Tokyo, Akihabara – Travelling throws up challenges – Part2

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Tokyo and the most expensive night I’ve ever paid at a hotel

As I alluded to in Part 1 about my time in Tokyo, it got of to a slow start.  Next morning started off with a bang!!!  Just to recap, I booked for one night at APA Hotel Kodemmacho Ekimae, a much better location than the first.  After my first proper day in Tokyo I had decided to extend my stay for another day, I let the hotel know when I got back from Edo Castle.

Next morning, in my daze turning my phone alarm off I noticed Monzo had sent me a message.  I didn’t think much of it at first; they send me a message any time I spend or deposit money, getting a message from them wasn’t unusual.  Through my blurry eyes I saw it was a charge, hmmm no surprise, it was likely for the hotel through hotels.com.  I turned back to snuggle under the covers.  Uhhh, the amount didn’t seem familiar, or was it my brain and eyes still in dream land?  I turned to check my phone, no, it can’t be!  I had just been charged £7 378.46!!!  In an instant I was as awake as if I had drunk a litre of espresso!  What the hell!?!?!?

Throwing on my clothes whilst checking my Monzo app, I saw it was for the hotel.  Adding insult to injury, Monzo had frozen my card too.  Monzo is a cash card, I only keep a few hundred pounds at most in it at most, topping up when needed – it is the day to day card I use; if it gets stolen at least not much will be taken.  Now, I was over £7000 overdrawn!  Just, to clarify, the hotel cost was ¥10 999.00 (which is around £73.00).  Bolting downstairs to Reception, eyes like saucers but looking dishevelled.  Having already tried calling Monzo, because of the office hours (Japan being 8 hours ahead) I got no answer – I left a message through the app.  The hotel staff were very helpful and efficient, I also thought is must be the hotel’s fault too!

Within an hour they had confirmation, and proof, from their accounts department that they had charged me the correct amount.  ARGH!  Who the hell’s fault was is, it could only be Monzo or Hotels.com.  During the hour of waiting for the Hotel to get back to me, I had left more messages, voicemails and emails for the bank and Hotels.com – the time difference was frustrating me – I had a problem yet had to wait patiently for that part of the world to wake up.

Time was ticking by aimlessly, it was near lunchtime.  Monzo was the first to get back to me.  After a few calls and many messages (calling from UK mobile/cell phone from Tokyo to the UK, costs were adding up!), they agreed to credit my account for the full amount; with the caveat that when Hotels.com corrected their error they would then deduct the money again.  Obviously, I had to prove to Monzo the actual cost of the hotel before they offered the credit.  Nonetheless, Monzo were brilliant from start to finish!  Hotels.com on the other hand were not!

What actually happened

The hotel reception at one stage even let me call Hotels.com from their phone, free of charge, they (the Hotel staff) gave Hotels.com their accounts department details too.  I had already spent over 2 hours on the phone to Hotels.com, it was like talking to a brick wall!  To give the short version:

  • The room cost ¥10 990.00
  • They charged me ¥1 099 000.00. Doesn’t take a genius to see the error!
  • Monzo had sent me all the details of the transaction, including reference numbers and all the banking jargon with what happened when and who did what – this I forwarded to Hotels.com

I had spent over two hours on the phone to Hotels.com alone and sent many emails.  They just used the old empathy card without resolving anything or taking ownership.  I was a little concerned about the whole saga, but mostly frustrated and angry – Hotels.com’s lack of responsibility was the most irritating.  I was reluctant to move on to my next destination in Japan without resolving this so agreed with the hotel to say an additional night.  This is when keeping an additional bank card for emergencies is worth a million dollars!  Thought it best to not use my Monzo card, at least until all this was resolved.  It felt like I was farting in the wind with Hotels.com, the day was wasting away, bugger this I’d go out and try to enjoy what was left of the day!

Things I started to notice about Tokyo and Japan

My plans for the day were out the window, today I’d go freelancing – head to town and cruise about with no plan at all…not much time left of the day too.  I had to get out the hotel, my frustration levels were peaking, almost lost my tempter with Hotels.com a few times.  I had my phone with me (I had already incurred a lot of cost so a little more at this stage wouldn’t matter) so throughout the day I made a few calls and sent more emails, to Hotels.com!  Starting off near Tokyo Station, head towards Ginza then Nihonbashi

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I like this photo, near Ginza, Tokyo

Most of the roads were closed to traffic in Ginza, the shopping centre of Tokyo, making it enjoyable and easy to get around.  I’ve mentioned it before, the roads in Tokyo are the cleanest I’ve ever seen.  Considering it’s one of the biggest and most populated in the world, the place is spotless!  Wandering about, I noticed how calm the people seemed to be.  Groups of people were talking to each other, however quietly, not whispering just very in obtrusively.  Almost no one makes eye contact either; again, not in a dismissive or unfriendly manner, no, more a reserved and respectful demeanour.

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Clean streets of Tokyo (near Tokyo Station)

Ginza

Closed off streets in Ginza, Tokyo

Nobody smokes in the open, roads or pavements; there are designated smoking areas – normally slightly out of sight and away from the crowds…even these areas are clean.  In almost all parts of the world shopping areas are diluted from the country’s identity.  Here it is similar, with the signage very different, the people are dressed modern with an unmistakable Japanese twist and identity.  I like it. I can’t really elaborate much of the day, it was short, my mind preoccupied too.  Another thing that stood out to me was the number of very high-end shops I saw.  In a small area 5 Tiffany’s & Co stores, three Prada stores with many other examples – just odd I thought.

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Ginza, Tokyo – Nice building

I came across an outdoor restaurant, come courtyard, come outdoor tea/coffee area I have no clue what it is normally used for.  A band of sort was playing, very oddly dress for the music they were performing, more so for the majority of the audience who were listening/watching.  Adding to the unusual ensemble was them singing 80’s pop (Jackson 5), in English.

I carried on wandering around into Nihonbashi.  An area that used to be the main fish market for Tokyo for over three centuries.  Now, only a small monument next to the Nihonbashi river a reminder of the importance of the area and its historical importance.  I couldn’t help noticing just how obedient people are to road/traffic laws, especially when crossing the road.  Even if there were no cars, not even visible in the distance, if the pedestrian crossing was red, nobody crosses.  I’d notice many nuances throughout my time in Japan, I’ll come to them in a latter blog.

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Nihonbashi river, used to be one of the busiest river networks in Tokyo for 3 centuries – Tokyo

Nihonbashi

Nihonbashi bridge with motorway above. Stylish lamppost flanked by two Kirin at the base – Tokyo

Nihonbashi

Monumnet to the Nihonbashi Riverside Fish Market. The market was relocated in 1923 after the Great Kanto Earthquake – Tokyo

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one of the narrowest buildings I’ve even seen, just as you cross the Nihonbashi bridge – Tokyo

Akihabara

The day was uneventful from a sightseeing perspective.  I was already back at the hotel, knowing that I had a LOT to see and do the next day.  My head still a little preoccupied with the unresolved circa. £7300!  I could stay at the hotel and get more frustrated, with no positive impact or change in circumstances, or do something to distract my thoughts – after many calls and emails throughout the day there was nothing else I could do, I was now waiting for Hotels.com to get back to me.  Akihabara is around 1.5km away from the hotel, why not go, so I did.

The name Akihabara originates from the word Akiba, a deity who controlled fire.  Whose shrine was in the area, however destroyed ironically (or not) by fire in 1869.  Akihabara, colloquially is known as Akihabara Electric Town.  When you get there, especially in the evenings, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why it is referred to as Electric Town!

Akihabara

Akihabara at night – Tokyo

With neon lighting up advertising boards covering nearly every inch of every building, this part of Tokyo hardly needs street lights!  Aligned to the “difference” of the people of Tokyo/Japan, Akihabara, is a combination of adult and childlike Las Vegas….centred around otaku.  Otaku for short, is an obsession predominantly with anime and manga – it does include video games, computers etc too.  Japanese’ used to use the word otaku as a negative reference, these days not so much so.  With the word spreading internationally, it is now used as a descriptive of a fan (more fanatic) of anime and manga.  Though the word is less derogatory now, in Japan is it still used as a reference to “nerd/geek” and a person so indulged in the anime & manga world that they have lost sight or reality.

Akihabara

Akihabara at night – Tokyo

Akihabara

Akihabara at night – Tokyo

Walking around Akihabara, I was only there for about 30 minutes, the area really is “different”.  Japanese cartoons are a world apart from Disney, ranging from kawaii (I’l explain shortly) to 21st samurai esc.  Akihabara is what some would describe as a town of arcades.  Anime & manga are big business in Japan, with avid cult followers of these characters and genres.  The area is also known for its maid cafés. Kawaii is a reference to cute/lovable, a culture in Japan of “cuteness” with a touch of vulnerable, childlike and shy.

Akihabara

Akihabara at night – Tokyo

Girls, dressed to look younger than they are (like young school girls), fronting these cafés handing out pamphlets and enticing people inside…mostly men, older men.  I didn’t go into any of them.  I was going to take a photo of some of the maid girls, but couldn’t; it just felt wrong, sleezy.  I appreciate cultures are different, but this didn’t sit well with me.  I’ve read that the government is cracking down on these maid cafes, god, I’m glad.  I cannot see how this couldn’t result in sexual exploitation.  What makes these cafes so odd (cringeworthy), is that is seems so at odds with how the Japanese people present themselves; reserved, law-abiding and have a very strong ethic of honour.

Akihabara

Akihabara at night – Tokyo

I’m not saying the whole of Akihabara is filled with maid cafes, there are a few, they area a small part of Akihabara.  If you like anime, manga, arcades etc. this is the area to be.  I liked it just because it is so different.  Akihabara isn’t just an adult playground (taking away some of the questionable cafes and animations), though heavily weighed to attract men.  There is something for all ages and sexes to enjoy, if not only just to go see the Electric Town that is Akihabara.

Akihabara

Akihabara at night – Tokyo

Wow, having read this and my pervious post of Tokyo it seems so negative, when in fact it really wasn’t.  Like I said, my time in Japan got better each day, I can confidently say it was one of my most enjoyable countries to visit….sounds contradictory when reading my post 😊.  The next day, I like to think of as my first real and full day of Tokyo.   The more you travel the more likely “things” will happen, somethings good, sometimes bad….the good far out weigh the bad.

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Tokyo, Cherry Blossom, Edo Castle – got off to a slow start – Part 1

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My journey to Tokyo

My time in Tokyo was limited, because I only had 10.5 days in Japan; self-imposed as a result of how I booked my round the world ticket with Star Alliance – later on my travels regrettably, finding out just how easily it can be changed (I’ll get into that during my time in New Zealand). As per my usual modus operandi, I hadn’t put much thought into what I wanted to do and see in Japan, except hopefully to be in time to see the cherry blossoms.  As with a few of my destinations, Japan and Tokyo started off rather slowly, then there were a few interesting challenges, however afterwards it went from strength to strength…Japan turned out to be fantastic!

Booking my accommodation in haste whilst on Gili Air, the night before flying out to Japan; my rationale was to get a place close to Tokyo centre for two nights, in the hope that this would be enough time to suss out the location, if good stay, if not then move.  One thing I didn’t fully appreciate was just how expensive Tokyo and Japan accommodation is, wow!  It seemed even more so because of what I had been paying the previous few months in Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia.  Yes, it is expensive, but compared to places like London, New York etc. it is about the same, but with very few lower end types of accommodation.  It seems that for a reasonable place prices start at around £70 per night – there are cheaper, but honestly, they seemed very low-end and not places I would like to stay.  Another option is to stay in a “pod”, these are a-plenty!  I know you can get them in other cities, but here, oh my, there are loads of pod-hotels and seem more the norm that normal hotels.  Reminiscing about my time in Japan I really should have tried a pod-hotel, even if it was just for one night – some of them are very fancy, and expensive too, more so than some of the places I stayed in.  Reason for not doing so was quite simple, my criteria for choosing accommodation is a simple formula, 1. Private bathroom, 2. Wifi, 3. Location (preferably a central location so it saves me time and cost on transport when site seeing.  I still mildly regret not at least trying a pod hotel for one night.

My first hotel was APA Hotel and Resort Tokyo Bay Makukari.  Arriving at Tokyo Narita (4th April) airport just after 8:00 am, immigration was stereotypical of what I thought it would be like in Japan, swift and efficient, from there a bus to the hotel within 45 minutes after landing.  Airport information was great too, I had no idea how to get to the hotel and would have taken a taxi (airport taxi’s throughout the world in my opinion are a bloody rip-off); with the help of airport information I was on the bus which would stop about 1km from the hotel, at a fraction of the cost of a taxi – I must have got to the hotel just before 10:30, bloody tired!

Not to labour on about it (but I will 😊), I was tired.  I caught the first public ferry (only 25 minutes at most) from Gili Air to Lombok Bangsal at 7:15, leaving my hotel at 6:30. From the ferry I had a 2.5 hour taxi ride to Lombok Mataram airport to catch my flight at 12:15 arriving at Kuala Lumpur at 15:20.  My next flight would be to Bangkok but only at 20:55 so, I had lots of time to kill (at an airport that’s extremely boring), I would arrive at Bangkok at 22:05.  From there catch my flight to Tokyo at 23:50 landing at Narita airport at 8:10am.  It felt like I was constantly busy though not very productive, and I didn’t sleep on any of the flights!  All this rambling just to say I hadn’t slept properly for over 24 hours, so arriving in Tokyo I was out on my feet.  In addition to that, arriving at a hotel so early it is seldom they let you check – there was no way I could muster up enough energy to leave my bags and go see any sites!  Thanks to the hotel I was in my room by 11:30. I got to my tiny room (more about that later), put my head down and crashed!  That about sums up my first day in Tokyo!

