Monday, 30 November 2015

South-East Asian Adventures: Monkeys and milkshakes in Bukit Lawang, Indonesia

After one night very much in the heart of the Sumatran jungle I was happy to be off to somewhere with a tad more civilisation (yes, partly if not solely with the hope of finding wifi.)

The roads tracks were so bumpy and uneven that the only vehicles that could even attempt to tackle them were 4x4s. Old 4x4s. Old 4x4s with no air con. 
It was not the most pleasant three hours of my life - however we did stop to admire a pretty awesome view..
...and in every village we passed through, local people waved and smiled as if we'd just made their weeks by waving back. They only see white people a few times a year so to them we're sort of like celebrities. And now I know how David Beckham feels. (Kinda.)

We also stopped to enjoy some fresh coconuts: the lovely Indonesian woman cut them straight from the tree in her garden! We sipped the coconut water and ate the flesh with brown sugar. Yummmm!

And shortly after, we reached our next destination: Bukit Lawang.
I really liked Bukit Lawang. It's a little town along a river in the middle of the jungle.
We kicked off our day there with a walk through the town...
...a precarious river crossing consisting of a barely-inflated boat attached to some string...
...a trek up the hills into the jungle, reminding me how unfit I am... find some monkeys, and find them we did.
It was really cool to watch them in their natural habitat, just doing what they do, monkeying around.

There must have been at least 15 of them around us, including some adorable baby ones.

However it later became clear that you really don't have to trek up into the jungle to find monkeys - there are plenty of them running around the town.
Suitably exhausted from the monkey-watching and mountain-climbing (-ish), Sarah and I decided a sit-down at one of the many charming jungle-style riverside cafés was in order.

And of course, we chose one with wifi.

After more than two days without internet (and thus zero snapchats added to my story) I'll be honest, I was expecting more messages of concern for my livelihood. Evidemment my family and friends wouldn't actually care if I died in the jungle, Gaaaaad! *flicks hair melodramatically*

Anyway I have no shame in saying that having connection to the rest of the world again made me so happy - there is something about being disconnected from everyone and everything that makes me irrationally nervous, and I didn't love that in the jungle. (Yes, I have issues.)

We sipped on dreamy thick fresh coconut shakes and caught up on our online happenings.
The sun was shining bright though and so Sarah and I were keen to go and soak up some rays. 

Bukit Lawang isn't really a sunbathing kinda town, so we simply sat on some rocks by the river underneath one of the houses - luckily the Indonesian lady who lived there was really friendly and more than happy to have us. 

In fact, while walking around Bukit Lawang, every Indonesian we passed would say "hello" to us, purely because we're white. It was a little bizarre but really very nice. And after a few weeks in Indonesia, I've become very used to it.
As we sat by the river, feeling the strength of the sun on our faces and listening to the roaring of the water over the rapids, our kind Indonesian lady slid into the river beside us, wrapped in a sarong. 

She was there to wash herself and taught us the Indonesian for "wash". We couldn't communicate much, but it's amazing what you can do with a smile. 

She had a little basket for her soap, toothbrush and paste, and laughed as she swam around in the water. 

It was a really nice moment. Sarah and I felt quite privileged actually that she didn't mind us sitting there as she went about her daily business - an everyday routine for her that was so fascinating and so different to us. 

I imagine Bukit Lawang is busier and has more tourists in the summer, but it was quiet and relaxed the November day we were there. Actually, the same could be said for the whole of Sumatra - I've seen approx five other white people, everything is chilled and no one seems to do anything other than sit around all day. 

In Bukit Lawang, we did see some Australians and Indians alongside us in restaurants, but it seemed like there were an unnecessarily large number of restaurants for the current number of people in the town. 

They were all charming though. 

Bukit Lawang ain't exactly a shopping destination, but there are a few local shops selling the usual elephant trousers and whatnot (yes, I bought another pair.)

People tend to come to Bukit Lawang to go and see orangutans or go tubing on the river. 

Sarah and I, however, fancied a bit of a chill after a non-stop few days. 

We ate chicken satay for lunch and spent the afternoon sheltering from a storm in Sam's Bungalow. It was a great little place - the restaurant has a roof but no walls and I loved sitting there all snug and watching the rain pour down into the river and over the mountain around us. 

