Sunday, December 13, 2009

Home Sweet Home

Over the last 200 days, we've seen a lot! It's been both fun and trying at times (mostly fun) and we've made some wonderful friends and memories along the way. We've traveled through 54 cities and towns in 7 Asian countries. We've covered over 40,000 kms (two thirds of which has been by land or sea). We've spent;

267 hours on trains
190 hours on buses
7 hours on bus rooftops
77 hours on boats
29 hours on planes
19 hours in taxis/tuk-tuks/the back of pick-up trucks.

That's a grand total of 589 hours, or 24.5 days we've spent on transport, and it's fair to say that's where most of our funny and/or frustrating travel experiences took place. Obviously the reason we endured all these travel hours was to get to new destinations, of which, some were amazing and some... absolutely terrible. Here are our picks from our trip!

Best place: Tokyo / Kyoto
Worst place: Kobe
Best meal: Sushi, Osaka
Best activity: Watching a Sumo tournament
Highlight: Freak spotting in Harajuku
Lowlight: Expeeeensive!

Best place: Beijing / Lhasa / Fenghuang
Worst place: Shanghai / Huai Hua
Best meal: Peking Duck, Beijing
Best activity: Zip lining from the great wall / Watching the pandas in Chengdu
Highlight: Great wall / Train ride to Tibet
Lowlight: Terra-cotta Worriers

Best place: Hanoi
Worst place: Hue
Best meal: Pho / Baguettes
Best activity: Hanoi Water Park!!
Highlight: Visiting our chum, Tommy
Lowlight: Getting flooded into the hotel for the day
Best place: Ban Lung / Sihanoukville
Worst place: Kampot / Kraite
Best meal: Hot & Sour Soup, Battambang / Amok, Phnom Penh
Best activity: Bamboo train/ Partying in Sihanoukville/ Slow Boat to Siem Reap/ Volunteering at orphanages... the list goes on!
Highlight: The Angkor wats
Lowlight: Bone rattling bus journeys

Best place: Luang Prabang
Worst place: Savannakhet
Best meal: Vegetarian Buffet, Luang Prabang night market
Best activity: Tubing in the Vang Vieng
Highlight: Lazy Don Det Hammocks / Watching monks collect Alms, Luang Prabang
Lowlight: Horribly viscous osquitos in Vang Vieng

Best place: Pokhara / Bandipur
Worst place: nowhere!
Best meal: Giant Falafel, Kathmandu
Best activity: White water rafting, Pokhara
Highlight: Dashain Festival, Kathmandu
Lowlight: Getting ripped off by Raju

Best place: Rishikesh / Arambol
Worst place: Bangalore / Jaipur
Best meal: Home make Keralan food, Alleppey / pretty much every meal we had
Best activity: Sunrise boat ride, Varanasi / Camel Trek, Pushkar / Houseboat, Alleppey
Highlight: Taj Mahal / Golden Temple / Diwali Festival
Lowlight: Sickness / Rip-offs / Filth / Frustration... way too many to mention! It's India!!

So, as we write this, we're on the plane back to Melbourne and thought that writing our last blog entry might make the time pass faster. We can't wait to get back ~ It's been so long since we've been home... like over a year and a half long. It's time for a comfy bed, a nice, hot, shower, a change of clothes and some of mum's cooking! For a while at least.

Neither of us know what we're going to do when we get back... the thought of job hunting really doesn't appeal, so we might have to be dole-bludgers for a while until we get back on our respective feet.... feel free to pass any jobs / ideas our way!

We hope the return culture-shock isn't too bad... after all it has been over 18 months since we've been in an English speaking country or been 'normal'... that is, not the big, white, foreigners standing out in the crowd. It'll be nice to blend in for a change and not get stared at, and understand what everyone around us is saying, and to know what we're eating, and to be able to drive a car, and hang out with old friends and family... the list goes on.

It's been a real adventure, but it's time for us to go home.

Thanks for reading our drivel for the last 6 months!

Amy and Claire

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Goa’n To Kerala

Travelling with Paul, we’ve had to put up with shit ‘Goa’ jokes like that for weeks... “we’re Goan’ to the beach”, “How’s it goa’n?”... the list is endless. It had always been our master plan to end our 6 month trip in a relaxing, beach-like way, so after racing around the chaotic Northern half of India, we made our way south to the beautiful beaches of Goa.

