Category Archives: Travel

Red – #worldcolours project

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Ahh, I am SO behind with my #worldcolours project. Red was supposed to be in February so this is more than a little late – eep! Anyway, here are my reds.

Hairy strawberry looking plant things I spotted during my first Botanic Gardens trip

Hairy strawberry looking plant things I spotted during my first Botanic Gardens trip

Ponsettias at Gardens by the Bay

Poinsettia at Gardens by the Bay

Will & I having a great time at the Olympics

Will & I having a great time at the Olympics

Lion and his beater - Vietnam

Lion and his beater – Vietnam

Street shrine in Geylang

Street shrine in Geylang

Chillis at the market

Chillis at the market

Dragon from last years CNY celebrations

Dragon from last years CNY celebrations

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A Singapore must-do: Singapore Slings at Raffles

Hopefully I’ll get around to doing the ‘green’ post in the correct month…

A big fat Gujarati wedding

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In between Christmas in England and New Years in Singapore, Will & I flew to Ahmedabad in India to celebrate our friends wedding. They had already had a ceremony in England, but now it was time for the Indian side! Having never been to an Indian wedding, we were really looking forward to it but without any idea of what to expect.

Before we left Singapore we bought our outfits – a beautiful beaded sari for me and a kurta pajama (complete with matching shoes!) for Will. We picked up the outfits in Little India. Will’s was ready to take home, but I had to have my blouse made to measure. They were super sweet and turned it around really quickly for me (a couple of days) but I’d recommend leaving at least a week. I also got the skirt part of the sari with a lining stitched in and a wrap around hook-and-eye set up, making it really easy for me to put it on myself! Rather than having to have one of the couple’s aunties wrap me up!

Weddings are a massive event in India – the WHOLE family comes out for them and I think there were over 400 guests at this one. Vik’s family are Hindu, so what I’m going to describe is what we experienced – no doubt there are many variations on what happens and rituals that we didn’t get to see, as we weren’t part of the ‘wedding party’.

We started off with the Sangeet. The sangeet party is usually the most elaborate and grand part of the wedding and this one was no exception. We all got on a coach out to a country club about 30 minutes out of central Ahmedabad. The venue was beautifully decorated with huge flower displays and loads of amazingly colourful lighting.

Arriving at the sangeet

There was a huge buffet meal available, with everyone milling around eating and drinking fruit juices and lassi (being a Hindu wedding and Hindu state there was no alcohol available – kind of a relief after the boozy Christmas time we’d just had in England). The food was amazing with lots of different stations offering different vegetable curries, dhal, and roti. We sampled loads of different things – some were absolutely delicious, others blew my mind with the spiciness! We finished up our meal with condensed milk ice creams on sticks (not dissimilar to a Mini Milk…) which were flavoured with cardamom – delicious!

After the meal, we moved to the seating area. By now, the sun had gone down so the weather was actually chilly, so we were grateful for the big gas heaters that were strategically placed! What I didn’t realise was we were now in for 3 or 4hours of Indian dancing and singing! The sangeet was hosted by a famous singer who I think had appeared on Indian Idol (or a similar reality TV show). The best bits were when big groups of the groom’s family appeared on stage to perform set dance routines. The guys amazed me with their dancing – especially when it included some Gangnam style moves!

The guys dancing

It was incredibly energetic to watch. Then the ladies all performed some routines as well – a beautiful mixture of elegant arm movements and swirling skirts.

Ladies dancing at the sangeet

After the formal programme – lots more singing and dancing (!) – we all got up to dance in front of the stage with the whole wedding party. Pretty soon this was one big undulating mass of people moving in time to the music. Quite an amazing spectacle and I felt really English, with my inability to do some of the same moves in the same way as the impossibly elegant Indian ladies!

Dancing at the sangeet – sorry for the slight blurriness, everyone was dancing!

Then people started getting onto the stage and dancing. Aunties pulled Will & I up there to join in. But before too long we were all being asked to leave the stage as they were worried it was going to collapse! I guess several hundred people dancing will do that! So we carried on dancing on the grass, until my poor little feet were too tired to do any more and we joined other guests back on the coach to the hotel.

The bride – Catherine – in the midst of all the dancing

The next day, we slept in late, before having a short walk up the road from the hotel, in search of an ATM and water. We didn’t have much luck on either front but we did get to see lots of market stalls, motorbike repair shops and kids playing cricket. Back at the hotel we donned our Indian outfits (we’d worn more ‘Western’ outfits to the sangeet so we could dance more easily) and got into a tuk-tuk to take us to the wedding venue. Speeding through the Ahmedabad streets with my sari on, I felt impossibly glamorous!

In all our Indian finery

We arrived at the wedding venue and met up with some of the other guests. As we were waiting, the bride arrived. She had to wait with her family whilst we all took part in the groom’s procession.

Catherine arrives at the wedding venue

There was a band lounging around in the shade who seemed pleased to see us and kept waving over! The guys got taken off to have turbans made for them. After that we had time for a few quick photos before exciting news that an elephant had arrived! We’d been hearing rumours about this, but it was still unexpected. We all trundled out into the street to find a big group of family waiting and there was indeed an elephant!

