Monday, 16 December 2013

Prague, the Winter Wonderland: Day One

It hasn't been 24 hours since I've arrived back from Prague but I couldn't wait til I got writing about it, telling my friends and family what I've been up to and sorting the photo. I'm use to thinking that 2 months of travelling passes quicker than the blink of an eye, imagine how quick this weekend felt!

Such a pretty view despite the weather below the clouds!
Such a pretty view despite the weather below the clouds!
 The journey started at about 5am on Friday morning. I have to admit, waking up and getting to the airport was easier than I expected, though as I've always aimed for the cheaper flights, this isn't something new. We weren't in Prague until 1pm, where we had the most unpleasant greeting from the winter winds blasting our face along with the snow. I already think that I'm not made for the british climate, I can't handle the winter here, so I had my doubts spending my winter in east Europe. The minute I stepped out the airport, I thought I was going to give up: "I'm going to spend the rest of this trip in the hotel" I thought. I guess it's unsurprising that the first thing we did was snooze in our room...

Attempt at wrapping up warm without looking like Bibendum (the Michelin Man). Look at how warm and toasty my room looked, wouldn't you rather be in there than the cold?!
Guilt crept in when we woke up at 5pm. How could we waste our trip already? Fortunately, we were living close to the Old Town Square. It wasn't long until we were greeted by the Square's sparkling Christmas Tree (from afar, we were wondering if the tree had any leaves or if it was just made out of christmas lights) before we indulged ourselves into the warmth of the Christmas Market.

The image doesn't capture how much of a monstrosity/legendary this Christmas tree was. From afar, you'd doubt there were any leaves (and if there were, how have they not burnt off?).
Mulled wine, crepes and roasted chestnuts stalls surrounded us but no complaints there! It didn't take us long to try some Czech delicacies. We began by trying some Trdelnik, which is made by wrapping some dough on a stick which is then grilled and sprinkled with a walnut and sugar mix. Alright, my mouth is watering just by describing the way this is made!

Can these Christmas stalls look any cuter?
Rolls of Old Czech Cake being grilled (more like roasted?). Sprinkle it with my spices, they taste amazing served warm!
I was a little disappointed with myself for not trying enough Malaysian and Singaporean food this summer. I've been reading some food blogs just to make sure I don't miss out on the Czech side. Now three days isn't a lot of time to try enough delicacies, but one thing we couldn't stop having is fried cheese. How could you have a main dish of just cheese?! I think the fact that we had it every day that we were in Prague suggests how tasty (and addicting) they are.

Never thought I'd miss Prague food!
Pilsner beer and hot chocolate to accompany our dinner. Quite thick for a hot chocolate but not as sweet as I expected (to my disappointment).
 We decided to check out Wesceslas Square. It didn't compare to the atmosphere back in Old Town Square, especially the Christmas market. It reminded me of a tamer version of Oxford street with either side of street lined with boutiques and western chains. Other than the impressive national museum at the end of the square, I wouldn't say there's much here other than for shoppers. Surprisingly, this is the first trip I've made where I wasn't enticed to go shopping. Shock! Horror!
Not as blinding as the Old Town Square tree...
 By the first night, I was already in love with the Christmas market (couldn't wait to hit it again), addicted to taking photos of the Town Square and surprisingly took a liking to my experience with Czech food. Couldn't ask for a better start to the trip (:

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Next stop... Prague!

The last time I went travelling during the winter vacations was probably... back during my GCSEs? Back then, travelling meant visiting relatives. If it wasn't Bangladesh or India I was travelling to, it was certainly to visit relatives who lived elsewhere in the world. Sometimes we'd be lucky to go somewhere else for a few days before hitting BD, in the past it's been Saudi Arabia or UAE, a country that's en route.

However, after starting Cambridge, it's been really hard to take vacations as a "break". Like a former student once told me, vacations in Cambridge means "to vacate Cambridge", they still expect you to continue working. My 2nd year Director of Studies told me that I could only take Christmas Day off (even if I don't celebrate it). See how seriously they take it? Realistically, that's not going to happen. You catch up on your favourite series, take up a temporary job or SLEEP (finally). For those who can afford it, they travel. I've never considered it before because I rather save up for the big summer freedom, but I need to save up for the places I want to go to. Thailand, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Madagascar, Fiji, Kenya.

