Alleppey: Kerala, India

Rather than head north from Palolem, up the coast to Margaon train station from where we’d booked our onward journey to Kochi (aka Cochin), we instead took a  taxi south to meet the train at it’s first stop, mainly to give us a couple of extra hours on the beach.  No problem you’d have thought.  And apart from a slight issue with a bridge not wide enough to accommodate the taxi, the alternative route running us worryingly close to the train departure time, the ride down through lush Goan countryside was a relaxed affair.

The same couldn’t be said for the station master at rural Karwar station who, having clocked that we intended to flaunt the rules by departing from a station other than the one specified on our ticket, issued us with dirty look and got straight on the phone to check whether or not our spaces had already been sold on.  The dismissive turn of the head and ticket thrust back across the counter suggested that on this occasion we’d been lucky, so tempted as we were to leave our thanks for this ‘let off’ running down the counter window, we instead beat a hasty retreat to the platform.

Karwar Train Station. Spit Free.

The 13 hour journey was for the first half fun, the second half miserable.  The fun; hanging out of the train door as banana plantations, paddy fields, rivers, and rural scrub-land flashed by, wisps of smoke from smouldering village fires drifting on the warm afternoon breeze into the carriage.  The cups of chai washing down amusingly mouse-shaped crispy snacks, actually large battered chillies.  The miserable: live mice and cockroaches scuttling through the carriage, the gutteral snores of fellow passengers, and patches of sleep barely snatched between wild rocks of the carriage until, at 4am we pulled in to Kochi’s Ernakulam Station.

Mice Shaped Snacks, Kochi Bound Train

Four in the morning isn’t actually as horrendous a time to arrive somewhere new as you may think.  The rickshaw drivers are still waking up, the chai is freshly brewed at stallholders shacks outside the station, and it’s plenty cool enough to walk off ‘carriage ache’ as you head down streets still lit by starlight.

In all honesty, we were on a bit of a smash & grab mission in Alleppey with just two days and nights to get a feel for Kerala’s, and perhaps Southern India’s number one tourist attraction, the 900km’s of backwater canals.  Definitely not our preferred approach, but arriving in town by 7am after an hours bus ride from Kochi at least gave us the most amount of time possible.  Alleppey turned out to be a mid-sized town of around 180,000 people, slung between two arterial canals to the north and south, and the Arabian sea to the west, and fairly stereotypically Indian in it’s choked, fumey, baring-horned social melee kind of way.

Daytime or overnight ‘houseboat’ cruises are most people’s reason for coming to Alleppey, and there are hundreds of boats and nearly as many individuals, lean-to counters, and air conditioned offices there to peddle them.  Not to be put off by the weed choked town canals whose occasional patches of dark water glistened iridescently with a diesel slick, we checked out a couple of thatch roofed houseboats and picked one with the least dubious of environmental credentials; a petrol engine, solar panels, and waste water tanks.  Departing late the following morning for a standard 21-hour overnight trip, we then had the rest of the day to explore.

Despite being somewhat time limited, having walked most of the town, eaten tasty southern Indian dishes in a couple of local joints, and taken a trip out to the beach, we were left with an impression that had we had all the time in the world, we probably wouldn’t have chosen to spend much more in Alleppey.  Probably the highlight, in a strange sort of way was a trip out to the beach, which was uninspiring as beaches go (straight, fairly featureless, and filthy) but being a Sunday it was absolutely packed with local families and groups of lads strutting up and down.  In contrast to Goa, everyone on the beach was pretty much fully clothed, and even the lads messing around where the surf crashed heavily on the beach did so in jeans and t-shirts.  The scene became somewhat more surreal as a group of some 20 fully habited nuns waded into the shallows, giggling and rushing down to meet the breakwater as the backwash snatched flip-flops from their feet.  We of course were the subject of much hilarity and oh-so-subtle snatched photographs as we flaunted our shins and shoulders strolling along the beach.

Wading Nuns. Alleppey Beach, Kerala

Before departing on our houseboat cruise for two, there was of course one final important errand to run, that of equipping ourselves with sufficient beer for the perilous journey.  This seemingly simple errand turned into something of a mission, highlighting the unfamiliar relationship that India (or at least everywhere except Goa that we’ve been so far) has with alcohol.  Our guest-house owner told us which direction to walk and when to ask for the “Beverage Corporation”.  As it turned out, at the given point we didn’t even have to ask, we were just waved towards a seedy looking alley at the end of which was a rusty sign declaring the “Injurious” nature of alcohol to health, above a series of grilled metal traps much like turnstiles at rougher dog tracks back home.  Inviting.

Judging by the steady stream of somewhat tottery, glazed-eyed punters passing through the turnstiles despite the early hour (10.00 am) and despite the injurious nature of the wares, business was booming.  Sadly for us they were beer-less (selling hard liquor only) so we headed instead to a local hotel bar where trade in the short stuff was equally swift, the environment almost as seedy, but this time beer was very much there so we went (clinking) on our way.

Beverage Corporation, Alleppey

And so to the houseboat, the concept of which (pay around £60, get a boat for two, 3 meals, and 3 crew for 21 hours) felt at once luxurious, extravagant, and a little uncomfortable.  We’re not really accustomed to being outnumbered by ‘crew’, and paying (from our perspective at least) so little for so much was off putting at least.  Relative to anything else we’ve done in India it was a small fortune however, so with that in mind we owed it to ourselves to give it a good crack.

Sipping on a welcome drink of lime and rose flavoured water while our contraband was taken off to the cool box, we soon relaxed in to the sedate pace as we gently pushed in to the first of the 900 kilometres of canals.  Being on a smaller vessel we were promised that we’d be able to cruise (naturally enough) through smaller canals not accessible by some of the much larger boats on the water.  First though we had the ‘option’ of stopping at a handily placed stall selling enormous freshwater prawns (“much tasty”) at inflated prices.  Once you’re staring into a pair of those beady eyes (the prawns, not the stall holder) you can’t really say no, so we bought a couple and jumped back on the boat.

Freshwater Prawns.  "Much Tasty".

Freshwater Prawns. “Much Tasty”.

The whole experience really was beautifully sedate.  Lying on the front of the boat with a book as leaning palms perched on slivers of slightly raised ground which separate the waterways slip by…a complete antidote to the hectic pace and aural chaos of urban India.  We were also significantly over catered for by the friendly crew, who whipped up an embarrassment of fresh fish, chicken, and veg curry dishes for both lunch and dinner.

Tasty Treats on Board the Houseboat, Keralan Backwaters

Tasty Treats on Board the Houseboat, Keralan Backwaters

It took all our energy just to roll ourselves off the deck and into the warm waters of our lakeside evening resting place, thinking not of the freshwater claws which may have lurked beneath.  Probably the only down side of the experience was the cramped and sweaty night sleep enshrouded within a mosquito net in our cabin, although this did offer an added incentive to rise early to see the morning mists over the still water, broken only by the occasional tail-slap of a surfacing fish.

