E: Athenian Afternoon

IMG_6782-002

Athens, the birthplace of democracy and city of wisdom, does the modern-day flavour of the city fulfil grand expectations a third time around?

Feeling surprisingly alert considering I had spent the day roaming unsuccessfully in search of Barcelona’s botanic gardens, my flight arrived at Eleftherios Venizelos Airport around 4am. Mixed feelings encircled me concerning my return to Athens. This was my third visit to the concrete jungle, whose legacy was dwarfed in the shadow of the great historic city that once stood there before. Being a Cypriot, I often felt that I should have had a sense of ‘belonging’ in Athens, the Hellenic capital. However, previous experiences had left me agitated and unimpressed by the Athenians manners and mentality, something which many European countries are beginning to tire of. Having made these opinions known to everyone prior to the organisation of this trip, I decided to keep an open mind when booking my tickets.

With my backpack on my shoulders, I contentedly strolled past baggage collection and exited swiftly. Pausing outside of the exit gate, it occurred to me that I had entered the country without passing through immigration. Asking a nearby officer whether I was allowed to leave, he briefly glanced at me unimpressed before shrugging and turning the other way. Welcome to Greece!

IMG_6937A strange sense of calm gripped the city that day, almost as if it lay in anticipation of a storm. That Sunday would be the day the 2015 Greek bailout referendum would take place. Syntagma square was crowded with ‘Oxi’ (No) campaign posters and signs, against the proposed austerity measures. This was exceedingly interesting to see, especially as the majority of the media in the country had been broadcasting advertisements in favour of the Yes campaign. The atmosphere on the street was weary, but in fact the Athens of 2015 was just like I remembered it 8 years ago, the 60s buildings were underwhelming, the ancient ruins had struggled in the face of time and the crowded streets harboured little charm.

I found it difficult to be this unimpressed by a city that has given the world so much in terms of culture and democracy. At some points I even angered myself with my negativity, especially since we were there for such a short period of time. Thankfully despite all of this occurring in my head, my company was outstanding. I was so pleased to see them all learning even a little bit about Greek culture. All of us being Biology students from York had really grown close these past three years mainly as a consequence of being confined within labs and tortured with evolving formats of exams.

IMG_6874

Rising up above the city and passing the slabs of stone surrounding the steps leading up to the Parthenon still retained some of the magic people would associate with the highly romanticised Ancient Athens. When you finally reach the top, the noble Parthenon greets you. It’s only a matter of time until disappointment strikes again, instead of being taken aback by the elegance of the structure, you end up pitying the ruin it has become. Engulfed in scaffolding, the fact that the Parthenon has endured a lot is obvious. One can imagine the greatness the temple will possess once restoration works are completed, and the awe that will engross guests when walking between the columns, yet this dream still seems a long way away. The site also offers some brilliant views across the city which are once again tainted as the majority of the views are composed of dated apartment blocks. A fire even broke out in the distance while we were there.

Our final venture of the day was a visit to the new Acropolis Museum. A modern building, where the artefacts are exhibited with minimal distractions in a clean, well-lit and open space. Knowing all of the pieces on exhibition in the museum are solely from the Acropolis is impressive, and a reminder of just how much history both the city and the country encompasses within it. I was impressed with the execution and use of the space. Yet even when I managed to enjoy something in Athens, at the end of the day, the design was by a Swiss Architect, and ultimately in the coming years, it will fade into being just another characterless glass building expressing nothing of the people of the city.

IMG_6946After a frappé on the roof terrace of the museum, we headed home to board the ferry to Paros the next day. This trip had left me feeling even more muddled than before. The strangest aspect of my experience is having spent only a day there, I wish to return again. I would like to take the time out to delve a little deeper in the surrounding neighbourhoods, see the city off the beaten path and seek out these elements I keep hearing about which apparently make it so great to be an Athenian. Having travelled and enjoyed so many different cities around the world, it simply frustrates me not being able to find any joy in the place. Quite confidently I can say that I do not intend on booking tickets back there any time in the near future, but when I do come back and have the time, I’m determined to search every street corner in an attempt to find something I can remember the city positively by, because it’s a shame, even after three visits, I still don’t get it.

