Fact: There is monkey business in Penang…….

Winter has well and truly settled itself in around Newcastle.  Some days this city seems empty when the rawest of cold hits but I somehow like those often deserted and sunlit streets.  This is a city I love and have come to know well.  A city of unrestrained chaotic redevelopment both good and bad, of near perfect days and complicated nights and best of all, a place of infinite possibility.

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And with these wintery days came a bug which saw me struck down enough to seek the haven of my bed.  It seems it was one of those ‘take a breath and slow down’ bugs.  The sort of bug we sometimes catch which insists with its coming, take some time you got this.  Really you do. 

While hold up in bed sharing my comfy real estate with the little cat for good company I longed for the ocean, read a couple of pages of some old books, willed myself to feel better and sipped pale green teas.  I scribbled some notes, ran a little mantra through my head every now and then, slept, and slept, and slept some more.

Monkey grip…….

Fact:  I like monkeys.  I like them very much!

There was no reasoning for this but I woke early one morning and decided I wanted to see a monkey.  And that my friends, is not a statement you will hear me say often if I can help it.

I find monkeys incredibly endearing but years ago I had an encounter with a pretty scary monkey in Ubud which, not wanting sound too dramatic, is an encounter not easily forgotten (and that was well over 20 years ago).  And no, before anyone jumps to conclusions I did not feed, get too close, entice, smile at or do anything to elicit his very grumpy monkey attack.

But as I said, I like monkeys.  They really do get a big ol’ monkey grip on your heart.  Not only are these charming creatures wildly photogenic, they are also complex and fascinating little souls of deep intelligence whose courage is only matched by their reverence.  And so very much like us, they too also experience a range of emotions from love and grief, happiness and compassion, trust and fear to surprise.  They are entertaining – NOT in an horrific circus way – and they are curious and mischievous.  They can also be, as anyone of us could, opportunistic, vain and a little aggressive……… as I was about to find out again.

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Adorably sweet…….x 

Hailing a cab, which is scandalously cheap in Malaysia, it was off to the Penang Botanic Gardens.  A stunningly beautiful and peaceful oasis and home to both the Long Tailed Macaques and the Dusky Leaf Monkey.

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I came across my first monkey within moments of alighting the cab.    It was a good start as the monkeys seemed mostly content to just sit about minding their own business, groom each other, look incredibly cute, snuggle their young (even more incredibly cute if that were possible) or eat what they had foraged from the trees.

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Unconditional love…….x

Serving as a big green lung for Penang, the Botanic Gardens are lovely with walking  tracks, trails and paths which take you through lush rain forests, around clusters of bamboo, past lily ponds and waterfalls, over old bridges and around topiary trees and the very peculiar Cannon Ball trees.  As it is also home to the monkeys, you get to see them in their natural environment, climbing trees and structures, playing, living in their family groups, interacting and being highly social.

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There are signs posted everywhere throughout the gardens requesting you DO NOT FEED the monkeys.  It’s not good for them and it is not good for us as it makes the monkeys trusting, dependent and in turn aggressive which can unfortunately make their sweet demeanor suddenly appear as an ape-shit version of bad cop monkey/bad cop monkey.  Remember, these are wild animals.

Fact:  It is my fate to have to occasionally spend time around stupid people!

It seems there will always be one or two who will completely ignore the rules or signs and case in point was the person on this day who not only fed the monkeys (in a self-absorbed act to attract more monkeys around him for his #shit-for-brains photo opportunity), but then teased the monkeys by withholding the food to make them jump.

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Fact:  Monkeys do not tolerate stupid humans!

Now I had a couple of things to tick off my fabulous-to-do-list-for-the-day which also included Monkey Tree and Monkey Beach.  I know, call me theme predicable on this day but I never do things by halves, yet facing off against a small pack of pissed off marauding monkeys led by the least jolliest of alpha males I had seen all day was certainly not one of them!  I somehow knew too I was about to re-experience a particular moment.  You know that moment.  It is the moment where you realise you are in a new, exciting and undiscovered place yet the experience you are about to have has an old familiar ring to it ……….and not in a good way!

