Singapore 2011

I ended up in Singapore with a bit of luck and a lot of perseverance. After I came back from the USA, I spent a few more weeks at University to complete my second year. And I decided that I wouldn’t come back for the third … yet. Instead, I would go on a gap year.

I found an internship in France and spent 11 months doing the job. From a professional point of view, it was great. My colleagues were fantastic, the work interesting and I got to learn a lot. But I kept reading about my fellow students who decided to go to Poland, Australia or Argentina. I couldn’t stop thinking about going somewhere exotic as well. And as I had 3 months free before going back to University to complete my degree, I picked a destination that I had heard a lot about but didn’t really know what it was like: Singapore! It had become the capital of Asia, home of the biggest firm’s headquarters, but seemed to have kept its cultural roots despite the rapid development. In fact, several cultures were present due to the important chinese, malaysian and indian communities living there.

The start wasn’t exaclty as I was expecting. I had taken an other intersnhip to secure some revenue. A couple of hours after I landed from my 20 hour journey, my boss took me to the office… to work. What!? And then I had to find my way back home using the MRT (Singaporean tube), even though I had no idea where I was nor where I was going. That was a shi* day!

I then made the work secondary and was looking forward to discover Singapore and southeast Asia. To that end, the first thing I did was to buy a Digital SLR camera to capture the great moments and landscapes I was expecting to see in the region. Here are the first few shots I took of the city.

 

The view from my first flat

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My swimming pool

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The condominium I as living in (right) from the bottom

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A chinese style commercial center on Orchard Road, the “Singaporean Champs Elysées”

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My next exploration took me to Little India. Coming out of the MRT station I was surprised by another storm with heavy rains. But as usual, I didn’t last very long. And it didn’t take very long either for the inhabitants of the indian quarter to come out of their shelter. The picture below was taken only 5 minutes after the end of the storm and already people are invading the streets.

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I found many street food stalls with flowersand spices…

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…fruit and vegetables.

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The people there, and 99% are men, just hang out in the quarter without evident purpose. They sit on the pavement, on the grass, chat with friends. I realised then and asked myself the question: how often do I go outside without any reason and just for the pleasure of being outside? Probably not often. And look at the weather, it definitely isn’t to enjoy the sun!

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Chinatown is the other typical quarter with strong cultural influence. It also seems slightly superficial and the effervescence mainly for tourists. But it is still an very enjoyable place to wander, negotiate the price of some chinese handicraft, grab a bite of local cuisine or simply have a beer.

Below is the view of Pagoda St., the main and busiest street.

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It is booming with life, energy and joy.

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Mosque St., parellel to Pagoda St. is a lot more quiet and peaceful.

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While in Chinatown, you get to forget the fast living pace of Singapore, its dementia and its endless pursuit of development. You even forget its skycrapers, though always present in the background.

The ultimate example of this creativity for luxury is the integrated resort Marina Bay Sands. The complex made of 3 towers and a boat-like top opened in 2010 and is the world’s most expensive casino property. Everything in and around the building rhymes with outstanding.

During the day, it already is impressive and feels like a different world. When you enter the dors, you actually are in a Venice-like commercial center.

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The fountain, called Rain Oculus, gives its spectacle to people outside and inside the commercial center.

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And from above, it is actually designed to create a vortex of water in special occasions, hence the non-centered hole.

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At night, it deploys its majesty. Each year, on the 9th of August, it dresses up with the Singaporean flag for the independence day celebration, obtained in 1965.

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From its top, the 360° view is fantastic, especially over the business district across the marina.

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Some people can enjoy this view from the “infinity pool” and its water flowing right over the edge.

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Singapore is an attractive mix of ancestral asian cultures and modern fast living society. The contrast is well observed by the diversity of spirit in each borough. You can be walking in a street with small chinese style houses, cross the next road and be looking up to a 100-storey glass windowed skyscraper. I loved this composition making Singapore such a vibrant city with a unique identity.

But Singapore is not the only attraction of the area. It is in the center of south east Asia, which makes it very convenient to travel to many other places to explore such as Thailand, Malaysia or Indonesia. I invite you to continue the story in these countries with more pictures and adventures.

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Rajasthan, India 2013

The summer 2013 was the summer of a holiday with a very good friend of mine, Bérenger. We had explored various destinations, looked at what to do in each and the climate at the given period. The problem is that August is the monsoon season is most parts South East Asia. We found direct flights from London to Delhi, at reasonable price and the monsoon wasn’t as intense in this part of India than it is in the rest of the country. So there we go, flights are booked and we set off to Rajasthan, also called the Land of Kings. One week before, we finalised our plan. We are going to visit Delhi, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Jaipur, Agra, we found the perfect schedule based on train times and book hostels in each city. Now we are both looking forward to go and explore this fascinating country that is India.

Day 1 – Delhi

After a short 8 hour direct overnight flight, we land in Delhi at 6:30am on the 3rd of August. The taxi driver sent by our hotel is here and takes us to the city centre. This gives us our first impression of India and its capital. The roads are jammed, the people are driving in all directions, in short the city seems to be like a gigantic mess. But we manage to make our way to the hotel safely, check in, drop our bags and head back out straight away. The plan? We find the underground, go to the tourism office to buy our train tickets for the following day and then explore the city. We haven’t walked for 10 meters in the street that someone already offers to help us. I know he’s going to try and take advantage of us or want to get some money somehow. So remain dubious and tell him nicely that we’re ok. But he insists to know what our plans are and what to do. He caught my attention by giving away a very important piece of information: the Eid al-Fitr, end of Ramadan the month of fasting in the muslim religion, is coming up as well as the celebration for India’s independence on the 15th of August. It means that all trains in Rajasthan are fully booked for the next 2 weeks… S**t! That’s a slight problem. However, I’m still a little bit cautions about what we’re being told. He shows us a map and the tourism office we need to go to (a different one that we had found). He also recommends to go with a TukTuk which should be no more than 20 Rupees After all, he only wishes us nice holidays and ask for nothing. Maybe I need to be a bit less defensive and realise some people might actually really want to help. I can’t just rely on what books say and I have to make my own opinion about these things.

So we go back into the hotel to grab a card of a hotel so we can come back and head back out to look for a TukTuk. Oh, we are so lucky than one is waiting right outside our hotel (sarcastic). So we tell him where we need to go and guess what! The price is 20 rupees without even having to negotiate it down. So there we go, driving in the streets of Delhi. Just after we left, he puts a shirt on and explains this is the company uniform. Ah ok, I thought TukTuk were independants and not working for a company. How would that be called, TukTuk Delhi Limited? 🙂 But then all pieces of the puzzle came together when he stops, tells us we had arrived and takes us to the entrance of… a f**king travel agency!!!

I am still wondering when exactly we fell into the trap. Was it the innocent helpful guy in the street? But he showed us what was marked as a tourist office on a map. Or was it the tuktuk driver? I guess it doesn’t really matter, the point is that we are now discussing about hiring a driver for 2 weeks. But I’m a little bit cautious, what if he drives us to the country side and leaves us there? There is no chance for us to find our way back. But the trains are fully booked, the plan he worked out for us seems interesting, having a driver will allow us to be more flexible and use our time better; and it’s a really good price! A bit more than £500 each which includes all nights in decent hotels.

That’s the story of how we’ve met Vipin, our fantastic driver (well we don’t know that at this point). We’ve got lots of things to see today so no time to lose. We jump in his old white Tata and drive off the the centre of Delhi. Soon he parks the car and explains that we can only take a tuktuk from this point. He hands us over to a very skinny old man, driving a tricycle. At this point I’m thinking, how is this guy going to pedal with us sitting on his machine? But he does and it seems so hard and painful that I am soon feeling compassion for the guy. He is also quite the driver, slaloming between the traffic, imposing his rule on the road… I’m not so confident that we’re going to make it without an accident. And then we reach our first stop. He drops us off at the entrance of a market, which we need to cross and reach Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India.

We are on our own for the first time in this bustling city. Slightly nervous but massively excited, we reach the bottom of the stairs. There we cover our legs and leave our shoes at the entrance, hopefully they’ll still be here when we get back. We enter and, yeah, it’s pretty impressive!

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For a bit of history, it has been commissioned by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in 1644 and its construction was completed in 1658. Red sandstone and white marble have been used to give its natural colours to this impressive edifice which can hold no less than 25,000 people. The 40m high minaret provide amazing views. We weren’t going to miss the pleasure so we did go up one of the minaret for a bird’s view over the mosque and its surroundings. On the pavement of the mosque, they’ve emptied at least a few bags of corn for the pigeons. Surprising given the fact that in Paris, most people only want to get rid of them. Behind the entrance building is the street market we’ve crossed covered by blue and yellow stalls. Then behind are the walls of the Red Fort, which we’re going to visit later.

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When we came out of the building, we had to battle to get our shoes back, do you believe this!? The guy wanted 1,000 rupees for having looked after them. That’s £10!!! So of course, we refuse paying him such an amount and the argument started. Another guy, very aggressive, came around: “Pay him!” But I’m not going to pay 1,000 rupees to someone who just put my shoes in a corner and read a newspaper the whole time. It’s not really about the money but the principle. I understand that as tourists, people will try to take advantage of us. But in such a rude, ridiculous and certainly not subtle manner, no way! So I take the shoes by force and we put them back on. And the scandal kicks off, they start to shout, it puts all the attention on us and some other people start to approach. At this point, there is no way the situation can end well so I have to let go. I give him his money and we walk back to the square behind the market to meet the tricycle driver.

He then takes us to the Red Fort. Like Jama Masjid, it had also been ordered by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in 1639 and completed 1648, his objective being to transfer the capital of the Mughal Empire from Agra to Shahjahanabad (known today as Old Delhi). However, he never completed this move himself. He was imprisoned by his son Auraugzeb in Agra, who did make the city the new capital of the Mughal Empire. However, Aurangzeb was the first and last great emperor to rule from here, his successorts being unable to maintain the dynasty.

It’s literally gigantic. You can easily imagine elephants walking through the gates of this fortress of 2.5km perimeter. The first one is called Lahore Gate and leads to a covered bazaar called Chatta Chowk. Then you walk through Hathi Pol, Elephant Gate, because that’s where you dismount from your elephant. 😉 Now you can progress further into a garden and reach Diwan-i-Am, the Hall of Public Audiences.

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Of course you need to imagine all sorts of luxurious decorations, bright coloured carpets, curtains and paintings over the walls.

At the back of the fort are the emperor’s private apartments, his mosque, his hammam and his office. At this point, Bérenger and I started to feel a bit low on energy. We hadn’t eaten anything since the fantastic feast we had in the plane, hadn’t had anything to drink and the sun generated a good 40°C ambient temperature. I have been personally delaying as much as possible eating or drinking anything in fear of the famous Delhi Belly. But I can’t push it any further. Our tricycle driver stops for us to buy some water and then brings us back to our Tata driver. On the way I couldn’t believe my eyes: we were in a traffic jam, surrounded by cars, he was forcing his way through, people walking got squizzed between us and other vehicles and there was a lot of shouting. You can imagine the relief when we got back to the safety of the car.

It is now time for the first Indian meal. I am excited because I love indian cuisine, but nervous at the same time. We tried to order the food in Hindi, which made the guys laugh once, we asked for the food not too spicy, which made them laugh more and had the mouth on fire after 3 bites which made them laugh their head off. Anyway, despite being a bit hot, the food was actually excellent.

Now we head to Qutb Minar located in Delhi’s outskirts. This is a Islamic complex which was built in 1193 following the victory over the last Hindu kingdom in Delhi. Unlike Jama Masjid, this site is today in ruins. When we got there, the sky was dark grey and it didn’t take the rain very long to come. But after 10 minutes of it, the sky had completely cleared and the atmosphere very enjoyable. Qutb Minar is actually the name of this 73m high tower.

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We spent a couple of hours wandering around the ruins.

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Back in the car, I ask Vipin if we can go to Humayun’s Tomb. The story of the Taj Mahal is known around the world but the one of this place not much, even though it’s very similar. I read in my travel guide that the surrounding gardens are supposeds to be nice, especially around sunset… and it is absolutely amazing.

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Made only of noble materials, the interior is simple but rich, espacielly when the orange light is penetrating.

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We are now told that the park is closing as the sun has gone down. But we take our time to walk back so we can enjoy the peace of these wonderful gardens.

Then Vipin explains that he’s taking us to a Hindu celebration which is happening in a temple of Delhi. I was a bit surprised that we could attend this but I was really interested. However what exactly we were going to attend wasn’t very clear. And to be honest with you it still isn’t…

So we park the car and enter a large complex packed with people. But Vipin doesn’t take us to the heart of the action but towards an empty area and walks into a bulding. It almsot looks like an office with flyers about the Hindu religion. There is also a statue of SHivah (I think) in the hall.

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Then we are indicated that we need to buy tickets… ok but for what? We are then taken upstairs and we still don’t know what we’re going to be doing. This is really really creepy. They show us the way into a room, pitch black and close the door behind us. Then a hoarse voice starts to talk as figures appear under spotlights. It takes us a few minutes to realise that this is a scene of the Hinduism history. After a couple of minutes, that seemed to last at least 10, they take us to the next room for more thetrical representation of the local religion. The way they’ve done it is really weird. Every time we think we’ve reached the end, there is another door, to another room. Although it was probably designed to be informative and fun, it actually looked like a attempt of brainwashing. But now it’s late and time to go back to our hotel et rest cause tomorrow, we’re heading off to Bikaner.

Day 2 Bikaner

We come out of our hotel to meet Vipin with the car around 50 meters away. When dropping us off yesterday, he insisted not to park right in front of the hotel, but a bit further. He called them “angry people”. He said that, if they saw us going in his car, they would try to get some money from Vipin and his company. Apparently because they sell similar tours, they could be quite aggressive and create problems. All I know is that they weren’t too friendly and the day we’ve spent with Vipin was great.