Cruising the backwaters, Kerala (our boat was smaller than this one)

Cruising the backwaters, Kerala (our boat was smaller than this one)

More cruisin'

More cruisin’

We arrived back into Alleppey town just after 9am, and with the heat and noise building, we jumped pretty much straight on to the first bus heading north to spend some proper time back in Kochi.  The backwater houseboat experience definitely comes recommended (although 1 day / night is probably enough), and our time in Alleppey certainly provided us a few new insights into the Indian way of life, but if you come just remember, the vibe is a long way from Venice…

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Palolem: Goa, India

So it feels like we’ve cheated.  Slipped off the wagon.  Turned to the tourist dark side, and started doing things the easy way.  The throw money at the problem way.  The way where you arrive by way of slightly battered taxi rather than absolutely knackered public bus, earmarking you immediately as a likely quick quid.  As if our milky white complexions weren’t enough.

Clichéd as it may sound, I think there’s a tangible difference between approaching foreign travel as a ‘tourist’ and as a ‘traveller’, and I’m not referring to the ratio of bongs hit, dreadlocks matted, or chakras unblocked.  For us it’s much more about trying (as much as possible) not to stand out as a tourist, to try to meet local people on their terms; travel how they travel, eat where they eat, drink chai from dubiously clean metal cups, sat on filthy plastic seats to the side of the road.  In so doing we’re far more likely to the have those chance encounters with gap-toothed strangers, with mime the only common language, the memory of which will endure far longer than that time you flashed a thousand Rupee note and got whisked straight to the front of the taxi queue.

That said, as the 06.30 from Hospet Junction rolled into Goa’s Margao station at four in the afternoon, with sundown 2 hours away, 45km’s to cover to reach Palolem, and a room still to find for that night, a rickshaw-bus-rickshaw-walk combo for some reason just didn’t appeal…taxi!!  Fuck it were on holiday, don’t you judge us!

From an open train door we chugged west to leave Karnataka state, and got our first taste of Goa’s luscious green hills, winding rivers, cascading waterfalls, and vistas out to where the green met blue, the sea appearing to stretch infinitely upwards as it merged into a cloudless sky.  Apart from the transition from Hampi’s orange hues to Goa’s greens, what stood out most as our taxi drove, showing as ever only the loosest of affiliations to the left hand side of the road, was the return of alcohol to the scene.  In a big way.  In fact, judging from the painted sides of almost every building, wall, or billboard we passed, there are but three products to buy in Goa: Kingfisher Beer, Antiquity Whisky, and (not for drinking) Alcon Cement.

Train door view, Karnataka into Goa

Palolem is a three street village strung along a wide curving beach, 40 or so kilometres from Goa’s southern boarder with Karnataka.  I’m not going to dress it up, we went there for three days of ‘beach’, and that’s exactly what we got.  No cultural exploration, no greater insight into India gleaned, just 3 days of waking up, eating, reading, swimming, and trying our damnedest to avoid turning our milky complexions the colour of the fresh shellfish barbecued nightly up and down the beach.

Palolem’s long, palm fringed beach is without doubt, lovely.  There are a couple of islands just off the shore to give the horizon a bit of interest, the pale golden sand is super fine, the local fishing / dolphin spotting boats are brightly painted, and strung between the palm trees at the top of the beach are tasteful huts and restaurants serving cold Kingfishers, hot curry, and (attempting) the usual gamut of western food styles.  But none of these really set Palolem’s beach apart from the many others we’ve seen around the World, which arguably have better views, finer, whiter sand, clearer water, or fewer tourists.  What we did get at Palolem beach (and what makes it distinct from any other beach we’ve visited) is our first taste of Indian beach life…

Palolem Beach, Goa

Stepping over a cowpat to get a closer look at several long-horned cows reclining on the sand was our first clue (were one were needed) that this was a different breed of beach to those we’ve seen before.  Animals here are as welcome as anyone else, and a fair number of cows and dogs would I’m sure class themselves as semi-permanent  residents.  People-watching of locals and holidaying Indians was a definite highlight for us…men strolling the sand in black leather shoes, trousers (slightly flared) and large collared shirts would pause to survey the scene, before stripping down to some seriously old school pants in which they’d go for a swim.  Ladies in sari’s stroll too, parallel to the water at first, before wading in fully clothed to bob around in the gentle swell.  One lunchtime the local school emptied on the beach, the whole class hurling themselves clothed once again into the waves before retreating back up the sand,  presumably back into afternoon lessons.  On a turning tide one afternoon we saw a handful of guys leaning heavily against a rope running down into the sea, straining for well over an hour until finally the large net placed way out in the bay earlier that day, finally approached the shore.  With it grew a crowd of locals and tourists, there to help land, sort, and divide up the haul while kites wheeled above making darting dives to pick up any loose fish.  Where else can you see all this, while cricket is played up and down the beach?

Hauling Nets, Palolem Beach, Goa

The Payload

And should all of the above get boring,there’s always going for a stroll yourself, see how many times you get directly (or covertly) ‘papped’ by locals keen to have a snap.  The mind boggles as to how many photos of us there must be on Indian phones and compact cameras.  For extra points it’s always fun to see if you can covertly ‘pap back’…

A return ‘pap’…10 points!

Palolem’s a cool place to while away a few days.  It’s tourist (and traveller) friendly, the boat and taxi touts are only half-heartedly persistent, pealing away from you with a smile once you’ve said “no thanks” a couple of times, and with all the Indiana to observe, there’s plenty to entertain should you have picked a duff book.  Recommended.

Now off (by taxi, naturally) to board the train south, heading to our third Indian State in as many days, Kerala…

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Hampi, Karnataka State, India

Having recently posted about the highs and lows of Indian train travel (overwhelmingly biased in favour of highs), there were wry smiles as we skirted the prostrate bodies in Bangalore’s Station entrance hall, shoved through the scrum of people to check our departure time at the ticket desk, gagged at the stench of the train’s toilets as we walked the platform to find our carriage (identified by a sheet of paper with our names on pasted roughly to the carriage side), and settled down for the 9 hour overnight ride to Hospet.

Already fairly wiped by an overnight flight from the UK the previous day (our first on the massive A380), tiredness overwhelmed us and soon 06.30 alarms were vibrating to wake us for our approaching stop.  Earplugs, a necessity to block out track and fellow passenger noise to stand any chance of sleep on Indian trains, also render subtle chimes useless.  Rolling over and squinting bleary-eyed through the window, red-brown earth glowed orange in the early morning sun as rural India began swinging into action, and previously wry smiles turn upwards into broad grins.  Man it’s great to be back.

Apart from a quick chai stop outside the station we didn’t linger long in Hospet, jumping into a rickshaw across town to the bus station and straight onto a Hampi bound bus.  With much of our (lamentably short) 2 week trip planned for the coast, we’d decided on Hampi as  somewhere inland, rural, and (hopefully) cultural to spend our first few days reacquainting ourselves with all things India.  The major cultural draw of Hampi is an abundance of ornately carved 14th Century stone temples within and around the bazaar, in which a local population of some half a million once lived, traded, or prayed.  Today a World Heritage site, Hampi retains much religious significance and as such is both alcohol and meat free…no real concern for us as this was largely our experience of Northern India last time we were here, and in any case our bodies would probably thank us for the break.

Within half an hour of leaving Hospet the other-worldly geology of this part of India also became clear to see.  The rock here is a sandy coloured granite, and huge rounded-edged boulders litter a rolling landscape green with palms and banana plantations, scattered like fistful’s of giant marbles thrown down from above.  Here and there the marbles are piled atop one another, balanced seemingly precariously into towering hills which, as we approached Hampi village, provided a 360 degree panorama of rising green and orange against a pale blue sky.  Gears crunching as the bus lurched on through the boulder-field, grinding up-and-over a hill until the 50m tall Virupakasha tower, centrepiece of the temple complex around which Hampi Bazaar’s hundred or so buildings cluster, swung into view.