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Ueno Park, this is a fraction of what the parks and Tokyo would look like durig peak cherry blossom season

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There were still a few trees blossoming in the city – Tokyo

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Tokyo’s oldest temple Kiyomizu Kannon-dō inside Ueno Park

I was out of kilter with time having slept for an entire day, things weren’t helped by the fact I had turned-off my phone’s auto time adjust, meaning I was two hours behind – I did think it was odd going for dinner at 8:30 finding almost everything deserted (it was actually 10:30); I only realised the time difference the next morning when I missed breakfast, getting there at “9:00” when in fact it was 11:00. Having missed my first day sleeping I had now shortened my second day by mistake/error, grrrrrr.  With what felt like lead strapped around my ankles I headed into the city.

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Interesting first dinner in Tokyo, don’t ask me what it’s called….I call it delicious

Now, I totally miscalculated the location of my hotel in relation to the city/tourist centre, an hour on a semi-fast train to get remotely into the city centre.  The area of the hotel was an odd one, lots of formal style commercial buildings everywhere, no sky scrapers, at most 6 storied buildings, but all very big (width and breadth), the hotel was the highest building, in itself a huge hotel.  What struck me was how quiet the area was, even though it seemed surrounded by companies, a university and tucked away small wholesale shops/malls.  The roads were near dead quiet, there was almost no people; it almost felt as it the place was deserted but it couldn’t be.  Deserted of people yet still full of buildings and everywhere was very well maintained, signage on buildings (of well known companies) – the whole of Japan seems to be.  The only thing I can compare it to, is Canary Wharf (London) on the weekends; the difference here was it was even quieter, no high-rises and isn’t the finance/banking centre of Tokyo…..hmmmm….still puzzles me today.  Most things are not new, but they could be as everything from buildings, streets, pavements etc. is extremely well maintained and clean, therefore everything seems to be in good condition.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen such clean pavements, there are signs on the walkways for bicycles, pedestrians and no smoking signs too.  I’ve thought back on the area of the hotel many times since and can’t put my finger on “what” the area is, absolutely safe, as it felt everywhere I went to in Japan.  It’s not an industrial area, it was more like a massive commercial area….except I saw hardly anyone…very strange.

Cherry Blossoms & Ueno Park

I headed to Ueno Park, famous for cherry blossoms.  I’ll keep you out of suspense, I missed peak cherry blossom season by about 1 week to 10 days, such a shame.  Even so, there were still plenty of blossoms to give me a faint idea of what the place must look like during peak season.  It must me other worldly, fantasmal (I know that’s not a real word, but you get the idea), that’s no exaggeration!  Swathes of the city and parks taken over by delicate flowers ranging from white, faint translucent pink, right through to deep blood pink and all the variations in between.  Tree trunks looking like barren stems void of foliage leading up to an impenetrable blanket of dainty flowers.  This parasol of colour, a ceiling of flowers casting shade for everyone wandering below all who are looking skyward to take in this floral spectacle.  I’ve never seen a city with such colour; these elegant and delicate flowers juxtaposed within a concrete jungle.  One of the most densely populated cities in the world, yet you feel as if you are walking through the pages of a Disney story.  It doesn’t take much imagination to think what this place must be like in full blossom, I would love to see it with my own eyes though.

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Ueno Park, what was full of blossoms now filled with fresh light green foliage

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Taken from the porch of Kiyomizu Kannon-dō Temple – Ueno Park

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Ueno Park, something about parks that calms the soul, the floor a blanked of dead blossoms

Yes, I was disappointed to have missed the peak season, but my main downer was my state of mind; a combination of being tired, oversleeping, my hotel location gave me the feeling of being in the middle of nowhere, the weather wasn’t bad i.e. cold, yet a low hanging blanked of grey reminded me of winters in London.  All in all, I just felt a little down.  When this feeling comes about I find the best way to change the paradigm is to change what I have control over and accept what I can’t change.  I wondered around Ueno Park station for a bit for the sake of “site seeing” then thought to hell with this, I’m in one of the greatest cities in the world, there should be no reason to feel like this.  First things first, head back to my hotel (it was late afternoon and it cost me less to when using wifi), eat, do a little searching and find a new hotel is a better location…….and have a normal night’s sleep.

Ueno Park

A small fraction from the latter end of the cherry blossom season – Ueno Park

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Don’t know why but I just like this photo, taken from Ueno Park – Tokyo

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Part of the market area by Ueno Park Station – Tokyo

Moving to a better location in Tokyo

Coincidentally, my next hotel was the same chain of hotels, APA Hotel Kodemmacho Ekimae, still an odd location (I’ll explain a little later), but much better; at least I felt like I was surrounded by people and occupied buildings; an area mixed with residential and office buildings (maybe akin to Dalston in London, however more developed and a millions times more orderly and clean).  Another good thing about the new location was the transport, easy access to three Tokyo metro stations (I’ll get into the metro later too).  I can’t say my head was totally in a right state, without doubt I was feeling more positive – I had booked for 1 night; at this stage I wasn’t liking Tokyo (not liking cities seemed to be becoming a trend)  Both APA hotels had tiny rooms, the smallest hotel rooms I have ever stayed in, even so they are designed exceptionally well, like a compact Japanese car.  The rooms have everything you would expect and more, considering the size – Massive TV, ¾ bed, bath & shower in one (1/2 the size of a normal bath), nice toiletries (better quality and lots of it compared to a normal mid-range hotel), an all singing and dancing toilet (built-in bidet – with temperature setting for the water and toilet seat, various spray setting etc. etc.), bathrobe with slippers, a separate gown/pyjamas with slippers (I saw a few people walking around the hotel wearing the latter), a torch on the side of the bed (I guess this is for is/when the electricity goes off caused by earthquakes or storms – I guess), desk, heated bathroom mirror so it doesn’t steam up etc. etc. basically the rooms are bloody small yet packed with everything you could want or need – I’ve stayed in a lot more expensive hotels that have far less!  Aggravatingly I don’t have the pictures, again, I’m sure I took pictures of the room but I cannot find them….I must have deleted them by mistake ARGH!!!!!

Early check-in at the hotel went smoothly again and I was heading out back into the city centre to see Edo Castle.  Tokyo Metro map is one of the more complicated metro maps I’ve seen, likely the most complicated, made more so by the writing!  It looks like such a mess, with so many stations is can get confusing, thankfully all the metro employees I spoke to were fantastic, with a good standard of English making it even easier.  Like all metros/underground systems you only need to use it once of twice to get the hang-of-it – all the major stations I went to also have signs in Japanese and English.

Edo Castle / Chiyoda Castle

I wondered around town for a bit before heading to the castle, now this was more like Tokyo compared to the day before!  I was feeling better already.  Tokyo Station is up the road from Edo Castle, a wide paved walkway runs perpendicular between the too.  Just like everywhere else the place is spotless, as if the pavements were installed recently, parks are pristine and manicured, very impressive – later during my time in Japan I’d see parks and public spaces making the gardens in and around Edo Castle look less than average!

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Tokyo Station, Spotless clean walkway between the station and Edo Castle behind

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Some of the park area near Edo Castle and the Imperial Palace – Tokyo

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I like the juxtaposition between the city and nature – Tokyo

The first major structure was built by the warrior Edo Shigetsugu some time in the early 14th century.  The Edo clan ended in the 15th Century due to the uprising in the Kantō region, after which Ōta Dōkan who worked for the Uesugi clan built the castle in 1457.  Edo Castle, is also referred to as Chiyoda Castle, as it is now in the Chiyoda suburb of Tokyo, the former area used to be known as Edo.  Ōta Dōkan himself is also known as Ōta Sukenaga; taking the former surname after becoming a Buddhist priest, he was a samurai warrior, military strategist and poet amongst other things.

Edo Castle

Edo Castle dōshin-bansho (guardhouse) is where samurai guardsmen would have been stationed (there were a few guardhouses) as protection for the castle – Tokyo

Edo Castle

Some of the impressive stone walls leading from the guardhouse into the castle grounds – Edo Castle, Tokyo

As with many of these types of structures/areas within history its ownership changed hands a few times.  The Later Hōjō clan took over in 1524 after the Siege of Edo, then the castle was abandoned in 1590 because of the Siege of Odawara. After that Tokugawa Ieyasu made Edo Castle stronghold base after he was offered eight eastern provinces by Toyotomi Hideyoshi.  He later defeated Toyotomi Hideyori, son of Hideyoshi, at the Siege of Osaka in 1615, and emerged as the political leader of Japan. Tokugawa Ieyasu received the title of Sei-i Taishōgun in 1603, and Edo became the center of Tokugawa’s administration (a lot of this paragraph came straight from Wikipedia – it was easier for accuracy purposes).

Edo Castle

What remains of the foundation of the main castle tower – Edo Castle, Tokyo

Edo Castle

The gardens inside the castle grounds – Edo Castle, Tokyo

Edo Castle is surrounded by a moto and part of a much bigger complex including a few huge gardens and Tokyo Imperial Palace (the primary residence of the Emperor of Japan) – visits to the palace are allowed by specific prearranged guided tours….I didn’t go because of the waiting list.  Very little remains of the original Edo Castle and the vast complex of the grounds.  The area used to have waterways, many motes and canals with a circumference of nearly 16km.  Construction started in 1593 and completed in 1636 by Ieyasu’s grandson, Tokugawa Iemitsu; the Tokugawa shognute (clan) rules from 1600 till 1868 when the Meiji Restoration happened; restoration of imperial rule

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Some blossoms in the gardens of Edo Castle – Tokyo

Chiyoda Castle

Edo Castle gardens (yes, similar the one of the other pictures, but I also like this one 🙂 – Tokyo

The area was totally transformed, from pushing out the coastline in some parts to bringing the sea closer to enable boats to dock close by.  With ramparts as high as 20m, 12m high inner walls and 34 massive entrance gates, this was like a town created from almost nothing, however it was a castle/palace complex.  Considering the population of the near vicinity was only 150 000, a small population for such a massive undertaking.  To resolve this people who fell under the ruler either supplied money, resources &/or people to undertake the construction – at its height there were 300 000 construction workers. 

Edo Castle

Gardens of Edo Castle – Tokyo

Edo Castle

The Fujimi Yagura (A Turret of The Edo Castle), 1659 – Tokyo

An interesting story that happened in the castle, made famous to the Western world by Hollywood (embellished to the extent of making it fictional fantasy), is the true story of the forty-seven ronin.  At the beginning of the 18th century within the Great Pine Corridor of the Edo Castle, Asano Takumi-no-kami drew his short sword and attempted to kill Kira Kōzuke-no-suke for insulting him; it is said Kira wasn’t the nicest of people and had been spreading rumour and lies about Asano.  This action resulted in him being sentenced to commit  seppuku, furthermore his samurai warriors were banished.  These ronin plotted revenge for the honour their lord Asano, two year later their plot was put into action and succeeded.  These ronin’s actions were against the law, as with their lord Asano they were sentenced to commit seppuku.

Edo Castle

Edo Castle – Tokyo

Edo Castle

Edo Castle from the outside, massive walls and mote – Tokyo

If I’m honest to myself, and anyone that reads this, Edo Castle is ok, I can imagine the Imperial Palace must be a total different kettle of fish.  As most of the castle is not longer there, what remains is some of the layout, ramparts, foundations, some motes and walls – what remains is impressive though a tad underwhelming.  What remains of the stone construction is impressive, with huge stones at perfect angles and flattened sides.  Of the motes still functioning, they are some of the longest I’ve seen anywhere.  Their retaining walls could have been built yesterday, that’s how well they were made and have been preserved.  Considering their size and length, they are an impressive feat of engineering.  At it’s prime, this place would have been amazing, today, the gardens are more the main attraction, as beautiful as they are, like I said, I was a little underwhelmed.

After walking through Edo Castle grounds, I made my way to the main entrance of the Imperial Palace.  The Stone Bridge (Seimon Ishibashi) leads to the main entrance gate of the palace called Nishinomaru-mon with the Iron Bridge (Seimon Tetsubashi) in the background.  Both bridges used to be wooden arch bridges replaced during the Meiji period with what we see today. 

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Main gate to the Imperial Palace with the Stone Bridge (Seimon Ishibashi) in front – Tokyo

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The Iron Bridge (Seimon Tetsubashi), Edo Castle, Imperial Palace – Tokyo

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Kusunoki Masashige, a 14th-century samurai who fought for Emperor Go-Daigo in the Genkō War – Tokyo

Tokyo had got off to a slow start, that is obvious.  From my state of mind to what I had seen wasn’t spectacular, the up side was my mind was moving into the right space, so I was optimistic for the days to comes.  The next morning started off started with a bang….not a good one – I’ll get into that in my next blog post. 

 

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Near Ueno Park Station, a small prelude to what I’d see later on during my time in Tokyo

Lombok, Indonesia at its best, not enough time

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In retrospect I stayed on Gili Air too long, I wish I had spent more time on Lombok and Indonesia as a whole.  As with Bali, the capital of Lombok, Mataram, isn’t my cup of tea.  The best places on Lombok are those far from the large towns, that’s where you get the real island experience.  My short visit, self-inflicted because I had not explored how easy it would be to change my flights with Star Alliance…you live, you learn!

Lombok is smaller than Bali, not by much but getting around can be a bit of a challenge, though it is reasonably possible; as Lombok it’s as developed in large parts the road system is either good or dirt roads which get “altered” during heavy rain, which can be frequent.  You may have seen the photos from my post on Gili Air, Lombok is a stone’s throw so getting there is easy as pie.  I thought I’d find a place not to far from the ferry port to do some initial exploring and take it from them, bad move, or rather bad choice.  I stayed at Green Asri (in the Senggigi area), booked for 2 nights, left after 1.  Not to be too harsh about the place, the room was nice, clean etc. it was the location that didn’t fit with me; nowhere near any nice beaches that are not overlooked by hotels, there are no restaurants within easy reach unless you have a scooter.  Having just come from Gili Air, here I had an arterial road at the entrance of Asri Green, the only ok view was the gardens of the accommodation.  No, I had to find a better “Lombok” and find it fast!!

