Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei

IMG_38425 intriguing facts about Negara Brunei Darussalam (to give it its full name…)

1) It’s a completely dry state. No beer, no clubs, no smoking!

2) It’s home to the world’s largest water village (30,000 inhabitants)

3) There’s no entry with Israeli stamp/ passport

4) It’s currency is usable in Singapore and vice-verse

5) The brother of the ruling Sultan blew 14.8 Billion Dollars of the country’s cash reserves!

The capital, Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB) is reminiscent of neighboring Malaysian Kota kinabalu or small town Sandakan. It’s time-warped, tiny, yet it’s still a likable little oddity .The kind of SEA where kids still wave and strangers stop to chat.

IMG_3823We arrive at 9am, sleep at 9pm (Did you read fact #1!) and have enough time to explore the capital 10 times over, with room for an afternoon nap too.It’s a 1 street, 5 alley, 2 mosque, 10 mall town. Highlights include some decent street markets and a boat tour of Kampong Ayer water village. $30 for an hour (for the whole boat) buys you a moment of monkey spotting 15mins downstream of the lagoon, plus a tour of the community which houses it’s own floating fire station!

wpid-IMG_20130929_154316.jpgExcept for the very creative, after 12h in BSB you might want to pursue a rental car :)  We headed 25k to beach-side Maura; a windy driftwood filled gem with restless surf and manicured gardens. Since the highways are so good, we also reached Tutong in less than 50 mins, stopping at Judong on route, home of a local fish market – and bizarrely an animal fair in the nearby beach car park. Sadly $300 buys you a bird of pray here. Finally hot on Trip Advisor’s list is the Empire Hotel and Country Club – part of the Brunei’s penchant for obese extravagant palaces. They let non-guests lounge around the 17 swimming pools for free or sun workshop on the private beach. Well if it’s good enough for a Sultan….

Where to Stay: The Brunei Hotel
Get ting There: AirAsia – $120 returns from Kuala Lumpur
Rental Car: $70 SGD dayBus to the Empire / Airport; $1.00 SGD

 

Mauritius

Mauritius. You’re thinking: Beaches, honeymoons, dodos…erm? And like me, you’d be all out. Which is disgraceful really. I’m half Mauritian. I really should know more about it. And now I do I guess. Hence the 2000+ words. Apologies.

My dad left here for England aged 19, over 45 years ago. My only hazy memories are from holidays when I was 3 and 7 years old, plus some faded 80’s Polaroids. So I’m intrigued. Especially as for the past 29 years I’ve been having this conversation:

… Where are you from? You look Indian/Israeli/Spanish/Italian/Colombian
(Insert nationality here.)

… “I’m English. I was born and raised in England. (This NEVER suffices) …My mum is English, my Dad is Mauritian. It’s an island, near the Seychelles? near Madagascar? Africa? Yep, it IS on a map, its just small…”  (So small you can drive from coast to coast in 2 hours.)

Mapped by the Portuguese, named by the Arabs, discovered by the Dutch, colonized by the French, and then by the English, (keeping up?) Mauritius has had an  eclectic 300 year ish history to say the least. Today it’s made up of Indian, Chinese, European & African descendants. Which I am hoping makes for some out of this world cooking. The first language is officially English, although all print is in French, and day-to-day everyone speaks in creole. Simple?

As LP succinctly puts it: The European Mauritians have the money. They live in the affluent towns of the central hills, own all the old sugar mills (and I hate to say it, but probably had a hand in a fair bit of African slavery back in the day.) The Hindu’s have influencing power in Government and politics from the worshipped Prime Minister Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam (try naming an airport after him!) – who fought for independence.  Add to all this a scattering of christian churches and mosques across the island, from the African & Muslim population. Oh and not forgetting Chinatown in the west part of the capital Port Louis.  Like most ‘melting pot’ nations it projects the image of harmony, which on the whole is true given that everyone joined the party around the late 1700’s and no single religion ousted the other.