Advertisements

E: Lost amongst a thousand islands – Laos

IMG_9668

To our surprise we discovered that buses from Bangkok to Pakse were quite a rarity. After tedious negotiations with various local travel agencies we succeeded in securing two seats on a local bus. Our exit point, Mo Chit is by far the largest bus terminal in Bangkok, and as we descended from our tuk-tuk we found ourselves surrounded by swarms of people. For the first time in Thailand we were even subject to a few glances from the locals as we walked past. The atmosphere was exciting, the air was thick and humid, the sky outside was a dark navy and although weary, our eyes were veiled with the glimmering reflections of the fridge lights in the surrounding kiosks.

Settling down at a food court somewhat reminiscent of a Singaporean hawker centre, we observed numerous interesting characters. Two women frantically discussed various make-up brands, a solo traveller sat a few benches in front of us discretely gazed at his smartphone and during my navigation to the restroom my attention was diverted by a women sat in a phone stall who proceeded to shriek as I walked past, hyperventilating in excitement. Although flattered as I was, I remained a little uncertain on what to do so I swiftly returned to the safety of our table.
IMG_9714
Finally commencing the journey to Pakse, I was reminded of the certain lustre that comes with being hidden behind a moving window at night. The direction of your passage withdrawn from your control, but inside you’re left free to gaze outs at the different individuals wandering random streets you’ll likely never pass again.The picture outside illuminated by the odd flickering street lamp portraying a constantly evolving cityscape as you progress towards your destination. It’s undoubtedly romantic.

Kate on the other hand almost instantly was engulfed by her exhaustion from the busy day and was fast asleep next to me with her mouth open. I’m not too sure how pleased she’d feel if I shared the photographs. Upon awakening after the Thai-Lao border crossing, the scenery outside was no longer composed of concrete highways and people scurrying like rats under the moon. We were in the countryside, exceptionally beautiful countryside. Paddy fields lined the roads with cattle carelessly roaming freely between them. The coach crossed a grand metal bridge over the Mekong to Pakse, one of the larger towns in the south of Laos. From here we boarded an exhaustingly sweaty local bus crammed full of people in thirty-seven degree heat followed by a small wooden boat to reach the Mekong river island of Don Det (Part of the 4,000 islands).

IMG_9685

Upon our arrival that evening we were depleted of energy and eager to get some proper sleep, we managed to fit in a short walk in the nearby countryside, dinner with some German girls we met aboard the bus and a night-time dip in the Mekong. Our undersized cabin was beautiful despite the rough edges and recurring evening invasions by river bugs who flocked in their thousands to ensure our light had company. Our front porch possessed a view of the Mekong and some hammocks suitable for helping to appreciate the view.  A good few hours were wasted here writing post cards and listening to music while the water passed by us.

As the sun rose that next day, we waded out into the countryside in search for breakfast. Approaching a humble looking cabin we hopped inside, ordering some fried eggs and tomato coupled with some baguettes. Similar to the Vietnamese the Lao people accepted bread into their culinary culture during their time as part of the French colony. This was undoubtedly the best breakfast we had during all of our travels, cooked in plenty of oil it was a brilliant start to the day.

IMG_9616Our chosen partners in our expedition for the remainder of the day were some rental bikes picked up at a local shop. Our tyres rotated endlessly onto the uneven dirt track as the heat of the sun pierced our skin, only comforted by the cool breeze created by the vast open space. Herds of cattle and water buffalo became recurring obstacles in our path. Ancient Palms and modest village shacks lay scattered across the horizon in the watch of the ground and sky, which intermingled via the reflections created by the flooded fields.

Once emerged from the countryside and reunited with the banks of the mighty Mekong river, we chartered a small wooden vessel to reach the Cambodia – Lao border in search of the rare freshwater irrawaddy dolphins. The irrawady dolphins are few in numbers and were difficult to spot, the main give-away of their location being the magnificent sound made through their blow-holes when rising up for air. Sighting the dolphins peacefully floating downstream during the mid-day heat was one of my favourite moments from all of my travels so far, especially considering how rushed and full on our days seemed to be, it was pleasant feeling calm and content as our boat softly drifted around them in the peace of the open water.