Ps. If you do head to Lombok from any of the Gili Islands you will arrive at Bangsal ferry port (though there is another about 5km South, mainly for chartered boats), get ready for some stern taxi negotiations!  The individual’s who’ll first approach you are like agents, they get a cut of the price (the initial prices are ridiculous), so it costs more; they are obviously willing to negotiate so you end up getting a price (compared to the original) that seems you got yourself a deal!  To avoid them just go straight to the taxi drives, still you’ll need to negotiate.  Never pay upfront, only pay upon arriving at your destination, always be firm about this.

Lombok

View from Bukit Merese – Lombok

Kuta Lombok

Ah, much better, not perfect, but worlds apart from Green Asri and surroundings!  Kuta Lombok is being developed along with the road infrastructure, I doubt it’ll be long until the current vibe is diluted, I hope not totally.  A promenade along the main beach was being build and a very large hotel complex about 2km away too.  I found it strange to be riding (hired a scooter as soon as I arrive) on perfectly tarred roads, with hardly any cars at all, just a few scooters mostly being ridden by tourists.  Let’s just say traffic laws are relaxed here, not having caught up with the standards of these new roads; going around traffic circles/roundabouts in the wrong direction or going down the wrong side of the road is ok…for now.

You know your surroundings have changed when most of the scooters have adaptors attached to carry surfboards, with Kuta Town offering a stereotypical surfer village vibe.  The main beach by Kuta Town, is not nice at all, I’d go so far as saying I didn’t see any visitors swimming there; it’s mostly used by the local fishermen to beach their boats.  The sea is dirtier and all in all it’s just not the nicest of beaches, but still to look at.  I don’t know anyone who goes to Kuta Town to swim, surf or do anything on “that” beach…because there are hundreds of amazing beaches along the coast – too many to see and experience if you went to a new one every day…for months!

I stayed at Family Beach Hotel, with a clear view of Kuta beach 50m away, an easy 10-minute walk to Kuta Town; a mixture of authentic bamboo and corrugated iron restaurants along with more “new authentic” restaurants and some more posh’ish restaurants too (not McDonald’s or anything of the sort…woohoo!).  I doubt you won’t find something to match your fancy and wallet.  Though I was there for two nights I was only in the area for one full day, owing to my late arrival on the first because of my delayed and hasty departure from Green Asri.

So my time in Indonesia, especially Lombok, was cut short, this a anxious feeling had been with me the 10 days as I knew my time was coming to an end; had I known how easy it would be to change my round the world ticket with Star Alliance I would have done so, a few times (I learnt that much later when I was in New Zealand).  The impending end seemed to derail me and how I would normally move about, like a rabbit caught in the headlights I froze; instead of keeping moving (which helps keep me motivated) I became stagnant which just added to the queasy feeling in my stomach.  On occasions when I did move it was done so with the wrong reasoning, I would have loved to have stayed at some places much longer, as was the case here in Kuta or at least some of the surrounding areas.  My anxious state of mind made me think I shouldn’t stay in one place for too many days either and move around as much as possible in the last week with my time in Indonesia coming to an end – there were pros and cons to this, but realistically I didn’t do Lombok justice at all.  If I had to do it again, I would have spent more time exploring Bali and Lombok with less time on Gili Air.  Resultant to my actions I had a few interesting moments but could have had a lot more fun and discovery without the monkey on my back.  Having read that back to myself I think I duplicated myself (I don’t proof read what I write too often, maybe I should…writing this with a glass of red wine sitting in a garden in Milan 😊)

Lombok

On Bukit Merese, it extends some distance so even if there are many people you can definitely find a quiet place – Lombok

Can’t change the past, at the time I thought I couldn’t change the present, with no use in crying over my lack of time, I decided to see as much as possible during my two days left on Lombok Island (a massive injustice to Lombok).  A scooter in my opinion is essential here, some of the beaches are a few kilometres way and they are worth going to see.  First on the list was Bukit Merese; a well-known tourist spot especially at sunset.  Easy to get to, mostly on quiet dusty roads, I was happy to have ridden off-road motorbikes before I left to go to the UK, the last kilometre was a bumpy ride (the next day I found out a much easier and smoother route that most people take 😊!).  With a landscape reminiscent of the English Countryside, Bukit Merese was a stark contrast to what I had become accustomed to in Indonesia.

Lombok

Sun busy setting from Bukit Merese – Lombok

Indonesia

The other half of Bukit Merese, I didn’t even get to explore the whole of it – Lombok

Bukit Merese, is a large outcrop of land resembling the shape of Italy, the toe and heel helping to create semi-enclosed crescent bays on either side.  My experiences of going off into the land in Indonesia was like hacking through a jungle, not a pleasant experience.  Bukit Merese on the other hand looks more like a flowing grass meadow, as inviting as walking through the Swiss countryside in Spring.  It gets quite busy near sunset with people scattered around to watch the show.  It’s a massive area with almost everywhere offering stunning views of the bays so it doesn’t feel crowded at all.

Lombok

There are a few small secluded beaches below Bukit Merese…will need to be explored next time, I hope there is a next time – Lombok

Lombok

View from Bukit Merese, to good not to have more than 1 photo (yes, I know, very similar to the previous one :)) – Lombok

Like a big hill with a flattish top there are many vertical drops down into the sea, Bukit Merese gives a great vantage point to get a lay of the land for kilometres on either side.  As with the few small accessible beaches right below, the coastline is strewn with alcove bays and beaches; some only 100m long, others maybe more than 1km, it would take ages to explore even half of them.  As I strolled around the hilltop taking in the view simultaneously waiting for the sunset show to begin, I felt calm and content, but for the first time in a long while I also felt a little lonely.  I cannot speak for everyone, travelling alone definitely has its advantage, but it can get a little lonely every now and then.  There are times too when it would be nice to share a moment or two with someone, this was one of those occasions…nothing much I could do about it.

Lombok

There are a few small secluded beaches below Bukit Merese…will need to be explored next time, I hope there is a next time – Lombok

Lombok

Sun setting, Bukit Merese – Lombok

With a welcomed gentle breeze blowing cooling my skin which was near cooking temperature from only an hour or two in the sun, I found a rock to sit on and watched as the sun dipped further down the horizon until it disappeared.  It’s no wonder why Bukit Merese is a tourist attraction, if I had more time I’d have loved to come back again not even for the sunset, the views are stunning in all directions, along with being a perfect getaway just watch and listen to the sea.  That was it for my first day, well first few hours in Kuta, not a bad place at all, my mind was feeling a little more at ease.

Lombok

The fire of red and orange of a sun setting, Bukit Merese – Lombok

Indonesia

Bukit Merese, sunset – Lombok

Lombok

ANother sunset from Bukit Merese – Lombok

Next day, scooter filled with petrol (since Koh Samui I always wear a helmet hahaha 😊) I was going to cruise around for the day, first up was Batu Payung; I saw a picture of it, when I did I thought that’s what I’d like to see.  That’s something I do quite often, see a picture and decide I want to see “that” for myself and work my plans around it or it becomes my only plan and then take things from there.  Instead of accessing Batu Payung from Tanjung Aan beach I rode to the other side, I don’t know the beach’s name (the beach between Batu Payung and Goa Kotak Lombok).  I don’t think too many people go via this route riding through the back of a small village/settlement or use this beach, void of anyone except some locals selling their wares and refreshments.  Compared to others nearby, it has a great beach however access into the sea isn’t; with lots of rocks just below the surface for over 600m (maybe closer to 1km) before the waves start at which point the sea is deep – I was there at low tide, though I don’t think it would be much different at high.

Lombok

Batu Payung on the left, Gili Anakanjan in front – Lombok

Lombok

Gili Anakanjan, imagine living there or even spending the day on it – Lombok

I wasn’t there for the sea or to swim, I wanted to see the view from Batu Payung; a solitary rocky obelisk/column sticking up like a bulging finger on the rock bed, worn away at the bottom by time and sea.  Over who knows how many years, what was between it and the mainland is now washed away leaving behind this top-heavy monolith stranded in no-man’s-land.  From the hilltop you get a great view of the blue turquoise waters gently flowing by the rocking motion of the sea between the mainland and the tiny island Gili Anakanjan just a hundred metres out to sea – now that would be an awesome place to stay, even just camping for the night.  It may seem silly to walk a few kilometres (I had to walk along the coast edge leaving my scooter on the beach) just to see one part of a beach with so many beautiful beaches surrounding me.  That’s not how I see it, as much as I say I would like to visit again, realistically it is most likely that I will not.  Part of my traveling adventure is to get rid of the “what if’s” and “I wonder what is around that corner”; where possible, if I see something that interests me, I go and see it.  Similarly, whilst walking, if I spot something out the corner of my eye, even a road that looks different or something inside stirs my curiosity I take the detour to go and see.  This means (not always) that when I leave a place I know I’ve satisfied the itch, I leave a place feeling content.

Lombok

Batu Payung, give you better perspective with people standing near by – Lombok

Lombok

The many crescents coast line that you can find throughout Lombok, and Indonesia for that matter – Lombok

Lombok

The bay behind Batu Payung, I think it’s called Pantai Muluq Indah Permai – Lombok

For the remainder of the day I didn’t do what seems like much, I visited Tanjung Aan with an ice cold beer and watch the sea as time passed me by.  With a big storm on its way in I really didn’t get to do much else except taking different route back to my accommodation getting caught in the initial part of the storm, no harm done.  For the remainder of the afternoon it poured down in buckets, leaving little else to do but plan for my departure the following morning and have dinner in Kuta Town – thankfully by early evening the rain had subsided to a mild drizzle.

Lombok

Another of Batu Payung and Gili Anakanjan. On the left would be Pantai Muluq Indah Permai (I think that’s its name), to the right would be Tanjung Aan beach – Lombok

Lombok

Tanjung Aan beach – Lombok

Ekas Breaks

The night before leaving Kuta, I had seen a picture of a place called Pink Beach, not being able to find reasonable accommodation (a mixture of expensive &/or taking me too long to get there), I found middle ground in Ekas Breaks.  Why I had not learnt form my experiences before, distance on a map should not be an indication of how long it takes to get there!  Well, the first bit of the journey was pleasant though slow, it was the last few kilometres that a tank would have been a more suitable vehicle than a taxi.

About the only accommodation except for homestays, Ekas Breaks is a great sanctuary. Local beach isn’t much, not great at all but there are plenty of beaches within the neighbourhood….though the “hood” is spread across a large area – distances are short, it’s the roads that add time to the journey. There is a new main road through the area and a few arteries too that are in very good condition, it’s when you inevitably leave these roads to get to any destination that’s when the fun begins.  From the main road to Ekas Breaks, a 4×4 or motorbike is the only sensible means of transport – though scooters can be hired, like I did, an off-road motorbike would be much more appropriate.  On the way to Pink Beach, I’ve been on motocross tracks that were less bumpy 😊!

NB. Recommendation, if it has rained the night before I’d suggest not taking a scooter, not even a taxi unless it was a 4×4…or tractor – no jokes!

Lombok

Ekas Breaks, my accommodation (there’s a pool to my left), great place to stay – Lombok

I was only in the area for two nights, leaving only one full day to explore, not nearly enough time to see the local area not to mention the surrounding areas too!  I hadn’t anticipated the state of the roads, it rained the first night I got there which made the next day’s riding interesting to say the least.  One consolation was that the follow day boiling hot, meaning there was some respite from the mud as it dried up in places, but far from all – in places where the mud had dried, it left deep hard ruts in the “road”; for the remainder of this post I’ll use the word road very loosely.

It was the latter part of the day by the time I got to Ekas Breaks, leaving little to no time to go anywhere except the beach to watch the sun set.  Like I’ve already mentioned it rained the first night so watching the sun set was more like watching dark clouds building up.  As for the beach, well I was disappointed and there was a little voice at the back of my mind saying, “I hope the rest of the area isn’t like this!?”.  It’s not a swimming or sunbathing beach, the closest beach to Ekas Breaks is a fishing beach; though the beach is long and wide it would be the perfect place to see the sun set.  Toing and froing in my writing, the area is well known for its surfing, just not at the beach where we went, no the biggest wave there was a foot high at most.  The surfers spot is about 5km, it must be quite good as everyone except 2 (inclusive) was there to surf – and they raved about it.

Lombok

Ekas Beach, I was there for the sunset but instead watched the storm coming in – Lombok

Lombok

If you’ve been to SE Asia you’ve probably heard the noise of a Tokay Geko, I love it. This one was on my ceiling porch at Ekas Breaks – Lombok

Next morning, I headed off, destination Pink Beach 22km away, what a doddle!  In order to reinforce my sentiments about the roads just to prove I’m not exaggerating, it took me nearly 3 hours to get there!  Now to be fair, part of that time was getting a little lost, but I wouldn’t attribute more than 30 minutes to that!  Yes, it took ages to get there, but honestly I enjoyed every minute; riding through the mud getting all dirty, mistaking the depth of the water before riding through, slipping and sliding nearly falling (going slowly), riding through the bush when the road got to bad or the mud &/or water to thick or deep…I felt like a child.  A little tip, wearing flip flops is the best, my shoes would have been soaked and full of mud had I warn them.

Pink Beach

Riding to Pink Beach was more interesting and enjoyable than visiting the beach, don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful beach; it took me much longer than anticipated to get there, leaving little time to enjoy the place, it was a fun ride though.  Not to repeat myself, but I will, this area and the whole of Lombok has so much more to offer than what I experienced, one of the reasons I regret not spending more time on the island (I can kick myself for spending too much time on Gili Air, grrrrr, stuck between a rock and a hard place because I really liked Gili Air.  Still in retrospect, I should have left earlier and give more time to Lombok) – my little anecdote about Lombok does it no justice at all.

