Renting a Scooter & Touring Bali, Indonesia

People often talk about “Bali” like it’s just one place – one town. Actually, while Bali is a small island (relative to, say, Java) it’s not that small. There’s actually tons of different towns, villages and even a city, all separated by mountains, lakes and countryside, plus loads to see and do, with each coast and region offering a completely unique experience.

Sunset at Kuta Beach, Bali, Indonesia

Sunset on Kuta Beach

My Bali Highlights

After rambling around Bali for a few weeks, here are my unmissables:

  • Throw yourself into hedonistic Kuta Beach, if only for a night!
  • Get naked on Bukit’s west coast, where anything goes!
  • Rent a scooter and take in Pura Ulun Danu BratanGunung Batur and more rice terraces than you can shake a stick at.
  • Get your Eat Pray Love on in Ubud.
  • Take the fast-boat to the Gili Islands for the paradise all the backpackers are talking about.
  • If you have time, take the ferry to Java for a night climb of Kawah Ijen.
Pura Ulun Danu Bratan water temple on lake near Bedugul, Bali, Indonesia

Pura Ulun Danu Bratan water temple on Lake Bratan, near Bedugul

Renting Motorbikes in Bali

With mass tourism effectively killing the bemo (shared taxi) industry on Bali (it’s been practically impossible for some time now to get out of Kuta or any other tourist area by bemo…except on market days, if you’re in the right place at the right time) and with scooters for rent just about everywhere for only 50,000 rupiah (£2.50) per day (40,000 if you rent for a few days) renting a scooter is the obvious, most cost-effective choice of transport for the budget traveller, and affords infinitely more freedom. The wind in your helmet, riding amongst a convoy of fellow travellers: that’s what travelling Bali is all about!

Lake Batur by rented motorcycle in Bali, Indonesia

Stopping to pose in front of Lake Batur

We rented from Beneyasa Beach Inn I, and they didn’t even ask for anything as a deposit. Apparently they tried the scooter rental business in Java too, but for some reason all the bikes got stolen…

Bali sunset by rental scooter

Riding Bali’s back-roads

Where to Go in…

…South Bali

Southern Bali, particularly Denpasar and the bottleneck around Kuta suffers from serious traffic as a result of mass tourism. If you’re going to “Bali”, you’re probably going here.

Pool tables at Tubes bar, Poppies Lane 2, Kuta Beach, Bali, Indonesia

Playing pool in Tubes bar, down Poppies Lane II, Kuta Beach

  • Kuta Beach – one of Bali’s longest-running and biggest tourist draws – it’s one of those places you just have to experience at least once. Other than clubbing, the main excuse for a tourist attraction is the Ground Zero Monument – a memorial to the Bali bombings of 2002, which destroyed Sari club and Paddy’s Pub and killed over 200 people. A lot of people hate Kuta, but if you like getting drunk abroad, it’s for you, and if you stay in the right place, away from the main strip (Jalan Legian), it can actually be quite pleasant. My tip is to do a lot of your pre-gaming in bars like Tubes and Alleycats down Poppie’s Lanes I and II before hitting the main drag, where drinks will cost you a fortune. When you do hit the main drag, Sky Garden is the place to be, with a roof-top bar, drinks deals and too many floors to remember. Oh, and watch out for drunk Australians on scooters!
  • Legian, the next beach up, is quieter, cheaper and still retains some of the hippy feel that put this region of Bali on the travellers’ map back in the 60s and 70s.
  • Seminyak, the next beach up again, is more sophisticated (and therefore expensive). Expect many a trendy wine bar.
  • Canggu (pronounced “changgu”) is further north again and the next in line for mass development. Many expats and surfers have already moved in to stay, taking advantage of the relatively low prices and close proximity to the Kuta-Legian-Seminyak area. This is by far the quietest and most relaxed of the four…if that’s your thing.
  • Sanur, on the east coast, is a more relaxed alternative to the Kuta area, supposedly ideal for couples and older travellers.
  • Denpasar is the capital city of Bali but has more in common with Java. It is where all the locals live, has almost nothing to draw foreign visitors (besides genuinely cheap shops) and is a world apart from the beaches.
  • Ngurah Rai Airport, though officially labelled “Denpasar”, is actually so close to Kuta that you’ll watch the planes land from the beach and could walk it if you didn’t have a bag.
Ground Zero Monument Bali bombings memorial in Kuta Beach, Bali, Indonesia

The Ground Zero Monument – a memorial to all who died in the Bali bombings on 12th October, 2002

Bali bombings ground zero car park sign at Sari club lot, Kuta Beach, Indonesia

The “Ground Zero” car park: once Sari club, now an empty lot.

Balinese offerings in Kuta Beach, Bali, Indonesia

Balinese offerings on the streets of Kuta

Surfing fake surf board at Tubes bar in Kuta Beach, Bali, Indonesia

Surfing my way into Tubes bar

Where to Stay in Kuta?

  • Beneyasa Beach Inn I (not to be confused with its shittier sister, Beneyasa Beach Inn II) has a pool, free breakfast, motorbike rental, great location and is only 175,000 (£8.75) per night for a basic ensuite double with balcony.
  • Suka Beach Inn, just a few doors further down, has better, cleaner rooms, more of a choice for breakfast and lovely Balinese architecture for only 135,000 (£6.75)! Downsides are no top-sheet or towels and the pool layout’s not as good for some reason.
Beneyasa Beach Inn I hotel accommodation in Kuta, Bali, Indonesia

Our accommodation in Kuta for only £4.37 per person per night! Why are you not here?

…The Bukit Peninsula

South of the bottleneck is the Bukit Peninsula. On its east coast is the high-end resort area of Nusa Dua, now connected to the mainland (and airport) by a 220 million (US) dollar causeway toll road. However, the oft-forgotten west coast remains relatively undeveloped and home to several hippy-come-surfer beaches, where anything goes.

Balangan Beach, Bukit Peninsula, Bali, Indonesia

Balangan Beach on the Bukit Peninsula’s less travelled, west coast

  • Jimbaran Bay, on your way down through the ‘neck, has a bunch of seafront warung (local Indonesian restaurants) where you can buy fresh seafood by weight and eat it as you watch the sun go down.
  • Balangan Beach is probably my favourite. It has the bluest water and whitest sand I’ve seen in a long time, but sadly is quite narrow as far as beaches go. It’s great for surfing, and has plenty of rustic accommodation, bars and restaurants, but not-so-great for swimming – the steep shelf and massive wave will smash you up good. Once on the peninsula, take the Ulu Watu road then turn right at the turn-off for “Cenggiling” and follow the dirt road as far as it goes (about seven kilometres). It’s 2000 for motorbike parking and entry (6 am ’til 7 pm) but just ride straight past, turn left at the beach and this will take you along the backs of the beach accommodations. Just pick one.
  • Bingin is made up of beaches, cliffs and the network of narrow paths and passages that run thereabouts. Accommodation prices can range anywhere from the budget to the ridiculous, just next door to one another. (I recommend booking Leggie’s as I was gutted they were full when we arrived.) From the Ulu Watu road, take a right at Pecatu and right again when you see the accommodation signs. It’s supposed to be 5000 to park, but we didn’t have to pay.
  • Padang Padang Beach is a spectacularly beautiful spot between Bingin and Ulu Watu. It makes a great day-trip or rest-stop, but not a good place to stay overnight.
  • Ulu Watu is the end of the road and home to both a world-renowned surf resort and the Pura Luhur Ulu Watu sea temple (open 3 am ’til 7 pm; 25,000 entry and 1000 for parking), which has stood precariously on an outcrop since the 11th century and is best photographed at sunset.
Bingin beach, Bukit Peninsula, Bali, Indonesia

Bingin beach and cliffs, Bukit Peninsula

Coffee and breakfast at Bingin beach, Bukit Peninsula, Bali, Indonesia

Coffee and breakfast at a Bingin beach cafe

Padang Padang Beach, Bukit Peninsula, Bali, Indonesia

Padang Padang Beach, Bukit Peninsula

…South-west Bali

As for Bali’s south-west coast, avoid it. It’s the main artery from Java to Denpasar and so suffers from the same pitfalls as Java: heavy traffic, pollution, over-crowding.

Roadside Indonesian gas station with petrol in glass Absolut vodka bottles

What a petrol/gas station looks like in Indonesia. Why always Absolut bottles?

…North & East Bali

The north and east coasts are relatively free from traffic and offer more low-key, local black-sand (often a nice way of saying ugly) beaches like Amed in the east or Lovina, a string of fishing villages attached to Singaraja in northern Bali. Both are in the process of going from local secret to “off-the-beaten-track” destination and offer a more relaxed, more authentically Indonesian beach experience, for those who actually like to see the culture of the places they go.

…Central Bali

Central Bali is characterised by mountain roads, lakes and jungle, rice paddies, coffee plantations and clove orchards, volcanic crater rims, picturesque temples and beautiful Balinese architecture. North of Ubud, the traffic disperses and the tourists thin out.

Lake Batur, Bali, Indonesia

Lake Batur from the crater rim road

View of Mount Gunung Batur, Bali, Indonesia

Gunung (Mount) Batur from our hotel

Sign at Pura Ulun Danu Bratan reading your attention pleace visitor entering this temple are kindly requested to be dresed neatly and properly to observe the existed derectory to stay away during your period for the ladies keep clean liness and environment conservation

I wonder how well point three is enforced.

We rode up, past Pura Ulun Danu Bratan to Lovina, then borrowed a couple of scenic rides from Lash, who knows Bali ridiculously well, and drove the mountain road up to Kintamani, along the crater rim of Gunung (Mount) Batur, then down again through little Balinese villages like Manikilyu and Lembean and on to Ubud.

Balinese country road and moped

Exploring the Balinese countryside by scooter

Selamat datang Desa Lembean Balinese gates

Welcome to Bali! Balinese gates at Desa Lebean

Ubud is one of the major settings of Eat Pray Love (and so, as is to be expected, is full of women of all ages trying to find themselves). While not the most beautiful place on earth, it’s Bali’s unique, hospitable and beautiful culture that continues to draw travellers from all over the world, and Ubud is arguably the best place to experience this. Try:

  • The Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary
  • Traditional Balinese music and dance, such as kecak, legong, barong and gamelan. Ask around for nightly performances at the likes of Pura Dalem Ubud and Pura Taman Saraswati (all on Jalan Raya Ubud).
  • There are several walking paths around Ubud.
Brem Balinese rice wine in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

Brem – a deliciously sweet Balinese rice wine – in Ubud

Nightlife in Ubud is easy: the place to go after hours is CP Lounge. Until then it’s all about great food and the many shisha, tapas and live music bars in town. My personal favourite spot is Laughing Buddha.

Live music in Laughing Buddha tapas bar, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

Kacir live at Laughing Buddha tapas bar, my favourite spot in Ubud

Where to Stay in Ubud?

  •  Jiwa’s House, on Jalan Sandat, offers the perfect Indonesian homestay experience, with clean rooms, great breakfast, lovely, down-to-earth owners, friendly dog, good location, abundant greenery and Balinese architecture everywhere. This is the perfect place in which to experience Ubud and only 200,000 (£10), so I strongly advise booking ahead. You won’t regret it.
Jiwa's House homestay in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

Parked up at the beautiful Jiwa’s House homestay in Ubud

Further Afield than Bali?

Take the ferry or fast-boat from the port of Padangbai – a decent backpacker town in itself – to Lombok and/or the Gili Islands (by the way, gili means “small island” in the local Sasak language of Lombok, so not only does “the Gili Islands” mean the “small island islands”, but all the islands in the region are “gilis”). You can get a door-to-door transfer from your hotel in Kuta (or Ubud) to Gili Trawangan for as low as 190,000, though that involved some serious haggling.

I also recommend taking the ferry over from Gilimanuk to Ketapang (the ferry port on Java, eight kilometres north of Banyuwangi) and tackling the volcano and crater lake at Kawah Ijen.

Enjoy!

Categories: Asia, Indonesia, South East Asia, Travel Stories | Tags: | Leave a comment

Gili Trawangan Nightlife Guide

Throughout my travels, almost everyone I’ve asked says their favourite place in Indonesia, or even South East Asia, is the Gili Islands. All different types of traveller, all talking as though they alone stumbled upon this paradise.