Boulders and Temples, Hampi

The final few hundred meters to Hampi Bazaar from the bus station we covered on foot, shrugging off the rickshaw owners offering to drive us…”really?!”.  While our attention on the approach was definitely focussed on the incredible main structure jutting up into the sky, we couldn’t help but notice evidence of the apparently long running battle between temple conservationists and local people whose homes and businesses have been built cheek by jowl to the temple complex.  Piles of rubble strongly suggested that those businesses in closest proximity had lost their battle, and while we’re definitely not close enough to offer opinion on the rights or wrongs of this, viewed from certain angles what’s left does look a bit of a mess at the moment.  Here’s hoping it’s a temporary measure.

Hampi Resettlement

However despite this, and the undeniable orientation towards tourism that can lead places like this to be described as a “traveller ghetto”, Hampi Bazaar definitely has a nice vibe to it.  The people are friendly, the streets are the usual bustle of people and animals, and (perhaps perversely) the reliance on tourism means that the persistence of the locals to part you from your rupee is actually less intense than elsewhere in India.  What really sets the vibe though is Hampi’s setting, which really does put it apart from anywhere else we’ve seen.

Nestled amongst the boulders, Hampi Bazaar

After checking in to one of the many guest houses in the Bazaar (they’re pretty much all guest-houses here) we heeded the notice painted on the wall and proceeded to register our presence in Hampi with the Police station.  This meant strolling down the 500 or so metre avenue of stone columns running away from the Virupakasha temple, into which the police station is built.  Here they were friendly enough, but somewhat distracted by the India vs. England test match flickering across an old telly in the corner…clearly crime solving (if there’s any to solve in Hampi) plays second fiddle to cricket.

Helpful advice, or “how to” guide for circumnavigating an Alcohol free town?

Of the three very chilled days we spent wandering in and around Hampi, probably the highlight (and something we repeated a number of times at dawn and dusk) was the half hour or so boulder scramble to the summit of Matanga Hill.  Only from here could the full majesty of Hampi and the surrounding area be appreciated, and the scale and situation of the numerous temple complexes (most notably the grand Vitthala temple) be properly taken in, all while bathed in the golden hues of a rising or setting sun.  Only the resident troupe of monkeys detracted from these otherwise serene moments, stalking and snatching anything left unguarded.  On one occasion our upwards scramble took place as a religious procession worked its way through the Bazaar, the drumming and chanting of which reverberated around Hampi’s boulder amphitheatre as we climbed.

View from the top…even better than it looks

As Hampi Bazaar itself can be fully explored inside half an hour or so, most of our time in Hampi was spend getting to and walking around the numerous temple complexes which exist within a few kilometres of the Bazaar.  As mentioned, Vitthala temple was stand out in terms of its scale and the intricacy of its carved columns depicting (amongst other things) Vishnu in his various reincarnations, and a selection of Indian, Mongul, and Chinese faces representing the varied cultural and trade influences on this part of India.  Vitthala also features ‘musical pillars’, slender columns of granite carved until each’s pitch matched the classic doe-ray-me-far-so-la-tee-doe scale, and then used to play music for the rulers wives to dance to.  Collectively the sounds from these pillars, amplified by the surrounding boulders, would have rung out for over a kilometre…an impressive sound system for a gaff over 500 years old.

Musical Pillars at Vitthala Temple, Hampi

Probably my personal favourite though was Achyutaraya temple, visited one morning after once again climbing down from on high.  Although nowhere near as architecturally impressive as Vitthala, the early hour (7.30am) meant that we wandered the huge complex completely alone apart from a solitary grazing cow, while a soundtrack of distant drums, cawing green parrots, cooing pink doves, and squeaking furry rodents played in the background.  Awesome.

Our only company at Achyutaraya temple

Our impression of Hampi has steadily grown over the few days we’ve been here.  At first I think that despite the incredible setting and history, the Hampi of today felt a little too geared to the tourist contingent, less ‘real’ than places we’ve been elsewhere in India.  Although this may be true, we’ve definitely been seduced by the gentle rhythm of life here and, as with many places, way more time than we have available would be required to properly scratch beneath the tourist veneer.  What we have seen thought has been a great first port of call on our return trip to India, not perhaps as visceral as our first proper destination the last time we were here (the astounding Varanasi) but truly memorable in it’s own way.

We look forward to a equally tiny slice of Southern Goa, which is where we head next…

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Indian Train Travel

There were, there still are, a whole heap of posts I want to write about the minutiae of our 2011 RTW, but of them all, Indian train travel sits right atop the pile.  Sadly life’s tracks tend to keep itinerant minds metaphorically forward facing on steely rails, but with the knowledge of a return trip to mother India comes a renewed enthusiasm to finish a post that’s seen more starts and stops than the most ‘stoppy’ of Indian train routes.  The previous sentence had “a return trip to mother India next month”, and then “in two weeks” and now we’re in Dubai airport with India just a matter of hours away, so without further prevarication, it’s all aboard please, as this post is about to depart…

All Aboard!

Before we leave let me first make clear that my locomotive leanings come not from any prior tendency to ‘spot’, but from the fact that travelling by train in India is just such a fantastic experience, neatly encapsulating everything we’ve found both mind bending and buttock clenching about the whole Indian experience.

The practical reasons for travelling by train in India are straight forward.  It’s claimed the greatest legacy of the British Raj was the rail network it left behind, and in terms of coverage there are very few areas of the country that its tentacles fail to reach.  As such the trains, used by over 20 million people daily, serve as the primary means of transport for the nation, and offer visitors choosing to join the masses the opportunity to connect to the country and its people like nothing else.

It is also ridiculously good value…many things in India are cheap for the foreign tourist, but train travel spectacularly so.  Our most expensive journey in 2011, first class in private, air-conditioned cabin  from the deserts of Jaisalmer to the chaos of Delhi20 hours and 900 km’s apart, cost less than £30.  The 40-odd hours of train travel that we have booked for our current trip totted up to under a hundred quid.  Take that British Rail.

But what makes travelling by railway in India such an unmissable experience, is less the practicality or cost, and more the heady combination of sights, smells, sounds and tastes offered up to the casual commuter, the experiential equivalent of the golden pakoras served in squares of Hindi-print paper at platforms up and down the country. 

Station-side Pakora & Samosa in print

Owing to unfavourable schedules or unavoidable delays, one of the great things about travelling by train in India (in my opinion at least) is the opportunity to see a side of India well away from rush-hour clamour and tourist scrum, best observed at obscure times of day or night.  Apart from a few dark, solitary hours in the very early morning, India invariably has something or someone of interest around the corner, sometimes snoozing under a heavy blanket but always ready to stir at the sound of shuffling, backpack-laden feet.

Although painful in prospect, my personal favourite are super-early morning departures, when with dawn still a twinkle in her night-father’s eye you slip out of the hotel to roam in search of rickshaws, drifting past dark figures huddled around acrid smoky fires of twigs and rubber, which sting eyes but warm shins.  Squinting through patches of cool 4am mist you’ll find a waiting rickshaw, where after a sleepy headed haggle you’ll be station bound, zigzagging between potholes and raggedy-breath’d men pushing hand-carts piled high with scavenged plastic bottles.  Cracking start to the day!

