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North of Calcutta, close to the Nepalese border, is perhaps the most famous of India’s hill station towns, Darjeeling. The British used it as an escape from the summer heat and humidity of Calcutta. The wealthier Indians use it as a holiday/honeymoon destination. The town clings to an enormous ridge high above the plains and offers many interesting things to do and see. Getting to Darjeeling can be traumatic as there are only two ways – road or train. You will have to pass through the town of Siliguri to get there, arriving here by rail or road (do not take the 14 hour Rocket Express bus from Calcutta to get here), or even flying from Calcutta, or by road from Nepal. Siliguri does not have much to offer in the way of excitement and you’d be better off passing through as quickly as possible. The more romantic way to get to Darjeeling is to wait for the daily Toy Train, a narrow gauge railway which winds its way slowly up the hill over 10 hours. Make serious enquiries as to the state of the track before buying your ticket as more often than not the train does not go all the way up and you may have to get a bus or taxi for most of the journey when the train stops. Be brave and take a bus, or be scared and take a taxi (jeep-type effort). The reason the train and sometimes the taxis never make it to the top becomes apparent on you way up. The road follows the rail tracks most of the way up except the parts where the track, and even the road, disappear. Poor construction and heavy rains mean that very often parts of the road are not always at the same altitude the rest of the road is. In the case of the rail track, which is still level with the rest of it, there is little support in the way of ground beneath it. Darjeeling is on a very narrow ridge, and getting there is a hazardous journey at the best of times. Take encouragement from the numerous signs painted on every twist and turn that the road takes: ‘On a sharp curve, keep
your nerve!’, ‘If you fall asleep, your family will weep’, ‘Expect the unexpected’, ‘If you want to donate blood, do it in the hospital, not in the road’, and my personal favourite ‘ Arriving 15 minutes late in this life is better than arriving 15 minutes early in the next.’ Darjeeling is known as the Queen of Hills, a city in amongst the clouds. November is the best time to visit as it is not amongst the clouds then and the views of the Himalayas in the distance are supposedly fantastic. On a clear day it is even possible to see Kachenjunga from the higher parts of Darjeeling. If you do visit whilst it is amongst the clouds, choose a good hotel, or be prepared to stay damp for the duration, and expect everything to have the appearance of looking at it through tracing paper. The taxis, buses and train stop a little way down from the top of the ridge, amongst the crowded streets and markets. Keep heading up hill and you leave the bustle behind and come to the streets where traffic is banned. Chowrasta is the main square on top of the ridge, and central to wherever you need to be. Here the old gather on the benches to spy out the day, the pony-wallahs offer rides on emaciated looking donkeys, groups of stray dogs fight for territory or play, and the world rushes to and fro. There are many shops on the streets leading off Chowrasta square, with one of the main attractions being tank-tops which most places seem to stock in every fluffy-wool pastel colour you could want, if that’s your thing. The best place to get to at most times of the day is Glenary’s – a teashop and restaurant. They serve an excellent cup in a room that (without clouds) looks down over the valley and the tea plantations below. The food here is also fantastic, from cakes and pastries to a full sit-down menu in the restaurant upstairs. Apart from walks along the ridge to get some amazing views,
and it is like looking out of an aeroplane window to the valley below, there are plenty of other things to do in Darjeeling. First and foremost, what Darjeeling is famous for, the tea plantations. The nearest of these being a short hike down the ridge to the Happy Valley Tea Estate. To get there you walk through the tea bushes, watching the women picking the buds of the topmost leaves and flinging them behind into baskets strapped to their backs. It’s worth giving it a go on your way to appreciate the precision and concentration that they do this with. Once at the processing plant below you should expect to pay an unofficial guide to take you around and explain the process that the leaves go through before being packed and shipped off. Do not expect a visitors' centre, gift shop or anything that may be a concession to the fact that they get daily visitors. You won’t even be able to buy any of the finished goods, which is a shame, but there are plenty of shops in town that you can buy some of the finest teas from the area, learn a bit about the history of tea-growing, and even get tea parcelled off to anywhere in the world for a small fee. Less well known, but a must if you are in Darjeeling, is the zoo. I’m generally not a great fan of seeing animals in cages, but the zoo here is the only place in the world to successfully breed the rare snow-leopard in captivity, so they must be doing something right. They also have rare red pandas, tigers, leopards, bears and a number of animals that can be seen as frequently outside of the cages as within them, such as doves and rabbits. Make sure you get down to the special snow-leopard enclosure earlier on as it closes before the main part of the zoo. It has a separate charge to get in and even after paying that you may find the animals have been taken in for feeding and the night. If this does happen have a friendly moan to one of the keepers and you may get the rare treat of being taken into th
e leopard house to see feeding time. Whatever you do, do not have a friendly moan to the bear keeper about the lack of bears on display, as being taken into the back of their enclosure to see a number of very unhappy looking specimens rocking back and forth is not a pleasing experience, nor is being given the opportunity to kiss them. The bear keeper also does an excellent job of stirring up the tigers if you enjoy smelling tiger-breath. All misery aside though, the snow leopard is an amazing sight, a truly beautiful creature, and closing your eyes to the rest of the zoo is worth it. Before leaving though take a look in at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute within the grounds of the zoo. This has exhibits in two museum buildings about Everest Treks and loads on Sherpa Norgay Tenzing who founded the place and was its chairman until he died. His memorial and cremation site is in the grounds here as well. Further down the ridge from the zoo is the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Centre where you can learn more about the plight of the Tibetan people, and witness the creation of some of the finest hand-made rugs and woolens, and buy them at very low prices. You do end up feeling you should pay more after walking around the workshops to learn a little about the skill and effort put in to each thing they make. On the way here, or on the way back, you can drop by the Bhutia Busty Monastery, but don’t expect anything more than a large, brightly-painted double-storey house with a few Tibetan monks wandering around. Even further down the ridge from the Self Help Centre, where the ridge topography gives way to flatter ground, there is a race-course, which can be quite an attraction during the season. Darjeeling is populated by many Nepalese people who are extremely friendly and make being here in the poorest of weather a lot more tolerable. It can get very cold, especially with constant cloud cover, and very damp – even my waterproofs wouldn’t
dry properly overnight. But if you wait for that cloud cover to go your trip was worth it just for the views alone. If the cloud cover doesn't go then you can occupy many days exploring the town itself or be energetic and go on a trek into the hills. Just remember to leave enough energy for the journey back to Siliguri, just in case a bit of road construction is necessary.
The Himalayas are the main reason that most people visit Nepal, and even if you are not a mountain climber, a trekker, a rambler or just a good walker, taking a short hike into the foothills and mountains is a must when you are here. Trekking agencies in Kathmandu and Pokhara are as common as coffee shops in Melbourne, so there is plenty to choose from for all abilities. Being at the lowest rung of the trekking ability ladder a friend and I opted for the relaxed sounding Tea House Trek from Pokhara to Poonhill. The Tea House Trek includes a certified guide, and all accommodation and meals on the way. You also need to get a trekking permit, for which you need a passport-size photograph, but the agency you book with can sort this out for you. The trek to Poonhill lasts for four days, climbing just over 2000 metres in altitude. The main attraction of this short trek is to witness sunrise from the top of Poonhill (3170m asl) over the snow-capped peaks of the Annapurna Ranges. It is a magical and eerie site, and the closest I will ever get to feeling like I am on top of the world, with some of the world’s highest peaks in one direction, so close and detailed, and the plains of Nepal and India in the other. Completing the trek was a question of mind over matter, and it wasn’t until the day after we got back to Pokhara did the matter start to mind. Take as little as possible with you – wearing the same smelly, sweat-ridden clothes is fine with all that fresh air around. And be prepared for physical exhaustion, much cursing and leeches. Altitude sickness usually starts to affect people at 3500m asl and so you should be spared from this debilitating condition, but we did see someone suffering badly, so pay attention to your guide and follow all the guidelines – and if the worst comes to the worst, the rescue helicopters start at around $1000 apparently! It is possible to do these treks on your own without a guid
e (and if you are foolish and careful, without a permit), but we learned a lot more from our guide than just a route through the hills. If you are a bit fitter and don’t need a cigarette to help you get up a mountain, you can extend this trek to 21 days and make your way around the Annapurnas. Having finished the trek you may come to understand the emotions of a marathon winner and the expression on their face as they cross the line. Supplies are a bit more expensive on the trek, but when you consider that they have been hiked up there by a person or donkey you don’t really have any complaints. In fact it is quite comforting to walk into your hotel and see KitKats for sale.