Turquoise water and white sand beach on Gili Trawangan island, Lombok, Indonesia

Arriving at Gili Trawangan, there’s no jetty; the boat just pulls up on the sand.

Gili Trawangan (“Gili T” by the time you’ve been there a few hours) is the famed “party island” of the three Gilis – the others being tranquil little Gili Meno and laid-back Gili Air – and, though this isn’t the 70s anymore, is definitely up there with the world’s greatest backpacker paradises.

Dutch football supporters celebrating on Gili Trawangan beach at sunrise

After losing my bet on Costa Rica to win the World Cup, we consoled ourselves by partying with the Dutch.

I call this a “nightlife guide”, but that’s not to say the party on Gili T stops during the daylight hours. I was there during Ramadan and still managed to only crawl in at 10.30 the next morning.

Gili Trawangan sunrise, Indonesia

Swimming with the sunrise after an epic night out!

Look out for a “vodka joss” – a local speciality, illegal almost everywhere else in the world - made from a shot of vodka and a sachet of energy powder.

The Nightly Parties & Where to Catch Them

Some of the major bars on Gili T have a kind of oligopoly over the island’s late-night nightlife, with “the party” doing the rounds every week. Don’t miss out on the action. Unless you’re there for Ramadan, when things are a bit different, this’ll be your bible for the season:

  • Monday night – Blue Marlin
  • Tuesday night – Trawangan (Beach) Cottages
  • Wednesday night – Tir Na Nog (“the Irish”)
  • Thursday night – Sama Sama + Pool party at Gili Hostel + Quiz night at Trawangan Dive (Bar)
  • Friday night – Surf Bar + Rudy’s
  • Saturday night – Sama Sama
  • Sunday night – Evolution + Ladies’ night at the Irish
Pool party at Gili Hostel in Trawangan, Gili Islands, Indonesia

At the pool party with a couple o’ cold Bintangs

If in doubt just hit the strip, ask around or follow the flow.

Gili Hostel pool bar party in Trawangan, Gili Islands, Indonesia

Pool party at the Gili Hostel pool bar

Must-dos for a Night Out on Gili Trawangan

All of this is on pretty much every night (except the boat party, which is three days a week) and should not be missed while your on Gili T:

  • After sunset, start a night at the night market. There’s amazing food all over the island, but this is by far the cheapest and most authentically Indonesian.
  • Pre-gaming from 8 pm ’til midnight at Jiggy Jig’s - home to the “Jiggy Jig’s Drinking Challenge”, where if you can drink selection of signature cocktails and shots fastest than anyone else (the current record is at around 17 seconds) it’s free!
  • Bonfire on the beach at Horizontal (they say from 5 pm, but actually it’s whenever it gets dark)
  • Shisha at Horizontal or Pesona
  • Live music at Sama Sama almost every night
  • The pool bar at Gili Hostel (best on a Thursday – see above)
  • The Irish hosts silent discos, pretty much every night during Ramadan.
  • Walk around the island for sunset and drinks at my favourite spot, the Exile.
  • There’s even a full-moon party on Gili T.
  • Also, don’t forget the Drunken Monkeyz (DMZ) yacht party!
Horizontal beach bar in Gili Trawangan island, Lombok, Indonesia

Chillin’ at Horizontal with 2-4-1 happy hour banana coladas

Beach bonfire at Horizontal bar, Gili Islands, Lombok

The beach bonfire at Horizontal from sunset

Pesona Indian restaurant beach bar shisha lounge in Gili T, Indonesia

Pesona Indian restaurant: a great place to chill out with shisha on the beach

The Exile hostel beach bar in Gili T, Lombok, Indonesia

Putting my feet up with a cocktail at my favourite spot: the Exile

Gili Trawangan map of bars and nightlife in Gili T, the Gili Islands, Lombok, Indonesia

Another one of my beautifully crafted maps. Print and have it framed if you want.

Other Cool Shit to Do on Gili Trawangan

Here’s some stuff to do that doesn’t (necessarily) involve getting drunk:

  • Movies on the beach opposite Jessica Homestay and also Vila Ombak. You can check showings a day in advance. Expect the likes of Eat Pray Love and The Hangover 2. You also get a free can of Bintang, popcorn, or a toblerone or whatever.
  • Climb to the viewpoint and World War Two bunker.
  • Swim in the impeccably beautiful turquoise waters.
  • Snorkel. (The best spot, if not taking a boat or tour, is the corner of the island, anywhere beyond Coral Beach 2.)
  • Dive. (Gili T’s one of the best places to learn in the world. If interested, look up Enrique.)
  • Save yourself you trip to Meno or Air and walk around the island for some secluded beach spots and great sunsets.
  • There’s a turtle conservation centre.
  • Paddle-board.
  • Take a horse and cart, the only form of transport on the island.
Sunset over water at Gili Trawangan island in Indonesia

The best sunsets are from the south-west corner, where it sets over the water.

Where to Stay in Gili Trawangan?

Gili T’s the kind of place where you can usually just rock up and find a place, though prices do go up in the high season. When you land, go inland a couple of blocks and you’ll save a fortune.

One place we can vouch for is Three Little Birds homestay. It seems to be run by a Norwegian girl and three Lombok Rastas, one of whom cooks the best eggs and pancakes I’ve ever had. It’s somehow clean to Western standards, really laid-back and only 150,000 (£7.50) a night for the room, in the high-season. They’ll let you fill up your bottles from their drinking water for a small charge and give you candles when the power goes out, which it will. From the boat, turn right down the strip, take left at Cafe Gili and it’s just down the second right, after the mosque. Look out for these signs:

Three Little Birds homestay entrance gate in Gili Trawangan, Lombok, Indonesia

The entrance to Three Little Birds homestay

Three Little Birds homestay sign in Gili Trawangan, Lombok, Indonesia

Our “home away from home” in Gili T

Methanol Poisoning: A Word of Warning

Just remember, this isn’t Bali; it’s Lombok, where the locals are mostly Muslim. Also, with Indonesia being the world’s most populous predominantly Muslim country, taxes on wine and spirits have been driven up, prompting many bars and shops to cut their alcohol with methanol, leading to the deaths of many tourists. This is a plain example of how foreigners are treated in Indonesia.

Rudy’s bar, for one, has been caught red-handed on several occasions and yet shows no signs of stopping, despite several deaths directly attributed to them. As you can imagine, in my “line of work”, I take this kind of thing very seriously and ask you to join me in boycotting Rudy’s and any other bar implicated.

Sorry to put a downer on things. You’ll have a blast!

Sunrise boat from Gili Islands to Lombok, Indonesia

Saying goodbye to the Gili Islands. Leaving on the sunrise boat…

Categories: Asia, Indonesia, South East Asia, Travel Stories | Tags: | 5 Comments

Where the Hell Can I Get a Drink in Brunei?!

When I knew I’d be passing through Brunei – a “dry” Islamic country in the process of introducing sharia law – my first question was, of course, “so where can I get a drink?”

Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque, Bandar Seri Begawan, Negara Brunei Darussalam

The Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque in Bandar…

I learned of the existence of a mysterious “speakeasy” known as “the lounge” and I made it my goal whilst in Brunei to track it down.

After reading a few accounts, like this one by Martin Vaughan for Wall Street JournalPatrick Brzeski’s detective work for The Hollywood Reporter or Roger Mitton’s recollections of the legendary Brunei journalist, Ignatius Stephen, for the Phnom Penh Post, nobody was giving away the location, but I had a few clues. I knew that “the lounge”:

  • Is located in a well-known hotel in Bandar, though the number of the floor differs depending on the account,
  • At the end of a hall, behind two unmarked doors, and that you have to listen for faint noise within.
  • Has an outdoor, but discreet terrace.

I also had to bear in mind though that these reports could be second-hand, or could include misleading information in order to protect the establishment, or the writer themselves.

Basically, this was the kind of place you’d only find if you were invited. You had to be in the know, gain trust, work your way into the inner circle…

…and I had two days to find it.

It was tough, but we did it.

Brunei Alcohol Laws

Brunei’s Sultan is in the very process of implementing good, old-fashioned sharia law, which means alcohol is illegal and drinking it (along with being gay, talking shit about God and probably even eating pork – the vices according to the Islamic world) can leave you caned, flogged, stoned (to death) or even missing a limb.

Here’s an overview of Brunei’s alcohol laws:

  • Consumption of alcohol by Muslims is illegal in Brunei.
  • Sale of alcohol is illegal.
  • Drinking in public is illegal.
  • Public drunkenness is a very serious crime.
  • However, the minimum legal drinking age, for non-Muslims obviously, is 17.
  • Non-Muslims are allowed to bring in up to two litres of bottled spirits or 12 cans of beer once every 48 hours (not twice a day, as some sites claim) as long as you declare it and get an “alcohol permit” on entry. This is actually one of the more generous, as far as alcohol import allowances go…
Yellow alcohol permit for Negara Brunei Darussalam

Crossing into Brunei with my single beer and “alcohol permit”

…but what they don’t tell you anywhere else, and which I learnt the hard way, is that if you’re coming overland from KK (Kota Kinabalu, or most places in Sabah, Malaysia) you won’t be able to bring your alcohol to Bandar (because you’ll cross into Brunei twice, within 48 hours).

Map of Malaysia to Brunei bus route

They should call me “the Drinking Map-maker”!

Typical! The first time in my life I play this their way and declare something at customs, and they screw me. I had to drink it on the bus. The bus drivers asked what the hell I was doing declaring it, saying I should’ve just brought it in. You want my advice? Never declare anything. Of course, nobody ever searched the bus. Part of me had to wonder whether the whole bus wasn’t loaded with illicit booze.

I love Brunei, I love money badges on bus to Bandar Seri Begawan

This photo totally sums up Brunei for me.

Also bear in mind that being non-drinkers themselves, the border officials often don’t know the difference between beer, wine, spirits and so on, and are also unlikely to be sympathetic to your cause.

For a full guide, check out this guide to bringing alcohol into Brunei by Don’t Stop Living’s Jonny Blair, who’s been even more places than I have.

So, How and Where Can I Drink in Brunei?

If you want a drink in Brunei, here are your options. Bear in mind, most of these are illegal. If you don’t want to break the law, listen to the laws above, not to my advice.

  • BYOB (bring your own booze) is common in some small, non-Muslim-run restaurants. There’s no corkage charge but remember, it’s illegal, so keep it hidden and low-profile and always ask first.
  • After Muslims, the next largest ethnic group in Brunei is non-Muslim Chinese – many of whom drink. Some Chinese restaurants offer the infamous “special tea” (beer in a teapot). As a rule of thumb, if there’s pork, there’s beer…or at the very least you won’t risk your skin asking for it. So head for Chinatown!
  • You can drink at your place or at the private home of a non-Muslim. (Remember, you’re allowed to bring in some alcohol.)
  • Do what the locals do: go to Miri, LabuanKuala Lurah, etc, across the border in Malaysia.
  • As it’s technically not Brunei soil, why not have a drink in your embassy?
  • There are, of course, secret, underground parties in isolated spots where you can drink and dance to loud music, but good luck finding them. They’re invitation only, but try your luck with the bell-hops (hotel porters) who are most likely to be in the know.

Exposing Brunei’s Underground Drinking Scene!

Early searches for “Brunei nightlife” led only to late-night coffee shops, like the ones in Gadong, and the Chinese restaurateurs I asked in the city centre were unresponsive and the visits unfruitful.

I attempted to use Foursquare, which has a list of speakeasies in Brunei, and came up with names of places like “My Dream”, “Area 31″ and “Bebeh Hotspot”, but all of these were on the outskirts of the city and the locations were too vague, with no other information on them available online. Not to mention they sound dodgy as hell.

I drew up a list of Bandar hotels and, with the few clues I’d garnered, began my sleuthing.

After checking out all but one of the central hotels, my money was on the Radisson, but while “the Rad” does have a BYOB lounge where you can store your alcohol in lockers, it is exclusive to guests and – the big giveaway – there was no terrace space visible from outside.

All we needed to do was get in the know, get talking to a white businessman in a hotel bar – but, oh yeah, there are no hotel bars! I was at a loss…

…but just then we spotted a fellow “whitey” leaving the Rad.

