Monday 29 October 2012


15th-23rd October

Another bus journey from Alleppey and we arrived in the beautiful Varkala. Based on a recommendation from a Dutch couple we met in Fort Cochin, we'd booked a few nights at a place called the Woodhouse at the north end of town.

We arrived to blank looks from the few staff that were loitering around reception. A quick phone call to the absent manager and we were shown to a room, not the one we'd booked but a sneaky upgrade. Mmmm... We insisted on changing, but after this shaky start, things didn't improve. In our new room, half the light bulbs were out, the sheets on the bed were stained and the advertised Wi-Fi wasn't turned on. All this was greeted by shrugs from the staff. After grabbing a bite to eat from the surprisingly good attached restaurant (pakora and Tibetan momos – Chinese dumplings basically), we headed south up the cliff to find ourselves some better accommodation.

Our new hotel, the Hill View was better in every way: better location, cheaper, cleaner and just better run. The views from the cliff were spectacular and there were loads of places to eat nearby, the pick of the bunch being the Coffee Temple for breakfast (porridge and cappuccino), Little Tibet (good, cheap Indian and Tibetan food) and Abba (not the band). The attached restaurant - Cafe Del Mar - was also pretty good.

View south from the beach
View south from the cliff
For the next week we did a whole lot of not very much. We sunbathed, we belly-surfed (braving the fierce undertow), we watched the sunset over beers, we ate pizza in our room with the football on the telly, we watched the sea eagles (and a mad French man) ride the updrafts over the cliffs, we read our Kindles and we relaxed.

View north from the beach
Looking south from the cliff (again)
Karen's expert photo of a thermal-riding sea eagle
Now this looks like fun!
It really is an idyllic location – there are other beaches in Kerala, but I can't imagine any being better than Varkala.

Sunset over the Arabian Sea
Finally, it was time to leave. We rounded off our stay in Kerala with one night in another nice homestay (the Graceful Homestay) in the state capital, Trivandrum, a short train journey south of Varkala. Then it was off to the airport to fly north to Delhi and the Indian Grand Prix.

Current location: Delhi until tomorrow
Next stop: Agra

The Keralan Backwaters

13th-15th October

We left Fort Cochin via the ferry to Ernakulam where we could get the bus to Alleppey. (Or Alappuzha: a lot of Indian places have two names, the mangled English version from the days of the Empire and the more correct Indian spelling. See Bombay/Mumbai, Cochin/Kochi, Calcutta/Kolkata.)

Apart from getting dodgy directions from our guest-house owner (hint: for buses, go to the bus station) it was all fairly simple, just like Indian buses – hard seats, no windows (just blinds) and rock-hard suspension. Despite the incessant horn-honking and jerky driving style, it's not an altogether unpleasant way to travel. I wouldn't have fancied it so much in the rain though: it would have been a bit stuffy inside with the shutters closed and no cooling breeze.

We arrived in Alleppey, fought our way past hundreds of rickshaw drivers (and houseboat sellers) and took the short walk to our “homestay” – the Indian version of a bed & breakfast. In our experience, unless you can afford to stay at one of the top hotel chains, homestays are definitely the way to go in India. The mid-budget hotels are a bit of a lottery: frequently badly run, not guaranteed to be clean (and my expectations of ‘clean’ are fairly low these days), and often with a deluded self-image – by that I mean their description of the facilities rarely bears any resemblance to reality.

The place we'd booked, the Venice Castle, was very nice (and very cheap) – a big clean room, a big clean bathroom with loads of hot water, and apart from an early morning wake-up call from the nearby mosque, very quiet. Breakfast was good too.

Alleppey was only a stop-off for a trip into the Keralan back-waters. Luckily, our host at the homestay part-owns a houseboat and with his help we managed to get a good price for the night.

A Keralan houseboat, like the one we took
Inside the houseboat
We set off at about midday. On the boat, there really was nothing to do but relax and enjoy the tranquillity, gently chugging our way around the backwaters east of Alleppey, watching the locals go about their daily business.

Vembanadu lake
Ice cream shop
Locals going about their business
Another houseboat
Other boats on the way out of Alleppey
In the late afternoon the views got even more picturesque and just before sunset we berthed for the night at a fantastic spot for photos.

Just chillin'
Sunset over rice paddies
A local on his way home after work
That evening, we were treated to a magnificent thunderstorm, all fun and games until one bolt struck very close to the boat.

The next morning, nice and rested after a good breakfast (I'm slowly getting used to curry for breakfast), the boat took us back to Alleppey, returning to dry land at about 9am. Then it was a quick rickshaw ride into town and the bus to Varkala.