Teacup in a storm?
We even saw an orangutan up in the trees across the river, that was pretty cool. 

With a steady supply of tea, I was very happy. 

First I had delicious cinnamon tea, then I opted for the most wonderfully-spiced chai I've ever had. 

Alongside our warming beverages, Sarah and I decided to share a portion of the traditional Indonesia speciality, fried bananas.

We tucked in to the pretty plateful as soon as it arrived.

Crisp on the outside and warm inside, drizzled with chocolate sauce and, oh, what is this white stuff? Coconut? White chocolate?

I tried some by itself.

What it was, dear friends, was cheese.

Yes, cheese.

At first we wondered if the restaurant was playing a trick on us but having seen fried bananas with cheese in lots of other places since, it would seem the dish is a legit thing.

And yes, it's weird.

The thing is, before we worked out it was cheese, we were loving it. And we still ate it all after discovering the truth behind our savoury-sweet treat.

I kinda liked it. But it's confusing.

We liked Sam's Bungalow so much that we went back with the rest of the group for dinner that evening. I ate pumpkin curry and drank more tea while chatting and listening to the river rushing past.

And that was the end of our time in Bukit Lawang. The place had charm, and I really liked it. If you ever find yourself in the middle of the Sumatran jungle, do stop by.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

South-East Asian Adventures: Elephants, waterfalls and hot springs in Tangkahan, Indonesia

The contrast between Singapore and our next destination could not have been greater. 

After landing in Medan, the capital of northern Sumatra (an island in Indonesia), we were venturing into the jungle, specifically to a tiny place called Tangkahan. 

Oh my days, the roads in Indonesia are mad. In the cities, lanes and indicators seem to be redundant, there are cars and mopeds (often with a family of four on each!) coming from everywhere, and drivers whizz round transporting precariously-balanced crates of chickens and all sorts. 

In the countryside, the word "road" can be applied loosely. The tracks are absurdly uneven, there are cows and other farm animals all over the place and vehicles tend not to have seat belts. I've only been marginally fearing for my life. 

But it wasn't just "roads" we had to contend with on the journey to our "hotel", and I also use that term very loosely. 

Behold: a rope bridge over a river. 
For reals. 

It was both cool and terrifying - it was only strong enough to take six people at any one time, the "walls" were very low and très flimsy, and it wobbled and shook as we walked. 

Once safely across it was just a short walk to our accommodation, past pineapple, banana and cocoa plants.  If you, like me, have never seen how a pineapple grows, allow me to reveal all:
You're welcome. 

The kids in Tangkahan were extremely sweet, always saying "Hello, how are you?" and high-fiving us as we walked past. 

Just look at these two cuties (I mean the two in the foreground...):
And then we arrived at our "hotel".

Well, it was very jungly, and it was cute, but it was a lot more basic than I'd been expecting. Maybe that was stupid on my part, but I somehow hadn't been ready for it.

Needless to say there was no wifi.

We were staying in little huts made of bamboo. Each bed had a mosquito net over the top, although mine had a huge hole in the corner which sort of defeated the point.

We had a bathroom... Of sorts. There was a toilet, although there was no flush. Instead, you had to pour buckets of water down the loo. And instead of a shower, there was a hose-pipe. So yeah.

Howeeeever, all that was worth it for what we experienced in Tangkahan.

On our first afternoon there, we went to see elephants!

They were so impressive.

And blimmin HUGE!

We bathed and fed them, had elephant showers and were even given elephant kisses, which was a little hilarious (try not to let an elephant breath in your mouth though.)

And loooooook at the baby ones!
So so adorable.

Also, elephants are hairier than I'd been expecting.

And we made sure they were treated well - they weren't in captivity or anything.

That evening I read in a hammock, ate chicken satay and mountains of fresh fruit (the pineapple there, oh my DAYS!), and we played cards while a tropical storm pounded the roof.

Unsurprisingly, we went to bed pretty early, and as you may have guessed, none of us was particularly looking forward to trying to sleep that night.

I tucked my mosquito net into my bed as tightly as possible, covered myself in insect repellant, popped in my ear plugs to try to drown out the storm and the cicadas, and hoped for the best.

As I lay there, eyes wide open, I saw a creature the size of a rat run round the top of the room. "Just close your eyes," Sarah said. So I took a deep breath and I did.

