Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Laos: Luang Prabang

Oh Luang Prabang, you totally captured my heart.

Luang Prabang - once the royal capital of Laos - had real Penang vibes for me. I think it was the traces of old French colonial architecture alongside the modern fast moving tuk tuks and beautiful scenery which won me over. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site which is really an indicator of how beautiful Luang Prabang is. 

We spent four days here, but could easily have stayed longer. Be sure to spend time wandering - see where the pavements take you... but look out for snakes! We saw a huge python just chilling in the road which sprung to life just as we passed it, much to the passing Monks' amusement when we screamed with shock! 

Getting there
We arrived in LP by means of boat - a slow boat cruise to be exact. You can see about our journey here; how we bought our tickets, how to get to the starting point (Huay Xai) and how much it all cost. 

Where we stayed
We stayed at the beautiful heritage style Villa Maydou. We had a big double room with seating on a terrace outside, and the hotel had a pool and great bar and breakfast options. The hotel began as two existing listed heritage houses which were restored before more added to create a village feel. I think we paid ~£40 a night which was well worth the money - it really reminded us of our stay in Love Lane, Penang

What we did 
Kaung Si Waterfalls - we hired a motorbike for the day and drove the thirty minute journey to the most spectacular waterfalls I have ever seen! The journey itself was pretty stunning, through gorgeous countryside - Laos is just so lush and green. The waterfalls themselves are by no means a secret; there is a pretty well established tourist scene there, so get there early in the day if you want to avoid crowds. There is also a bear sanctuary in the waterfall 'park' area, which we popped in to see!

Night market - sprawling and interesting, this wasn't just loads of souvenir tat (although there was some of that). Definitely worth browsing.

Trekking - clearly not scarred from our trekking experience in Myanmar, we decided to book on to a half day trek after being wooed by the incredible scenery in and around LP. We booked a half day trek through the hill tribes with Phone Travel - this cost us 200,000 kip for us both (around £15 when we travelled). There were many more options for longer treks with kayaking or waterfalls included, but we wanted to keep it shorter on this occassion. We were collected from our accommodation in a van and taken to the starting point of our trek via a small boat over the river. We were the only ones on our trek, with two lovely guides, which comprised of about 2 hours trekking to start, then lunch, then approx 1.5 hours after lunch. Perfect! We saw fresh elephant trails in the jungle, and were quite literally dripping with sweat by the end of the afternoon!

Where we ate and drank
Khai Phaen - a small chain which offers training to underprivileged local teens, offering modern local cuisine and a beautiful setting. (Trip Advisor)
Tangor - we just stopped for a coffee here, but the food looked delicious! Great decor. (Trip Advisor)
Dyen Sabai - do it yourself  Lao BBQ with buffalo, broth and noodles - worth crossing the river on a rickety bamboo bridge for! (Trip Advisor)
Viewpoint restaurant - again, just a drink for us again here but great views as you'd expect with that name. (Trip Advisor)
Coconut garden - good local food. (Trip Advisor)
3 Nagas - we had a drink in this fancy boutique hotel, just 'cos it looked so beautiful and we wanted to have a nosey inside! (Trip Advisor)
Utopia - the only western food we ate in LP, but it was good! Pizza, burgers etc. (Trip Advisor)


Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Lunch at The Castle Inn, Farnham

You've probably heard me professing my love for the Red Mist pubs before - especially my favourite central Farnham pub The Wheatsheaf. But it's all change in town, with The Wheatsheaf changing hands and a new Red Mist offering opening on Castle Street. 

Introducing, The Castle Inn.

Sitting proudly within sight of Farnham Castle, it is everything you'd expect from a Red Mist pub - top quality locally sourced food, a relaxed yet lively atmosphere and an excellent interior. And this time, in the perfect central location, nestled among other Farnham favourites like Castle Street Flowers and Gail's Bakery. 

I was invited to come along and see it for myself, and try the new menu. Please note, this meal was gifted but, as ever, all views my own. I took my food photographer pal Milly - it's always good to have someone with impeccable taste alongside, keeping you in check!

To start, Milly went for the pan seared scallops with pancetta, celeriac puree and Crondall truffle oil, and me the chicken and apricot terrine. The perfect combination of sweet and savoury with a spiced chutney; it was absolutely delicious. Milly's scallops were juicy and perfectly cooked - a real winner.