Cape Tribulation, the Endeavour Reef, Endeavour River and Mount Sorrow, all named by Captain Cook when he was not having a good time those many years ago. But fear not, these are just names for some of the stunning features of this area north of Cairns. It is about a three-hour drive out of Cairns up the stunning coastal road, past Port Douglas and Mossman. Just before getting to the small town of Daintree there is a turn off for the ferry that will take you across the Daintree River and into the National Park. The ferry operates from early morning to late evening and is only a short wait to get on it, but while you are waiting take some time out to spot a few crocodiles in the river. It costs under $AU10 to take a car across which you pay on the ferry, and be sure to pick up some of the leaflets of the numerous things to do and places to stay. It’s probably not a good idea to say this, but be careful when getting out of your car on the ferry; when I was there someone was killed, crushed between his car door and a truck that was rolling on to the boat. Once off the ferry on the other side you begin to enter pockets of the national park as you continue to head north towards Cape Trib itself. Cape Tribulation is a large headland jutting proudly out of the coastline giving excellent views of reef and rainforest alike. The road alternates between sealed and unsealed, and up until Cape Trib beach any car is fit to make the journey, after this point it is 4WD only. The road also crosses many rivers that, after heavy rains, can be too deep to drive through, but it ain’t half fun trying. This is an amazing stretch of coast, driving through lush tropical rainforest with wide, white-sand beaches and coral reef nearly all the way. This is one of the only areas in the world where coral reef meets tropical rainforest, consequently providing you with a stunning array of things to do, see and take photos of. Take your pick of any number of
beaches, from Cape Kimberley, Cow Bay, Thornton Beach, Noah Beach, Coconut Beach to Cape Trib Beach. For almost complete solitude, and a peaceful afternoon, walking to the far end of Cape Tribulation beach is the best option, as most tourists stray no further than the small creek that flows into the sea half way along. With not much effort you can find an easy crossing or even cool your feet down and wade through the water to get to a fine stretch of beach and some secluded rock pools on the other side. If you get bored of the beach life, or are too wary of there being the lethal box jellyfish or salt water crocodiles in the ocean and creeks, you can head off into the rainforest on any number of guided walks, the best of which to do unaided is the Marrdja Botanical Walk, near Thornton Beach. This free tour takes you on a boardwalk through well-labelled forest and mangrove swamp, pointing out many of the diverse flora and fauna that flourish here. For a more formal introduction to the rainforest, a few kilometres north of the ferry crossing is the Daintree Rainforest Environmental Centre with great displays and another self-guided walk through the forest, although you do have to pay for this one. A number of the hotels in the park have rangers that conduct night walks through the rainforest which are a fantastic way of seeing some of the stranger animals. And if you are a keen spotter of animals, keep your eyes peeled for the Tree Kangaroos and Cassowaries (a giant and nearly extinct bird) that are only found in the wild in this area. They do have a cassowary in Cairns Zoo, which is probably the only place you will see one. Some of the locals in the park have lived there for years and never seen one, but some tourists are treated to a full-grown adult leading chicks across the road when driving through the park on their first day. If you are desperate for a swim and the sea is too full of nasty things there are a number of rock pools and waterholes
in the many rivers that drain off the rain from the forests in the mountains behind. The easiest to find is the one at Cape Trib Store where they have even provided a piece of rope to launch yourself into the cold waters of the river. The locals keep some of the more attractive ones secret, but a bit of cajoling after a few weeks usually spills the beans. Mount Sorrow is a towering peak that overlooks Cape Tribulation and can be trekked up in a day. Be sure to get either good directions, or someone familiar with the path to go with you, as a number of tourists have gotten themselves lost, launching massive and expensive rescue operations. A few enquiries and possibly a bit of sweet talking to the right people, may gain you access to Cairns University’s canopy crane (if it hasn’t been opened to the public yet) which is in the property behind Cape Trib store, part of Coconut Beach Rainforest Resort. This giant crane lifts you up on a platform into the canopy of the rainforest giving a unique peek at life in the upper layers of the trees. There are a number of places to stay in the park, from the free (voluntary contributions and permit necessary!) and very basic campsite at Noah Beach, to the exclusive and expensive Coconut Beach Rainforest Resort. In between these two extremes are places like Club Daintree, with camping grounds and wooden lodges, a good bar/restaurant and an excellent but small swimming pool. Perhaps the most popular destination is PK’s Jungle Village, frequented by many backpackers and always good for a drunken tale or two, it being the only bar open to the public in the area. Here you can camp or stay in large or small dorms, but party is the name of the game so if you are after somewhere quiet, choose elsewhere. It is worth a visit in the evening for heavy drinking and bar games, and many strangers who suddenly become your best friends. Most people will end up in the pool, so make sure everything is waterproof
. For those on a working holiday visa, the hotels and resorts in the park are usually on the lookout for seasonal staff, and if you want a way of seeing the area and learning a few of the local secrets, it is worth asking around. Another bonus in doing this is ending up staying in a nice resort and being offered cheap deals for the many activities that can cost a fair bit otherwise. I managed to get a day out snorkeling on the reef and an introductory scuba dive for AU$50 (about £20), less than half the full price. Other options include a 4WD trip to Cooktown, further north, or scenic flights over the reef and forests, or even horse riding on the beach near PK’s. There are one or two very important things to remember when visiting Cape Tribulation National Park. -There are only two places to fill up your car with petrol in the park, and they are a bit more expensive than all the places you have driven past to get there. -You are staying in a rainforest so don’t be surprised or annoyed when it starts raining heavily on a daily basis. I worked at Coconut Beach Rainforest Resort and in the short time I was there got sick to death of wealthy, but stupid, tourists asking why it rained so much! -There are salt-water crocodiles and box jellyfish in the sea and creeks, which are more prevalent at certain times of the year. This is the reason most hotels and hostels have swimming pools, but check out the ocean, and if others are swimming in it give it a go, just keep your eyes peeled. The bright blue liquid in the plastic bottles along every stretch of beach is vinegar in case of jellyfish stings. Vinegar contracts the stings in the tentacles allowing for easy removal, but you will need to see a doctor fairly rapidly afterwards. -Mosquito repellent is compulsory, the strongest you can find. A few tricks to keep the mosies at bay include having plenty of vitamin B, wearing longer sleeved clothes (which also helps keep the sunb
urn down), and using the fan in your room (it disturbs a mosquito’s flight co-ordination), plus smokers be delighted that smoke has a similar effect. Less appealing, but very sensible, is encouraging the large spiders to stay in your room, to keep the geckos company. Between them not much that flies survives. Most importantly, don’t scratch any bite that you have, no matter how tempting, as after a few minutes you’ll have forgotten about it and scratching only prolongs the itch and can give nasty sores and scars. -Cain toads are a big problem in Queensland, and they have extended their habitat this far north. It is considered a good deed, even polite, to squish as many of them as you can with car or foot; they even burst with a pleasing (to some) pop when driving over them. Sounds disgusting, but even the rangers I worked with would collect them in a bucket on night walks and put them in the freezer (this apparently being the most humane way of killing them). There is a local artist who collects the flattened forms off the road and assigns a sport to them (depending on the pose the tyre has left the toad in) and decorates them accordingly. -Feral pigs are a danger if you disturb them in the forest and running away is not always the best way to avoid a mauling. There are plenty of trees to climb, but beware the goanas (large lizards), whose bites are rancid and sharp, that rest perched halfway up the trunk. National Parks don’t often come as good as this one, with as much or as little to do as you like. A day on the reef is almost compulsory, and a great deal quieter than any of the numerous ones that leave from Cairns. Stay up, or get up early, for the sunrise. This involves sitting on a deserted beach watching the clouds in the sky change through a myriad of colours as the sun rises out of the ocean and sets the forest animals off on their dawn chorus. To get the full experience, stay for weeks if you have the time and get
to know a few locals who are extremely friendly in this close-knit, but spread out community.
