A Travellerspoint blog

May 2011

One thing

sunny 28 °C

When i was travelling in Italy several years ago i remember going to a wonderful pizza restaurant in Naples, with Mariana and her parents Pat and Bob. Real clay, wood fired ovens, fantastically fresh ingredients producing stunning pizzas. At the end of the meal i asked for a coffee in my very limited Italian. The waiter then launched into a long philosophical soliloquy in Italian; i had no idea at the time what he was saying but he was clearly speaking with passion. After he left, Mariana translated: in life you should just focus on one thing and make sure you are the best you can be at it. He said at this restaurant they don't do coffee, they don't do pasta, they don't do ice cream; they just do pizza and it is the best pizza in Naples! The place across the road only did coffee and it was the best coffee in Naples so the waiter told us to go there for our post lunch espresso.

At the time i thought this was pretty funny but the more i think about it and the more i eat at restaurants around the world the more truth i see in the waiter's solemn words. How many times do you go into a restaurant with a 6 page menu containing 100 different dishes, none of which turn out to be that good? Its just too damn hard for a kitchen to make that many dishes well. The exception i would say is some Asian restaurants, particularly Vietnamese, that does seem to manage to pull this off.

Generally the rule of thumb is this; the less things on the menu the better. Massive menus serving numerous cuisines are built on the false idea that what we want is choice. I don't think we necessarily either want or need choice - this falsehood is a result of mass consumerism providing us with a bewildering array of exactly that and this idea now seems to come up in politics with Blair and labour being major proponents (why do i care which hospital i go to, i just want a good service!) Now i'm not proposing a return to the 16th century or the war years rationing system but what i think we actually really need is not choice but quality. When quality is compromised for choice you end up with lots of things which are not as good as they could or should be. We experienced this throughout Asia. Be wary of any restaurant that purports to specialise in Thai, Italian, Japanese and Indian cuisine under one roof! The best food we ate has been at little market stalls or restaurants that just specialise in one type of food or even just serve one dish and every one of them has been bang on the money. Noodle soup restaurants in China and Vietnam, papaya salad stalls in Thailand, tofu stalls, a restaurant in Phnom Penh that only did a beef with egg dish, the list is endless. When we arrived in Jordan this trend continued with a falafel restaurant called Hashem. No menu, they just do falafel, humus, foul (a fava bean puree), pitta and tea. Every who goes there has the same thing. You know you are onto something good when ordering happens in reverse; they tell you what you are having rather than you telling them. The food was so damn good it made you want to weep with joy.

Posted by roblewis 04:04 Archived in Jordan Comments (2)

four seasons in one cycle

all seasons in one day

For the first time in our cycling trip we set the alarm to go off when it was still dark. Munching on bananas as we packed our panniers we were about 5 kms out of Ipoh before we saw the sun peeking up over the horizon. A tad extreme perhaps, but we were more than a little anxious about the cycle into the Cameron Highlands that lay ahead - easily the biggest and longest climbing day of the entire trip so far. The distance wasn't too daunting - 90km in total - but half of it was a solid uphill climb and of most concern to us - it was a food and water desert. The temperature in Malaysia is so punishing it makes Vietnam seem positively arctic. It is uncomfortably hot by about 9am, unrelenting till about 4pm so we needed to get as high as we could as early as we could to escape the stifling heat.

About 12 km out of Ipoh we stopped just before the turn off to the Cameron Highlands and a small Indian eaterie and virtually ate and drank it dry. Too polite to ask, they dutifully obliged when we asked for 2 dosa and an omelette each for breakfast, 7 litres of water and 6 roti and about a litre of daal secured in a plastic bag with an elastic band around it to go. So with the smell of lentils, cardamom and hot bread wafting out of the food bag attached to the bag of the pannier we started the climb.



Predictably by about 9am it was baking hot and with very little shade our eyes were soon burning from sweat. I studiously stared at the kilometre gauge on the GPS which inched forwards painfully slowly.



It was only by the time we reached about 900mts above sea level that there was some reprieve from the heat. The air was noticeably cooler and we noticed with some relief that it was clouding over. This relief did not last long. The smattering of light clouds quickly turned heavy and grey. As we struggled to the 1200 metre mark the heavens open and rain lashed down with fury. Virtually unable to see and, unbelieveably, feeling cold for the first time in about 2 months we stopped for shelter in a garden centre with a little cafe among the strawberry plants for a cup of tea to warm us up. Two hours later and still no mercy. Eventually we waded out onto the road that was virtually a river but after 10 km of cycling as if we had our eyes shut with ineffective brakes as the roads were too slippery we took refuge again under a bus shelter conceding defeat that we were not going to make it without motorised assistance. We were going to need to hitch a ride.