So we leave Delhi and start a long drive to Bikaner, 400km twards the west. Apparently it’s going to take the whole day but it’s only 400km so I’m quite hopeful we’re going to get there in the afternoon. But relatively soon, the roads become terrible. They’re nothing more than a dirty track with loads of holes. We can’t do more than 40km/h on this terrain. I understand why it’s going to take us at least 12 hours. At least we get to see the country side, small villages, farms but no wild territory. I was expecting to see at least a little bit of forest or jungle but there isn’t. So the journey gets a bit long, we alternate naps, conversations with Vipin, another nap, reading travel guides, some more nap. We slept a lot. This is no surprise that when we arrive in Bikaner at around 7pm, Vipin is really tired and wants to go to bed. But we want to go and explore the city. He warns us that many people will try and talk to us, present themselves as students who are not interested in money but just want to practice their english. Or that they study history and they want to show us around. “Don’t speak with them!”, he said. OK, noted. We take a tuktuk and ask him to take us to the Old City.

Just 10 minutes later, a guy probably in his late 20s jump on the tuktuk and sits next to the driver. And he starts talking to us, with the typical “where are you from?”, “what’s your name?”, “how long are you in India for?”. Nothing too suspicious so far but I can see him coming. And when we got closer from the city center, guess what he says! ” I’m a student in history so I’ll come with you and show you around!”. So I turn him down politely, we’ll be ok. But he insists: “I don’t want money, I just want to practice my english with you!”. Hahaha! I found this hilarious. I gave us exactly the speech that Vipin warned us about, with the exact same words, in the same order. It really sounded like a play that they had repeated a thousand times. He kept insisting until we arrived at the entrance gate of the Old City where he finally let us go.

The Old City is a labyrinthus of narrow streets with many buildings made in the red sandstone we’ve seen already in Delhi. I am paying a lot of attention to which streets we are taking and in which direction so we can find our way back. But there is one other difficulty which we saw in Delhi but is more problematic here. There are many cows in the city. It’s a sacred animal in India so not only they don’t eat them but they don’t touch them. They wander around the streets peacefully. This is all fine until you need to walk right behind a massive bull.

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The atmosphere was relatively relaxed, groups of people were chatting, eating at food stalls or playing an unknown game on a large table.

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It is getting really dark now and it’s probably best to go back to the hotel. But of course, we are now lost in this labyrinthus. We try to find our way for a bit but no chance, all streets look the same and when we think we’ve found a place we recognize, it turns out it’s not. Our only chance at this stage is to take a TukTuk back. We find one and show him the card of our hotel. He says no and drives off. So we find a second one, but he doesn’t know where it is. He calls his friends and we suddenly have 6 people looking at the card of the hotel. Then one of them show us his TukTuk, indicating he’s going to take us for 100 rupees. As he doesn’t speak english, he grabs one of his friends to come with us. As always, the ride wasn’t smooth but in the night, it seems a lot worse. Then the english speaking guy turns around and ask “where is it?”. Well I don’t know, I thought you know! So they go and ask people in shops but nobody seems to be able to give us directions to our hotel. Then apparently someone did give a good indication and we are again on the road. The driver stops 5 minutes later to tell us we’re arrived. No we’re not, this is not our hotel! I’m starting to wonder how we are going to find our way back, are we going to call Vipin? But the guards at the gate seem to know and tell our drivers where to go. And this time, the directions were right and we safely found our way back. I thank both drivers, actually gave them 200 rupees because they were really helpful. And now we can relax for the rest of the evening in the lovely patio of our hotel.

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Day 3 – Thar Desert

In the morning, we quickly visited Junagarh, Bikaner’s fort. We flashed through it because there wasn’t much to see and we had to hit the road again. We are going for another day of driving to Jaisalmer. It is situated in the Thar desert in the most western part of Rajasthan, and is the last city before the Pakistanese border. We are going to sleep in the dunes so we don’t want to miss the departure of the expedition. On our way out of the city, we are reminded that transport can vary a lot more than in Europe as we overtake a camel.

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During the car ride, we had some sleep, read some books, had some more sleep, listening to Vipin singing, had some more sleep and eventually, the environment changed as we entered the desert. It’s not as desertic as I tought. There are many villages, farms, we even had to make our way through a herd of sheeps. But what do they feed on? On the rare and dry grass or leaves?

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It also didn’t feel like we were leaving modern civilisation behind. At all. The electric lines never leave the landscape. I was hoping that the deeper we go, the more likely they will disappear but no. Then we reached the lovely village of Khuri, 48km south of Jaisalmer. We are straight away taken into a small patio and served a cup of tea. That’s a nice relaxing attention after such a long drive.

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Around 10 minutes later, someone comes to tell us that our camel is ready. We don’t need to bring all our stuff with us as we’ll be back in the village for dinner. What!? I thought this was going to be a proper expedition where we take the camels, ride for a few hours deeper into the desert, put our tents up and come back the following morning. But we’re actually just going to the top of the dune some 500m away, sit there for an hour and come back. Well I’m sure the sunset from there is worth it. I jump and the camel and once I’m well installed, they get it to stand up. That’s the tricky bit. The animal leans forward so much that you really need to grab whatever you can not to fall on his head. And the ride itself? Fun but not really comfortable. I spend most of it chatting with Gopar, the Indian kid who is driving my camel.

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At the top of the dune, there are already quite a few tourists and their young guides are playing crocket which apparently is a religion in India.

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Now when you look towards the right direction, all you can see is desolation without any trace of technology.

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The sun set was nice and now it starts to get dark so we head back to the village for dinner. On the way, Gopar asks me whether we’re going to sleep in the little houses and in the desert. In the desert of course, sleeping under the stars seems really romantic. Who else than Beber to share this moment with? 🙂 But I wonder, are there any snakes or scorpions? “Yes, many”, he says. Alright, and are they venimous? “Oh yes!”, he replies. Great, that’s not really what I wanted to hear but it’ll have to do. They’ve been doing this for tourists for a long time and if there was any danger, they wouldn’t do it… hopefully! Back at the village, most people are already sat to have dinner. A local band is playing music while a lady is dancing in the middle.

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Well relaxed, we load the camels with beds and blankets and we head back to the desert. Not very far still and we set up our camp for the night.

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In the night, we place the camera on the bed, set at the slowest shutter speed possible and create light trails.

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Before we fall asleep, we set our alarms for 5am so we can watch the sun rise from the top of the dunes. But I guess we were so tired that we missed and got up just after 6am. Still some nice views. I even encountered an impala, a sort of deer which runs really fast.

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We go back to the village to join Vipin, have some breakfast, some coffee and leave our hosts relatively early. Today, there will not be a lot of driving and only the visit of Jaisalmer.

Day 4 – Jaisalmer

We start our day in the outskirts of Jaisalmer, in the boutique of Hari Om. He is a jeweller and works principally with silver. I mention that I’ve read his name in my travel guide, which said that he could be found inside the fort. In fact, it’s his brother. Jewellry is the family’s know how. So he shows us how he starts from a stick of raw silver and how he makes such fine details on the final product. He also has a stone that he uses to tell the quality of the jewellry. He rubs the object on the stone, if the mark left is shiny then it’s high concentration os silver. If it’s a lor more dull, then it’s a lot concentration of silver.

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As you can imagine, this demonstration took very little time compared to the time he spent showing us bracelets, necklesses, rings and many other items for sale. After we made a small purchase (I actually think the prices were relatively low for silver, hummm), we head to the Jaisalmer Fort. Unlike the ones in other cities like Delhi or Bikaner, people still live in the fort here. It is part of the city.

Jaisalmer fort was founded by the Rajput ruler Jaisal. He belongs to the Bhati clan, often fighting against the Mughal from Delhi. We enter Surya Pol (Surya Gate) and the road makes straight away a 180° turn towards Ganseh Pol. This concept was used to avoid that, during an attack, elephants gather speed and force in a straight line and destroy the fort gate. This turn requires them to almost stop and become targets for soldiers above the fort walls. Today, this street is occupied by merchants selling silk and other fabrics.

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The city is actually facing a major threat. It is made of sandstone and, as the name indicates, is mostly made of sand. We’ve all made sand castles on the beach when we were young. Can you remember what happens when water reaches the sand? Exactly, it collapses. Old and defective draining systems means that water is leaking from pipes inside the fort and slowly erode its buildings. Several organisations raised funds to renovate the piping and stop the erosion which was putting the entire site in danger.

From the top of the city walls, we have a fantastic view over this city lost in the Thar desert.

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We can see from above the entrance concept to stop elephants from reaching gates at full speed in war. The first entrance is below the fabric shop you see on the right hand side. You walk for a few meters and then turn around behing the small tower you can see in the middle of the image. Then you straight away go through the second gate and come out where the colourful silk sheets are. In the case you would make it to far to the taste of the defendants, they would welcome you with stones that are still on top of the walls. (I’m not sure they’re secured and the onles perfectly lined up on the ridge probably aren’t very stable…)

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Today, the fort offers a different type of attack to its visitors: the sellers interested in your wallet. Their technique are extremely impressive though. When we entered the fort, we got many offers for a guide to take us through the fort, in french of course. They attracted us by speaking english, spanish, german, italian, japanese, russian, etc. As I said, very impressive. 🙂 Inside the shops, a guy stopped me and said: “Hey, you’ve promised me to come to my shop yesterday”. Haha, well I’m pretty sure I haven’t promised anything because I wasn’t here yesterday. Sometimes they come up with very creative catch phrases which make the interaction a lot more funny and enjoyable than the overheard “Hey my friend, come see my shop!”.

One was a lot less opressive was equally surprising. A man smiling with a long beard shows us his shop, he’s a jeweller and his name is Hari Om. Confident that I have an unanswerable argument to stop his sales speech, I say:

“- Hey, we’ve actually met with your brother this morning and we already bought a few things.

– I don’t have a brother!”, he replies. Oh…

“- Well, we went to the shop of a man called Hari Om, like you, this morning and he said you were his brother.” He explained that he’s the best at what he does and many people try to copy him. He was very upset that other jewellers use his name and renown. He wanted us to go to the police with him to report that guy. I felt sorry for him but I’d rather not get invovled in this. You never what you’re getting into. He understands, doesn’t insist and wishes us some nice holiday. If you happen to go to Jaisalmer, you can recognize the real Hari Om as the following, extremely calm person, speaking very slowly, not insisting to make a sale, probably inside the fort and when we saw him he had a beard.

After this episode, we leave the fort to explore the many other monuments in this city. They are havelis, houses of wealthy merchants built between the 18th and 20th century. We had chosen to see the main two indicated in my travek guide. The first actually showed very little interest. It wasn’t maintained very well, paint had gone long ago and the walls were cracking everywhere. An entire tower was leaning so much that I thought it’s only a matter of time until it collapses.

But now were are in the street of the second one and we see a few men waiting in front of it. We pay the small entry charge and they let us in, alone. There isn’t anybody else. Straight away we can see that this haveli is in a much better state. Its walls are in good condition and the carvings very sharp.

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The havelis are built around a courtyard which provides shadow from the burning sun. From here start the stairs to the upper storeys and various room of the house.

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We realised very soon that, because it is unoccupied and probably not visited often, every single room was full of bats. By when I mean full, I mean full. There is no spare space on the ceiling for a few more to join the group. And we had to cross rooms, go up straicases to reach the top of the house. But even when we reach the roof, we can still go higher up to more terraces.

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From the higher levels, the view over the city and the fort is fantastic.

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Tonight Vipin joins us for dinner. Beber and I order some beer (which became a tradition before every dinner), but our local friend has brought his own bottle… of whiskey. We all had a really good time (well I did:) ). He’s really a nice guy. He is willing to share details about his life, his country, his culture and is also very curious about our life, country and culture. That concludes a very pleasant stay in Jaisalmer, most western point of our trip in Rajasthan. Tomorrow, we start our long journey back to Delhi with a first stop in Jodhpur.

Day 5 – Jodhpur

Well actually before we jump in the car, we have breakfast at the rooftop terrace of our hotel. I’ve had worse views to start a day…

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In India, the trucks are all very nicely decorated. As we stop at a petrol station, several of them were parked next to each other.

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This journey was short compared to the first two which took a full day. We arrived in Jodhpur at the beginning of the afternoon. Vipin didn’t lose time and takes us straight to a shop. We are welcomed with a cup of tea of our choice. Then the lady shows us various teas and spice mixes that are prepared according to secret recipes invented by her dad.

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You can imagine the story: my dad was mixing spices to obtain the best flavours and his dad before him, now I have taken over and our expertise is famous around the world… Of course! I’m being sarcastic but the lady is of very nice company. I chose two bags of spices and two of tea from the large choice.

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At the back of the sop, there’s a man packing a heap of spices into small bags like the ones we’ve bought. Is he really the person doing this for the shop or is it just an attraction to make it look more authentic?

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Coming out of the shop, I realise that our lovely driver is probably going to take us to a shop in every city in which we stop. This is quite annoying. But anyway, we’ve passed this for Jodhpur and now is just going to be about visiting. Well, not really.

The next stop is another shop, one of textile this time. We are taken to the second floor where we are presented with many pieces of fabric. I feel so lucky, we’ve been brought in another world-known shop. Only this time he’s got articles from an english magazine to back this up. It says that these guys are manufacturing most of the textile for the European luxury brands. We are even offered to purchase some of the big names designs for nothing compared to how much he’d cost to buy them branded. But I have to admit that they look very nice and the quality pretty excellent.