South of Calcutta, in the state of Orissa, is the coastal town of Puri, a popular beach resort for many Indian people. About an hours journey by bus to the north of Puri lies the small community of Konark, the locals existing off the economy from the tourists visiting the Sun Temple. This is definitely worth a visit if you happen to be in the area. The Temple was built in the thirteenth century and is as beautiful (although under extensive repair) as any of the many Hindu Temples to be seen in India, if only for its size. What is amazing is the base of the Temple. Only very recently rediscovered beneath the sands around the Temple is a base, largely intact and ornately sculptured with figures from the Karma Sutra carved into the sides of a chariot on which the temple is being carried. At the front of the chariot, a team of horses, between which are stairs leading into the Temple itself. Four two-metre high wheels are on the four corners of the base. Standing back, the effect is of the entire Temple being raced towards the rising sun and bewildering at all times of the day, even when lit up at night. Konark and the Temple are about 3 kilometres from the beach, a nice walking distance for those brave enough to go for a swim. The town consists of not more than a crescent-shaped road around the front of the Temple, and a few food and gift stalls, with a few hotels behind. Four of us stayed in the government run Yatri Nivas Hotel for £2 (50p each). We shared a room that was very clean, had the obligatory ceiling fan and mosquito nets, and had its own spotlessly clean bathroom. The Sun Temple doesn’t get as many visitors as it deserves, but then at least it is being protected from the kind of damage that tourism brings. Nevertheless, it is an amazing site, akin to Borobudur in Java, and worth a look in if you are passing this way.
North of Ho Chi Minh, on the coast, lies the beautiful town of Nha Trang, which is well worth spending a few days in if you are visiting this amazing country. Arriving by train is probably the most comfortable means of getting there, but if you are coming from Hanoi it is more likely that you will be arriving at around 3am (the train from Ho Chi Minh arrives during the day). If you have the money then flying there is also an option. It is about 11 hours in a minibus from Ho Chi Minh. We arrived on the Hanoi train (a 30 hour journey) and rather than follow the touts around town in the middle of the night, decided to sit around the station until day break at least before venturing into town and finding a hostel. Sitting on a bench outside the station we were treated to an impromptu live (one man) sex show as a local, whose sleeping bench was opposite ours, decided to have a wafty crank whilst staring at us. A fine welcome. Nha Trang is best known for its beautiful beach, which is a fantastic hang out for a sunny day/week or two. It is amazingly clean and quiet with palm trees, white sands and blue sea, and a spectacular backdrop of hills surrounding the bay. There are also a number of stalls along the roadside that runs along the sea front, under the shade of some giant trees, where you can buy drinks and ice creams. The sea can get quite rough and the undercurrents strong when the weather turns, so hang on to your swimming trunks/ bikini bottoms tightly because once its got them you never see them again (but that’s another story). Also beware the seldom giant wave which strikes whilst you are wading around looking for your friends clothes amongst the surf. This one washes further up the shore than all of the rest put together and no matter how safe and dry you think your towel, book, walkman are… If the weather has turned you could do worse than sitting in one of the ice-cream cafes in town and watch the world go by for a coupl
e of hours. Not only do they serve the meanest banana splits, but whole stories from soap operas are acted out in front of you as the locals go about their daily business and you are bound to witness some minor road accident that stirs things up a bit. The Banana Split Café itself also has a lemon vodka on the menu for around 5000 dong (about 25p), a long tall glass of mostly vodka and a hint of lemon. If you want to drink with the rest of the tourists in town then head to the Nha Trang Sailing Club on the sea front. It kicks off most nights with a bit of a disco and a number of drunken laughs, but it is a bit pricey. On a more serious side to life and travelling in Vietnam, you will hear stories of the enormity of paedophilia. In Nha Trang the residents have taken the step to print hundreds of T-shirts for the local young children to wear which say ‘Child Sex is a Crime’ and ‘Enfant + Sexe C’est Criminel’. It is a shocking site to see a child wearing one of these T-shirts, and an excellent cause that you can easily afford to donate money to. Nha Trang has a stunning Hindu (?) Temple complex that is well worth a visit, although you will be charged three times the price as the locals to get in to see it. And, as with a lot of places in this part of the world, there is also a Giant Seated Buddha perched atop a hill near the railway station with great views of the town. Perhaps the biggest tourist attraction in town, and the least written about, is Mamma Hanh’s Boat Trip. A legend amongst travellers in this part of the world, Mamma Hanh’s Boat Trip costs around $10 and takes you out into the bays many islands for a days swimming and lounging around whilst Mamma Hanh herself forces food, booze and spliffs to anyone in need. If it rains the boat trip will be cancelled so don’t bother getting out of bed, but dates are easily transferable. The local police know all about what happens on the boat an
d most of your ticket price will go as a backhander for turning a blind eye. If you are fortunate to be exploring this amazing country Nha Trang is (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again) definitely worth a visit, even during the rainy season.
Its one of those drives that start somewhere nice, end somewhere even nicer, and all the middle bits are just great. Cairns is known as a centre for many different activities, but there is no beach to enjoy. Fear not, as most people head north or south to the many great beaches that litter the coastline, and it is in heading north that you hit the coastal road to Port Douglas and some amazing beaches. The road twists and turns northwards, hugging the coastline, and you will find most of the way the beaches and sea to one side and cliffs and mountains immediately on the other. If you can manage to not stop at the stunning beaches along the way, and put your foot down as hard as your driving skills will let you, you end up with your own rollercoaster ride, coral reef to one side and rainforest to the other. To be done in style with an open-topped car, but if your budget doesn’t stretch that far just ask a friendly welder in Cairns to remove the top half of your car (the can opening blade on a Swiss Army knife doesn’t work!). A tape of your favourite tunes is essential. As is a strict ‘no other passengers’ policy, unless they too enjoy the same tunes, trust your driving at high speeds and can keep quiet for an hour or two. Once arriving in Port Douglas, have a relaxing hour on the magnificent beach, and then head back again. Think of it as a playstation driving game, to be done again and again, and each time you get faster and cheekier. Just remember there is no room for error, and you can’t reset or start again if you go wrong.