The arrival of the elephant

Vik, the groom, soon arrived in a car covered in flowers. The band started playing – lots of trumpets and drums – creating an infectious beat. It was time for Vik to climb aboard the elephant.

Vik getting ready to climb onto the elephant

All aboard!

Will kept commenting that it reminded him of something out of Aladdin – the bit where Aladdin arrives amidst great ceremony to meet Princess Jasmine! I think it was the little parasol…

The procession of the groom is known as the baraat. The music was going and soon everyone was walking in front of the elephant, leading him towards the wedding venue and his bride. Every now and then the band would stop walking, and this was an opportunity for the processional to dance and give the band money to continue. We would only walk a few metres before stopping again and dancing some more!

Dancing in the baraat

The groom’s mother in beautiful orange

There seemed to be some set dances that went on as well as lots of clapping. It was a great opportunity to learn some dance moves, and to admire the wedding outfits of the guests. Everyone was wearing rich, vivid colours and the women looked beautiful in their heavily beaded and embroidered saris.

Eventually we arrived at the wedding venue (it probably took us 45 minutes to cover about 100 yards!). Here there was more dancing – this time with lots of scarves being swirled around. Then the groom got down off the elephant and was taken to meet the bride and her family. I couldn’t see a lot of this – we were towards the back and there were loads of people. Apparently, the bride’s mother has to keep pinching the nose of the groom to put him off taking her daughter away. The bride then has to ‘catch’ the groom by putting a garland of flowers around his neck. This is greeted with lots of cheering and clapping from the wedding guests. We then filed into the wedding venue.

We were all seated around a big raised area in the centre, where the ceremony would be performed. At this point, I found the divide between Indian and Christian weddings greatest. Usually, the actual ‘marriage’ is very solemn and everyone pays attention at every wedding I’ve been to. At an Indian wedding, it is a lengthy process, heavy with ritual and tradition. It goes on a long time, so everyone wanders around, chats, and eats! Waiters kept bringing us drinks and snacks to keep us going! I found out later that the bride and groom aren’t allowed to eat anything until the wedding is over!

The groom arrives first and there seemed to be a long blessing and prayers. Then the bride arrived, accompanied by all her female family members, who tightly surround her, carrying candles. There is also a sheet carried over her head, so you can hardly see her.

The bridal procession

A brief glimpse of Catherine!

I didn’t know what was happening most of the time after that but there is a really good guide to Indian weddings here. I know there was a fire, and they had their feet touched a lot. They also seemed to be given a lot of gifts.

Finally married!

After the ceremony is over, all the guests lined up to have their photo taken with the bride and groom. This went on for AGES! Apparently the line is formed by family hierarchy – with immediate family going first, aunts, uncles and cousins next, then more further removed family, and finally friends. After this, the bride and groom are finally allowed to eat! We expected more dancing, but there wasn’t any – apparently the sangeet is where the big ‘party’ takes place. The bride and groom then went off for further blessings and rituals at the family home.

The next day, Vik’s cousin got married so we were all invited along for that. It was a completely different wedding – the groom arrived on a horse and everything was done outside. It was nice as we got to spend time Vik & Catherine, rather than mostly watching them!

Will & I with Vik & Catherine

It was a fantastic experience – one I’ll never forget. It was wonderful to be back in India, celebrating such a happy occasion and getting an insight into a huge part of Indian culture. Thanks so much for inviting us you guys – we had a blast!

Candles and petals outside the wedding venue

As usual, there are more photos over on Flickr.

New feature: White – #worldcolours project

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In a project inspired by fellow blogger Naomi, I’ve joined the #worldcolours project. (See here for more details)

To quote from Naomi’s blog:

It’s a joint effort between bloggers all over  to collate our photos that all have ONE thing in common.  COLOR! During the end of each month, we’ll be sharing our version of imagery based on a color calendar … starting with WHITE. ”

So, here’s my first world colours post – welcome to my world of white!

Gin cocktail in a smoking teapot - my work leaving drinks before I came to Singapore

Gin cocktail in a smoking teapot – my work leaving drinks before I came to Singapore

One of the elephants on display when we first arrived

One of the elephants on display when we first arrived

Old tiles, Vietnam

Old tiles, Vietnam

Selling nuts in Mumbai

Selling nuts in Mumbai

The stunning Taj Mahal - I fell in love with it all over again the second time around

The stunning Taj Mahal – I fell in love with it all over again the second time around

Bougainvillea blooms in a Javanese flower market

Bougainvillea blooms in a Javanese flower market

Figure in Thailand

Figure in Thailand

The war memorial at Woodlands (also where I saw the Royals on their Singapore visit)

The war memorial at Woodlands (also where I saw the Royals on their Singapore visit)

Making dumplings in Taipei

Making dumplings in Taipei

The bride at our first Indian wedding in December

The bride at our first Indian wedding in December

I really enjoyed putting this post together – it was great to look back over some of my photos and revisit all the memories I have associated with them. Looking forward to next months colour!