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As a ranger approached #shit-for-brains aka stupid human, the monkeys legged it………in my direction.  Quietly, I stepped off my intended path and although I kept my eyes downcast I kept them well and truly on the wily old jackanapes who was leading them.  This alpha male wasn’t quite done with humans just yet as he did, after all, have a score to settle and he wasn’t about to lose face either with his dedicated band of monkey followers.  Plus he probably now viewed all humans as nasty food withholding, self centered pricks and thoughts of exacting a little monkey revenge would no doubt top off his morning.

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He changed direction and picked up a speed while heading right toward me.  Then, as expected, came the very familiar and not easily forgotten raucous screech.  A banshee like scream that will chill your blood followed by the baring of large, sharp yellow teeth.

Fact:  Monkeys are no longer cute once you see their teeth!

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I rest my case…….

This was going to be a make or break moment but I knew I had to be the one to decide the outcome of this confrontation.  Being 157cm I managed to pull myself up to an intimidating 160 cm, I know, super daunting to a monkey (I hoped) and just as impressive to me as I was wearing flats a the time.  I stood my ground and faced him down while unfurling my hands to show open palms, my years of watching David Attenborough doco’s finally paying off.

He showed his teeth again, loped forward then stopped.  We looked at each other for a moment almost considering our next moves then he slowly turned and stalked off leaving me with an impressive view of his monkey overlord arse.

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If this little dude had thumbs there would be serious snapping………

And me, well I owned it.  I walked off feeling pretty chuffed.  I think I may have even high fived myself or at the very least skipped.  Actually I skipped…….. off in the direction of the strongest cocktail available on the island of Penang!

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Truth:  GO SEE MONKEYS in the wild.  They are brilliantly amazing 🙂   Just don’t be a stupid, inconsiderate human jackass when you do…….x

Please note:  incredible ‘monkey baring teeth’ photograph taken by Annie Wilcox.

Eat Drink George Town, Penang

So much beauty in one location…….

No doubt George Town is reinventing itself and if those water-coloured walls could talk, they would easily tell the world some wonderful stories.  Although pockets of this ancient city have become mere shadows of its former self, for me, there will always be much charm found in the dilapidated and untended.  Perhaps those same story-tellers will also belie those delicate and intricate old tales with a sneer of indignation for all that has been (and continues to be) lost to gentrification, urban renewal and re-development.

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Drink George Town…….

A lot of entertainment can be found from just wandering the streets and during my strolls I sipped water, drank cocktails and downed cold beer………anything to combat that heat.  I also had some pretty impressive coffee as believe it or not, Penang is fast becoming a coffee capital.  The love affair Malaysia is having with barista made coffee, which of course I intimately acquainted myself with, is to be saluted.  And the ice coffee you ask?  Well that was a ’nuff said’ experience 🙂

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There is no way to describe this iced coffee other than to say it was as all great iced coffees’ should be – ‘black as hell, strong as death and as sweet as love’…….

Okay, I am about to show my age though my dislike for the many newly renovated areas of George Town where the latest bar (trendy as shit but indistinguishably dull in their lack of charm, ambiance and character) are cropping up.  These places are fast becoming the latest hang-out for the chain smoking, unversed, fake retro wearing, self-absorbed, selfie snapping hipstercriticals of the travel world!   And you know who you are!!

Given that statement, it would be fair to say I do so much prefer the grime of the past and that which is well beyond its used by date and the Hong Kong Bar (and all other bars similar) are a perfect example.  Unmatched in grunginess with decaying memorabilia, dross and dust along with their tired and overly harangued bar staff these dive bars are worthy the indignity of oneself morphing into tommy tourist mode for an hour or two……….

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Amazing who you will find while wandering the streets looking for dive bars…….

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But dig a little deeper and you will discover some lovely old school and deco inspired cocktail bars, wine bars and lounges all lambent and charmingly quiet, which offer up the perfect Negroni.  Which by the way, should always be enjoyed with a perfectly beautiful George Town sunset.

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I think this cocktail, appreciated after a ‘monkey moment encounter’ (in a later post and trust me, I needed a drink after that) was hard to top…….

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Eat George Town…….

When I travel, food often becomes the central focus but its not just about the eating for sustenance or the enjoyment of the moment.  This is more about the interaction with the locals, the culture and the finding of life in its simplest of forms.  Somehow too, the world of food I find myself in is often noisy and almost volatile with the banging of those big simmering pots and pans, the almost brutal cleaving of meat and the din of place.