I saw a chance and I took it.

“Excuse me, do you speak English?”

“Sure.”

“Do you know if there’s a bar or anything around here?”

He smiled, instinctively looking around to check no-one was listening in. “Well…there is one place… It’s not much to look at, but…”

[By the way, unlike the other accounts I've read, I'm perfectly happy to blow the whistle on this place - they're the ones breaking the law, not me, and I honestly won't loose any sleep over making an enemy of the Sultan of Brunei - anyone who has 599 Rolls-Royces and decides he needs another one rather than sharing that money with the poor and disadvantaged is not exactly a potential friend of mine. What a twat!

However, I don't want to be the guy who puts it online and ruins it for everyone. So, if you genuinely want to know where this place to drink in Brunei is, just contact me.]

Anyway, the guy, who we’ll lend an Irish accent and call “Cole”, was actually on his way to get booze and offered to give us a ride with his “driver”.

Cole was a great guy. He confirmed the stories of groups sitting drinking tea outside Chinese restaurants and getting gradually more loud and larey. He said that, behind the scenes, Bruneians are friendly and very liberal, like his driver, and that the lounge is actually owned by the Sultan’s cousin (a fact I obviously haven’t been able to confirm, but which I find highly plausible).

The drive was roughly four or five kilometres…or maybe it was miles.

Dropped off at the hotel, we walked in, through the lobby, took the elevator, and followed the hall to its end, where we were confronted with the set of unmarked doors, with masked, dome CCTV camera above, exactly as I’d expected. They’d even put three plants in front of the door in an attempt to disguise it.

Door to the lounge bar in Bandar Seri Begawan, Negara Brunei Darussalam

Plants mysteriously attempt to hide the entrance to Brunei’s most notorious “speakeasy”.

I thought I could hear sporadic noises coming from inside, but when I knocked there was no answer.

“Come on Roy, let’s just go.”

I knocked again and, after a short wait, a small side-door just to our right unexpectedly opened to reveal a group of security guards.

“Is this the lounge?” I asked, and they shrugged and let us in.

“It should be quite obvious,” Cole had said. “Clearly everyone knows about it. If it was actually unwanted, it would be in a warehouse somewhere with heavy security and rife with hookers and drugs.”

This place was quiet and civilised - no loud music or dancing or explicit sex acts – with a pool table, people sitting around on plush but faded, threadbare chairs, like in an old, local pub in England, smoking, enjoying a beer, or some food from the legitimate restaurant downstairs. (In case you’re interested, food is about $5.50 for soup or chips and $26 for a t-bone steak.)

Apparently the Chief of Police regularly drinks here, and (contrary to what you might first think) when he’s in the house your definitely safe from a raid.

“Do you have a menu?” I asked.

The bartender just laughed. “No.”

The choice of booze was limited to a few bottles – mostly whisky, which seemed to match the clientele – and beer for $7 a pint, which is, perhaps surprisingly, roughly UK price.

There were old black and white pictures on the wall, lockers for guests to store their booze, a TV, turned low, playing sports. There was the terrace, as promised, surrounded by staggered slats to impair viewers from outside.

Drinking alcohol in Brunei illegally in the lounge bar

Drinking a nice, illegal pint in a Brunei speakeasy

That shakey, adrenalin-induced feeling you get when you’re breaking the law, when you’re out of your depth and don’t know what you’re getting yourself into. Maybe the equivalent of how you’d feel if you sought out an opium den in the UK. It was my first “speakeasy” and the word alone put me in the mind of Bugsy Mallone or Al Capone or whatever. I’ve no doubt there are others – lesser-known, more local – roadside cafes and so on. House parties are also a big part of life here, we were told.

The feeling had faded and we were now relaxed, on seeing the harmlessness and strange normalcy (oxymoron intended) of the place.

A trip to the toilet (which had a bath-tub) gave the impression that this was a not-so-long-ago converted suite. The lack of decor (relative to the rest of the hotel) and the fact that there’d been no attempt to remove the bath pointed to the illicit nature of the establishment.

Bathroom in the lounge bar in Bandar Seri Begawan, Negara Brunei Darussalam

A bath in the restrooms reveals that the bar was once a hotel suite.

When we were good and tipsy we called our new driver, who 10 minutes later picked us up and took us back to the Radisson, where he, erroneously but quite conveniently, assumed we were staying.

“How much do we owe you?”

“Whatever you want to pay.”

“I don’t really know the currency… We only just arrived. Is ten about right?”

“Sure,” he said with a smile that could either mean “no, you cheapskate bastards” or “thank you kindly”.

On a side note, I’m now pretty sure that journey should’ve cost about $15 – or $30 after 10 pm, when rates double.

I won’t give away the driver’s name or number or any other details as there are apparently less than 50 licensed taxi drivers in BSB…though it’s probably safe to say he wasn’t one of them.

Where to Stay in Bandar Seri Begawan?

When’s the last time you met anyone who’s been to Brunei? Accommodation (especially of the budget variety) is fairly limited in Brunei. Bandar has a handful of options though:

  • Pusat Belia – The equivalent of a YHA or HI hostel. Dorms from $10 (that’s Brunei dollars) (£5). Try it if you want. Didn’t respond to our emails and told us they were full when they quite clearly weren’t. (It’s massive!)
  • KH Soon Resthouse – $40 double or $35 single. (Prices have gone up a bit since the latest Lonely Planet – as they always do!) This is where we stayed. Huge rooms, squat toilets, no breakfast, dead centre of the city (shame not much else is) and staff are nice enough. Perfectly adequate. It’s extortionate for South East Asia, but a good deal for Brunei.
  • Terrace Hotel – $65 with no breakfast or $75 with à la carte breakfast. It’s dated but has a pool and is probably the best deal in town if you want a nice room.
  • Radisson – $80 plus tax. Buffet breakfast. I wouldn’t normally mention these options but there’s really not a lot else. It’s very swish though and within easy walk of the centre even with a backpack.

What Else to Do in Bandar?

Not much.

Derelict water village homes in Bandar Seri Begawan, Negara Brunei Darussalam

…and the view from literally the same spot, facing 180 degrees the other way.

You should probably check out:

  • The Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque, pictured above…
  • …and the derelict water villages immediately opposite (and all over Brunei).
  • The night market and shitty day market for some relatively cheap eats.
  • Istana Nurul Iman – the largest royal residence in the world (bigger than Versailles) with 1,788 rooms and 257 bathroomscan only be seen for three days a year, during Hari Raya Aidilfitri (the end of Ramadan). Otherwise you can take a water taxi around its immense grounds for $15 and you won’t see shit.
Categories: Asia, Brunei, Travel Stories | Tags: | 4 Comments

The Bugtong Bato Falls, Tibiao: How to Get There?

After a jaunt on the backpacker trail through South East Asia and a few nights on Boracay, I was desperate to get “off the beaten track”. I spotted the Bugtong Bato falls on an old map of the Philippines I found. No further explanation of what might be there. No information at all on how to get there. Perfect!

Filipino heated kawa baths at Kayak Inn, Antique province

Filipino kawa baths at Kayak Inn

How to get to Tibiao?

The island of Panay is visited by well over a million tourists every year…almost all of whom then proceed immediately to the ferry terminal at Caticlan and transit to the infinitely smaller – too small to have its own airport – island of Boracay.

I’d seen the amazing landscape of rolling green mountains and turquoise coastline that Panay has to offer, both from the plane over from Vietnam and from the bus journey from Kalibo airport to the port. Most Boracay-destined tourists fly directly to Caticlan. Luckily for me, I’m a cheapskate.

Map of Panay Island, the Philippines with Aklan, Antique, Capiz and Iloilo provinces, Boracay, Caticlan, Kalibo and San Jose de Buenavista

Because images speak louder than words, I stole a map of Panay and wrote over it for you.

So, if coming from Caticlan and/or Boracay, turn right out of the port terminal, negotiate your way through the tourist shuttle buses and look for a yellow local bus. You want the bus for San Jose de Buenavista, although the locals all call it “Antique”, like the province it’s capital of.

The bus cost 100 pesos each (less than £1.50). I asked a local, who’d had his headphones in when we’d asked the driver, and he confirmed the amount. Whatever they tell you, the bus ride will take the best part of the day.

The road passes between the lush, undulating moss-green hills of Panay’s own Cordillera mountain range and seemingly never-ending stretches of beach – some golden sand, some pebble, palm-shaded, peppered with little fishing boats, home-made from bamboo, but all completely free of people. You could take weeks, travel this coastline in depth, experiencing the best of the Philippines, and yet you’d most likely never meet another foreign tourist.

Rice fields in Antique province, Panay, the Philippines

Panay from the bus

If you’re coming up from Iloilo (Panay’s capital, biggest city and other major airport) then you can catch the same yellow bus coming from the other direction.

Ask to be dropped off in Tibiao or, if you can, at the turn off signposted for “Kayak Inn”, 4km north of Tibiao.

How to Get to Kayak Inn?

A local lady ran us through our limited options and accommodation choices in Tibiao. It was getting late (our bus broke down, of course) but we decided to grab a tricycle (the three-wheeled Philippine equivalent of the tuk tuk) to the turn off for a few pesos. (We paid 30 between us, but it’s not far. You’ll get it for less.) From there you need to change to a motorbike, for reasons that will soon become clear. The price for this is 35 pesos per person

…only, when we got there, the guys waiting wanted 200. We haggled them down but when it came down to it, the guy said, “yes, 35 is local price. You pay tourist price” and they wouldn’t budge below 45.

“Oh, I wish you hadn’t told me that,” I said, and, much to their surprise, we took back our bags, which they’d already taken the liberty of strapping to their bikes, and started hoofing it.

You might think I’m crazy haggling over a few pence, but “tourist prices” really get my back up. A lot of places take this attitude towards tourism, and the Philippines is especially bad for it. I’m always happy to take a minute to argue a principle and do my bit to help stop other travellers being ripped off.

The road is about six or seven kilometres but rough conditions mean you’re looking at at least a two hour walk. Some bikes passed – each taking their turn at trying to extort us - but, now that we’d walked some of the way, I wasn’t even going to pay the full 35, let alone what these guys were quoting. Eventually though, we got a good honest kid who agreed on 25 pesos each and insisted he could fit three people, two backpacks, six litres of water and various other crap on one motorcycle

…and he was right… Just about.

Motorcycle taxi to Kayak Inn via unpaved dirt road

One small motorcycle. Three grown adults, two big backpacks, some other shit…

We spluttered up steep gradients, then raced down the other side at god-knows-what-speed, over loose gravel, sliding and skidding through tight bends and deep mud, slick from recent rain, all on a ridiculously overladen bike, rattling over the deep corrugations, and with darkness falling fast.

Being a motorcyclist myself, I have the utmost respect for this young kid. I know how dangerous any one of these things can be on its own, let alone all at once. At times we had to get off and walk, but he never once went down.

Though we spent most of the ride watching the ground speed by beneath us, it was impossible to miss the sunset over the mountains, the rice-fields and the Tibiao river valley.

Eventually, in almost complete darkness, we pulled off the road at what must be Kayak Inn and luckily they had a room for one night. A big family were eating dinner on the big, open terrace, with the darkness as a back-drop. The dad, who couldn’t speak much English but had his kids on hand to help translate, invited us in while one of the daughters made up our room.

A baby, in a basket/wrap-type-thing, hung from the ceiling by a single rope, bouncing gently in the breeze. A pet monkey on a chain looked extremely unhappy with his current situation and leapt at me with fangs bared when I got close.

Room at Kayak Inn near Tibiao, the Philippines

Sorry, I might be out of contact for a while…

The room was in its own self-contained log cabin, suspended off the ground by wooden legs, perfectly located and with a simple electricity setup run through bamboo tubes.

Electricity at Kayak Inn near Tibiao, Antique, Panay, Philippines

At least we had electricity.

The shower was a bucket.

Bathroom at Kayak Inn, Tuno, Antique province on Panay island

Nothing like a bucket of cold spring water in the morning!

Looking out now into the darkness, we realised we’d never have found this place if we’d walked. Such is life.

The room was 500 pesos per person and they also prepared a hot meal for us for something like 250 pesos each, which was a little steep, but it’s not like there’s anywhere else to go and eat.