Had we not already spent a number of days on the Mekong, we might have been tempted to spend longer on the houseboat. As it was, one night was plenty and a very relaxing and enjoyable night it was too.

Next up: Surf and sand at Varkala

Current location: Delhi until tomorrow
Next stop: Agra

Monday 22 October 2012

Kerala: Fort Kochi and Kathakali

9th-13th October

From what we've read, tales from friends and some limited prior experience, India - and Delhi in particular - can be a bit of a culture shock for the uninitiated. For that reason, starting off in the much more relaxed Kerala seemed like a good idea – it's more backpackers and beaches than the hot, sweaty crowds of the big Indian cities.

We arrived in late evening at Cochin International Airport to be faced with a conundrum:
  1. The pre-paid taxi desk is inside the terminal building and only took rupees.
  2. We didn't have any rupees and the only ATM was outside the terminal.
  3. Once you leave the terminal, they don’t let you back in…
Travellers tip: when arriving at Cochin airport, either make sure you've already got some rupees or be prepared to sweet-talk the policeman at the terminal gate! One 45 minute, seatbelt-less, white-knuckle taxi-ride later (in a Vauxhall Corsa), we arrived at our guesthouse in Fort Kochi.

The next morning we had a wander around town to get our bearings. Due to its location, Fort Kochi has been occupied by a the usual mix of sea-faring Europeans: in this case, the British, the Portuguese and the Dutch. The influence is obvious looking at the local architecture. The first thing we noticed however were the Chinese fishing nets - the iconic image of Kerala.

Chinese fishing nets
These huge counter-weighted nets require 4-5 people to operate them, but I suspect the ones in Fort Cochin are more for the tourists than fishing judging by the repeated entreaties from the operators to pose with them for photos.

We had four days in town which is plenty of time to see everything. Although it’s part of a larger conurbation (Ernakulam), most of the sights are in and around Fort Kochi, and it’s not very big. In nearby Mattancherry we visited the Dutch palace – worth seeing for its murals and a good introduction to the history of the area – and the Jewish quarter with its old synagogue and maze of streets selling clothes and spices. We picked up some masala tea. In Fort Kochi itself there's the Santa Cruz Basilica and St. Francis’ church which houses the original, but now empty tomb of Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama.

St. Francis' church
Food-wise, we've probably eaten our last noodle: we’re now in India which means it's time for curry and its limitless variations. It’s slightly weird having curry every night (and some lunch-times) – in the UK, this kind of behaviour would be a fast-track to obesity – but things are different in India, in Kerala at least.

For a start, there’s much less meat. Most of the curries we've eaten have been vegetarian: amazingly fragrant dishes made with potato & cauliflower (aloo gobi), spinach & cheese (palak paneer), lentils (daal) and my favourite, chick pea curry (chana masala). Meat and fish is readily available, but partly because eating meat increases your chances of an upset stomach, and partly because the meat doesn't really add much to the flavour, we've mostly abstained. Having said that, being by the sea, we have had the occasional delicious fish curry.

Also, the food is much lighter: the rich, yoghurt and cream-based sauces are not as common here (more so in the north of India apparently) and there’s been no cases of our food turning up swimming in ghee. The breads (naans, rotis, etc.) are much thinner and lighter as well.

Having said all that, there’s little chance of losing any weight since everything is so delicious.

Ho hum.

We rounded off our stay in Fort Kochi with a trip to the theatre and a short performance of some Kathakali. I say 'short' because Kathakali plays can last for days and even the shortest stories can last for hours. Luckily, the Kathakali centre in Fort Kochi is geared-up for the tourists so the the performances are slightly briefer, but they do let you in early to see the amazing makeup being applied which can take as long as the show itself.

The play we saw – more of a scene really – told the story of a green-faced chap (clearly not to be trusted) trying to seduce some other chap's wife. He fails so tries to beat and rape her, but she escapes and tells hubby, who then kills him. It's much like the plot of any episode of Neighbours.

The actors tell the story entirely by facial expressions and complicated hand gestures. There’s also a narrator who sings the story to the audience with sound effects provided by a couple of drummers.

Putting on makeup
All the colours are made naturally from stones and plants
Would you trust this man?
Indecent proposal
All the parts are played by men by the way
"I have seen things you people would not believe..." 
To be honest I'm not a huge theatre fan so I wasn't expecting much. The first 20 minutes – a demonstration of the basic skills, the hand movements and the facial expressions – brought to mind a constipated Kenneth Williams: not a promising start.