Conservation of these animals has only recently been brought to the attention of the locals and you can read more about the efforts being made here

IMG_0149

All this peace and natural beauty led me to develop quite an appetite, reluctantly we pushed onto our pedals for a little while longer until some tables and chairs became visible between the trees. We pulled up and parked our bikes beside what looked like someone’s kitchen. The place was empty, a local woman sat patiently weaving a fishing net saw us from afar and greeted us, her children played blissfully around her, play fighting with each other and their pet dogs. We lounged as if dead on the plastic chairs, her husband emerged from the kitchen and greeted us whilst handing us some menus. It was low season and we were probably their only customers the whole day, this made most of the food in the 4,000 islands take a while to be prepared, we ordered the local speciality of fish larp served traditionally with sticky rice and raw vegetables.

After replenishing our reserves I attempted to make conversation with the man, we exchanged a good number of smiles whilst I hopelessly experimented pronouncing various Lao phrases and he would reply using his hands and the odd word of English he spoke. On the whole we didn’t fare too badly, he managed to inform us the fish we had eaten was caught from the river nearby and pointed to the field where our rice was grown. After me asking about his family he later he introduced us to them. He mentioned different westerners who had come to his restaurant before us, showing us pictures photographers had taken of his wife in the past.

I was successful in asking him when tourists first started coming, he recalled his first encounter with a western tourist was from as recent as ten years ago. The family was so kind to us and were very patient whilst we asked them question after question, we were sad to leave them but the sun drew closer to the horizon and the journey back to Don Det would be difficult at night due to a lack of street lights.

IMG_0219Our final sight was the belittlingly named ‘small’ waterfalls. The sun peeked at us beyond the stones and the hills as we followed the waterfalls down to the so-called beach. Here I witnessed the most memorable sunset of my life so far. I desperately attempted to capture the magic of the moment through my lens yet failed to be entirely successful. The beauty of the moment lay within the distinctly coloured layers of the scenery. The sand lay together within the creases of the weathered limestone, both of them leading into the river overlooked upon by the hills and forests in the distance. However long we stayed and gazed at the landscape, it was simply impossible to tire of the view.

My experience in the 4,000 islands of the Mekong in Laos was truly unforgettable, I would enjoy saying one day I would return, but my time there has left me with such special untainted memories I cannot help but fear of it developing and changing in any way. I can only hope future visitors will be respectful of the natural beauty and the lifestyle of the people who live there.

Tips:

  • Bring a Lao phrasebook, the local people are very friendly and up for some conversation
  • The ‘small’ waterfalls are much more beautiful when seen in the evening near sunset (less people)
  • Take your time while cycling, the scenes in the countryside changes throughout the day
  • Bikes can be rented really easily from almost any shop in Don Det

Favourite things to do:

  • Cycle through the countryside
  • See the ‘Small’ and ‘Big’ waterfalls
  • Watch sunset at the ‘Beach’ located by the small waterfalls
  • Eat some locally sourced produce
  • See the river dolphins
  • Swim in the Mekong River at night (free)
  • Watch the wild water buffalo bathe  (free)

E: Indonesian Retreat

72As it’s still fairly early on in our term here in Singapore, a few weekend trips to the coast are acceptable if you make up for the work during the week. Bintan is one of the Riau Islands, a lesser known Indonesian gem just underneath Singapore. Word has it that the government has big plans to transform it into the next Bali. The island already receives some form of tourist income, mainly from Singaporean locals searching for a decent beach. When boarding the ferry there were endless advertisements promoting the relatively new resort situated to the north of the island. Being students with a limited budget we headed further south into the part of the island actually inhabited by the locals.

We stayed in the modest but beautiful Mutiara Beach Guest-house which I can only recommend especially for a big group. They gave us a very good deal by renting out their largest room and allowing us extra mattresses. If we were still in the UK the cost of the mosquito nets and coils we were provided with would have cost more than the room for the duration we stayed. Breakfast was surprisingly included in the price. I thoroughly enjoyed waking up to complimentary Coconut and Lime pancakes by the beach.

