various parts of the tatami – the older style ones and the newer versions, how they are made and what from, the materials used and some of the ways tatamis are layed out in a room – for example, a six, eight or twelve tatami room layout. At one point, we asked a question and he apologized to us whilst he tried to find the answer in his work shop; we had interrupted his work and yet, he was saying sorry to us! Japanese people are so incredibly polite, we were all standing there marveling at the generosity of this man. He was so kind, obliging and welcoming.
When we were leaving, we asked if it was okay to take a photograph of him in his work shop. He insisted we go to the front of his shop, where he untied and pulled down a large material sign hanging outside, offered to take our photographs and posed obligingly for our touristy photos. Amazing – a little experience that I will remember so fondly.

Moving on from Mr. Tatami, we got a little lost amongst the streets and lane ways whilst trying to find our way to Kinkaku-ji. We stopped at an old camera shop where two more very kind and obliging Japanese people assisted us with directions. It was already after 4pm, and Kinkaku-ji was closing at 5pm. We decided to walk there anyway and hope we’d get there in time.

The walk there was nice, and we found our way past more interesting streets and shops, walking up a hill to the entrance of Kinkaku-ji at exactly 4:50pm. We’d made it just in time.
We purchased our tickets and walked straight in; I think maybe we went exactly at the right time because as soon as we walked through the gates and were blown away by the indescribable beauty that is Kikaku-ji, only sharing the view with just a few other tourists. The Golden Pavillion reflected onto the lake, surrounded by such beauty that is so unique to Japanese gardens. We stood marveling at the shining gold structure, awe struck. We took photographs and spent time just standing and admiring the beauty before us. It was truly magical.
It didn’t take too long to walk throughout the complex and gardens; the pavilion being the highlight – it was one of the best temple complexes I’ve seen.

We eventually headed back to Yudai’s home; despite the fact that it had taken a long time to get to the Golden Pavilion originally, it was really quick to get back (we must’ve gone the right way this time…).
Yudai had been telling us about a local ramen restaurant he loved so much, that served a very Japanese, very local, very delicious and very large servings of ramen. Together with his house mate Hiroki, the five of us walked down to the ramen restaurant. My first impression was that this place must be bloody good – we had to queue for around 30 minutes or more to get a seat at this very small suburban eatery. Placing our order and paying 650Y at a vending machine, we took a white ticket each and sat down at the communal table. The place was tiny: the long narrow table surrounded the cooking space in a square shape, in the middle one hard-working man worked as the chef, the cook, the server and the cleaner. All the other men -and there were only men – were eating MASSIVE bowls of overflowing ramen; the amount of food was almost sickening! We ordered “the normal” – deciding to accept the challenge – and Yudai placed our orders with the man who was so busy doing so many things at once. We watched as he added stock, water, sauces and spices, boiled the noodles and added them to the stock, piled on steamed bean shoots and a massive dollop of crushed garlic, and  then… a massive ladle of pure, solid chunks of fat… Oh, good god.

When my normal sized bowl of ramen was served, I instantly thought “this could feed all five of us.” It took a lot of time and effort to get through even the smallest amount of that ramen, and pretty soon we were all struggling. I think the amount of pure fat was the most challenging, but we were all determined to taken on this “challenge…”
In the end though it was just too much; we all (besides Jake) left our ramen bowls full still; we’d eaten so much and barely made a dent in our regular sized bowls. It made me feel sick just thinking about the amount of food other men at the table were consuming…or maybe that sick feeling was due to the influx of fat pumping through my digestive tract. We left the restaurant feeling overly full, heavy, a little bit sick and at the same time, content with this awesome, once-in-a-lifetime (for us) foodie experience. Yudai told us proudly he eats here twice a week; I laughed whilst my stomach cried a little.