A trip home: London 2012

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Unless you’ve been literally living under a rock the past month, it won’t have escaped your attention that my fabulous home city of London just played host to the 2012 Olympic games. Having been excited about it since it was announced 7 years ago that London would be the host city, there was no way Will & I would be missing out on being part of it. After a  bit of drama actually getting our hot little hands on our tickets (combination of moving abroad and the fact that Locog would not let us change our delivery address months in advance of delivery), we managed to pick them up from the post office when we popped back in June.

We were still in Singapore for the opening ceremony but we managed to watch quite a few events before we left, such as seeing Bradley Wiggins win gold in the road race time trial. There was something magical about seeing a British athlete winning gold, cycling through areas that I’d grown up in, around Hampton Court and Bushy Park. It actually got me a little choked up and definitely pining for the UK.

Before long though, we were back in London and, despite having landed at 5am, were heading up to Wembley arena to watch Mexico play Senegal in the football. We met up with our friends Adrian & Camilla, who also had tickets to the same game.

Inside Wembley Stadium

Will it be a goal?!

Our stylish tickets

After watching Mexico beat Senegal in a surprisingly action-packed match, we headed down to Hyde Park to experience one of the free to enter Fan Zones. The Fan Zones were spread over London and allowed people to come together to watch the different events. Well, we picked a great evening to go down! It was the evening that saw Mo Farah win the 10,000 metres, as well as Jessica Ennis scoop gold in the heptathlon, finally proving to all her critics that she was indeed worth all the hype. The atmosphere in Hyde Park was incredible – the crowd roaring and cheering, the tension watching Mo Farah creep up to the front of the pack, the sudden rush of adrenaline when we realised he was going to win – amazing!

The next few days passed in a blur of seeing friends and family, and soaking up everything London and the UK has to offer. It was so wonderful to be back on familiar territory. Will managed to go to Hyde Park with his sister, to watch some of the triathlon (she competes in triathlons herself), but I was up in Yorkshire seeing my Granny!

Thursday saw our next dose of Olympic excitement, with a visit to the Olympic Park over in Stratford. We took one of the high-speed Javelin trains from St Pancras to Stratford which was great fun. Luckily the sun had come out, so the whole park was bathed in glorious sunshine.

Welcome!

Anish Kapoor’s striking ‘Orbit’ tower

I really loved the Olympic Park. It’s vast with the aquatics centre, velodrome and the main athletics stadium. The landscaping was really pretty, with lots of green spaces filled with wild flowers. There was something really ‘British’ about the whole place. We had a good wander around, as we’d arrived super early to soak up some atmosphere. This included eating a traditional British curry (!) down by the riverside, as well as enjoying some English cider in the sunshine. We met some terrific people, who we just got chatting to, who were incredibly friendly – they even bought us drinks … this NEVER usually happens in London! I think one of the things I loved most about the Olympics was how happy and friendly everyone was. The volunteers did a superb job of being really cheery but hugely helpful, and all of the members of public that we met were so excited and happy to be a part of it. It was like all the cynicism and British whining had been sucked away! The patriotism blew me away as well – there was barely a single person who wasn’t wearing some kind of team GB t-shirt or who didn’t have a Union Jack transfer stuck to their cheek!

Union Jack trainers!

Will gets his paws on some Team GB merchandise

Before too long, the sun had started to lower in the sky and it was time for us to head into the Olympic stadium for some athletics action! We got really lucky with the session we went to, as we got to see Usain Bolt compete, and take gold, in the 200m final. We also saw some of the closing events in the decathlon – javelin and 1500m. We also got to see a World Record be broken by David Rudisha of Kenya, in the men’s 800m.

The stadium was full of noise the whole time we were there – everyone was cheering on all the athletes, regardless of what country they were representing. During the track events, there was a ‘wall of noise’ that followed them around the stadium. I can’t imagine what it felt like competing there, but I got some serious goosebumps at times! I don’t think I’ve ever felt so proud of where I come from. Can you imagine what I would’ve been like if we’d won a gold that evening?!

Inside the Olympic stadium

That’s Usain Bolt in lane 7!

Jamaica take gold, silver, and bronze in the 200m

The Olympic flame

Being a part of London 2012 was one of those ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ moments for me. Congratulations to all the athletes who competed, in particular to Team GB of course! Best medal haul yet!

I’ve never felt so proud to be British, and a Londoner, and I really want to say thank you to everyone who made it a reality – you did an incredible job and these memories will stay with me forever.

Policemen and kids doing the ‘Bolt’

Thank you London

You can see more photos from London 2012 over on my Flickr set by clicking here

East Java and Mount Bromo

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It’s been said before, but living in Singapore really does open up Asia for exploration. It’s a fantastic base to jump off from. This was definitely the case when Will & I visited the eastern side of Java. It was not a place either of us had known anything about before moving to Asia, but we were really excited about taking a trip over there. We have decided to make the most of being here and explore places that we perhaps wouldn’t have seen, had we stayed in London.