In reality however it’s not all as integrated as the Ministry of Tourism would have us believe.  As my cousins predicted whilst we watched the televised ‘Miss Mauritius’ competition “the black candidates wont win… A christian won last year….She will win…” they claimed pointing the most white skinned Hindu girl. “She has good political backing.  Her sister married a Minister.”

Of course, you’d be right to ask why I was watching Miss World competition at all. And the answer comes in the fact that unlike most tourists here, for me there were no 4 star all inclusives or popular ‘Tables D’Hotes’ (Like more personal B & B’s). Instead I was spending what turned out to be one of the most random of fortnights of my life in the family home of my Uncle Khem, Aunty Ooma, and cousins Kimtee and Lovey, (as IF you could make these amazing names up,) who I met for the first time in an arrivals hall last Friday.

My Dad is one of 8 kids. 3 Sisters, 4 brothers.  A genealogist couldn’t map our family tree. To add to the confusion, everyone seems to have two (interchangeable) names. Kimtee and Lovey for example are also Tooly Davi and Jayshaan? There seems to be no explanation as to how and when to use the formal and informal. ‘Aunty’ and ‘Uncle’ are not to be taken literally too. Anyone who has so much as been round for tea; neighbours, friends, the postman, whoever, are all awarded the title of mama/papa/cousin. It’s nice and inclusive I suppose, and indicative of the emphasis on family here, but a bit of a headache to keep track of.  The airport staff quite rightly looked suspiciously at my Mauritian(ish) face, but well stamped English passport and complete lack of french or creole. Clearly an imposter.

With my tourist eyes I’d describe Mauritius as how you’d picture a tiny Caribbean island with elements of Africa injected in. Having been to neither that’s a useless description for you unless you are inside my head! So this maybe better if you’ve seen the re-make. I keep thinking of the scene in The Thomas Crown Affair where they run off to his un-named island villa in which ‘he never brings anyone.’ It’s a bit like that.

Or if I were being more holiday brochure-esq; the landscape is a thousands shades of green, one seeming  mass of sugarcane fields blowing in  July breeze. Except it’s winter and not that tropical, 18 – 20 degrees. Sugar exportation and honeymoon tourism are the be all and end all here. Apart from that the island seems overwhelmingly sleepy at times. The brightly coloured shutters are often down with guessable opening hours for the small village stores. The island’s last bus service finishes meandering along the country roads at 7pm!

The whole vibe of the place for me is best encapsulated in two sites; the red-roofed Notre Dame Auxiliatrice Christian church in Cap Malheureux, and the Champ de Mars Racecourse in Port Louis. Both are incredibly quaint, picturesque, very 18th century New England. The church has an actual white picket fence, and the racecourse a rusty pastel ferris wheel.  It’s straight out of Seabiscuit. The whole island could often be a medley of eras. I watch a huge group of friends sing to reggie/sega music by shaking their asses like it’s a Jamaican block party, whilst simultaneously listening sari clad girls interject their hindi with ‘oh la la’ Frenchisms, whilst walking the Central Market of Port Louis whose facades look like Victorian England.  It’s like that film ‘Jumper.’

My family itself live in Fond Du Sac (FDS.) A tiny typical hamlet with a post office, school, and a couple of ‘sell everything’ kiosk type shops. Mauritius is a collection of tiny hamlets like this, bar the capital and a few larger ‘towns’ like Grand Bay, Goodlands & Flac.

Most of the houses are French colonial mansions. Not mansion as in sprawling chateaus – but large balcony, shuttered windows, kind of romantically crumbling.  99% have newer annexes and extensions, so you often find original scruffy student like kitchens, side by side with grandiose marble living rooms, which lead back into makeshift wetrooms. The reason for this? Young married couples all live their entire lives with their parents. I shudder at the meer thought. Staring at my cousin Kimtee (25) and her husband to be Vishal (30), in utter disbelief I ask, “So you will without a doubt live here from your marriage next month, untill you are 90 years old?”