Heading back towards home, I think all of us were silent as our digestive systems tried to cope with the onslaught of food and fat we’d just consumed. Whilst waddling and struggling home, we came across a group of people playing with what looked like material hackey sacks – one person standing in the middle holding up a huge pole with a bucket on the top, similar to a basketball hoop. They were all going wild racing to throw these material sacks into the bucket, and I was eager to join in. Yudai asked the group if we could participate and very quickly we found ourselves bracing, ready for a count down from three so we could all go wild, racing to try and get as many balls into the bucket high above our heads. It was difficult to concentrate due to the fact that I was laughing so hard – It was such a random situation but so much fun! I managed to get one in the bucket and spent the rest of my time flailing about with pride and laughing too much. There we all were, late in the night, throwing material balls wildly around with a bunch of very welcoming Japanese people. Fuck Japan is awesome!

Stopping at Family Mart to buy litres of water and cold tea in order to fight the dehydration that was fast consuming us as a result of sudden high salt intake, as well as a good stock of breath mints – considering the amount of garlic we’d just consumed – we were all starting to feel the effects of that mammoth ramen. Bloated and heavy, all five of us flopped onto the couch at home and lolled about, sleepily, occasionally rubbing our disgruntled somachs with sympathy.

Today has been an amazing day, one I will remember fondly. I am so happy to be here.

Bed Bug and Papping India: 15 – 16.08.13

We pulled into Hampi in the early hours of the morning, the sky still black with only the faintest silhouettes of rocks in the distance.
Before we could even step off the bus, touters boarded and the eager faces of four or five Indian men peered through the corridor, asking where we go and offering to take us to nice room. They swarmed around us whities as we tried to get our soaking wet, muddy packs organised and onto our backs. The smell of cow shit – lots of it – filled the air, and our nostrils.

We decided to walk into town; the Hampi bazaar is tiny an easily managed by foot; crowded with guest houses and restaurants, cows and the inevitable poo that they drop at every turn. We stopped for chai whilst the touters and tuk tuk drivers begged and pleaded with us to let them take us to different rooms for just 10 rupees (they forgot to mention the commission they’d make, at our expense, if we took a room). We’re cottoning on to their little tricks and games – thankfully – and we declined.

In the bazaar it took ages to find a room, we hopped from guest house to guest house, checking prices, cleanliness and wifi availability. It was light by the time we found a room that was basic, cheap, reasonably clean, and had a strong wifi connection.

We sunk a pot of masala chai at an eatery, and managed to have 100 rupees removed from our wallets by a pair of shifty “holy men” – learned our lesson there! We had breakfast with the locals at a little open air eatery that was cooking idlys and dosas, and took in the vast scenery surrounding us.

Hampi is a town like nothing we’ve before seen. The bazaar itself is a little maze of sprawling streets, souvenir shops, guest houses, restaurants, roof top cafes, hippie shops, book stores and travel agencies. Red dirt, puddles of water and mounds of cow shit make up the roads and pathways, where children run bare footed and cows block every corner. The women walk through with baskets and pots of water on their heads, and every second corner shack is filled with convenience items like toilet rolls, biscuits and necessities like shampoo and trashy magazines. Monkeys jump from roof top to roof top, children who should be in school try to sell post cards and books, people are touting, and every restaurant wants to sell the tourists a cup of the “ best coffee.”
The cows spend their days lazily; strutting the streets and forcing their heads into any crevice that may return food. We watched them frequently enjoying pieces of cardboard and news paper from the ground, posters from walls, and occasionally offered them an indulgent banana skin treat.

Outside the bazaar, a small market area and group of street stall eateries, chai stands, produce carts and tacky souvenir shacks surrounds the bus station, which is more a large area of dirty and gravel overlooking mountains and boulders, ancient ruined monuments and one massive temple.

The ruins of Hampi are sprawled out over a large area; mountains, hills, piles of enormous rock and palm trees line every view. Still exhausted, we hired a tuk tuk to take us around the main sights for five or so hours.
The temples and monuments were amazing; spectacular architecture, carvings and scenery. At the main temple, we hired a guide for a short tour of the place which gave us great insight into the significance and meaning of certain structures, buildings, carvings and history.