By far and away the most interesting and enjoyable way to travel around most countries in Asia is by train. There are generally no hard and fast rules that can be applied to every railway across this continent, apart from the fact that you should allow at least 3 hours to purchase your ticket, and preferably do it one day in advance, just in case. Anyone expecting a train to be on time should really reconsider their priorities – I’m not saying they are never on time, just don’t expect them to be and you won’t get all worked up when six hours later your train still hasn’t shown up. In India – rail travel is cheap and fun; the train is full of people selling drinks or food; your travelling companions are generally very friendly and will be fascinated with your walkman/book/cards/etc. which are worth passing around for everyone to have a good old look at (don’t worry, theft will not happen at this level); theft may happen overnight though, and if you are on a sleeper train it is best to chain your rucksack to anything handy and lie with it on your bed; frequent stops at stations mean that progress is slow, but this gives you a chance to get off and sample some of the fantastic foods on offer on the platform (freshly made omelettes are a tasty treat); toilet facilities are usually open to choice – western or squat styles – but after about half an hour most people head to the squat, it stays cleaner longer. In Nepal – you are doing very well to be on a train in a country where there aren’t any. In China – train travel is a precise and officious business; you are not allowed in to the station without a valid ticket to travel, and once in the station you wait until your train is ready to depart until you are allowed onto the platform to board; you tend to get herded around at this point, but go with the flow because the trains are very fancy; one train I was on was sponsored
by Becks Bier, which meant green and blue crushed velvet curtains and trimmings with the logo everywhere, and a trolley that passed every now and then stocked with said brew; communicating is a lot harder with your fellow passengers, but always worth it; if you don’t get a sleeper carriage for a long journey then watch out for the world and his wife bedding down above, under and beside you (when the lights go out make sure you have been to the toilet and are very comfortable in the exact position you are in as that is it until daybreak). In Vietnam – a strange affair with amazing benefits, but very slow progress; the stations are nice places and the trains quite comfortable and very clean; the best benefit is that the price of your ticket includes three meals a day – but beware, breakfast is very early, followed by lunch at around 10 or 11 am, and then a big long famine until dinner at around 7pm; seats are comfortable enough for even a long journey (I did 30 hours), but I believe the sleeper bunks were nothing more than wooden planks with a bit of padding. In Malaysia – my experience here is slightly coloured by the fact that I took the Jungle Train from Kota Bharu to Kuala Lipis; I point this out because this train is also known as the Smugglers Train and you travel with smuggled produce from Thailand; saying that though, it is scarier when you are waiting on the platform with more fruit and vegetables than people or luggage – when the train arrives one of the most efficient loading processes takes place and if you are not quick about it you may be the last on and because the produce is smuggled in over the border it is stashed away almost beyond sight in every nook and cranny imaginable, and you may find no room for your backpack. In Indonesia – you will want for nothing on trains in Indonesia; there is a constant stream of vendors of everything and anything, and if you miss them the first time roun
d it will only take the length of the train before they are back again. As for the other countries I have failed to mention, well I didn’t travel by rail everywhere, so any help … ? Thailand anyone ? Train journeys in this part of the world are the source of many a great story as you can guarantee something odd will happen each time, so prepare for the weird, sit back and enjoy, and make sure you have something to do.
The last remnant of France in this corner of the world, the capital city, and an excellent destination to start exploring Vietnam without having to concentrate on the recent war. The Vietnamese have long since put the war with the USA behind them, apart from creating tourist attractions out of their own misery (but generally this means that the Americans, who are most interested, come in their droves to give their dollars that are helping reconstruct the country they virtually obliterated – poetic justice?!). Hanoi, unlike Ho Chi Minh, leaves most of this history behind and concentrates on the French colonial days. The old quarter of Hanoi is a picturesque, leafy-laned, tranquil and beautiful area with many attractions, well worth spending a couple of days exploring in more detail. Take a day out to go shopping. Hanoi has very conveniently divided this area of town into miniature shopping districts. Shoe shops can be found in the same street, as can toy shops, paint shops, etc. Imagine a large department store… For vegetarians and Andrex puppy lovers alike, a visit to one of the many food markets is not a wise idea. “I’m so hungry I could eat a dog…” is a phrase not to be joked about. In fact, you will see more than one happy camper off to sell a whining puppy or two at the market, crammed in a small cage strapped to the back of a bicycle. If this puts you off red meat then I believe the seafood is excellent, especially the squid. Hanoi is also the best place to see the traditional Vietnamese Water Puppet Theatre. The Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre faces the large park in the middle of the old quarter and is perhaps the best known place to see this unique form of theatre. So what is Water Puppet Theatre? Well, take a normal theatre, build a large pool on the stage and then get some very skilled puppeteers and some ornate puppets. The puppeteers hide out of view at the back of the pool, waist deep in wat
er, and use the puppets to tell some traditional Vietnamese folk tales, including ones with fire breathing dragons and local fishermen. The Vietnamese are a really friendly nation, and you can spend many an hour talking to, or just watching them. The old style of life is still prevalent even in this relatively modern city. They are a very beautiful people, small-framed and wear clothes that show this off. If you are feeling fat in any way, you’ll spend your time being envious. They still carry things around using yokes, and wear those conical reed/straw hats that extend almost completely over the head. There is also plenty of nightlife to be found in Hanoi, whether it be just taking advantage of the extremely cheap living (for a Westerner) and having a few drinks in your local eatery/bar, or finding a nightclub. If you want to go to a club that is reminiscent of high school discos with the added attraction of a bar, then head to the Roxy. Remember the days when girls were on one side and boys on the other? The Roxy provides all of those memories and more, for you also get a locals/tourists divide. If you hang around long enough you can enjoy all the fun of a fight as a small Vietnamese tries to protect his sister/girlfriend from the clutches of a lecherous, large American Naval type block of muscle. The whole bar joins in and a great time was had by all who stayed. Those who left when chairs started flying had a good nights sleep. Word of warning: the Vietnamese are very keen on a Scandinavian band called Michael Learns to Rock; imagine the very worst Bryan Adams ballad that you feel has been played once too often after the first time you heard it, and then repeat this over several albums, and, hey presto…a great reason not to listen to the local radio stations. Hanoi is a very good starting point to explore the area, and all of the tourist cafes/hotels organise various trips to the surrounding areas. Unlike many Asian countri
es where you can struggle and make your own way to see something, in Vietnam you really need to take one of the organised outings. From Hanoi you can go further north and inland to visit the hill tribes in some of the most spectacular natural landscape you will ever see. The area, from the northwest hinterland right out into the ocean is littered with amazing limestone cliff-faces of hundreds of small outcrops that tower above you. In Ha Long Bay, to the east of Hanoi in the Sea of China, these outcrops form a bay of thousands of islands. It is very difficult to describe, but if you have seen The Man with the Golden Gun or Tomorrow Never Dies, the bay is mentioned, even if they did film the scenes off the west coast of Thailand (The Beach is another film that would give you an idea of what it looks like). You can go on a two day cruise around the islands, and even spend a night or two on Cat Ba Island, a national island Nature Reserve. Mostly, though, enjoy Hanoi for its people and atmosphere. The French left a legacy of great coffee and great bread to these people amongst many other influences, and eating becomes a pleasure, not least with many fantastic Vietnamese dishes. If you are in Vietnam it is worth trying the Dragon fruit, which is very hard to find outside of the country, and has a very refreshing, if slightly perfumey taste. And if you must, then dog is on the menu, but you may be hard pushed to get a local to admit that to a tourist. Vietnam is only just opening its doors to tourists and it is very difficult to see why, it being such a beautiful place, but the great scars of land destroyed by napalm and war are only just recovering and the economy is only just waking up to foreign markets. My advice is be one of the few, one of the first and one of the adventurous – get there soon…
