I feel it's been ages that I posted something about Asia so I went through my pictures and thought I'd share some of my favorite shots of Singapore with you today!
Back in 2009 we chose Singapore as a stop-over on our way to Australia. I spent a couple of days in the city exploring temples, going to Sentosa Island and chilling out in Little India where I was staying.
Singapore is incredibly diverse! Most people speak English which is even one of the official languages of the country. But signs almost everywhere are multilingual showing text in Mandarin, English & Malay. It's a big melting pot of nations with many expats from Europe, India and China. The downtown area is clean and very modern with tall skyscrapers & shopping malls. The city does, however, also have a more traditional vibe in certain parts with markets, elaborately decorated temples and colorful local shops and restaurants.
Here are some of my favorite impressions of this vibrant little country!
And now for some practical tips! Planning a trip to India takes some preparation. Apart from the obvious - booking your flights,
accommodation or a guided tour - you will also need various immunizations, medications & to sort out your visa.
I went to a travel clinic about four months before travelling to get the full care package: vaccinations against Tetanus, Hep A & Hep B, Polio/Diphtheria & Typhoid. I also got malaria pills (Malerone). Check with your doctor if you need to take malaria pills depending on when/where exactly in India you're travelling.
Here's what I included in my personal medication kit:
Diarrhea pills (an absolute must!)
Pills against nausea & headache
Insect repellent (containing DEET)
An alcohol-based disinfectant (gel & wipes)
Contraception pills (whatever you're on, bring your own as they may not be sold
Water purifying tablets (luckily I never needed those, but better safe than sorry!)
Allergy relief pills - even if you don't have any known allergies, those pills are nice to have as your body will have to deal with a zillion new experiences from water quality in the shower to spices you may not be used to at home and pollen in the air that your system simply doesn't know
All the above were recommended & prescribed by my local travel clinic. Make sure you talk to your doctor about what might be appropriate for you personally.
The Visa - most western nationalities need to get their visa before arrival. I had to take my passport with the filled-in visa form and 2 passport approved photos to the Indian Embassy here in Dublin. It only took a couple of days until I could pick it up again. Arriving in India - in my case at the Indira Gandhi Airport in Delhi - you follow the normal immigration procedures. Your passport gets checked for the visa and you get stamped upon entry and again when you're leaving the country. Make sure you check the visa regulations for your nationality well in advance as these rules may change.
Here are some other really helpful tips:
* Keep those 10-Rupee notes - they're your "toilet tickets" to tip the
* Avoid tap water & ice cubes in drinks!
* Use bottled water to brush your teeth
* Don't bring fruit/veggies into the country or you'll have to bin them on arrival
* Wear comfy, sturdy shoes even in the cities (potholes, cow droppings, etc)
* As a girl, bring a scarf to cover your hair if you're planning to visit
* Get a good guide book that includes maps like Lonely Planet or Rough Guide
* If possible avoid touristy elephant rides - often animal welfare is not a priority
* Bring hand sanitizer & disinfection towels
* Take probiotics to help your digestive system with the overload of new flavors
And last but not least: Don't feed the monkeys! ;)
Now get started planning your awesome trip to this incredible country!
Happy travels x
On to our next adventure: an overnight train ride from Agra to Varanasi. Already at the station there were hundreds of people, men in turbans and women in colorful saris, who seemed to sleep, cook and wait here. There were dozens of stray dogs running around & a few monkeys dangling off the platform roof.
It was warm and loud and the air smelled of spices & sweat - nothing ever screamed culture shock at me more than this scene – and I loved it! After all, I didn't come all this way just to be in my comfort zone. We soon got used to the men walking up and down the platform banging spoons against aluminum cans shouting “Chai tea, Chai coffee”. They continued this chant on the train during the night. It had something of a calming effect together with the rhythmic sound of the train rattling along the tracks.
The beds on board were really comfy and this was only second class. The toilets were mostly tourist-friendly – but when you looked inside you could see the actual tracks. We had been advised to use them only while the train was in motion as otherwise rats can crawl up the tube. Also, I thought I totally over-reacted a couple of days earlier bulk-buying disinfection tissues – but they turned out to be my most treasured travel essential on the train journey. This is the moment when you hope you didn't eat anything dodgy. It’s probably the worst place in the world to have traveler's diarrhea...
The next morning I watched the country waking up to a beautiful sunrise. Fields, rivers and deserted train stations with nameplates that had a strange similarity to London tube signs.
Then we finally arrived in Varanasi – possibly the most authentic town on our trip. By now we were used to stray dogs, monkeys, goats, snakes, camels, elephants and cows (which we found very helpful when crossing the street because cars don’t always stop for pedestrians – but they surely do for a cow in the middle of the road!). And in Varanasi we found pretty much all this combined. Outside the bustling town center there were ruins of Buddhist temples and the Archaeological Buddhist Museum with its gardens. Strolling through the grounds we observed a Buddhist meditation with monks clad in traditional orange robes.