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I am well aware of the general food travel rule (one of many travel ‘rules’ I tend to ignore) which goes along the lines of this – ‘if you can’t peel it, cook it or boil it then don’t eat it!’ .  I have quiet often thought that rule through when on the other side of the world only to realise I always end up enjoying a great meal which has come from a dodgy looking hawker stall yet been equally rewarded with a serious bout of food poisoning from a 5 star restaurant!  My tip:  It always pays to take risks……..

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My top must try food when in George Town: 

ANY hawker, street cart or street stall.

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When it comes to breakfast, George Town has it covered.  Congee, a milky rice porridge that can be eaten any time of day or Bak Kut Teh which is a rich pork and herb broth brewed for several hours and served with pork ribs.  But for me, there is no going past Roti Bakar or Roti Canai.  Find yourself a humble looking food stall swarming with locals (you will see the trishaws and motorbikes parked out the front) and share a table to enjoy a generous, piping hot serve of roti with either sunny-side-up runny yoked eggs or a liberal scoop of curry.  With a plastic tumbler filled with iced Milo, breakfast does not get any better than this.

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Dim Sum is traditionally served for breakfast in old teahouses and heritage shop-houses in Chinatown.  Step back in time to find old cracked and tannin stained tea pots, no air-con and where quite grumpy elderly ladies brilliantly maneuver large metal trolleys around often-times 1950’s era laminex tables.   Amazing steam pork buns, dumplings, black mushrooms, bitter gourd, sticky rice noodle dishes, chickens feet and of course those wonderful sunshiny yellow egg tarts.

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Char Koay Teow is possibly Penang’s most famous street food dish and it will never taste better than sitting on a kerb in a narrow back street right outside the hawker stall which made it.

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Asam Laksa is another icon of Penang with its thick rice-based noodle and aromatic broth.  This dish really is DIVINE and if you are serious about your food, you can also ask that the intestines and offal be added.

And for the not so faint of heart (and if you are a serious fan of the whole nose to tail experience), then there are crispy pork intestines, tongue and even pigs blood cakes to savor on your culinary journey…….

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As much as I love anything gin laced, amber in colour and cold or those bitterly sweet strong coffees’, the very best companion for any meal in George Town is tea………xx

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Ghosts, an Indian boatman and 101 lost kittens………

It’s the first week of winter and the cold has already begun to cling.   For quite some time my days have been filled with work so a day off, quite selfishly all to myself, has been wonderful and made even more so due the scarcity of them lately.  Rising early I grabbed a coffee and headed to the beach which was deserted, blustery and cold.  A massive swell hit our coastline bringing with it huge waves, chop and wash.  Somehow though, for all its bitter chill there was much warmth in this lovely day.

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Although other things in my life are sorely neglected at present, I am inordinately happy.  I baked last night toasting pecans, weighing butter and roughly chopping dark chocolate late into the evening.  Before I knew it I had whisked and folded into the early hours of the next day.  It was lovely though as my home was quietly dark and filled with the rich scent that only brown sugar when baking can bring.  The little cat content and I lost in thought while listening to the radio and watching for the oven temp to rise.  Finally to bed, I dreamt.  Haunting images often disturb my sleep and on this night my sometimes nebulous eidolon came beautifully clear to me.  I woke early feeling that way you feel when a harsh jetlag or far too much gin sees you somewhere between midnight and god knows where.

We all have our ghosts, real or imagined, which haunt us in different ways.  Though our loss, memories or unresolved issues are not physically present, they are still very much around us.   I have often tried to release a ghost only to become more haunted and I cannot but wonder why we carry these signifiers around for as much as we move on, these stubborn constellations of our past and of our future remain.  Perhaps there is much gratitude to be sought in the belief that time, in her most graceful of ways, heals all.  Little by little the passage of time will take away some of those ghosts, the hurt or a raging grief to bring you to a point where you begin to no longer mourn that which is lost to you……..even when you still dream about them.

The street art of George Town Penang…….

One of the things I love most about George Town are the strikingly beautiful street art murals.

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These charming depictions of children and life and the detailed heritage nod to the urban allure of this city are works which cannot be constrained to any one gallery.  Breathing life into and capturing the winsome spirit so essentially George Town, they are pieces which need to live and exist upon the crumbling walls and in the winding streets and alleys of this ancient city.