If you have never experienced road travel in Asia and you are about to set off on your world tour it is worth knowing a few things about what you are about to go through: 1. The Road (when there is a road) The roads are generally fine, when they last. Mostly the road is okay for a short distance until the tarmac stops for some unknown technical reason, and then it starts again in patches, gradually becoming solid tarmac again after a few hundred metres of potholes. Think of the road as a route of tarmac dripped onto the landscape by someone not really paying much attention to detail or continuity. An important rule to remember is that the middle of the road is a lot less pot-holed than the edge of the road, this fact is important not to forget and is the reason why road travel is so exciting (see point 4). Also be aware that heavy rains can allow the road to become and behave like a river. You can hold on to the belief that the vehicle you are in is in some way able to be a boat as well, but take most comfort in the fact that your presence inside is providing essential weight to keep the tyres and the road connected to each other so you won’t be asked to get out and help punt the bus to the shore/next bit of dry road. 2. The Vehicle It has probably been repaired more times than the Queen Mum, and could give her a run (or walk) for her money when it comes to age. If you think you are being wise by purchasing a more expensive ticket for air-conditioned transport, think again. The bus will be in the same state as the un-air-conditioned one, except that it will be very cold, so wrap up warm (and on occasion wear something waterproof as air-con can leak, and if it is going to be leaking, then you can take a safe bet it will be on top of you). A broken window can be the vehicle’s form of air-conditioning, so don’t complain. If you are in a vehicle that has an emergency exit and it looks like it has been used as an emergency entrance,
well… yeah, just be a lot more worried about what is outside the bus. On journeys through mountainous regions it can be safer to ride on the roof with your luggage as this affords you the opportunity to jump at the last minute before your bus disappears down the ravine. Travelling inside the vehicle is usually with your luggage on your lap or at your feet. This is either because you got to the bus a split second after it stopped and the locals have already loaded it with agricultural produce, or because you value your possessions and want to keep them within cuddling distance. 3. The Driver If anything this is your wild card. The driver is a law unto himself, and the laws he drives by are known only to him. Variables here include when the horn is used, when headlights are used, and even more baffling, when indicators are used (one idea is that they are used to make the vehicle flash a bit to look good when it is near another vehicle, and sometimes it seems that hazard lights are there to indicate to other drivers that the vehicle is not turning in either direction at the next junction, but going straight on). 4. Other road users The larger the vehicle (and a large load on a small vehicle entitles said vehicle to having a larger specification rating), the more right of way you have. The exception here is when there are large numbers of small vehicles, such as bicycles or mopeds, which act as an enormous many-wheeled vehicle with a law unto itself. Pedestrians have as much right to the road as vehicles, especially as there is very rarely a pavement. Remember each driver was taught a different set of rules and so uses the instruments in a different way to everyone else, and sensibly show no trust in any other driver. The middle of the road is always the smoothest surface and consequently the best bit to drive on. This situation leads to a rather amusing game of chicken as two vehicles travelling in opposite directions fight for that middle stretc
h. As always, size wins, but that means the smaller vehicle is going to hang on to the smooth surface for as long as possible – all the thrill of the funfair. A wider road does not stop the problem, but actually increases it on an exponential scale. In some Asian countries, animals (in particular, cows) are above and beyond the law (and they know this). If your bus comes screaming to a halt, firstly thank someone that the brakes work, and secondly take bets on how long the cow in front is going to play the staring game with the headlights of your vehicle. 5. Being stopped On occasion, and sometimes frequently, you may be stopped by uniformed people. Do not panic. They could be police or army or some other enforcers, and they almost always leave terrified looking backpackers alone. If they do want to see your documents, smile and show them. If you are in the mood or need to bribe these people make sure you have enough for all of them. These rules are a safe bet in most Asian countries, however I should exclude Malaysia and Singapore where the public transport system is a lot more comfortable than a National Express coach going up the M1. Another important thing to remember is that in some countries, in particular China, it can be a long slow process trying to get the ticket to where you want to go and be sure that you have bought the right ticket, let alone got on the correct bus at the depot, but more importantly is knowing where to get off as there is no help in translating the local Mandarin/Cantonese/whatever road signs to tell you where you are. Falling asleep, if you can, is probably the best option to avoid severe mental stress, but then if you are a thrill seeker, stay awake and you’ll be in heaven.
If you are considering travelling around Australia, one of the best places to start is Perth. Not only is it a fantastic place to stay for a while, but also it is one of the cheapest places to start your tour, and this includes buying a car. (Darwin and Sydney are the two most expensive places to do this.). Having bought your car you are in for one of the drives of your life. You can either head east to Adelaide across the Nullarbor (quite possibly the longest straight stretch of road in the world), or you can blow your mind and see parts of Australia and the world that very few others have had the pleasure. There is very little in the way of civilisation along this stretch of coast, but every 250 kms you can fill up or get repairs done if need be. The road has only in the past ten or so years been completely tarmacked, so four wheel drives are no longer necessary. Your first point of interest on this journey is the Nambung National Park near Cervantes, where you can marvel at nature’s own Stonehenge in the form of The Pinnacles. The place is best visited at dawn or dusk when the daytrippers from Perth are not around and you can throw caution to the wind, take your clothes off and frolic around between the strange pillars. Or alternatively, you can keep your clothes on and take advantage of the excellent natural light and photograph the kangaroos trying to blend in to the scenery. The drive through the Pinnacles can get difficult after heavy rains if your car isn’t 4WD. The next place to drop by is Kalbarri. A small town on the coast surrounded by a National Park, which has scenic gorges and rainforest, and some excellent views out across the ocean. Before feeling overcome by the desire to show your physical agility it is worth remembering that instead of climbing up Red Bluff from the beach, you can get in your car and drive up. This also saves one of your drivers having to go back down again to fetch the car. A few hundred kilometres fu
rther north take the turning for Denham, and head to the enormous Shark Bay, another of Australia’s World Heritage Sites. There are several reasons for heading out this way. First off the road are the Hamelin Pools to see the stromatolites. On the face of it they appear to be the left overs of a quick-drying cement throwing contest, but then you find out that these ancient ‘cyanobacterial microbes’ provided the earth’s atmosphere with most of its oxygen, and you sort of want to say thanks. Next up is Shell Beach, so called because the beach, 110km long, is made entirely of shells that goes up to 10 metres deep in places. It is worth wearing shoes to walk around on this beach. The shells are quite small and perfectly white, making a stunning beach, but beware; there is no shade. At one end of the beach a fence stops you from getting too close to the mining facility that excavates these calcium rich shells. Denham itself isn’t a top spot to stop at for long, but keep going west and you get to Monkey Mia. Don’t be fooled into thinking this place is a small town, it is a dolphin research station with a small but excellent campsite attached to it. It is here where you can stand knee deep in the sea and watch the dolphins get fed around you. This is quite an amazing thing, but a few things to bear in mind before you get too excited; firstly, the station rangers are very strict about the depth you can wade to (fair enough, but they are quite nasty about it), secondly, it is all a bit Pavlovian in that it is the same few dolphins that arrive twice a day to be fed, and lastly, you are definitely not the only ones crowding the beach to see this. The campsite does have excellent facilities, including a tennis court, which is free to use, and a thatch covered swimming pool, keeping the water at a nice chilly temperature, alongside a hot tub in which you can sit and look out across the beach through the palm trees. Staying in the hot tub for t
oo long can provoke other visitors to come and ask you when you are getting out, but you can keep it up for about 5 hours before all the wine you’ve been sipping forces you to the toilets. The next biggest town still heading north is Carnarvon. It is here when you really start to feel how intrusive urban areas can get after days of almost being completely alone, so use it as a fuel and food stop if you must and keep going. It is only an hour to the next turn off to see the blowholes and Lake Macleod. With a bit of luck you may see water in the lake as you drive around it towards the coast to see the blowholes, which are an amazing piece of natural engineering. Even more amazing is the location of the public toilet. Climb the stairs to the seated area and if there is no one else around or you don’t mind, leave the door open and enjoy the sea bursting through the holes in the rocks whilst … well, you know. It is somewhere along this fine stretch that the road widens and there are signs for drivers to look out for landing aircraft. So keep your eyes on the road and the skies, but it is for flying doctors so if there was an accident you would be in good hands. Next up is a brief diversion off the main highway to Exmouth. You can stop and get your photo taken as you cross the Tropic of Capricorn, or even add your name to the much-scribbled on sign. In Exmouth you can take a trip on a glass-bottomed boat and go snorkeling on the Ningaloo Reef, the east coast’s answer to the Great Barrier reef. The fishes are quite tame here and feeding frenzies ensue when you are given food to throw in from the boat, or if you are daring and quick enough you can jump in let the fish eat from your hand, the marine equivalent of feeding pigeons in Trafalgar Square. There is an excellent garage in Exmouth if your car needs repairing, but if you do find yourself in a situation where you may need a spare part along this entire route it is best to phone ahead
