Of course I was going to follow up a summary of the worst things with one about the best things!
Best Overall Place
Talk about giving yourself a tough one to start with. I’ve been to many amazing places and seen amazing things so this is by no means definitive.
1. Yangshao, China.
29 hours on trains and buses, and then 30 minutes later on a raft going down this river.
It was a 29 hour nightmare journey to reach, but oh boy was it worth it. After the madness that was successive Chinese mega-cities. So arrive at this small, picturesque town was a joy. Situation between towering peaks, and the Li river, you’ll be hard pushed to find a more attractive setting. It was here that we took rafts down the river, stopping at a view so good it is depicted on Chinese banknotes. I also went to the brilliant cookery school and the place is really friendly towards backpackers, with cafes and restaurants serving brilliant food and making you feel incredibly welcome. It was also here, that I ended up sitting beneath a shady tree surrounded by locals and showing them photographs of my home, Guernsey – but also of places in their own country that they were unable to visit with a license. It was this moment that I realised just how much freedom we have as westerners and how lucky I am to have done this journey.
2. Yogajakata, Indonesia.
When you pull into this city you wonder what you’ve let yourself in for. It is busy, and at times squalid. Then you find the galleries, the street art. That people in the street want to talk to you, and not just sell you something and you realise this is very cool place. Then you take into account that there are two of the worlds most spectacular temple complexes and the doorstep and you reach the conclusion that this is a very special place.
3. Langkawi, Malaysia.
When I think about paradise, I think of Langkawi. Utterly beautiful. Utterly brilliant. Apart from the dickhead owner of my original guesthouse the people were welcoming, funny and almost falling over themselves to make you enjoy their home. I stayed in (admittedly pretty swanky) hut with the beach on one side of me and the rainforest not the other. If I was not awoken by the sun, I would be woken by monkeys playing on the roof. The wildlife I saw was breathtaking. Giant lizards, monkeys, eagles, bats, exotic birds. All this within such easy reach. Go there, grab your swimming gear and head into waters warmer than most of my showers. Then sit on the beach and watch the sun melt into the water. The next morning, grabs a scooter and head to the mangrove, or the cable car and just enjoy this wondrous place.
4. Chiang Mai, Thailand.
A little different to the other places in this list because it is simply a little different. This place is peace and quiet. Just spend your time wandering the Old Town. Buy a milkshake at the side of the road and just walk. Then pop into any of the amazing temples that are littered all around, it will cost you nothing but time. Then eat, and you will eat. Because the food here is nothing short of amazing. Cheap, plentiful and simply amazing. It doesn’t seem to matter where you go, you will find something you like. Then once you’ve had the food, take a class and learn to make it for yourself. For the adrenaline junkies there are (according to people I met that did them) superb mountain bike routes. For those that love to walk, amazing treks, and for animal lovers like me, pay a visit to the Elephant Natural Park and have your entire outlook on these amazing creatures changed.
5. Hong Kong.
Those that know me, knew this was coming. Retaining its title of my favourite city in the world for the 2nd year in a row, I still love this place even after my second visit. In fact, it is probably my favourite place full stop. Hong Kong can be what you want to to be. Expensive, cheap. Modern, traditional. Urban, natural. It has it all. You can be at the top of the 4th largest building in the world at breakfast, in the wetlands by lunch and on the top of a mountain at the foot of the worlds largest Buddha by teatime. It manages to be both huge, yet compact. Its cosmopolitan enough that a traveller like myself, doesn’t get stared at constantly, but is alien enough to provoke your curiosity at all times. You will simply not run out of things to do, and thanks to its amazing public transport, you’ll be able to reach whatever you decide to do with ease.
I love Hong Kong, and it one of the few places I’d ever consider living. Well for at least 6 months of the year… The first time I went the temperature was hot, but not insane. The 2nd was just at the tail end of the hot season, and was unbearable at times.
I’d still happily go back right now.
Another toughie as this region is simply off the scale when it comes to vistas.
1. Mount Bromo, Java at Sunrise.
2. The Peak, Hong Kong
3. The Lake from a boat in Khao Sok National Park, Thailand
4. Green Canyon, Indonesia.
(Sorry, no photos as you have to swim to get there)
5. Early Mornings Mists on from the Great Wall of China
Magnificent Man Made Wonders
These are the places I dream about when I think about travel. They are the spectacular, and they are irreplaceable. They are the places that when you are there, you have to simply put the camera down, grab a pew and look in wonder and know that you will remember this for the rest of your life.
1. The Great Wall.
I visited the Great Wall on my second day of the entire trip. So I guess you could say that it has all been downhill since then. When I arrived there, I had to sit down and take it all in. I walked a section, and I’m glad I did. It was a challenge then, and I’m pleased to say that I don’t think it would be half the challenge now.
To put it into some perspective. In the time leading up to getting there, I’d just been made redundant from my job of 12 years. I’d left my home and friends behind. I only knew a single person within a 10k radius, and so was alone in a strange place, with strange customs, and a strange language. I’d barely sleep or eaten in the last 36 hours. A strange mix of fear, and uncertainty about what I was doing. Even as I got into the cable car to take me to the wall itself I was scared. The cold mountain air had triggered my asthma, and I’d therefore found even walking to the cable car itself quite a challenge. I was worried as I took my first few steps on the wall that I wasn’t fit enough to do this journey and enjoy it.
Then I sat down on a step, and saw the wall stretching out before me. The early morning mist was still in the air, not yet burned away by the sun. I had the wall to myself, having elected to take the cable car rather than hike up.