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They also have products in pashmina, a type of cashmere wool very soft and warm. It is made with the wool of the particular breed of goat called Changthangi, from the region of Ladakh and surrounding areas.

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Having bought a few things, I have a look further in the building. It’s actually a warehouse. There are 3 rooms per floor, all looking like this.

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And there’s 5 floors… That’s a lot of textile!

Finally Vipin takes us to our hotel. It’s amazing. The rooms are extremely spacious, with 2 large beds, there is a pool, a small garden and a rooftop terrace right underneath the fort of Jodhpur, Mehrangarh.

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After a short dive in the pool, we go to the rooftop terrace for our traditional beer and another indian meal. Tonight for me it’s Chicken Tikka. Well, chicken is obvious, that’s pretty much the only meat you can get in India (with lamb). But there are many many ways of serving the chicken in the indian cuisine. Tikka refers to a piece of meat, usually boneless and on a skewer, marinated into a paste made of various spices and yoghurt. It is then grilled into the traditional oven called Tandoor. The plate arrives, I cut the first piece, take it to my mouth and… oh my god… this is wonderful. The meat is juicy and extremely tasty, definitely the best chicken tikka I’ve ever had. Really, I’m not exaggerating, it was that good! It’s one of those dishes, you know you will struggle to find any restaurant matching this taste. The best chicken curry can be found in Gilgamesh in London, the best chicken tikka is here, definitely the best way of ending our first day in Jodhpur. I think I’ll like this city.

Day 6 Jodhpur

I feel that, for once, today is not going to be a rush. The only thing we’ve got to do is to visit the fort. There are other attractions but it’s no big deal if we don’t see them. So we head straight to Mehrangarh. It was built on a hill over the city in 1459, so we approach from below which make it even more impressive.

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It is known that Rajasthan is a very colourful place. But not only due to the vibrant colours used for clothing but also due to the character of its cities. Jaisalmer is sometimes called the Golden City as it is built mostly from sandstone. Jaipur is called the Pink City, which I’ll discover later in this trip. And Jodhpur is called the Blue City. The walls of the houses are painted in blue. Where this tradition comes from is unclear: some say blue is the colour of the Brahmins, one of many India’s caste, who painted their house to indicate where they lived. I’ve also heard that one of the Rathore ruler really appreciated blue and ordered all walls facing the fort to be painted in this colour. Whatever the origin, it gives this city a very unique identity. I understood (I thought I had) the meaning of the term while walking in the streets of the Old City yesterday. But actually, you can only realise how harmonious and unique this Blue City is when you have a bird’s view from the walls of Mehrangarh fort.

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Inside, we find a similar architecture style than we’ve already seen in Bikaner: long and curved lines, finished with sharp and pointed angles.

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As we’ve seen in the Red Fort in Delhi, there is the Hall of Private Audiences, very richly decorated.

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And the Hall of Public Audiences, a lot more spacious.

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The fort palace also hosts a large collection of royal objects, including the howdahs, carriages positioned on the back of elephants. This one is linked to a little scandal. It is said that, during a visit of the indian royal family to the UK, a journalist captured a photograph showing the ankle of the queen, which was then published in the newspaper. It wasn’t appreciated at all by the royal family, to say the least, and all printed copies of the newspaper had to be recalled.

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In India, opium is still consumed only by very few people, such as the Bishnoi community around Jodhpur. But back in the days, it was a lot more popular with the use of a type of pipe like the one below.

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Inside the palace, every wall, every door, every window, every pillar, or any type of architectural feature is made of finely carved stone.

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From outside the palace, every house participates to give Jodhpur its charm and its name of Blue City.

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Inside the fort is an attraction from the modern age but not less attractive. A zip line starts from the lower part of the fort, goes over the surroundings hills and provide amazing views over the entire fortress. That sound exciting. The only thing is that, it’s 1pm now and the next start is scheduled for 4pm so we’ve got 3 hours to kill. Back in the car, we share our plan with Vipin and he offers to go have some lunch and then see the Umaid Bhawan Palace, built between 1929 and 1943 for the Maharaja Umaid Singh.

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Some members of the royal family still live in part of the palace and the rest has been converted into a luxury hotel. There is a small museum inside, the only thing you’re allowed to see, with pictures and objects. Nothing too interesting really…

But now we jump back in the car for the exciting and fun activity. We drive back to the fort, walk all the way down to the lower part and get geared up for the ride. On the plan are 7 zip lines to take us across a small river (or lake, I’m not too sure) where we should have an amazing view over Mehrangarh… yes we do!

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What’s left now is a long zip line back to the start, Beber you go first! You should be able to see him at the bottom of the picture, in the middle with a white tee shirt, and he needs to reach the grey square at the top of the tower just in front.

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We all got stuck before reaching the final stop and had to pull ourselves onto the platform. Wow, we had a really good time. Far from the noise and crowd of all Indian cities, that was really enjoyable.

But we are going back to it as we stop by the Ghanta Ghar (Clock Tower). The square is actually a large market where Tuktuks, motorbikes, bicyles and cows co-exist in a loud hubbub of horns and shouts.

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Oh today was a great day. Back in the hotel, we look at the pictures and the videos Bérenger took of the zip lines. That was really cool. And to finish, what else than the now declared “world’s best chikken tikka”? Even the second time, my taste buds cheer! So far Jodhpur has been my favourite city. It’s got such a unique spirit, great views and we had a fantastic hotel with excellent food. Even the moments we’ve spent in the boutiques were pleasant and the people there, good company. I’m really looking forward for what Rajasthan yet has to offer. Tomorrow, we’re heading to Pushkar, a Hindu pilgrimage town. It wasn’t on our plan originally but was highly recommended, so we’ll see. 🙂

Day 7 Pushkar

At our arrival in Pushkar in the beginning of the afternoon, Vipin hands us over to a local young man who is going to show us the city. We jump on his scooter (it’s perfectly normal to have 3 people on it) and head towards the city centre. There are 2 reasons why Pushkar is a famous town. The first reason is its annual camel fair in November time. The second is its holy lake.

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To put some context around the history of Pushkar, I need to explain the Hindu religion a little bit. (far be it from me to think that I understand this religion, because I really don’t. It is based on a very complex set of beliefs and concepts so far from what I’m used to that I’m still unsure about what I think I know of it. So please, excuse me if my version is not quite correct and feel free to correct me if you have a better understanding.)

Hindusm is nor a monotheistic nor a polytheistic religion. It is often referred to as a henothestic relagion, which describes the belief in one single God while accepting the existence of others. In this context, the supreme spirit is believed to be Brahman, eternal soul and true self of every person. But the Hindu do not worship this Supreme Being, but rather its personalities or forms: Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Protector and Shiva the Destructor. Occasionally, the Gods come down to Earth under a human form. These incarnations are called Avatars. For example, Rama, Krishna or even Buddha are a few of many Vishnu avatars. The Trimurti (Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva) give orders to the Devis and Devas (Gods and Goddesses) to maintain their domain. The total number of deities in unknown, although 33 seems to be mentioned many times.

The legend says that Brahma got into a fight with the demon Vajranabha and killed it with lotus flowers. But then 3 petals fell down on Earth and created the 3 Pushkar lakes, one for each of the Hindu Trinity Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Today, Pushkar has great religious importance and many Hindu will make the pilgrimage at least once in their life to wash their sins away in one of the 52 ghats (baths) or pray in one of the 400+ temples surrounding the lake. Following the tradition, I spent some time with a Brahmin, the priest society or caste, for a spiritual experience.

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We were present during an annual festival in the honour of Shiva, called Kanwar Yatra (I think). Devotees will travel hundreds of kilometers to find a source of Holy water (from the Ganges for example), bring it back to their village and then pour it over a Shiva temple. That explains the processions of people we saw pretty much on every road in Rajasthan carrying pots of water at the end of a stick resting on their shoulders, sometimes following a trolley producing very loud music. There were some stands set up so the pilgrims could take their load off and rest before continuing their journey. In Pushkar, the Shiva temple was a few steps away from the holy waters of Pushkar lake. People were carrying buckets, pouring it onto the temple which then made its way back to the lake (which made the steps extremely slippery since we are not allowed to wear shoes).

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After having spent time with the Brahmin, we truly look like locals.

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Like this we could go to the Brahma temple, one of the very few in the entire world (I don’t know why yet but I will find out tomorrow). As a traveller I always have difficulties to enjoy visiting a religious site. As I’m only a tourist and I’m not here for the same reason as all the locals, I feel like I’m disturbing their environment. I don’t need to ask the question to know thay they’d probably agree with me. So unless there is a very specific reason for me to go (part of a group, amazing architecture or decorations, etc.), I try not to. And when I do, I spend as little time as possible inside the building. But it seems to me that the Hindu religion is relatively open and anyone can join the spiritual rituals and celebrations.

That evening, Vipin is joining us again for dinner. Being a holy, you can’t eat meat nor consome alcohol. Although the latter has evolved to a “you can’t buy alcohol in town but you can buy it outside town and bring it back with you”. We drive a around 15 minutes inside the narrow streets of Pushkar and park the car next to a vegetarian restaurant. As last time, Vipin brought his bottle of whiskey. I don’t mind vegetarian food and I’m happily following the local customs. The only thing is that I know I will be hungry again fairly quickly. So I make sure I eat plenty because tomorrow we’re climbing a hill to a temple built at the top.

Day 8 Pushkar

In the morning, the hotel seems completely empty. There isn’t even any staff to show us the way to the restaurant and look after us, I had to go to the kitchen to find a waiter. This morning the plan is to go to Saraswati temple. But first, let me continue the story where I left it (Vipin explained me the origin of this temple).

You remember Brahma, dropped the lotus flower petals and the lakes were created right? Well then Brahma decided to perform a Yajna, an ancient ritual and offering ceremony. But his wife, Saraswati, goddess of knowledge, music, art, could not be present on time for the celebration and complete her part of the ritual. So Brahma married another girl and, with her, performed the Yajna. When Saraswati arrived and realised what had happened, she cursed Brahma that he would never be worshipped. To calm her down, Brahma ericted a temple in her honour at the top of a surrounding hill. Saraswati reviewed her curse so that Brahma could only be worshipped in Pushkar. This explains the origin of the Saraswati temple and the uniqueness of the Brahma temple in Pushkar. But again, this is one of the many legends that exist.

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So there we go, we start the climb which is not too hard. It’s not very steep, not very long. The only thing is that it’s hot and humid. At the top, nothing special. A temple like we’ve seen many. It’s nice to have gone up there for the view but the temple pilgrimage is more for people practising the Hindu religion. So we stop 10 minutes to have a look at the view and come back down. As you might have noticed, the weather isn’t great anyway.

It’s 10:30am and we’re back in the hotel. We’ve got the entire day ahead of us but nothing really planned. So we grab our bags and start going towards the town centre. The plan is to go have a look around to “feel” the local life and see if there is anything to do. You don’t live experiences or witness surprising scenes by sitting in our hotel room. So hopefully, we’ll find something worth it out there. Unlike all other cities we’ve been to, there is no one here to sell us anything which is nice. I certainly feel a lot more free, less apprehension. But in fact, the weather was bad and after 2 hours we had seen it all, so we head back to the hotel. But with an idea in mind.

At the reception, we ask about ayurvedic massage (which they offer) and book an hour session. Some 45 minutes later, the masseurs are here and the treatment starts. By the way do you know what an ayurvedic massage is? We didn’t. It is similar to any kind of massage you’d expect there’s a few more things like tapping (on the head for example) and squeezing (the ears). And yes, there is oil, a lot of it. I am not sure I can say I was fully relaxed after that. Our skin was red and we couldn’t get the oil off it despite long showers… Great! We need to go for dinner anyway, the plan being to meet Vipin again and go to the same restaurant as yesterday.

But as we were waiting for him in the lobby, the hotel manager approached to ask where we were having dinner. He then offered to find some chicken for us. At first, that didn’t catch my attention but we would rather agree with Vipin anyway. He shows up, the hotel manager explains him the plan and Vipin asks us: “what do you want to do?” I felt some kind of embarassment between all people and I realised that it wasn’t right to eat meat in Pushkar, a holy city! I couldn’t understand why was the guy even offering it, he probably is Hindu. And the fact that we wanted to have dinner with Vipin, the decision was made. We’re going to the vegetarian restaurant. There Vipin had a few more drinks than usual and ended up quite happy. I spoke a lot about his day, he had looked after his car, his “indian” he calls it. He also met one of his old friends and they spent a lot of time talking together. At the end, I was a bit nervous about him driving in the not so easy streets of India, but he was completely fine. No problem at all. Ready for a good night sleep, but still quite greasy…

Day 9 Jaipur

Again, the drive from Pushkar to Jaipur, the Pink City, is relatively short. We arrive ar the beginning of the afternoon under a sky far from being nice. As we could imagine, Vipin takes us to another textile warehouse. The difference is that in this once, they also dye their fabrics. I have seen pictures of these long sheets of colourful material drying in the sun. But because of the weather and the frequent rains, they can’t work. The only thing they have ongoing is a little bit of printing, where they stamp patterns of different colours on a piece of textile. The guy looking after us shows how this is done.

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He’s got 2 stamps of different designs that he uses to apply different colours.

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We’ve got to be happy with this elephant because we’re not seeing more than that… that’s a shame.

Then we’re taken upstairs and we review the collection of textiles they’ve got to offer. In this one, on a craqué notre slip! We both bought a few pieces: bed cover sets (the same one actually, with silver and gold threads), gifts for our family, tailor made shirts and suits. Of course, we weren’t going to leave with them, we’ll have to come back tomorrow. But during the couple of hours we spent in this warehouse, the rain had been falling… a lot. To the point that the streets were flooded. Vipin brings the car as close as possible to the step we’re on so we don’t get wet. And then we drive for 10m to the next room where they store the carpets. I step out of the car and now I can see the state of the main street.