Throughout the day, we were continually in awe of how empty these tourist attractions were; most of the time we had the monuments, temples and areas to ourselves, or only had to ‘share’ them with a few other people. When we were not alone, we spent the time being harassed by locals wanting to take our photo. I had a small baby shoved into my arms and posed for a family photo-shoot with a child who was obviously not comfortable. The family photograph features me pulling an unimpressed face, along with the child.
Local men continued to whip cameras and phones out at the sight of us, papping at the most inopportune moments. How many hideous photographs of me are now on facebook, I hate to think.
At the last temple we were bombarded by an Indian family, which consisted of about fifty people, who wanted photo after photo with different people in the shot, in different poses, with different family members, standing on different sides of Jake and I, and then in front, and then behind, and then with babies in the shot, and then without, and then some more. I began to get irritated by the 80th odd photograph, and when they started shoving cameras into our faces to take close ups of just Jake and I, I just walked off. They continued papping, and I continued pulling faces that would make any image delete-worthy. The photograph thing got exhausting fast.

We decided we’d leave tomorrow night for Mumbai, rather than spend a second night here in Hampi. We seem to be moving through places a lot quicker than expected, but it’s a good thing; we’re able to add in more places to visit in India which is exciting! Whilst a bus takes around 12 hours to reach Mumbai, a train takes around 25 hours and would involve a lot more hassle. We’d been keen to take a train for the sheer experience it would offer, but ended up booking a sleeper bus leaving from Hospet – a 30 minute bus ride from Hampi. We;re excited to move on to Mumbai and to spend a little while there.

A man at one of the many booking agents called us in through the window, and when we said “what’s up?” he responded with “nothing man, I’ve been waiting for you!” … Oh India, how you make us laugh.
He explained to us the sleeper bus he could book us on was “very beautiful” and would have a TV all to ourselves with English sub titles. The thought of trying to sleep on a bus with 32 separate TV units was terrifying, and furthermore, the smell of weed from his cigarette was a little off putting and we left.
We booked a non-tv sleeper bus at a different agency, and so it was official: tomorrow we’re off to Mumbai.

Well after 10pm, laying on our beds exhausted, Jake spotted a tiny bug on my pillow which was instantly recogniseable as a bed bug. Uuuuuugh! We can’t be bothered with this shit!
This was the start of a long night.
Luckily a little convenience shack was still open, and selling – of all things – fly spray. Pulling the beds apart, the mattresses off the bed frames, the sheets and pillow slips away and moving our belongings and bags as far way as possible, we coated every surface with the spray. Wondering the streets late at night, we dodged cows and goats, tiny children still awake, women carrying pots on their heads and finally found some locals playing soccer, who let us use their phone to contact the no-where-to-be-seen guest house owner. He came, didn’t seem to think that it was that big of a deal, and eventually dragged the infested mattresses out and a couple of filthy, thin, wheat packed mattresses in. We refused to sleep on the infested wooden beds, and instead were given no option but to sleep on the thin mattresses on the tiles without pillows or blankets. Our hopes for a decent night sleep were crushed.

On our second day in Hampi, which happened to be Indian Independence Day – we checked out and watched our bed bug infested mattresses get dragged back onto the bed frames, ready to welcome the next sleeping body.

Today happened to be Indian Independence Day – a holiday for all – and a not much of a day for us.

We strolled down to the street food stalls next to the bus station; the place was jam packed with people, food vendors, chai stalls; the place was buzzing. Hampi was going to be busy today; 8:30am and the area was packed with colour and life. People had Indian Flags painted on their cheeks, and a colourful image made from salt was spread out on the ground, surrounded by people cooking and eating and selling and buying.

Back at what had quickly become our “Old Faithful” in Hampi, we ordered a pot of chai and simply sat. We chatted with the owner, and about our trip. It’s moving so quickly it seems; or have we just been moving quickly? Traveling at night makes a real difference, that’s for sure.