Lombok

Pink Beach in the distance, view from one of the cliffs – Lombok

Lombok

Crystal clear water below, to shallow to jump, Pink Beach around the corner – Lombok

So, I got to the beach, hmmm a little disappointed in not seeing a “pink” beach.  The sand does have a faint pinkish tinge; if you go to the water’s edge even more so.  I had read prior to the time that the colour is best with the rising sun early in the morning, even so I was expecting a little more colour.  Even though it isn’t a bright “pink beach” it doesn’t detract from being a lovely area, quiet’ish beach too (40 people at most, with another 40 odd at the most on the cliff).  I had been meandering about for an hour or so, strolling along the beach and knee deep in the sea when I realised I didn’t have my phone with me, EISH!, I had left it by the scooter, in one of the pouches by your knees – I always put the phone there, it gives easy access when riding to check the map.  In today’s world, unfortunately loosing your phone is worse than having your wallet stolen!  I hurried back to my scooter, parked out in the open, even from a distance I could see the phone sticking out…yes, it was still there!  Maybe I was lucky, maybe not, I like to think the latter.  There were quite a few people within 20m away from my bike, I had walked far out of site, I can’t imagine it would still have been there if I was in many other countries, cities, towns or villages. I was bloody relieved.  Phone in pocket (😊)  I headed to the cliff overlooking Pink Beach.  By the way, it’s called Pink Beach because the white sand mixes with coral fragments, shells and calcium carbonate left behind by foraminifera; tiny marine creatures with red &/or pink shells – it’s the foraminifera that produces the red pigment.

Lombok

There are many little islands/rocky mounds across the bays near Pink Beach. Don’t think the beach on the left has a name – Lombok

I only made it to one of the cliffs, facing the sea the one on the right, the better of the two in my opinion for best views being more elevated.  Though I was loving the views, I couldn’t escape the thought at the back of my mind that I would need to be leaving soon.  Riding back in the dark really wasn’t an option, I enjoyed the ride there but riding back in the dark, on a scooter on those roads with no mobile signal really wouldn’t be a wise move.  If I had more time in Indonesia I wold have moved to this side of the Island for a few days, even skipping extending my stay to explore the area around Ekas Breaks.  The area around Pink Beach is remote, just as I like things, with not much else to do than enjoy the beach, sea and looking across the deep clear sea at the tiny islands within swimming distance.  Of these little islands, they are no more than large rocks protruding from the sea worn away from the mainland over the centuries, I guess.

Indonesia

Pink Beach – Lombok. Ps. My photos are not edited so these are more representative of what you see.  If I added more colour the pink does show up better

Lombok

Pink Beach – Lombok. Ps. My photos are not edited so these are more representative of what you see.  If I added more colour the pink does show up better

I don’t want to waffle along about the area, nor write for the sake of having to say something, I’ll let the pictures do the talking.  Needless to say I left to head back to Ekas Breaks regrettably, making a stop or two on the way back arriving just before nightfall.  I would be leaving early the following morning, heading back to Gili Air to meet up with Julie and Mila for 24 hours, which was great to see them again, that would be the end of my time in Indonesia.  From Gili Air I took a ferry back to Lombok to fly to Kuala Lumpur where I had a 6 hour transit.  From Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok (with a 2 hour stop over) then to my final destination, Tokyo (Kuala Lumpur to Tokyo via Bangkok was part of my Star Alliance round the world ticket).

Japan was my next destination, I was in for what turned out to be a different world, beautifully so.  Along with the wonders of Japan I had a few ups and downs near the start of my visit, I’ll get into them soon – right now (in Crete, Greece) I’m looking for a quiet place to catch up on a mountain of writing to even get close to catching up!

Goodbye Indonesia, what a beautiful country, filled with diversity and variation.  I hope I get to go back someday, soon.

Gili Air, for relaxation, sea and island lifestyle

Gallery

A few days on Gili Air to chill on the beach and swim in the sea before heading off to Lombok seemed like something the doctor would recommend, so I did, and stayed for a week!  A very short ferry ride from Amed Beach goes straight to the Gili Islands, of which there are three: Gili Trawangan, Gili Meno and Gili Air each with their own uniqueness, style and vibe.

Gili Islands lie off the North West coast of Lombok, and not too far from Bali either.  The islands are a stone throw away from each other and Lombok; standing on the beach of either you can see all the islands, Lombok and Bali.  It would be a challenge, but you could swim from Lombok to Gili Air.  Considering their locations (travelling from Lombok to the Islands – East to West) with Gili Air closest to Lombok, Gili Meno in the middle and then Gili Trawangan the furthest (yet not far away in reality), they have developed unusually.  Gili Trawangan is by far the most commercial, where you will find stereotypical holiday resorts and comforts you would expect from a developed holiday destination.  Gili Meno the smallest, is very underdeveloped, you are more likely to find bamboo hut accommodation with an artistic hippie vibe.  Gili Air is the in-between island; no hotels but with a variety of accommodation very similar to Amed Beach.  The few double story buildings are nearer the ferry port with shops below and accommodation above.  There are some bargains for basic accommodation and average prices for a place with a swimming pool.

Gili Air

Sunset taken from near the South of the Island, Mount Agung on Bali in the distance – Gili Air

Gili Air reminded me somewhat of Dahab; accommodation and their respective restaurants are separated by a road which runs around the island.  I use the term “road” loosely, nothing is tarred except right by the ferry port.  Anything resembling a road is more down to the hotel/accommodation paving the area between their accommodation and their restaurant, the rest is a sandy-dusty path.  Whilst there I got to know one of the owners (two Aussies and an Italian) of my accommodation Bel Air Resort & Spa.  He told me that the government had clamped down on building regulations and after many years have set a deadline for all restaurants on the beaches to be moved to within the accommodation area (hope that makes sense).  Many places have already complied, others were busy demolishing theirs to integrate their restaurants & bars on the other side of the road.  I think this is a good idea, no doubt most places if not all just annexed the beach opposite their properties, some more stylishly and safely than others.  The new law will certainly give the beach a cleaner look and simultaneously create more beach too.  Shew that seemed very long wounded to say something very simple.

Gili Air

My morning swimming location by Sandy Beach Bungalow Bar & Restaurant – Gili Air

Bel Air Resort & Spa, very cool little place, good internet too compared to what I had become accustomed to in Indonesia to date.  Great location close to the best snorkelling, ATM/Cash Point, restaurants and has a pool that is open till very late.  Not a very big “resort”, I guess 20 rooms, yet one of the more upper-class places I had stayed in for a very long time.  Very friendly hosts, good food, exceptionally clean and spacious, I took it as a treat to myself, why not be a little spoilt for a week, I even had a massage 😊

Gili Air

Not a bad place to have a sundowner, or two. Lombok on the left,Mount Agung in the distance – Gili Air

Gili Air is a quiet island, no cars or motorbikes.  Transport consists of walking, bicycles or horse-drawn carts – the motorbikes you will see are all electric.  Gili Trawangan is the biggest island at 2km/3km, Gili Air is the second biggest, it took me just over an hour to walk around the circumference at a slow pace.  Gili Air is where you come to relax, there isn’t much to do except tan, swim, snorkel and dive – I couldn’t do the latter with a mild ear infection but that really didn’t bother me.  Although Gili Air is unmistakably busier than Amed Beach, life here moves at a glacial pace, blissful.

Gili Air

Not a bad place to have dinner – Gili Air

Gili Air

Sunset near the ferry port – Gili Air

I got into a rhythm very easily, wake up, have some breakfast and strong coffee, then go snorkelling.  Get back do some chilling by the pool and mix it up with some writing, then go for an afternoon snorkelling session.  Back to the pool for chilling and writing, maybe more chilling and a swim in the pool.  Late afternoon swim in the sea or pool just to mix it up a bit then head off to the West beach for some sundowners.  That pretty much sums up my time on the island, every now and then I would go for a walk, I must have walked around and through the island a dozen times.  I could easily have stayed on Gili Air much longer, I felt totally comfortable and at home; not wearing a shirt is not something I often do, but here I hardly wore one.  Eventually, as in most places if I stay a while, I get anxious about not keeping momentum so that is really the only reason I stayed a week.

Gili Air

Just another place with a great setting to have dinner – Gili Air

Gili Air

The beautiful clear waters of Gili Air, Lombok in front

I’d say my only criticism is some of the tourists visiting from the mainland Bali/Lombok and Gili Trawangan who come over to snorkel can become irritating for a few reasons.  They tend to visit just the one area near Sunrise Resort (fantastic marine life) so you can avoid them or go in the morning or late afternoon.  My irritation is twofold, firstly they arrive in large numbers splashing about and making such a noise that they chase a lot of the fish away.  Secondly, I kid you not, many can’t swim properly or swim at all; they must wear life vests/jackets or else they sink, it’s bloody ludicrous!  Oh, I’m not referring to kids that can’t swim.  The ensuing mess results in groups of people splashing about bumping into everyone and everything, yes, and chasing all the fish away.  I really think there needs to be a more thought out solution between driving tourism, safety and protecting the marine life.  I don’t mean to sound like a like a grumpy old man.

Gili Air

Ah, couldn’t resist another picture, why wouldn’t you want to have a morning swim here!? Gili Air

graffiti

Some interesting graffiti on Gili Air

For the best snorkelling, the East coast is by far the best.  Anywhere from Sunrise Resort right to the tip of the North East, by Gili Air Resort.  For Turtles I found the North East the best around Sandy Beach Bungalow Bar & Restaurant.  I don’t want to understate how badly the coral is damaged, but there is still beauty to be seen in these waters. From various eels, lion fish, loads of different puffer fish and so many others that fill areas with all the colours of the rainbow and near any shape or size you can think of.  I was lucky enough to swim with turtles four times, on two occasions spending almost half an hour with them, at a distance, watching them eat the algae then majestically gliding off to find more algae – they are so graceful in the water.

Gili Air

West site of Gili Air with Gili Meno, Gili Trawangan only a swim away (long swim), and Bali and Mount Agung in the distance – Gili Air

Gili Air

Sorry I have a few pictures of the sun setting. On the West side of Gili Air. Lombok on the left, Bali in the distance – Gili Air

On the marine life, there is plenty, don’t get me started on not having a GoPro, I have one now, too late for Indonesia ☹.  No underwater pictures aside, the variety of aquatic life is beautiful, not as much as the Red Sea nor parts of Thailand but still stunning in every respect.  Going North on the East side of Gili Air is quieter, not as much fish but a greater chance of spotting turtles, which I did a few times – that is a privilege.  There are coral reefs, truthfully, they have taken a battering especially from the East of the Island heading North, where you’ll find more dead coral than live.  Some areas covering many football pitches lie dead, strewn across the seabed like burnt-out coal all white and grey.  It’s a sorry sight to see.

Gili Air

Longer exposure, sun set on the West side of Gili Air. The other GIli Islands and Mount Agung – Gili Air

Gili Air

Long exposure, sun set on the West side of GIli Air – much better silhouette of Mount Agung on Bali – Gili Air

With crystal clear water the barren coral is more evident. I immensely enjoyed the sea around Gili Air, there is still a plethora of sea life, but you cannot escape realising just how much of the marine life is now dead.  To put it into perspective, for every tennis court size area filled with life (still with patches of dead coral) there must be two football pitch areas that are dead.  I heard further into the sea between the islands it isn’t as bad, my concern is how long till they are not affected too.  I struggle to explain the devastation, it is made worse by what dead coral looks like; stone like plants, the colour that can only happen when all life has been sucked out of it.  It breaks easily scattering the sea floor like dead leaves during the height of Autumn, except they will no regenerate on the trees when Summer arrives.  Maybe the best description is the site after a forest fire, again, the difference is the coral once gone does not come back, as is with the rest of the marine life.

Gili Air

Just another beach on Gili Air (East side), Lombok ahead, with crystal clear waters – Gili Air

Gili Air

The main road the runs round the circumference of Gili Air (taken on the East side) – there’s always hectic traffic as you can see

Contrary to what it may seem, I don’t have much to say about my time on Gili Air. I doubt you’d like to hear about me lying in the sun, walking around the island dipping into the sea when I got hot, that’s about all I did.  As for sunsets, most nights I’d go to the West coast (20 minutes’ walk), buy a mojito…or two, and watch the sun set, they are magnificent.  With the sun turning the sky a fiery array of red, orange and yellow, mount Agung in the distance and the sea brushing against the white coarse sand…that’s not a bad way and place to end an arduous day.

Gili Air

On one of my many strolls around the Island – Gili Air

Gili Air

Too cloudy to see Bali, still not a bad view – Gili Air

I’m conscious of waffling on with very little to say.  I’d go back to Gili Air tomorrow if I had the opportunity, I hope so.  Next stop would be Lombok, similar start to Bali, with a great ending.

Gili Air

Long exposure sun set – Gili Air

Bali, Amed Beach, Mount Lempuyang, Water Palace

Gallery

A little preface to my time in Bali, Amed Beach and my visits to Pura Penataran Agung Lempuyang and the Water Palace (Tirta Gangga)…my arrival at Ngurah Rai Intenational Airport in Bali.  Nothing bad, just one of those experiences that was bound to happen at some or other time.  I thought Malaysia had a reputation for being strict at the border, seems Indonesia is even more so; especially if you read about people being caught with drugs, no I didn’t bring any 😊.  Though the people I met in Indonesia and at the airport were all friendly, I’ve never been so thoroughly searched, ever!  Everything was taken out of my bag, and I mean everything; my vitamins were taken for testing, my toothpaste was open, the soles of my shoes were removed, every single piece of clothing was checked every container was opened.  The whole process took over an hour…made me start to think just how genuine the vitamins I bought in Kuala Lumpur!