The tempo gets upped as you near the station, particularly in cities where the action continues right around the clock. They’re usually surrounded by satellite rings of rickshaws, taxi’s, and buses, whose  respective owners all try to hustle you on board.  Once reached, Station entrance hall’s are seldom less shambolic or overrun than their exterior, often featuring industrial looking luggage scanning machines (usually ignored) and multiple ‘queues’, each with its own scrum of pushers-in, flattened cheeks and raised voices leaving greasy, spittle flecked streaks on the glass.  But provided you’ve pre-booked your ticket (I recommend the excellent Cleartrip rather than the impenetrable government website), this is all just japes, there to be enjoyed as you pick your way through sprawling bodies of people and animals which lie scattered across entrance hall and platform alike.

One at a time please, wait your tur..oh, ok then.

And now you’re at the heart of things, where the endless to-ings and fro-ings of people and animals offer fascinating viewing for those with time to observe.  Which is lucky, because time to observe you most certainly will have.  To be fair, of the many trains we caught, the majority departed within an hour of their allotted time, and only a couple passed the ‘5 hours delayed’ mark.  We did however hear one announcement stating “the so-and-so from somewhere-to-somewhere-else is running approximately thirty-four hours late…we do sincerely apologise for any inconvenience”.  Inconvenience?!  Superbly understated.  And while that was certainly the most extreme case of inconvenience encountered, it was usual to offer a ‘thank God that’s not ours’ as we surveyed retro style arrival or departure boards where 12+ hour delayed trains flick-flacked across the display.

But with so much going on to keep you entertained, it seems churlish to complain.  There are none of your sterile, grey, eyes-to-the-ground passive-aggressive overtones typical of British railways in India.  No Sir.  Indian train stations are buzzing hives of activity.  I’ve mentioned the sprawling crowds in passing, but to elaborate, this is sprawling with real intent…families resting at ease, reclining across piled luggage and blankets, cracking open silvery tiffin boxes of curry and crispy fried snacks to keep the wolves at bay while waiting to pile in to the ‘may-never-turn-up’ to ‘who-know’s-where’.

Down on the tracks there are frequently as many people as on the platform.  Men and women, old and young, all scrambling down, hopping across, and heaving themselves up the other side with help from a friendly hand and a handily positioned half breeze-block.  It’s not that there aren’t bridges, it’s just seems that the masses prefer to roll ‘as the crow flies’.  And why the hell not.

One particularly memorable piece of station entertainment was served up while waiting for the 5 hour delayed 05.10 from Agra to Jaipur.  Heating chilled cores with tiny paper cups of super sweet chai as the sun rose, we watched  the hubbub of stall holders, pakora sellers, beggars, passengers, spitters, and smokers bumping and jostling around us.  High above the melee a resident troupe of monkeys scampered across the station roof, pausing to survey the crowd below, then sliding down pipes to platform level to quick-as-a-flash swipe a momentarily unguarded picnic.  Brilliant.  Certainly beat watching pigeons peck Cornish Pasty flakes from platform 11 at Kings Cross let me tell you.

And so to the train itself as, well over 1,000 words deep, it finally rolls into platform three…I hope you’ve got far enough through to join us on board.  Scrambling on you pass the toilets on the way in (as if you couldn’t smell them ten feet away) so we may as well deal with the down-side first, they’re horrible.  They’re horrible at the first stop of the journey, an empty train ‘fresh’ to work, and trust me they only go down hill from there.  Get in early and get out quick is my advice, and for those looking to avoid squatting over a hole in a swaying cubicle where you’ll desperately try to avoid dabbing a supporting hand on the floor (or wall for that matter), try the other end of the carriage as there’s usually a western style sit-on alternative for the less squat-sure.

The sanitary situation covered, it’s back to the the good stuff.  As mentioned right at the start, train travel really does connect you to the country and its people like nothing else.  In most classes you share your seating / sleeping area with a random and (depending on journey length) rotating selection of locals and fellow travellers.  This gives you the chance to share questions, stories (and usually snacks) with the locals, and to pick up hints, tips, and must see’s from an internationally diverse bunch of travellers.  If you travel sleeper class (as we did most of the time) your carriage partners will be predominantly local, which is fantastic as it means you can watch the spectacle of squeezing of more individuals than you’d think possible onto a lower bunk (personal space it appears is overrated), the sharing of bags of crispy goodies, the endless rounds of chai, and the casual throwing of anything and everything out of train windows.

Gazing out of the windows (or even better the open doors at the end of the carriage) is of course the jewel in the crown of train travel, where as choked towns with track side shanty style shacks transition to suburbs, then fields and forests, belching power stations, deserts, villages, and beautiful sunsets, emotions will run from appalled to amazed and everywhere in between.

I can’t wait…

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Koh Lanta, Thailand

Part two of our little Thailand trip, lamentably delayed…

With time on our side we’d have favoured the 12 hour overland route from Bangkok to Krabi province to see a bit of the countryside, but as this time it wasn’t we took the carbon heavy 1-hour option and flew.  Sitting on Thailand’s western (Andaman) coast, Krabi province is a land carpeted in thick jungle with limestone kast formations which sit jagged against the skyline.  Beautiful as the mainland is, over 150 castaway islands languish just off the coast, and while we’d have loved to explore the mainland, island life was calling loud.

Our criteria for island selection was simple enough; relaxed, beautiful, diverse enough to remain interesting for a week, and close enough to the mainland to avoid losing a day to travel at either end of our stay.  Reachable in 2-3 hours by minivan / ferry combo, and close enough to neighbouring islands for us to hop off elsewhere if we wanted, 40 x 5km Koh Lanta seemed a great option.  Its proximity to some of Thailand’s best dive sites also gave us ample opportunity to dust off the diving skills picked up in Utila (Honduras) earlier in the year, and once again frolic amongst fish.

At the mainland car-ferry pier at Ban Hua Hin, fat late-monsoon raindrops rolled off air-conditioned vans to sizzle on hot tarmac, and sweet-smelling corn cobs popped over stallholder’s coals.  With just enough time to munch down a few gilled fishy things at the pier, it was straight onto the boat for the half hour transfer to the island.

Car Ferry to Koh Lanta

Arriving on Lanta island, our first stop was Hat Phra Ae (aka Long Beach) 10kms down the islands western coast, where first impressions were a bit of a let-down to be honest.  Although the coast road is barely 50 metres from the beach, ramshackle breeze block and bamboo buildings almost completely obscure it from view. This is a pity, as once we’d threaded our way through the development to the beach, we were greeted by a sweeping sandy bay and views out over a seascape dotted with the green peaks of other islands.

Thankfully Koh Lanta was to offer much better, and as we rattled south on a tuk tuk, the settlements got smaller, and beach views better until we arrived at Kantiang Bay.  The vibe here was immediately more our bag; a palm fringed beach of fine golden sand, jungle covered headlands framing the bay, and low-level wood and bamboo buildings strung through the trees.

Longtail at Kantiang Bay, Koh Lanta

After dumping our bags in a beach-side guesthouse, we wasted no time before wandering up the road to book a 3 day / 6 dive package with recommended outfit Scubafish.  Our days work done, we got down to alternating between bobbing in crystal water and lounging on the beach…tough gig.