The city of Varanasi has its name from the two rivers Varua and Asi and is as important to Hindus as Jerusalem is to Christians or Mecca to Muslims.
The most impressive thing about Varanasi is that the city is built directly on the banks of the holy river Ganges, which is often called Gangaji. The name consists of “Ganga” which means “preserver of life” and “-ji” which means “his holiness”.
We got up early the next day to see the morning prayers on the banks of the river and go on a boat tour with another local guide. We saw people washing clothes in the river, praying, swimming in it or meditating at its banks and even a funeral was held right there on the river!
To be cleaned from your sins you must dip your head under water three times in a row. Unfortunately, this is one of the most polluted rivers on earth. In the Himalayas where the river originates the water is naturally filtered and clean but down here in Varanasi it's pretty much septic and certainly not suitable for swimming. We just dipped our fingers in the water and immediately afterwards sprayed hand sanitizer everywhere. Surely the locals would just shake their heads at us soft western tourists. The highlight, however, was the most stunning sunrise I have ever witnessed.
Ideally, every Hindu should to come to the Ganges River at least once in their lifetime for a bath. In order to verify their belief and their once-in-a-lifetime-journey they also go to pray in the Golden Temple in Varanasi. One of their most important deities (and there are many!) is Ganesh - part elephant, part human - Son of Shiva and Lord of Prosperity & Protection. To experience a local tradition first-hand we bought small paper bowls filled with flowers and candles from local women. We held them over the water, circled them three times clockwise with our right hands then released them into the river saying our prayers – right before sunrise. What a beautiful tradition!
Soon we were on another overnight train back to Delhi. The trip was almost over and it was the perfect time to reflect on what I had learnt on this adventure so far: a few words in Hindi, the fact that you simply cannot escape the mandatory stop at the tuc tuc driver’s brother’s shop and when an item on the menu is labelled “mild” it will most likely put your mouth on fire. But the most important lesson for me was that poor doesn't necessarily mean miserable. I had never before and rarely after this trip witnessed such severe poverty of such a large part of the population of a country. Yet even the poorest people wore colorful saris, were singing and chanting, smiling at visitors, greeting and blessing us on our way. Most people we met were kind & graceful and exuded an inner happiness which is hard to find in our rich, sanitized & organized western countries. If I took one thing away from this experience it’s that I’m now much more grateful for what I have in my life: seemingly normal stuff - like good food, education, a safe home - I don’t take any of this for granted anymore.
By the time this trip was over, I had witnessed the traditions of three different world religions and I had encountered wealth and extreme poverty right next to each other. So yes, traveling does broaden your horizon and teach you a little something about how other people live, eat and believe. No other trip since has made me more aware of the differences and similarities in all of humankind. It has opened my mind and my eyes to a completely new concept of seeing other cultures: going out there and experiencing them myself.
And that’s when travelling became a way of life for me and when I truly started to appreciate my opportunities in this world. Namaste.
Yes, in hindsight I could have picked an easier country with a much lower culture-shock level for my first out-of-Europe travel experience. After all up until then I had only been to 10 countries, easy places like England, Sweden, France or Italy.
But I was hungry for more and probably totally underestimated what I got myself into when I handed my hard-earned cash over to the travel agent for a 2-week tour of India. Next I bought an India Lonely Planet, got my visa sorted and made an appointment at the travel clinic for various injections (obviously the least fun part of traveling!). A couple of days before my departure I started taking Malaria pills and that’s when it all became very real: as in I got really sick every time I took them!
Then departure day came and went all in a blur: flying to Heathrow and on to Delhi, successfully checking out the plane and various goodie bags (hey, this was my first long-haul flight!), unsuccessfully trying to identify the food served, finally landing in Delhi, waiting for ages to get our bags and then meeting our guide. Slightly more memorable was the taxi ride to our hotel, crawling along an unpaved road dodging potholes and uhm... cows! They were simply parked between cars: Audi, Opel, cow. And occasionally they would wander right onto the street. Now this was something to get used to! And I did – over the next 10 days I probably encountered more cows than I had ever seen before in my life.
Here I was in a country which had been under British rule until 1947. With independence the country was split into Pakistan and India and some 25 years later East Pakistan became Bangladesh.
India is the home of Mahatma Gandhi, Darjeeling tea, Bollywood, Cricket, curry, spices, colorful saris and holy cows. And this is the country were Big Macs and pretty much everything else is made out of chicken as not to offend Hindus who don't eat beef and Muslims who don't consume pork.
I unintentionally even became vegetarian for the duration of the trip as it was just too easy with so many delicious food choices (little did I know that two months later I would actually go veggie for good!).