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In the small street we are in, water is just below knee level. But in the main street, in the background, water is at waist level… all that in just a couple of hours. We were feeling lucky for not seeing the rain despite being in the middle of the monsoon season. Well, there we go! (Since then I have met other travellers who went to Jaipur as well. Our experiences we the complete opposite. While Jaipur was our “wettest and coldest experience”, the people I met described the city as extremely hot, dusty and unbreathable. Quite different.)

The problem is that we couldn’t go because you can’t see the holes in the road and the car could get blocked in one of them. So we need to wait for the water to evacuate. That makes the guys from the textile factory happy cause they can now take us to the annex of the main warehouse, where they store (and sell of course) carpets. At the entrance, there is a man making one.

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They looked and felt really nice. I did take my shoes and socks off to step barefoot on them, really soft! I wouldn’t mind stepping on that piece of softness every morning. But we’ve really spend a lot of money already, we won’t have space in our bags so we’ll pass on that one. And gladly, the water has drained relatively quickly and we can jump back in the car to continue our visit. But Vipin takes us to another shop, NOOOO! One of precious stones. That one doesn’t even bother showing anything about his work, he takes us straight to the room where his goods are on display. Oh yes, there are some really nice ones but I’m not sure about the quality. He was persistent, I was fed up so I bought the smallest piece that I could find. It was for the equivalent of £2. He was happy he had made a sale and I was happy he left me alone, deal! But then he targetted Bérenger and again, wouldn’t let go until he convinced him to buy something.

We really didn’t stay long in this shop and asked Vipin to take us straight to the hotel, no shop on the way. Unfortunately, we weren’t in the center of Jaipur but in the outskirts, next to the fort. (You will have noticed that every single city has its fort). So we couldn’t explore and just relaxed with a beer and a nice dinner on the rooftop terrace.

Day 10 Jaipur

This morning, the weather hasn’t really improved. I know it sounds weird but I feel like we’re inside a fish bowl. It’s just really wet everywhere, even the air seems wet. (no, not like London, much worse). It’s in these conditions that we are going to visit Amber Fort.

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For the short history, the city of Amber used to be the capital of the Kachwaha Rajput. This particular community placed a high importance to marriage as a way of managing their diplomacy. They aligned themselves with the powerful Mughal empire through military alliances and marital unions. They were generously rewarded for this, which allowed them to finance the construction of Amber fort in 1592.

There is a noticeable difference to the other forts we’ve visited so far in the way that there is a large plaza. Of course Junagarh or Merhangarh also have open spaces but not as large as here. We can also distinguish the walls in the cloud behind, on the top of the hill. They go so far that I couldn’t see where they end. In a few words, Amber Fort is just incredibly massive.

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Inside this palace, the decorations are sober, the colours very light but equally if not more luxurious than what we’ve seen before.

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It is difficult to truly appreciate the splendour of the site given the horrible weather. I am sure sun rays would magnify the palace surfaces, richly decorated and nicely designed. But all we get in dull light with frequent showers.

On the way to our next destination, we drive next to Jal Mahal, the water palace. It owes its name to the fact that it’s flooded by the waters of Man Sagar. Needless to say, it cannot be visited.

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Then Vipin takes us to a royal cemetery, I can’t remember the name. The kiosk are more than what you’d expect of a more popular cemetery, nicely carved from rich stone.

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At the beginning of the afternoon, the rain has stopped for some time and Vipin accepts to take us to the city centre (he wasn’t too happy about that because it’s like a basin and quickly fills up with water during heavy rains). We take this chance to go a site “out of the ordinary”. What I mean is that every city of in Rajasthan has its fort and palaces, so we’ve seen many of those already. But Jantar Manta is different, it’s an observatory. In order to understand how each system work, we hire a french speaking guide (they all languages…).

If I remember well, the first object is used to determine the time of the year by observing the movement of the sun. There is a small piece of metal with a small hole suspended in the middle by 4 cables. The sun is projected onto the white stone and its position is recorded. The observer would walk between the panels and another version opposite of this one (panel in the place of stairs and stairs in the place of panels) is built right behind.

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The emperor also liked astrology. He built the Rashi Yantras. Each rashi is built in an angle specific to the zodiac sign it represents. Below is the leo rashi, my zodiac sign.

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This is the overview of the 12 rashis for each zodiac signs.

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The last object of this collection is truly impressive. It is called Brihat Samrat Yantra. It’s a 27m high sundial, with a precision of 2 seconds!

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We couldn’t see it working though… and as the rain returned, we headed back to the car. The water was rising really fast, incredible. So Vipin took us to a temple outside the city which didn’t have much to offer apart from a number of monkeys with their babies.

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That closes our stay in Jaipur. The weather really was horrible so I couldn’t really enjoy it. I am sure it’s a really nice city when it’s warmer and drier. But in a way, we were quite impatient to finish this because of the next (and lost stop in India), Agra! I have really high expectations and I’m really please we’ve left it to the end. The lost city of Fatehpur Sikri and the Taj Mahal should be truly amazing sites and I can’t wait to take the road and get there.

Day 11 – Agra

We take the road early morning, not unhappy to leave Jaipur and all its water. We are really hoping that the weather is mush better around Agra. This time, the drive is about 6-hour long and it’s in the middle of the afternoon that we reach Fatehpur Sikri, an ancient abandoned city some 50km before Agra. The weather was opposite to the one we had left: bright sun, sky absent clouds and extremely hot.

At our arrival, Vipin hands us over to a local guide. The guy had blue eyes so light and bright, I’ve never seen that before. Anyway he takes us to the entrance of the abandoned city where we are told its story. The Mughal Emperor Akbar wasn’t able to have a son to take his succession to the throne. He had heard of al old man in the outskirts of a small village called Sikri, capable of making miracles. He decided to go and visit this man, known as Salim Chishti. The old man blessed the emperor and told him he will have a son. The prophecy came true and Akbar’s first son was soon born. The emperor went back to Sikri in order to thank Shaikh Salim Chishti and asked him what he wanted in return. “A mosque”, replied the man. So be it! Akbar built an impressive mosque and a city with 3 palaces for his favourite wives, one Hindu, one Christian, one Muslim (I think this is a lesson of tolerance, especially 500 years ago when religion was the main cause for military conflicts). He moved the capital of the Mughal Empire from Agra to Fatehpur Sikri in 1571. But it was built in a very dry area and it suffered from water shortages. After an ephemere existence, the capital moved back to Agra and Fatehpur Sikri was abandoned in 1585.

Now we’re walking in it and it is truly remarkable.

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Every square centimeter has been carved with extreme precision.

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The pavilions are open to the exterior. There is barely any wall but columns to let the air circulate into the buildings.

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Now we’re going to the mosque which is still in use today, and there is a lot of people. We are asked, as expected, to leave our shoes at the entrance. (hopefully we won’t get into the same trouble as in Delhi) We pass the gate and the spectacle is surprising: the mosque is like a lively village.There are lots of people, outdoor stalls and eateries, and all that is happening in the middle of the tombs.

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Our guide had a very nice thought and proposed to take a picture of us in front of the gate. This is kind of him, he’s a really good guy and I don’t blame him but f*** that was painful! The sun was high in the sky, it was a very hot day, we were walking bare foot… the ground was burning!!! It was impossible to stand at the same place for more than 10 seconds. But hey, that’s a good picture. 🙂

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Salim Chishti’s tomb is inside the mosque, under a beautiful white marble mausoleum. The worshippers lay pieces of cloth on his tomb as offering for his blessing. It is very busy, we need to queue in order to enter but the air is a lot cooler, maily due to the beautiful stone windows which provide a lot of shadow but let you see the vivid colours of the outside.

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My impression is that of a family day at the park in Europe. The kids have brought their toys and they’re playing together (remember that we are inside a mosque, would you imagine this inside a church?).

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In the surrounding covered path, more stalls are installed selling anything from food to kitchware or clothing.

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Now we’ve seen it all, so we’re heading back to the entrance. But before we come out, let’s have one last look at this amazing scene of local life.

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We recover our shoes (without any problem this time) and start the walk back to the car. I am thinking to myself that entering this mosque was an incredible experience. I would have never thought to find such life in a religious site. For me religion means quiet and peaceful but why wouldn’t it be busy and lively? I know it is because there is a celebration going on (Eid al Fitr I think, the end of Ramadan), but still. I also usually feel uncomfortable being a tourist in relegious buildings, I disturb the people practicing. But this time I didn’t, probably because it’s an event which of course is related to the religion of Islam but also because I think it’s an opportunity for everyone in the local community to get together and celebrate. This creates a very different atmosphere. We’ve now reached the car, we say goodbye to our deep-blue-eye guide and begin the last portion of our journey to the ultimate site of our trip, the Taj Mahal.

I read of a park, on the opposite side of the river flowing next to the Taj Mahal, from which we have great views for sun rise and sun set. When we get there, it’s a bit late and I’m slightly concerned that we’ve missed the spectacle. Bérenger and I run between the trees in order to get to the river bank as quickly as possible. In fact, when we got there, it wasn’t too late… it is the perfect time… this is wonderful… I’m speechless…

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I literally can’t take my eyes of such beauty, and certainly can’t leave. Usually, when a site is supposed to be amazing and I hear many people talking about it, I build up high expectations and end up a bit disappointed. I had very high expectations of the Taj Mahal but what I’m seeing is beyond what I could ever have imagined! I am trying to print the image into my mind so I never forget this moment. It was only interrupted by the guards which told us we had to leave as they are closing the park. I’m already thinking of tomorrow, our last day in India but most certainly a excellent one to end a trip.

Day 12

This morning, we start at 6am, earlier than usual. We have asked Vipin to leave earlier in order to be at the entrance of the Taj Mahal when it opens, to avoid the crowd and get the good light. As always, he does what makes us happy without any reticence. As you can imagine, the ticket booth is surrounded of people trying to sell you tours, only this time they are way more insistent than anywhere else. A guy came to use some 200m away from the gate, spoke to us about his knowledge all the way, made up some stories about “you cannot get in without a guide”, waited for us as we were getting our tickets and walked with us until the actual entrance. That’s persistance!

But once inside the site, there wasn’t many people. We walked for a few meters, enter the park’s gate and here it is. Ladies and gentlemen, the Taj Mahal!

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The story of the Taj Mahal is equally beautiful. The Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, at the origin of all Old Delhi’s monuments and grandson of Akbar (who commisioned Fatehpur Sikri), married a persian pricess called Mumtaz. He had other wives but she was his favourite and he was truly in love. One day, he asked her: “What gift can I make you to express my love to you?”. “Something unique in the entire world”, she replied. Unfortunately, she dies soon after, in 1631, giving birth to Shah Jahan’s fourteenth child. He promised her to build the most beautiful mausoleum in the world in her memory. So the construction began the following year and was completed in 1653. Then, the emperor apparently got the architect killed so he could not design another building like this. As we’ve seen in the Red Fort history, Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb. He died in 1666 and was buried in the Taj Mahal next to Mumtaz. A legend tells that, once a year, at the start of the rain season, one single drop of water falls onto the cenotaph. As of today, the mistery hasn’t been eluded.

We really took our time to visit it. The light was amazing.

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We went inside the mausoleum and got approached by some guy saying he was an historian. He started to explain a few things about the building in the interior, whowed us the light deflection properties of the stones used to decorate the walls, quite interesting. Could you imagine the speed at which he ran off when I told him that we didn’t have any money? 🙂

We sat for a while, enough for some local ladies to pose next to Bérenger. Nice encounter at the most iconic building dedicated to love héhé.

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Right we’ve spent a good three hours in the park now. It’s time to go. We headed to the entrance, almost walking backwards so we could keep our eyes in the Taj Mahal. You’re going to think that I’m exagerating but no. For me, it’s that captivating! The last step was hard. We have to turn our backs and walk behind the entrance wall. It’s like saying goodbye to a very good friend knowing that you might never see him again (I’ve seen that in movies. You know, a train station, 2 people saying goodbye to each other, the train about to leave, one of them jumps in it at the last second, presses the face against the window, the other runs on the platform for as long as possible… you see what I mean right?). Well, it feels a bit like that. One last look, I print it in my head and I finally take my eyes off it to walk towards the gate. “No, wait! I’ve got to look again!” I run back and watch the most beautiful building of the planet for one very last time and then finally walk out of the park… for good.

We’ve got one last thing to see in Agra before we terminate our stay here: Agra fort. After Delhi, Bikaner, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur and Jaipur, this is the 6th fort that we’re going to visit… I don’t need to tell you that we’re not extremely excited, especially not after visiting the Taj Mahal. I’m glad we did it at the end cause anything else now seems unexceptional. But it is true that Agra fort is one of the finest example of Mughal architecture. Its history is made by the same names that we’ve already come across. Its construction began in 1565 under the reign of Akbar, as a military structure. Its successor Shah Jahan, extended it and made it a palace since Agra was again the capital of the empire after the abandonment of Fatehpur Sikri. It then became his prison when his son Aurangzeb locked him in to take over the throne. White marble and gold were used to show the wealth of the Mughal empire…

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… the hall of public audiences, huge, certainly one of a capital…

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… and the gardens, very pleasant.

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We come out of the fort to meet Vipin on the car park and we’re hassled by vendors of wips and other sort of useless objects, which are being really insisting. They followed us until we got in the car. Now we’re hungry, lets’ go for our last indian meal!