But when the action began in earnest, the music (the narrator singing over a harmonium drone), the drumming and the weirdly silent acting – all delivered with bucket-loads of conviction – combined to be strangely compelling.

It was very atmospheric: a hugely enjoyable and memorable couple of hours. A must-see if you're ever in Kerala.

Next up: a trip to the famed Keralan backwaters.

Current location: Varkala until tomorrow
Next stop: Trivandrum before flying to Delhi on Wednesday

Friday 12 October 2012

A long weekend in KL

6th-9th October

Been working too hard? Feeling the stress of the 9-5? Bored of the same old routine? What you need is a city break. Using those criteria we wouldn’t qualify but why should we miss out, just because we haven't got 'jobs' or 'stress'. Who makes up these rules anyway?

Time for a long weekend in Kuala Lumpur!

In fact we needed to go to KL for good reasons: flying via there was the most cost effective way of getting from Vientiane to Kochi in India. So, rather than limiting ourselves to a few hours at the LCCT (Low Cost Carrier Terminal – as exciting as it sounds), we decided to stick around for a few days and sample some of what Malaysia has to offer.

First impressions of Kuala Lumpur? For a start, there's no Kualas (and not many Lumpurs neither). Superficially, it looks like just another big Asian city – it reminded me a bit of Bangkok or Hong Kong. Under the surface it was quite different. It’s a very cosmopolitan city: there were the usual number of expat westerners but it’s also home to fairly sizeable Indian and Chinese communities. Also, having spent most of the last few months in the largely Buddhist Mekong Delta countries, it was big change hearing the call of the muezzin and seeing women wearing hijabs - a clear reminder we were now in a Muslim country.

It’s quite pricey to stay in the centre of town, so we found a hotel a twenty minute metro ride away. The area wasn’t the nicest but it was cheap and convenient, and the view from the metro station (Maluri) was pretty good.

Petronas Towers from Maluri metro station
Considering its size, there’s surprisingly little to see and do in KL. We spent a day browsing the stalls at the Central Market and the nearby Petaling Street. Both are worth a visit if you're there but are nothing special really. It’s not a very pretty city, but we did visit a few of the architectural sites worth seeing.

Sultan Abdul Samad building
Merdeka Square (including cricket pitch!)
Petronas Towers
We decided not to go up the Petronas Towers. It was quite expensive and I've got a rule that I only go up tall buildings if there are at least two fairground rides at the top. The Petronasses had none.

Just outside the city is the Batu Caves. They're only a 30 minute train-ride from KL Sentral (and only 40p each way) so there’s no good reason not to pay them a visit. They're a series of large limestone caves, halfway up a hill with a collection of Hindu shrines inside. Just be careful of your possessions as the large monkey population will steal anything: food, cameras, or in the case of one unfortunate girl, her cuddly toy!

Batu Caves entrance
Inside the Batu Caves
Inside the Batu Caves
Inside the Batu Caves
Cute monkey?
Not when he's just stolen your cuddly eat
View of KL from the top of the steps at Batu
And that was KL – not worth going out of your way for but if you’re passing through, there’s enough of interest to spend a couple of days there.

Perfect for a long weekend!

Current location: Kochi until tomorrow
Next stop: Alleppey

Wednesday 10 October 2012

Ten days in Laos: Luang Prabang and Vientiane

27th September-6th October 2012

As per my previous blog entry, we spent our first two days in Laos on a boat. The next five days were spent in Luang Prabang. to be followed by three in Vientiane

Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage town, so it’s better preserved than a lot of places we've visited. In fact it reminded me a lot of the Japanese towns of Magome and Tsumago i.e. it's all been carefully managed to preserve the old-style character of the place. For example, all of the shop, restaurant and hotel signs were made out of wood - no-one's allowed to ruin things with some tacky neon - which gives the place a very authentic feel, even if it's not!

Classic cars and colonial-style houses in Luang Prabang
Karen had a bit of a cold while we were there so our activities were slightly curtailed. For example, we could have got up at 4.30am to see and take part in the daily ritual of giving alms to the sizeable monk population, but sensibly stayed in bed. We did visit a couple of the local Buddhist temples though.

Wat Xieng Thong
Also recommended is an evening trip up Mount Phousi to watch the sunset. It’s not that much of a climb - it's just a small hill really - but the views are spectacular.