Our first stop was Arambol, where we stayed for a week. It was quieter than we’d expected but we quickly became accustomed to the low-key atmosphere, spending our days lying in the sun and our nights eating seafood at beach-front restaurants. It was just what we needed. We did manage to tear ourselves away from sun baking for a day, to indulge in our other favourite pastime – shopping! The weekly Anjuna flea market provided us with this opportunity. We don’t think Paul particularly enjoyed this, his 75th shopping trip with 2 girls, although he certainly got the last laugh by buying a bongo drum and tormenting us with it for the rest of the day (until it was put into his bag and thankfully forgotten about).

Arambol beach.

From Arambol we headed to Palolem in Southern Goa. This idyllic beach is a little bigger than Arambol and a bit more lively due to a younger crowd... It’s no party town except for Saturdays, when a bunch of foreigners organise a ‘silent noise’ party. We’d heard of these but never been to one – for anyone who doesn’t know it’s basically a night club with headphones. Weird concept, but really fun! The Palolem ‘silent noise’ party is held in an awesome spot – in a cove beach under the stars. In a town where noise restrictions close most places down around 11pm, this allowed us to party on to 5am – something we hadn’t done in India! It was really well organised and the headphones allowed us to switch between 3 different DJ’s who were playing on site – even better was that none of them played any Goan trance music!
Silent noise party.
Our week in Palolem was just as relaxing as Arambol, but sadly (for our tans) a cyclone passed along the coast, making things a bit wet and windy for a few days... we passed our time playing a lot of cards and talking about how we wished is was sunny... and then it was... sunny, that is, the day we left for Kerala.

Palolem beach.

After a 16 hour train ride, we checked into an awesome home-stay and organised a little houseboat trip in the Keralan back-waters. The next morning we and 2 Finnish girls boarded the most amazing houseboat we’d ever seen. A brand new, 2 storey, wooden, spacious dream boat complete with 3 staff (including a chef) that was all ours for the next 24 hours. As we sat in swinging chairs on the boat watching life go by on the back-waters, we were all brought snacks and coffee while our 9 course lunch and 7 course dinner of traditional Keralan food were prepared for us. We stuffed ourselves like it was Christmas and felt like we could stay on that boat forever. Did we mention all of this cost us under $40 AUS per head?!


Lunch on our houseboat.

Keeping up with our newly found level of relaxation, we checked into another beautiful home-stay by the beach just out of Alleppey. Again we were waited on hand and foot and served the most amazing home cooked meals. We really couldn’t have asked for a better way to finish off out trip. From here it’s just an overnight train to Bangalore where we catch our plane home!

Beautiful beach just outside of Alleppey.

Our wonderful homestay.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


We weren't planning on getting famous in India, but when the opportunity to 'star' as extras in a Bollywood film was presented to us, we grabbed it with both hands! On a spontaneous 24 hour pit-stop in Mumbai, we were approached by "Imran from Bollywood" who was scouting for 60 foreigners to be in a few scenes of a movie being filmed that night. With the added bonus of 500 rupees for 12 hours work between 5pm to 5am (yep, that's $1 an hour) we signed ourselves up immediately and walked away wondering what kind of con we'd got ourselves into this time, but with the prospect of seeing Bollywood in the making, we threw caution to the wind and went along.

Arriving at Bollywood, we were fitted with costumes and sent to hair and make-up to be transformed into 'British Ladies' of the 1940's... or the 1400's... we're still not sure. Either way, our costumes were so far off the mark, it was hilarious. Claire, in a shiny gold ruffled dress, that was possibly left over from a Cindy Lauper music video, looked more like a trashy 80's crack whore than an affluent lady who lunches. Amy's 2 tone purple and green dress wasn't quite as offensive, but it did look like it belonged in an early 90's high school prom rather than on the set of a multi-million dollar Bollywood film 2 years in the making.
Clearly 1940's sophisticated outfits...

The following 10 hours were spent sitting around pretending to be enjoying ourselves at a flashy outdoor evening banquet with our sun-hats on. We were surprised that a massive Bollywood film, starring Salman Khan, the "King of Bollywood", would fail to ensure any form of continuity or historical accuracy. But who cares? We got to be in Bollywood, got free water, tea and dinner out of it (and lets not forget the all important $12!) Although we were disappointed not to have seen the quintessential singing and dancing routines, we enjoyed watching the star pull rank and throw diva tantrums, despite the fact that he did far less work than we did! It was funny to see this Indian A-level celebrity (who we'd never heard of) demanding royal treatment - and getting it - from his entourage of assistants. He had one guy to hold his jacket between scenes, one to comb his hair, another to hold up a mirror for him and another to hold his cigarette between takes... even the director was scared of him. To top it all off, he was probably the worst actor we've ever seen! It you ever get to see the movie, watch for the scene where he falls and hurts his leg... it's gold!