Sat at the table with Vipin, we realise that this is it. Our adventure is finished. It was an amazing trip, we’ve seen wonderful sites, discovered a truly unique culture, had excellent food (although Beber might disagree on that one 🙂 ). Rajasthan really deserves its nickname of “Land of Kings”. Each city had its own fort but yet with their own identity. And colour. My favourite was Jodhpur, the views from Merhangarh over an entirely blue city, the views from the surrounding hills over Merhangarh, the zip line experience, the best chicken tikka at the hotel’s rooftop terrace just under the fort’s walls, all elements were united to make it an unforgettable dtay. Now it’s time to go home and I’m also happy with that. After an another 3 hours to Delhi airport, a warm goodbye to Vipin, a McDonald’s (we really wanted to try the Mac Maharaja), we take off direction London, home.

To finish, a special note to Vipin, our driver. Of excellent company, he always looked after us, made sure we were safe and did his best to give us a fantastic experience. It surely wouldn’t have been the same without him, thank you! And also a special note also to Beber, my travel companion. 😉 On s’est bien marré mec, on en a parfois chié (surtout toi 😉 ) mais ça a été un vrai plaisir de partager ce voyage avec toi et j’ai qu’une hâte c’est d’organiser le suivant.

I’ve found one picture that I thought really summarizes the 12 days, anti-mosquito bracelet at the left hand (which didn’t work), the “Brahma bracelet” from Pushkar at the right hand, the tee shirt smelling like camel (it really stinks) bought in Pushkar too, the belt pocket to hide all our treasures (loads of them), the plastic shoe covers (so trendy) to avoid walking on sacred ground and of course, camera always around the neck to capture these moments!!!

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A bientôt pour la suite des aventures…

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Wild Borneo, Malaysia 2014

Twice! Twice in the past I had planned to go to Borneo but twice I had to cancel. So when my brother told me he was going to spend a year studying in Malaysia, you can imagine what my first thought was… “BORNEO!”. As we all know, studying abroad is more like super long holiday than late nights studying. I am not sure I know anyone who hasn’t had a great time studying abroad for some time. On the other hand if you are a parent and reading this, studying abroad is such a valuable experience to open one’s eyes on the world and broaden one’s mind.

Anyway, so why Borneo? Because it’s one of the last place on Earth where we can observe untouched nature? Yes! Because it’s home to a large number of unique animal species which can only be found here? Yes! And because what makes this island so special is under threat and could simply disappear on the short term? Sadly, that’s a strong “yes” too… So I really want to go and see this natural wonder before it’s gone.

So straight away, I book my time off work, take out my favourite travel guide and start planning the activities. The programme is quite simple: spend a couple of days in Kuala Lumpur (“KL” as the locals call it), search for wildlife in the heart of the jungle and deep underwater and finally climb the highest peak of South East Asia just over 4000m. For the anecdote, I was trying to arrange a 5 day long expedition with a private guide to maximise my chances of spotting rare wildlife. It took 2 months to get a plan I was “kind of” happy about, which he wanted to charge me £3000 for… That is £600 a day! I was left without arrangement only 2 days before the expedition was supposed to start… not great.

Thursday 9 October, straight after work, I take the direction of Heathrow airport for a 13 hour flight to Kuala Lumpur with Malaysia Airlines (at that time, one of their planes was still lost in the indian ocean and another one had been shot down in Ukraine. For me that was just misfortune which means that it’s probably one of the safest airline at the moment.) I got to KL airport late evening, a couple of hours behind schedule, where my brother picked me up. I wanted to get to bed early for an early wake up but the jetlag wasn’t going to let me…

Day 1 – 2 Exploring KL

The programme was pretty much around all there is to do in KL: shop, eat drink and see the Petronas Towers. Shopping we did, at the busy malls for GoPro accessories and trekking gear in preparation of the adventures to come. Eating and drinking we did, at the numerous food stalls and the famous Jalan Alor food street. Seeing the Petronas Towers we did, from every possible angle but unfortunately without clear sky as a photo maniac like me would have hoped for.

When completed in 1998, they were the highest skyscraper in the world, but replaced by Tapei 101 in 2004. Today, they are ranked 9th in the list of the world’s tallest buildings.

Day 3 Kota Kinabalu to Danum Valley Conservation Area

Right, Borneo is a large island, the 4th in the world actually. It is split in 3 regions: Sarawak and Sabah in the North/North West form part of Malaysia, and Kalimantan to the South, part of Indonesia. Yesterday night, I landed in Kota Kinabalu largest town in Sabah. But I want to get away from here as quickly as possible and get to the jungle. The objective for today is simple, getting to Danum Valley Conservation Area. It’s mostly frequented by scientists doing some research on the fauna, flora and the surrounding environment. Consequently, it isn’t set up for welcoming tourists, therefore not a very popular holiday destination. This is exactly why I want to go there. Because there is very few humans, I am hoping that wildlife is more abundant there than in other areas. But it’s also difficult to reach.

I have already booked a flight to get to the closest city, Lahad Datu, hoping to find a way to get picked up and brought to the research centre. To that end, I am going to a travel agency not quite like any other. As you can imagine, there are loads of tourism companies called very similar names such as “Borneo Travel”, “Amazing Borneo”, “Borneo Holidays”, “Borneo Tours”. To me, they clearly state “tourist packages for tourists in tourist places”. In other words, exactly what I DO NOT want. This other company caught my attention as their statement is more like “we’re different”. They offer alternative options and they’re called “Sticky Rice”. An hour in their office and I’ve found the way of getting to Danum Valley, booked 4 nights in the research centre hostel with all meals included and a nature guide for the group*.

* Just me 🙂

That’s perfect timing to now take a taxi, get to the airport, hop on the flight to Lahad Datu and walk over the the Conservation Area office. There I meet Bedley, the guide who is going to take me around for the next few days. All my bags and imagery equipment in the car, we can start the 3 – hour drive to the research centre. Once we get there, it’s already 6pm. From there we have two options, have dinner and get some rest before tomorrow or have dinner and go out into a jungle for a night walk.

So here we are, finding our way at the light of our head lamps. It doesn’t take long before I feel miles away from any sort of civilisation. There is absolutely no light and I can hear nothing but the jungle. In a way, it’s a little bit oppressing but so exciting at the same time. There are several species of rare cats in the area, including the highly endangered clouded leopard. They come out at night to hunt so now is the best time to see one. It know it’s going to require luck, a lot of luck, but I can’t help to hope for it. The first 30 minutes reveal the local, insects, birds but no mammal. I know it’d make bird watchers extremely happy but that’s not my thing. And the difficulty in searching for wildlife is that it’s easy to get demotivated. After an hour of search, I’m starting to lose focus: “I was dreaming! I won’t see any animal, it’s impossible. Researchers stay for months and don’t see them often! … Hold on! …Come on Guillaume what was I thinking? To turn up in the jungle, have a 10-minute promenade and see animals coming to me? Don’t be so naïve, it’s going to take a lot of efforts. And I will only see them if continue searching, day and night!”

We are walking at a very slow pace, listening for any noise and stopping regularly to look into the bushes and up in the trees. Our light will reflect into their eyes and we should see the 2 littles shiny dots looking at us from the bushes. Creepy? Now Bedley has stopped some 5 meters in front of me, he’s fixed his lamp to a bush. “It’s a mouse deer”, he says when I approached quietly. Oh yeah, I can see it… It’s tiny! I mean, it hasn’t been called this way randomly. I’d say it’s about 20-30cm long, the smallest species of deer on the planet. It doesn’t seem bothered by our lights and hangs around for about 10 minutes before going further into the woods. That’s a really cool sighting. Having searched for about 2 hours now and observing the first animal is really exciting and encouraging.

It doesn’t take long before Bedley stops again, looking far ahead on the path. “There is a cat, look ahead!” Hearing that, my heart rate went mad!!! “Clouded leopard?” No it’s a civet. It runs across the path into the bushes. We approach quietly to try and see it… what happens next is on the video 🙂

Have you ever heard of the Kopi Luwak? Supposingly the best coffee in the world? Well, the coffee cherries are eaten by an animal which digestive system let the beans out and give them a special flavour. They are recolted in the animal’s scats and then sold to up to $600 a cup. (you read well, up to $600 for a single cup). Well the animal in question is a palm civet, similar species to the one we’ve just seen. Thinking about it now, I should have gone after its poop to try and make some money 🙂

A couple of hours and another mouse deer later, we get back to the research centre. It’s 1 am. Bedley and I agree to be up at 5:30am to climb the observation tower and watch the sun rise from there. The night is going to be short…

Day 4 Danum Valley Conservation Area

The alarm rings and it wouldn’t take much to convince myself to stay in bed for another couple of hours. But my motivation of seeing wildlife is still intact and manages to get me up. The reward for the effort doesn’t take long to come, a group of read leaf monkeys are just over the main track of the research centre. You see their redish fur? Well you can imagine that my obsession for seeing rare animals led me to confuse them for orang utans at first… idiot!

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So… what are we looking for today? The rare clouded leopard car comes out at night so what comes out during the day? Well orang utans as I’ve just mentioned, pigmy elephants (they’re big I know but rare still) and the bornean rhinoceros. Nobody knows how many individuals of the latter are left but their number is estimated to be under 20…

The climb up the observation tree isn’t as easy as expected. The resin being that the ladder is “caged” for safety reasons and my tripod attached to my bag keeps getting stuck between the metal wires. It’s better be worth it! Once at 30 meters, we stand above most of the rainforest. I say most because some trees are as high as 80m. The spectacle is mostly auditive. As the sun comes up, the jungle awakes. Birds being their sweet melody as the mist enlightens. I sit there for 30 minutes without making any movement not to disturb the surrounding peace.

Back on the groud, reality hits back… leeches are everywhere. They’ll stay on a leaf, “smell” you arrive, extend their long thin body to reach you and try to sneak in any king of hole they can find in your clothing to get to your skin. And eventually suck your blood!

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They also generate an anti clotting particule. So even when they’re fed, you will keep bleeding for another few hours. That’s how I discovered I had been bitten, when I saw a big stain of blook on me tee shirt… really not nice.

By the way, how do you imagine my outfit to go trekking? Brown and green clothing, muddy rangers, Indiana Jones hat, machete on the side?

Hum, not really… I’ve got red and yellow shoes, light blue pyjamas, white tee shirt and yellow bag. Definitely closer to Harlequin than Indian Jones…

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The rythm of the day is based on the meal times. Breakfast at 8, lunch at 12 and dinner at 6. We spend the time in between searching in the forest. But today has not been successful at all. I’m sitting down with Bedley waiting for dinner to be ready and so far we’ve haven’t seen a single animal… nada. I am trying to see it the positive way. I will be so much more excited when I see one of the animals I’m looking for. Or even better, Mother Nature is keeping everything for the last day, a little bit like the Grand Finale of the New Year’s Eve fireworks 🙂

The night walk didn’t really offer us much more. I saw a couple of cameleons, which is quite cool and a sambar deer on the way back to the centre. Opposite to the mouse deer, the sambar deer is the largest species of all on the planet. As today didn’t quite work out, I am more determined than ever. Tomorrow, we’ll be up at 5am for a morning walk and then we’ll head further into the jungle for a day long trekk. May we be more furtunate.

Day 5 Danum Valley Conservation Area

This morning, the alarm rings even earlier, at 5am. It’s my last day, I haven’t seen any rare wildlife so I’ll spend every single minute looking. The sunrise walk takes us to a old burial site. The sungai kinabatangan (people of the river), used to bury their dead over the river banks. As always, the objective is the observe rare wildlife on the way… but no.

Nevermind, I haven’t had that much energy for a long time. We swallow our breakfast very quickly, grab some sandwichs for lunch and head to a remote waterfall, 7km away from camp. It doesn’t sound like much but because of the terrain and our walking pace, it’s going to take us the whole day. I also means that the path is even less frequented. After two hours, we hear some movements up in the trees, it’s obviously a monkey. Straight away, I’m thinking “Orang Utan”, like if it was the only ape living in the rainforest… No it’s actually a Bornean Gibbon, very thin body, extremely long arms, can travel up to 30km in a day and is also highly protected. But at the moment, I can only see moving leaves and hear cracking branches. Until its curiosity leads him to show up in the open to observe us. We observe each other for a few seconds until he goes back hiding further under the jungle canopy. Apparently, he is a juvenile because of the size… seemed fairly tall to me.

That’s a very promising start for the day as we continue to get deeper into the rainforest. There is a number of orang utan’s nests but they’re all empy. No sign of the red-hair great ape. Soon we reach a clearing in the dense rainforest. A small stream flows into the main river building a number of crystal clear pools into the rock. There are also many signs of humans here: kitchenware, tooth brush and tooth paste, drying cloths and more. We find the camp just on the other side, very basic. It’s made of 6 vertical large branches, some more horizontal to make a straight platform and plastic covers on top. They are supposingly researchers that are doing some tree identification work. They’re absent so we continue our way via a suspended bridge to the other side of the river.

Now we are on the other side but it’s not very clear which way to go. We take to decision to follow the most logical option and continue our walk. But this part is a lot less enjoyable than this morning. There is a lot of chopped wood on the forest floor to clear the way for a big water pipe. That goes on and on until we see a sign for short trails around the reasearch centre… S***, we’re going in the wrong direction. There is no time to lose, let’s quickly turn back and reach the more “animal friendly” part of the forest. It’s 2pm when we make it back to the camp we saw earlier, where we probably took the wrong direction. Hopefully, the researchers are back and can help us finding our way. But in the mean time, we allow ourselves a little break for lunch in this wonderful setting… but first, let’s have a little dip.

This is one of those moments that make life so worthwhile. Covered in sweat, mud and blood from several hours of hiking, I get to relax in a very cool river, deep in the jungle of Borneo, far from civilisation and for only noise the songs of tropical birds… delightful…

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(I’m right now sitting on my couch, writing this and looking at the rain falling outside my window… so depressing. Can I go back there?)