And I sat and tried to take it all in. All the changes that had happened in such a short space of time. I tried to comprehend that I was actually here, actually on the Great Wall itself. It was then that I knew that I had done exactly the right thing. It didn’t matter about home. It didn’t matter about being alone. Instead, what mattered was that I was setting off on an amazing journey. One which I am still on, (and despite at the time of writing being quite ill) and having enjoyed immensely.
Walking the wall gave me the confidence that I could physically do the journey, and apart from this darned bug I have, I’m feeling physically stronger than I have in years. It seems carrying rucksacks can do that for you. But right there, at my worst physically I then knew I could do it.
But lets not forget the wall itself. It is an amazing feat of engineering. The scale is truly terrifying to comprehend as I only saw a minuscule amount of its true range.
What a place.
2. Borobudur Temple.
I’d never even heard of this place before I arrived in Indonesia. Now I look back and wonder how that can be the case. This huge amazing structure. Surrounded by volcanos on three sides, yet towering in its own right. The carvings and reliefs that line the walls are intriguing. The complex beguiling. Another early morning start saw us arrive as the mists were still hanging in the gardens and surrounding trees. For a short period our group had the place to ourselves, then the other visitors arrived and that spell broke. But not before having taken in as much of this as I could.
3. Angkor Wat, Cambodia.
I barely got to see Angkor, for reasons that are still haunting me now, some weeks later. But even in my fevered state I knew I was somewhere special. What started off as a silhouette against the night sky, started to turn into something spectacular as the dark sky began to cycle through the dawn colours.
I barely had time to see this place in the daylight before my traitorous body forced me to my bed, but for those few moments it was something special.
4. Paranbanan Temple, Indonesia.
I’d probably feel even worse about Angkor if I had not visited Paranbanan. Amazingly located just a hours drive from Borobudur, I feel that I’ve neglected this amazing place in my writing. On any other day this would have been the crown jewel, but somehow it found itself overshadowed by its near neighbour that I’d visited earlier that same day.
Which is unfair, because this place is a wonder in its own right. I view it as the appetiser before the main course of Angkor itself. A series of Hindu temples in the classic Hindu style. These towering temples are more than worth the visit.
5. The Forbidden City, Beijing.
Everything that I hoped it would be. As with the Great Wall, I had that sense of ‘wow, I’m actually here’. It is an amazing place, and one of the few where I hired a guide rather than just went there in a photography mindset. That it was pouring down may have influenced that! It truly is one of those places where you feel history and stories pouring out of every surface.
Honourable Mention: Wat Pho, Bangkok.
Its a crying shame that bad food tends to stick in my memory longer than great food (I’m looking at you again Amtrak). I’m not sure why that is, but perhaps that the food here tends to be universally good.
Some meals however stand out above all others.
1. Beef cubes with a Mango Yogurt and potato wedges. Blu Jazz Club, Singapore – Amazing, simply amazing.
2. Steak and Chips, with a garlic butter sauce. Steak & Frittes, Penang.
Where did this come from. How did a place I really dislike produce this. The restaurant only had one thing on the menu.
But what a steak. It just fell apart when the fork touched it, and practically melted in my mouth. I’ve paid £30+ for steaks not even close to this, that should not even be compared for fear of tainting its magnificence. Yet for this slice of heaven, I paid no more than £12 including my drinks.
3. Vegetarian Assortment, Pure Lotus Vegetarian Restaurant, Yangshao. A few of us decided to head to a slightly more expensive restaurant towards the end of our Chinese journey. Boy am I glad we did. The things these people could do with veg was unbelievable. One dish I swear was indistinguishable from Swedish meatballs. It was just made with mushrooms, and I’ve no idea how they did it.
4. Yellow Curry, Unknown, Chiang Mai.
I wish I could tell you the name of the place, but I couldn’t see it anywhere and the owner didn’t speak English. All I can tell you is that it is between the 7/11 and the temple on the centre road of Old Town. I was looking for somewhere quiet, and everywhere else seemed packed. I went to this place that was empty, and ordered pretty much by pointing. 20 minutes later I felt like standing out of the street and shouting to people to get their arses in here and eat because the food is out of this world. I’d see tourists come past. All bum bags and money belts. They’d look at this slightly odd place, and head to the next door 5 times the price, 1/4th the quality tourist restaurant and I’d just shake my head. My meal cost about £2, and it was simply brilliant. Not brilliant for the money. Just brilliant. When I spoke to other backpacker and we were sharing advise on where to eat. I’d always circle this place on their maps.
5. Red Curry, unknown, Langkawi. This was basically a roadside joint near my original hostel. I had a Tiger Prawn Red Curry, and boy was it good. Damn near nuclear in its heat, but good. The Tiger Prawn was about as thick as my wrist, I now wish I’d taken a photo because I still find it hard to say that and not think I’m exaggerating. I had a proper chilli sweat on, and I couldn’t feel my lips for two hours after. The owner at first didn’t believe me when I said that I was OK with it. He kept saying that he’d make it cooler for me. It was admittedly at my limit, or even slightly beyond, but I didn’t want to risk that amazing taste to be diluted along with the heat. Its also the curry that gave me the courage to ask for local strength and not tourist strength from that point on when I ordered.
So thats a quick look at some of my favourite moments in Asia. It’ll be interesting to see what remains in the list once its been expanded to the entire trip. I’ve a suspicion that the Great Wall is likely to remain right up there until the end.