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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Sri Pada - The ascent of Adam's Peak

I had many plans for my month in Sri Lanka but my serious ambition was to climb Adam's Peak in the Ratnapura area of Sri Lanka. A religious pilgrimage undertaken by many Buddhists, it's is famous for the huge footprint (the "Sri Pada" - Buddha's Footprint) at the top, the climb is done at night, ascending thousands of steps. Curiously, it is claimed by Christians' and Muslims' as Adam's footprint, and in the Hindu tradition it is honored as the footprint of Shiva. My intention to climb it wasn't based in religion but more personal achievement - Adam's Peak clocks in at a respectable 7, 359 ft above sea level, and although that's paltry by Kilimanjaro or Everest standards, it would be the highest climb I'd ever completed and many describe it as pretty tough, even for experienced hikers. It is a hike, rather than an actual climb - I'm not sure if you could climb it, given that it is conical, but apparently there are 6 different trails up.
Sri Pada, looming over Dalhousie

I had limited time in which to do the hike, given the travel I had to do to get there. Although, Hatton (the nearest town to Adam's Peak) doesn't look that far from Hikkaduwa on a map, I had already discovered that public transport in Sri Lanka doesn't always go where you want it to, even when you're on it. So, I took a 7am train from Hikka to Colombo, standing in 3rd class on a Saturday morning, much to the abject curiosity of the locals around me. Given that I had my backpack and very little sleep, I sprung for a first class carriage from Colombo to Hatton (for the princely sum of approximately 9 euro). First class is an air-conditioned carriage where you have an assigned seat, and they show films (often in Sinhala but sometimes in English). At certain stations, men come on with baskets of various treats. I couldn't definitively tell you what anything they sold actually was but I had some pickled fruit and something hot and spicy that may/may not have been fish. It may not have been the best decision before undertaking a pre-dawn hike but I took my chances.

When I arrived in Hatton, it was absolutely bucketing rain. I had been told to avoid overpriced tuk's and minibuses, that I would find a Hatton-Dalhousie bus in the town. I crossed the bridge with a tuk-tuk driver chasing me, calling new prices as I studiously ignored him. Once I stopped, named my price and he refused but continued to follow me. As I went to cross the road on the other side, a bus drove through a puddle and drenched me from head to toe. The tuk driver appeared before me, trying to wrestle my backpack off me and said "Ma'am, come, 900 rupees." It sounded like a reasonable deal, so I went with him. It turned out to be a great decision, he chatted about the local history on the hour's journey and stopped at sites of interest, including a two-hundred year old tiny Catholic church, a tea plantation and factory and some staggering view-points over the lakes. I tipped him well and he laughed, because I had bargained so hard, but he was definitely worth it.

It was freezing in Dalhousie, having left Hikkaduwa where days were around 30 C, it was an unpleasant shock. I checked in at Achinika Holiday Inn and ordered some food. Unsurprisingly, everyone was doing or had done the climb. I met an English man, German woman and Sri Lankan man (who had been in the U.K and U.S for years) travelling as a group, who were going to attempt the climb that night. As it was out of season, we were strongly advised to get a guide - the path is not lit in November and conditions were very damp, many things could happen. We decided that between us we would hire a guide to lead us, starting at 1.45am, and after tea and biscuits I retired to bed.
Steps, thousands of steps

I'd like to say the room was nice, but it wasn't. There was a leak outside my door, the floors were wet and there were no heaters so I slept with double layers on, under the single blanket they gave me, and my own sleeping bag. I knew I needed to sleep before the ascent and it was only 7.45pm so I popped a couple of Xanax and went off to sleep.

When the alarm went off at 1.30am I wasn't as disorientated as I thought I'd be. I made my way up to reception in utter darkness, squelching through muddy puddles. It was drizzling slightly and I hoped the steps wouldn't be too precarious. There wasn't much conversation as the six of us set off (the group from the night before plus the guide and his dog). Dalhousie is a tiny hamlet and the only purpose it seems to serve is a pit-stop for the pilgrimage to the mountain, all tin shacks and snack shops, with a handful of guesthouses.