Airport check aside, the gentleman was very friendly and all in all I think I’m a very lucky traveller.  My delay at the airport got me to my hotel (Puri Dibia Hotel & Restaurant) after dark, I only planned to be there for 3 nights.  My accommodation was ok at best, it served its purpose and is only a short walk to the main Kuta beach.  Surprisingly, I don’t have much to say about Pantai Kuta and the surrounding area.  Why?  Well, honestly, I was disappointed, the place is as Western as you could possibly imagine with malls and hotels along the main beach.  The beach, dirty and without exaggeration one of the worst beaches I had been to in years.  It was so bad I didn’t even go for a swim.  I tried my best to find nice places, but I may as well have been in London.  After 1 day of aimlessly walking about I knew I had to leave, even giving the second day a wholehearted effort…no joy!  What do you do if you don’t like a place…go somewhere else, and that’s exactly what I did, Amed Beach here I come!

Amed Beach

I was a little concerned going to Amed Beach, I had heard great things about Bali, if Amed Beach was anything like the Kuta beach, then my plans for Indonesia would need to be drastically rethought!  No need for concern, Amed Beach was a saving grace!  Located on the West side of Bali, Amed beach is 100km from Kuta beach, so not far away.  Yet, with the narrow roads in addition to the locals preparing for a religious holiday it took just over 3 hours to get to my accommodation right on Amed Beach, Hotel Uyah Amed & Spa Resort.  I have no pictures of the resort nor the ride to Amed Beach, I took pictures, but have no idea where or what I’ve done with them, I must have deleted them by accident!  GRRRRR!  With a rather grandiose name it isn’t what I would classify a “spa”; they do offer massages, so many accommodations do.  It’s a nice place, a higher standard compared your usual run of the mill compared to others within the area.  It has two swimming pools and a restaurant, with single story accommodation (there are no big hotels here, a double story sticks out) and right on the beach.  You can take a look at their website if you want a better idea.  I suppose what really counts is they are very friendly, the place was one of the cleanest I had been to for “beach accommodation”…I definitely go there again.

Amed Beach

The black sand beach lined up with local fishing boats – Bali

Enough about the accommodation, why I went off on a tangent I don’t know.  Amed Beach is remote, in the past three years they got their first ATM/Cash Point, they now have two; they don’t work all the time but normally at least one is working, there are no banks and there is one convenient store.  The rest of the town is little hostels, hotels, homestays, restaurants and diving schools – it’s a very cool little town.  Now for the caveat, I didn’t have the best of weather.  There were a few thunderstorms, which I love, the negative par it is that they made the water very murky with visibility at 2m so snorkelling was useless.  Not being able to snorkel was a downer considering there are amazing (apparently) coral reefs and marine life – I was told the coral is much better than Thailand!  Another GRRRRR!!!!  Oh well, a great reason to go back!

Bali

Amed Beach with the ever present, at the time rumbling Mount Agung

One of the trademarks of this side of Bali is the black sand beach.  Over thousands of years the volcanic rock has been worn away by the sea, leaving behind a black coarse sand.  The black sand makes the beach look dirty, it isn’t, the contrast between the sea shells, sea weed/plants against a black backdrop makes things stand out – one of the cleanest beaches I have see in some time.  Standing on the beach and turning to your left, the pimple like mountain of Agung lurks in the distance, an active volcano.  It is possible to climb the volcano, my luck, it had been rumbling recently so was closed for hiking.  I enquired about climbing up unguided and was told the police would chase me and arrest me…..neah, a night in jail wasn’t that appealing to me.

Amed Beach

The black sands of Amed Beach

Along with my photos from the drive between Kuta and Amed Beach I seem to have “misplaced” some other pictures of Amed Beach Town, if you can call it a town.  I’ve looked everywhere and don’t know what the hell I’ve done with them!!!  The only pictures I have is a few of the beach right by my accommodation and part of a religious ceremony.  It looked like everyone from the town brought food to the local shrine on the side of the main road through the town – a single lane road.  Everyone was dress-up in their regalia with the sermon (guess that’s what you call it) being conducted on the closed off road.  After the ceremony it looked like everyone took back the food and headed back home, leaving the shrine adorned with flowers and a little foot spread out at the base.  Such a pity I can’t find the bloody photos!

Pura Penataran Agung Lempuyang

I took a day trip to Puta Penataran Agung Lempuyang and the Water Palace (Tirta Gangga) (about an hours drive from Amed Beach), part of a temple complex on Mount Lempuyang; the mountain behind my accommodation, with the temple complex on the other side of the mountain.  I hadn’t known how significant the temple complex was only till months later (writing this whilst in Munich), especially the temple right at the top, Pura Lempuyang Luhur, I’ll get into that shortly.  Pura Penataran Agung Lempuyang is the more well-known temple, partly because of the of white gate wall/pillars, the gate frames Mount Agung in the distance, the temple has beautiful dragon stairs, but I think a big factor for it being more famous is because most people don’t climb all the way up the many, many, many stairs to reach Pura Lempuyang Luhur (the temple at the top).

Bali

Pura Penataran Agung Lempuyang, the stairs to the entrance – Bali

I’ve not been able to find out how old the temple complex is, the only thing I can find (I don’t know how accurate it is either), is that the mountain was used for religious purposes before the Hinduism arrived on the island.  The temples on Mount Lempuyang form part of a greater temple complex around Bali island, these eight temples mark out the cardinal directions.  This complex is dedicated to Ida Betara Hyang Iswara, the guardian of the east and forms part of six temples known as Sad Kahyangan Jagad or “six sanctuaries of the world” these are the six holiest places of worship on Bali.  The mountain is divided into three, this is in correlation to Balinese cosmology.  With the base known as Sang Anata Bhogo; this corresponds to the mount of Brahma.  The middle is known as Sang Naga Basukih; this corresponds to mount Vishnu.  Finally, the top is known as Sang Naga Taksaka; this corresponds to mount of Shiva.

Bali

The candi bentar (split gate), the entrance to Pura Penataran Agung Lempuyang with Mount Agung in the distance – Bali

Bali

The tri-dragon staircases at Pura Penataran Agung Lempuyang – Bali

White stairs lead up to a patina white split gateway called a candi bentar from which you enter a large courtyard, already the next set of stair in side; a set of three stairs running parallel with dragons as balustrades.  The candi bentar, two wide walls of symmetry with terraced sides narrowing as they go up, their decoration part of their structure; wing like decorations that flare out and upwards almost like questions-marks.  If you turn around this gate perfectly frames Mount Agung in the distance; the largest, and active, volcano on the Bali.  I must admit, I would have liked a better picture, the weather wasn’t, a haziness blanket covering most of the Mount Agung – still a lovely view.

Three sets of stairs fronted by dragon heads as posts lead to the next level of Pura Penataran Agung Lempuyang.  The dragon heads oversized compared to the bodies and make a commanding almost intimidating gateway to the next level with their tails as balustrades in a wave motion leading you up to the next level of the temple.  Between the stairs are terraced gardens with statues now worn by time, you cannot avoid thinking you are heading to something, or somewhere important.

Bali

The dragon stair post of Pura Penataran Agung Lempuyang – Bali

Bali

The dragon tail balustrade Pura Penataran Agung Lempuyang – Bali

Bali

Part of the dragon staircases at Pura Penataran Agung Lempuyang – Bali

I was somewhat surprised and underwhelmed at the next level, the sanctuary of the temple.  To be fronted by such a grand gateway, then even more grandiose tri-staircase.  Puta Penataran Agung Lempuyang’s sanctuary has a few pagoda-like structures, nothing fancy though reasonably intricately decorated.  I was expecting a more lavish core of the temple; instead I found something quite understated, if you look for the detailed carvings and brickwork it is there, but still it is subtle.  This, the most important part of the temple gives access to everyone, here people connect to whom they pray to.  It is a quiet environment, not pompous or stuffy like some institutions yet people naturally speak quietly, it is something that automatically happens even though the wind blowing around makes more noise than people speaking.

Within this area, knows as the “jero”, which is the most sacred part of the temple.  The pagodas, called meru towers and pelinggih shrines are dedicated to different gods or local deities, very similar to many religions dating back thousands of years (reminded me of the temple of Kom Ombo in Egypt).  There are also many padmasana shrines, these are look like thrones, they are dedicated to the highest god of the Hindu pantheon e.g. the Sang Hyang Widhi and the gods of the Trimurti – very confusing, I hope I got my explanation correct!?!?!

Bali

The inner sanctuary of Pura Penataran Agung Lempuyang – Bali

Putting things into perspective, the first temple is 600m from the base of the mountain, the next temple what I was told is knowns as the white temple is just a little further up, the mountain is 1 175m.  They were working on the temple when I got there, looks like substantial work, with large parts looking more like a construction site than a temple.  I’ve become accustomed to stairs, here up the mountain path was no different. Here, the stairs look like a tunnel with the foliage creating a roof, so you cannot see much else except the stairs leading up the mountain into the jungle.  Yes, it was hot and humid, the vegetation preventing any cooling wind getting through, so the walk up is quiet, the only sounds are birds and the occasional monkeys jumping from branch to branch.  From the darkened tunnel of jungle, you turn a corner and nearly blinded as the sun reflects of the white stone temple.

Very much smaller than the first temple, it is quite a site with almost the entire temple of white stone in a clearing in the middle of nowhere.  By small, I mean the entire complex is about the size of a tennis court.  As with the first temple, here white dragons form part of the entrance and the spires adorned with flared wings.  I was the only visitor there; the rest were builders and a two monks (I don’t know if that is what they are called).  I hadn’t planned on staying there long, there isn’t much to see except something caught my ear, a noise coming from a plastic water bottle at the base of a shrine.

Mount Lempuyang

The White Temple, the middle temple on Mount Lempuyang – Bali

Mount Lempuyang

The inner sanctuary of the White Temple on Mount Lempuyang

At first, I thought my eyes were deceiving me, no, there was a little bird inside the bottle!?!  Too big to have go inside by mistake.  It was flapping its wings and chirping distressingly then it would be quiet for a bit, then repeating its anxious behaviour.  I looked at the monk and pointed at the bird, he smiled back in an agreeable manner, almost proud.  I went to take the bottle and was promptly and sternly gesticulated at to leave it alone.  My look of disbelief couldn’t have been misunderstood, the monk/guard moved closer to the shrine and stood between me an it, I shook my head and walked off.

Mount Lempuyang

Bad picture I know, the plastic bottle with the bird inside – White Temple on Mount Lempuyang – Bali

I continued up the stairs in robot fashion, my mind consumed by the bird in the bottle.  What a disparity between the Balinese people who were all friendly and seemed peaceful and thinking trapping a bird inside a bottle is acceptable!?  Travelling has been an amazing learning experience, my mantra of learn, explore and expand your being has been something I have actively tried to do where ever I’ve been (sometimes more successfully than others), but what was there to learn about such cruelty?  It is not a criticism of any religion (I’ve kept my thought of religion intentionally out of my blog), but this sort of thing I cannot condone under any circumstances, frankly I don’t care what the reasoning is to be so cruel to an animal.  My regret about leaving the bird was that I should have put more effort into trying to free it, put up a fight for the poor bird – what’s the worst thing that could have happened, they could have thrown me out of the country (very doubtful), likely just the mountain.  At least then I could have slept well, it bothered me for days and still when I look at the picture I get angry and disappointed with myself.  I carried on up the mountain, shacking my head to myself, not my finest moment, one I will not deal with in the same manner should a similar situation arise.  A person will not always agree with colloquialisms, some shouldn’t be.

Pura Lempuyang Luhur

Onwards and upwards, literally.  As I ascended the temperature cooled with a noticeable increase in the number of monkeys, finally arriving at Pura Lempuyang Luhur right at the top of the mountain, 1 175m.  Expecting panoramic views of the valleys below with Mount Agung in the distance…nope, the clouds had moved in, visibility was no more than 20-30m.  I was a tad disappointed nonetheless enjoyed the hike up the mountain, the last bit to Pura Lempuyang Luhur though distracted in my thoughts was good exercise.

Mount Lempuyang

Finally an opening is the forest, heading to the top of Mount Lempuyang – Bali

 Pura Lempuyang Luhur, well I was expecting more to be honest. Covering an area of about 2 tennis courts it isn’t as grand as the first nor as eye catching as the second temple.  I guess that on a clear day the ambience would be very different to what I experienced.  With the clouds misting through the temple, blanketing everything around mount Lempuyang, you could be mistaken for thinking you were in the middle of a jungle at a temple on the far end of the earth

Mount Lempuyang

A few of the monkeys at the top of Mount Lempuyang – Pura Lempuyang Luhur – Bali

 The actual temple itself felt a little neglected, it is one of the oldest temples in Bali and highly revered.  Proceeding the entrance to the complex there are a few market stalls, mostly selling refreshments and a little food for the weary tourist and pilgrims.  You can also buy offerings for the temple/shrines along with food for the monkeys.  There must be near 100 monkeys at the temple, not aggressive, more so confident and assured, not easily chased away if they think they can get some food from you.  They seem to keep the temple monks/priest/guards busy, a find balance at stopping them from taking offerings away from the shrines… feat I do not see them winning against the persistent and clever monkeys 😊!

Mount Lempuyang

The only decent view I could get at the top of Mount Lempuyang – Bali

Mount Lempuyang

The rest of the unfortunate views from the top of Mount Lempuyang – Bali

 

Tirta Gangga / Water Palace

The second part of the day was visiting Tirta Gangga, often referred to as the Water Palace, what a beautiful oasis it is.  Even the area surrounding the palace is picture perfect; valleys of rice paddies between natural forest and Mount Lempuyang pointing out in the background.  The lines between the rice paddies flowing naturally along the contours of the hills, accentuating the flow of the valley.

Bali

Just one of the fantastic views of the area around Tirta Gangga / Water Palace, with Mount Lempuyang in the background – if you look carefully you can see the White Temple – Bali

Built in 1948 by the Raja of Karangasem, Anak Agung Agung Anglurah Ketut Karangasem, whom I believe abdicated in 1950, his son took over the title (don’t know how accurate this is).  Tirta Gangga (which is the name of the town too) feels like a mixture of temple, monastery, secluded retreat and sanctuary surrounded by jungle, though now quite close to a main road; main road for Bali standards.  Bali has a history of kings/Rajas dating back to the 10th century till the 20th, till it became a republic in 1950, the royal household/lineage not only of Bali but of others within Indonesia are not recognised as being royal.