We decided to visit another big temple today, we hadn’t been yesterday and we were keen to go today… but, it was an ocean of people – people from surrounding villages made the trip to Hampi today for the public holiday celebrations – and we were very quickly overwhelmed.
People all around us were photographing us with their phones and cameras, and tour guides hassled us to hire them. We didn’t want to leave our shoes with the “shoe guard” at the temple – and further more pay for that – and the touting tour guide didn’t console my fears by saying “yes, you know why people is wanting them is for that they are the good leather.” After several hundred photographs were taken of us from several hundred different, bad angles – with me making several hundred ugly faces for the photographers – we didn’t even enter the temple. It was irritating to not be able to move without being photographed, and we were worried about our shoes being stolen by the several lurkers near the thousands of pairs of shoes.

As we wandered away towards the river and ghats we were continually photographed as we walked, and parents forced their tiny children – and us – to shake hands. At the river, hundreds, if not thousands of Indian locals were mingling. I was getting really irritated by the number of cameras in our face, and people everywhere around us pretending to be photographing something else when they were obviously aiming their cameras at us – then looking away when I gave them the eye.

Sitting on the wall leading down the steps to the river, people surrounded us to get photos with the whities. I refused to face them, so I can only assume there will now be several hundred photos of my back all over Indian Facebook. A boy grabbed me by the arm and asked for a photo “just one madame” he said. I know this game well already – just one photo means just one with this specific camera, and no doubt there will be several cameras floating about – and I flatly refused. So, taking my answer in his stride, the boy directed his mates with their cameras around me, grabbed me and put his arm around me. He now has several photographs on his camera of me scowling, yelling at him and running away swearing. I can just imagine the photo of my screwed up face, downturned brow, curled bottom lip and two front teeth forming a “Fff….” will make a great story when he returns back home.

Running up the stairs away from the papping locals, I was harassed by several boys making kissing sounds and yelling “Hello madame, where you from?” “Hello madame, where you go?” “Hello madame, how are you?” Pissed off that I was unable to enjoy anything at the present moment without the harassment of local men, Jake and I retreated to a rooftop café where we spent hours drinking masala chai and stealing wifi.

Eventually, having spent a good portion of our day in a café, it was time to head to the bus stop, to travel to Hospet where our bus for Mumbai would depart at 6:30pm. However, we were stopped by a tuk tuk driver who offered to take us for 200 rupees – what is actually a very reasonable fair considering it was a) a holiday, b) we’re tourists, and c) it’s a 30 minute drive or more to Hospet. Not wanting to bother with the jam-packed, holiday maker buses, we took the tuk tuk, and it proved to be a better choice!
Prince, the driver, was the same age as Jake, and keen to get some advice on how to pick up Western girls; I think he may be a little confused about the process. He was asking what the maximum amount of time we thought it should take for him to be able to ‘woo’ a Western girl into marrying him in. As in, how many days – not years – mere days, for him to be able to meet, date and become engaged. Furthermore, his western bride must be prepared to move away and live in India, because he believes he cannot get Indian food anywhere else in the world, where as westerners can absolutely get western food here in India… Finally, he believes if he is married to a Western girl, he can absolutely do what he wants – go away whenever he wants, where ever he wants, with who ever he wants, and his western wife wont care – supposedly, this is the opposite of what Indian women are like, according to Prince. We shared some good laughs, tried to teach him what NOT to do (eg. DON’T make ridiculous kissing noises and behave in a ridiculous manner) and he was a genuinely nice guy.

Traffic jams nearby Hospet meant wandering hands had the opportunity to find their way into our tuk tuk, and men stared at me from every angle and viewpoint. Prince ended up having to drive a different way; 5 extra kilometers through muddy tracks and over rough road to get us to Hospet. Once there, he spent time chatting and talking, took us to our bus company stand, showed us where to get food and use a bathroom, and didn’t once ask for more than the 200 rupees he originally asked for. What a guy! We tipped him anyway.