Someone had to ride off to get the ingredients (most probably a live chicken) so they brought over a Thermos, mugs and some sachets of 3-in-1 coffee while we waited.

Kayak Inn near Tibiao, Antique, Panay, Philippines

Thermos + rustic setting = that camping feeling!

We sat amidst the impenetrable blackness of night and the sounds of nature echoing around the valley – crickets chirping, the stream trickling, grasses rustling in the night breeze - sipping from mugs of hot coffee, knees up as the heat of the day gradually cooled off, while the family across the way played card games by a faint light and one-by-one retired to an early bed.

Filipino meal of chicken, rice, fried fish and vegetables

Chicken, vegetables, fried fish and rice on an empty stomach. Much more delicious than it looks.

Dinner was surprisingly delicious chicken and vegetables, with a side of fried fish and absolutely tonnes of rice…and was accompanied by a friendly dog, who went on to stay for breakfast and even escorted us to the Bugtong Bato falls and back the next day (a round trip of two hours that included an almost vertical flight of steps).

Dog at Kayak Inn

This little fella joined us for dinner…

We sat up talking long into the night. It was that magical feeling you get when you go camping as a child.

We were properly, well and truly “off the beaten track”!

“I could stay here forever.”

Suddenly there was a sound above, like the bleating of a donkey echoing through the night. It seemed to come from overhead, from the corner of our bedroom.

“What the hell was that?”

We waited.

A few minutes later it came again, closer.

And again.

Then the biggest gecko we’d ever seen emerged from between the bathroom and bedroom and the mystery was solved. He was soon joined by a female, same size, and we watched them for hours as they crept slowly towards a moth or other insect of the night, one foot at a time, those little toes splaying out and sucking to the wall, all with such unbelievable patience. They almost always got their man. After everything they ate, it’s no wonder they’d got so big.

Big geckos kissing

This pair were at it all night!

The bed was a thick, comfy new mattress, on the ground and covered from head to toe with a mosquito net (no holes, no dust, no musty smell). The sheets were freshly laundered and smelt good, the bed freshly made, which is kind of necessary in a place like this. (I once stayed in a place on Lake Ometepe in Nicaragua where spiders had laid their eggs in the sheets and scorpions hid under the pillows. The owner ended up chasing us out onto the bus with a machete, but that’s another story.)

We went to bed watching the stars…

How to Get to the Bugtong Bato Falls?

…and in the morning, with no alarm to set, I woke to golden sunlight, blue sky and a cool morning breeze stirring the green leafage outside the shutter-less window.

Window in bamboo hut at Kayak Inn

My morning view

Sleeping under mosquito net in Philippines

Do not disturb. Traveller sleeping.

Kayak Inn is even more impressive by the light of day and even has several kawa hot baths.

Kayak Inn, Tuno, Tibiao, Antique, Panay, Philippines

The serene “Kayak Inn” by the light of day!

Ruth was already up and had ordered our breakfast, which is included in the price and arrived shortly…as did our four-legged friend from last night.

Typical Filipino breakfast of rice, egg and tocino

A typical Filipino breakfast of egg, rice and…red stuff

Cute dog in Philippines

…and again for breakfast…

As you’ll know if you’ve ever travelled the Philippines, a typical Filipino breakfast is not at all dissimilar to a typical Filipino lunch and a typical Filipino dinner, consisting of rice, fried egg and fried fish or chicken (or, in this case, tocino, which in Spanish means “bacon” and here, evidently, means “red shit”.

Pet monkey in Philippines

Beware of the monkey!

We ate, threw a few buckets of surprisingly pleasant cold water over ourselves, packed up, left our bags and set off again for the Bugtong Bato falls, with our canine amigo leading the way up ahead.

Road to Bugtong Bato falls, Panay, Philippines

The road to the Bugtong Bato falls

The dirt road continues on, past stunning views of wooden houses perched overlooking the Tibiao river valley, into Barangay Tuno. (A barangay, often abbreviated to “Brgy.”, is the smallest administrative division in the Philippines, so roughly translates to a hamlet in English.) The Bugtong Bato waterfalls are actually in (or closest to) Tuno, but Tibiao is the closest place that’s likely to show up on a map, if you’re lucky.

The Tibiao river, Panay, Philippines

Occasional bamboo buildings beside the Tibiao river

In Tuno, tourists have to “register” and pay, I think 100 pesos, to go to the falls. This sleepy makeshift booth is also where they’ll try their best to insist that you need a guide. You don’t. In countries where there’s no such thing as “official”, government-run Tourist Information offices, it’s always hard to know who to trust. In my experience, as a rule of thumb, trust no-one…when money’s concerned, at least. However, in this case 100 pesos isn’t a lot and seems to go directly to the community.

Our dog strutted around like he owned the place, while bigger, tougher-looking dogs slept all around us or raised one eye-lid from where they lay in the shade.

From here, take a right on a little alley just past the registration booth. We didn’t have any major problem sticking to the path, but it does fork off more than once or twice so, if in doubt, ask a local. There’s always a villager nearby, carrying something or building something, and they’ll know what you’re after.

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The path to the Bugtong Bato waterfalls, through jungle, rice fields, villages…

The path leads through jungle, beside rice-paddies where water-buffalo get down and dirty in the mud, rivers where the locals bathe and wash their clothes and rustic homesteads where chickens feed under the palms. All the kids rush over to say “hello” and run off again giggling when you say it back.

Filipino dog at the Bugtong Bato waterfalls

…and then followed (actually, led) us to the waterfalls!

The track is not exactly what you’d call a gentle stroll, and then, when you reach the first of the “seven” Bugtong Bato falls, involves a cross between a ladder and a very steep flight of steps. (You haven’t lived ’til you’ve seen a dog climb this.)

Swimming hole of second waterfall at Bugtong Bato falls

Ruth in the swimming hole beneath the second waterfall

At the second fall is a beautiful swimming hole where you can jump in and cool off after the sweat-inducing trek. From here you need to climb and then use a rope to scale an incredibly slippery rock-face. (This is probably why most people opt for the guide.) As long as you can hold your body weight, you should be fine.

Climbing third waterfall by rope at Bugtong Bato falls, Panay

The third waterfall is accessible only by a treacherous climb!

At the top is the third waterfall and a plunge pool – the best swimming hole yet – directly overlooking the others below. I was admiring the waterfall when I heard a scream.

“Help!”

I ran to the edge and saw Ruth was attempting the climb and her legs had been washed out from under her and she was hanging on for dear life.

“No, no, no!”

I climbed down, calmed her down and talked her through it. She made it up to the top, where she admitted it was worth it. Sadly I couldn’t carry a camera up there so I don’t have any photos of the third pool and you’ll just have to trust us or, even better, go experience it yourself. The Philippines is absolutely covered with waterfalls just like these ones.

Apparently there are seven levels of waterfalls at Bugtong Bato, but where the other four are is beyond me. Even if you hire a guide you only get as far as the third.

Later, while we were swimming, some local kids came by, scaled the rocks in seconds and started doing back-flips into the water, making us look like complete pussies.

We climbed back down, soon reminded that the way down is often harder than the way up, and had to get back to the Inn before lunch to grab our stuff. This time our dog wasn’t so lucky. The other dogs were laying in wait for him and fell about him snarling and biting. They had him surrounded and I had to run in there and startle them so he could slip through and get the hell out of there.

Back at the Inn, we said goodbye to him, donned the bags and hit the road again…

Road to Tibiao, Panay, Philippines

On the road again…

…until a few minutes later we got a free ride from some friendly Boracayans in a four-wheel-drive, just returning after dropping off an all-Filipino tour group at Kayak Inn. (Maybe we weren’t so “off-the-beaten-track” after all.) At the main road they chased the yellow bus which had just gone past (another wouldn’t be due for hours), flagged it down for us (actually, more like ran it off the road) and refused to take any money for their help.

The bus took us to Iloilo, and from there we flew to Palawan.

Categories: Asia, Philippines, South East Asia, Travel Stories | Tags: | Leave a comment

Egg Coffee in Vietnam

After a hard night’s drinking in Hanoi, we decided to go in search of some coffee. Vietnam is one of the biggest coffee exporters in the world after all.

Egg coffee ca phe trung in Cafe Pho Co coffee shop, Hanoi, Vietnam

A creamy, frothy “egg coffee” (ca phe trung) in Vietnam

Ruth had heard about Vietnamese “egg coffee” from The Coffee Trail with Simon Reeve and I remembered reading John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, in which he meets a stranger on the road and brews him the perfect coffee by adding egg:

“I cracked an egg and cupped out the yolk and dropped white and shells into the pot, for I know nothing that polishes coffee and makes it shine like that.”

We looked in a lot of coffee shops, including the multiple-terraced Highlands Coffee and City View Cafe, but none of them had it. About to give up and wandering aimlessly down Hàng Gai in the Old Quarter, we spotted a faded sign that read “Radio Coffee” above a thin, ill-lit alley-esque corridor that opened into a courtyard resembling an old lady’s living room, complete with rusty sewing machine and dusty china dolls. Some kid came out of a side-door and – still unsure whether we were in somebody’s house – we asked if they had egg coffee.

They did.

We climbed up two storeys on a rickety spiral staircase where you had to dodge dripping water, and emerged on a two-tiered terrace with beautiful views of Hoàn Kiếm lake, with the whole place to ourselves.

View of Hoan Kiem lake from Cafe Pho Co coffee shop terrace in Hanoi, Vietnam

The view of Hoan Kiem lake from Cafe Pho Co

Now I’m not a great coffee lover at the best of times and the idea of raw egg in my drink (with the obvious exception of a pisco sour) was a little off-putting, but the Drinking Traveller’ll drink anything once, and when the egg coffee (cà phê trung in Vietnamese) arrived, it was absolutely amazing: creamy, sweet and frothy. I couldn’t wait to get another one and would definitely recommend it to anyone.

The place started to fill up until there was barely a table free. Afterwards we found out that this place was Cafe Phố Cổ, which appears in Lonely Planet as:

“One of Hanoi’s best-kept secrets, this place has plum views over Hoan Kiem Lake. Enter through the silk shop, and continue through the antique-bedecked courtyard up to the top floor for the mother of all vistas. You’ll need to order coffee and snacks before tackling the final winding staircase. For something deliciously different, try the caphe trung da, coffee topped with a silkily smooth beaten egg white.”

And, if you’re still not satisfied, there’s always bia trung (egg beer)!

Categories: Asia, South East Asia, Travel Stories, Vietnam | Tags: | Leave a comment

How to Get Drunk for a Pound? Bia Hoi in Hanoi!

Last year, stuck in the office, writing for a travel company but not travelling, it was Vietnam (and Indonesia, but we’ll get to that) that got me dreaming of the road again. Last time I was in South East Asia I met all kinds of people singing Vietnam’s praises – I remember standing on the beach in Ko Phi Phi, four in the morning, with Coomer, listening to one such guy’s stories of remote, idyllic beaches and Vietnamese mothers trying to marry their daughters to him. But alas, I didn’t have a visa for Vietnam on that trip.

Nam Can border, Vietnam

Waiting for dawn at the Nam Can Lao-Vietnamese border.

This time, armed with visas and fresh out of Laos, we found ourselves on a “sleeper bus”, bound, through lush green karst mountains and rice terraces, for Hanoi.

Vietnam sleeper bus

Partying it up on the “sleeper buses” of Vietnam

Green karst mountain road in North Vietnam

Winding through the Vietnamese countryside

Hanoi is one of the most fascinating, yet liveable cities I’ve ever spent time in. Being never far from the coast, Vietnam has an element of French sophistication and charm that didn’t necessarily penetrate as deep as Laos or Cambodia. Beneath this is one of Asia’s most interesting cultures. These blends superbly, resulting in stunning visuals, amazing food (from baguettes to snake meat) and crazy nights.

Vietnamese Bia Hà Nội beer and phở noodle soup

Bia Hà Nội and phở – a classic and delicious Vietnamese meal

Dropped off in the heart of Hanoi’s Old Quarter (Hoàn Kiếm) with the rest of the backpackers, we got our bearings and made our way to our accommodation through the hive of beeping, speeding motorcycles.

Where to Stay in Hanoi?