Water Palace

Tirta Gangga / Water Palace – Bali

Water Palace

Tirta Gangga / Water Palace – Bali

Though it is (was) a palace and I doubt any costs were spared, it doesn’t have an ostentatious air about it at all.  On the contrary, walking about the fish filled ponds, fountains and features I can only imagine this place was built as a get-away; a sanctuary where were it not for all the tourists you could ponder about life and distance yourself from any annoyances clouding your mind.

Water Palace

Tirta Gangga / Water Palace – Bali

Water Palace

Just onne of the unusual statues at Tirta Gangga / Water Palace – Bali

The Water Palaces is both pretty and tranquil, filled with interesting (and some disturbing looking) statues.  Walking about you can easily enjoy the environment without being distracted by the attention to detail throughout.  Whether it was part of the original design, I would imagine so, the walkways take you around, over and onto the water (stepping stones) making you interact with the surroundings.  This is a palace not just “for show”, it is a place created to wonder around, dip your feet into the cool water, let the fountain’s spray mist onto your face and when in need for quiet contemplation rest in the many secluded niches in the periphery.

Water Palace

It doesn’t capture the whole area but still a nice view I thought, Tirta Gangga / Water Palace – Bali

Water Palace

Tirta Gangga / Water Palace – Bali

Water Palace

Tirta Gangga / Water Palace – Bali

There is something I really liked about the Water Palace, it touched a nerve inside, I could have stayed for hours.  Not to repeat myself, but I will, I do love water; the refreshing sound of streams, rivers or in this case fountains and water features.  Such sounds make me relax, the flurrying water is like watching a flame, it’s hypnotic; I find myself drifting off into thought, life’s worries floating down a river like a paper boat, something we did when I was a child – those are great memories.

Water Palace

Tirta Gangga / Water Palace – Bali

Water Palace

Just some of the interesting statues at Tirta Gangga / Water Palace – Bali

Water Palace

Tirta Gangga / Water Palace – Bali

Tirta Gangga

The eleven tiered fountain at Tirta Gangga / Water Palace – Bali

PS. I have quite a few pictures that I haven’t included, as with all my posts. The blog post pictures and others are included in my photo albums on my Facebook Page – Facebook Batnomad

Hmmm a combination of the lost photos and weather meant my time in Amed Beach wasn’t as productive as I had hoped, especially the snorkelling, hey ho such is life.  Despite this I thoroughly enjoyed my time there.  I was still in Amed Beach during Nyepi or Day of Silence, now, if there was ever a fantastic idea/ethos to have a bank/public holiday then “Day of Silence” is worth it.  During Nyepi, which is a Balinese day for silence, fasting and mediation.  Everything shuts down, I mean everything, no cars or motorbikes are allowed on the road unless it’s an emergency.  You are not allowed on the beach let alone in the sea – the police patrol the beaches and you will be fined if caught.  No radios or TVs are played, even the lights throughout the accommodation complex are turned off (except those inside the bungalow).  Even talking is kept to a bare minimum and when done it is at a whisper.  You cannot escape the silence, it catches up on you, you can only pretend for so long that you cannot hear it until it consumes you like a giant wave.  The deafening silence forces you to slow down, automatically reflect on what’s around you and life in general.  Without the white-noise that surrounds us throughout our daily lives it makes it so much easier to focus and notice what surrounds us.  From the smallest things like insect noises, birds, the wind, rustling trees to the sound of the world.

So, that was my short time in Bali. Bali started off on the rocky side for me but ended very well, a special thanks to Amed Beach and surrounding areas.  No fireworks yet I enjoyed it with some lessons learnt along the way, which can only be a good thing.  I’d like to go back and explore the rest of the island, away from Kuta beach and would love to climb Mount Agung.  Next stop would be Gili Air, one of the three Gili Islands just off the North West coast of Lombok where I would head after Gili Air.  Bit of a long blog post, I hope it has not bored you to read!

Kuala Lumpur, the Asian powerhouse and Batu Caves

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Before I begin about my time in Kuala Lumpur (the Batu Caves were a surprise), I cannot skip the journey I of getting there from Vietnam, beginning from An Bang.  Like I had previously mentioned, I thought 15 days in Vietnam would suffice and get me from Hanoi to Ho Chin Minh City/Saigon…I underestimated just how much there is to see and how beautifully diverse the country is.  So, back to my last post, leaving An Bang.  I booked a flight from Da Nang airport which is only 30 minutes’ drive from An Bang to Tan Son Nhat Inter airport (Ho Chin Minh City/Saigon) on day 15 (I only had a 15 visa, which I got upon landing in Hanoi), this gave me a few 2 hours 45 min in Ho Chi Minh before my connecting flight with a different airline.  From there I would catch my flight to Bangkok, spend one night there and catch my early morning flight to Kuala Lumpur, with a different airline.  The reason I had to go back to Bangkok was because that is where my next leg of my round the world ticket flew from (I got through Star Alliance).

Even the best of plans can go awry, well almost!  Somehow, I got the timings wrong about my flight out of Da Nang, getting to the airport more than 5 hours early, nothing wrong with that though. Checking-in and security were fine, that’s when the fun began.  I noticed some of the earlier flights were delayed but my flight seemed fine, by delayed I mean some were delayed by 3 hours with the flight only being 1 hour 20 minutes.  Time ticked by with a slight nervous undercurrent building up…now my flight was delayed, first by 10 minutes then 15, then 1 hour!  I couldn’t take the chance of missing my connecting flight, so I headed to the nearest gate with a VietJet attendant to explain that my predicament.  Luckily the lady spoke quite good English, still I had prepared myself for a long saga with pleading leading into frustration and anger.  She would need to make a few call and check a few things, she had to leave but asked me to stay where I was and she’d get back to me shortly – as if I haven’t heard that one before!

Less than 10 minutes later she returned, she had arranged for me to be put on the next earlier flight (also delayed), arranged for them to find my checked-in luggage which I would take as hand luggage and given me a seat in the front row of the plane so I could bolt out when we landed.  My bag arrived, it had to go through security as I would take it as hand luggage (I’ll get to that shortly), we ran to the flight gate, I was the last person to board!  Only casualty was my Leatherman had to be confiscated as I couldn’t take it on board.  By my calculation I would have 30 minutes from landing to make cut-off for check-in which was at a different terminal to the one we were landing at.  So, we landed, I ran as fast as I could, quite a distance and in the heat and make check-in by 15 minutes.  I must confess that after telling the check-in attendant from Nok Air (flight to Bangkok), she and her colleague laughed retorting with a smile “VietJet…always delayed!”  Yes, their flights were delayed, but the service I got from VietJet was bloody fantastic!  I’d fly with them again anytime…maybe giving myself a little more of a buffer though 😊!  Ps. If I had missed my flight to Bangkok (which was the last flight of the day, that would have meant another night in Vietnam, but my visa would have expired and that could have put a whole new spin on the problem.  Flight to Bangkok went smoothly so was my flight to Kuala Lumpur, and that’s my short story on how I got to Kuala Lumpur.

Kuala Lumpur, like most cities they have a similarity about them with only a dash of colloquialism therefore unlikely to reveal the “real” culture of a country.  Nevertheless, I would spend a few days in the city, enough time for some exploring and planning the next stage of my trip to Indonesia.  For the first 3 days I stayed at The 5 Elements Hotel, less than 100m from China Town – a good location and value for money.  I tried to extend my stay but couldn’t as they were fully booked, not a bad sign.  After that I spent three days at Mov Hotel Kuala, definitely a upgrade room and location, the small rooftop swimming pool was worth a million dollars after a long hot, humid day of walking – obviously more expensive than the first but still good value for money considering its close proximity to the malls and Petronas Towers.

Kuala Lumpur

The ever present KL Tower

Kuala Lumpur

Maybank Tower / Menara Maybank – Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur

The vertical gardens of Le Nouvel KLCC, luxury apartments in Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur

Behind the expensive shopping malls and hotels the city is slightly different! Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur

Enough about hotels!  My initial thoughts on the city was unmistakably of a place experiencing financial growth.  Parts of the city are as swanky as you can get, but you don’t need to look far to find many people struggling.  In amongst luxury stores, malls and hotels you just need to walk a little way, to see where those who are serving people at these posh places live, a different world, yet to be affected by the economic strength.  Even so, you cannot miss the fact that this is a city, and country, on the rise.  Kuala Lumpur is a big city, a population of around 1.7 million, if you include the Greater Kuala Lumpur or Klang Valley that increases it to 7.3 million.  The city has 3 major ethnic groups, Malay (44.7%), Chinese (43.2%) and Indian (10.3%) making for a cosmopolitan environment not just statistically, that includes architecture, food and religion – Islam (46.4%), Buddhism (35.7%) and Hinduism (8.5%) and Christianity (5.8%).  Though Islam is the predominant religion, it seems to be a moderate Islam, with as many bars and nightclubs as I’ve seen in European cities so things like alcohol are readily available and advertised.  I don’t know what I was expecting from Kuala Lumpur, I’ve said many times before that I’m “over” cities, part of travelling in my opinion is best experienced when you are away from metropolises.  Yet, wondering the city streets is never dull, it is a vibrant city and I felt safe no matter where I went.  I’m sure there may be dubious neighbourhoods, all cities have them, but I didn’t experience any.

Kuala Lumpur

Fantastic graffiti/street art mural – Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur

China Town – Kuala Lumpur

Sri Mahamariamman Temple

The narrow elaborately decorated and exceptionally colourful gateway of the Sri Mahamariamman Temple is tucked between a larger part of the temple on a busy road, the last place you’d go looking for a temple.  It stands oddly alone on an otherwise commercial area a stone’s throw from China Town.  You can’t miss it; how could it be with its bright colours covered for door-level to roof top with Hindu figurines.  The temple itself is beyond the gate, which is called a Gopuram, pity I could not go inside as it was closed – I don’t actually know if they allow visitors inside.

Kuala Lumpur

Sri Mahamariamman Temple – Kuala Lumpur

It used to be the private shrine of the Pillai family, founded in the late 19th century by K. Thamboosamy Pillai (a prominent businessman and Tamil community leader), which was opened up to the public in 1920 and is the oldest operating Hindu temple in Malaysia.  What is seen today isn’t part of the original temple, that has been knocked down and rebuilt, what is there today is the third incarnation, with the gopuram being built in 1972.  I’d be seeing more Hindu statues and temples later during my time in Kuala Lumpur, even more elaborate and colourful…wait till I get to the Batu Caves!

Petronas Towers

A new iconic landmark not only of the city but of Malaysia, it marries its past and culture (by design) with its prominent position it plays within the region and globally.  Famous for many reasons not just its use as a backdrop for movies, but also for the innovation in its construction and height. In building it, they made a statement within the region and across the globe that they were a serious player.

Kuala Lumpur

Petronas Towers – Kuala Lumpur

Personally, I think it took many people (Western) by surprise that something like this could be accomplished within the region.  It held the record for the tallest building from 1998 till 2004 and still holds the record for the tallest twin towers.  The top of the roof stands at 378.6m and the top of the antenna/spire stands at 451.9m.  They are impressive buildings, not the smooth mirrored glass structures that seem to be the style of the day.  No, the Petronas Towers are reminiscent of some of the older mosque minarets, here they are made of steel and struct into the ground, like modern obelisks.

Bukit Nanas

I saw Bukit Nanas on the map and a few sites had mentioned it but didn’t think much about it until I got there.  Frankly, I had been walking around and there was a faint drizzle rain coming down, so I thought I would go check it out.  Well, besides it being like walking through a sauna it very cool.  Not just a city garden, Bukit Nanas is 9.3 hectares of virgin rain forest slap bang in the middle of a city!  I couldn’t believe how the climate changed from the pavement into the forest, the humidity was ridiculous!  Bukit Nanas isn’t a sanitised forest in a city, it has monkeys, poisonous spiders, snakes and scorpions, with pathways, raised platforms and rope bridges enabling you to explore the forest at close range.

Kuala Lumpur

Bukit Nanas, the tropical forest in the heart of Kuala Lumpur

I’m used to manicured city gardens, this is a totally different experience and very cool.  Every now and then you remember you’re a in a city.  Skyscrapers sticking out behind the trees, or a sudden opening of the bush reveals a backdrop of glass and concrete, including the KL Tower which is difficult to miss no matter where you are in the city.  You really do feel out of the city, it is only a small forest but if you happen to be in Kuala Lumpur it is a quick and enjoyable visit.  The name Bukit Nanas means “pineapple hill” and covered a larger area, pineapples were grown there as a deterrent against attackers during the Klang War (1867 to 1874).  The original proposition to keep the area a natural forest was in 1906, the area was 17.5 hectares.  Over the years building encroached in to the forest, hence it now being 9.3 hectares.

Kuala Lumpur Tower

Still an attraction in the city, the KL Tower as it is mostly referred to is the 7th tallest freestanding tower in the world at 421m including the antenna, 335m to the roof pod.  I don’t’ know what I was thinking, I couldn’t have been thinking at all, but I didn’t go right up to the tower…meaning I didn’t know you could go up the tower!!!  The views must be excellent, sadly I don’t know.  Perched on top of a hill right next to Bukit Nanas, it is a elegant structure; so thin for such a high structure, you can’t imagine it being stable with the bulge at the top.  Can’t say much else about it, how stupid of me not to find out or at the very least walk to the base!  GRRRR……next time!

Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur Tower, taken from Bukit Nanas

Though I spend 6 days in Kuala Lumpur I didn’t really sea that much, yes, I went to the shopping area with all the glamorous shops and mall, those just aren’t my thing – I’m not going to include pictures of shopping malls!  I got to catch up with some writing and planning, it was also nice just to have a break, taking things easy and stroll around the place – I even had a Nando’s…twice!