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Hailing for Lithuania, the brilliant artist Ernest Zacharevic, is possibly the reason the street art scene became so prevalent in Penang.  His wonderfully iconic and life-like images of children and heritage would bring joy to the harshest of art critics hearts.

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I am drawn to the thought of Artivism, (which is my belief in that lovely cross over between art/activism and advocacy), when I think of the works 101 lost kittens.  These thought provoking images are a collection of around twelve cat related works aimed to create awareness toward the strays of George Town.  How wonderful is that.

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Not only are there painted and 3D images, but also wrought iron sculptures looking so very like a neat charcoal sketch imparting tiny snippets of the history of the area in which they are located.

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These wondrous works are succumbing to the elements.  Over time, they have flaked and faded due to their exposure to the harshest of elements and of course human intervention is also a contributor.  You will find most of these works though by picking up a map and following it until your heart is content or hire a trishaw driver for a few hours as they know all of the places these works are located.

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The Boatman of India…..

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For me though, I just preferred to wander the streets and stumble upon these art works as there is far more joy for me in the anticipation of a discovery which is unplanned.  It was here too in the back streets where the small skittish cats roam that I began to really appreciate the serendipitous beauty of George Town as my moseying often took me through the more unique, interesting and oftentimes bleaker areas of the city.

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During my hunt for the street art of George Town the city began to look so very different and I knew it could never appear the same again.  And ghosts or no ghosts, we all have that which haunts.  The saving grace however, is to find that which is wonderful and to cherish the small moments or to perhaps discover a little piece of art on a wall somewhere……..x

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By George!

I’m in George Town, that wonderful UNESCO World Heritage listed city in Penang where the very traditional and contemporary collide.  This stunningly cosmopolitan and energetic city is one of extremes from the frenetic modern pace of hipsters, street art and stylish cocktail bars to the rickety old trishaws parked in front of crumbling yet ornately lovely clan houses.  This city really is all about grit and glam as its intentional beauty sits oh so effortlessly right alongside the raw and the rough.726

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Now I love this city.  It is a maze of narrow alleyways, archways, lanes and streets that pulsate with colour, energy and community spirit.  There are grand town halls, mansions, antiquated merchant stores, clan jetties, colonial buildings of exceptional beauty (made even more lovely when floodlit) and unsurpassed history.

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The centuries old and wonderfully quaint clan jetties with their fish traps, old wood fishing boats, stilt houses and long winding planked wood walk-ways are the last of a once thriving Chinese settlement.   Do be respectful when visiting as these water communities are still home to many families who eat, pray and live there……...

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Penang itself is beautifully multicultural with three prominent religions.  I visited serene mosques, shrines with their garlands of fragrant blooms left by dedicated worshipers and temples where saffron robed Buddhists light huge joss sticks.

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It does get very hot here so it’s best to sight-see first thing in the morning or later in the evening to avoid the stifling 95% plus humidity.  The good old foot falcon (just watch for the large open drains) is always my preferred mode of transport however do hire a trishaw for a couple of hours as it really is one of the best ways to truly appreciate this town.

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I really do admire the strength and bravery of the trishaw men and their ability to maneuver about in the heaviest of traffic.  Though lean and seemingly fit as a fiddle, these men are by no means young.   Always nut out your price before you go, which is negotiable, and these guys will fill your afternoon with history and all the little hidden gems you won’t find on your own so kick off your shoes, sit back and enjoy………

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Although I have bestowed much love upon George Town, it does, as anywhere in the world, have its flaws.  It has been said of George Town ‘she was once a pretty woman who just hasn’t washed her face in a while’ and perhaps there is some truth in that statement.  For me, the absolute charm of this lovely city lies in its grimy time-worn soul however that grim extends to her deep-water sea harbour and water-ways which are polluted, murky and an outlet for raw sewage.  What a elegantly ironic moment though, when I photographed a heart floating among the rubbish strewn waters of the Penang Strait.  Please love our oceans.  They really are some of the most importantly beautiful places on earth…….x

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There are one hundred and one things to love about this graceful melting pot of a city and although the tourist numbers are growing, George Town holds firm its alluring and peaceful charm.  You can still take a leisurely stroll about the streets, wander past temples filled with faded paper lanterns, listen for the melodic call to prayer and explore lanes filled with water-marked terrace houses safely and without the intrusion of large tourist crowds.