View over Luang Prabang from Mount Phousi
Another view from Mount Phousi
Yet another view from Mount Phousi
Sunset from Mount Phousi
About 40 minutes outside town there's the Kuang Si waterfall – actually a series of picturesque waterfalls: one big one and lots of little ones. The owner of our guesthouse suggested that hiring a motorbike was the best way to get there. Once again we managed to resist the temptation: no insurance, dodgy roads and reckless local drivers are not a good combination. As it happens you can book a trip for way less than a day’s motorbike hire anyway. We spent a pleasant afternoon walking around the area, walking up to the top of the waterfall and back down again to have a dip in the cold waters. You can jump off one of the smaller falls if you’re daring enough (I’m not) and there's a rope swing, which I was brave enough to try.

Bear at bear sanctuary at Kuang Si
Kuang Si waterfall
Taking a dip. No idea who the other three are...
Forgot to take my shoes off
Luang Prabang is also a good place to go if you like your food. We had a fantastic Laos-style meal at a place called Tamarind one evening: sticky rice, baked fish in banana leaf, stuffed lemongrass kebabs and a selection of Laos dips and crudités.

The food was Laosy (heh)
Including drinks, this meal was relatively expensive (about £15) so we balanced it out with a couple of dinners at the street food market. There you can fill a plate from a selection of tasty rice dishes, noodle dishes and various vegetable stews, all for just 80p! Meat, fish and drinks are extra but not really necessary.

Street food market in Luang Prabang
We'd decided before we left Scotland that when leaving Luang Prabang for Vientiane, rather than take the bus, we'd fly. We just didn't fancy the idea of six hours crammed on a rickety bus, careering along windy, potholed roads, teetering on the edge of cliffs and being driven by a mad Laos bus driver. Not that we needed any extra persuading, our decision was reinforced by stories from fellow travellers who'd experienced the white-knuckle route.

And so it was on to Vientiane. Getting off the plane we took a tuk-tuk into the town centre. Again, the influence from the French colonial days is obvious from the architecture, plus there are numerous European-style coffee and cake shops to prove the point. It was nice to get a proper cup of coffee again.

Waiter, I've got hair in my coffee...oh
So, what’s there to do in Vientiane? Not a great deal, it turns out - unlucky for us as our hostel was the worst we'd stayed in since leaving the UK and we needed a diversion. Sure, there are temples, but we were all templed-out. There’s a stupa or two as well, but if you've seen one stupa… 

What else? There’s a shopping centre which reputedly contains the only escalators in Laos – a tourist attraction for Lao visitors to the capital if you believe the guide-books – and there’s a couple of monuments but that’s your lot.

In order to keep ourselves busy, we took the chance to try two fruits we'd seen but never managed to lay our hands on – salak and tamarind.

Salak and tamarind
Salak, or snake fruit, is something we'd first seen in Cambodia and although we swore to try it, we hadn't seen it since. As soon as we saw it in a market in Vientiane, we had to buy a few. The skin, although looking vaguely snake-like, is easy to peel. Inside, is two or three lobes of juicy pale fruit, sometimes with a stone, sometimes not. It tastes sweet-sour, not entirely unlike a mangosteen. Altogether very pleasant.

Inside a salak fruit
I'm used to using tamarind as a sour ingredient in Asian food. I didn't realise that you could also eat the fruit raw but only in its sweet form - unfortunately, visually indistinguishable from the sour type. We'd first seen these being eaten in Xi'an in China, but never since. The woody outer skin comes off easily leaving a brown chewy centre, surrounding several inedible seeds. It tastes a bit like a date, a bit like a fig. In fact it most reminds me of fig rolls!

We couldn’t sit inside eating fruit for three days so we had to get out and about again. To be fair, the monuments are worth seeing. One is a copy of the Arc de Triomphe, except bigger and better – take that France!

Un dans l'oeil pour les Francais - pah!
Looking up the Champs Elysees
The second is a big statue of Chao Anuvong.

Mairman Chao
It’s down by the Mekong river, which is a pleasant place to wander, especially around sunset. On our last evening, sitting in a rooftop bar, we were treated to a spectacular electrical storm over Thailand. I've never seen so much lightning; there was almost a flash every three seconds. I do love a good storm, especially when I'm safely under cover with a beer in my hand.

And so our short visit to Laos was almost over. It was finally time to say goodbye to the Mekong and goodbye to our trusty guide book: Lonely Planet’s ‘Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and the Greater Mekong’. Thanks Suzanne – best Secret Santa ever!

Sunset over Thailand from Vientiane
Next up, a short stopover in Kuala Lumpur and then, India!

Current location: Cochin, India until Saturday
Next stop: Elsewhere in Kerala!