They are thrilled at the prospect. As the oldest son Vishal has, on his teachers
wage, saved for the construction of two floors above his parents in the village of Morcellement St Andre. Don’t get me wrong it’s beautiful, and on the plus side I guess they will never know the burden of estate agents/mortgage advisors/landlords I guess, so every cloud…

Kimtee takes me up to her favorite spot on the roof, from which you can see the coast. She is mostly excited as she can see the huge cargo boats. Apparently when the large cruise ships come into port it makes the local TV news. Locals all head to the vantage point of the Citadel –  the British fort that overlooks Port Louis harbour. Revealingly she has an obsession with watching the airplanes fly overhead too. Their honeymoon to neighbouring Mauritian island Rodrigues will be the first time she’s been in one.

The wedding itself will be a 4 day celebration, with 400 guests?! And this is apparently modest! She proudly shows off four different sari dresses for each day, together with heaps of gold jewelry. I help to hand-seal the glittery red and gold invitation cards with dabs of saffron paste to ‘bless’ each one. All 400 have to be hand delivered across the island by her parents.  “You can’t post them?” I enquiry with 2012 practicality. She looks at me quizzically, ‘it’s tradition.’

Tradition and duty seem to be overbearing themes here. Most marriages are not ‘arranged’ per say, but families have a definite role of approval in any potential love interest. This leads to dramas worthy of a Khloe and Lamar series of their own as you can imagine. Girls are very much expected to cook and clean for their whole extended families. Although many do work, average wages for admin jobs are low, £100-200 a month. Kimtee admits she rarely
even ventures the 100 metres to the local shop without her brother, father or fiance. I’m not sure she quite knows what it is she fears.

When I cycle 20 mins through the countryside to nearby Grand Bay, the family fuss around me as though I’ve taken a midnight trip to downtown Johannesburg. As it turns out, Grand Bay is a rather harmless upper-class mini tourist hub. I’m not sure what threat they think Thomas Cook holiday families and touts selling catamaran trips pose,  but I’m pretty sure a corrupt police force, a society engraved with misogyny and no laws to enforce back of car seatbelts are more immediate dangers here.

This sense of protectiveness extends throughout many aspects of life here. Despite being 25 and marrying next month, and despite her brother being 27, both craftily assure me that at the weekend that we will plan a visit to ‘the nightclub.’ ‘Why are we whispering?’ I ask confused. “In case papa overhears” they explain in English. I stifle a laugh but they are being serious. They have to sneak out to bars. In their mid-20’s.

As it turn out, no one’s parents of any age need to be concerned. Buddha Club is as utterly pleasant and zen as its name suggests. Mauritians are not big drinkers, more likely to share a bottle of popular Phoenix Beer in small glasses amoungst friends than start bar fights.  In fact, bouncers here tend only to let in couples. A night out with the girls is unsurprisingly unheard of here. Dating is not really a concept either. Teenagers tend to see each other briefly at the mall or maybe chaperoned at the local Bollywood cinemas.

Whilst spending the day with another cousin Niha (23) she obviously deemed me rebellious enough to ask whether we could possibly go see her secret ‘boyfriend’ at the nearby beach of Grand Gaube. Now i’m always more than happy to collaborate in any scandal.  Her strict father sent her to study in London, so she see’s this ‘boyfriend’ in stolen moments. Once a year?! We park in broad day light. It’s risky as on an island so small she’s convinced of neighbourhood gossip. This ‘illicit affair’ consists of them awkwardly flirting like teenagers for 10 mins. She never gets out of the car, or he in it. I’ve had more intimate encounters chatting to strangers on the tube! But she’s thrilled
at the seeming act of defiance.