Over the next couple of days we encountered not only cows, but monkeys, snakes (incl. charmers), Indian elephants and many, many stray dogs (now the tetanus jab made perfect sense). We visited Delhi’s Friday Mosque (shoes off/headscarf on!), wandered around Rajghat – a memorial garden to honor Mahatma Gandhi, saw the India Gate and then left behind this big bustling place to head to Jaipur, the Pink City.
Here we stayed at a Haveli, a guest house that seemed like an oasis in the middle of the desert. It was in a busy & dirty side lane, but when it opened its gates there was endless tranquility behind them. The noise of the cars and tuc tucs drowned out by the constant bubbling of the fountain in the middle of the courtyard. Pure heaven!
Next we visited Amber Fort. The fort had been built in 1592 and was surrounded by the second largest wall in the world (after the Chinese Wall). The day we visited they even shot a Bollywood movie at the fort!
On the next day we went on to Agra in the region of Uttar Pradesh to visit the famous & mysterious Taj Mahal. But on the way there we stopped at yet another fascinating complex of buildings: Fatehpur Sikri. This red sandstone fort is a ghost city 40 km south of Agra. The palace is a world heritage monument today.
The next morning we got up early to see the sunrise over the Taj Mahal beside the Yamuna River. We patiently waited until the gates to the Taj would open and we could peek in to see this stunning marble building bathed in golden sunlight. Surrounded by a mosque on each side it simply looked stunning.
The Taj Mahal, which is also referred to as the “Monument of Love”, is in fact a marble mausoleum. It was completed in 1653 by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal. Today there are replica tombs inside the Taj Mahal for visitors to see. The original mausoleum with the graves of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal is underneath the marble floor. There were some 20,000 workers involved in the building process and now, not surprisingly it is one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
This was day 3 and by now I had also figured out how to stop me from getting nauseous every time I popped a malaria pill into my mouth: by eating a seriously huge breakfast – which is kind of a challenge for someone who usually doesn't eat before noon. Well, challenge accepted & problem solved. That was the moment when Malerone and I became friends.
Stay tuned for part 2!
Hey and welcome to Malaysia!
It's hot, it's humid and it's super busy - that's Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia. It's not only a cool stop-over destination but definitely also worth a visit in its own right. I had five days to explore this huge, bustling metropolis where so many different cultures, languages and religions co-exist peacefully. Here you can find elaborately decorated Hindu temples, beautiful mosques, colorful Chinese temples and Christian churches all right next to each other down-town.
Luckily this multi cultural society is also reflected in the food you'll get here: Indian, Chinese, Malaysian of course, Thai, Japanese, Western specialties... you name it, they'll serve it! Apparently the street food is really good here but me being a veggie with a stomach that always plays up when I'm on holidays, I simply stuck to Food Courts - boring, I know! - but better safe than sorry!
Oh the shopping malls! They are simply everywhere and some of them are even connected to each other with really long, elevated tunnels! Everybody (tourists & locals alike) comes here to eat, shop, meet friends for coffee or simply escape the humidity for a while. With shops ranging from outlets & local boutiques selling traditional clothes to high street & haute-couture there's something for every taste and budget. The overwhelming amount of coffee shops and restaurants also makes for fantastic people watching!
But when the sun sets and it gets slightly more bearable outside then the streets fill up with people! From the colorful Chinese street food market that only really comes to life in the evening to the magically lit up Petrona Towers there is still a lot to discover in KL @ night.
The public transport system is efficient, cheap & safe (and air-conditioned!) and gets you to almost all the touristy parts of the city. Some of the trains even have carriages for women only - look out for the pink ones in case you're a female solo backpacker and are more comfortable with this option. The monorail is another great way to get from A to B giving you a fantastic view of the city from its elevated tracks. Walking is another option, just make sure you have a good map like the ones from Lonely Planet, as the street network can get confusing.
My favorite sights in KL:
* Merdeka Square - a big square with a fantastic view. Psst: that's also where you find the Tourist Office and the official "I Love KL" sign (see pic below)
* The KL Tower - You can go up to the top and enjoy the view or you can just check out the visitor center with the souvenir shops & a small video room where you can watch a film on how it was build.
Cool fact: There's a more than 100 year-old tree right next to the KL Tower which had been specially protected during the construction of the tower.
* The Petronas - day or night, they're just incredible!
* Batu Caves - just outside KL (can easily be reached by train) are these amazing caves that house colorful Hindu temples. Entrance is free but donations are appreciated. If you plan to visit, make sure you bring long pants and a long-sleeve shirt or a shawl to cover your shoulders. Alternatively, for a small donation staff will provide you with shawls and modest shirts for the length of your visit.
So without further ado - here are some of my favorite impressions of this incredible city. Make sure you check it out if you're ever in this part of the world!