Undoubtedly the best part of the trip was renting out some scooters and taking our time to pass through coconut plantations and untouched Indonesian countryside. We made various stops including a little seafood restaurant and had the most delicious marinated fresh fish (for £2 per person!) and by a little stretch of coast with a coral islet opposite. It was possible to walk across the sea from the beach and made for some great photo opportunities. Back at our guest house the beach was very beautiful by the time we arrived back, we had to share it with the presence of some local fishing villagers, whose floating houses became climbing frames and diving boards for our enjoyment. (No damage caused!) The following evening was spent drinking ridiculously cheap beer and relaxing on our porch to some tunes until the portable speakers ran out of battery. Simply a brilliant weekend!

Village Life

Life in the village is the dream, people here don’t seem to suffer from ‘old age syndrome’ no matter what the age they keep themselves busy and it’s refreshing to see. My short two day break was spent running away from snakes, eating mountain berries and throwing ice cold water over my cousins. All good fun. I wish I grew up in a village, having the mountains as your back garden as a kid must have been the best playground you could imagine. But wait don’t think it gets boring when you become a teenager, oh no Kakopetria (the village) has a club. You heard me a club, in a mountain village. Of course me and my cousins did not require any alcohol or a dance floor to bring the party to the streets with the use of a blackberry curve’s speaker….. Coz that’s just how we rollA small cottage tucked away in the trees. On the first moutain hike where we managed to walk into snakesAfter about an hour of convincing these weren’t toxic I learnt to love wild mountain berriesNot particularly historic but a scenic bridge neverthelessThe village has a plentiful supply of water from underground springsCloud covering the mountainsGot to meet the family hamsterThe village at nightApple anyone?

Tenerife, The Island With An Identity Crisis

Now don’t get me wrong, jetting off to Tenerife for a whole week with some great friends was a blast. I had the best time and was too out of it to pitch in any complaints about the devastating effect tourism has had on the south of the island.  The level of sophisticated architecture is below zero, every building seemed as if it had drawn it’s inspiration from a variation of Cycladic, Spanish, Grand Theft Auto style and British warehouse designs. (Skip to the end for the gory clubbing details)

Beach

All the beaches in the south of Tenerife are man made, so you won’t get that breathtakingly beautiful natural cove that no one else has discovered but you will fine some very striking golden sanded beaches with some amazing shades of blue. The water tends to be choppy so not ideal for snorkeling. Some beaches are so cut off by wavebreakers that fish do collect amongst the rocks close to the shore. The waters are filled with life and not too many cigarette butts either. What surprised me though is just how little sand there is on the beach, just about deep enough to cover my hand. Some beaches vary in clarity and sand quality but even the uglier looking ones were sufficient for a good swim and catching some rays.

Food

There were hardly any Spanish or Canarian dining options even though I browsed frantically every day up and down the pedestrian path.

A word of advice, don’t look too hard as once we were bribed in by a restaurant rep stealing our beach ball and sat down there were a few tapas and paella options on the menu. We were promised the fish was fresh and it tasted good however you can never be too sure with the food in Tenerife. The safest thing to go for is probably a premade and reheated pizza, the ones I had where fairly cheap and were a lot better than expected. There is no in between expensive and cheap restaurants however so be prepared to cook yourself something for lunch if you want to avoid spending your money unnecessarily. Supermarkets were reasonable

So whilst strolling along the dated beach path, you notice the south of Tenerife really doesn’t seem to have a particular desire to be anything in particular. There are too many palm trees. Yes I couldn’t believe what I was thinking either, there are too many palm trees in Playa de las Americas. Due to the fact there are so many they lose their effect. They end up looking like more of a weed. Apart from the Coconut Palms, which I saw for the first time. The coast is damaged by endless numbers of Steak Houses/Pizzerias and none of the meat I had at any of the restaurants was worth writing home about. To add to that there wasn’t anything worth buying for those back home either. Usually I’ll settle for a good fridge magnet, but not a decently made one to be found.