As the week goes on my references to England, travel, popular culture, and lack of religion, are met with ambivalence. It’s sometimes hard to find common ground. My cousins rarely see American movies. They are baffled that I’ve never seen (and would rather scratch my eyes out than see) Bollywood music videos. I ask them what they do for fun.

At dusk one evening Kimtee, Vishal and I gallop into the sugar cane fields as the sun sets pink all around us, and it was like feeling 10 years old again. In a good way. Oh and I should add that it was like being 10, except we were armed with small machetes, which no one batted an eyelid at. Kimtee points out every berry, every leaf, every flower, having clearly grown up around this nature. She admits when they were younger her 4 brothers used to suck on so much sugar cain every evening after school that it made them sick. It does taste incredible though.  We run around the 12ft stalks and giggle until it goes dark. And then it all gets a little Children of the Corn/horror movie-esq and we get scared and run home happy and exhausted.

Mauritius it seems, loves a bit of the great outdoors. The Botanical Gardens at Pamplemousses are top of the ‘must do’ list. It’s most popular with families on a Sunday as Mauritians (and I) sneak in for free. There are plants for all over the world set in pretty picnic spots, but it’s most famed for the stunning pink/green pool of giant South American waterlilies, which must have had a lasting effect as they are the one thing I remember as a child.

Just as picturesque is Grand Bassin; some temples by a lakeside in the South West. As the legend goes, one of the Hindu gods was flying sacred rivers to the Ganges, and presumably lost his way when a drop fell into the crater to form this spot. Believe it or not, thousands definitely do here as every February people make a pilgrimage here as villagers all line the roads to give food as alms.  I ask if the FDS lot have made the journey, which they had, on a unbelievable 70km/3 day walk from the North. Apparently it’s all
about sacrifice.

By far the most interesting sight on the island, depending on your level of geekiness, is the Blue Penny museum in Port Louis. Named after a misprinted blue and orange postage stamp which Mauritius and philatelists worldwide are obsessed with. You’ll find out why in a second. They are flawed with a mis-spelling of ‘post office’ instead of ‘post paid’ and as a result of Mauritius being the second country in the world to introduce the postage stamp (Britain was the first.) The never used set that are housed in Port Louis are amongst the
rarest in the world, valued at about 4 million. There were 500 printed, so although I was tempted to immediately scour old family postcards and envelopes, all of this was back in the 1800’s. I’m still holding out there may be one in the attic though.

All in all, my time here felt like a real life version of the ‘homestay’ trips you find in Vietnam, Laos and Thailand –  Fun (ish) and eyeopening. Except there’s a reason we all like to glimpse into other cultures for only 24 hours, because it’s surreal!

So what did I learn? First and foremost, that i’m thankful to be English!

Oh, and as Kimtee and I lay eating our 25rs sorbets on the beautiful Mon Choisy beach; whatever you think the locals pay for things abroad? Tenth it!

Chiang Rai, Northern Thailand

Ah to be back in the land of SevenElevens, pretty clothes, and sumptuous food again. I hopped (well, slow-boated for 30 secs) back over the border, then a skipped onto a 2h bus to Northern Chiang Rai. It’s nice enough, although I kind of thought there was more to it, but maybe i’m confusing it with Pai? Anyway, what is definitely here, and totally worthwhile, is the hideously beautiful monstrosity that is What Rong Khun (The White Temple).

It’s like they built their normal gold ornate Buddhist temple, and then sugar-coated it in a fluffy cloud. It’s Narnia meets a fairytale ice house, meets the inner working of Salvador Dali’s and Hannibal Lector’s minds.

Only ONE of these is a lie:

a)      Outside in the gardens which lead to the bridge, hang a number of sculpted decapitated heads, twisted with serpents where the brains should be.

b)      As you cross the bridge you pass over a pit of sculpted dismembered hands, like ‘thing’ off the Adams Family or Carrie when she reaches up from the grave in the 1980’s horror movie.

c)       Inside on the walls is a painted mural. Think Sistine Chapel. One half depicts your normal gods and religious imagery. The other has pained characters of in a burning red hell scene. These inluded Neo from the Matrix, Harry Potter, Jack Sparrow, Spider/Super/Batman, Michael Jackson, the Twin Towers in inferno, and a whole host of other crazed 21st century refences.

d)      In the center of the room is a praying figure of Buddhist monk.