The guys at the camp say that the waterfall we are trying to get to is still a long way. We have limited hours of daylight left so we’re heading back to the research centre. Apparently, they’ve spotted big broken branches on the floor which are signs of large male orang utans… fingers crossed. But instead, we are granted of a typical tropical rain, the kind that get someone drenched in a few seconds. Being my last hours in the jungle, I’m really starting to despair. It’s not even possible to look up in those conditions, a single rain drop is as big as my eye.

However, it seems to calm down as we arrive at our hostel. I reckon we still have another 45 minutes of daylight. In which case, let’s go out again. And Bedley, as always, is up for it. So far I haven’t been an easy guest, in bed at 1am, up at 5am, hiking in the jungle all the time, no break and yet he is always keen to go, a large smile on his face. Thanks mate 😉

Now that night has fallen, it’s time for the night walk. We are going to stay on the dirt road, the park rangers have told us some elephants could be around. We walk for 4 hours but no sign of life. In one occasion, we saw the shiny eyes of a cat reflecting the light of our torches in the middle of the road… but it was dead. Now I’m thinking the car takes me back to town at 7:30am tomorrow, we should have some time to have a short walk in the morning! Bedley? “Yes, sure”. Let’s set the alarm at 5am again then 🙂 Just before going to bed, I need to go to the dining area to get some telephone signal. On the way I am still pointing my torch to the trees, just in case I am lucky. But it doesn’t need to be that hard, two sambar deers are eating grass next to the road a few meters from me. What’s the point of spending hours in the jungle if the animals are coming inside the camp? It’s not really what I’m so keen to se but still proof that the wildlife is here, hopefully tomorrow will be the Grand Finale I am dreaming of.

Day 6 Danum Valley to Mabul Island

Easiest wake up of the week yet, I’ve got an hour left in the jungle for some great time. Unfortunately, there is not enough time to go very far. I get to see some long tail macaques. But they’re not rare, you can see them in the jungle as well as in cities. Coming back to camp at 7am really means the end of this expedition in Danum Valley, there is no more “last chance”. But, hey! Once I have picked up the little brother, Florent, in Lahad Datu, we’re heading to Mabul Island for some great diving, incl at one of the best dive sites in the world Sipadan Island. So I’m sure we’ll see plenty more.

Now we can’t lose time. I really want to spend the night on the island, not on the mainland town of Semporna. After so much efforts, I can’t wait for this cold beer on the beach later today. Luckily everything goes to plan, the bus from Lahad Datu to Semporna, getting to Semporna Harbour and catching the last boat to Mabul Island. We’re staying at Mabul beach resort, operated by Scuba Junkie. When we stepped on the jetty, divers were unloading their gear, talking about their dives… maaaan, I really want to get in the water. We only take 5 minutes to drop our bags, get changed with swimming shorts (which are going to be our clothes for the next 5 days) and grab some snorkels to swim between jettys. Even with only 2 meters of water, the life is really abundant, cornet fish, scorpion fish and many more. I can only imagine what it’s going to be like tomorrow when putting the tanks on and going deeper. 🙂

Day 7 Diving at Mabul

Today, my brother and I are going to follow separate paths. I’m going diving while he’s… staying in a classroom, héhé! Well, he needs his advanced open water course before going to Sipadan. We’ve been told we’ve got more chance to see hammerheads sharks below 20m.

The pace of life at Mabul Beach Resort is all based on dive times. Boat ropes off at 9:30am, gets back a 11am for tea time, leaves again at 12, gets back at 1:30pm for lunch and finally leaves at 2:30 for the third and last dive of the day. Unfortunately, there are no night dives here. The area is frequented by pirates and a few tourists have been kidnapped in the last few months. What do you think of when I say pirates? Wooden leg, eye patch, tricorn hat and a parrot on the shoulder? Haha, me too 🙂 Would you imagine at the end of your night dive, you reach the surface and Jack Sparrow pulls you out of the water: “You’re coming with me on the Black Pearl my friend!”.

The first day of diving wasn’t really exceptional. There was alot of the things you’d expect to see, corals, tropical fish, stingrays but nothing out of the ordinary… until the safety stop of the third dive. We were about to go back to the surface when I see a huge turtle on the reef… I approach and realise it’s probably as big as me… Yes I told you, it’s huge. After a few minutes laying down, it lifts off and start swimming just in front of me… WOW! This is exceptional! This massive turtle is a couple of meters away from my face and I could touch it if I wanted to. There are even 3 remoras on its belly. That turtle has just made my day. I can come up to the surface, I’ve had an amazing day diving. 🙂 🙂 🙂

Now at the resort’s bar, I have re-joined Florent and we can share our stories over this well deserved chilled beer. (Another one of those amazing life moment 😉 )

Day 8 – 10 Diving at Mabul with a GoPro

My GoPro will come with me on every dive now. There is no other way to tell a story than showing it in images…

Mabul island isn’t very big and it doesn’t take long to walk around it. It’s also inhabited by fishermen and the Bajau people, living at the pace of the sea. They extremely friendly and will say “hi” to us every time with a large smile.

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We’ve got an excellent view of the sunset and the Bajau village from an abandoned jetty.

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Where we have the company of children, fishing, and even a turtle we can see in the water.

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Day 11 Sipadan 😀 😀 😀

The day has come, we’re going to Sipadan. The boat ropes off at 6:30am. I’ve checked very thoroughly that I have all my equipment. I’d be stupid to forget a fin on the jetty… The sea is flat and the 45 minutes journey is enjoyable. The excitement is building up… Sipadan is a natural reserve and we need to check in on the island before getting in the water. There are a limited number of diving permits per day. So if you’re thinking of going, I recommend you book in avance to avoid being disappointed.

After the safety briefing, Dave, our divemaster, explains that we are going to dive a site called Barracuda Point. So far, I’ve dived in Manta Point but didn’t see any Mantas, Eel Garden but didn’t see any eel, Shark Allew but didn’t see any shark and more. My expectation of seeing barracudas is therefore very low. But it’s going to be an amazing dive anyway with guaranteed sharks, turtles and massive schools of fish. I let you see for your self 😉

Sipadan is mind blowing. The pages on my dive logbook are not big enough to write everything that we saw. Sadly, it marks the end of our stay on Mabul. A part of me is thinking: “this is paradise, let’s stay another couple of days!”, but the other: “no, let’s move to our next destination. We’ve still got a lot to see!” Not even half an hour after we’ve come back from Sipadan, we are already on another boat, direction mainland.

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We’ve made all travel arrangements to get to a town called Sukau. It’s located on the Kinabatangan river, another major wildlife sanctuary in Borneo. We’re also going to be staying with a local family, this is a great chance of sharing their way of living and discovering their culture.

We reach our destination at 11pm, Bam welcomes us to his house. We have a quick chat over a cup of tea. He is the chief of the homestay program called Balai Kito. He is also managing a conservation NGO called Hutan which is doing a lot of work on the Kinabatangan river. It’s actually one of their member who is going to guide us tomorrow to observe wildlife, can’t wait. 🙂

Day 12 Kinabatangan River

We’re on the boat at 5:30am. Early morning is one of the best time to see wildlife as the temperature isn’t too high. It’s even a little bit chilly with the wind of the boat. But it is soon forgotten when the boat stops for the first time, he’s spotted a group of proboscis monkeys. I was looking forward to see them. This species of monkey has quite a unique look, a large nose in the middle of the face. They’re even sometimes called long-nosed monkey. The proboscis monkey is classified as endangered according to the IUCN Red List and can only be found on the island of Borneo.

We are actually looking at females, which have a smaller nose than I expected (still you can’t miss it though).

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Every group is composed of a large number of females and a single dominant male. Unfortunately we can’t find it this time.

A little later, there is a long-tail monkey on the river bank…

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… and his baby not far hiding behind the leaves.

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The guide and the boat driver slow down and talk about something they’ve seen (I guess). There are fresh prints of elephants in the mud, probably from this morning. They look into the jungle to see if they’re still here but it seems they’re gone. To me it’s amazing that a large animal like an elephant can be so hard to spot. They even travel in herds so you should hear them and see the trees moving from kilometers away… But it seems we are not lucky this time either.

We continue our cruise on the river looking in the trees. I never see anything anyway but the boat driver’s eye is exceptional. He slown down again, I turn around and ask to the guide what he’s seen: “Orang utan”. OH! I jump on the boat, grab my camera and start screeing the forest. Here it is…

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That’s fantastic… I’ve been looking for Orang Utans for 3 days in Danum Valley and finally I see one. They’re a lot more difficult to spot than other primates. First of all, because they’re solitary so they’re a lot more discreet. Second of all, because they don’t jump from branch to branch, they swing. So they don’t create the disturbance to the jungle’s silence that other monkeys do. And finally, because the Orang Utan is an expert in hiding which he soon demonstrated by disappearing into the foliage.

Borneo is also home to the diversity diversity of snakes on the planet. But until now I haven’t seen one, until now…

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We cross the path of a pig tail monkey who apparently just woke up. “OOOOOOOAAAAAAHHHHH!… I wouldn’t mind staying in bed for a bit longer…”

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The baby long tail monkeys are probably the funniest to photograph 🙂

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On the way back to the jetty, I spot some movements on the river bank probably 100m away. At the start I’m not convinced there is an animal there. But as we get closer, I can definitely see there are 2 of them on the sand. They are long, thin and move relatively fast. At first I take them for monitor lizards, we’ve seen already a few of them. Wrong! We’re looking at 2 otters, which apparently are very hard to see. They’re shy, will hide from humans and will do it fast.

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Back at Bam,’s house, we are served a huge breakfast. There are so many things, we will never be able to eat this much. And it’s excellent too, fried bananas, fresh fruit juice, cakes, rice, noodles and much more. I have to admit I was a little hungry, so I’m trying a bit of everything. Now we’ve got plenty of time until our next boat cruise around 4pm. It’s the occasion for have a long chat with Bam about his conservation activities. He’s done a lot of seminars around the world about wildlife protection. He manages a team of people with the objective to replant trees and reconstitute the rainforest, develop wildlife awareness in the area and beyond, help generate revenue for everyone in the village. He’s promoting tourism as a protection strategy. If visitors come to Borneo to observe wildlife and all the population benefits from it, it will then dissuade the locals to kill it. He actually explains that some of the boat drivers and host families used to be poachers. His little organisation has supported a reconversion which benefits the ecosystem as well as the local population. Of course it’s necessary to ban illegal poaching and punish those who do. But some people will not do poaching by choice but by necessity, to earn money and feed their family. It’s important to create alternative sources of revenue which will dissuade them from poaching. What Bam is doing here with Hutan and Balai Kito Homestays is remarkable. I definitely recommand it to anyone who’d like to go wildlife spotting in Borneo.

After lunch, the kids want to play a spintop game with us. But first, they need to install the play area. They grab 2 large wooden plaques to bring them on the terrace. But instead of walking around the little wall, they’ve chosen to climb it, plaques in hand… They find some stairs pillars to lay down around the play area. Then they take a wheelbarrow to the back of the dry and grassless garden. It gets filled up with concrete blocks. Everything goes well at first, when all 3 of them join their efforts into bringing the cargo to the terrace. It turns to disaster when two of them disappear and leave their brother alone to cross a ditch. The wheel gets trapped, the bucket rocks to the side and empty its load… Nevermind, he takes them all back in straight away, brings them over to the terrace and places them around the wooden pillars. The arena is now ready!

Now they explain to Florent and me the rules. We need to wind a piece of cord around the big spintop and then throw it into the arena. The last to remain wins. Sound easy? Well I can’t even get the thing to spin… And I’m being laughed at by an 8 year-old kid… :s After some more technical explainations, I manage to understand how to do it and we can play a few rounds. They have so much energy, they’re running everywhere, fighting each other when I can’t even move because of the heat and humidity. So I take my camera our to capture the great moments we are sharing with our hosts. But I didn’t realise it was going to be confiscated from me by the youngest boy. He is fascinated by it and takes pictures of everything and anything. He’s literally filled up my memory cards with shots of me…

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…my hands…

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… the spintops…

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… a little terror 😉

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Time has come for the next boat cruise and we’re heading to the jetty with the the older brother. The sun is still quite high in the sky and the air hot, the wildlife is hiding. Our first encounter is with a couple of oriental pied hornbills.

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We find another group of proboscis monkeys, in the trees right above us. And this time, I find the dominant male and his big potato nose. 🙂

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Did you notice the turbulences in the aire which seems to be coming from his armpits? Wonder what it is… smell? hormones? haha

We cross the path of a number of kingfishers, extremely colourful tiny bird.

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A couple of wrinkled hornbills.

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At dusk, one more species of primate, the silver leaf monkey.

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Just after dinner, we go again on the water for a night cruise. The boat has a massive light projector to look for animals in the trees. He soon spots a owl in a branch hanging over the river and a few other birds. But the most amazing was yet to come. We were some 15 meters from the first tree that the boat stopped. “He must have seen something” I thought. He gets closer, passes under a couple of trees and shows us what he was. There is a tiny baby crocodile in the water… The guy saw it from 20 meters away, between branches and in the dark… Impressive.

Well today was a fruitful day to say the least. I can’t believe how much wildlife we saw, even an orang utan. I couldn’t have been better. We’ve got one last cruise tomorrow morning, I am sure there will still be plenty to see.

Day 13 Kinabatangan River and Kinabalu National Park

As usual, we’re going to try to fit as many activities as possible into today. Alarm rings at 5am for one last boat cruise. We’ve already been lucky so far but we could get even luckier, who knows?

It starts with nothing more common than a monitor lizard laying on a tree trunk.

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To something slightly more special, a stork-billed kingfisher.