Pleasingly, I slept much better than I'd feared. I had to go to the loo twice in the night which was marginally terrifying but luckily the worst I faced was geckos.

We all survived, hoorah! (No one try and tell me I'm a drama queen.)

I was glad I'd done it, although I'm not desperate to stay there again.

The day commenced with the most divine banana chocolate pancakes, with banana from right there in the jungle. They weren't like fluffy American breakfast pancakes, but rather more like a thick crêpe with banana slices in the batter, smothered in chocolate. It may have been the thought of that that saw me through the night.

This was also where I had my first tea experience that was set to become a regular occurrence: if you order tea with milk in Indonesia (or Sumatra at least), in 90% of cases you will get tea with condensed milk. Yes, the stuff out of a tin that is basically liquid sugar.

Upon first tasting it I was like "Eww what is this?" A few days on and many condensed milk teas down and I'm addicted. I love it so much that I'm almost disappointed when I get fresh milk now. I'm going to have to wean myself off it when I get home!

Anyway, I was fuelled up for the day's activities!

We walked down to the river - it was very rocky and the current was super strong, but we all swam to an amazing little natural hot spring in a cave across the water. I couldn't believe how warm the water was naturally!

We swam and walked further downstream and made our way to a little waterfall. It was so powerful and very pretty.

Then, it was tubing time! Oh my days, this was so fun. We literally just sat in rings and floated down the river, occasionally over little rapids, soaking up the sun and admiring the incredible scenery. I just couldn't believe it was real! I was so happy.

We eventually climbed out of our rings at a big waterfall. We swam underneath it and had a general frolic in the water before climbing out to eat lunch right beside it. Fried rice, noodles and oodles of fresh pineapple and watermelon. I think I ate a whole pineapple to myself. No joke and no shame.

I was more than happy to have a digestive float down the river as we jumped back into the rings for a little longer. We were singing, holding on to rope from one another's rings and generally having a great time.

After we were cajoled out of the rings (I was more than happy to stay there for weeks and hopefully turn up in Bali), we had to walk for a bit before being picked up and taken back to the "hotel".

"By car or minivan," we thought. Car or minivan it was not.

Up the bumpy track came a cattle truck. The guides gestured us to get in but we figured they were pulling our leg. "This is for the rings," we presumed.

The guides were not having us on.

Up we clambered and off we went, ducking branches every ten seconds and using all our muscles to stay upright. It was hilarious!

We made it back to the "hotel", had "showers", packed up and it was time to hit the road again.

Spoiler alert: the next place we stayed in had actual walls!

How do you think you'd have fared in the jungle!?

Monday, 23 November 2015

South-East Asian Adventures: Singapore

Singapore was absolutely amazing. I loved it. 

As a city state, you have to go through immigration to get in. And they have some strict border control! You're not even allowed to bring in chewing gum and our awesome Russian guide, Masha, was kept back for hours, seemingly purely because she's Russian. 

The lack of chewing gum is just one factor that makes Singapore a crazily clean city. It was incredible. 

Singapore is also basically a western city. It felt and looked more like America than Asia to me.

There were lots of cool-looking eateries and quirky shops - I only wish I could've stayed longer!

However I got a pretty good feel of the place in my 23 hours there. We arrived around lunchtime and so naturally, food was the first port of call. Luckily we stumbled upon a fab little place just near our hotel (the Bencoolen, which was great): Toast Box

It would seem toast is a bit of a thing in Singapore, after a couple of weeks of mainly noodles and rice, we were more than happy to indulge in a spot of western fare. 

I can barely put into words my joy at seeing peanut butter on the menu. 

Thick wholegrain toast, smothered in peanut butter. 
 It was so so good. PB had been absent from my life for too long (the cravings were real, and the houmous ones are yet to be abated) and so of course, multiple slices occurred.

With limited time in Singapore, we had to prioritise, and top of my list was the Gardens by the Bay.

We walked there, down through the city amongst the shiny shiny skyscrapers.
The gardens are huge and absolutely beautiful. 
There are winding paths on the ground and walkways high up between the trees. 

You wander by the water and look up at the incredible skyline and the famous Marina Bay Sands hotel (we'll get to that, just you wait).

In some ways it reminded me of being in Central Park in New York: a lush green oasis in the middle of an urban metropolis.