Using a bathroom in Hospet was an ordeal; the men surrounding our tuk tuk as we got out were intimidating as they stared blatantly at me, and there just didn’t seem to be any women around, anywhere! They stared and stared, and when we finally made it to the bathroom to pay the 5 rupee charge, the man there tried to tell us it was a 5 dollar charge – in whatever currency ours was. Ridiculous.

Sigh. I think today was just one of those ‘off days’…

Finally on the bus, we joined forces with a Spanish girl and spent our evening eating Hide and Seek biscuits and chatting. Laying back in our double bed berth as the bus rolled towards Mumbai, we were able to relax and let today’s frustrations and stressors wash away.
We feel nothing but excited for what this new part of our travels will bring.

 

Ultra-Deluxe India – 04.08.2013

India sometimes keeps me awake for hours at night; her constant hustle and bustle means that often my mind is left racing to try and catch up with and comprehend the overload that is what my eyes have seen. When I finally drift to sleep at night, I’m frequently still thinking about the culture we’re currently immersed in, and my dreams float through scenes of people-packed bazaars and chaotic, colourful street scenes.

I felt unmotivated this morning; lethargic and in a not-so-interested-in-temples mood. We hauled our luggage down to the Trichy Junction Bus Station cloak room early in the morning, and paid 100 rupees for a half-naked man to store our only belongings, alongside his graying-underwear and once-white, sweat-stained shirt that was hung neatly from a wall hook. I prayed our bags would still be there when we returned in 12 hours time.

We found a chai vendor and filled our flask with sugary liquid; what has quickly become our morning routine here in India.

Brunch was a traditional South Indian banana leaf meal from some local joint, served, surprisingly, on a banana leaf. The eighty staff members (or there abouts) were keen to watch these two foreigners attempt to eat with their hands, and the majority of our meal was spent with many, many enquiring eyes studying our every mouthful. We questioned the level of safety in eating this food; it was a little cold and dodgy looking, so we quickly bought a coke after the meal, with the hope that the terrible chemicals in coke would kill any nasties before they had the opportunity to flourish and strike us down. Not sure how effective this method of avoiding Dehli-Belly is, but anything goes in this sort of hygienically challenged environment.

Because we were feeling really lazy today, and because we knew we had a long, 8 hour bus ride ahead of us this evening, we took a Tuk tuk to Trichy Old Town area and the main Bazaar.
We saw a very impressive church… and then proceeded to go shopping. Well, not so much shopping as simply walking through the Bazaar; a crowded, hectic, chaotic, overwhelming, polluted, noisy space full of people buying and selling, clothing, watches, baby clothing, sari material, plastic shit, cooking ware, fruit, shoes – always so many shoes… Amidst the normal human crush and pushy motorbike drivers honking their horns, it was so much to take in.

Flustered, frustrated, unable to find the places we wanted to get to, we left the bazaar in search of the Rock temple, which we did see from a distance, as it sat high above us – something like 400 steps above us. Laziness, feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, the extreme heat and the fact that non-hindus can’t go into the temples were combining factors in the decision not to climb the rock. We considered climbing it just for the view over Trichy, but it wasn’t that much of an argument since from the ground, Trichy looks like a sprawling mass of buildings set on mountains of dirt and red dust, littered with rubbish and crowded with people, cows, goats, dogs and traffic… and no doubt, also a big cloud of pollution. The stench of urine is really strong here too – although you can’t see it, I imagine it to be a big, yellow blanket of stinky invisible-ness. So, we passed on the climb and the view, and instead took a tuk tuk to another temple about 3km further away.

Hindu  temples are impressive with their large, towering entrances of colour and sculpture, statues and depictions… but it’s hard for us to appreciate them any further really, as we can’t comprehend the spiritual and religious traditions and meanings.

The temple was dark, damp, and full of people either sleeping, eating or begging, and the areas were piling up with rubbish. The stone carvings inside the temple were really quite impressive, but there was a temple elephant wondering near the grounds, with paint covering its face and chains on its feet, and I hate that with a passion; poor animal treatment masked under the name of religion is not something I’m impressed by. For me, this temple was nothing spectacular.