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Part II, the amazing street art of Georgetown, coming soon………xx

Singapore fling………

Although autumn, that lovely transition from summer to winter is here, small pockets of heat and sunshine linger.   I have to admit, I wasn’t quite ready to let go of summer just yet so the past week of wonderful weather has been welcomed.  Early mornings have been spent in the surf on and under glorious waves big, slow and rolling.   My playlist has been warmth and sun, cornflower blue skies, perfect waves, sandy hair, good company and pods of dolphins.  It really doesn’t get much better than this.

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These past months have been busy with nary a moment to spare.  Set to a feverish pace which sometimes sees me time poor to do that which I love most such as just watching the ocean, creating, losing myself in the pages of a good book or baking from scratch.

We all have the same amount of hours in our days but it really is up to us how we spend that time.  I have a list of things which make me happiest and a list of that which must be done.  I recently compared those lists and with mindful gratitude, adjusted accordingly.

Singapore:  So strict yet so sophisticated

It seems like a lifetime ago that our trip began in Hong Kong and finally ended here in Singapore, that fastidiously clean yet flawlessly beautiful melting pot of culture.  The Lion City can also boast of having THE best airport in the world and it is natural disaster free.

I think anytime you travel to another country you should always read up on their customs, laws and culture and although Singapore is a contemporary and sophisticated city, there are a couple of little quirks (aka laws) you will need to respect:

  1. Gum control – I have absolutely no issue with this law and its hefty fine as I dislike chewing gum immensely.  I don’t think anyone looks hip nor intelligent while chowing down on gum so when in Singapore, fair warning – don’t buy it, don’t import it, don’t chew it and above all do not leave it stuck anywhere!
  2. Flush – and I am not referring to the literary ‘blush’.  Failure to flush a public toilet  in Singapore will result in a $150 US fine.  And a word of warning – they do random spot checks.
  3. Nuding it up – it is illegal to walk around in your home naked.  Close your curtains otherwise you will be hit with a $2,000 fine or 3 months jail time.
  4. It is also illegal to feed the pigeons or to smoke in public.  Don’t jaywalk, litter or spit and do not annoy someone with a musical instrument…..Nickelback, take note!!  Again, these acts will result in a fine which is perfectly fine by me.

We have been to Singapore prior to this trip and worn out the soles of our shoes en route to Raffles, along Orchard Road, on the Quay, in Chinatown and through the history, landmarks and stunning architecture of this beautiful island state.  This time around however, we decided to spend our down time in one of Singapore’s most vibrant districts…….

The warm, wonderful and boldly colourful Little India.  And why Little India you ask?  Well that is because simply being here makes me happy AND their fish head curries are the stuff of legends 🙂

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I am smitten with Little India.  It is exotic and strikingly vibrant with its arcade’s of tiny spaces filled with silks and saris, spices and sweets along with the gold shops, beautiful flower garlands and Hindu temples.

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From the ram-shackled food halls and hawker stalls to the open street restaurants, the air is filled with the spicy aromas of curries laced with turmeric, coal black cardamom, cinnamon buds, nigella and garlic.  The neighbourhood really is a riot of smells, colours, sights and sounds and it truly is as Indian as India itself……but without the Ganges and sacred cows.

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We were also incredibly fortunate enough to be in Little India at the tail end of  Deepavali, also known as Diwali the festival of lights.  This is the most important of all Hindu celebrations and it commemorates the triumph of light over darkness, hope over despair and knowledge over ignorance.

Packed with thousands of Hindu families who descended on the district, Little India was transformed with beautifully decorated statues of elephants and peacocks and one million and one lights.  And there is nothing more fabulous than to be caught up in the human crush of love, festivity and happiness.

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This for me, is one of the prettiest of temples and I have photographed it many times.  Standing in the heart of Little India on Serangoon Road and seeing it again during Deepavali just seemed to bring a little more joy to my heart.  The temple is dedicated to the goddess and destroyer of evil, Sri Veeramakaliamman and it is one of Singapore’s oldest Hindu temples.