Will was already in Indonesia on a work trip so I flew into Surabaya to meet him, and to start our Javanese jaunt. We didn’t really spend any time in Surabaya as we wanted to get straight up to Mount Bromo, and it was about a 3 hour car journey to get there.  I had already arranged to be picked up by Eko from the Cafe Lava Hostel, which is based in Cemoro Lawang (the nearest place to Bromo). We had a great drive through loads of little villages and up twisty mountain roads to get there. The scenery was just jaw-dropping, and it was wonderful to see what village life was like in Java (lots of chickens and goats wandering around).

We stayed in the Cafe Lava Hostel, which has mixed reviews on Trip Advisor, but we really liked. The staff were super friendly, and the bedroom was basic but comfortable. In the evening the temperature really drops – not something we were used to coming from Singapore! Make sure you take jeans/long trousers and a cosy jumper. I saw one girl shivering in shorts and clearly most of the tops she owned. We had a delicious meal in the cafe before heading off to bed for an early night – we had an 3.30am wake-up call to get up and see the sunrise.  The room is chilly but once you get into bed it’s cosy and you soon warm up.

I was fast asleep when Eko came to wake us up, but we were soon out of bed, wrapped up, and in the back of a 4×4. The journey up to the viewpoint on Mount Penanjakan is pretty scary, as you are bouncing around with dust in the headlights, giving very little visibility, and you know there is a steep drop off the side of a mountain just out of view! Take a sport bra ladies, as the road is anything but even! However, soon we were perched on the edge of the mountain, with about 20 other people, making sure we had a good spot to watch the sun come up. It was great to look back at where we had come from, and see a procession of pinprick headlights snaking up in the darkness.

The sunrise started slowly – just a slight lightness in the east. I don’t think I’ve ever taken so many photos of the same thing! With each increase in light, the landscape was transformed. Slowly you could make out more and more details. The sky turned beautiful colours, highlighting the mist nestled around the volcano on the volcanic plain. Mount Bromo rises out of the mist, with its taller cousin, Mount Semeru smoking in the background. The word magical gets overused, but this definitely felt like an incredible experience, and one that managed to shut both Will & I up, as we gazed out over it in awe.

Mist in the caldera

Mackerel sky

The MOST beautiful sunrise

Sunrise over the caldera

After watching the daylight slowly arrive, we headed back down Mount Penanjakan, and back over the Sea of Sands towards Bromo itself. From here, you can climb up to the top of Bromo, and peer over the edge into its smoky crater! You can hire a pony to take you most of the way, if you  like, but there are quite a lot of steps to climb up at the end. It was quite tough going (we didn’t take the horse) because of the sandy ground, and the thin air, but it was so amazing to look down into the mouth of a volcano, and out at the peculiar landscape that was laid out before us.

View coming back down

View coming down #2

View looking down from Bromo

After another bumpy ride back to the hostel, and a bit of breakfast, we headed off again – our destination this time was the city of Malang, where we planned to spend a few days just relaxing. The drive was just as spectacular. We stopped on the other side of Bromo and the landscape here looks incredibly European – grassy and green! We drove along the tops of hills, with incredible views down into the valleys. I was astounded by how much farming went on – the slopes are so steep! Apparently, they grow a lot of potatoes in this region.

Looks like Europe!

Farming in the hills

We stopped at a beautiful waterfall on our journey – Coban Pelangi. You wander down the hillside, crossing a stream, before rounding a corner and spotting this incredible cascade!

Stream

Coban Pelangi

Malang is a pretty town with lots of buildings dating back from the Dutch colonial era. We stayed in the Tugu Hotel Malang which is a really quirky hotel, with koi ponds, tons of lush greenery and loads of antiquities lining the hallways and restaurants. It is a bit of an oasis from the urban atmosphere all around you.

We wandered down to the bird market which was just a short walk from the hotel. I’ve never been to a market like it! Not only were there loads of different types of birds, chirping away, but there were also monkeys, bats and civets for sale! Next door there is also a big flower market, which is kind of welcome change from the madness of the bird market.

Birdcages at the market

Beautiful Bougainvillea

We took a trip out of the city to some orchards where they grow loads of different varieties of apples, strawberries, guava, oranges and more. It’s peaceful and cool up there, with great views over the city and up the mountains.

View from the orchard

Gorgeous guavas

We also took a trip to some hot springs, tucked away up in the mountains. Will went for a dip but with the conservative culture in Java I didn’t feel right going for a swim in a bikini, especially not when some of the other women were swimming wearing jeans and t-shirts! If you do go, take a t-shirt you don’t mind getting wet to make sure you cover up.

We had a fantastic time in Java – our Mount Bromo experience was one which left us both raving about it for days afterwards. This part of Java is also relatively undeveloped, so you still get to experience village culture. Even in Malang we never got hassled or subjected to endless questioning; the closest we came was men on bicycles waving and shouting ‘hi’ as we walked around! I’d definitely recommend a visit if you fancy doing something a little different.

I’ve put a selection of photos in this post, but you can see more on my Java Flickr set.