The sculptures are incredible too.
After a couple of hours exploring the gardens we headed back to our hotel to freshen up. 

If you ask people for recommendations for what to do in Singapore, there is only really one answer: get a Singapore Sling at Raffles - the very famous cocktail from the very famous hotel.

And we did just that. 
It just so happened that 2015 is the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Singapore Sling, which made it seem extra special to me. 

I love the story behind the drink too: back in 1915, women weren't allowed to be seen drinking alcohol (not OK), so a very clever man created a bright pink cocktail that looked like it was simply juice. And just like that, the Singapore Sling was born. 

You need to go to the Long Bar in Raffles, the interior of which takes you back in time and isn't swanky or pretentious, but rather nice and relaxed. 
Although I'd have loved the classic Singapore Sling, Raffles also does variations on the standard which are both a little cheaper and a little bigger than the original. So, no-brainer, right?

And readers, the cocktails are not cheap. At about £14 per drink, they're cocktails to be savoured. But boy, are they delicious. They're also blimmin' strong!

Both mine (yes, I had two, because yolo) had the perfect balance of strength and deliciousness - nothing worse than a cocktail that tastes either of pure alcohol or just fruit juice.

First I had the Tropical Sling, then I had the Courtyard Sling.
They were so so tasty. 

Another thing I loved about Raffles is the peanuts - on each table you find a big bag of peanuts (yum), and the tradition is to eat them and throw the shells on the floor. How funny is that? 
Apparently it's the only place in Singapore where littering is permitted. 

Feeling suitably merry, we wandered down to the waterfront to see the city sparkling away. 
It was actually mesmerising. And not just because I was two cocktails down.

The lights, the way everything sparkled, the reflection on the water... I loved it.
We decided a little food was probably in order so were happy to stumble upon yet another toast place (not Toast Box, this one was disappointingly inferior).

Yes I had more toast and peanut butter and yes I think I ate more peanuts in 24 hours than the previous two weeks. (I also had it at breakfast the next morning.)

And after toast... More cocktails! (Please drink responsibly.)

There is perhaps one bar in Singapore that's as famous as Raffles: Cé La Vi on the roof of the Marina Bay Sands hotel.

So that, dear friends, is where we went.
Oh my days, it was so snazzy. 

Coolest bar I've ever been to. 

They have a bar, restaurant, club, spa and infinity pool up there. I KNOW!
Sadly the spa and pool are reserved for hotel guests but hopefully I'll go back one day when I'm rich. 

Sure, the drinks are expensive (again), but given everywhere else we've been on this trip has been so cheap I figured I could afford one night of indulgence. 

Berry Bellinis all round then, please!
The views were breathtaking.
It was so gorgeous I can't even find the words.

The skyscrapers, the lights, the water, the feeling of being above the whole rest of the world. It was awesome.
And who doesn't love feeling a bit snazzy in a snazzy bar with a snazzy cocktail in hand?

It was just a weeknight but the atmosphere was fab.

Unsurprisingly, the design of the whole rooftop is super stylish, just like the clientèle.

The staff were a delight and they even came round with free delicious pizza to sample - totally getting our money's worth for the cocktail, right?

It was so much fun and a night I'll never forget.

The next morning (after my toast and peanut butter, natch), we went for a wander up the main shopping street, Orchard Road, which was conveniently located very near our hotel.
As we walked up the street, I couldn't shake the feeling that I'd left Asia and been transported back to the Western world.

We passed shopping malls, museums, cute cafés and everything from your high street faves (Forever 21, Zara) to designer brands (Chanel, Burberry).

What was also extremely bizarre was that everything was really Christmassy.
Well it's fair enough considering it was mid-November, but it was the first place I'd seen any sign of Christmas throughout my Asian travels.

It felt very odd to see the Christmas trees, street decorations and a little grotto yet be melting in the heat, in just a vest and shorts.

I have to admit I kinda loved the little dose of festiveness though. It's my favourite time of the year and I am gutted to be missing most of the build-up. Gaaaad, I'm gonna eat so many mince pies when I get home mid-December!

And after a couple of hours exploring it was time to don our backpacks once again and head to the airport to fly to my next destination - off to Indonesia I went, but Singapore has thoroughly wowed me and I'm definitely going to go back. Maybe when I'm rich.
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