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And don’t be put off by the severed heads, the eating of intestines and the necklaces of skulls – although I am assured each victim deserved their fate – as that is only part of her story and as we all well know, there are always two sides to every narrative.  Macabre to some perhaps, I still think it is a most beautiful temple……..

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So that’s the trip.  Done and dusted from beginning to end.  I found during the writing of these eleven blog posts, there were at times a difficulty in describing a place or an experience simply because it had been far too wonderful to just whittle down into mere words.  I found too that travel for me is a necessity, not a luxury.  That a big world awaits and I never want to feel the disappointment of that which I did not do.

It seems too with each trip my backpack gets a little more frayed and my camera, a little more battered yet I have no issue with that as the memories they have held far outweigh the well-worn.  Catch you all on the flipside soon………x

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Hell Yeah……xx

 

‘If you light a lantern for another, it will also brighten your own way’…..Nichiren

The road to Hoi An, the beautifully charming UNESCO World Heritage-listed town, is well travelled.  Wrapped in exquisite layers of grace and tradition the town is essentially a living breathing museum with its whimsical mustard-yellow Japanese merchant houses, crumbling buildings, tea-houses, lanterns, Chinese temples, lovely Vietnamese tube houses and stunning French colonial buildings.

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With its cut-through canals and water-ways this lovely town, a labyrinth of alleyways and lanes, dates back to the 15th century and it was once a thriving Southeast Asian trading port.

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Centrally located in Hoi An, this graceful and very pretty little wooden bridge was constructed by the Japanese in the 1590’s.  Centuries may have passed yet little has changed on this gently arching span which has become a major tourist attraction for the town.

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Whilst in Hoi An, you can leave the traffic snarls behind as cars and motorbikes are banned from the central part of town.  There is a welcomed pace here and apart from the rickshaw and push-bikes, the good old foot falcon is the best mode of transport.

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On almost every corner, little charcoal burners heave under the weight of pork and chicken skewers.  The smell of cooking meat is amazing and their accompanying salads are to die for.  You know how sometimes you think ‘that was a pretty rough day.  I won’t make it worse by having salad for dinner’ .  Well that is not the case in Vietnam as the salads are just divine.  Fresh, light and incredibly moreish with their coriander, mint and Vietnamese basil.  Nom du du bo kho is a favorite with its green papaya, dried beef, roasted peanuts and fish sauce dressing.

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The local beer is cold and it is cheap and it best accompanies the inexpensive hawker food on offer and of course you always know what I always say about street food……..EAT IT!   So hunker down on those tiny plastic squat chairs and enjoy.

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This elegant town does have its touristy side such as the rustic and over-crowded market stalls.  Everything and anything is sold under low slung awnings but just go with the flow and enjoy it all for what it truly is.

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The lovely lanterns of Hoi An…….

I find lanterns breathtakingly romantic and in Hoi An, I fell in love with the way they adorn the cities’ alley-ways and lanes.  Traditionally hung on the full moon, it is said lanterns bring good luck to a home.  How could such serendipitous warm beauty not soften the coldest of hearts.

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There is often a good tired which comes from travel and I was, after my time in Hoi An, in sleeping swan pose before I knew it.  Unfortunately I was still on the bus at the time!   Headed for our next destination, I dozed on and off during the 3 hour long ride occasionally waking to watch for the comfort the acres and acres of green rice fields seemed to bring.  I watched for the locals with their flocks of runner ducks and buffalo and I waited for the motion of the bus to dip beside forests so I could see the tops of the tallest of trees and glimpse the ocean occasionally.

Sometimes my thoughts strayed to ‘home’, but where is home for me.  I have always believed it is that place where I live at that moment.  The place where I unpack my life and where I lay my head and where I can enjoy the serenity of just standing still.  It is where I am always willing to meet myself and where I often fail spectacularly especially on the journey of looking after myself.  It is a place where I always fall in love with something.  Where I am trying to live my best life by having less and having more – less friends, less possessions, more kindness, more compassion and to be more rich in the time I devote to something I love.  It is the luxury of a moment alone in the ocean, finding a book at my local library, finding a piece of sea glass along with a perfect coffee and the joy of a late season summers day.  Most of all, when fortunate enough, it is the place where I am able to hang my lantern…….xx

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