If you’re after a base for diving in the Andaman sea, then you could definitely do worse than Koh Lanta.  Dive shops can be found all along the coast road, and there are certainly enough dive sites to happily see you sinking and rising through clear warm waters  for days on end.  We spent our first two days diving at the site of Ko Haa, a cluster of 6 limestone islands a couple of hours boat ride away from Kantiang bay.  Amongst the limestone towers, numerous underwater channels thread through rocky reef covered in brightly coloured soft coral, swaying to the gentle rhythm of the sea while fish dart and shoal in abundant variety.

Ko Haa dive site

Returning to Koh Lanta after our first days diving, rising wind and choppy waters made the dive crew favour the longer trawl around to the more sheltered eastern side of the island, rather than risk decanting punters into longtail boats for the transfer back to the beach.  This gave us a good chance to take a quick look at Lanta’s quieter side, where attractive 100-year-old, chinese style chop-houses clustered around the old harbour entrance.  Although these days the houses contain mostly tourist nic-nac shops and restaurants , it was nice to get a feel for how the islands settlements looked once upon a time; dark wooden houses sturdy on one side of the street, stilted and rickety over water on the other.

Evening’s in Kantiang are pretty sedate affairs (definitely not a party destination) and most nights we found ourselves inexorably drawn to “Why Not” bar immediately adjacent to our guesthouse.  Here the beer was cold, the local rum (Sang Som) cheap, and all served to the beat of the house band, in residence for an aledged 365 days a year.  The band was surprisingly brilliant, banging out a nightly set of strict rock covering everything from AC/DC to Zeppelin, with the pint-sized vocalist hitting all the notes but little of the pronunciation.

Koh Lanta Old Town

For our third and final day of diving, the boat pointed west, pitching and rolling for 4 hours until we reached the sites of Hin Daeng and Hin Muang, reputedly two of the best sites anywhere in Thailand.  Unlike Koh Haa, there’s very little to see above the water, just a small rocky outcrop, but what it lacks in stature above, it more than makes up for below.

Descending down a bouy-line, the submerged rocky pinnacles of Hin Muang sloped steeply, the bottom some 70 metres below, and invisible until we’d dropped down to around 20 metres.  Although the rocks were largely covered in bright coral and clusters of large fans, it was the huge number and variety of fish that took our breath away.  Everything from tiny little glass-fish, shimmering in great shoals that clung close to the rock, to giant 1.5m long barracuda gliding by just at the point where bright blue dimmed to darker shades of purple.  And everything appeared to be chasing everything else.  The activity was so great, and so quick, we could actually hear the fish slicing through the water, and at times didn’t quite know which direction to turn our boggle eyes first.

The Hin Daeng site, just a hundred or so meters from Hin Muang, offered more of the same…jaw dropping abundance of marine life in all directions, and thankfully no sign of the ‘ripping currents’ that can sometimes render these sites a challenge for even the most experienced diver.  The boat back was filled one filled with contented grins as the sun dipped down towards the horizon.

Evening return to Kantiang Bay, Koh Lanta

And so our final day on Lanta slid forward to meet us.  We spent our last day taking a tuk tuk ride around the parts of the island we hadn’t already seen (via the old town for another quick look) and enjoyed riding through verdant green forest past clusters of wooden huts where chickens pecked and children played in the dirt.

Back at long beach in the north of the island for our final night, we enjoyed a few drinks in a bar run coincidentally by a childhood friend (“you’re on Lanta?..come to my bar!”…the power of facebook) and a last night stroll on the beach where twinkling lanterns drifted up into inky blackness.

Lantens on Long Beach, Koh Lanta

And so 5 hours after embarking on our return leg via bus, ferry, plane, skytrain, and taxi, we found ourselves back on Khao San Road tucking in to Tom Yum soup and yet more chilled Chang.  The perfect end to a great little trip.

And if there was any doubt, in Thailand we were mostly drinking…

Chang...cheers!

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A few days in Bangkok…

The last time I was in Bangkok was 1997, and since then they’ve built a shiny new airport and sky-train, both fairly immediate indications that the Bangkok of today is a far more modern place than hazy recollection and warped memory would suggest.  The lengthy and confusing bus journey to an outlying youth hostel in ’97 was replaced by a quick, easy sky-train and taxi combo.  This saw us slipping past glinting glass and steel tower blocks (apart from the top half of one, 20 odd stories of which was covered in a “Singha Beer partners Manchester United” vinyl) until we reached Khao San road.  Of the much publicised flooding, there was no evidence between the airport and Khao San bar a few sand-bagged shop doorways, although it wouldn’t take too long to begin to see a little more than sand bags.

Some describe Thanon Khao San (Khao San Road) as just another tourist ghetto, with no authenticity and little merit for the arriving visitor, but at least one look is essential in our opinion.  Lined with knock-off DVD sellers, street hawkers, bars, restaurants, and travel agents, it may not be authentic, but then in a 21st Century capital city where even Palaces and Temples have been restored to within an inch of their lives, what is?

View from a bar out onto Khao San Road

What Khao San may lack in authenticity, it certainly makes up for in vibrancy, and unlike other streets in this mold (such as Delhi’s Pahara Ganj) all the selling is done in a fairly half hearted and good natured fashion.  After wandering just far enough from Khao San to slow the pace slightly, we found and checked in to a guesthouse whose rooms struck enough of a balance between cost and cleanliness (unexciting would be a fair description) and hit the streets to get a bit of a feel for the area and find important things like food and beer.

Slightly light headed after a quick Chang in the guest house restaurant (at a pokey 6.4% abv, you know when you’ve had one) we wandered through narrow streets where waiting tuk tuk drivers hung about to offer their services (“ten baht, anywhere, ten baht”…righto), and where skewers of spicy satay chicken smoked and sizzled over hot coals, scents mingling with those of the street to create an aroma that’s unmistakably Thai.  What actually set the smell memory twitching from my first visit to Bangkok was not just the combination of all the street smells; cooking food, motorbike exhaust, incense, and garbage bags gently cooking in the evening heat, but the TCP like disinfectant they use here, rising to the top of the nasal spectrum and setting Eau d’Bankock apart from anywhere else we’ve been in Asia.

Anyone that’s read these posts will know by now that food features high on the agenda for any destination choice, and on any day in fact.  Thailand is no exception, and I’m pleased to report that our first meal was no let-down, the hot, sweet, sour, and salty balance of green curry, massaman curry, and green papaya salad a totally winning combination.

With only two full days in Bangkok before flying south and west of the capital to Krabi, we shook off our Changovers and walked an hour or so through the city, through a park where tamarind pods cracked underfoot, to reach the collection of temples known as Wat Pho.  Ignoring the ‘helpful’ strangers who advised us that the temple was in fact closed, we stepped inside the perimeter walls and began to wander through Buddha lined courtyards, giant stone warriors, and red roofed temple buildings.  While ornately carved and brightly coloured in the Thai tradition, the temples gleamed with fresh paint, gilding, and tiles, their appearance belying their true age.  The highlight of Wat Pho is the famous reclining Buddha…it’s benign and strangely androgynous face propped up on a giant elbow, appearing to contemplate either the meaning of life, or his / her enormous feet and pearl inlaid toes, resting some 46 meters away at the far end of the temple building.