Happily in the typically generous malaysian way we did not have our thumb out for long before a lorry driver transporting plants to a nearby garden centre picked us up and nestled the bikes in with the flowers in the back of the truck while we thawed out in the cab. As he dropped us off only 5 km from Tanah Rata the rain had lifted and we cycled into the village with the sun peeking through the clouds about 10 hours after we started.

We spent a day relaxing in the highlands, relishing the cool climate, wearing a jumper in the evening for the first time in months. Tea is grown in abundance here, although mainly for consumption within southeast asia. We whiled away an afternoon feeling quintessentially english sipping tea overlooking the plantations and went for a (short) walk in the mossy forest which looks like something out of a Terry Pratchett novel.







The descent out of Tanah Rata towards Kuala Lumpur was even better than the climb. The road was narrower and lined with trees sweeping down towards the coast. Initially we planned to stop at a little town called Slim River because we liked the name. However when we arrived it was clear than the name did not live up to our misplaced expectations as there was very little there with only one very run down looking guesthouse. Staying the night was not quite off the cards as Selma the waitress in our lunchstop was very excited about us coming through by bike and as she delivered our daal and roti announced that we could stay with her - but we would have to wait another 6 hours until her shift finished. As lovely as Selma was, we decided to catch the local train the rest of the way (about 60km) into Kuala Lumpur; unexpectedly and prematurally calling time on the Asia leg of our cycling tour.

Posted by mrs lewis 23:24 Archived in Malaysia Comments (2)

Bicycle have bicycle can

sunny 30 °C

After a day sightseeing in Bangkok we boarded the train to Malaysia. When we had arrived in Thailand and realised we would not be able to cycle through southern Thailand due to the flooding, we though we would do the prudent thing and buy train tickets down to Malaysia well in advance; on the first day we arrived in Thailand, 2 weeks before the wedding. However, on enquiring at the station we found out that due to Songkran festival, tickets for the whole week preceding the wedding were sold out apart from 2 seats left on the train that got in on the same day as the wedding itself. We snapped them up but it was always going to be a race against the clock to make it on time. The train trip down was great with decent beds and a nice restaurant car to relax in with real food whilst taking in the views of the Thai countryside - makes the UK train service look pathetic with its yukky cheese and onion pasties.

We arrived in Malaysia early on the 14th and had a morning cycle to reach the ferry terminal for Langkawi. We missed the 12 o'clock boat by seconds due to not having any local currency and needing to find a cash point so had to wait for the one at 1430. With the wedding beginning at 1700 and with 28km to cover once the ferry docked it was going to be tight. Predictably the ferry was late and we arrived with only one hour left to go and still in our lycra. Luckily we met a Malaysian cyclist on the ferry and true to cycling fraternity form he offered to help us - coincidentally he was staying in the same hotel as us. Cycling to the other side of the island was not going to be an option with only an hour to go. We would have to leave our bikes at the ferry port and take up our new friends offer of a lift in his rented car. We put our bikes in the car park and waited for the rental car to turn up. At 1620 and after several phone calls to the car rental shop there was still no sign of the car so we jumped in a taxi and asked him to drive as fast as possible. We arrived at our hotel with 15 minutes to spare, had a quick shower, changed and got in another taxi to the wedding venue. 1705 we arrived, five minutes late but we had travelled overland from Hong Kong, cycling 4,000km through Asia, so all in all a pretty good effort. It was lovely to see so many friends from home after such a long time and the wedding was a joyous occasion with a very well suited couple - congratulations Dean and Michelle.
After a few days in Langkawi (another beautiful island which has experienced some less than desirable effects from tourism) we made our way back north to an island in Thailand called Ko Lipe. When our friends who were supposed to be meeting us at the port didn't show up for the departure we figured our six months in a warped world of cycle touring had made us unbearable company but turns out they all got conned and ended up being taken on a 8 hour journey back onto the mainland and round half a dozen islands after being told the 2 hour ferry journey had been cancelled, all so the travel agent who sold them the tickets could earn a few extra Rimbit on the tickets. Travel agents in Asia are generally conmen; another profession along with estate agents that will hopefully be phased out in the age of the internet. Unfortunately I can't see this happening to people who work in advertising.
We had a great time on Ko Lipe and the nearby pristine island of Ko Adang. Both islands sit within the Ko Taratao Marine National Park and we did some beautiful snorkelling during our stay. After a few days spent with the Leeds Uni crew it was time to hit the road again. We took a boat to Georgetown on the island of Penang, a delightful town with well preserved colonial buildings and an incredible mix of cultures and food, including Indian, Chinese, Malaysian and Thai. Little India was particularly interesting and was like being back on Brick Lane but with better food. We feasted on dosas, rotis and curries of all types as well as fitting in a days cycling around the island.
Another wonderful thing about Malaysia is the people; perhaps the friendliest we have come across on our trip. Their two favourite words appear to be "can" and "have", a nice change from hearing Vietnamese saying "no, no, no", and this really reflects their warm, welcoming demeanour. On arriving in Malaysia, we asked to two ladies at the ferry port a number of questions each of which was met with either "can" or "have".