This year, I'm doing things differently. While I've opted for Asia, a few of my friends have opted to travel closer and know the rest of Europe pretty well. Some of them prefer to take city breaks for a few days whereas I prefer to travel all over a country over weeks. We've enjoyed the way we've done it so far but I want to see why they enjoy their city breaks, what's the pull with Europe?

Initially our plan was to go to Dublin, Ireland. It's close-by and more affordable in the short term (I'm still saving up for summer!). But then someone suggested that Prague would be a better Christmas time destination. I'll be honest, if any European city (other than the mediterranean countries) interest me, it's Prague and that's because of all the hype behind it. One of my friend said it's the most beautiful city in the world... although she's not been there. Another couple I know said they loved their time there, not only do they want to go back but they prefer it to Paris.

So, I want to go to Prague to see what the hype is all amount. I know it's not the best reason to go travelling (I've always had a natural pull to the countries I've travelled to independently) but this is an experiment. I want to know if I'll enjoy this short break, will I feel satisfied even though I'm only scratching the surface of a country? Is Prague that beautiful, a word that people constantly associate with the city? I'll find out in December!

Sunday, 15 September 2013


I turned 22 on the last day of my travels. It should have been a sad day but I had a permanent grin on my face. The fact that I was going to be flying away the next day didn't touch my thoughts. For the last two months I'd been on non stop adventure and I was ending it on a bang. I've anticipating this trip for a whole year, planning it whenever I could before the exams hit and it turned out more than what I hoped for. I was incredibly happy.
The start of the day was the best part! One thing that I learnt about myself this summer is that I love animals. It started with when I first came across the cheeky macaques in Nepal but it peaked the moment I saw the semi wild orangutans. I loved watching out for Proboscis monkeys in Borneo and when I heard I could have breakfast "in the jungle" with Orangutans at Singapore Zoo. We booked it for my birthday assuming that it sells out quickly (it didn't), which meant we reserved the best seat next to the orangutans. I didn't move my eyes away from them, in fact, I didn't have breakfast (which was excellent, by the way) until they had to leave. I love orangutans! I had to make sure we came back for their feeding time...
I actually heard a lot of raves about Singapore Zoo but I never prioritized it prior to the trip. Now, I've joined that crowd and if you're going to Singapore, DO NOT GIVE IT A MISS! Imagine running to through the Zoo because you're late for your breakfast with the man of the wild, but hey, something swings across your path. Wait, is that a... Gibbon? Yes people, that's how open singapore zoo is! Orangutans playing freely in a treehouse, flying foxes dodging your head and elephants walking on the same path as you as they go to their show. Don't worry, the zoo is planned in such a way so that the potentially dangerous animals cannot leap out at you. It's the best compromise between an animal's well being and your enjoyment.
We made sure to see every part, sit in a few shows and take advantage of the La Sadina (lomo camera) that we hired. I advise people to make as much as the morning or evening as possible. It gets pretty hot during the afternoon and some of the animals take this as a chance to have a snooze (we ended up not seeing the Kangaroos in action). I didn't want to leave. I just wanted to sit and watch the Orangutans play. Alas, we had to back to give back the camera!
You cannot leave Singapore without being taken in awe by its beautiful skyline. Next on the itinerary, after a hearty Italian meal, was the Singapore iFlyer.
Walking along the Helix bridge, you get an amazing view of the city along the river. It's so bright, so perfect, I didn't want to leave. We decided to have a little peek at the Mariana Hotels, but it turned out to be Ladies' Night at their bar, Ku De Ta. What a way to end the night than to dance away to "What Makes You Beautiful" in your last night in Singapore.. (:

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Meeting the man of the wild

The storm is following us everywhere we go, it seems. In Langkawi, it's early monsoon season so it made sense for the night to be filled with heavy rain and the mornings to be beautifully dewy. However in the Perhentians, when we saw the dark stormy clouds lighting up the night sky every minute in the west, we thought we were in the comfort of the high season and that the storm would stay over mainland. Within a few hours, we felt the cool wind and the waves get louder and within a few minutes of that, we were all running indoors and barricading our doors with towels. It wasn't until this Saturday in the early hours that I was convinced the storm was stalking us as it refused to let me sleep in Borneo with its thunderous banging.