Beaching it in Bintan

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Over the Easter bank holiday, we went to Bintan with our friends Fi & Nav for a little bit of beach hut action. Bintan is a firm favourite amongst Singapore residents, as it’s the perfect beach side getaway, but only an hour ferry ride from Singapore. It is part of the Riau archipelago in Indonesia, so you get all the flavour of being in a different country, without travelling very far. To Will’s delight, the time difference between Bintan and Singapore, means that you arrive at the same time that you depart!

On the recommendation of a friend (cheers Adam!), we stayed on Trikora Beach in a lovely little place called the Shady Shacks. Basic but lovely huts right by the beach, with a little restaurant/bar to provide sustenance and refreshment. With some good friends and a pack of cards, what more do you need?! Trikora Beach is on the other side of the island to Bintan Resorts, which is the part of the island that most people visit. We had an hour drive in a car to arrive, but it was nice to really escape all the hustle and bustle.

View from our ‘Shady Shack’

Part of the beach

The accommodation is basic – take a sarong or something similar to sleep under, and some toilet paper! However, the host, Lobo, is super friendly and very helpful. The menu in the restaurant is centered around fish and chicken, and while we didn’t get bored with the small selection during the time we spent there, I think any more than a few days and you’d be craving something else to eat.

Post fish – with Fi & Nav

Mostly we spent our time relaxing on the beach; reading books, swimming and chatting away. We also played lots of cards! On the second day we were there, we arranged a boat to take us to one of the little island we could see from the beach, that had the most gorgeous pale sand, and beautiful turquoise water. It was actually a nicer beach than the one just by the Shady Shacks, and was nice to have a little change of scene. After whiling away a few hours there, we came back and had a massage on the beach – bliss!

Island hopping

The boys relax on the boat over

What a beach!

That evening there was the most gorgeous full moon, and I had a bit of fun trying to spell out letters by moving my camera around to catch the light – what do you think?!

Moon ‘W’

Moon ‘C’

We had a fantastic time on Bintan – it was great going to sleep to the sound of the waves crashing outside, and waking up to see the sun rise over the South China Sea (still sounds impossibly exotic to me!). I can’t speak for the other parts of the islands, but I’d recommend hanging out at Trikora beach if it’s just for a few days, and you don’t mind getting back to basics, whilst soaking up the sunshine and the views.

In India

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For Will’s Mum’s birthday, Will decided to help her realise a lifetime dream and take her to India. She’s never visited before, and Will’s Dad is not a lover of curry so wasn’t keen on going himself. Will and I have been to India twice before, and loved it, so we decided that it would be a brilliant way to celebrate. For me, India is one of those places that when you love it, gets under your skin. My friend Raj has often joked that I must have been Indian in a previous life, as I love everything about it, and apparently make a better dahl than she does! So I was very happy to be going back there, as you can imagine.

We wanted to do an India highlights trip – in only 10 days – so we spent ages working out itineraries, looking at trains and domestic airlines, trying to decide the best route. In the end, Will did a fantastic job and put together a fantastic trip. Mumbai – Jodphur – Khimsar – Jaipur – Agra – Delhi. We also travelled in very different style to our first two trips – before it had been bright but basic backpacker places, and overnight trains; this time around it was gorgeous hotels and private cars. Very different – we did India in style!

We flew into Mumbai from Singapore. I’d been to Mumbai on both our previous trips but neither of us had fallen in love with the city – it had seemed crowded, dirty, frantic with traffic, and the juxtaposition between rich and poor so close together had been rather difficult to stomach. The Mumbai that greeted us on this occasion felt very different. A new bridge has been recently completed, which cuts out a lot of the traffic, acting as a kind of by-pass in the sea. The slums that were so prevalent when we visited before weren’t visible this time (though of course that doesn’t mean that they weren’t there… just moved). This time I actually wanted to leave the hotel and explore the city. We spent a great morning exploring the city and visiting all the landmarks, and the house Gandhi used to stay in when he was in Mumbai.

Gateway of India

Gateway of India

Boats at Gateway of India

Victoria Terminus

Dhobi Ghat

Profound words from Gandhi

After a whistle-stop tour of Mumbai, we hopped onto a domestic flight up to Jodphur in Rajasthan. We’d been to Rajasthan (Jaipur & Udaipur) on previous visits, but ran out of time to see Jodphur. We heard so many great things that we really regretted not being able to visit, so we were keen to make sure that it was on the itinerary this time. The ‘Blue City’ did not disappoint. Smaller than the other cities we had visited in Rajasthan, Jodphur feels a bit more personal. The impressive Mehrangarh Fort, perched on a rocky outcrop, looks out over the city. I loved exploring it, with the bright blue sky overhead, and old stone all around me. The market was also fun and vibrant, with loads of fresh produce on sale. The whole city had a lovely chilled out vibe and I could’ve happily spent several days there.