"Can we take our bicycles on the ferry?"
"Can, can"
"Are their routes for cyclists?"
"Have, have. Bicycle have, bicycle can"

Yes, Malaysia is truly the place for those seeking positivity. Positivity have, positivity can. Bicycle have, bicycle can!

The following day we took a ferry over to the mainland and began our route south to Kuala Lumpur via the Cameron Highlands. After a very boring day of cycling (unfortunately much of Malaysia has been turned into palm oil plantations to feed our growing addiction to processed food) we reached another lovely little town called Taiping which had a large Chinese population who had moved there at the beginning of the twentieth century for tin mining, proving that China's current mission to buy up every resource left on earth is not a recent trend. The following day the cycling got better as we reached Ipoh at the foot of the Cameron Highlands. The next day would be one of our biggest challenges, a 90km ride including a single continuous ascent of 1500m, with no services of any kind, in 35 degree heat. Yikes.

Posted by roblewis 04:19 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Permaculture in Thailand

rain 30 °C

A small permaculture farm called Daruma, about 150km south of Bangkok, was to be our stopgap for a week while we anxiously waited for news of the flooding situation in southern Thailand. This would determine if and how we would make it to Langkawi for Dean & Michelle's wedding.

We found out about Daruma ecofarm through warmshowers as it turned out that the farm owner was very supportive of passing cycle tourers. It sounded perfect. Keen to get there as soon as possible we decided to cycle out of Cambodia across the border with Thailand at the Poipet crossing and then get a train to Chachoengsao, just 60 km from the farm. Although there was a brutal headwind we left Cambodia on a happy note as we managed to draft behind a huge tractor going at about 25km an hour. While we were tucked in, periodically smiling and waving at the driver who seemed bemused but not offended by our presence, a local sped up to us on a motorbike gesticulating furiously and holding out a translucent yellow plastic bag. It turned out that he had seen us cycle past and he went to pick up a couple of (piping hot) sweetcorn kernels for us at a streetside stall and was attempting to hand them over to us precariously while we were all flying along at speed trying not to plough into the tractor in front. This handing out of food has happened quite a few times in Asia, mostly from people who make their living from selling fruit and vegetables, yet they would hand out produce that their livelihood depended on to us. I found this quite overwhelming really. Rob thinks that the locals perceive us as a human paradox as on one hand we are westerners therefore must be rich, but we are on bikes which are at the bottom of the transport pyramid - noone in Asia would ride a bike if they could afford a motorbike - so those that think we must be poor hand out fruit. I think it is more likely that we look like hungry bedraggled scarecrows in need of a good feed!

Crossing into Thailand went without a hitch (finally a border crossing where we managed not to get lost!) and we cruised down smooth asphalt roads to the train station in Aranya Prathet. The saga with taking bikes on trains seems to extend right the way through Asia. We were allowed to take the bikes on but at a cost of more than double the price of a foot passenger! However it would be meanspirited to complain as train travel is ridiculously cheap in Thailand as it is government subsidised and the train journey itself was an absolute joy. There is plenty of room, huge windows and right from the off market hawkers with unspeakably delicious sweet and savory goodies wrapped up in banana leaves meander up and down the aisles with mouthwatering scents of lemongrass, coconut and coriander wafting behind them.

The night we spent in Chachoengsao was uneventful save for discovering that our GPS has a 'lodgings' function on it. Quickly exploding our preconceptions that it would only list well established chain hotels like the Hilton we spent an hour going on an interesting tour of some of the most insalubrious establishments we have seen in Asia that don't even have hotel or guesthouse signs on them but miraculously our GPS managed to identify them as lodgings. Rob went into one which was worse than any hotel in China pronouncing he would prefer to stay in Big Tiger (Thailand's most notorious prison). Eventually we found a grimy room for 20 USD which is exorbitant by Vietnam/Cambodia standards. Maybe in Thailand you need to pay extra for the cockroaches?