Answer? D) It is in fact a plastic dummy of a monk. Im not sure whether the whole thing was a Thai temple or Madam Toussords gone utterly mad. I’ll never look at a temple the same way again.

Luang Prabang, Laos

What a difference a year makes. It’s gone from ‘everyone loves LP’ to ‘oh my god it’s so touristy.’ Or so say all the ‘too cool for school’ traveller types.  Newsflash: You ARE a tourist. Just try to like some places for what they are!

I’m guessing its travel trends that have changed not  Luang Prabang itself. I’m pretty sure they didn’t build all the pretty European architecture overnight. It still has cool trinkets stalls on the night market (silver bracelets, ethnic bags, cute baby bibs.) Basically it’s all about lazing in Starbuck-esq coffee shops & organic delis-come-bookshops. You can buy ingredients like feta and smoked salmon bagels for christ’s sake. I know it’s not typical Laos but come on, what’s not to like.

The famous activity of the day here starts at sunrise. At 6.00am some locals (and mostly voyeurs) gather close to the night market for the daily tradition of Alms; the giving of rice and other food to monks. Locals sit on whisker mats and spoonfuls portions of rice to a line of over 100 novices.

Yes it’s become a clash of sacred good will v’s the ogling lenses of  our tourists cameras. But the sight of glowing orange robed monks processioning along colonial streets at dawn is, too touristy or not, an intriguing sight. Homeless charities would arguably kill for this kind of interest in soup kitchens at xmas, so sorry Luang Prabang, your secret is a good one, and it’s out.

One of the other highlights of my day, and perhaps also of my travels so far, came to me in the form of a random poster for a project called Big Brother Mouse. Not a reality tv show for rodents, but  a charity set up to provide books to remote areas of Laos, and increase literacy levels and English ability for kids and adults.

Here I met Lae. Lae is a Laotian monk, aged 20. I volunteered to teach English so was expecting to be teaching ABCs and playing games with kids perhaps.I magine my surprise when I sit down next to a monk. After my morning at the arms giving it felt like good karma. We sat for 2 hours and had without doubt one of the most interesting and moving conversations of my life. We started with families/food/music and ended up him teaching me Korean, and him talking about his parents divorce. This was all done through an eclectic range of annotated scribbles, mimes, and broken English that would wipe the floor with any Pictionary champion. I have gained, probably my most unexpected pen-friend too, as it turns out even monks have hotmail addresses.

Pakse, Laos

A one street transport hub back on the mainland, with not much distinguishing about it other than breaking up my overnighter up North to Vientiane.  We visited a couple of Wats (colourful shrines). That killed half an hour. Then the highlight of the other 23 and a half was undoubtedly a lady called Poh.

Us girls went for a Lao massage (course we did) which threw in a free ‘health check.’ We’ve spent the last week on Don Det obsessed with a fortune-teller called Solith, who never seemed to be in when we called. You would have thought as a psychic he would know we were coming. Anyway, we have been preoccupied with fortunes and such, so jumped at anything palm related. She pulled out a device that looked exactly like a thermometer, and held it at approx 30 different pressure points on our hands. Obviously I won’t dish mine and Claire’s full medical history, but let’s just say it was spookily accurate! We lived to tell the tale so it’s all good, but thought it’s interesting what you can learn when you are least expecting it.

Previous Older Entries

An.an.tas.in : The Anantasin is the name of a shipwreck just of the coast of the Sensi Parasise, Mae Haad Bay, Koh Tao, Thailand. It’s one of my many favorite places.

Lit.tle: Just because it’s cute.

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