Umaid Bhawan Palace

Mehrangarh Fort

View over Jodphur

Beautiful spiral staircase

More of the Mehrangarh Fort

After Jodphur, we travelled to the small town of Khimsar, where we were staying in the old Fort there. It’s a brilliant place to stay – lovely comfy rooms but with big ramparts all around the grounds, and the dining room is in the one part of the fort that they have left relatively unrenovated. Eating there is really atmospheric! We also did a little jeep safari into the desert where we saw all kinds of animals – lots of deer like looking creatures. We also did a short camel ride up a sand dune to watch the sunset – beautiful.

Camel!

Next up was Jaipur. Will & I had both visited it when we first came to India back in 2004, so we were looking forward to seeing the city again, and seeing if had changed as much as Mumbai had. After a white-knuckle car journey (which saw cars coming at 80 mph down the road towards us, on the wrong side of a motorway – I was in the front and quietly praying I would survive), we arrived. Jaipur is known as the ‘pink city’ due to the colours of the walls, which were painted in honour of Prince Albert’s visit in 1876. In reality, they are more of a terracotta col0ur, but it still make the old city striking. We visited the Amber Fort, as we had done on our previous visit. It sits perched on a hill, looking over the city. Will’s Mum had wanted to ride up on the elephants that are there, but our well-meaning but ultimately frustrating taxi driver took us all the way round the back to the top, meaning we had to walk all the way down again to do the elephant ride. Poor bloke, I think he thought he was doing us a favour.

The Amber Fort is as beautiful as I remembered it and much more of it has been restored to its former glory. For instance, there was a garden in the central courtyard that hadn’t been there when we came before. More of the Mirror Palace is being restored as well, which is incredible to see.  I’m pleased that India is preserving more of its beautiful heritage buildings.

The Amber Fort

Detailing in the Mirror Palace

Gardens inside the Amber Fort

On route to Agra from Jaipur, we stopped at Fatephur Sikri. It was originally built as a walled city, but now much of it lies empty and is described as a ‘ghost city’. We visited the mosque there, Jama Masjid. It is a striking building, and built out of the beautiful local red stone.

Buland Gate, Fatephur Sikri

Next up was Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. I had mixed feelings about going back there. It had been such a perfect experience when we first went, that I was a bit nervous about tainting it. We got off to a frustrating start, as after having got up early to get there, we had to wait in a huge queue, which is split into men’s and women’s, for over an hour. Needless to say, the men’s queue moves super quickly, whilst the women’s drags. This is all in the name of security, but I received nothing more than a cursory pat on the thighs and around my stomach. Nobody bothered to check my bag. They need to sort this out! However, once I stepped inside, I fell in love with the Taj all over again. It is such a mesmerising building – you can’t stop looking at it. It’s almost as if it has some kind of magic to it. It’s easy to see why its one of the wonders of the world, and one of my favourite places ever. I never thought I’d visit it again, so I am delighted that I’ve had the opportunity.

Bird at Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal

Will & I at the Taj Mahal, 8 years after our first visit

Our trip ended in Delhi, where we really only had an evening, before we caught our early morning flight back to Singapore. We decided not to face the wrath of the capital city, and instead relaxed in the hotel with a massage and yummy dinner. It was very sad to leave Will’s Mum (she was flying straight back to London) but also I was sad to leave India again. It is country that has definitely got under my skin – it fascinates me and frustrates me all at the same time! If you have never visited, I would seriously recommend that you do – it is one of the most beautiful and captivating places I’ve ever been lucky enough to visit.

(I took tons of photos and while there are plenty in this post, there are even more if you head on over to Flickr)

Exploring the Mekong River – Part Two

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After a super duper sleep on the boat (it was soooo relaxing just falling asleep to the sounds of nature), we woke up to another beautifully blue sky. We had another delicious meal (breakfast this time) before heading off in the little boat to explore some of the floating markets around Cai Be. It was all really quiet, because of the Tet holiday, so we didn’t get to experience the hustle and bustle that is usually there. On the other hand, there is something wonderful about seeing people at play, relaxing at home.

Enjoying time together

I find being by water really relaxing, and I loved the idea of living so close to the river (although there are bound to be cons…I can dream!). I loved the houses on stilts, and how the river is obviously such an integral part of daily life.

Relaxing at Tet

Houses by the river

I liked seeing the boats that usually make up some of the floating market, and tried to imagine the shouts of people selling and buying wares, and people stepping from boat to boat, to pick up the things that they need.

Floating market boat

After meandering down the waterways, we stopped at a small village to stretch out legs and explore. We went to a place that showed tourists all the different things that the local communities do with rice, from making rice wine, rice papers, and popped rice. We got to try a lot of things, including some delicious little sweets – they were yummy but so sticky they got stuck to your teeth!

Drying rice papers used for summer rolls

Making popped rice

As we left the rice place, I spotted all these Tintin books for sale! I loved Tintin when I was younger, so it was a real treat to see these. I can’t remember if I’ve read them or not, but I loved the illustrations, and how they were a complete time-capsule for what was going on when they were written.

Vietnamese Tintin

Soon after exploring the village, it was time to say goodbye to Loi, and the rest of our fellow guests on the boat. I felt sad to be leaving the Mekong. I found it very tranquil and calming, just being out on the water, with no internet or mobile phones to disturb your thoughts. I found the friendliness of all the people we met wonderful. They really made me feel welcome, and part of their community, even if just for a day.