Cycling down to Daruma Eco-farm the next day was a fairly unrelaxing experience - possibly one of our least enjoyable days of cycling so far. The blistering heat was certainly a factor - not only because we sweat copiously and feel constantly parched, but the salt in our sweat aggravates our saddlesores forcing us to hover uncomfortably over the saddle. But the worst part was having to cycle half the route down a 5 - 6 lane expressway with lorries and buses travelling at brake neck speed and belching out fumes all the way to Bang Phra where Daruma farm is nestled on about 6 acres next to the railway station.

We ended up staying at Daruma for about a week giving our saddlesores time to recover and learn more about permaculture and organic farming in the tropics. Neil, the owner of the farm, is a fiercely intelligent American with an opinion on just about everything. This particularly delighted Rob as this gave him a sparring partner to debate everything from homeopathy to McDonalds. The farm itself is still in the early stages of development with grand plans in the pipeline from establishing a mini hotel replete with an acquaponics and permaculture teaching centre to forested saunas with some farming thrown in! The farm was run by an extremely likeable friend of Neil's called Troy with whom we had an interesting introduction to meditation (Troy has been practising for about 15 years) and learn more about raw food as he has been a 'rawfoodist' for a similar length of time. Rob and I were in awe of his persistence as the thought of giving up cooked food is simply unimaginable - even more so as Troy confided that, although more agreeable that other diets he had tired he wasn't "thriving". No cooked food for a decade and a half without experiencing the benefits, now that is dedication!

While at Daruma we met a wonderful Turkish traveller called Irem, who was volunteering on the farm with us. For the first few days it was just the three of us at the farm sharing our living quarters with three cats and an uncountable number of kittens. Neil nonchalantly told us that they needed to keep cats on the property to control the rats, as once you have rats in the house you also have snakes. His farm is apparently host to every poisonous snake found in Thailand, making Rob more tolerant to cats than usual in spite of being woken up every night at about 3am but one or more of them trying to share our bed!

Our work at the farm was quite varied ranging from harvesting sweetcorn and flowers for making tea to planting lemongrass. There were also some more unorthodox tasks for us to do including 'triple digging' the land in preparation for planting. Perhaps an attempt to seek symmetry with Heston Blumenthal's approach to cooking?
As well as getting used to the heat of Woofing in the tropics we also had to contend with the mosquitos that were absolutely ruthless and savaged us at dawn and dusk. The flies also took a liking to the bites on Rob's foot and he ended up with an infection bloating his foot to double size!
More Woofers arrived towards the end of our stay at the farm including lovely french couple Ben and Fred who were travelling with their 7 month old baby, Meige, and a couple, Paolo and Pamela who were well practised at operating the clay oven, resulting in pizza night where we churned out what must be the best pizzas this side of Naples.... or at least this side of Thailand!
During our stay at Daruma our interest had been piqued in mediation and we found out that there was a buddist monastery on nearby island Ko Sichang so, with Irem, we organised to stay there and experience a day and a night in the life of a Thai Buddhist Monk/Nun. The monastery itself it beautiful with ornate temples dotted through the grounds and plans to build more. We were assigned separate sleeping quarters and it quickly became clear from this early stage how the life of a monk and a nun differ! Rob was assigned a mountain top private bungalow with a sea view while Irem and I were in a shared dorm. The monks, it seems, have a fairly cushty deal. Apart from waking up at 3.30am for chanting at 4 (Rob visibly paled at this!) the nuns do all the work including the cooking, cleaning and basically waiting on the monks hand and foot. While Irem and I were furiously chopping onions and sweeping the kitchen Rob, donned in his honorary monk robes, went into the village to collect food that is offered to the monks by the villagers in the belief that it will bring good karma. This was literally collected in sackloads - everything from crisps to whole chickens.

Unsurprisingly Rob was quick to quiz our host nun, Bon, about the collection and consumption of meat as one of the central tenets of Buddhism is not causing harm to any living thing, so Buddhists are strictly vegetarian. The response along the lines of 'well they give it to us so we eat it' didn't really seem to wash, nor did the explanation to the questions Rob fired off about donated money going into building temples rather than helping the community. So despite a relaxing stay where we learnt more about meditation we decided a monastic life was not for us and I think the nuns were quietly relieved to be free of our constant questioning once we had left.


So with 48 hours to go until the wedding we bid farewell to Daruma farm and started the race against the clock to get to the church (or the beach in this case) on time.

Posted by mrs lewis 23:54 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

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