The set (better than our costumes at least)

If you want to see us in all our glory (if they didn't scrap out scenes) look out for VEER, apparently being released in January 2010.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Feelin' Pauly

One of the most common things you hear about India are the horror stories of seeing little more of the country than the interior of your grotty hotel bathroom... the notorious Delhi Belly due to the, erm, different hygene standards of India. We fully expected to encounter this at some point, but one of us got a little more than he bargained for. Let us tell you a story about our friend Paul... for 2 weeks, as we travelled from Rishikesh down into Rajastan, Paul woke up with a new ailment just about every day... poor bastard... but it was pretty funny for us.

It all began in Delhi while we were stuck in traffic, a eunuch stuck her head into our rickshaw asking for cash. Knowing that eunuchs are feared across India for posessing 'evil powers' we subtly averted our eyes to aviod engaging or angering her. Paul, on the other hand, delt with the situation as only Paul would... he looked up at her with obivous shock as she put her hand out for money, which he bluntly refused. He then blurted out "Oh God! She's not going to put a curse on us, is she?" To which the eunch responded with a tell-tale clapping motion towards Paul, that symbolises he giving bad luck. She then walked away as we joked that she had put a curse on Paul... turns out that, only a few days later, on a train to Rishikesh, we began to believe this was true.
After some very questionable curry the night before (we saw mice on the flour bags of the restaurant), Paul began to feel the first rumblings of Delhi Belly. An overnight Indian train is probably the last place on Earth you'd want this to happen, but once we were on board, he had little choice in the matter and spent the majority of the trip locked in the vile bathroom.

After spending a day in the hotel room while we explored a bit of Rishikesh, Paul mustered up the courage to venture out on our 2nd day there. Lucky he did too, because we found that Rishikesh was one of the most chilled-out, beautiful places we'd been to so far. The Beatles spent a few months in an Ashram in Rishikesh during their hippie days and from walking the streets, it's quite apparent that the hippie vibe is still, like, totally strong man. More than anything, these hippies provided us with hours of entertainement. At the nightly 'Ganga Aarti' (a hindu ceremony performed at many points along the Ganges), we were distracted from the ceremony itself by 2 groups of hippies. One group felt the need to sit themselves in prominant positions around the ceremony and undertake a little public meditation... with eyes closed, they spiritually swayed to the music and sang along to Hindu chants they obivously didn't know the words to. It wasn't just us who found them amusing, all the Indians around them seemed to find their behaivour a little odd too. The second group of hippies, dressed in blankets and dreadlocks, arrived towards the end of the ceremony and put on a little show of their own with creative bird-like dancing that you'd expect to see in an improv dance/acting class... it was terrible, but at least they weren't taking themselves as seriously as the swaying meditators. Seriously, sometimes being a foreiger in this country is really embarrassing.

Ganga Aarti ceremony, Rishikesh
Our meditating friend...

Anyway, back to the Paul story. A good laugh at the hippies seemed to settle his stomach a little and we thought he was on the mend... until the next morning... "there's something wrong with my eye, isn't there?" he asked, as he woke up. We looked to him to see the most swollen, red, crusty, eye we'd ever seen... somehow in his sleep, Paul had managed to contract conjunctivitis. With no time to visit the doctor before our train out of town, he popped into the local chemist for some eye drops. Being the hippie town it is, he could only find a herbalist, so he had to settle for some seriously weird looking drops, which made him scream when we put them in for him. He described the feeling as having acid dropped into his eyes, and , after 2 rounds of drops, refused to take anymore.

Unfortunitely for Paul, we'd previously purchased tickets for an overnight train to Jaipur, so he was forced to, once again, travel on a grimy Indian train while sick. He emerged from the train a broken man. To try and ease his pain, we checked into a nice hotel and settled down for a nap. When he woke up, his left eye wouldn't open - it was crusted over with conjunctivitis gunk. We sent him off to the docto and he returned with a wheel barrow of medication and full of hope for a speedy recovery. Paul didn't see much of Jaipur, in fact, he didn't see much of anything through his swollen, crusty eyes.