Of all days, it was probably one of the worst to keep us awake. I had to be up early, at 6am at least because we had to catch a 7.15 am bus. We were on our way to Semenggoh to see the orangutans! Definitely had a big day ahead of us and we needed to wake up early because the next bus would have been too late. The continuing rain and the gloomy skies didn't help us keep up with the day either, but something did brighten our mood: it was the day before independence day and schools were blasting our national songs as children came in their traditional clothes. They were in a cheerful mood and they put us in a cheerful mood too as they waved and said hello to us. Patriotism looks good on Malaysia.

Semenggoh is one of Borneo's orangutan sanctuaries, though not as famous as Sepilok. It is home to 27 semi wild orangutans, all of which have been rescued, named and let to roam as freely as they can be under human care. The reserve is huge and hence it's hard to spot the orangutans unless you come during the feeding times where the orangutans come for their twice-daily dose of bananas.

It was an hour journey to the reserve the the rain only seemed to get heavier. I tried not to think of the implications, "I will see an orangutan today!" I thought. There was a quick talk before the feeding, telling us a little about the orangutans and how to behave. Surprisingly, the rain didn't put off the tourists and there was a big group of us even though we were only likely to see a few orangutans (they don't like to move when they are wet because their fur is heavier). We walked to the main feeding station and it didn't take long before we saw trees swaying in the distance. Only minutes later did we spot a bundle of orange fur jumping across the trees. It was a young orangutan but in the eyes of the tourists, he was a rock star, a celebrity and us tourists were comparable to the paparazzi as we shamelessly snapped away. He approached our guide and accepted a banana before climbing back up to eat from a distance. I was happy to see one orangutan, I was already in awe of how they move when we saw a mother orangutan arrive with her baby. Then another mother & baby came and another! I can't describe how taken I was with the sight, watching them move and interact. I moved closer to the front. I was soaking in the the rain but I didn't care. The highlight of the experience was watching an orangutan approach the platform of bananas as the guide turned away, put one huge bunch in her mouth, grab another bunch and run (climb) off before the guide could see her. They are so sneaky!! That's what makes them even more adorable.

10 minutes before the feeding session was suppose to end, we had an announcement that the alpha male, 'Ritchie' (I initially heard Rishi and couldn't help but laugh), was in the other feeding station. The whole crowd started to migrate to the other end of the trail but they weren't moving fast enough. I snaked my way through, it wasn't hard to spot the huge intimidating mass sitting on the platform and munching away. He moved very little and kept his face straight ahead like he was contemplating. Even as other orangutans tried to climb down near him, he wouldn't let go of the rope. The others kept their distance from him and we could see the power he held over the others. Sitting still but nevertheless, very feared. The orangutans here liked the attention of the crowd and some came close... One was just over my head, dangling upside down. Day made!

The sanctuary also has trails but two of the orangutans (Delima and Ritchie) had attacked people recently, supposedly because they were mistreated in captivity, so we couldn't walk about. Pity, but I will get the chance to see these amazing creatures again soon, I hope.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Second Slice of Paradise