Leaning Buddha, Bangkok

Buddha lined courtyards, Wat Pho, Bangkok

With ambitions of visiting the warren of alleys of Bangkok’s Chinatown, we made our way towards the river to hop on a boat heading south.  Perhaps inevitably it was here we found the first signs of the flooding, where sandbags diverted swiftly flowing river overflow towards drains, and we had to wade out through a foot or so of water to reach the jetty.  Having made the wade at two consecutive piers, we found out that the boat service had actually been suspended for two weeks due to the height and speed of the water.  The stalls clustered around the piers appeared fairly non-plussed about the whole situation however, and seemed to be doing good trade in grilled and fried goods to the local population.  After a spot more wading down riverside streets we decided to call it a day on our sight-seeing attempts, and returned to dry land to head back to the Banglamphu district in which both Khao San road and our guest house was located.

Light wading, central Bangkok

Over a drink that night we met up with an old school friend who currently lives and works in one of Bangkok’s northern suburbs, who confirmed just how severely some parts have been affected.  The first two metres of his apartment block is below water and he’s expecting not to be able to return for at least another 2-3 weeks.  By all accounts the dispossession has been much greater in other areas, both of the city and in northern Thailand.  The nearest thing we came to losing in the water was a flip flop, so we should count ourselves lucky really.

A spot of internet and twitter research that evening showed that the reality in Bangkok right now is that much beyond the CBD and main tourist areas near to Khao San are either flooded or difficult to get to, so the most we mustered for our next day was a walk to see the second giant Buddha, this one a slightly more diminutive but still an impressive 43 metres tall.  Unless I’m greatly mistaken, the temple buildings and marble courtyard surrounding this one weren’t there when I last came, so after admiring its size I took the chance to grumble about how it wasn’t like this when I was a boy.

Standing Buddha, Bangkok

With little appetite to visit the business district, we whiled away the remainder of our time in Bangkok wandering, eating, and just enjoying watching the comings and goings of the streets; the fresh faces of the gap-year first timers, and the deep deep tans, dreadlocks, and tats of the long timers.

The Bangkok of today seems considerably more modern and less crazy than when I was one of the fresh faced first timers, and whether that’s perspective or reality is difficult to say.  Whatever the case, from our limited experience over a couple of days, it’s a fun, relaxed, easy capital city to visit, where the people are friendly, the food great, and just enough of that Asian vibe  (heat, smells, and sights) to keep the relative blandness of some modern cities at bay.  With another swift and easy ride back out to the airport the following morning, it was aurevoir Bangkok hello palm-fringed beaches of the Andaman coastline.

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Itinerant Lee’s Laugh in Face of Foreign Office

So here we go again! It’s goodbye autumnal chills, flat grey skies and dark commutes, hello Asian spices, smiling faces, and tropical beaches. Or so we thought…

As it turns out, we were perhaps a touch optimistic when reading that the Thai monsoon finishes at the end of October and booking our flights for the 1st of November, as the monsoon is still very much making its presence felt in northern and central Thailand. By all accounts large tracts of Bangkok (particularly the western suburbs) are under significant volumes of water (the city’s second airport currently sits under 3 metres), displacing thousands of residents and causing billions of Thai Baht’s worth of damage. While the impact on the city (and more northerly areas of Thailand) is undoubtedly terrible and the numbers of fatalities tragic, our immediate concern was somewhat more selfishly about whether or not to change our internal flights to avoid Bangkok altogether.

After a weekend spent scouring the web for flood updates, and following the helpful tweets of @RichardBarrow (a British ex-pat writing for the Bangkok Post), it looks as though both the international airport and central Bangkok will be largely flood free when we land on Wednesday 2nd. On this basis we’ve decided to ignore Foreign Office advice against all but essential travel (since when is a holiday non-essential anyway?), and we’re sticking to our original plan of a few days in Bangkok and the remaining week or so in Krabi province and nearby islands. It’s not quite as free an agenda as our last trip where we had almost 5 months to play with, but it’s definitely not to be sniffed at. And with the added excitement of python’s cruising floodwaters for tasty foreign flesh, what could possibly go wrong?

Python

We’ll almost certainly be dusting off the blogging hat and digging out the thesaurus while we’re away, so do come back for another slice soon…

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Last stop…New York (on a budget)

And so after nearly 5 months on the road, we prepared to be a part of it, steeled ourselves not to sleep, and stepped with our vagabond shoes towards the final destination of our trip…New York, New York.

Foiling our first night aspirations of making a late night show at East Village Jazz club Blue Note, our flight between Cancun and New York’s La Guardia airport was 3 hours delayed, so we didn’t arrive at our West Village hotel until well after midnight.  Keen not to let the delay completely kibosh our first night of fun, we immediately hit the streets for dinner and drinks New York style…2am beers and burgers at a local bistro bar.

New York hotel rooms are notoriously both expensive and pokey, but the approach at our chosen bolt hole (the excellent Jane Hotel) was to turn pokiness into an artform.  Originally built with rooms styled on a ships cabin, it served as a home-from-home for returning sailors (it once housed Titanic survivors during the American enquiry into the sinking…although personally I’d question the sensitivity of this), the modern refurb retains the 50sq foot nautical style cabins, dressed with portholes and brass fittings.  Fifty square feet by the way is wide enough for a bunk-bed and a door, and no more.  But even with such diminutive dimensions (and for a relatively inexpensive, by Manhattan standards, $120 a night), The Jane still managed to provide us with more luxury that we’d seen in a long while…Egyptian cotton sheet, fantastic pillows without the imprint of the previous occupants head, flat-screen tv’s for each bunk, and comically dressed bellboys to open the front doors.  If you’re interested there are also larger rooms for those on less of a budget…start spreading the news.

The Jane Hotel entrance, West Village, New York

With just 3 days and nights in a city whose sights could surely fill 3 months or more, we elected to restrict our exploration to Manhattan, leaving the 4 remaining boroughs (the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, & Staten Island) for another time.   Rising early with some difficulty after our late night dinner and drinks, we decided that exploration on foot was the order of the day (not least to offset our developing two-burger-a-day habit), stepping out under slightly grey skies through west and central Grenwich village, dipping into SoHo and NoHo, before reaching east village by around mid afternoon.  This area of Manhattan is fantastic to walk around; low-rise leafy neighbourhoods of beautiful brownstone, the skyscrapers of midtown theatre and downtown business districts occasionally glimpsed, iconic tips gleaming in rays of sunshine strong enough to cut through the days cloud.

West Village view, looking north towards the Empire State Building

A potential down side of visiting one of the most expensive cities in the world after nearly 5 months without a pay-day, is that it’s pretty easy to be seduced by any number of expensive sights, all eager to part you from your Benjamins disturbingly quickly.  Thankfully, with the help of the excellent Time Out New York, we found plenty of cheap or free ways to spend our time.

First up on the free tour was the Brooklyn Bridge.  Although partially covered in places for maintenance, it was still a fantastic walk beneath a forest of beefy suspension cables, through which you could watch iconic yellow taxi’s on the road running below the pedestrian walkway, get a great view of Manhattan’s southern skyscrapers, and see up the east side where the city and Hudson river disappeared into hanging cloud.