Hawah Mahal, Jaipur

Instead, he rested up in the hotel for 2 days while we checked out Jaipur. Thinking nothing else could possibly go wrong for Paul, the night before we went to bed joking about what illness he'd wake up with the next morning. We felt a little bad when he woke up with a cold and a back so sore he could barley walk. He soldiered onto Puskar with us for the annual camel fair and over the next few days everything but his eyes seemed to clear up. Luckily for Paul, he felt healthy enough to go on the day long camel trek we'd planned in Pushkar. Unfortunitely Claire did not. It seems that Paul had passed the eunch curse onto her and she was too cick to join the camel trek. Before going to India, Claire had often joked that she'd felt like she hadn't fully experienced India unless she got so sick she pooed her pants. Well, while Amy and Paul were off riding camels, Claire "fully experienced" India.

Amy's camel on the camel trek

As luck would have it for the sick and weary on our trip, we had an 8 hour overnight trip booked (on a run down bus with no toilet) at the height of Claire's sickness. She battled it like a trooper and rested up in the hotel for a few days while Amy and Paul saw the sights of beautiful Udaipur. As they made full recoveries, Paul and Claire waited with eager anticipation for Amy (who had laughed at them both through this whole ordeal) to succumb to an Indian illness... they're still waiting.

Beautiful Udaipur

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Happy Diwali!

Diwali; the festival of lights, is one of India’s biggest, brightest and loudest Indian festivals… basically, it’s an excuse for Indian’s to let off fire crackers and fireworks all day and all night for what is supposedly a 5 day festival, but seems to vary in date/length from place to place.

For us, Diwali kicked off in Delhi when we were greeted at our hotel by a tiny, energetic, carny-like waiter, who screamed HAPPY DIWALI while shaking our hands every time he came to our table. During out stay in Delhi, we became “best friends” with this little freak and he told us of his 2 pregnant wives back in Nepal and about the time he cut his own tiny thumb off with a knife in a fit of passionate rage. We started avoiding the restaurant.

We got into the festivities with a bit of sightseeing and, for the first time in 6 months, a LOT of shopping! Delhi is another one of those cities that people warned us of constant hassle, filth and cons abound, but, as usual, we found none of this here (compared to other places) and really enjoyed our time in the capital.

The lovely outfits we were given at the Jama Masjid mosque, Delhi.

We decided to head north to Amritsar for the main celebration day. We started our day with a trip to the stunning Golden Temple and made plans to return for the fireworks show that night. Given the festival, the temple grounds were packed with Sikh worshippers, adding to the charged atmosphere of Diwali.

The Golden Temple, Amritsar.

Coolest (and biggest) turban ever!

By day, the presence of the few foreigners around, was curiously noted by the locals, but at night we seemed to have been raised to some kind of celebrity status and were bombarded with requests for photos and a chat. “One snap please” is the way to ask for photos in these parts, but when 1 photo turned to 20, 20 to 50 and 50 to 100, the novelty of fame wore off and we’d try to escape from the crowd surrounding us… only to be surrounded by a whole new group of people wanting photos. In the end, it all got a little too much for us, and we took refuge in a cafe where the owners had to forcibly restrain people from coming in and photographing us… it was crazy! Worst thing is, they weren't even drunk! All the festivities were celebrated without a drop of booze… so different to home.

Happy Diwali!

Can you find us??

The following day we finished off our Diwali celebrations with a trip to Attari to watch the Indian-Pakistan border closing ceremony. What a hilarious spectacle! Stadium style seating on either side of the border is filled with cheering spectators watching the amusing show of bravado between the Indian and Pakistani soldiers… we’d never seen a mans leg be kicked up high in the air, nor had we heard a man hold a reasonably high-pitched note for such a long time… funny thing is that this squealing, kicking display is how each country asserts its dominance over the other. In all seriousness though, it was nice to see that despite current political tensions between the countries, this light hearted daily event still takes place for the entertainment of their people… shame Australia doesn’t share a land border with another country.

The Indian soldiers had lovely hats.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Agra - It's Totally 'Taj'

Q: How many Indian men does it take to change a bus tyre?
Approximately 26 (one doing the work, and 25 standing around discussing it).

This scene of Indian masculinity was something we witnessed when our bus to Agra got a flat tyre.