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and an Anhinga (also called snake bird because of its neck)

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To the greatest of all sightings, a second wild orang utan.

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It happened, again, when I was the least expecting it. We were on our way back, going at reasonable speed and I was now thinking that it’s the end and we’re not going to see much more. I wasn’t even looking in the trees anymore. And that’s when the boat driver stopped to show us one last time the red hair great ape. So, to anyone going on a wildlife spotting expedition of any sort, lower your expectations to the maximum and let Mother Nature surprise you when she’s ready. 😉

Back at the house, we’ve got an hour before our taxi driver comes to pick us up and take us back to the main road. From there the plan is to stop a bus which is likely to go to Kota Kinabalu and we’ll ask him to drops us off at the entrance of Kinabalu National Park. Nothing’s been booked, I have no idea of the bus times nor I’m really sure that the bus will stop on demand to pick us up and drop us off. But I’m sure we’ll find a way. In the mean time, let’s have another great breakfast, sit down with the entire family watching tv and finally say goodbye. They’ve been wonderful hosts and we’ve really felt like home, Terimah Kasih!

On the way we are stopping at Gomantong Caves, a large cave system inside a limestone hill. There is a 10 minutes walk from the park entrance to get to the cave… but you can smell it well before you can even see it! Yes, that’s right! They’re inhabited by an incredible number of bats which generate an incredible amount of bit shit! Hills of bat shit actually, look for yourself.

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The air here in unbreathable. It’s extremely acid, oxygen seems to be absent. I can only walk around the cave with my tee shirt over my nose (which quite frankly doesn’t smell like rose either but it’s a Channel perfume compared to the ambient air). You can also imagine what a feast it is for cockroaches… they’re everywhere. The path is covered of them, a muddy bat shit hill underneath… BEURK!

Needless to say, we do not linger in this hostile environment. And we also have a bus to catch. We get back to the car now hoping that our travel plan will go smoothly. And we couldn’t hope for better!

The car dropps us off on the side of the road and we are just taking our luggage out of the book when the bus arrives. It stopps, loads our stuff and has no problem dropping us off where we need. Brilliant! We reach our destination six hourse later, and now we’ve got only half an hour to walk with our barda to the hotel, Kinabalu Mountain Lodge. It’s a bit chilly, we’re in altitude and inside the cloud. So when we get there, the view from the balcony is pretty limited.

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We spend the rest of the afternoon relaxing, reading books with hot drinks. We need to reboost the energy levels before the last expedition of our Borneo trip tomorrow, the climb of Mount Kinabalu at 4095m.

Day 14-15 Mount Kinabalu hike

In the morning, the cloud is gone and the view much more pleasant.

 

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We don’t hang around too long and soon take off to the Kinabalu National Park entrance. The climb is a two day expedition. On the first day, we go up to 3200m to the refuge of Laban Rata, where we’ll spend the night. On the second day, we start at 3am to complete the ascend to the summit and then come all the way back down. This activity is highly regulated, so there are many things to sort out, guide, permits, conservation fees, etc upon arrival. (There always is a debate of what’s more economical between a package deal or taking care of everything yourself. Based on my experience, I would recommand to book the night at Laban Rata refuge (about 800MYR) and then do the rest when you get there. This way you have the guarantee that you will be able to do the hike and you do pay for a third party to do the arrangements for you. It worked all well for us.)

After an hour to sort everything out, we meet with our guide Cigu (below with the green tee shirt) and we begin our climb at around 9am. The clear and sunny sky we had this morning has already been replaced by a grey and humid fog.

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On the way, we cross the path of many locals carrying heavy loads, strap on the head. My guess is that they’re bringing supplies for the Laban Rata resthouse. We’ve got fancy bags with reinforcements here and here, comfort paddings in the back, straps everywhere… they’ve got nothing more than a potato bag with 2 strings but yet carry a lot more weight. I can only imagine their pain…

We’ve now been hiking for a couple of hours. There are definitely lots of people on the trail, no chance of being alone and enjoy a peaceful hike. The commonality between those people is the suffering they seem to be going through. In a way, it’s normal. Who would expect a 4000m peak to be easy? Many travel guides will confirm that by writing it’s incredibly hard. But there is a simple reason for that. It’s one of the only peaks in the area accessible to pretty much anyone, physically fit or not. So many people will attempt it, without prior preparation, and that’s hard. But a little bit of training and it’ll be as easy as a sunday promenade. For me, that was my first physical effort since I cam back from Mont Blanc. I was a little bit nervous about my knee as I know it’s not fully recovered. But actually, it’s only causing me a little bit of discomfort and nothing else.

Above 2900m, the environment changes suddenly. There are no more high trees with dense vegetation. They’ve been replaced by smaller bushes a lot mroe scarce. That’s the effect of altitude.

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After 3 and a half hours of hiking, we reach the refuge of Laban Rata.

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Whoo! It feels right to sit down in the warmth of the common room, drinking a hot coffee. Later in the evening, the clouds disappear for a very brief moment, giving a beautiful sunset over Laban Rata and the higher peaks. Tomorrow, that’s where we’re going

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1:30am… The alarm rings. It doesn’t even feel like it’s a different day. We are ready by 2am to have some breakfast and head for the summit as soon as possible to avoid the big crowd. And we do! We step into the dark, headlamps on, and after a few hundred meters, we’ve taken over the few groups who left before us. We are progressing very slowly through the dark. We’ve left all our stuff at the resthouse, we’re going to get it back on the way down… apart from all my camera gear (body, 4 lenses, tripod and other accessories). I still have a good 10kg on my back. It becomes slighly inconvenient when we need to climb a very smooth surface of rock by grabbing a cord and pulling ourselves up.

As we are still alone, I’m starting to imagine ourselves reaching the summit first. It should be quite special to be there alone, without any other tourists to bread the silence. But for that, we need to continue our progress at a steady pace.

We are reaching the last check point of the ascent, to show our climbing permits. I realise that there is another guy right behind us, he seems quick. As I imagined, I took us over only a few meters after the little office, creating a gap between us. Damn it! Nevermind, we will still be second which should be unique. As far as the landscape is concerned, there is no more vegetation. We are on a rock plateau which rises continuously until the horizon. There are a number of peaks around us, which I take, one by one, for the summit until I realise it’s a little further. We’ve now reached the 3900m mark, we’re getting closer. The gradient is increasing little by little until we reach the bottom of Low’s peak, highest point of Borneo. From there, it looks like a pile of large rocks creating a very steep climb. I can’t even see the top, only the light of the guy ahead of us. At this height, the air is thinner, the oxygen rarer. We get out of breath relatively quickly.

I reach the summit without even realising it when our fit climbing friend tells me so. “Really? Are we at the top already? YOUHOU??” Ladies and gentlemen, welcome at 4095m! 🙂

 

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We are not exactly alone but in a small enough number (3) to enjoy being at the top of the island. The topography of Mount Kinabalu is unique. it rises from sea level (or just bit more) to 4000m. It means that from where we are, we enjoy a 360° view over the entire island, 4000m below, impressive. The sky is clear, we can see the stars, the milky way. An hour later, the sun starts to rise and light pierces through the darkness. We are in the front row for a breathtaking sun rise…

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The sun is risen, we need to start making our way down. It’s a long way to go to the bottom. Quickly, I notice the shadow of the peak extending on the plain and to the sea.

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It doesn’t matter in which direction we look, the view is endless.

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Looking back, I can fully appreciate the height of Low’s peak.

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I hate hiking down. It’s so hard on the legs, on the knees, on the feet. You constantly have to refrain your body from rolling down… urgh! I am glad we are doing this in two stages. First, getting down to Laban Rata is done in a bit more than an hour. We relax a little bit, take our second breakfast, pack our bags and begin the second phase: down to the bottom. For most of the distance, we are alone and enjoy the peaceful hike I like. The people coming down are still behing us and those coming up are not that far yet. We meet the first climbers around 45 minutes from the bottom. It’s all very polite, lots of greetings, especially from a group of guys wearing the same tee shirt with the same logo. They’re very enthusiastic to see us, shake our heads with huge smiles on their face. After we’ve met two dozens of them, I can’t help but ask one to what organisation they belong to

“Prison”, he says

“Prison officers”, he corrects.

Pfiou! I think he’s seen my face change colour after his first reply. So now I’m sure we can complete the hike safely, nothing will happen to us. 🙂

We reach the park entrance just before 12 o’clock, grab a bite in the restaurant and jump on a taxi to Kota Kinabalu. We didn’t realise we could be in town so early, so we’ve got free time between now and tomorrow afternoon. I am sure you know what I like to do after some much efforts? That’s right, having a cold beer… a few of them actually. I also like to eat well. So later in the evening we walked around the night market, which is always special in south east asia and have dinner there. A few more beers listening to local singers put an end to a very long day.

Day 16 Kota Kinabalu

This morning I have the traditional blues of holiday end. It’s the last day and tonight we’re going back home. I’ve chosen to optmise my holiday to the maximum so I’ll be landing at 5am and be at work at 9am. Ouch! In other words, I’ll be at work in 24 hours.

It’s even harder that Borneo is wonderful. Feeling lost in the middle of old primary rainforest in Danum Valley, diving in a natural aquarium at Sipadan, spotting lots of wildlife and sharing the life of the local people at Kinabatangan river and finally hiking above the cloud to the highest mountain of the island for a unique view, Sabah is a concentration of natural wonders. Unfortunately, this fragile environment is under threat. Most of the animals we’ve seen (and the ones we haven’t) are endangered because of illegal hunting and destruction of their habitat to the benefit of palm oil plantations (much more lucrative). It seems that the right measures are being taken to prevent further harm to the rainforests and its inhabitants. Only it might be too late… I have read that orang utans used to be able to cross the island (almost the size of France) without touching the ground. Now they’re secluded in small pockets of protected forests.

We can help!!! If you’re thinking of travelling to Borneo, you can make sure your money benefits the local people and the natural environment. Try to find local organizations that are involved in doing conservation work and employing the locals. Hopefully, tourism and the revenue is generates will support the economy of Sabah and further enhance the need to protect the wildlife. I’d love to show my kid a wild orang utan, just like the ones he would have seen in the jungle book, I’m sure you do too!

It’s 3pm, we are heading to the airport in order to catch our flight to Kuala Lumpur. From there I will board an A380 with great in-flight entertainment system to cross the planet… Well not quite yet, the flight has been delayed of 13 hours. There is a technical problmen which need fixing. And knowing what have Malaysia Airlines been through in 2014, I won’t argue with that. Take your time!

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On two continents, Istanbul 2014

It’s early September here in the UK, the summer is over. Days are much shorter, rainy and colder, it’s the best time to visit some warmer place. Istanbul will do. I’ve always been curious about this city. Is it in Asia or Europe? Well, it’s on both actually. But not only geographically Istanbul shows two distinct faces, historically too. Capital of the powerful Roman Empire and bastion of Christianity in Eastern Europe for hundred of years, it fell to the Muslims in 1453, becoming the islamic capital of the great Ottoman Empire. Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul, three evocative names for a powerful capital, evidence of its long and rich past.

It’s 4 in the morning when I land in Ataturk airport just outside Istanbul. I haven’t had much sleep but there is certainly no time for this. By the time I drop my bags in the hostel in the borough of Sultanahmet, the sun is rising and it’s the best time to start exploring the historic centre. A few minutes walk later, I get the first glimpse at the imposing Blue Mosque.

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It was commissioned by sultan Ahmed I in 1609 and completed in 1616 with 6 minarets, same as only one other mosque on the planet at the time, the Ka’aba in Mecca. It was seen very presomptuous and generated controversy in the muslim world. Another one was shortly built to the Ka’aba, and another four since then, for a total of eleven today.

On the other side of Sultanahmet park is the famous Aya Sofya, greatest evidence of the city’s history. It was built as a cathedral in 537 by the emporor Justinian, got turned into a mosque in 1453 when the muslim conquered the capital and is now a museum since 1935 thanks to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, first president of Turkey. The monument we see today is in fact the third attempt after the first two disappeard into flames in 404 and 532. It was in the 6th century, and still is today, a marvel of architecture, a majestuous an unrivaled interior.

 

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Just a few hundred meters away is the Bisilica Cistern. Also built under Emperor Justinian command in 532, the gigantic chamber, supported by 336 columns, could keep 80,000 cubic meters of water brought via an aquaduc from the Black Sea. Forgotten by the city authorities, it was rediscovered by the Ottoman only in 1545 but used as a trash dump, even to throw dead bodies. It was cleaned in 1985 so visitors could admire this underground water reservoir.

 

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Most of the day, the mosques here in Istanbul are closed to tourists for prayer time. It only opens for a few hours and the famous Blue Mosque is opening in about… now. I feel much better visiting a religious monument during “tourist time”. It’s not common around the world and usually it’s possible to enter at any time. But it means there are people inside, praying and making offerings or other religious rituals specific of certain cultures. Therefore, I always feel like I’m disturbing them, the peace of the place and rarely spend more than a few minutes having a look around. Now, I should be able to spend enough time looking at this amazing monument.

By the time I get there, the sky has gone pretty dark, not a great sign for the following few hours. I just hope that it won’t explode until I’m inside. The courtyard is impressive by its size and the number of people it can hold. There was hundreds of tourists but it didn’t really feel crowded.

 

 

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But it does feel more crowded when the hundreds of tourists all want to get inside the mosque. It took me about 45 minutes of queing, under a threatening sky before I could enter. As in any muslim edifice, you need to take your shoes off before entering. The interior is at the image of the exterior, huge and nicely decorated surfaces.

 

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It was built and designed to rival its neighbour Aya Sofya. I am not sure it achieves such an ambitious objective but it is still a remarkable work of art.