Batu Caves 

On the edge of the city, away from everything that’s new and shiny are the Batu Caves.  Not dissimilar to many cities, the outskirts being occupied by a mix of industrial, commercial and pooper inhabitants intertwined into each other you can find the Batu Caves.  Long before arriving there you see the limestone hills, like a little mountain range covered in dense green, a lovely backdrop juxtaposed what I found the poorest area I had seen in the city.  As we got closer the colossal 42.7m golden statue of Lord Rama glimmered in the sun, behind what looked like a conveyor belt of stairs leading half way up into the depth of the mountain.

Kuala Lumpur

Entrance to the Batu Caves – Kuala Lumpur

Batu Caves

The 42.7m high statue of Lord Rama

There was a lot of construction going on everywhere at the Batu Caves, some new and some restoration – always a catch 22, great to see restoration work, selfishly a pity from a visual perspective.  For a temple/place of worship, this place doesn’t have that solemn feel, not at all, it’s closer to an amusement park environment, very much family and tourist orientated.  The Batu Caves are obviously thousands of years old, as a temple complex only since 1890, also founded by K. Thamboosamy Pillai – the same man who founded the Sri Mahamariamman Temple.  Prior to the temple it isn’t certain what or how the Batu Caves were utilised or if they were ever occupied by human.  The earliest known human use was by the Chinese in the 1860; they used the guano as fertiliser for their crops.

Batu Caves

The more I travel the more I love stairs! Kuala Lumpur

Batu Caves

The monkeys at the Batu Caves are sneaky buggers, and adept at opening just about anything!

Within the Batu Caves complex there are three large caves; one about 2/3 up the main stairs, the other at the top of the stairs (the biggest) and another at ground level about 200m from the bottom of the stairs (facing the stairs).  Going up to the biggest cave, called the cathedral or temple cave, there are lots of monkeys lining the stairs; there are many throughout the area, especially in the cave too.  These little buggers are rather cheeky and quite daring!  They won’t hesitate to grab any food or drink you have in your hand, even anything loose or hanging from your bag.  You are warmed not to feed them, I can see why, I even saw two of them opening a can of Pringles that was totally sealed!  I had an empty protein bar package taken, don’t even dare try taking it from them they get very territorial.

The entrance of the main cave leads into a huge hall, higher and longer that it is wide.  The ground has been concreted level, I’d easily say big enough to fit a football pitch inside.  It’s so big and because they’ve raised and levelled the floor it doesn’t feel like you’re in a cave.  The fact that another little temple is being build inside the cave along with permanent shops you could be in some themed park.  The big hall is rather dull, the walls and ceiling the only original part of the cave, the ceiling the only interesting part in my opinion, maybe I’m being too cynical.  The hall has its natural beauty, it is a very open cavernous space (pun intended), there is just something about it that has lost its wow factor; I think a lot has to do with the partial commercialisation of it, seems more is it to come.

Batu Caves

The main cathedral cave of the Batu Caves – Kuala Lumpur

Batu Caves

Stair leading into the second cave from the main Cathedral Cave

Straight ahead on the other side of the cave is another set of stairs leading further up into a second part of the cave, a magical setting.   At about a ¼ the size of the first hall, this second hall isn’t really a cave at all (at least now after hundreds of years of erosion), no, half of the ceiling is missing.  With a gaping hole narrowing towards to top creating a column of light shooting down from the sky.  In stark contrast to a somewhat gloomy interior of the carve, this skylight is brimming with green growing ever denser till the rim.  Here there are even more monkeys, at least more at home in the shrubbery coming down every now and then to pester the visitors for food…or just taking it and running! A few small temple shrines are spread out in the second hall, they blend into the atmosphere of the environment around giving a more intimate feel – still full of people making a little too much noise, but without the roof the sound doesn’t echo as much.

Kuala Lumpur

One of the shrines in the second hall of the cathedral hall, the hope ceiling of the cave visible behind – Kuala Lumpur

Batu Caves

The chimney of green leading up from the cave – Kuala Lumpur

Batu Caves

The ever present Monkeys are never far away – Batu Caves, Kuala Lumpur

Heading out of the caves back down the main stairs, at the bottom turning right, you follow path along ground level till you get to the next big cave. Before getting there you pass a big statue of Hanuman to a part of the complex that was closed when I was there, shortly after is the entrance to the other big cave.  At the entrance (I serious hope my interpretation is correct!!) is a statue of Lord Krishna riding a carriage of bronze horses; a representation of Lord Krishna delivering the Gita Upadesha – the front plaque dedicating the monument to the teachings of Gita “Gita Upadesha” – upadesha referring to teaching/instruction of a spiritual nature.  I changed the last two sentences on 14th August thanks to an accurate translation/interpretation from one of my readers.

Kuala Lumpur

A temple at ground level between two of the main caves at Batu Caves – Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur

The large statue of Hanuman at the Batu Caves – Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur

Gita Upadesha statue at the entrance of the cave, Batu Caves – Kuala Lumpur

Like I had said earlier, my knowledge of Hindu mythology is non-existent so my journey through this cave was perplexing to say the least.  The cave itself contrasts to the cathedral caves in that in this one the rock formations were more rounded, giving the cave a gentle feeling like it had been made over thousands of years by flowing water (further into and higher within the cave its resemblance to the cathedral hall was more similar).  Now I’m beating around the bush about the cave because I’m procrastinating addressing how the interior is decorated, Alice in Wonderland comes to mind – I mean no disrespect to Hindus.

Batu Caves

Inside the cave with its decorations

Filled with neon string lights, human and god’ish figurines depicting religious tales/fables, it really is a world apart from the other caves, not what I had expected at all!  Bright colours painted against the walls as are many of the displays I really got the feeling of going down the rabbit hole.  I’m confident, no, I know for certain that I’ve never seen such a psychedelic religious display.  It felt so out of place, here in this cave to have such a contrasting display to its surroundings.  There was no one to ask to explain the display, yes, I know it tells a story, but who represents who and what represent what, I just don’t know.  Taken at face value or sight, if I wasn’t aware of it being a religious depiction I would have thought it was a children’s display or story, even then I would have thought it very peculiar.  I headed further into the cave, still lit up with coloured lights only more restrained.  Though the cave does have an end, there are a few rooms and levels you can explore – quite whitewashed with stairs and handrails.  If nothing, the last cave is interesting just for the sake of seeing it.

Kuala Lumpur

Inside the Gita Upadesha cave, Batu Caves – Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur

Top view up one of the staircases inside the Gita Upadesha cave, Batu Caves – Kuala Lumpur

That was my time in Kuala Lumpur, a city with a few things to see and do that tickled my fancy, yet it is still a city.  I had seen what I wanted to see and used the rest of my time to plan my next stage to Indonesia, other than that I just wondered the streets.  I’m confident Kuala Lumpur has other things to offer, considering what it has there is likely something to interest everyone.  My calling was to head to the islands, next stop would be Bali.

Lao Cham Island, off the beaten track island

Gallery

The visit to Lao Cham island became a bit of a last-minute arrangement, not a regrettable one.  We road down the 8.3km to the small Cua Dai Quay/Pier two days prior, we had read that the ferry leaves early in the morning to the island, if you missed it you could easily hire a boat at any time for a small price.  We got to Cua Dai Quay/Pier late morning, not for the lack of trying we couldn’t find or convince any private boats to take us – the language barrier didn’t’ help either considering we must have been there for near two hours.  After some wondering around we stumbled upon the lighthouse keeper; a young man in his late 20’s I’d say.  He welcomed us into the lighthouse and in quite good English explained how and when we should be there in order to catch the ferry – getting a private boat seemed not to be an option.

Lao Cham is not as frequented by tourists compared to other islands such as those in Ha Long Bay, it has only been open to tourists in the past few years.  Prior to that it was only open to locals as the whole island was controlled by the military and island residence. The ferry is primarily used by the locals who work on the mainland, most tourists go for a day trip, including diving tours, with everyone returning to the mainland at 14:30/15:30.  Meaning, that by 15:30 the beaches are void of people and you feel like you’re on a deserted island.  The few tourists that remain are scattered across the island, by few, I mean when we were there we saw a total of 10 other tourists later that evening.

Two methods to get to Lao Cham:

  • The public taxi (apparently best to avoid; it takes everything from people, chickens, goats etc.), it leaves Hoi An (centre of Hoi An Ancient Town) from Nguyen Hoang street at 7am, first stop is Cua Dai Pier/Quay (about 8km from An Bang Beach) where it leaves at about 8am arriving at Lao Cham’s main harbour/pier Bai Lang at about 10:30. It returns back to the mainland between 11:00 – 12:00
  • Speedboat from Cua Dai Pier/Quay leaves at around 8:00 and takes 30 minutes to arrive at Lao Cham’s main harbour/pier Bai Lang. Leaves to return to the mainland at around 8:30

Tourism has yet to really hit Lao Cham, here many of the residence have been on the island for generations.  The population spiked during the Vietnam war from people avoiding the war and those who tried to get away from conscription, even so the population today is only around 3000.  There are no ATMs on Lao Cham, nowhere takes card payments, no public transport and even the mobile/cell phone signal is sketchy at best.

Cham Islands

Consisting of 8 islands of which Lao Cham (Lao meaning pearl) is the largest and only permanently inhabited island, the islands cover an area of 15 square kilometres – the area in part of a world biosphere reserve recognised by UNESC0.  Because of the rich sea life, including coral around the islands it is becoming a destination for divers, along with small scale farming swallow nests are harvested from the island and it a large source of revenue for the islands; a Chinese delicacy that they pay a premium for.

Lao Cham

Bai Chong Beach getting busy – Lao Cham

Lao Cham

So, we arrived on the island nice and early with the decision to leave the main harbour/pier and find a quiet beach, the first beach was just a short walk away.  We walked as we couldn’t find any scooters to rent which was odd because everywhere else in Vietnam it’s very easy to do so.  Our best efforts were unsuccessful in finding scooters, the next option was a scooter-taxi, but the locals seemed to want to charge quite a lot, so hence we walked and thought we’d find alternative transport when we headed to our next beach.  Only later in the day, much later as in that evening, we found out that foreigners can’t rent (easily) scooters on the island.  We met a couple from Switzerland whose homestay let them use theirs with the proviso were told that if they got stopped by the police they would confiscate them.  The island is small, remote and being a Western tourist, you stick out like a sore thumb so there is no way to blend in as a local!  It’s not like other islands I’ve been too, there weren’t even any taxi’s, come to think of it I can’t even recall seeing any cars!

Lao Cham

Bai Chong Beach, the “busy” beach and the restaurant in the distance – Lao Cham

Oh well, we relaxed for a while on the first beach, the water was a tad on the chilly side and the coral had been dead for a long time, such a shame!  A few hours had passed so we decided to move on…this became easier said than done.  As I have alluded to we had not yet found out about the challenges of transport on the island, I mean surely a taxi would pass us by….!  We walked for a few kilometres in the baking sun passing many stunning empty beaches, yes, we passed them all.  I’m beginning to sound like a stuck record, Lao Cham has only been open to foreign tourists for a few years, most beaches can’t even be accessed from the road.  The brush was so thick with the distance from the road ranging from 50-100m, even if we had machetes we still couldn’t have reached the beaches.  Most beaches are reaches by boat, we didn’t have one 😊!  We passed a couple from France who were also having the same problem as us.

A hill or two and a few kilometres (bit of an exaggeration, it was bloody hot!) later we found an access point to one of the beaches, Bai Chong beach.  One of the more, if not most commercial beach on the island, only because it has a restaurant and it is used as the lunch spot for divers and day trips.  Just so that I don’t set the wrong impression, commercial is a relative term; at its busiest there were about 40 people on the beach and the restaurant closes as 15:00.

Lao Cham

The busy part of Bai Chong Beach – Lao Cham

Our naivety or ignorance about the how remote the island is meant we were blissfully unaware of some of the challenges we would face later in the day, so for the rest of the afternoon we relaxed on the beach and swam in the sea.  Like the beach from earlier in the day, the coral had long been dead, we pretty much had the beach and sea to ourselves, well we shared it with a few others.  Like clockwork, between 14:30-15:00 it’s like the island is being evacuated, the restaurant closed, the divers and day trips leave.  A silence falls upon the beach and you do feel like you might be on a deserted island, this is why we came here.

Now, I won’t bore you will all the detail, the mobile/cellphone signal was terrible making finding accommodation a lethargic and frustrating exercise.  Once the accommodation was sorted we needed to get there, this is when the reality of just how “different” things ran on Lao Cham (I mean that in the best of ways).  I have mentioned the phone signal was bad (😊), luckily after a lot of frustration and an hour or two of messaging through Booking.com our homestay arranged (through interesting but welcomed broken English) for two scooters to pick us up.

Bai Huong

Lao Cham has two towns, the first is Bai Lang harbour/pier the other is Bai Huong, another harbour/pier which is mainly used by the locals.  Bai Lang is like a metropolis compared to Bai Huong; as a Westerner you stuck out in Bai Lang, here in Bai Huong you are the tourist attraction.

Bai Huong

Bai Huong town heading to the beach – Lao Cham

Bai Huong

Walking through the town of Bai Huong chatting to the locals

We arrived at our homestay in Bai Huong, Island Smiles Homestay to some confusion as the owner (more about he later) thought Julie, Mila and I were a family so thought we would be sharing a bed – a quick fix and we had our own beds.  On a separate note Julie and I had just become very good friends, nothing more.   Back to the owner, Mama Kim, speaks a lot less English and I do Vietnamese, her motherly approach to all visitors makes here a wonderfully fantastic host.  The correspondence (in broken English) when arranging the scooter-taxi’s was done by her granddaughter who we briefly met when we arrived, communication from there onward was a mixture of laughs, hand gestures and facial expressions all with a smile.