We stayed in Hanoi Lucky Guesthouse 2 on Hàng Mã. It was really affordable, super clean (though not without the telltale traces of the unavoidable North Vietnam damp) and with (almost too) friendly staff and even a few (virused up) internet terminals. (Don’t expect Facebook. This is the Socialist Republic of Vietnam afterall.) The only reason I might not recommend this place is that we ended up doing the same 10 to 15 minute walk, to where the action is, over and over. Also, be careful, as there seem to be at least two Lucky Guesthouses, Lucky Hotels, Hostels and so on. Fake hotels are apparently an issue in Vietnam.

The Vietnam Backpackers’ Downtown Hostel might be a bit rowdy (and pricey) for some, but that’s the area you probably want to be closer to.

The Motorbike Pub and scooter rental shop in Hanoi, Vietnam

The Motorbike Pub – just one of Hanoi’s cool bars – also rents scooters

Hanoi’s 36 Streets

Ask anyone why they loved Vietnam and what their favourite place was and it’s almost always the “36 streets”. Basically, the idea is that, since the 13th century, each street was dedicated to selling one thing, from sugar to silk.

Vietnamese rice picking hat, 36 streets in Hanoi Old Quarter

Rice pickin’ hats and bicycles in the 36 streets, Hanoi’s Old Quarter

Actually, believe it or not, a lot’s changed since the 13th century and, to me, all the streets seem to sell the same tat. Coffin Street (Lo Su) didn’t have a single coffin in sight and Hat Street seemed to be about the only place in the vicinity where you couldn’t buy a novelty conical rice pickin’ hat.

Ta Hien, Hanoi Old Quarter, Vietnam

Ta Hien – a typical scooter-lined street in the heart of Hanoi’s Old Quarter

Even so, the 36 streets are still one of the coolest areas of town, especially if, like me, you like your nightlife. Head for “Beer Hơi Corner” at the crossroads of Tạ Hiện and Lương Ngọc Quyến. This is also the epicentre of the Old Quarter’s nightlife, with the best action, restaurants, bars and party hostels on those and the surrounding streets: Hàng BuồmĐào Duy Từ and Mã Mây.

Bia hoi beer corner on Ta Hien and Luong Ngoc Quyen in Hanoi, Vietnam

The “bia hơi corner” on Tạ Hiện and Lương Ngọc Quyến

The “Cheapest Beer in the World”!

Bia hoi beer corner, Old Quarter, Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi’s “beer corner” is one of the most popular drinking spots in the city.

Bia hơi is Vietnamese draft beer. It is freshly brewed every day, an extremely refreshing lager, and costs only 5000 Vietnamese Dong (and sometimes even cheaper in local areas). At the time of writing, that’s 14 pence or 24 US cents, so, at seven glasses of beer, you really can get drunk for a pound!

Bia hoi for 5000 Vietnamese Dong sign

Bia hơi is only 5000 Dong (14 pence) at the beer corner!

Bia hoi at Hanoi beer corner, Vietnam

Starting the night at the beer corner

For those of you who like to think you can handle more than seven beers before the word “drunk” be brought into play, I apologise. For you, this post should be called “how to get drunk for two pounds”. I don’t think there’re many people out there who think 14 beers for two pounds is a bad deal. So you can see why Vietnam earns its reputation for producing “the cheapest beer in the world”.

Drinking bia hoi beer in Hanoi, Vietnam

Me and Andre drinking bia hơi at the “after hours” bar.

On our second night at the beer corner we met a crazy German guy called Andre. I asked him, “Who brews it? Do we know?”

“Nope. Nobody knows.”

“So, it’s like…mystery beer?”

“Exactly. Mystery beer.”

In fact, in typical South East Asian style, bia hơi production is completely unregulated, informal and not monitored by…well, anyone. Even the alcohol content is unknown (though it’s typically low; around 3%).

After the bia hơi corner bars closed down (curfew), me, Ruth and Andre dashed off in the piss-pouring rain, knocked at a garage door down the road and continued drinking there. By the by, we met a couple of Canadian girls on their way home from a big night who decided to get in a beer with us…only as soon as it was poured, they had to down it as the cops showed up and got stuck into a shouting match with the owners. Sometimes it’s easy to forget there’s a curfew. We also ended up meeting a couple of Israeli guys who knew Kayla and Marion from our Laos adventures. Small world, is the travelling circuit.

Mess after bia hoi

The after-mess…

Other Vietnamese Beers

If you don’t fancy drinking the unknown, you don’t have to fork out much more to get a good-quality bottled beer. The Vietmanese love their beer. Compared to Laos’ one brewery, there are seemingly infinite Vietnamese brews. Here are just a few to look out for:

  • Bia Hà Nội
  • Saigon (Green)
  • Saigon (Red)
  • Huda
  • 333
  • Halida
  • Truc Bach
  • Bia Huế
  • Larue

For more beers from around the world, see my list of world drinks.

Oh and don’t forget Hanoi is much bigger than the Old Quarter. There’s a French Quarter, West Side and so on, plus plenty of snake restaurants, where you can try drinking “snake whisky”.

The next day, we went in search of some much needed coffee.

Categories: Asia, South East Asia, Travel Stories, Vietnam | Tags: | 3 Comments

Lao-Lao in Laos: Luang Prabang & the “Whisky Village”

Luang Prabang in Laos is one of my all time favourite towns: a laid-back backpacker town in the middle of the green Lao hill country, perfect for meeting fellow travellers.

Last time I was here, I woke up on the banks of the Mekong, wearing a pair of bowling shoes, so I was interested to see what was in store for us this time.

Nam Khan River in Luang Prabang, Laos

The Nam Khan: one of two major rivers that shape Luang Prabang

Bar-restaurant on Kingkitsarath Road, Luang Prabang, Laos

Me, Nevo and Jess in Lao Lao Garden or some such bar on Kingkitsarath back in ’09

Where to Stay in Luang Prabang?

Back in 2009, SpicyLaos Backpackers was the cheap, sociable hangout doing the word-of-mouth rounds in South East Asia and I had an amazing time there. The backpacker scene in Laos isn’t quite as it used to be. SpicyLaos is now Lemon Laos Backpackers. “Same same, but different”, they say. I say it’s had it’s day, but then again, what do I know.

This time we stayed in Khammany Inn Guest House, where rooms are surprisingly clean and can be had for somewhere between £1 – 2 per person.

Phou Si

Just like the first time I rolled into Luang Prabang, we (me, Ruth and Adam) grabbed baguettes (a Laos speciality, an improvement even on those of their ex-colonial rulers, the French) and dragon-fruit/mango smoothies from the corner of Kitsalat and Sisavangvong, blitzed the Night Market and started the short hike up Phou Si, a sacred hill in the centre of Luang Prabang.

Buddhist Shrine at Mount Phousi in Luang Prabang, Laos

A Buddhist shrine on the trail up Mount Phou Si in Luang Prabang

Phou Si is home to several Buddhist shrines and temples and the trail winds steeply up through lush greenery to the top, where you’ll find the golden stupa of Wat Chom Si…and, especially at sunset, shitloads of tourists with cameras.

We took out our cameras and got busy.

On Mount Phousi in Luang Prabang, Laos

Me atop Mount Phou Si in Luang Prabang, Laos. Photo by Adam.

Sunset from Mount Phousi in Luang Prabang, Laos

The view from Mount Phou Si at sunset

Going Out Drinking in Luang Prabang

Later we hit the town. The epicentre of the bar-restaurant scene in Luang Prabang is on Kingkitsarath Road. Many will give you a free shot of something or other just for walking in. Some are shitty, some are good, but Lao Lao Garden is probably the favourite. Fairy lights and trailing threads blend almost imperceptibly with the natural vines hanging down from the trees above the outdoor seating. There’s bamboo aplenty and the marquees make this a pleasant hangout whether the sun’s shining or the rain’s coming down hard (as it was for us).

In Lao Lao Garden Restaurant, Luang Prabang

Me and Adam caught trying fruit flavoured rice wine in Lao Lao Garden restaurant

We settled in for a night of Beerlaos, fruit flavoured rice wine and, as it progressed, several glasses of straight lao-Lao (Laotian rice whisky. The first “lao” means alcohol and the second “Lao” means Laotian or from Laos…In case you thought they were just repeating the same word.)

Apparently a Beerlao – even at only £1 – is equivalent to your average Lao’s weekly salary, which, as well as making you feel guilty, makes you realise that lao-Lao (the local’s booze of choice) is by far the most cost-effective way of drinking in Laos. Little did we know we were about to discover for ourselves, firsthand, how it is made…

That night Ruth got a message from our old friend Marion from Vang Vieng asking if we wanted to go with her, Kayla and some other travellers on a river boat up the Mekong to the Buddhist caves. I vaguely remember mumbling something to the effect of “yes” and then passing out for good.

The next day we met up with the others (Marion, Kayla, Kush, Irene and Matt) at the dock. Anticipating a long day, I came armed with a beer. It was when somebody mentioned a “whisky village” that I started to get really excited.

Mekong River Boat to Pak Ou Caves and Ban Xang Hai Whisky Village near Luang Prabang, Laos

We set sail on the Mekong, beer in hand as usual. Destination? The “Whisky Village”! Oh, and some caves…

The journey up the Mekong was a pleasant one, with the cool air blowing off the water, and the Pak Ou Buddhist caves were unlike anything I’d ever seen before. (Unfortunately, photos don’t come out well in that darkness, so you’ll just have to go see for yourself.)

Boat at Pak Ou Caves on Mekong River near Luang Prabang, Laos

Our boat on the Mekong river, docking at the Pak Ou Buddhist caves

Climb to Pak Ou Caves near Luang Prabang, Laos

Steep steps climb through the jungle to the upper cave at Pak Ou.

The caves contain literally thousands of Buddhas of all shapes and sizes. The upper cave, past a long rest-house where locals were sleeping on the floor (and I was tempted to join them) and up another steep hill, is the fat Buddha, who, Marion told me, was too good-looking to achieve enlightenment, so made himself fat to rid himself of the vice of pride. A noble effort.

Mekong Dock at Ban Xang Hai Whisky Village near Luang Prabang, Laos

Adam on the banks of the Mekong at Ban Xang Hai

After Pak Ou, we docked at a village called Ban Xang Hai, put on the map for its production of lao-Lao.

Buddhist temple in Ban Xang Hai whisky village near Luang Prabang, Laos

Buddhist temple in Ban Xang Hai “whisky” village

After wandering the village, we came to what passes for a “distillery”.

The Lao-Lao Fermentation & Distillation Process

1. Soak sticky rice overnight or for at least five hours.

2. Steam it until cooked and firm.

Sticky Rice for Lao Lao at Ban Xang Hai Whisky Village near Luang Prabang, Laos

Sticky Rice awaiting its transformation into lao-Lao at the “Whisky Village”.

3. Wash it in the river.

4. Combine with rice powder and yeast.

5. Place in open-air containers.

6. Add water.

7. Leave to ferment for five to ten days.

Sticky rice fermenting in eartherware pots in Ban Xang Hai whisky village for lao-Lao distillation

Sticky rice ferments in eartherware pots before distillation

8. Add more water.

6. Leave to ferment for another five to six days.

Lao Lao Rice Distillery in Ban Xang Hai Whisky Village near Luang Prabang, Laos

The lao-Lao “distillery” in Ban Xang Hai “Whisky Village”. A serious operation.

7. Transfer to a distiller known as a mo tom lao (effectively just an old metal drum).

8. A consistent temperature must be maintained by constantly adding wood to the fire beneath the mo, patching holes and wrapping it in banana fibre or cotton.

Mo Tom Lao Distiller at Ban Xang Hai Whisky Village near Luang Prabang, Laos

The “mo tom lao” distiller must be kept at the same temperature throughout or the rice burns and the lao-Lao is ruined.

9. Extract alcohol vapour into a “recycled” bottle.

10. Replace with cold water every five to seven minutes.

11. When distillation is complete, mix all bottles together and stir to ensure an even alcohol content.

12. Send it out!

Snake whisky lao-Lao in Vang Vieng, Laos

Snake “whisky” produced at the “Whisky Village” of Ban Xang Hai

You can see me finally pluck up the courage to drink snake “whisky” on Youtube.