It was a twenty minute walk to the beginning of the steps, and our German comrade had decided we weren't going quick enough for her. The guide gave her a spare torch and she strode off, but when we reached the base point the guide had to call out to her, as he could see her torchlight over to the far right - she had gone in the wrong direction! I was relieved we'd stayed with him and silently vowed that I was sticking to the guide like glue for the rest of the hike. Between her and her husband going forward and the Sri Lankan man dropping back, soon it was just the guide, the dog and myself. The guide warned to watch and listen for wild boar (awesome, and my biggest fear had been leeches, not being torn apart by a wild animal) and said that snakes were unlikely but not unheard of. All very reassuring when Sri Lanka has the highest death-rate from snakebite in the world! Still, I soldiered on. I wasn't finding the pacing that hard-going but it was quite monotonous in the pitch dark, the only sounds our shoes on the wet steps. I had heard stories of water gushing down the steps in November but we seemed to be lucky and the rain was holding off. I was regretting my many layers of clothing though as I was building up quite the sweat.

Around 5am, light began searching across the mountainous landscape, finding lakes in the shade of valleys and I realised how high up we were already. As my legs grew weary I asked the guide how much further and he said "Ten minutes more,". The steps became steeper, on such an incline that made it necessary to hold onto the railings provided and still he told me "Ten minutes." When I figured there really only could be ten minutes more, he told me "Maybe fifteen minutes, I promise, and then the top.". Realistically it was about twenty but I so happy to see the temple at the top I didn't care. I was surprised by how many people were waiting, particularly as very few had passed on the way. There were probably 25 people there, eating sandwiches and having flasks of hot tea. I didn't feel hungry but I noticed the cold immediately. It was absolutely bitter up there, like mid-winter in Siberia (well, so I imagine - maybe Ireland in one of the freezing periods that have become the norm of recent winters). I apped back up and gazed around in awe. The views were tremendous and the air was the freshest I'd ever felt, like my lungs were being cleansed with each breath. It would have been the wrong time to have a cigarette, although a few were puffing away.

 Then, dawn. The sky broke apart slowly, the sun filtering through the cracks, lighting us up in a perfect moment. I felt completely blessed and maybe that's the power of the place - the truly awe-inspiring beauty from that view, maybe that's what some people ascribe to their faith, or believe that their God makes possible. Who am I to say?

It was magic.

After a quick trot around the temple (where the footprint is almost hidden, even though it's so large) I had to make my way back down. I intended on having a quick shower and making the 9.20 bus to Hatton so I could get back to Hikkaduwa by bedtime.

I thought the way down would be a doddle. How wrong I was. It's steps, and having climbed all the way up and resting for a bit, my knees weren't at all happy to have to go down again. By ten minutes down, I was almost dragging my right leg along, an old ballet injury acting up after years. By thirty minutes down, leaning on the left leg was causing that knee to buckle. Now I was asking the guide "How many more steps?" and he was saying "Not much longer." Still lying. I was hot (the sun was well up in the sky now), a little injured and very bothered. Triona at her worst. When I got back to the hostel and discovered that my room had no power and cold water, well, let's say they didn't get a good review on The guide, however, got his tip (and had to go back to find the others - our German friend had disappeared again) and I was finally rewarded with a big breakfast (omelette, fruit, salad, 4 slices of toast with butter and jam) but unfortunately no bus.

Suffice to say I did eventually get back to Hikka at 8.30pm that night, where I was greeted by a rat in the house. Sigh. From great heights....

Monday, May 19, 2014

Pub-crawling around the world: A cosy little wine bar in Luang Prabang

I wouldn't consider myself a wine snob - I'm pretty much an ABC girl - "Anything But Chardonnay" but I do love a good Sancerre when the budget stretches, as I've mentioned before. Unfortunately, when backpacking, budget is a huge concern, but also - it can be pretty fruitless searching for a good bottle of wine in less cosmopolitan parts of Asia. I'd heard that Luang Prabang, with it's French influence, could be an exception. Thus after a few weeks in Thailand, where it was hard to find anything BUT Chardonnay, I was eager to sample a proper glass of wine.

It was New Year's Day, I wasn't feeling too seedy but my body knew it had been out the night before so I was going to take it easy. After buying a huge street dinner for 10, 000kip (Less than 90 cent) I wandered down the street, soaking up the tranquility of Luang Prabang and people watching, I was enticed into a bar by the wine cellar on display and some comfortable street seating(wooden tables and small armchairs).

The waiter was very friendly and attentive, and I found a Pinot Grigio on the menu that they would serve by the glass. It was 35, 000 kip, which is expensive by Laos standards (a beer is usually 8-10,000kip) but hey, that's still half of what I would pay at home, or in Australia. The wine glass was large and it was a generous serving, so I sat, watching LP go by, on the first day of the New Year in a brand new country.