What was good was the relatively new water park, Siam Park. It’s probably the best water park in Europe/Africa. The best ride was the dragon in my opinion, completely unexpected as while you are queuing you have no idea what the ride will be like as your vision is blurred by tons of trees. Then you go through a tube and when you least expect it are thrown out into a huge bowl going from side to side uncontrollably. The transport in Tenerife also deserves to be applauded 14 euros will get you a return ticket to Santa Cruz from Costa Adeje from the main bus station next to the impressive Magma Theatre. 

Santa Cruz 

The journey to Santa Cruz was very enjoyable, it was amusing seeing bus stops in the middle of what seemed like nowhere and people getting off and wandering into the desert. Whilst passing hills filled with cactus’ you stumble past slums which are brightly painted and you almost get the feeling you’ve been shipped to Latin America. It’s quite enchanting.

Arriving into the city initially it’s easy to be underwhelmed by the suburbs only when you pull into the central bus station and see the Auditorio de Tenerife is when your curiosity starts to grow. Out of all of the blurred confusion and Identity crisis which clouds the south of the island, the confusion is still present in the capital yet Santa Cruz manages to draw together all the fragments of Tenerife’s mixed history well. It takes a while to find it’s essence but after about an hour of walking aimlessly it’s easy to stumble into a green plaza surrounded by apartments where the locals stroll carelessly by. The city is clean and striking, looks like it’s brand new. I’ll do a proper post on the city later on.

Nightlife

Now to the clubs, the Veronica Strip back down south is a truly…. unique, met some interesting characters, there is a variety of clubs and bars, the strip itself is quite small. I would recommend ‘envy’ for starting off staff not pushy at all. The reps are brilliant at convincing you into their bars just keep walking and speak in different languages to avoid them. ‘Joyce’ was good for dancing, ‘Anthony’s bar’ had the best deals on drinks and we heard many things about Tramps yet never actually got the chance. ‘Level’ had some great foam parties but be warned your eyes will sting like mad and there is a possibility if a girl leans in for a kiss she will bite as I had the displeasure of finding out. The crowd seemed older roughly 18-27 so best to go with a large group. We went on a bar crawl which was rather expensive but thankfully the majority of the crowd was around our age.

Unfortunately no Europeans in the clubs, everyone was from the UK. I was hoping to meet some people from other countries but it didn’t end up happening. Whilst happily waddling through the street at 4:30 you realize it’s quite safe as there are plenty of police patrolling the area from a distance, yet that didn’t stop me nearly getting mugged by some span-yards who looked like they were on drugs.

Another unexpected highlight was the Africans guarding the toilets forcing you to cough up your precious euros in exchange for dry hands after washing. Another thing you should be warned about is how the music in Tenerife is not great, after  you’ve had some drinks everything seems fine, but every night pretty much every DJ would lay down the same lines, same jokes and same music. There was hardly any house music available to my disappointment however you grow to love the songs you hate. 

The last highlight of the trip was ‘whale watching’, pilot whales specifically. Not really whales at all more like dolphins yet they were very friendly and come right up close to the boat. Boat had shade and was spacious, with an open bar and paella. I think the boat we took was called MaxiCat? So that the dolphins natural behavior isn’t disturbed you aren’t allowed to spend an awful lot of time with them but according to what time of the year you go other whales and dolphins can also be seen.

So that’s the summary of my time in Tenerife. I missed the chance to see the botanical gardens and the traditional village of La Ortova but i guess you don’t really do those things on a guys holiday. I was quite lucky they let me get away with whale watching and Santa Cruz, I couldn’t have gone with a better group of people. Met some hilarious personalities had a lot of first and last time experiences and will hold the memories closely to my heart and mind for the rest of my life. I hope you guys enjoyed reading about it and keep posted as there will be more to come.

Chris

Paphos Municipal Beach

Paphos Municipal Beach, is a fun, clean and energetic beach. Much more room than the crowded beaches of Ayia Napa and surprisingly the sand is whiter than a lot of the paphos beaches. It’s also fun to walk along the coast. The small bar has some really good chips. There are a few waves, nothing uncontrollable but you can have some fun bobbing up and down, the water was really warm back when I visited.

No more posts.