After being plied with free samples, we decided to give back to the local economy by stopping at a local shop and buying a round of beers. We sat in the shade around a table of pineapples and whiled away the time shooting the breeze and sharing travel stories…

Drinking Beerlao in Ban Xang Hai Whisky Village near Luang Prabang, Laos

The thirsty travellers stop to drink Beerlao at a local shop in the ‘Whisky Village”. Photo by Marion.

…until our boat driver came looking for us.

Later that Night

We all met up, along with Theresa from Vang Vieng, at Utopia - the main backpacker haunt in Luang Prabang with its lounge seating and volleyball court.

Volleyball Court at Utopia Bar, Luang Prabang, Laos

The volleyball court at Utopia. I remembered thee well.

Utopia brought back a lot of memories for me. Last time I was there, with Jess, a bunch of Americans and Pheung from SpicyLaos, we played volleyball, drank too many cocktails, met Nevo, a great Israeli guy, at some point moved to Lao Lao Garden, drank more cocktails and met three more (not so great) Israelis intent on shagging Jess and the American girls.

Luang Prabang, as with most places in Laos, has a curfew at around midnight. However, there is one place that, for some mysterious reason, is exempt from this rule and therefore has become something of a backpacker legend…the bowling alley! This night in Luang Prabang ended, as most do, with the bowling alley on the outskirts of town.

There was a drunken tuk tuk journey, people were met and forgotten, Beerlao was consumed en mass

Chinese Mafia Bowling Alley in Luang Prabang, Laos

I don’t remember taking this, but this is what a “Chinese mafia” run bowling alley looks like.

…and at around 3.45am, I woke up to find myself passed out on the banks of the Mekong (well, actually a tributary thereof), still in the (mud-caped) bowling shoes.

There is never any shortage of tuk tuks in the bowling alley car park, so, as soon as I’d figured out where I was, I fell into one…

…and woke up the next day in my bed in SpicyLaos with no memory of the journey home.

I’d agreed to meet Jess that day to go to the Kuang Si waterfalls, so with a terrible hangover we were soon being trundled along a dirt road in the back of a pick-up. I remember listening to the stories of an Australian girl who’d been travelling for 10 years and been turned around at the Iraq border, and it was here that I saw my first water-buffalo wallowing in the mud.

Jess told me all about what I’d missed last night – namely the three Israeli guys breaking into our hostel, trying to get into the girls’ rooms and having to be kicked out by the staff.

Rope Swing at Kuang Si Waterfalls near Luang Prabang, Laos

Trying out the rope swing at Kuang Si waterfalls. Hangover forgotten. Photo by Jess.

The waterfalls were beautiful with their opaque, turquoise water tumbling over rocks golden in the patches of sunlight. A dip in that cool water was the best hangover cure I’ve ever had.

I climbed up the slippery mud track to the top, where I discovered a lone Buddhist monk bathing in the serene blue pools and dappled shade. The view of the surrounding Laos countryside – the green hills I love so much – was astounding, and I lingered as long as I could.

Buddhist Monk Bathing at Kuang Si Waterfalls near Luang Prabang, Laos

A Buddhist monk bathing at the top of the Kuang Si waterfalls

Kuang Si Waterfalls near Luang Prabang, Laos

I climbed out on a precarious tree branch to get this view overhanging the Kuang Si waterfalls.

Kuang Si Waterfalls near Luang Prabang, Laos

Beautiful Laos, from the top of the Kuang Si falls

Bamboo Plumbing at Kuang Si Waterfalls near Luang Prabang, Laos

Bamboo plumbing at the Kuang Si waterfalls

After messing around on the rope-swing and generally relaxing at the falls, we visited the black bear sanctuary next-door.

Black Bear Sanctuary near Kuang Si Waterfalls, Laos

There’s a black bear sanctuary next to the Kuang Si falls.

Stick Insect at Kuang Si Waterfalls near Luang Prabang, Laos

Stick insect?

Back in town, I had something to take care of. I walked to the bowling alley (about 50 minutes) to return the bowling shoes and get my boots…Only when I got there, my boots were where I’d left them, but I’d become awfully attached to the bowling shoes.

I walked out with both. I’d been told last night that the bowling alley is owned by the Chinese mafia, which would explain the late closing times, so I was shitting myself as I made off wearing stolen mafia goods.

Yes, it’s stealing. No, I don’t care. Those babies went on to be the most well-travelled bowling shoes that ever came into this world. They out-lived those boots, and another set, and I’ve even climbed mountains in them. They did finally pass away, in some exotic nation that escapes me. May they rest in peace.

Other Things to Do in Luang Prabang

The other waterfalls are the Tad Sae falls. I’ve never been, but I hear they’re equally amazing.

There’s a temple called Wat Xieng Thong that sadly didn’t make it into this story but which blew me away. There’s also Wat Wisunalat, which isn’t so impressive, but makes for a good reason to explore Luang Prabang.

Bridge over the Nam Khan River in Luang Prabang, Laos

A kid silhouetted on a bridge over the Nam Khan

Back in the present day, we said all our goodbyes, bundled Adam into a tuk tuk and a bus to Thailand, and set off ourselves for Vietnam.

Tuk Tuk in Luang Prabang, Laos

Adam was whisked off in a tuk tuk, never to be seen again.

Categories: Asia, Laos, South East Asia, Travel Stories | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos

I fell in love with Laos years ago, for its empty, tranquil landscapes of rolling, green hills, blue skies reflected in rivers, lakes and turquoise swimming holes at the feet of waterfalls. Since then, it’s always held a spot in my top three favourite places and I promised myself I’d come back.

Green and blue Laos landscapein Vang Vieng

Vang Vieng, Laos

On that first visit, I “did” Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Don Det (Si Phan Don; the “Four-thousand Islands”) but avoided the tubing at Vang Vieng because I’d heard from everyone I met that it was just full of British twats with a deathwish.

I’m not sure at what point I realised I was a British twat with a deathwish, but whatever, I wasn’t going to miss out this time.

In the meantime, I’d also learnt to appreciate the joys to be had drifting slowly along a river with a bottle of wine and a cigar in hand, when I stayed with Alexia in Las Cruces, New Mexico and me, her and Dylan rafted “the Rio”.

Rafting or tubing the Rio Grande from Las Cruces, New Mexico

“Oh Rio, Rio, dance across the dusty land!” Dylan, Alexia and Yours Truly

Back to the present day, after a couple of weekends of drunken debauchery and Game of Thrones with Adam, who now lives in Bangkok, Ruth flew in from the UK and the three of us decided to head for Laos.

We took the night train from Bangkok to Nong Khai, on which we drank Cabernet Sauvignon and French brandy and quite fittingly met Marion for the first time.

On the Bangkok to Nong Khai, Laos night train

Ruth on the overnight train from Bangkok to Nong Khai (the Laos border)

We crossed into Laos and, with everyone keen to get clear of Vientiane – one of the most boring (or peaceful, depending on your point of view) capitals on the planet – we got on a local bus headed for Vang Vieng.

A couple of hours out of Vientiane the road climbs into the hills and sweeps through the lush, green vistas that I remember. I couldn’t help but be pleased when Adam, who’d been highly skeptical, turned to me and said “Roy, you were right. It is beautiful.” It may be the first thing we’ve ever agreed on. To be honest, with all the beautiful places I’ve seen in the interval, I was afraid Laos wouldn’t compete anymore, but I can now say with some surety, it still holds its own.

The occasional new, concrete building seems to have appeared amidst the wooden shacks and villages and the buses, decommissioned and donated by Japan and South Korea, are much more comfortable and carry less chickens than I recall, but Laos remains a rustic, laid-back place.

Where to Stay in Vang Vieng?

We’d booked a night in Pan’s Place, which is perfectly nice. Lonely Planet, who’ve been paid for the listing, describe the owner as an “old hippy from New Zealand”. I’d only go as far as to say he’s an “old guy from New Zealand”. When they were full, on the second night, we moved to Vang Vieng Guesthouse. Both are on the main street (Banh Vieng Keo) and are ridiculously cheap, considering the relatively high standard of the rooms - £1-2 per person. You shouldn’t struggle to find a good place.

What to Do in Vang Vieng?

There’s not a huge amount to “do” in Vang Vieng, with the obvious exception of:

  • Tubing
  • Exploring
  • Eating baguettes
  • Watching Friends
  • Drinking
Wooden bridge and karst mountains in Vang Vieng, Laos

Exploring the wooden bridges and karst mountains of Vang Vieng

Hot air balloon and Nam Song (Xong) river, Vang Vieng, Laos

Hot air balloon rising over the Nam Song river

Red flowers, karst mountains and river in Laos

Beautiful Laos!

Watching Friends in the TV bars, Vang Vieng, Laos

Chilling in the TV bars of Vang Vieng, where pirated Friends DVDs play incessantly

Where to Drink in Vang Vieng?

As well as the “tubing bars” along the river, and the more-than-weekly “jungle parties”, there’re also plenty of cool places in town:

  • Jaidee’s – Great place. Sociable lounge seating. Great music, drinks and food. Recommended to us by Tim and Jenny and where we met Rachel, Jacob, Shaun and the rest of the crew.
  • VIVAThe (only) place to be in Vang Vieng when all the other bars close. Open ’til 2am or later. Dancefloor. Also has rooms. For obvious reasons, I can’t remember much else about it.
  • The Moon Pub – On the other side of the old airstrip/bus station. Loud. Mostly local crowd. Seems a bit sketchy, but probably isn’t.
  • Full Moon Bar – Down by the riverside. Free shots of Tiger “whisky”. Cocktails. Pool table. This place actually is sketchy, but in the good way.
  • Luang Prabang Bakery Bar – Not great or cheap but there’s something to be said for drinking in a “bakery”.
  • Milan Happy Pizza/DK3 – The pizza’s neither good, nor bad. Comfortable lounge seating. On the main street.
  • Gary’s Irish Bar/The Rising Sun – We spent an entire day in here playing pool when the rains hit town. The bar actually flooded. Food’s amazing, plenty of drinks offers and Gary’s a great guy.
  • Kangaroo Sunset Bar – Another popular place on the same street as Gary’s and with similar drinks deals.

At least three of these places have “happy menus” with extra pages offering Mushrooms, marijuana and opium teas, joints, shakes and pizzas. In all my travels it’s the first time I’ve ever seen opium openly advertised on a menu.

Drinking a Beerlao, Laos favourite, most popular beer

Drinking a Beerlao, Laos’ favourite beer

Cheers! Shots

Free shots in Full Moon Bar

Inside Full Moon Bar, Vang Vieng, Laos

Ruth and Adam chillin’ in Full Moon Bar

Street dogs and feral girl

We met Tim and Jenny playing with two street pups on a hill.

In Vang Vieng bar

Rachel and Jacob in Jaidee’s

In VIVA, Vang Vieng, Laos - open until 2am

Ruth came prepared to VIVA

Tubing!

The “Tubing Office” has a complete monopoly on the tubing thing in Vang Vieng. It’s not hard to find. Everyone you ask will know where it is.

First, if you haven’t got one already, pick up a waterproof “tubing pouch”. They sell them just up the road from the office, for 10,000 Lao kip (less than £1), and they’ll keep your camera/phone and cash safe.

Tubing pouches, Vang Vieng, Laos

Me and Adam proudly showing off our new “tubing pouches”.

The “tubes” are actually old truck tyres. It’ll cost you 50,000 kip (£4), plus a 60,000 kip deposit, which you’ll get back in full if you deliver the tube intact by 6pm. This is almost impossible, unless you start early and it’s the wet (rainy) season. If you get it back by 8pm you’ll get some of your deposit back. After 8pm, you’ll get nothing and the tube is, in theory, yours – though in practise I think you’d be lucky to leave town with it.

If there’s more than three of you, which there almost always will be, you’ll get a free transfer to the starting bar, where you’ll get a free shot (of Tiger – the watery but quite pleasant Lao “whisky” brand). Also available are Beerlao and Nam Khong (that other Lao beer).

These bars are, as I was warned, patronised almost exclusively by rowdy, white, English-speaking 18-to-30-somethings, but it only takes a beer or two before you’re a part of the party.

First starting tubing bar, Vang Vieng

Let’s get this party started!