Moving on, we had to get out of the heat and sit down. It seems there is a lack of places to actually just sit, drink some chai and relax… we found a small eatery and had an ice cream, and proceeded to make a rough itinerary/plan for the rest of our trip in India… we were there for a while – a concept that obviously was strange for the locals – but we needed the break.

Finally, we decided to visit the biggest temple here in Trichy, that is also supposedly one of the biggest in India – we figured we should make the effort since we are only here once.

We walked there, and it was a nice stroll past children playing cricket, women in coloured saris carrying large parcels and items on their heads, goats sleeping on the road and cows munching on piles of rubbish.

At the entrance, we were stunned by so many people and such a towering, impressive entrance. People were everywhere.

Shops, market stalls, clothing, foods, chai… we walked the streets through what felt like a small enclosed city to the next main entrance and another impressive tower of colour and sculpture, but decided not to go any further in, again; we’re obviously not hindus and we respect that this is a place of worship.

Instead, we watched the people move around us; a couple of motorcyclists had an argument over who would go through a tiny entrance first, children played, and a massive crowd gathered around an eatery that was frying up delicious smelling food – we’ll try whatever they’re eating. A man helped Jake to order, and he was served a couple of green chilli/bell peppers fried in a spiced lentil four batter, and a couple of other fried lentil things. It was too much food, and we ended up giving some food to a couple of locals who were really appreciative. We never throw food away here; it’s always given to someone who needs it, and that simple act today showed us, again, how much we take for granted.

We caught a bus back to town as evening was falling – it was so interesting to see the bazaars packed to the walls with people, every different eatery cooking and preparing different foods, chai stalls crowded with people, and families out together. It’s fascinating, every time, to see India in action; night times are wonderful in this country – at least, in the small area we’ve seen. It’s as though India operates during the day, and lives at night.

We had dinner at a local place that was decent; we tried dosai which we will definitely be eating more often now; another Indian food to add to the ‘safe to eat/I-know-what-that-is’ list.

10pm and we picked our back packs up from the cloak room – they were still there, and so was half-naked man and his dirty underwear. Packs on, we walked through the station – very cleverly right past the massive stretch of urinals – as the thousands of staring eyes fell upon us – we’re starting to find this less unnerving and slightly easier to ignore.

We’d reserved an Ultra Deluxe Class, Air Conditioned bus ahead of our overnight journey and were secretly smug with our out-of-chatacter organisation!… but when we arrived, we were directed to a dilapidated and un-roadworthy looking vehicle, with peeling, faded-green paint, several large rusting sections, broken chairs and stuck windows. The air conditioning didn’t work, unless you count the very economical and eco-friendly open windows – which worked a treat for the duration of our journey – except when it rained.
We sat down, wondering when the ultra deluxe part of our journey would commence, then reminded ourselves to stop being such spoiled Westerners. The Indian music started blaring – the beginning of the sound track for our trip to Ooty – people began reclining their seats to uncomfortable levels, and the driver backed out of the madness that is the Trichy Junction bus stand.

Then the music and lights were turned off – the ultra deluxe part began – and silently, we rolled our way up and up and up to Ooty over a period of 8 hours.