'I'm lucky this place is beautiful or else I would be very scared right now' I thought to myself just before yelling 'Frick meeeee!' as the speed boat was forced to make a huge jump by the waves. We were on our way to Pulau Perhentian Kecil's Long Beach from P.P Besar and though the water taxi made me hold on to James' hand tightly, I was still in awe to how beautiful the Perhentians Islands were.
James was clearly enjoying the ride more than I was.
Our trip to the islands was probably the most uncomfortable yet. We were suppose to make our way independently there by taking a coach to Kota Bharu, potentially staying a night there before taking a ferry from Kuala Besut. Our hostel offered to get an overnight coach that goes straight to K.Besut but it cost about 30 RM (£6) more. We decided to go for it just for the convenience. Overnight coaches, I think sound ideal because its like being productive in your sleep. You save a nights worth of accommodation cost, save the day time just for sight seeing and the coaches in Malaysia have huge reclining chairs that are super comfortable. Unfortunately, neither of us could sleep well especially because it was SO COLD! I expected a chilly journey. Thailand's overnight trains and the previous coaches of Malaysia are generous with their use of AC so I packed a cardigan and shawl to fight the cold. Alas, it was a painful war and the chill kept waking me up every time my makeshift blanket fell. Imagine how tired and zombie like we were when we arrives at the ferry at 6am waiting for the 7am boat.
Arriving to a scene like this makes any uncomfortable overnight journeys worth it.
However, watching the sunrise out at the sea, with the speed boat tilted up and the sun at the tip, it looked like we were jetting off to the sun. It was a glorious sight to wake us up just before we saw how clear the water was and how lush the islands were. We thought we were in paradise in Langkawi but that was until we saw real paradise in the Perhentians.
Looks so quiet and serene. You wouldn't expect monster sized cockroaches and monitor lizards lurking around the corner.
The islands have pockets of beaches around it separated by rocks. Each beach has its own vibe. We're at Long beach right now, which reminds me of the Thai Island beaches (especially Koh Phi Phi) since it looks like it's aimed for backpackers and younger travellers. I prefer our beach, Taluk Dalam, because it's calmer (more family friendly and full of hammocks). The beaches are thin and lined with resorts and restaurants so it looks more developed than it actually is but there are more isolated beaches like Love beach and Taluk Karma, which we may go and explore.
Love beach!

We've moved to main beach, only because we could book 2 nights at each place. I miss Taluk Dalam because the water is easier to enjoy (main beach has more corals and rocks) but our room with Suhila Palace is much nicer (cleaner bathroom, comfy bed)* and we're walking distance to Love Beach, which is more isolated, calm and beautiful especially with the sight of the giant granite rock falls.

I had a go at snorkelling today... Well, an attempt. Most of you know I can't swim, it's one of the many life skills I lack. Before you ask why I haven't learnt, I did twice. The first time I stopped learning because I remember not having a good time at the pool since I couldn't speak English properly (hence I couldn't make friends) so I got discouraged easily and convinced my mom to stop making me attend as soon as I could. The second time was compulsory with school but as soon as I could swim a metre, the lessons finished. I remembered today why I hated my swimming lessons so much, it's the sensation of floating scares me. I had put on my (sexy) lifejacket and James showed me how to use my snorkel, all ready to peak at the corals and fishes underwater but as soon as I floated and started to move with the sea, I started to freak out. It took me a while to get use to it but I did get there (with James as my life guard) and what I saw was exciting for me (fishies and corals!) so its something I will try again.

The Perhentian Islands is probably one of the most beautiful places on earth. The sea is the most beautiful shade of blue I have ever seen, the landscape is excitingly dramatic and there is much natural wildlife around (we could see schools of fishes jumping while we relaxed on the beach). Of all the beaches I've been to, the Perhentians have some of my favourites.

*James preferred our second place because of his two day battle with a cockroach in our Flora Bay accommodation as well as the fact that one of the staff of Suhila Palace had a crush on him.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Oh Penang, must I leave you?

Right now, as I start writing this post on my phone, I'm being blasted with heat from a char koay toew stall waiting for James to come back with some Chicken satay to refuel after a day of temples, canopy walks and (successful) shopping. I have a very difficult choice to make: do I extend my stay in Penang or do I move on to the east coast?
If you ever consider going to Malaysia or you've spoken to someone who has travelled there, without a doubt I can guarantee to you that you will hear about Penang. I met an Australian woman who didn't seem to have a good time in Malaysia. After her ranting of 5 minutes, I asked her what she thought about Penang: 'Penang's quite cool actually.' I felt challenged; is the place really that great?
IMG_8203 IMG_8174

I have to admit, our first day was probably the lowest point of our trip yet. Long story short, travellers I have spoken to have said I'm too organised, I'm need to learn to go with the flow. So I thought, why not? I knew the hostel areas and it'd an tourist friendly island that expects a lot of travellers. However, we didn't expect ourselves to be in the super peak season causing us to be almost homeless for the night. Luckily we found a room at a budget hotel with very nice staff but a horrible room (when James saw a hole in the wall, the owner replied with "If anything comes out of it, discount"). I'll be going back to the safety and comfort of prebooking a nice, clean place for the night that has been checked out with plenty of reviews.
It hit James first, the realisation that he liked Penang. It happened when we started our Lonely Planet walking tour and we bumped into other backpackers. People are more open, friendlier here. I get more smiles in the streets, our local breakfast joint were eager to chat with us even with the language barrier and there's a really nice touristy vibe with a mix of families and backpackers. On top of that, there is a big food scene here. We tried new hawker stalls everyday, each very impressive in their own way. There's too many things to try in Malaysia and especially in Penang with stalls in hawker areas representing each flavours of the world. Add the fact we ended up in a very nice hotel and you have a done deal.