For those who want it, there’s beer-pong, volleyball, basketball, hammocks, caves, music and dancing. It’s like a club in the West, only it takes place during the day, in the jungle, is surrounded by beautiful scenery and is infinitely better. Some may complain, but for me, this is something close to paradise.

Up until recently (2012, I think) the number of bars along the river was well into double figures, plus all the associated dive-boards, rope-swings, zip-lines and even something called “Death Slide”, but way too many people were dying on a monthly basis, so they shut down all but four bars…although I’m not sure if their counting is quite up to scratch as, after the first two bars, we encountered the sign for “Second Bar”.

We were smoking a sweet cigar from Myanmar, when we ran into Marion again. She introduced us to Kayla and Theresa – three very cool girls who we would continue to bump into throughout our trip through Laos.

I love Lao sign and volleyball net at third tubing bar in Vang Vieng, Laos

Ruth and Adam at the Third Bar

The Drinking Traveller tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos

Rollin’ on the river

Girl tubing the Nam Song river, Laos

Ruth tubing the Nam Song river, Laos

Roy tubing in Laos

Just laying back and enjoying the serenity of nature…and alcohol.

ipp

Captain Adam sailing the Nam Song river, with Marion, Kayla and Theresa passing by behind

Drinking on hammocks in last tubing bar

By the last bar, things were beginning to get a little out-of-hand…

We passed the occasional concrete platform and wooden structure jutting out of the jungle – the remnants of the other bars, torn down.

As the sun began to set, we tied up to a convoy of Yanks.

A tuk-tuk driver kept appearing on the bank at various intervals, shining his torch in the gathering darkness. Eventually, the group accepted his offer, while me and Adam, determined to finish what we’d started, ploughed on into the blackness.

It was the shoulder between wet and dry seasons and the current was still slow. We had to paddle with our flip-flops (sandals; thongs) on our hands, and even tried running along the river bed, but to no avail.

It was only now that it dawned on us; maybe Ruth hadn’t got on the tuk-tuk with them, maybe she was still on the river looking for us.

After what felt like hours, unable now to see Adam, I ran aground on some rocks and pulled myself ashore, only to see the “Tubers Stop Here” sign. If I hadn’t happened to stop there, we’d have sailed right past Vang Vieng. I called to Adam in the darkness and his voice came back, surprisingly distant.

We trudged back through the town, wet, exhausted and still pretty drunk, to get roughly half of our deposits back and find Ruth sitting comfortably in the TV lounge below our hostel, watching Friends, of course.

Categories: Asia, Laos, South East Asia, Travel Stories | Tags: , | 1 Comment

Red Mountain Winery & Vineyards, Inle Lake, Myanmar

France, Italy, California… Burma? When listing the world’s fine wine regions, probably the last place you expect to hear is Myanmar. However, Myanmar does in fact boast its own wineries - all two of them.

Both are located in the Inle Lake region in southern Shan state:

  • The Myammar Vineyard Estate (Myanmar’s first winery and home to Aythaya wines)
  • The Red Mountain Estate Winery & Vineyards

Getting to Inle Lake from Mandalay

After Yangon, the Taukkyan War Cemetery and Bagan, I was in Mandalay – the closest major city (and airport) to Inle Lake. From Mandalay bus station there are (at least) four companies that offer buses to Inle Lake, but only one had a departure that evening, for 15,000 Kyat ($15 USD; £9 GBP). I read that if you’re coming from Yangon, the bus should cost anything from 11,000 to 20,000, and also that all buses go to Shwenyaung Junction or Taunggyi, where you have to grab a pick-up or taxi to Nyaungshwe. However, this may’ve changed, because my bus dropped me directly in Nyaungshwe

Inle Lake

I arrived in the early hours, still dark, shouldered my bag and with no particular place to go, and ignoring the offers of waiting taxi-drivers, headed into the dark, silent streets of Nyaungshwe. I passed sleeping guesthouses and shuttered restaurants, silent temples and empty plots, gangs of street dogs - the streets are theirs at this hour – and watched the sky lighten.

I found a place I’d heard about called “Gypsy Inn” but was enjoying the cool, night air too much and continued to walk along the canal-side. A couple of boats started their motors and set off in the murky pre-dawn to I don’t know where. A boat office was just opening (because they do sunrise tours) and I stopped in to inquire about a boat. I was quoted 20,000 for the day and was in the process of digging out my journal, where I’d written how much I should expect to pay (15,000) when a guy appeared and asked me if I wanted to split his boat. He’d booked it yesterday for 17,000 and hadn’t been able to find anyone else.

“Sure. Why not?”

“I’m Paddy, by the way.”

Paddy told me how Inle Lake is a bit of a tourist trap, with these boat tours designed to take you to various “workshops” where you’re then expected to buy something. He’d already carefully chosen his destinations, based on the recommendations of other travellers he’d met and from what he’d read, and the boat-driver had agreed not to pull any unwanted shit.

We blazed up the canal, past fully laden boats and out onto the lake.

Passing boat at dawn on Inle Lake, Myanmar

Cruising out of the canal and across the lake in the chilly morning air

The breeze coming off the water chilled me through, but this was the first (and maybe last) time I’d been cold in months, so I didn’t bother to get out a jacket.

Dawn in boat at Inle Lake, Myanmar

Stopping in the middle of the lake to watch the sunset

We went out to the middle of the lake, where the driver shut the engine off and we sat drifting in the silence watching the sun slowly lift. Dotted about us were fishermen standing on the backs of their boats and rowing with their leg wrapped around the oar. Paddy told me this style of rowing developed here, in isolation, and is unique to Inle Lake and the Shan region.

Stand up rowing fishermen on Inle Lake, Shan State, Myanmar

They row and steer with their leg while standing to fish!

Sunrise on Inle Lake, Myanmar

Sunrise on Inle Lake!

Welsh guy on a boat on Inle Lake, Burma

Paddy enjoying the view

An indeterminate amount of time passed and then we broke from the mesmerising view and gunned past large patches of green vines growing on the water and wooden houses on stilts. We slid into another canal, our driver negotiating tight bends and jumping bamboo dams. Old people sat on the banks and kids swam in the water and waved at us and we waved back. We passed other boats, but no other tourists at this hour.

Buddhist temple stupas in Indein, Inle Lake, Myanmar

Heading towards Indein

Indein floating market five-day rotation cycle, Inle Lake

The (not) floating market in Indein – part of a five-day rotation cycle at Inle Lake

First stop was the floating market. Due to the sheer size of the lake, the market is on a five-day rotating schedule, appearing in a different town each day. Today it was in the village of Indein, which, sadly, meant it wasn’t “floating” after all.

Paddy is Welsh, speaks Welsh, English, French, dabbles in Korean, Burmese and just about every other language he encounters. He was one of those travellers – the kind I used to pride myself on being when I was still full of enthusiasm and curiosity about the world – the kind that makes an effort to learn a bit of the local language and interact with the people. It can be annoying sometimes, but it does make the experience of travelling so much more enriching.

He knelt down at a stall and negotiated the price of a watermelon, laughing with the stall-keepers, then we went and ordered what some locals were eating and sat down to our breakfast. Apparently it was “mixed tofu” (to hpu thouk) and was delicious, and cheap. We bought some rice from a kid to go on the side and Paddy picked up some random green vegetable he’d seen.

Breakfast of mixed tofu, to hpu thouk, shan tofu and rice at Indein market

Delicious “mixed tofu” breakfast with rice

We whiled away half an hour or so on the wooden benches chatting with an old local couple, then set off again. Everywhere we went, the children said “hello”, Paddy said “hello” back in Burmese, they said “oh, you speak Burmese” (in Burmese), “a little” (in Burmese), something else in Burmese, “sorry, I don’t understand” (in Burmese)…”bye bye”, “bye bye” - accompanied by a lot of giggling and smiling throughout.

Buddhist stupas at temple in Indein, Inle Lake, Myanmar

Buddhist stupas we spotted from the canal and which Paddy later insisted we find

We’d seen some impressive golden stupas from the boat so on the way back, Paddy asked if we could make an impromtu stop. We waded out into the river, walked barefoot through mud, across wooden and bamboo bridges, through the grounds of a Buddhist monastry, through a local village on stilts and eventually found the stupas.

Wooden bmboo bridge in Indein, Inle Lake, Myanmar

Exploring the village

As well as the golden ones, we found fields and fields of crumbling stone ones, inside which could be seen ancient stone Buddhas and centuries-old carvings. In my opinion it was more impressive than Bagan, but it always feels that way when you randomly stumble across something incredible, instead of going in search of something hyped up in the guidebooks.

Random Buddhist stupas, temple and monastery in Indein, Inle Lake, Myanmar

Some random Buddhist stupas we found

Crumbling Burmese stupas, Inle Lake, Burma

Crumbling stupas as impressive as Bagan

Buddhist monastery with drum in Indein, Inle Lake, Myanmar

Buddhist monastery in Indein

When we got back, the boat was caught on a drift and we had to wade in and help our driver push the boat and rock it from side to side until we were in free, open water again.

Young Burmese girls working at cheroot cigar-making factory, Inle Lake, Myanmar

Girls working at the “cheroot” cigar-making factory after school, apparently

Next stop was a handmade “cheroot” cigar factory, where we smoked sweet cigars (made from tobacco, honey, rice, tamarind, banana, anise and so on). Paddy asked for a cleaver and bowl, cut up his watermelon and shared it with me, our driver and the staff of the factory. Again, we all chatted for a bit, then we split 20 sweet cigars for 1000 each and were on our way again.

Burmese lunch

Paddy and our boat-driver invited to eat lunch with a group of local ladies

We stopped at a boat-building factory where a couple of boats-in-progress were perched on beams and suspiciously little boat-building was going on. Because it was unlikely we would want to buy a boat (although I did haggle) they had a table of wooden handicrafts to buy instead. I decided to get out of there and wait for Paddy, who’d mysteriously disappeared into the village.

I heard my name and, when I turned around, Paddy was gesturing for me to cross the bridge. He’d somehow got us and our boat-driver invited to a local celebration.

We sat down and chatted with a couple of ladies while they plied us with food: more mixed tofu, beef, rice, noodles and so on. It turned out the celebration was in aid of one of the ladies’ nephew becoming a novice monk. When it was time to go, we each put 1000 Kyat in the donation pots – still one of the cheapest and best lunches I’ve ever had.

Burmese celebration for becoming a novice Buddhist monk in Myanmar

Invited to the celebration for her nephew becoming a novice Buddhist monk

Board game in Burma, South East Asia

Playing this random game with the boat-builders

We played some crazy, air-hockey-esque board game with the boat-builders and then travelled through the “floating gardens”, where tomato plants lay on the lake in vast floating fields. Apparently there are so many of them that, from the air, much of the lake is indistinguishable from land.

Floating Gardens, Inle Lake, Myanmar

Paddy at the “floating gardens”

Burmese boat-driver at floating tomato grdens, Inle Lake, Myanmar

Our boat-driver exhausted after a long day’s work

Finally, we stopped into the Nga Hpe Kyaung (Jumping Cat Monastery) – so named because in their spare time the monks taught the cats to jump and do tricks. However, there are “no more jumping cats”, we were told.

Instead Paddy got down and bowed to a living Buddha, who was laying up on a pedestal with a cheesy grin on his face. Fuck that, I thought, and strolled aimlessly around the monastery. When I came back, he was having tea with a bunch of fellow worshippers. All across Myanmar temples are used for sleeping, picnicking, playing board games and just generally getting out of the heat.

We’d been out on the lake for almost eight hours. When we got back they tried to cheekily change the agreed price because the lady had offered me 20,000 but we weren’t having any of it.

Getting to the Red Mountain Winery

Back at Paddy’s guest house (I wish I could remember what it was called) the guy on reception was great and let me have his own bicycle for the afternoon.

I said goodbye to Paddy, took off and cycled the three kilometres out of town, took the right, along the winding road, up a gradual gradient, swung a left at the “Red Mountain Estate” sign and powered up the not-so-gradual gradient, with rolling vineyards on either side, to arrive at the winery red as an ember and soaked through with sweat. (It would all pay off on the way back.)

Wine Tasting at the Red Mountain Estate

Up at the winery, you can choose from an air-conditioned interior, or an outdoor seating area perched on the hillside overlooking the lake (if you’re lucky) and the surrounding countryside.