Back in Saigon, we just had one final stop before flying back to Singapore. We went to the War Remnants Museum (previously know as the American War Crimes Museum). I didn’t take any photos inside as it felt a bit disrespectful, and also some of the exhibits on display were truly horrifying, and ones that I don’t wish to recall. Although it presents a very biased view of the conflict, I couldn’t help but be moved to tears by many of the images and stories that were shown. I was pleased to see some photographs of American soldiers who suffered, as well as the Vietnamese – I think some of the museum has been changed in order to attempt a more balanced viewpoint. The worst section for me was the one of the effects of Agent Orange. There were a few things in there that made me feel ill, but I felt like I needed to see them; to understand more about this war that really I knew so little about. It was incredibly moving and thought-provoking, and the experience will stay with me for quite some time.

I really loved Vietnam. I loved the warmth of the people, their resilience, and their openness. I found the scars left by the war to be shocking but also inspiring. Vietnam seems to have come such a long way since then that it gave me hope for other countries who are currently trying to recover from conflict themselves. I really hope I get the chance to return, and see more of this fascinating place.

Exploring the Mekong River

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(Part two of our CNY visit to Vietnam.)

After a fun day exploring Saigon, and then meeting up with friends in the city for dinner, drinks and general marvelling at the Tet celebrations (yes, even going to Vietnam we managed to bump into people we know from Singapore – so awesome!), we set off bright and early for our trip exploring the Mekong delta.

We had arranged our trip through our hotel, and I think I would definitely recommend shopping around for trips as they can be of varying length, depth and quality. We went for a two-day, one night trip, where we got to sleep over on the boat. The hotel booked us on a Cochinchine cruise and I’d have to say I’d highly recommend them for the friendliness of the staff, delicious food, comfortable accommodation, and just general relaxing greatness!

We picked up the boat at Cai Be, just over an hour drive from Saigon. I enjoyed the drive down there – the roads are great, and it was lovely to see some of the countryside. I also enjoyed seeing all the rest stops  dotted along the route. The rest stops in Vietnam are really different to the ones in the UK; rather than Burger King, in Vietnam you get a shady hammock and a bowl of steaming hot pho! Unfortunately, our journey wasn’t long enough to warrant a rest stop, but it made me excited about going back to Vietnam one day and doing some longer journeys.

We were met at Cai Be, and taken onto our boat, where we would spend the next two days. The boat was beautiful and the crew, including our guide Loi, were welcoming and very friendly. I didn’t get a photo of our room, but the bed was super comfy, and there was air-conditioning, meaning that in the night we wouldn’t get bitten to death by mozzies!

Our boat

And then – we were off! I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed just slowly floating down the river, with a warm breeze in my face, cold drink in my hand, and great company by my side. I loved seeing all the life by the side of the Mekong – people who use the river to live and work every day.

Fishing

Kilns for firing bricks

View off the back of the boat

After floating along the river, eating a delicious lunch of about 5 courses (I was so busy eating I didn’t take photos!) including some gorgeous summer rolls, we arrived at Sa Dec. Sa Dec is a pretty market town, with a night market. After the peace and quiet of the river, it was almost a shock being back in the hustle and bustle of  a town. It was much more busy because of the Tet public holiday that evening.

We walked through the town until we arrived at the house of Hunyh Thuy Le. This house became famous due to the French writer, Marguerite Duras, having an affair with Hunyh Thuy Le. This love affair, became the basis for her book The Lover. The house was really beautiful, with loads of gorgeous detailing. I loved the mixture of French and Vietnamese that was everywhere. I’d never heard of Marguerite Duras until going there, but now I really want to read the book, and understand what inspired her.

Bird detailing on the wooden wall panels

Out in the courtyard

Floor tiles

On the way back, we happened across a group of children, practising their lion dance. I didn’t know much about lion dancing, but I now know it supposed to scare away evil spirits and summon good fortune. I was amazed by how acrobatic the children were – the lion is made by two people, and the boy at the front was often being picked up by the boy at the back, to make the lion rear up. It was quite amazing, and the traditional drumming really added to the atmosphere. They were really happy to let us watch everything, and seemed pleased to have an audience.

Standing on the shoulders of lions

Lion dancing

Lion and his beater

After our impromptu stop watching the lion dance, we continued on to a temple to look around. It was incredibly brightly coloured, with really unusual decorations inside.

Temple detailing

Dragons

We then walked up some narrow and incredibly steep staircases to get up to the roof, where we had the most incredible views over the town, and over the river. It was such a sunny day, and the really vivid colours of the temple looked amazing against the bright blue sky.

Will & I on the temple roof

From the top of the temple

Back in the main town, we had a chance to explore the markets. I love markets! It was brilliant looking around everything, and all the weird and wonderful fruit and vegetables. There was a great atmosphere in the market – vibrant and buzzy, with loads of people milling around, buying up things for the Tet celebrations that evening.