As happens, I got chatting to an older couple at the table beside me. They were German and travel to Laos every couple of years. Now, they felt, it had gotten too touristy - although I found it a welcome relief, and much quieter from other backpacker hotspots. She was intrigued that I travelled alone and that I hadn't yet 'settled' but I explained that I wasn't done seeing the world yet and I really thought the best way to do that was on my own. They told me all about their sons in college and their own travels, and we talked about wine for a little while. He chose a cigar from the box the waiter brought out and I ended up ordering another glass before closing time.

Luang Prabang has a curfew, which I found most interesting and probably a good idea. Bars all close by 11.30 and indeed many of them are shut long before. It is a public offence to be noisy on the street after this and certainly drunken groups are hard to find. I was informed of a late 'club' by my hostel receptionist, if I so wished, but I felt after my crazy few days in Chiang Mai, and a trip down the Mekong planned for early the next morning, I was best to retire. Was 2014 changing me already?

Although I have searched Google, I can't find the name of this bar! I've put the location below, but it may have to remain my little secret, until I return - hopefully by 2015 :)

Ambience: 8/10 - LP is not a party town, but for a good wine at a reasonable price, and probably to make friends, this is a good place.
Food: Not available.
Location: On Sisavangvong Street about half way down, although I can't remember the name
Toilets: None, I had to wait until I got home
Overall: A small place but definitely a 8.5/10 for it's wine list. Lost points for no toilets.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

12 things I learnt about me, the world and travelling whilst backpacking

Every travel blogger has the list - the ten things you learnt on the trip, and on them are some great tips for other travellers but one thing remains true - you really won't know until you do it yourself. No guidebook covers your emotions during your time on the road, and no one else can tell you what you will feel. The idea that it would all fit into a neat list is a little laughable but it definitely makes it more accessible to readers, so in pondering on my own recent travels, here's my list. It's all personal

1. You can call it lonely, or you can call it free.
Many people who have travelled speak about bad times on the road, saying it's not all good, sometimes you get homesick, things go wrong, you're reminded that life goes on without you etc, etc -
The funny thing is, there was never a time that I felt homesick - maybe because I don't know where home is anymore but mostly because I was enjoying the absolute freedom. The one time I had a rough week (being reminded that life goes on for the rest of the world) I simply couldn't dwell on it. I was in Sydney at the time, the weather was absolutely beautiful (except one day of pissing rain) and there was so much to see, do, explore and enjoy that I quickly realised that although life goes on elsewhere - I'm out here living it and how cool is that?
(Do I look bothered in this pic??)

2. Big Bottles of water are the way forward.
Seriously, when you're on a budget in Oz and NZ, stock up on big bottles of water from the supermarket. You can get them for $1, the 500ml are approx $3 or more each time if you buy in a local shop, and if it's summer - you're gonna need a hell of a lot of water. So, if you are long term travelling, invest in a refillable bottle - preferably somewhere cheap. I had a sturdy water bottle that saw me through a few countries, I just always made sure it was empty when I got to customs in the airport. Yes, liquids have to be under 100ml - but they don't mind empty 500ml bottles! Seriously, it's such a small thing that you forget but if you're in Oz/NZ for a month or two, this will actually save those precious pennies.

3. The Kindle app really made my life better.
I'm a paperback/hardback book girl. Every trip I take, I've normally got at least two books and generally end up buying one at the airport. Backpacking, this wasn't going to be an option. I downloaded the Kindle app to my Samsung and it was great on so many occasions. When delayed at an airport but had free wifi, I downloaded new books, looked at free stuff, etc. When adjusting to a new timezone it was time to download some more or finish a new one. Queues anywhere became completely stress-free because I had time to catch up on reading - which wasn't happening when I was out experiencing everything else. I've finally come around to the idea that technology really can improve my life.

4. Being flexible makes everything easier
I'm normally a big planner, spreadsheets, lists etc. This fell away when I started travelling because there is no point. I stayed longer in some places, shorter in others, sat at tables with people I normally wouldn't dream of, shared food on buses with complete strangers and I also began to accept that no one, anywhere, runs to my schedule, and I kind of liked that. It taught me a valuable lesson in life - things really are only a problem if you make them a problem. It's plastered on all sorts of self-help and positivity sites but everything is really about your attitude. I also had to pay to change many flights, book other ones etc. So, my advice to anyone else is - get the MOST flexible RTW ticket you can, because anything you lock down is likely to change - and you can do without the $150-plus change fees, even if you don't care so much about them anymore. (When I got home, I realised that I may have been flexible but my credit card isn't so much!).