Wine tasting deal at Red Mountain Winery & Vineyards, Nyaung-shwe, Inle Lake, Myanmar includes sauvignon blanc, Rosé d'Inlé, shiraz-tempranillo blend & Late Harvest white

The reward! Wine tasting deal at Red Mountain Winery & Vineyards, Nyaung-shwe

They offer a range of wines and good-quality (though not cheap) food (including European cheeses), but probably the best way to sample the goods is the wine-tasting deal, which includes four different wines for only 2000 Kyat.

I tried the…

  • Sauvignon Blanc – This is the favorite of the French vintner and I think I have to agree, despite the fact that it’s supposed to be dry yet was in fact very sweet (just the way I like it). It’s fresh, fruity and has a little something of fresh-cut grass about it.
  • Rosé d’Inlé – Made from Shiraz/Syrah, this one was a bit too dry and citrusy for my liking, but I’m sure some would love it.
  • Shiraz-Tempranillo – Made from 70% Shiraz and 30% Tempranillo grapes, this blend was supposed to taste of vanilla, dark chocolate and morrello cherries, but was actually the most disappointing of the bunch. The overbearing flavour was of tannins and I’m pretty sure this one needs some aging.
  • Late Harvest – This was another sweet white, this time made from 60% Muscat Petit Grain and 40% Sauvignon Blanc. It had a heady aroma of melon, lychee and maybe a hint of banana, coupled with the strong sugars and alcohol.

In my humble, completely unprofessional opinion, Red Mountain have some very promising wines and some below-average ones. Considering this is one of only two wineries in Myanmar, I was very impressed. All, except maybe the red, were vibrant in colour and the whole scene – growing gradually tipsy on the side of a hill as the sun set – made for the perfect end to an incredible day.

Later I flew back down the hill at God-knows how many miles an hour, returned the bike and jumped on another night-bus, Yangon bound.

Categories: Asia, Myanmar, South East Asia, Travel Stories | 6 Comments

Journey to the Taukkyan War Cemetery, Myanmar

This is kind of a personal one for me.

In the Second World War, my grandad’s brother was killed in Burma, and buried there. Now, 70 years later, I happened to be passing through the region and decided to find out where his grave is and to make the journey.

After some research, I found Corporal Ronald Harry Duffield, of the Royal Berkshires’ 1st Batallion, “Son of Harry and Amy Duffield, of Polegate, Sussex” in the roll of honour for Taukkyan War Cemetery. He was there. Plot 17, row J, grave 16.

After the war, Burma entered into a long period of instability and unrest. Taukkyan War Cemetery was created in 1951 by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to consolidate graves from a number of civil, cantonment and battlefield cemeteries around the country, as well as roadside graves and isolated jungle spots, when it became clear they could not be otherwise looked after. At this point, Ron would have been relocated from a battlefield cemetery in Mandalay.

I was surprised to find that the Taukkyan War Cemetery was the most highly-rated of all “attractions in Yangon (Rangoon)” on TripAdvisor (now second, after the golden Shwedagon Pagoda) but I suppose this could be for a few reasons. Maybe Yangon is completely bereft of things to do, but I now know that this couldn’t be further from the truth. More plausible is that, with the political situation in Myanmar in recent years and the subsequent difficulties for those wanting to travel the country, the majority of foreign tourists were put off, unless of course they had a very good reason…like visiting the grave of a loved one.

Also, it’s not exactly the kind of place you’d give a bad review to, is it?

How to Get to the Taukkyan War Cemetery?

Taukkyan is a township just North of Yangon – less than 20 miles, I think – on the main Pyay Road, PY1.

To get there, I took a local bus from the corner of Anawratha Road and Phone Gyi Street (between 12th and 13th) to the junction of Insein Road and Pyay for 200 Kyat (12 pence) then walked through the local neighbourhood that lies between the two and picked up a lain ka (shared pick-up; songthaew in Thailand and Laos) to Taukkyan for 500.

As with almost everywhere in Myanmar, you’ll get a lot of attention from the locals. Many of the women and even some of the men wore a kind of yellow face paint smeared on their cheeks.

The woman next to me on the cramped pick-up threw up in the heat. When she got off and the driver tried to get me to move up, I just shook my head. Everyone on the bus could see why, but the driver – standing outside – couldn’t see the milky-white vomit. While angrily gesturing to me where I should sit, he ended up putting his hand in it. Then he understood.

When you arrive in Taukkyan, don’t do what I did, which, when I couldn’t see any sign of the cemetery, was to ask directions from a taxi driver, who said (as they all do in these parts) that he knew where it was and could take me for 1000. He drove me (in his non-air-conditioned cab, sporadically hocking and spitting blood-red liquid into a rancid-smelling plastic bottle filled with what looked like melted chocolate, but was actually the remains of chewing tobacco or tea leaves) out into the countryside - through a toll booth - for half an hour or so, at which point I was getting pretty skeptical and asked again. He assured me that, yes, he knew where it was, only to pull over two minutes down the road to make some calls. He eventually put me on the phone to someone and what followed was a series of exchanges to the effect of:

“What? Where? We don’t know what that place is.”

And then when they did figure it out:

“Oh, my friend has made a mistake. It is actually the other way…very far. You will have to pay him 20,000 Kyat to take you there.”

He wanted 10,000 just to go back and, when I said no, tried to leave me in the middle of nowhere to find another ride. I refused to get out of the car until he took me back to where he’d picked me up – prepared to trash his cab and come to blows if necessary - and thus followed a tense, silent, 40 minute drive back the way we’d come.

When we got back to Taukkyan, I asked to be dropped off immediately, but he insisted on driving me another 30 seconds round the corner, where the cemetery miraculously came into view. I realised it was almost certainly a scam. He’d known exactly where it was the whole time.

He asked for 8000, then 5000. I gave him what I’d seen him hand over for tolls and a meager estimate for fuel and I told him to fuck off.

So, anyway, the cemetery is directly next to the village, just back on the road from Yangon, on the right as you come in. I’d have seen it on the way, but for the packed pick-up and the fact that I’d been sitting on the left-hand side.

I don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that Burmese people are dicks. They’re lovely. He was the only one.

The Cemetery

The cemetery is such a peaceful place and so incredibly well-maintained that it seems to be a favoured hangout for the locals. One or two families picnicked in the grass, couples lounged romantically amongst the graves and children played nearby. At least Ron has plenty of company, I thought.

Their Name Liveth for Evermore inscription at Taukkyan War Cemetery

Entering the cemetery…

The land on which this cemetery stands is the gift of the Burmese people for the perpetual resting place of the sailors soldiers and airmen who are honoured here

The cemetery is a gift from the Burmese people and maintained by the War Graves Commission

Taukkyan War Cemetery and Rangoon Memorial, Yangon, Myanmar

Taukkyan War Cemetery: a tranquil resting place.

Hedge tunnel at Taukkyan War Cemetery, Myanmar

Strolling the well-maintained and peaceful grounds

One kid came up to me and asked if he could have some water. (I was carrying the last of a 5 litre container.) I downed all I needed and gave him the bottle with the rest. He thanked me and ran off with it, content.

Later his friends came up to me and apologised for him, saying he was crazy sometimes.

“No problem.”

Taukkyan is the biggest of the three war cemeteries in Myanmar. It is currently home to:

  • 6,374 Commonwealth graves from World War Two (867 of which are unidentified)
  • 52 from World War One
  • The “Rangoon Memorial” to almost 27,000 with no known grave
  • The “Taukkyan Cremation Memorial” for over 1,000 servicemen who were cremated according to their faith
  • The “Taukkyan Memorial” for 45 whose graves couldn’t be maintained
A soldier of the 1939 - 1945 war, known unto God grave inscription at Taukkyan War Cemetery

Taukkyan houses 867 unidentified graves.

Rangoon Cremation Memorial, Taukkyan, Myanmar

The Rangoon Cremation Memorial

The Rangoon Memorial at Taukkyan War Cemetery, Myanmar

The Rangoon Memorial

Rangoon Memorial register at Taukkyan War Cemetery

The Rangoon Memorial register found in a safe built into the rock

The Rangoon Memorial at Taukkyan War Cemetery, Myanmar

The Rangoon Memorial pillars, with over 27,000 names inscribed

I located the plot and, as I grew close, had to gulp down the suspense that seemed to gather in my throat.

Plot 17 row J grave 16 at Taukkyan War Cemetery

Locating plot 17, row J

I’m not usually effected by sentimental things like this, but as I reached the grave I couldn’t help but feel something.

I took off my shoes and socks as a mark of respect (as is the custom here in Myanmar and other Asian nations) and sat in the soft grass beside the grave.

Ron's grave at Taukkyan War Cemetery

Somehow Ron had got the nicest flowers on the plot.

Here I was, less than six feet from a man I’d never met but who’d shared my blood and had known my grandad in his youth just as I’ve known my grandad in my youth…six decades later.

I should have been more moved than I was, but it’s hard to feel sad in such a pleasant setting. All things considered, Ron has found an ideal resting place in the end.

Grave of Corporal Ronald Harry Duffield, Royal Berkshires, First Battalion at Taukkyan War Cemetery, Burma

Ron’s grave. Eerily only one initial different from mine.

Ron & Pa

I don’t know much about my great-uncle Ron. I do know that they grew up together in London’s East End and that my grandad, Pa, once threw sticky orange juice down Ron’s back while he was driving, then the war broke out, and he never got the chance to apologise. Ever since then, he and Hen (my grandma) have lived by a “no regrets” rule – any dispute is resolved that day before bed, no ill-feeling is allowed to continue into another day (because you never know if you’ll get one) – and that’s the system by which they raised their three boys (my dad and uncles) and which I believe has filtered through to me.

Pa never saw his brother again.

One night, when stationed somewhere and put on night watch duty, he happened to take a look at the roster and see that his brother had been there just the night before.

Ron was killed in the battle of Fort Dufferin, on 15th March 1945, just a few months before the end of the war.

He was 24 – two years younger than I am now.

Mandalay Palace (formerly Fort Dufferin), Mandalay

Mandalay Palace (originally Mya Nan San Kyaw (meaning “the Famed, Royal, Emerald Palace”) and renamed Fort Dufferin under British rule) was built in Mandalay by King Mindon when he founded Mandalay in 1857.

yangon-bagan-mandalay-inle-lake-myanmar-burma 048

The plan of Mandalay Palace prior to the Second World War

It served as the royal residence of Mindon, and later King Thibaw – the last two kings of Burma – until the Third Anglo-Burmese War, when the British took control of Burma, captured the royal family and renamed the palace Fort Dufferin.

The Battle for Fort Dufferin, Mandalay, Burma, 1945

The Battle for Fort Dufferin. Source: www.ourstory.info

The palace was almost completely destroyed in the war, with the exception of only the watchtower and the royal mint (the birthplace of the first Burmese coin and used as a bakery for British troops). It was rebuilt in the ’90s and I was lucky enough to visit while in Mandalay.

The Watchtower - one of only two buildings to survive allied bombing

The Watchtower…

Fort Dufferin Watchtower, Mandalay Palace

…One of only two buildings to survive allied bombing

Steps ascending Mandalay Palace watchtower

View of Mandalay Palace while ascending the watchtower

View from Fort Dufferin watchtower, Mandalay Palace

“All along the watchtower…”

Mandalay Palace panorama

A panorama of Mandalay Palace

Old photo of Burmese princess

A surviving photo of one of the Burmese princesses, prior to British rule

Ancient Burmese script carved in stone

Sorry if this is upside-down – my ancient Burmese script isn’t what it used to be.

Mandalay Palace grounds empty

Strolling the ghost-town that was once Mandalay Palace

Inside dark empty rooms in Mandalay Palace

Walking through dark, empty rooms, once residence to the King and Queen

Burmese King Thibaw and Queen at Mandalay Palace, Myanmar

Ghosts? The last King and Queen of Burma stroll their palace grounds.

A Happy Ending

After the war, Pa stepped off a train in Polegate – a small town in the South East of England, that he’d never been to or even heard of before, but where his family had moved while he was at war in North Africa, the Balkans, Brindisi… – and here he met Hen, started the family I grew up with and they’re still there today, happily married.

Categories: Asia, Myanmar, South East Asia, Travel Stories | 7 Comments