Mouthwatering selection

Stinky durians

Fruit selection

Back on the boat, we were treated to a foot massage on the top deck, as the sun set over the river. We then had another gorgeous meal, leaving us completely stuffed. We stayed up on deck, chatting with some of the other guests, and enjoying a glass of wine. After a couple of hours, we were ready to head down to bed. On our way down, we had to walk past the kitchen, and there we found all of the staff enjoying a celebratory Tet meal. They invited us, and the Australian couple who were with us, to join them. It was a real privilege to share their meal, and drinks, with them. All the staff were so friendly, teaching us to say Happy New Year in Vietnamese – Chuc Mung Nam Moi!

Chuc Mung Nam Moi - celebrating on the boat

Good morning Vietnam!

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Sorry for the cheesy movie reference title … I couldn’t help it!

For the CNY bank holiday, the boy and I decided to take a little trip out of the Lion City, and explore a bit more of South East Asia. Will had already been to Vietnam once before, on his gap year. Needless to say, some things had no doubt changed, so with our flights to Ho Chi Minh/Saigon (will someone please tell me what I should call it?!) booked, off we went to explore.

We arrived in Vietnam after just a short flight (it’s just  2 hours from Singapore) and then hopped straight into a cab to our hotel. We stayed at the Cinnamon Hotel which I’d really recommend. We had a beautiful room, delicious breakfasts, and the staff were super helpful and friendly, despite having to work over the Tet holiday (the Vietnamese equivalent of CNY). We also booked our trip down the Mekong through them, and were delighted with that too. The hotel is nice and central; just a short walk to most of the main sights in the city.

After a good snooze and breakfast, we headed to the Reunification Palace. The Reunification Palace was the workplace of the President of South Vietnam, during the Vietnam War. It was also the site of the end of the Vietnam War, during the fall of Saigon, when a North Vietnamese tank was crashed through its gates. It is quite an imposing building, although I wouldn’t say it was beautiful. There are replica tanks in the grounds, along with the details of the Vietnamese soldiers who were involved in the attack on the palace.

The building is carefully preserved, and its easy to imagine what it would have been like during the war, with the rooms left just as they would have been during the war. We enjoyed walking around, admiring all the artifacts. It is a real time capsule in there. Bits of it reminded me of the Churchill War Rooms in London – especially the bits in the basement – lots of long, concrete corridors, with small offices and lots of maps, telephones, and other communication equipment.

It was fascinating to walk around and to explore the history of the building. I think it is great how it has been preserved so that you can really imagine it full of military and government personal walking around in the 1970’s. I also enjoyed standing on the balcony at the front of the building, trying to imagine what it must have felt like to watch the tanks breaking through the gates, and knowing your world was going to change forever.

After exploring the Reunification Palace, we headed out of the city to the Cu Chi tunnels. The tunnels were used by the Vietnamese guerrillas, in their fight against the Americans during the Vietnam war, allowing them to outwit the American troops, as well as supplying the guerrilla fighters with hiding places, food, supplies and communications. The tunnels are believed to have been instrumental in the eventual victory over the Americans.

Let’s get one thing straight – the tunnels are tiny! Most of them have been widened so that ‘large’ Western tourists can explore them! See the below photos for a couple of people in our group getting into one of the tiny entrances to see what I mean!

The tour starts with a video, which is in shaky black and white footage, where you learn all about the brave Vietnamese and the despicable American soldiers – it is very much Vietnamese anti-American propaganda, and I think its important you recognise it as such. However, it is an interesting insight into the national psyche and attitudes towards the war. We then joined our guide who took us around the tunnel complex. Most of the things to see are above ground – you see the breathing holes that they cleverly disguised as big termite mounds round the bottom of trees – the had small holes hidden in them where the guerrillas could go to so they could get fresh air. There are countless entrances and exits, all very small, and disguised underneath the leaf mulch, rendering them completely invisible, unless you knew where to look. The Vietnamese not only used the tunnels – they also laid traps for the Americans, such as digging pits with sharpened, hardened bamboo spikes in them, which would ensure that their enemy slowly bled to death, after being impaled.

The experience was brilliant – you learnt so much about how the Vietnamese lived and worked in the tunnels, and how they used old unexploded shells and bomb casings to make their own weapons and traps. You have to admire the ingenuity! The actual part where you crawl through the tunnels was short. The tunnels are smooth (or at least the ones you can crawl through) and dry. I’m not exactly tall but I found it hard going – you are bent over the entire time and its tough on the thighs! As I was crouching along the tunnels, I felt real admiration for the Vietnamese who lived day in day out in these tunnels, whilst the threat from the Americans was all around them. I was astonished that more of them didn’t get lost in the tunnels, as they are completely pitch black once your guide turns a corner and leaves you without torchlight!

It was a brilliant day, learning all about the history of the area, and the people who lived there. Before we went, I must confess to not knowing masses about the Vietnam War – I knew bits and pieces but my understanding was shaky at best. It was an eye-opening and enlightening experience.

I’ll post more about the rest of the trip over the next few days!