Bai Huong

Another friendly local at Bai Huong town – Lao Cham

Lao Cham

Bai Huong town is still a fishing village. Some traditional bamboo and newer versions of the round boats – Lao Cham

There isn’t much to do in Bai Huong, then again that’s not why people go there.  It’s quiet, even with the town right there you cannot escape the feeling of being in a different time far from familiarity.  The day had been a bit of a hack but that was ok, we were in no rush to get anywhere or do anything.  The rest of what was left of the afternoon we spent walking around the town, pier, beach and swimming.  Right next to the beach is Tinh Xa Ngoc Huong, now I’m going to say it’s a temple and I’m confident in that statement – having done some research some places say it’s a monastery, but I think they are confusing it with other temple and monastery on the island; the more well-known one called Tinh xa Ngoc Truyen (the Than Yen Sao shrine which was built in the mid-19th century is there too).  There is also pagoda called Chua Hai Tang which was built in the mid-18th century, we didn’t get to see either unfortunately.  Right on the beach too is a concrete pillbox/bunker/battery, I tried doing some research about when it was built but can’t find anything concrete, no pun intended!  I guess it may be from the Vietnam War or even prior during the French occupation but that’s just me taking a guess.

Lao Cham

Tinh Xa Ngoc Huong on Bai Huong beach – Lao Cham

Lao Cham

Concrete battery on the beach of Bai Huong – Lao Cham

Another Lao Cham/Bai Huong lesson we learnt late was that homestay hosts also cook dinner for their guest, as we didn’t know we told Mama Kim we didn’t need to cook for us; thinking back on it now I thought see seemed a little perplexed when we told her….ah!  We were going to have dinner at a restaurant by the beach, only to find out that there aren’t any restaurants open at night.  There are apparently two restaurants by the beach, the only two restaurants (the town is small you could walk around the circumference in 20 minutes) but they close very early, just after sundown.  The only other shop that was open was a tiny general store with a few crisps and chocolates, that also closed just after sundown.

Bai Huong

One of the beaches at Bai Huong town – Lao Cham

Lao Cham

Bai Huong pier – Lao Cham

Lao Cham

Bai Huong town – Lao Cham

Luckily, we bumped into the Swiss couple who were with a Vietnamese lady (also visiting the island) staying at the same homestay.  She spoke to their host who didn’t hesitate to bring out three more chairs (pushing her family aside), went back into the kitchen and started cooking for us.  We apologise for the inconvenience, but the lady was having none of it, we were here guests now which is not far off from being family, the food was aplenty!  Of course we had to pay, the price was insignificant both in cost (maybe £5 in total for the three of us) and just to merely say thank you.  The evening ended with us relaxing on the porch at our homestay, with Mama Kim falling asleep on the couch.  We were a little perturbed by the number of large rats we saw running in street, it was still a nice evening though.

Bai Huong

Invited to dinner at a homestay in Bai Huong

Bai Huong

Bai Huong town centre at night – Lao Cham

Next morning we had to leave Bai Huong early, we arrange with our scooter-taxi the previous day to collect us in the morning.  Mama Kim must have been awake early as she was already busy in the kitchen before 7:00, she made me a cup of coffee with chocolate in it, apparently common for the island don’t ask me why.  Mama Kim had asked us if we wanted breakfast, it was early, we didn’t have much time so we declined.  True to form and fashion by the time we were ready to leave at 7:30 Mama Kim had made us a little something to take with us and made a little special meal especially for Mila.  She gave us all a big hug goodbye, the kind of meaningful hug you would give to your close family who you were not going to see for a long time.

Lao Cham

Bai Huong pier – Lao Cham

Lao Cham

Bai Huong town – Lao Cham

The boat ride back took longer than the day before because of the heavy fog, that didn’t deter the driver to go any slower.   We were speeding along when suddenly the fog cleared with a beach no more than 60m in front of us!  The driver reduced his speed at an instant simultaneously jolting the boat to the left, we were luck!  From there on we cruised at a glacial pace till we arrived back at the mainland, safe and sound.

Lao Cham

Bai Huong beach – Lao Cham

Lao Cham

Sunset on Bai Huong pier – Lao Cham

I was flying out later that afternoon to Kuala Lumpur; from Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), from there to Bangkok for one night leaving the following morning to Kuala Lumpur – I’ll cover that interesting trip in my next blog.  It was time to leave Julie and Mila, I was very lucky to meet and spend time with them, I cannot lie I was sad to leave them and a little choked.  Vietnam was not what I expected, it was a fantastic 15 days filled with history, culture, relaxation, sun, sea, natural wonders, friendly people and so much more.  It’s a country bringing its history, culture, political inclination, fundamental ethos, strong willed people and drive to improve themselves into the 21st century, I just hope they do not become Western (whatever that means).  I truly believe that Vietnam has something to offer to everyone no matter what you want from your travel destination.  My only regret about Vietnam was me underestimating it before I went, had I known then what I know now, I would have spent at least another 2 weeks there.  To put it into perspective in my two weeks I didn’t get time to go North of Hanoi and only made it halfway down the country, so much more to see and experience.

My Son, serene Vietnamese Hindu temples

Gallery

About 40km inland from An Bang are the ruins of My Son, once the spiritual capitol of the Cham people.  Public transport isn’t great in Vietnam so I arranged a taxi to take me there and back, agreeing on a 2 hour visit – I have no idea how much it cost but nothing costs much in Vietnam.  The drive there was pleasant enough, the roads are in good condition and not that busy, it was on a Saturday.  One thing I did notice was that may of the houses were blaring local music from their disco speakers either from the porch or lounge.  That’s something I hadn’t mentioned in my previous posts; many households have large nightclub/disco speakers, usually in their lounge – just what purpose they serve I have no clue.  Even if no one is there visiting the volume is above casual listening.

My Son

My Son temple ruins

My Son

My Son temple ruins

My Son

My Son temple ruin complex

 

Brief History & Background

During circa. 4th – 14th century Vietnam as we know it today was broadly divided into four regions:

  • North, ruled by the Chinese
  • Middle (region of modern Hanoi), ruled by the Viet people (not yet known as Vietnamese)
  • South (Hoi An along the coast to current Southern Vietnam), was the Champa empire of the Cham people with Đồng Dương as the capitol till the end of the 10th century, moving further South to Bình Định Province afterwards
  • West, the Angkor/Khmer empire

Before and during the period 4th – 14th centuries there were many clashes between the regions primarily between the Cham and Chinese, the earlier part of that period was dominated by the Cham, the latter by the Chinese, after that period by the Viet.  The rise and abandonment of My Son runs parallel to the fortunes and fall of the Cham.  That is as shorter history and background as you can get!

My Son these days is in an isolated area, arriving there I questioned just how worth the visit would be, that’s how isolated it felt.  The entrance to this UNESCO World Heritage site is odd, the first seems quite ordinary with a few nondescript shops and a small but nice museum.  From there you cross a river by a semi-ornate bridge at which point I thought the main site would begin, I was wrong.  The next stage reminded me of the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, a well tarred road with a shuttle service on a golf-cart train (the best description I can think of) taking about 10 minute.  Third and last is a 20-30 minute walk to the actual My Son archaeological site, more about this walk shortly.  The second part of the entry is world class compared to the other places I’d been to in Vietnam, I was impressed.

My Son

“Second” entrance to My Son temple ruins

My Son

One of the many little streams running through the area – My Son temple ruins

My Son

My Son temple ruins

 

Reverting back to the third part of the entrance, the walk to the actual My Son site.  Well, located in dense jungle, the well paved footpath the only reason you know you are not lost as it weaves through the trees, carpet and walls of green vegetation.  There is an ever presence of water from numerous small streams to the regular trickling of water hidden by the thicket.  Whilst in Hoi An my attire was shorts, t-shirts and flip flops (closed shoes when riding), it was always hot and humid, My Son brought this to a whole new level, especially the humidity…swimming in the sea felt drier!  The walkway is about 2km, by the time I got to the site my t-shirt was drenched, the heat and humidity was relentless.

My Son

My Son was used for more than a thousand years, the site was used prior to the 4th century for what some say hundreds of years, the site was at its peak around the 10th Century – it is a Hindu religious site dedicated to Shiva.  Throughout the centuries Kings, Priest and the wealthy build temples dedicated to Shiva at My Son, in total there were over 70 temples.  I use the word “were” for a few reasons, firstly after the 14th century the site fell into neglect and by and large abandoned, the jungle and time taking over.  Interest in the site was rekindled by a Frenchman in the late 19th century which lead to restoration of the site beginning in the 1930’s.  Of this restoration work it included the main and most spectacular temple called now referred to as temple A1, build in the 7th century.  Secondly, during the Vietnam War the Americans carpet bombed the area over one week in August 1969 destroying most of the temples and obliterating temple A1.  The remnants of the bombing still very evident today with craters and blackened brickwork, the centre of the complex was least affected but did not go unscathed.

My Son

Stele, pedestal and temple – My Son temple ruins

My Son

Stele and remains of a temple – My Son temple ruins

My Son

Entrance and remains of a temple – My Son temple ruins

 

There are 14 classifications of temple groups at My Son (of the original 70+ temples) in 6 architectural styles.  Of the remaining structures all are thought to be religious:

  • Kalan- a brick sanctuary, typically in the form of a tower, used to house a deity
  • Mandapa – an entry hallway contiguous with a sanctuary
  • Kosagrha(fire-house) – a construction, typically with a saddle-shaped roof, used to house the valuables belonging to the deity or to cook for the deity
  • Gopura – a gate-tower leading into a walled temple complex

The site itself is well marked but with grouping and styles I got confused, especially when revisiting my photos months later and trying to link them to which group etc.  It’s not a small area to cover either, not massive but with many temples being propped up, falling apart and many not more than a foundation remaining I’ve decided not to attempt to label my pictures with group &/or style unless I’m 100% confident!

My Son

What remains of a temple bombed during the Vietnam war – My Son temple ruins

My Son

The A1 temple and associated structures, restored in the 1930’s not totally destroyed after carpet bombing in August 1969

My Son

Destroyed temple complex, centre of the My Son temple complex in the distance

My Son is serene, ancient buildings fighting back the jungle (with a little help from us humans), there shapes of mostly sharp edges somehow compliment their surroundings.  The structures are large but not overbearing, they have a symbiosis with their environment; whether this was the case when they were constructed I don’t know, I think they would have been. Their red brick an earthly colour now blackened due to recent history and coloured by green vines and moss, the gentle slow struggle between nature and man in unison.

My Son

One of the many destroyed temples during the Vietnam war – My Son temple ruins

My Son

One of the temples now used to house some of the finds that are not in the museum – My Son temple complex

My Son

I believe this was part of the A1 temple – My Son temple ruins

The exact construction technique is not known except that the sculptures are cut directly into the brickwork – when in the process of building is not known.  There is no plaster or render, nor is it known what was used as mortar; the current hypothesis is that a resin was used in conjunction with the same material used as the bricks.  When you look at the structures now it looks as if the bricks are stacked on top of each other with nothing between.  It is also not known when the bricks were fired (before building or in situ) and when the carvings were done (pre-building or in situ).  One of the reasons so little is known about these structures is because the Champa never left any writing behind, sure there are stele but these are used for religious purposes.  They had and kept written records but wrote on degradable materials, combine that with the climate, these records perished long before any archaeologist visited the area.

My Son

My Son temple ruins

My Son

My Son temple complex ruins

My Son

Good view of the carved brickwork – My Son temple ruins

One thing I must admit whilst walking around the area, I kept thinking of the many Vietnam war movies I had seen over the years (my three favourites being Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket and The Deer Hunter).  Not to get political, I felt sorry for the young Americans sent here to fight in such inhospitable jungle environment that must have been foreign from where they came from.  I can’t imagine what it must have been like in full army gear marching through this wet, thick forest, not to mention during the rainy season.  Without local knowledge there was no way the Americans would succeed.  You could have thousands of Vietnamese hiding around the circumference of My Son and you wouldn’t even know, that’s how impenetrable the vegetation is, it gets even worse the deeper you go.  To some degree the only respite the locals would have had was that they knew the area, for them living and fighting in the tunnels and jungle must have been treacherous too.

My Son

My Son temple ruins

My Son

My Son temple complex ruins

My Son

My Son temple ruins

This is a beautiful place to visit, with that beauty comes the unforgiving jungle will all its danger and peril.  Visitors come here every day to see the sites, not always remembering the killing fields around it.  With the indiscriminate nature of carpet bombing nobody really knows who or how many people would have died at My Son and the surrounding areas.  Maybe the only consolation to the killing that occurred here is that now this area has a serenity, an equilibrium between man and nature, I hope making it an acceptable last resting place for all those who died here.

My Son

The once red bricks now blackened, remnants from the carpet bombings – My Son temple ruins

My Son

My Son temple ruins

My Son

My Son temple ruins

Yes, I was sweating like a waterfall, the conditions were uncomfortable, but I left My Son with many thoughts running through my mind war, the cruelty of man, beauty of nature, dedication of ancient civilisations and the lost knowledge of old cultures.  I walked back to the shuttle cart in a solemn mood with and underlying current of joy, joy to be able to experience these things in life.  I only waited for the shuttle for about 15 minutes, I filled my time watching a dog in total bliss playing for some toilet paper.  Who knows where he got it from, but he was having the time of his life playing with it…it’s the little things in life that makes us happy – not a bad lesson to learn.  I headed back to An Bang.

My Son

The area where the most restoration has been done – My Son temple ruins

My Son

My Son temple ruins

My Son

Not much but foundations and low walls remaining of some of the temples after carpet bombing during the Vietnam war – My Son temple complex ruins

My last 2 days in Vietnam were spent on the island of Lao Cham before I headed off to Kuala Lumpur etc. etc.  Lao Cham will therefore be my last blog about my time in Vietnam which I’ll post a few days after this.

My Son

Damaged remnants of part of My Son temple complex

My Son

One of the many little streams (this was one of the bigger) around the area – My Son temple complex

My Son temple ruins

The area where the most restoration has been done – My Son temple ruins

My Son

A dog having the time of his life playing with some toilet paper