Aside from these, the whole baked Camembert was making eyes at me (side note, it's baked inside a rustic loaf... sold) and the deli or mezze boards would make the perfect sharing starter. My idea of a perfect Saturday is walking in to town for a beer and lunch - The Castle has so many great sharing and lunch options which fills me with joy... Saturday afternoon drinking ahoy!

We moved on to steak and fish respectively, with Milly opting for the Surrey Farm rump steak with chunky chips and bearnaise sauce, cooked perfectly to her taste (as it should be, medium rare). I made good use of the specials board and went for the halibut with prawns - absolutely delicious and again perfectly cooked. I can honestly say I don't think I've ever had a bad meal at a Red Mist pub - I can totally rely on their first-rate chefs to conjure up something special.

Whether we fancy a pub classic - ham, egg and chips, if you're asking - or a restaurant quality meal made with local ingredients, we know Red Mist will deliver. For us, it is that go-to that you need within walking distance of  your house. 

Oh, I almost forgot. Pudding. As if - we all know it's what we're holding out for.

It took next to no time for me to decide. The pecan pie, naturally. Served with ice cream and fresh honeycomb, I was in heaven. Crunch, warm, cold, salt, sweet. Perfection! Milly was, as ever, far more sensible and went for the affogato. Sourcing local ice cream from Petersfield - in fact right next to my auntie and uncle's house - you're safe in the knowledge they're supporting local business and not clocking up the mileage. 

Would I recommend The Castle Inn? Without a doubt! We're lucky to have so may great pubs in and around Farnham, but having another 10/10 on the highstreet is so great to see. Perhaps not so great for my bank balance, but ya know - swings and roundabouts! 

Be sure to get hold of a Red Card if you do visit - it works a bit like a Boots Advantage card, where you can accrue points and money off vouchers. Win win!

The Castle Inn (website).
5 Castle Street, Farnham, GU9 7HR.

Meal gifted for review purposes. All views and thoughts my own. Thank you Red Mist for inviting me to visit!


Thursday, 21 March 2019

Indonesia: visiting Gili T in your thirties

Ask any backpacker doing the SE Asia route, and Gili T will be on their list.

Friday, 22 February 2019

Indonesia: Yogyakarta

Oh Yogyakarta, what an absolute dream!

If you've read my thoughts on Nusa Lembongan then you'll know that it was a good 2.5 years since we were in Indonesia. But, as I said in that post, I am determined to complete my round up of our trip! Predominantly so I have a personal record of the best trip of my life on my site... but also to perhaps inspire others to do the same. 

So, Yogya. 

We visited Indonesia as the last stop on our six month trip round SE Asia and whilst we wanted to prioritise chill time before returning home, we couldn't miss the opportunity to travel to some less-visited parts of the tourist trail. Step in, Yogyakarta. See also: Ijen and Bromo.

Getting there
We travelled to Yogya from Probolinggo by train, after our Ijen and Bromo adventures. The train was a memorable experience to say the least; we booked tickets online... but arrived on the train to find a family sat in our reserved seats, and they wouldn't move. Cue awkward-Brits-on-local-train-in-middle-of-Java scenario! So, we sat elsewhere... before having to move when the ticket holders of those seats arrived! Hilariously, the family in our seats wouldn't move even when the transport police guy turned up, but thankfully a couple of nice ladies took pity on us and let us sit with them. The train journey from Probolinggo to Yogyakarta took a mighty 8.5 hours - take snacks!

Where we stayed
We stayed in Abrakadabra Hostel - super basic room with no air con and a cold water shower... we were skint by this point in our trip! We stayed three nights and the room cost £10 a night. 

What we did
Taman Sari - the water castle
Beautiful architecture and something a little different from the hundreds of temples we visited during our trip! Once the royal garden of the Sultanate of Yogyakarta, it is made up of pools and an impressive system of alleyways and tunnels, leading to an underground mosque. In part destroyed by the British invasion of 1812 and a later earthquake in 1867, some areas have been restored but it keeps its authentic feel. We were approached by a local student who offered us a free tour to help him practice his English. Win win! 