5. One nice dress is a must on the packing list.
I made a silly mistake when I went to Sri Lanka, assuming that because I was volunteering for a month in a charity that I wouldn't need anything too dressy. How wrong I was! After only two days there I was invited to an evening with international sports stars and the following night we went to watch an orchestra perform. I was really lucky that I had *just* met a great Aussie girl who happened to have a similar body type to me, and that is unusual. She lent me a dress for the first night and I winged it the second night but there were many times I felt underdressed. It's fine if you're just island-hopping but there may come a time that a nice outfit will come in handy.
Thanks CJ for the dress!

6. Make friends with people completely different to you.
I normally wouldn't dream of socialising with anyone much younger than me, being as I'm not really that young  anymore (sad to say!) however I struck up a wonderful friendship with an 18 year old German girl in New Zealand, and we really 'got' each other! Elsewhere, I had some brilliant nights out with two other girls who hadn't even started college yet and it all reminded me that age is just a number when you're travelling. I was never treated as 'older' and even when people were much older than me, I realised that we're all in the same boat, having these new, crazy experiences. I felt even freer around younger people to do crazy things as they absolutely don't judge (something that happens when you're stuck in a rut in Dubai or elsewhere). It lead to some absolutely crazy nights in Sydney and Queenstown and they are great memories. I did draw the line at having a dalliance with a particularly 'hot' 19 year old guy, but maybe I shouldn't have!!
Jessica, myself and Nicole at Wake Up! in Sydney - one of those crazy nights!

7. If you've been up one tall building, you've been up them all.
Of course there are a few cities where the tall building is a must - I'd probably say Kuala Lumpur, as it's the Petronas Towers, but funnily enough, I didn't get up that one. These usually cost a fortune, and EVERYTHING is extra - a bar of chocolate at the top is a total rip-off. I skipped it in a few places and I don't think I missed anything. I guess it's personal, but unless it's got free or half price drinks (The Marriott in Bangkok 5pm - 7pm, Ladies night champagne at the top of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai), skip it. Looking down on most cities is much the same as looking down on another and doubly skip it if the weather isn't great. I didn't climb Sydney Harbour Bridge as I thought the price was exorbitant, and I had just jumped out of a plane a week earlier for about $50 extra - not much is going to beat that.

8. How I didn't get sick travelling...
Well, my anti-malaria tabs made me throw up on the street in Bangkok (no, not a hangover) so I quit them, however I have managed quite a few countries without illness - Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Sri Lanka included. How? A girl in Dubai gave me this wonderful tip, take a spoonful of the tap water every day in each place you get to, it builds up your immunity. I ate local foods, salads etc, I brushed my teeth in tap water, I generally ignored much advice, if I wanted to eat it, I did. I didn't get sick. Perhaps I'm just lucky or have a great immune system but honestly - before that I used to have a dodgy tummy quite regularly and that was whilst living in Dubai, so I'm sticking to her advice. I did, however, have great travel insurance - just in case.

9. Keep a change of underwear and top in your carry-on.
Amazing when you've been 16 hours in an airport, as I was, in Malaysia.

OK, now I'm thinking of loads....but I'll probably stick them in the blog as I go along anyway. So the last three -

10. Thai bank machines charge horrendous fees, try and have cash changed or USD on you to change before you go.
Pretty self-explanatory.

11. Always have a scarf/wrap etc whilst in Asia (or for that matter, the Middle East)(or anywhere with changeable weather)(and also the plane!)
It's first and foremost about respect. If you're wandering around on foot and you want to go to a temple, you may need to cover up. Some places insist on it. I had one scarf and I had this wonderful wrap around cardi which doubled as many things and also kept me warm on planes (budget airlines with no blankets!) many times. Seriously, my most used item. It was nippy in SE Asia over Christmas, surprisingly, and that wrap was worn almost every evening. Sssh, I moved around a lot, most people wouldn't have known!
That's a wrap!

12. Plan ahead with snacks.
6 hour bus journeys can turn into 12 hours, planes get delayed, Trains may not serve food, you may be on foot for longer than you think. In Oz and NZ you can purchase food on board but it will seriously cost you. I was so lucky in Auckland that my friend's mum had kindly left out things so I could make sandwiches - otherwise I would have forked out NZ$56 (!) for the lunch onboard. I learnt that lesson and it really stood to me in other places: once we stopped for food at a completely fly-infested place - seriously you couldn't see for the flies - and there was no way I was eating there. Thankfully I had brought ritz crackers (well, something like them!), a mandarin and a bar of chocolate. I have countless stories similar to this. Perhaps this is another reason I didn't end up sick.

I'm sure I'll update and add to this but most people have their own versions - about camera batteries, SD cards, laundry bags etc. These are ones I didn't find and that meant the most to me.