to your next stop as it is quite possible that the part you need has to be ordered from Perth on the overnight courier. The coastal road at this point can be quite monotonous, but you can head inland and see some spectacular gorges, but be careful as fuel stops are less plentiful and sometimes a 4WD is necessary. Port Headland is the next large town whose main function is as a port for all the mineral mines further inland. It is best to keep driving and get to Broome, with possibly a short stop at 80-mile beach to marvel at the extent sand and fishermen that line the stretch. Broome is the place to set up camp for a while and relax after the long drive so far. It was the centre for pearl diving in Australia, and has a large Japanese and Chinese influence as a result. It is now a top getaway spot for many Australians and tourists and consequently has a very cosmopolitan atmosphere. The best thing to do during the day is head to Cable Beach, white sands, clear blue water, and even camels to ride, or you can walk to the far end of the beach to the lighthouse and enjoy spectacular sunsets from the cliffs. If you are patient enough to wait for a very low tide you can see dinosaur tracks in the rocks below the lighthouse. For those with less time, patience and interest there is a cast of the footprints on the cliff top. Once a month Broome bears witness to a phenomenon called Staircase to the Moon, when on a cloudless night the rising full moon creates a rippled effect across the water. From Broome the highway turns east inland. If you trust your car and have the supplies, head into the Kimberleys, and the Bungle Bungles, which has some of the most spectacular scenery in Australia. Otherwise keep to the main road and experience some of the scenery by taking brief diversions off it to Geikie Gorge, or south to the Wolfe Creek meteorite crater. Another interesting experience for the brave is buying alcohol at Fitzroy Crossing, but don’t do it alone or at
night! Another brief diversion off the main road to Wyndham is well worth it to see Five Rivers Lookout from atop Mt Bastion. You can drive all the way up to take in a spectacular 360 degree view of the five rivers that converge in the valleys below, and with a bit of luck you will see the crocodiles that lurk in the waters. If you like fruit, or fruit picking, then your next stop will be heaven. Kununurra offers you the chance to pick, pack and eat an enormous range of fruit and veg, and is equally a pleasant and remote stop off point. From here head east to the border with the Northern Territories where the road becomes a nice thing to drive on again, and driving behind the road trains is the only sure fire way to avoid hitting roos. At Katherine you can stop off to see the stunning Katherine Gorge, before heading north to Darwin. There are a number of diversions you can take off this road up to Darwin, Kakadu National Park, Litchfield National Park, Berry Springs and the Territory Wildlife Park, but all of these are better enjoyed as day trips or weekend trips out of Darwin. You have just driven around 10 thousand kilometres and given yourself an experience hard to forget. Allow at least two weeks for this trip to see most of the things I have mentioned, or take a month out to enjoy it a bit more. If I could do it again I would certainly have spent a lot longer in that hot tub at Monkey Mia, and probably settled down in Broome for a good few years.
A short ferry journey away from Fremantle and Perth in Western Australia lies the beautiful Rottnest Island, or Rotto as it is locally known. Perfect for a day trip away from the mainland, it is a haven of peace and tranquility. It is named after the small rat-like wallabies called quokkas that inhabit island. Originally an island prison for Aboriginal people to whom the invading Europeans took an instant dislike to (well, the last thing you want when expanding the empire is some native person telling you not to take their land), it is now a popular get-away from the world’s most isolated capital, Perth. Take a bicycle with you or hire one on the island, and a picnic, and head off around the island’s roads in search of your own beach or vantagepoint. The museum or one of the shops in the village where the boat drops you off can provide you with a map of the island with which to plan your day and make sure you take in all the interesting stops. You can stay on the island in whichever manner suits your budget, but it can be cycled round in one day with enough time to sun-bathe, go for a swim (skinny dipping is also a sneaky option on the more remote beaches), and walk up to the highest point of the island for a view. Plus, the salt lakes in the middle of the island are the best places to spot a quokka, if you haven’t already had one boldly rummage through your backpack for food. As with most Australian wildlife, the quokka is fortunately not elusive. In fact, again as with most Australian wildlife, walking right up to them is an easy task. (I suppose for safety’s sake I should point out that walking or swimming up to some Australian wildlife is not a very sensible thing to do, bearing in mind that some of it can kill you – marsupials are generally a safe bet though). You are asked not to feed the quokkas, as they should naturally be encouraged to forage for themselves, but their foraging is getting more forward, and you don’t w
ant to scare them. There is a museum on the island, as well as boat trips to see shipwrecks and some of the world’s southern most growing coral. The lighthouse is also a major attraction, with excellent views out to sea, a great spot to see the sun set into the ocean, an experience everyone should witness at least once. The best time to go is during the week during term time, as it can get less tranquil at weekends and during school holidays, although not unbearably so.
Tucked away in the farthest corner of Australia at the mouth of the Swan River lies Fremantle, the port of Perth, which is just a few kilometres further inland up the river. Fremantle is a town on its own with enough to keep you occupied for quite a while. Not only is it an ideal and friendlier base to explore the local area, but also is an excellent place to start and end any trip around Western Australia and indeed the entire country. Fremantle, or Freo as it is known by the locals, is experiencing a revival in fortunes with its laid back atmosphere, coffee shops along ‘Cappuccino Strip’ and its excellent markets that bring the town to life over the weekends. It is definitely the place to enjoy a lazy, dog-dangling afternoon having a few drinks or sitting on the beach or in one of its many parks. It doesn’t take long to get the hang of the town, nor to get sucked in and kick back for a while. There are two main markets, one near the old prison at the end of the main stretch of coffee shops, selling everything from take-away food, health food, fruit and veg, art, jewelry, to your essential I-don’t-need-this-but-I’m-gonna-buy-it-anyway niknaks. The other, equally worth a visit and selling similar things, is in the harbour, with a fine view of the ships coming to and fro. The artwork enjoys better displays here, and you treat it as a miniature work-by-local-artists gallery. It should be said that it is wise to avoid being around the when the sheep and cattle ships that leave every two weeks from here are in harbour as the smell does drift, and the sight is not pleasing to the sensitive or vegetarians of the world. Old Fremantle Prison itself does night visits for the less easily spooked, but you can enjoy the confines during the day if you are fascinated with such idiotic means of social justice. Also, on the things to do and see list are the obligatory museums – the Fremantle Museum and Arts Centre, the Shell Museum (m
ore like a large shop with good displays of all sea creatures’ homes and teeth), and the Maritime Museum. A good vantagepoint over the town is the Round House, the oldest public building in Western Australia. The charm of Freo is that no-where is far from anywhere in the town. The architecture covers the full spectrum of recent Australian history, including the glorious Sail and Anchor pub where you can partake in the local custom of drinking whilst at the same time feeling cultural by the splendour of your surroundings. And beyond the charm of the town lies a number of places to go to if you are caffeine-surplussed. South of Freo is the Margaret River Wine region, a rash of surfing beaches, the town of Augusta where you can stand in the south-west corner of Australia and see the Indian and Southern Oceans in one view or go whale watching. Further west along the spectacular coast line you can visit Pemberton, and climb the Gloucester Tree, 60 metres up to a fire look-out platform (if you decide to do this to see the sunset remember that you are coming down in the dark!), the Valley of the Giants where you can walk along platforms through the tree-top canopy amongst the enormous karri and tingle trees. East of Freo you can visit the gold-boom town of Kalgoorlie-Boulder, and Wave Rock (so called because….). To the north is Perth with many attractions, but for the best view of the city go to Kings Park, by day or night. Further to the north, a good day trip away, are the Pinnacles. And, yes, even to the west of Freo, beyond the port, a day trip to the beautiful Rottnest Island, for its beaches, its tranquility and isolation, and the quokkas, a rat-like looking wallaby. Staying in Freo on a budget, the Old Firestation Backpackers is the place to be. It is cheap, very friendly and if you are in need of work the manager usually can find you something in a few days, even if it is working in the excellent Indian Restaurant underneath the hostel. And if y
ou are extremely lucky you may even get to slide down the old fireman’s pole from the common room into the restaurant. If you do get there, say hi from me!