Like Melaka, Georgetown is a very pretty place due to a combination of eastern and western influences with the pastel Chinese shophouses, the colourful sari shops of Little India and the famous street arts waiting to greet you at certain turns. I love the different cultures intersecting at each junction. The Indian restaurants, Chinese clan houses, European churches. There's also amazing graffiti work which has been commissioned by the council and they can be easily spotted by the groups of camera loving tourists. Penang is a photographer's heaven and there was too much to do within the 3 days we had planned to stay there.
Penang isn't perfect though. Two things bothered me a little. First, the attempt to place as many shopping centres in such a small place. I love shopping but I was tired of seeing malls. We can see new ones being built before the old ones are filled with shops. I think Penang needs to cool it with the building works. Second, the Buddhist temples seem a little on the tacky side. Malaysia is predominantly Muslim but I find it surprising how modest the mosques are, including the national mosque of KL. Buddhism, on the other hand tries very hard to show its presence but its effort did not impress me. The combination of neon lights and the theme park feel of the Burmese temple as well as the overly commercialised Kek Lok Si temple with its overcrowded turtle pond made me feel uncomfortable. We decided not to stay too long at the temples. There was plenty more things to do in Penang to keep us busy.
Turns out, 5 weeks of Malaysia isn't enough. As much as I love it here, its time to move towards the east (after Langkawi) if I want enough time for the beaches and jungles of Malaysia (its been a cultural trip so far). If I come to Penang again, it'll be all about the food! Sadly, it turns out I'm not so adventurous with food so I'm making myself trying something new everyday... Or at least avoiding fried rice. I've tried laksa, chendul (weirdest dessert ever), Philippine fried chicken and looots of satays and different variation with roti canai. That's a great thing about the hawker stalls here, food from all around the world and in a decent portion in case you like it or not. There's just too many things to try and too little time ):
So what do I think of Penang?

Penang is beautiful. Penang is cultural. Penang is amazing.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

To Lah or to not Lah in Melaka

On Wednesday morning, we were faced with a small predicament. James and I both woke up at 10; James was ill and I couldn't fall asleep until 3am. Our plan was to wake up early as we can and leave for Melaka around 9ish ish (after having rotai canai at our favourite local cafe). The town is 2 hour bus journey away and we were planning to see as much of it in one day. Do we still go to Melaka or do we give it a miss? The city wasn't a priority at all (in fact James did ask if we *had* to go) but we didn't really have anything productive planned for KL (we had a great tour saved for tomorrow). However, the place is full of museums, restaurants and sites which meant we needed a whole day. We decided to go for it.

Melaka has undergone many transitions in its history and development which makes it the popular tourist spot it is now. Originally founded by a Sultan, it was invaded by the Portuguese in the 16th century. The Dutch then forced themselves into the town after they successfully destroyed the fort protecting the town and took over. They used Melaka as a port town even when it became too silted up (they just used smaller boats to transport things from the bigger ships). They also had the biggest influence especially in terms of the colonial style architecture that gave Melaka its UNESCO world heritage status. The Brits then took over Malaysia but saw Singapore as a more efficient port town hence why Melaka declined in terms of economic importance.
 Melaka today is a very pretty town. First you are met by the pretty and colourful architecture. The Chinese style against the Dutch. It's not just the buildings though, the trees and flowers are all shaped perfectly. The stadhuys, which is the highlight of Melaka, was being renovated (d'oh) so it was covered up but we could see through the green nets clearly enough. The riversides were lined with decorative lamps that lit up romantically at night. Add in a small windmill and I felt like I was almost transported back to the Netherlands:
'I know what this place reminds me of... Holland!'
'Oh wow Nuz, are you saying a Dutch colony reminds you of... Dutch?'
'That comment sounded smarter in my head...'
We walked down Jonkers Walk, Chinatown which brought in the coastal town feel. Two things I can tell you about Jonker road: the obvious love of durian and too many cute shops. James had to start pulling me down the street (for the latter reason, not because of durians) so that we would have enough time to see everything. Thai clothes store, accessories and handicrafts alternating with durian dessert stores. Plenty of restaurants too! We stopped at Nancy's kitchen for popiah (healthiest spring rolls you can get) and a Chinese lunch.
Melaka has a layer of quirkiness on top of its prettiness. Streets have very cute graffiti, which I think are mainly from the shops to attract customers and Chinatown is lit up by only red lights at night (quite scary if you're on your own). However, the best thing about Melaka is the trishaws. You know the typical rickshaws. Well, trishaws are only for the manliest of all men. Decked out with plastic flowers, soft toys and a roof which may be a butterfly or flower, these things carry you out in style. At night, you don't have to worry about safety because they light up with neon lights so you can be seen miles away. If you are worried that you aren't catching enough attention, they would gladly blast away remixes of Gangam Style, Fly like a G6 or any latest pop tunes.
So I'm glad we went to Melaka in the end. Very beautiful but quirky town!