Walking the Brooklyn Bridge, New York

Down town Manhattan through the wire forest

By late afternoon it was time to head north to the theatre district, fighting through the crowds, flashing neon, and hawking comedy-show touts of Times Square, to join the daily lottery for Book of Mormon tickets, an award winning musical by the creators of South Park.  At the Eugene O’Neill theatre, 2 hours before that evenings show, punters can stick their name on a card and stand in anticipation to see if their card is plucked from the tombola to win the chance to purchase 2 of 20 $30 front-row-centre tickets…less than 10% of their face value had you bought them in the regular way that close to the performance.  As it turned out (on both evenings we tried), this also qualified as free entertainment…we didn’t win any tickets, but the anticipation and general crowd banter was a lot of fun regardless.

Queuing for the ticket lottery, New York

The following day started with another iconic (and free) sight, a trip out on the Staten Island ferry, a New York institution which shuttles an average of 60,000 people per day between the southern tip of Manhattan and Staten Island.  A half hour chugg across the harbour took us close enough to the Statue of Liberty to get a half decent shot (the outbound leg from Manhattan takes you closest), and provided us with more great views of the skyscrapers and bridges of lower Manhattan…all at a leisurely enough pace for us to munch down a breakfast bagel.

Money shot (but for free), Statue of Liberty from Staten Island Ferry

By lunchtime we were waiting in the Sculpture Court at 120 Park Ave, just opposite the entrance to Grand Central Station, for what turned out to be one of our free hightlights of New York, a truely excellent tour of the station and surrounding neighbourhood.  The group of 30 or so waiting punters was led by a home grown local, a retired teacher with a gloriously thick Noo Yoik accent and a clear passion for the history of this part of the city.  True to billing, the tour took us through and around the spectacular Grand Central Station, with our guide giving us a potted history dotted with amusing annecdotes (such as the tale of a hole in the stations arching ceiling, caused by a 6 inch miscalculation when NASA errected a rocket to promote the space programme in the 1950’s) that brought it all to life.  We also nipped into the lobby’s of several nearby towers, including the awesome Chrysler building, to admire the extensive art deco design features.  Highly recommended if you’re in NYC on a Friday, the tour takes place every week at 12.30pm.

Enthusiastic guiding, Grand Central Station tour

A Grand Central Station walkway

Suitably hungry after a couple of hours of walking around Central Station, we dived back in to the lower concourse food court where you can choose to feast at one of 30 or so independent New York based eateries, invited to use the space after it was restored in the 90’s.  One such company is Junior’s, purveyors of the “most fabulous cheesecakes and deserts”.  True to form the plain cheesecake (flavours are for tourists according to our guide) was heart stoppingly spectacular.  Literally.  A slice shared had us reeling as we felt each of the thousand-plus calories plunge into our stomachs.  Eat with caution.

Chrysler Building, New York

After a second unsuccessful but entertaining Book of Mormon lottery, we spent an enjoyable hour or two at the International Centre of Photography featuring an exhibition of the work of Elliot Erwitt….a nice space and some very good photography, but neither as extensive nor as impressive as the Brian Brake exhibition that we saw at Wellington’s Te Papa museum.  While not completely free, the ICP operates a ‘pay what you want’ policy in place of the $12 entrance fee between 6 and 9pm on Fridays.

With our last night in New York, we intended to see just how little sleep the city really got.  We ate late, queued unsuccessfully until midnight for a gig at Blue Note, then bar hopped our way back across Grenwich Village until at 4am one of us fell asleep on the bar, and the other raised a final glass to the city, and admitted defeat.

Major shareholder, sleeping partner

Now if there’s one thing that we can recommend when you’ve had three and a half hours sleep and a hangover waits to jump you just around the corner, it’s paying a sunny early morning visit to the meatpacking district’s High Line.  The High Line began life as a 1st storey railway running through Manhattan’s west side, which in turn became a wild and overgrown urban garden after abandonment once the trains moved underground.  In 1998 though, a stretch of line running northwards almost 20 blocks from W14th street, was reopened and christened the High Line, a beautifully landscaped garden walkway cutting through neighbourhood apartment blocks, and a place where leisurely strolling is very much the order of the day.  Which we did, until post night out morning munchies forced us off the High Line and towards the nearest hot-dawg stand for a dirty New York breakfast.

Walking the High line, New York

More High-Lining, New York

Battling to ignore the after-effects of lack of sleep and last-night excess, we managed to cram quite a lot into our last few hours; a quick dip into Central Park, a walk out to Katz Deli for a monstrous pastrami on rye (one could feed a small family, we made the mistake of one each), and finally a waddle around Wall Street, the developing twin-tower memorial and the emerging World Trade Centre.  The former will comprise two square pools of water where the twin towers originally stood, and the latter (a steel and glass monolith, impressive even at a third of its eventual height) is located just off to the side.

It's a sandwich Jim, but not as you know it...

The growing World Trade Centre

After a whistle-stop tour of final sights, we just had time to return to the hotel to collect our bags, quick-march to the nearest subway, and head with a range of emotions best described as ‘bittersweet’, to JFK for our final flight, the flight home…next stop, England 😦

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Cozumel & Playa del Carmen

As we flip-flopped into the last week or so of our two months in Central America, we’d decided that a bit of beach time and tan work was in order, so headed towards Isla de Cozumel.  Cozumel is half an hour by ferry off the Yucatan’s east coast, and with some of the worlds best dive sites, we were keen to put our recent training to the test.

Our gateway to Cozumel was the city of Playa del Carmen which, with the 15 minutes we had to whiz from the bus station to the ferry terminal, failed to give us a great first impression…a long, loud, busy, neon filled strip with the sole purpose of separating American tourists from their dollars.  Jumping onto the ferry just as it was about to depart, we caught a quick glimpse of Playa’s main draw, white sand and turquoise waters stretching up the coast all the way to the horizon…it was just a shame it was backed by several storey hotels, and most of the sand obscured by sun loungers and pink flesh.

With ‘Playa’ behind us, Cozumel appeared on the horizon as a long thin strip of land with an ominous collection of white high-rises clustered at one end.  As we stepped off the ferry and crossed a main drag lined with tacky looking souvenir barns, international jewellery stores, and anabolic steroid promoting pharmacies (??), we began to think we’d made a serious error of judgement in deciding to spend any time on Cozumel at all.  It was just at this point that the gathering clouds finally dropped their payload, and the streets ran with water while we cowered in a quickly chosen budget hotel.

Souvenirs, jewellery, and (bizarrely) Anabolics abound

Frustratingly this watery state of affairs endured for pretty much the entirety of our stay on Cozumel, the heavy showers pausing just long enough for us to wander around some dive shops to check on the latest underwater conditions, and to walk a little around the town.  To our relief, Cozumel actually had a bit more character than we originally gave it credit for, benefiting greatly from its grid-style orientation inland from a central square, as opposed to the coastal strips of both Tulum and Playa.  It still has an overtly touristy feel, but authentic Mexicana could still be found if you push a little beyond the main areas.

San Miguel Plaza and it's typical tourist profile, Cozumel, Mexico

It wasn’t just the weather that put paid to our aspirations for beach-side sun worshipping.  A far more fundamental problem is that San Miguel (Cozumel’s main town) doesn’t really have a beach, the nearest good one being a good few kilometres beyond the towns edge.  Sick of watching bad movies (Rambo III, About a Boy, Slither) in our hotel room as rain drummed on the roof, we decided to waterproof up and tour the island in the most exposed way possible, by moped.  Outside of the town and away from the high rise apartments to the north, Cozumel is actually pretty attractive, with deserted golden beaches (we suspected they would have remained similarly deserted even on clear days), limestone blow-holes, and a beautiful blue-green ocean even under cloudy skies.