When I come out, the sky hasn’t changed at all. I have a bit of a walk now, since I’m going to the Bazaar District to see… the Grand Bazaar, where hopefull I can get some lunch. Since I’m in Turkey, I’m definitely going to have a kebab. 🙂

Luckily, I made it to the bazaar dry… just. Almost as I walked into the undeground giant market, it started to rain very heavily. Ouf! Now the plan is to explore as much as possible of this labyrinth, find something to eat and potentially find a souvenir.

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Just after lunch, I thought I’d get a tea as I could see locals running around with trays full of the hot beverage in small little glasses. (no milk here) When I saw where it came from in a little corner, I approached and asked for one myself. The guy looked really surprised and confused. So he served one in a small paper cup… it was so hot I couldn’t even hold it! The few people around me were smiling at the scene. So I looked at the one closest to me and asked (nicely of course): “what’s so funny? Why do I get a paper cup and you all have nice glass tea cups”, “This place is not for tourists”, he said. He also joked that the guy making tea didn’t want me to stay and this is why I’ve got the paper cup so I could walk with it. A few laughs and my tea is transferred into a the same glass tea cups they all have, I’m happy. 😉

It’s a place full of life, bargaining is the rule and the range of products available is unbelievable: art, meat, fruits, jewellry, clothing, accessories, kitchenware, decorations, everything.

 

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I had also planned to remember where I came from so I could find my way back. If you are going there, don’t bother, you will get lost no matter what you do. And in a way, you’ve got to. There are so many hidden narrow streets that are only awaiting to be discovered. Allow enough time to fully appreciate the charm of the place and practice your negotiation skills. Me? I tried to buy a shisha. But after the first merchant literally turned back on me after I told him how much I had to spend and the second also ignored me right in the middle of our chat for a woman, I thought these were signs that I shouldn’t be buying this thing. Fine I’ll head north to the Spice Bazaar and I’m sure I’ll find plenty more there.

And I did, this bazaar is a lot smaller, a couple of streets, but mostly selling sweets and spices.

Dried fruits…

 

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… lokums, a Turkish delicacy…

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… lots of spices of course (it’s not called Spice Bazaar for no reason)…

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… dried flowers…

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… and other dried… things…

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… more lokums…

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… more dried fruits…

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… more spices…

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… and even soap.

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I head back to the hostel, rest for a couple of hours (much deserved after a day which essentially started like 36 hours ago), get ready to go out for dinner and head out to look for a restaurant, hopefully with great views over the Blue Mosque or Aya Sofya.

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But it’s quite difficult to find a quality restaurant in Sultanahmet. Reviews all report tourists traps and high prices only for the sake of a great view. But there seems to be one standing out, quite literally. It’s at the top of a 6-floor hotel, on the edge of Sultanahmet Park and offers great views over the Old City and it’s monuments. It’s called Cihannuma, reviews are good so I’ll try that one. I’m lucky enough to get a table on the good side, but you should book in advance if you don’t want to be disappointed. Mix of grilled meats on the menu, under the well know name of Kebab, a cold beer and a great vew… pleasant dinner 😉

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After dusk, the Old City is lit up with warm colours.

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In the following morning, the plan is to start by visiting the luxurious Topkapi palace. It is built to accomodate the sultan, his wives and children and their thousands of servants. Every room is beautfilly decorated, from top to bottom.

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There are several courtyards so the inhabitants of the palace could spend time outdoor, relax, without ever leaving the palace.

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Every single room has its own purpose, even a circumcision room with a sign “pushchairs forbidden” shown at the entrance…

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When entering the Harem, I walked into an intricate network of narrow corridors, small rooms, all built for providing privacy to the sultan and the 300 concubines it could host.

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The private quarters of the imperial family are extremely luxurious, every single wall surface covered in colourful tiles. Inside…

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… and outside.

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In short the location of the Topkapi palace also applies to the various influences in its architecture: between Asia and Europe. I could recognise features of north Indian fortresses we saw in Rajasthan as well as shapes similar to Europen castles, all blended into the unique Ottoman style.

Later in the day, I crossed the Golden Horn and stepped into Beyoglu, which seems to be the lively area of Istanbul. Not much history there but a lot of shops, bars, restaurants. The main street of Istiklal Caddesi is packed with people hanging out, doing shopping on a nice Sunday afternoon.

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The city authorities have banned bars and terraces from the main street so they’ve all relocated into the small parallel streets. It’s a very chilled and relaxed atmosphere. I can’t help but sit down at a table of one of these cafes, drink a cold beer and observe people chatting and playing games in the shadow of vine leaves.

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I’ve worked out where I need to be for the sunset tonight for a great view over the city: Galata Tower. The timing will be challenging, I’ve booked a shuttle at my hostel to the airport at 8:30 but the sun probably won’t be down until 8, which leaves only just the time I need to get back. I’ll need to run down the hill, take the tramway and then run from the station to the meeting point. When I get there, I’m surprised at how long the queue is. It circles around the tower, to the point that I can’t see the entrance. Luckily, I had planned some margin, so after an hour of waiting, a fight between locals, an argument about my tripod and a lift ride, I’m finally at the top of Galata Tower watching the sun set over the Bosphorus and Istanbul.

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One by one, the mosques are lit to stand out from the rest of the city falling in the dark.

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I’ve pushed it as long as I could. It’s 8:15 and I need to be back at my hostel in 15 minutes. I knew I was going to have to run but I didn’t think it would have to be so intense, a sprint from end to finish. I got on the bus, sat at the back and finally had the time to breathe.

I was pleasantly surprised by Istanbul. It’s not the overcrowded, noisy and polluted city I had imagined. I know I’ve only visited a small portion but what I saw is a lively city with a unique character, where tradition and modernity live together in harmony. It is rich in monuments, remnants of a long history, which has definitely shaped the Istanbul we can see today. I am certainly more curious about Turkey and I’m sure I’ll soon be coming back to explore further into the country.

Bintan (Indonesia) 2011

For this weekend, our programme is relaxation, relaxation and relaxation. The perfect destination is in Indonesia, just a few kilometres away from Singapore: Bintan Island. We had done very little of planning and didn’t know the geography of the island. So I had booked at the last minute a hotel in the main city of Tanjung Pinang. With the adress in hand, we hop on a boat on Friday evening and, just after 1.5 hours, we step on our weekend paradise. First surprise at our arrival, the customs officers take the three of us away from the rest of the passengers… What have we done?! Nobody spoke for the few minutes walking being the guards, which seemed a lot longer. All that stress for nothing… they took us behind the immigration desks, gave us our visa and wished us a good holiday. We were not in trouble and we actually skipped the long queue of tourists which just came out of the boat.

So we start our search for a taxi to Tanjung Pinang. The driver was quite surprised by our destination and asked us why we were not staying in the north area, like all the other tourists. He told us that a stripe at the north of the island, called Bintan Resort, is designed for tourists with reinforced security. But we didn’t know that. When we drove by the guards, we realized the difference. We left flat and clean roads to bumpy tarmac, left the light behind to enter the dark. After half an hour, our driver suddenly slows down in a small rural village without lights and starts looking around. At this point, I remembered the story from a friend. The taxi driver went to a dodgy area where 20 of his friends were waiting outside the car and asked for more money, or he’d leave his passenger here. We didn’t end up in this situation. I had noticed the wooden stalls located every 10m on the side of the road with bottles of a light yellow liquid. After 10 minutes of search, our driver stopped next to one of this small structure and bought a few of these bottles… Petrol! ?!?!?! All these wooden stalls are the local gas stations.

Our fuel tank a bit less empty, we can complete our journey to Tanjung Pinang and our hotel. But there are a few more surprises to come. First of all the hotel was huge but empty, luxurious but rundown. Second of all, the rooms were also home to massive lezards. Anyway, we were still quite excited to be arrived and hungry. We ask the reception for a got place to eat in the area. (with an indonisian accent) ” – You go outside now? “, ” – Yes”, ” – Only the three of you?”, ” – Yes”, ” – Hide your valuables and be careful!” … OK…, that’s not very re-assuring… But we’re still excited to explore the streets and get a taste of the local cuisine, so we head out. And after 50m, we decide to walk back to the hotel!!! As soon as we stepped out, we all got struck by a feeling of insecurity. The air was filled with danger. I had never felt like this before and it’s impossible to describe. Of course it was pitch black, but I can’t say there was anything else in the environment. Instinct, sixth sense, I don’t know. But it was clear that exploring the streets at night wasn’t a good idea. So after a light dinner at the hotel and a beer, it’s time to go to bed. This eventful journey was extremely exhausting and we are hoping for just as many adventures tomorrow. 🙂

In the morning, after settling our bill of about 1.5 millions rupiah, we take a taxi back north to Trikora beach. The beach huts of Shady Shack are a lot closer to our idea of this relaxed weekend.

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The comfort is extremely minimalistic: a bed with a mosquito net and a basket of water at the back. But what else would we need anyway?

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But the wind got stronger after a couple of hours, bringing with him a mass of drak grey rainstorm clouds.

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And in a space of an hour, the storm had changed the face of the paradisiac getaway…

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We spent the whole day reading books, playing cards and drinking beers (so glad they had some). Cause out there, it was pissing pretty hard.

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It did stop just after the sun went down. The sky seemed to have cleared, the wind had gone and the sea was completely flat. So it is full of hope than Dan, Nicolas and myself go to bed in our lovely homes for the night.

Que Nenni!!! We get woken up by the rain on the hut. And by the time we get up, the view was as s*** as it was yesterday. There is no point to stay on this island in those conditions. So we decided to head to the ferry termincal and go home. I was really disappointed but I wouldn’t call it a bad weekend anyway. We had a few adventures, some fun, swam in the turquoise waters for a couple of hours and got to relax. A lot actually of relaxing. We had a glimpse of what the ideal getaway on a lost ideal with paradisiac beaches could be like, but only a glimpse. Of course, by the time we got on the boat, it looked like the sky was clearing again… Oh well, let’s hope we have better luck next time!

Phuket (Thaïland) 2011

For our first weekend away from Singapore, my flatmates Bastien, Nicolas, Dan and I went to Phuket in Thailand. Looking for one of the most cultural highlights of the country, we didn’t quite find this… At least not in the way we thought!

We landed at around 10pm on Friday evening and, by the time we reached our hotel and got ready to go out to town, it was midnight. This first night revealed itself full of surprises and I will keep the crunchy details for myself. But to be short, I got to witness with my own eyes the best known clichés that I had heard of, and considered as rumors.

Anyway, we got up early on Saturday to start our exploration of the area. I decided to head to Phuket Town and Dan accompanied me. I discovered a city of a kind I had never seen before. Unbelievable amount of electric cables running above the streets, hundreds of motorcycles awaiting at traffic lights and buddhist altars at every street corner. But there wasn’t a lot to do nor to see. So we took a ride back to the center of the city center. A man told us to jump on the back of his scooter and, for a few bahts, “slalomed” us to our destination in this local traffic chaos… I did wonder if we’d get there alive a few times to be honest!

Anyway, we finally got the beach, unfortutely without great weather, and got to lay down for a little bit.

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As I suggested to go back to the hotel, I got to experience another of the Thai cliché. One that made me run faster than ever.

We joined our friends back at the hotel and headed to the restaurant to have dinner. You will probably hear me say this about many cuisines, but Thai food is amazing. That night I had the traditional chicken pad thai as well as another dish I can’t remember the name of.

After another memorable night, we got up early again for the tour we had booked. Once in the van, it didn’t take long until my breakfast decided to make its way out. The rest of the morning would just be matter of INs and OUTs until we reached our first stop, Buddha Cave Temple Wat Suwannakuha.

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Where people there seem to like breaking the rules.

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It is also infested with friendly monkeys, probably attracted by all these tourists giving them bananas.

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We jumped back on the van and then on a boat to reach our second stop. The massive rocks rising from the water in vertical cliffs make the Phang Nga Bay a typical scenery where we found the floating village of Koh Panyee.

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Most of the day, it is a small fishermen village.

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At lunch time, it becomes a trap for tourists on the James Bond Island tour. So we had our meal there as everybody else did.

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Back on the boat, my comrades had a little nap.

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Then we left our large longtail boat for smaller canoes that would take us into an group of islands, related by an intricate labyrinth of channels.

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Our “captain” took a little detour to take us to a less crowded area.

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We went through the mangrove. I got given the paddles for our captain to take a picture with my camera. He was standing on these tiny, fragile-looking branches. I can only imagine my face when I saw his foot slip into the water…

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Back on our longtail boat, we head to our final destination, another magnificent island on Phang Nga Bay called Khao Phing Kan. Does it ring a bell? No? Well, I didn’t think it would. But what if I was telling you that its beach was a scene of the film “The Man with the Golden Gun” in 1974, and its nickname is therefore, James Bond Island. You should understand the paradisiac scenery I’m talking about. And if you don’t, I’m sure you will looking at this pictures.

The boats unload their tourists at the back off the island.

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The trail takes us around the rock, to the main beach and the view is magical.

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I have to say, I didn’t want to leave this island. It was so incredible that I didn’t think I could get enough of it. I wanted to engrave this magical landscape onto my mind. That was the picture of Thailand I had. But it ended up exceeding my expectations and this island did blow my mind away.

We got back on the boat eventually and starting the long trip to our hotel, first on the river and then on the road. It was then time to make our way back to the airport and return in home Singapore. The adjective that best describes my first visit to Thailand is “unexpected”. I didn’t quite find the cultural aspect I thought I’d experience. But I still got surprised by many other aspects of this trip. Next time I will definitely have to visit Bangkok and Chiang Mai, which I hear loads of positive comments about. But before that, it’s time to go to bed because the alarm goes on in 6 hours and Monday already seems like it’s going to be a long day…