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Leaving Manasarovar Academy and Nepal

Friday (26th) was my last day of school. How quickly time flies! Maybe the short day times and the busy weekends helped, or maybe the school day goes so quick because lessons are only 40 minutes long (minus the the time the earlier teacher run overruns). Whatever the reason, I genuinely didn't expect this to be over so soon. It hit me really late that I had one week left and I was really busy sorting out my visa during school days that I only got to tell my kids on the penultimate day that I was leaving them. I hated that, just telling them so suddenly.
What did I spent the last day doing? I spent a helluva lot of time writing my signature, which probably changed at least 20 times. I wrote my full name and email address on the board but the kids insisted on having my autograph in their books and then to rewrite my name and email again. For the first time I regretted having a long email address but I didn't want any kid to feel left out. Some kids asked for my password, which I initially thought was a mistranslation but they said they wanted it so they can check my emails... The cheeky kids also tried to ask for my number too!
I also realised I didn't take advantage of my camera properly. I took photos of the little kids but I didn't take good photos of my friends or me with the kids. So maybe this was very trusting of me but I taught some of my kids how to use an canon 1100D, which many of them unsurprisingly was eager to use. It was cute seeing the kids trying to use the functions properly and I was proud to see they took the responsibility seriously (didn't get a heart attack once that a kid was going to drop it or ruin my lens). It's hard to photograph kids but they did a very good job! Within minutes, they were teaching each other how to use the separate functions. Pretty impressive kids they were.

I went back to school on Monday. My flight wasn't until 4pm and I wanted to spend my last few hours at my most favourite place in Nepal (Manasarovar Academy if you haven't guessed). I went to take some more photos and to say goodbye properly. The boys, forever full of (cheeky) requests asked me to kiss them on the cheek and I thought 'why not?' and gave one boy a kiss on the cheek. It didn't take long before a crowd of eager boys formed around me and a second crowd of boys formed who were pretending to faint after I kissed them on the cheeks and sighing 'Aye hai'. Throughout the day, I kept getting requests for kisses. I've never been this popular with the boys before! One boy sneakily stole a (wet) kiss on the lips. Regrettably my response was to yell out 'Ah frick!' I hope I didn't break his heart!
Never been so popular with boys before!

The kids are sweet and I didn't expect much but I wanted to give them all hugs. I received cards, origami and letters as well as a book and a pen. The hand made cards are beautiful. Peanut cookies a student made me were a life saver for my trip to Kolkata. Two students even honoured me with a khada scarf!

As for Miss Tsultrim and Bijaya, I love them so much. I saw them as family. Miss Tsultrim, very opinionated but charismatic. She can be strict with the children but she'll also make them laugh. Determined to get good education for the children and not settling for less, she's an amazing role model. Miss Bijaya is like the caring mother, in fact she reminded me of my own mom! Also had genuine concern and put others first. She use to teach before her voice was at risk but that doesn't stop her from working with children. I tried to talk to them as much as I could on the last day but I didn't want to leave. They also honoured me with a khada scarf as well as normal scarf, both which I will treasure forever.
The amazing main staff <3
I do hope that I can visit Manasarovar academy again someday soon.