Named after noted evolutionist Charles Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territories in Australia has poetically much to owe to the forces of nature in its own growth as a town. Christmas Day in 1974 saw most of the town flattened by Cyclone Tracy, and the spirit of modern Darwin evolved during its reconstruction. The town is still haunted by the after effects of this natural phenomenon, but in the true style and spirit of a Darwinian, the modern and the feral blend to an exciting mix of almost-urban and comfortably psychotic. Darwin is one of the best cities Australia has to offer. It may be home to more than half of the entire Northern Territories population, but 100 000 people is not large by any means, and when you first arrive you can be forgiven for thinking everyone is out of town on business because you’ve managed to park in the main high street quite easily in the lunch time almost-bustle. Everything except the heat is almost here: it is almost a city, it is almost busy, it is almost racing with life. It is the heat that dominates the entire lifestyle of Darwin. Air-conditioning is a prerequisite to any building, and don’t be ashamed of seeking it out to grab hold of your senses once a day. Many people can be seen going shopping on a daily basis without buying anything. In fact, there are some chairs in the shopping malls that have only ever had one person’s bum testing their usefulness. It is the heat that provides the psychotic side to life in Darwin. If you are lucky enough to be there in September, October, November or December during the build-up, there is only one rule, trust nothing and no one, not even yourself, your senses have been cooking. They call this the silly season, the mango season, going troppo. It is a time when the season changes from dry to wet. But before the monsoons come, the place just keeps getting more hot and humid by the day, for months on end, sending the residents slightly nuts. True statistics, c
rime rates rise, suicides increase…Okay, I’m not painting the best picture here, it also has several lovely museums… The Australian Army, Navy and Air Force primarily still dominate the town. Yes, they did get attacked by the Japanese during the last world war, but what invasion they expect from Indonesia in the current climate can only be joked about. If you are not defending your countries vast northern desert, you are a tourist in Darwin, and that includes everyone that was born and lives there. It is very difficult to find a Darwinian that admits to being born there, and when you do, they seem to have spent some time elsewhere in Oz and have only come back because of some legal technicality that would have resulted in fines or sentencing. Strange then that they find sanctuary in the Northern Territories, where mandatory sentencing is law. Still not a pretty enough picture… You really need a car to enjoy Darwin and the local surrounds. There is a fantastic outdoor cinema showing some of the best in Australian and foreign art-house films, the casino to fritter away your money on a lazy day, many bars and pubs, a naturist beach, Mindil Beach markets once or twice a week where you can buy fantastic food from every one of Darwin’s 50 or so ethnic groups, swimming pools galore when you have had enough of the air-conditioning, some of the best sunsets in the world, beautifully kept Botanic Gardens, and the excellent Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territories. You may be wondering why there are swimming pools galore in a town surrounded on three sides by tropical oceans, but a visit to the museum will show you why staying out of the ocean is probably for the best, health-wise that is. There are a large number of things in the sea that aren’t conducive to living: the crocs, the sharks, the box jellyfish, the stone fish, the blue-ringed octopi, the sea snakes, cone-shells…. It is fascinating to see a display of
so many lethal sea-creatures, but that is not all that the museum has to offer. There is an excellent interactive display on Cyclone Tracy, some fantastic Aboriginal and other Australian art, some excellent sculptures on the beach it looks over, and the restaurant does an excellent smoothie. If you do find yourself in Darwin and wondering whether you should visit the Fannie Bay Gaol, allow me to reassure you that the most exciting part of your visit will be that initial wondering as to what it will be like. What is best to love about Darwin above any other Australian city, is that it is the most conscious of its Aboriginal heritage and if you take time you can see the influence and interaction between the two dominating cultures. Darwin offers itself as a base to explore some of Australia’s most remote and beautiful places. Worth mentioning, and worth visiting are the Territory Wildlife Park, Berry Springs Nature Park, Litchfield National Park, Bathurst and Melville Islands and the famous Kakadu National Park, which is a world heritage site for its natural and cultural importance.