By day three we decided to dive regardless of the weather, accepting that the overcast skies would reduce both the visibility and the vivid colours on the reef.  But as underwater visibility off Cozumel on a bright-day can reach an incredible 50 metres, our expectations were still high as our boat bounced out towards the Santa Rosa wall, possibly the most famous of all Cozumel’s highly regarded sites.

Our two dives, although ‘only’ providing us with 25 metre visibility, were nonetheless incredible.  One of the reasons why Cozumel’s diving is so good, is that converging ocean currents result a high concentration of water-borne nutrients, which in turn feeds the reef, the fish, and attracts larger predators like 10 metre whale sharks to the area.  Once we’d adjusted to balancing our buoyancy in currents far heavier than we were used to, our drift dive along the Santa Rosa wall was awesome.  Huge towers of reef wall, as tall as a house above us and disappearing into the depths below, with tunnel swim through’s where moray eels hid in the shadows, and where common reef fish were at least twice the size of those we’d seen in Honduras.  Our second and final dive was much shallower, but the density of fish was greater, and we managed to stay down for 73 minutes…our longest single tank dive by over quarter of an hour.

After our morning dive, we caught the afternoon ferry back to Playa del Carmen, chosen for our last 36 hours in Mexico over Cancun (our departure point) after universally unfavourable descriptions from other travellers….”it’s like Playa, but worse”.  Hardly a glowing reference for Playa either, but needing to get close enough to the airport for our next leg, we had little choice in the matter.

Playa is the kind of place we’ve made efforts to avoid throughout or trip.  It caters almost exclusively to tourists, most of them American, and most of whom restrict their cultural exploration to drinking tequila and smoking Cuban cigars…both of which are available every few paces along Playa’s 2km main drag.  In fact there are guys on most street corners who greet you at 10 paces with a loud “hey buddy…you want some cigars?”, followed in hushed tones by “you want weed?…you want coke?” as you walk on by.  Classy.  Playa’s main drag was pretty much summed up for us when we saw a tiger cub on a leash, used as a gimmick to encourage tourists towards a shop, or maybe a bar…we pretty much stopped paying attention once we’d seen what they were doing.

Mariachi's and Burger King, Playa del Carmen, Mexico

What Playa does have though, is a great beach, where on our final full day in Mexico, the sun returned and we spent a super chilled day, 20 blocks north of the centre where the beach was a little quieter, the hotels a little lower, and the beach-bar beats a little slower.  On days like that you’ve got to love the Caribbean.

Colours of the Caribbean, Playa del Carmen, Mexico

The next day, with a final early morning departure from the hostel, and a final quick, easy Mexican bus to Cancun International Airport (you’ve got to love ADO), our two month stay in Central America came to a close.  With barely time to reflect on our Central America experience (post on this to follow), we jetted on towards our next and final destination, the City that never sleeps, New York, New York…

Oh, and in Mexico we have been mostly drinking…

Victoria, and Tequila!....cheers!

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Valladolid

Valladolid, a couple of hours inland from the coast, is another Mexian town borne in the colonial mould, and somewhere we hoped would provide a more authentic antidote to tourist orientated Tulum.  What was immediately obvious as we stepped off the viciously air-conditioned bus, was there was no discernible difference in temperature (Valladolid was at least as hot as Tulum), but as we weren’t immediately ambushed by mosquitoes, our hopes were high that the trip inland had put enough distance between us and them to have a bite free few days.

First impressions of Valladolid were positive; an attractive town centre with the colours we’ve come to expect of colonial Mexican towns, the grid layout a welcome change to Tulum’s linear set-up which seemed to lack much in the way of community or identity.  After checking into a hostel where the three halmarks of a ‘better than average’ room were all there (towels, a bin, and a mirror), we wandered a few of Valladolid’s streets, stretching our legs around the leafy, shaded central plaza.  As we saw a little more of the town, we decided that although Valladolid’s architectural pallet is certainly attractive, the buildings didn’t have the design intricacy or variety that we’ve seen elsewhere, seemingly just repeating the same pain style over and over, just in different colours.  That said there are a few individual examples dotted around, a fort turned convent being one impressive example.

Convent, Valladolid

As afternoon slipped into evening and we started to cast our eyes around for likely dinner venues (local, cheap, and clean being our usual selection criteria), it became apparent that Valladolid’s selection of cafes, restaurants, and bars was also somewhat limited.  We did manage to find a collection of cantinas that at least met the ‘local’ and ‘cost’ criteria, even the if cleanliness and tastiness left something to be desired.  On this point, the food in the Yucatan, while certainly similar in name and appearance to that enjoyed elsewhere in Mexico, has failed to reach the giddy culinary heights of our first few weeks here, particularly in Mexico City, Puebla and Oaxaca.  The quest continues.

Pastel Pallet, Valladolid

The following day we hired a couple of Mexican bone-shakers from a nearby bike hire shop and headed out of the city, heading for two cenotes 5-6km’s outside of town.  Our route took us first along the cities old highway (now a quite single lane, tree-lined avenue), before hitting quieter country roads where large lizards darted from their tarmac sunbeds into rough woodland as we rolled by.

Cenotes Samula & Dzitnup are conveniently barely 100m apart, separated only by the country lane down which we’d ridden.  Although similarly created, they differ from Tulum’s Gran Cenote in that they are both completely below ground, their cathedral like domes lit by a combination of slowly morphing artificial coloured light, and shafts of natural sunlight beaming down between tentacle-like tree roots trailing down from the cave roof to dangle in the huge pools of fresh water contained below.

Sumula Cenote, near Valladolid, Mexico

More Semula Cenote, Valladolid

Compared with the baking heat of the forest above, the cenotes caverns are musty and cool.  The pools of water within are cooler still, clear and blue where lit by the shafts of sunlight, fading into deep purple and black in the caves far reaches.  For most of our time in the cenotes we were their sole (human) occupants, so we spent a good couple of hours floating in spotlit patches of water while catfish slowly circled us below, and swifts criss-crossed the cavern  above.  Although similar, it was definitely worth visiting both Samula & Dzitnup cenotes, as the caverns formations were quite different, the former having the larger ceiling opening and trailing tree roots, while the latter had giant stalactites dripping from the ceiling.  Swimming through dark waters beneath tonnes of spear-shaped rock is a somewhat unnerving but certainly memorable experience.

Dzitnup Cenote, near Valladolid

Back in Valladolid for early afternoon, we spent the rest of the day and evening wandering areas of the town we’d not previously seen.  This pretty much confirmed our initial view of the town, a visually attractive place to walk around for a day or two, but lacking the museums and exhibition spaces, the local restaurants, and the relaxed bars and cafes that have made other towns so much more rewarding to spend time in.  That said, it was great to see how one of the Yucatan’s colonial towns compares to those of central and western Mexico, to escape the tour buses for a couple of days, and of course to swim in a couple more cenotes.

Our bus the following day was to Playa del Carman, from where we intended to hop straight onto a boat to Isla de Cozumel, home to some of the world’s great dive sites.  Here we intend to indulge our new hobby, and hopefully get a couple of days beach-time in as we head in to the last week of our trip 😦

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