At around 1am we stopped for a break: the lights were turned on and the driver screamed out something, of which I simply understood “chai” and “bat-roum.”  I was up.
All of a sudden all these sleeping bodies had risen, and we were all off the bus; I stood laughing at the hilarity of this nonsensical situation.
In the darkness, men dispersed in every angle to urinate freely (literally) whilst the women lined up to pay the toilet guy 3 rupees. Yes; at 2am there’s a guy sitting at a wooden table outside stench-embedded, urine smelling toilets, waiting for buses to arrive and for people to come and use the toilet…I won’t be complaining about my job again, ever.
Someone else (or maybe the same business-smart man?) obviously thought it would be a profitable idea to have a ripped music and DVD shop open for business at this time of night; therefore, nothing could be heard over the blasting speakers, which sat in the dusty open surrounds, filling the late-night air with loud, bad quality Indian music.
I stood in front of our bus and was overcome with laughter: as screeching treble filled my ears – along with much obligatory hocking and spitting – I stared in awe at the absolute dump of a vehicle that was being masked as a bus, titled at the front with some crooked, rusting letters spelling “U  RA D L X” (what would’ve once said Ultra Deluxe, before half of the letters fell off and it became not so ultra).
More to the point, on the side of this magnificent beast was some painted text, which titled this thing a “Highway Airline.” I was almost in tears at this point from laughing; I’ll blame it on exhaustion.

Still, here we were in the cool night air – Indian men doing double takes as they walked past this laughing white girl – traveling in true style on our bus Highway Airline to the hill country town of Ooty, 2240m above sea level. I’m not going to lie; it wasn’t the most comfortable 8 hours, but we loved every moment of it, and our dodgy Highway Airline too.

In the early hours of the morning, the bus speed slowed to accommodate for the hair-pin bends, curves and turn as we made our way through the hills and the sun began to rise. We watched, bleary eyed, as scenery rolled past our eyes like we had never before seen, and for a fleeting moment, we forgot we were in India.

Snippets of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

Our time in the ancient city of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, has been a brief but wonderful two days. We spent time exploring the ancient city on bike and by foot, and took in the spectacular sites of the enormous dagobas, temples, spiritual sites and ancient ruins.

Our slick wheels

Our slick wheels

Riding our bikes in the sweltering heat, we rode through the city centre – past people and animals, cars, buses, trucks and tractors. People were constantly smiling, waving and yelling “hello” as we passed them. The ride was often really peaceful: around rice fields and lotus ponds, through empty stretches of road and path, and past remnants of ancient monasterys and palaces. At other times, you could feel the breeze of the passing bus or truck as it honked and whizzed past, only centimeters away from our bikes.

Lotus Pond

Lotus Pond

We bought a ticket that allowed us entry into the historic areas, and spent time riding between each site on our maps.

Lankarama

Lankarama, Abhayagiri Monastery – 1st Century BC

Abhayagiri Dagoba, Abhayagiri Monastery

Abhayagiri Dagoba, Abhayagiri Monastery – 1st or 2nd Century centerpiece of monastery

Moonstone, Abhayagiri Monastery

Moonstone, Abhayagiri Monastery – a ruined 9th Century school for monks

Ratnaprasada, Abhayagiri Monastery

Ratnaprasada, Abhayagiri Monastery – 8th Century guard stones

Hoppers in the making! A national food of Sri Lanka

Hoppers in the making! A national food of Sri Lanka

Thuparama Dagoba - constructed in the 3rd Century: the oldest visible dagoba in the world

Thuparama Dagoba – constructed in the 3rd Century: the oldest visible dagoba in the world

The Royal Palace, Citadel - 12th Century

The Royal Palace, Citadel – 12th Century

Jetavanarama Dagoba

Jetavanarama Dagoba – 3rd Century

Cycling through the 'Buddhist Railing'

Cycling through the ‘Buddhist Railing’

Vessagiriya - Remains of cave monastery complex  (4th and 5th Century)

Vessagiriya – Remains of cave monastery complex (4th and 5th Century)

Isurumumiya Vihara - Rock Temple

Isurumumiya Vihara – Rock Temple

Royal Pleasure Gardens

Royal Pleasure Gardens

Sri Maha Bodhi - the sacred Bodhi tree: the oldest historically authenticated tree in the world

Sri Maha Bodhi – the sacred Bodhi tree: the oldest historically authenticated tree in the world

Brazen Palace: The 1600 columns are remnants of a 9 storey palace, built more than 2000 years ago

Brazen Palace: The 1600 columns are remnants of a 9 storey palace, built more than 2000 years ago

Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba - (140 BC)

Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba – (140 BC)