Q: How do you avoid paying commission to a rickshaw driver for taking you to a hotel?
A: We don't know... we've tried many tactics (with various degrees of failure), but the most promising method we tried was in Agra... We directed the rickshaw driver to a cafe nearby a hotel we wanted to stay in (thank you Lonely Planet for your helpful map). We then sat and had a chai hoping the driver would get sick of waiting and go look for another fare. When this didn't work, we split up, with Claire staying at the cafe with our luggage, while Paul and Amy snuck off in search for the hotel. A few minutes down the road, Paul and Amy were congratulating themselves on outsmarting the rickshaw driver when, out of nowhere, he popped up out of the shadows and followed us to the hotel - no doubt to collect his commission... turns out he outsmarted us

Q: Are you lacking a calculator and hate doing mental addition? Does your job require you to do many sums in one day?
A: If you answered 'Yes' to this question, you need... THE HUMAN CALCULATOR!!! (Who also doubles up as an amusing, elderly, tip-requesting waiter).
Here's how he works; Your customers come to pay, you write up their bill but you can't be bothered working out the total yourself, so you call on your Human Calculator, who ambles arthritically downstairs to do the dirty work for you! Simply yell out the numbers you want added, and the Human Calculator will do the math in his head and give you a speedy total. Brilliant! And way more amusing than a regular calculator...

Q: Ever wondered what a tomato salad looks like in India?
A: Probably not, but just in case you ever attempt to order one in India, you should know that all you're in for is a tomato sliced up on a plate with a wedge of lime. Generally the food we've had in India has been amazing, but, like this tomato salad, all the food in Agra was pretty crap.

Q: Wondering why we haven't mentioned the Taj Mahal yet?
A: We're about to...
For the most visited sight in India, the Taj is surrounded by some whopping big lies. Yes, it is every bit as amazing as you've heard, BUT we were told a few porkers that were a little saddening...
First of all, many of the hotels and restaurants around Agra claim to have "Taj views"... well, as we discovered, what they actually mean is that from their rooftop, if you look at a specific angle through other buildings, you can see portions of the Taj, but not enough to take a photo... oh, and ignore the restaurants that try to lure you in for dinner with these "Taj view" claims... it's not lit up at night, so you won't see much.

The second (and most hurtful) lie we were told about the Taj, is that you can sit and watch the sunrise over this magnificent piece of architecture. Now, this isn't entirely a lie, because you can line up at the ticket window and wait for it to open at sunrise and then, as the sun is rising, you can stand in line at both the ticket window and then the gates of the Taj waiting to be let inside. Once the sun has well and truly risen, THEN you'll be let into the complex. Thanks for stealing our beauty sleep for no reason, Agra.

The final lie we were told in Agra (not actually, Taj related though), was that our train to Delhi would leave Agra station at 10 am... 5 hours later, when we were still sitting at the platform waiting for our train to arrive (despite the computer screens telling us it was still due to arrive at 10am), we wondered if our train was ever coming at all. Annoying, but made completely worth it when our train actually arrived AND we got to see an old naked man picking up rubbish on the tracks! Awesome!

Khajuraho (or if you're Paul, Khajaroo)

To get to Khajuraho from Varanasi we had to take a train to Satna the transfer to a bus... simple, right? But this being India, the buses had, of course, stopped running, leaving us with the choice of staying in the shit-hole-satna for a night, or continuing onto Khajuraho by Taxi. Knowing this, a mob of delighted (read, desperate) taxi drivers were waiting for us as we disembarked the train. A bidding war broke out. It was us versus them. We listened to their pleas in turn as each of them explained to us that they were the only one with the requisite car/permit/license/reckless Indian driving style to get us to our destination. Before we knew it, we, the only foreigners in sight, were surrounded by 50 or so taxi drivers and keen observers. We'd like to say we opted for the best qualified driver, but in reality we settled for the old dude who offered us the cheapest price. 2 hours later, we sat down for dinner in a Khajuraho hotel where Paul was repeatedly molested by the resident "massage man" who, over the course of 2 days, engaged in an unrequited relationship with Paul's scalp, shoulders and, most awkwardly, his knees. It was pretty weird, but given the 'sexy' nature of Khajuraho, we figured it was par for the course. Yes, you may notice that we just described an Indian town as 'sexy'... let us elaborate... the whole reason people go to Khajuraho is to see the 'sexy temples', that is, temples with 'sexy' scenes from the Karma Sutra engraved on them - by curious people who obviously had way too much time on their hands 1,000 years ago. It's risque, it's raunchy, it's quite hilarious, and, well worth the detour from Varanasi. Aside from the temples and some very Indian public toilets, Khajuraho has little to offer tourists, so after purchasing a range of 'sexy' karma sutra souvenirs, we busted a move onto Agra.

Toilet anyone?

Far away the karma temples look quite innocent

Up close 'sexy-time' can involve animals...

But you can also have fun without horses