Ko Pi Pi, Thailand Island paradise or tourist-ridden and spoiled Eden? Some guide books, the ones we had, suggest not going to Ko Pi Pi as it is not very attractive or special, and it is a protected reserve. A plausible attempt to keep a myriad of backpackers from turning up and ruining what is a picture-postcard, white-sand, limestone-cliff, and tropical nirvana. A two-hour boat trip from Krabbi on the southwest Thai mainland, Ko Pi Pi is two islands ? Pi Pi Don and Pi Pi Lay. One a sheer cliff fortress of limestone, protected by the locals as it is the source of birds nests that are the main ingredient of a certain soup that Campbell?s has yet to condense; the other, slightly larger, a centre of tourism and dream destination for the active and lazy. This is the poor mans Phuket, which is but a short boat trip to the northwest. The island was used to film The Beach and created an enormous rush amongst the backpacking world to get there when it became known that they were using backpackers in the film for smaller parts and for extras. The story goes that the rush was so great that they stopped people from going there, as the place became too crowded with too many wannabes. We found ourselves on Ko Pi Pi after a number of days searching for a beach to relax on after months of travelling without much let up. Mid-November is the rainy season in this part of the world ? just weeks before a tropical cyclone had hit Southern Vietnam and had tragically killed thousands of Vietnamese fisherman (a storm which passed over us while we were sleeping in a hotel in Saigon, Ho Chi Minh, waking us up thinking the rain was a bit heavy that night). We had the choice, according to the Thai weather reports, of going to the much talked of east coast islands Ko Samui and Ko Phangan where clouds with rain drops were appearing in large clusters, or the west coast resorts of Ao Nang, Krabbi, or Ko Pi Pi where clouds with no rain drops were gathering for som
e sort of summit. I get enough rain in England, so the wise choice of heading for the western side of the country was made where the cloud summit had ended and a lot of wet looking backpackers were drying out after making a different decision to ours. Arriving by boat to the main village on the island, sprawled between two horse-shoe shaped bays, you are confronted with the choice of joining the crowd and finding one of the many hotels that cater for all budgets, or hopping straight onto one of the smaller boats which act as taxis to the 30 or so smaller beaches around the island. Wanting nothing more than peace and quiet, we opted for the latter and headed for the next beach along from the village, Long Beach ? so named because it is quite a long beach. The resort here has accommodation for all, ranging from the very cheap (£1 a night) to the slightly more comfortable. Being cheapskates we ended up in a wooden hut at the far end of the beach that had a large bed with mosquito net, a table and a small balcony. The huts are all on stilts in case of high tide, which meant we had white sand beneath us and a clear sea collapsing distance away. The main village is the active centre of the island, where you can take trips out around the island, organise your scuba-diving, do a PADI scuba-diving course and join in the rastafied heaven of smoking the day away listening to Bob Marley on a pile of cushions with a bunch of strangers. Tempting, but the ?Bangkok Hilton? is not where you want to end up. For those not comfortable with strapping a tank of air to your back and startling the gilled creatures of the waters, an experience that is, in truth, simply amazing, you can take the seemingly less exotic option of snorkeling. A pair of flippers, mask and snorkel can be hired for about £1 a day. This will afford you the reality of floating in a giant tropical fishtank, staring in wonder at the colour of the corals and fish alike. This is also a go o
d opportunity for the aquatic flora and fauna to have a good look at you ? beware the flora that has eyes. Snorkeling is just as amazing as scuba diving, although different to some extent. The more colourful creatures tend to stay nearer the surface amongst the corals within snorkeling vision, whilst the weirder and larger ones can be seen diving. Night dives come highly recommended. At night we were treated to the most spectacular lightening shows on the horizon in every direction, without hearing a single clap of thunder, and the sheer brilliance of the Thai full moon, so bright that it cast shadows underfoot. A Thai full moon on an island is also a very popular excuse for an enormous beach party. Definitely worth the effort of getting to one, these are the parties that are talked about for a long time after, but we were warned that it was also a great excuse for some unscrupulous types to go shopping around the rest of the islands? huts and hotels whilst everyone was out. For a peaceful holiday get a good friend (experiences like these need to be shared), a few good books, a swimming costume (for decency?s sake), sun cream and gallons of bottled water; a disposable underwater camera is an optional extra that is well-advised. We arrived for a quiet day or two to see if it was as horrible as the guidebook suggested. A week later we dragged ourselves away, heading for Malaysia. I felt like we had cheated the system, there in a tropical paradise that you see in a holiday brochure with a price tag to match a small nations debt, having spent about £20 each the entire week. But the guidebooks are right. Ignore all of the above. This is a horrible place. To suggest that it is well worth a visit would be to invite many more people to a place that is overdeveloped already. I hear that the beach at Camber Sands near Rye, East Sussex is beautiful; and I suppose you could go snorkeling there too?
One of Nepal’s largest towns, Pokhara barely matches the size in population of a small English town, and yet boasts the character of a lakeside city much like Geneva with the sleepy feel of a small Spanish village just emerging from a siesta. Nowhere comes close on this planet to the perfection that Pokhara has to offer. And yet this is just at the centre of a town, which sprawls for 5 or 6 kilometres along the valley floor. Radiating out from the edge of a large, clear lake caused by a small hydroelectric dam at the near end, the town can be split into three basic parts: Lakeside, Damside and the rest. The tourist centre of town is Lakeside, with some hotels stretching into Damside near the Royal Residence. The peace and tranquility offered is a far cry from the hassle of getting there, but getting there is half the fun when travelling in Asia. There are two ways of getting to Pokhara, road or air. I would advise the flight option, and so would my posterior. For those who have never travelled on public transport in Asia here are a few simple rules that should prepare you for the experience: 1. Expect to be holding your luggage for want of anywhere else to put it. 2. Passengers can also include livestock and UN-sized consignments of agricultural produce. 3. There is no sleep. 4. The vehicle is second-hand, bought from a country that too had bought it second-hand. 5. Sometimes travelling on the roof of the bus is the safer option, seeing your bus about to go over the side of a ravine you can leap to safety. 6. Just because there is a thick red line on the map denoting the road doesn’t mean to say that the road is going to be a motorway with service stations, just that there is a higher density of tarmac in this area than elsewhere in the country. 7. The larger vehicle has right of way in any situation. I took the 9-hour bus journey from Kathmandu to Pokhara. My friend and I had already had to delay the trip by one
day because of a strike, but the journey was also delayed by a protest about 30 km from Pokhara. It seemed there had been a road accident involving a bicycle and the local WI were out in force barricading the evil road and all of its traffic. The local police were on hand to help watch and see how things developed. It was on this journey I figured out what they use their car-horns for in Nepal. The cunning device is used to tell the slower vehicle in front of you that you are about to overtake, regardless of what is coming the other way. The bus from Kathmandu drops you off on the outskirts of town, the furthest you can be from where you want to get to. And to greet the bus bringing all the tourists are the touts, who hustle you to stay at their hotel, eat at their restaurants and ride in their cabs. I had four offers with business cards for hotels before the bus had pulled to a stop. At this point we decided to throw caution to the wind and wade straight through the touts and get on another bus into town. The unsuccessful touts followed us all the way into town, which was great in a sense that we got a free personal tour of the town on our way in. Arriving at Lakeside is like arriving in paradise. A cool mountain breeze blows gently from the lake across the town. There are no rickshaws in Pokhara that many Asian cities are filled with, tooting horns and ringing bells, just the odd car or bus, but mostly just people wandering to and fro. The main street is filled with shops, restaurants, hotels and trekking agencies, all busy, but not frantically so. The lake stretches out to one side and there are rooftop restaurants with a view across it to the surrounding hills. And on clear days you can see the snow-capped peaks of the Annapurna ranges, taking in a number of the world’s highest mountains. One of the few places in the world where you can see banana trees growing wild in the tropical warmth of the valley and the some of the highest peaks in the same
glance. Pokhara acts as a base to trekking, mountaineering and white water rafting trips/expeditions and is a great place to return to and relax after exerting yourself physically like that. You can hire rowing boats out and spend a day on the lake, clear and warm enough to swim in. The lake is also the best vantage point to see the peaks of the Himalayas and the Royal Palace, which by any standards barely comes close to being classed as a large house. Or you could just spend your time browsing through the many shops and drinking the afternoon away in the shade. The many waterfront and lake-view restaurants all come in different shapes and colours, some looking like they would be better placed for a Kenyan Safari Lodge, others looking Greekishly whitewashed, and yet others not much more than a roadside market stall, all are remarkably cheap, as are the hotels. For the budget traveller a double room with ensuite facilities may set you back £2 a night, and a meal about £1. Okay, so the ensuite facilities aren’t quite as sweet as first you may have hoped for, and the room very basic, but we are not talking squat toilets and straw beds that places like Calcutta can offer, and the added bonus is their names; we stayed in The Future Way Guest House and the Pokhara Peace Home, which was happily not a rest home for the mentally disturbed or annually challenged. We used Pokhara as a base for a short four-day trek to Poonhill to see the sun rising over the snow-capped peaks of the Annapurnas. Called a Teahouse Trek, it cost about £80 and included a registered guide, trekking permit and all accommodation and meals on the way. There was no nicer place to come back to than Pokhara after four days of physical hell; how people can do a 21-day trek is beyond me. White-water rafting should be seriously considered – transport provided and it’s all downhill. Peaceful Pokhara was getting busier when we arrived back as the trekking season got underway in early
September, but there was still enough charm to relax the most aching of bodies. People only started visiting Pokhara in the 1950s after they managed to eradicate malaria in the valley and as more people visit each year the town gets larger and changes quickly, but the essence of the place doesn’t. The Nepalese are one of the friendliest peoples in the world and their country one of the most beautiful, and Pokhara is its centre. Just one week later, in Darjeeling, I found myself wanting to return already.