Topping our must-see list was Borobudur, which we decided to visit at sunrise. We booked this through our hostel and were picked up at 4.30am and driven to the world's largest Buddhist temple which dates back to the 9th century. Of course, we were not the only ones doing this - it is a well oiled machine! We walked up the steps of the temple in the dark, alongside hundreds of others. Scroll down to have a look at my pictures to see the crowds joining us to see the sun rise. It really was something to behold though, with seventy-two bell shaped stupas at the top around one large stupa. Inside each houses a statue of the Buddha. Completely stunning and a definite bucket list moment!


Indonesia: Ijen and Bromo (with and without a tour)

We visited Indonesia as the last stop on our six month trip round SE Asia and whilst we wanted to prioritise chill time before returning home, we couldn't miss the opportunity to travel to some less-visited parts of the tourist trail. After a little research, we decided that we wanted to end our trip with something that would push us out of our comfort zone and ~hopefully~ leave us with some incredible memories. Ijen and Bromo did just that!

If you've read my thoughts on Nusa Lembongan then you'll know that it was a good 2.5 years since we were in Indonesia. But, as I said in that post, I am determined to complete my round up of our trip! Predominantly so I have a personal record of the best trip of my life on my site... but also to perhaps inspire others to do the same. 

We travelled to Java from Bali, and it could not have been more of a change of scenery! Bali is so westernised, with Aussie-style coffee shops and specially designed insta set ups - think perfectly framed ocean swings and luxe pool clubs and you're getting there. Java on the other hand, is far less travelled. It is the world's most populous island and home to 141 million people - needless to say, it's hectic! 

Getting there
As I say, we arrived from Bali. We actually got an Uber (further evidence of Bali's westernisation) from Seminyak to Gilimanuk which took 3.5 hours and cost 500k (around £27, current 2019 conversion rate). You can also get a bus, but we were too lazy to organise ourselves. Getting tickets for the ferry over from Gilimanuk (Bali) to Java was really straightforward and the journey across only took 30 minutes and cost just 6k each (around 30p!).

Where we stayed to visit Ijen
We found an inexpensive little homestay Osingvacation which did the job, but was really basic. Shared bathroom, squat toilet, bucket shower. It cost £11. The owner also arranged for us to be taken to Ijen the next morning, so was a really straightforward and easy option. He was super friendly and welcoming and lent us a motorbike to drive to a local warung for dinner.

Trekking Ijen
We were collected at 12.30am (in the morning) for the drive up to Ijen which took a nail-biting hour, as they drove up the mountain in the mist and rain. We were deposited at the drop off point, and began our trek to the crater rim. And a trek, it was. Not for the faint-hearted, it was incredibly steep in places, completely dark and a long slog - it took about an hour. I had to stop a couple of times, and whilst I'm not an athlete I'd like to think I'm relatively fit. It was pretty tough. (edit: Rich is now telling me that I'm exaggerating and it wasn't that bad. I'm not sure I believe him).

Once we arrived at the crater rim, we were given gas masks to wear on our descent into the crater towards the sulphurous flames. Within the crater is a kilometre-wide turquoise acidic crater lake, which is mined for sulfur. We scaled down the rocks; some sections with clear paths and steps, others more of a scramble. Health and safety precautions are minimum! Alongside the tourists are local sulfur miners who are also completing the trek up and down to the crater floor to mine for sulfur which is taken back up to the rim in big baskets. These men were just ploughing up the rocks and past the tourists, putting us all to shame! 

You have to do the trek in the dark to be able to see the blue flames at their best, and it was a really spectacular sight. They burn up to 600 degrees celsius and reach sixteen feet high! Photos do it no justice, but do check out this National Geographic feature for a real insight. It was after NG featured Ijen's blue flames that tourism increased significantly. After ogling the blue fire, we climbed back up to the rim to see sunrise. Unfortunately there was a heavy mist on the day we visited so didn't get to see much of a sunrise or the turquoise lake, but the experience was incredible nonetheless. 

Some Italian lads that we met at Bromo did Ijen without a tour, by just hiring a moped to drive up to the drop off point themselves. They also were able to stay a while longer to wait for the mist to rise and saw the lake emerge - if you have time on your hands (and are confident on a bike!) then I would recommend doing that. 

See further down for Bromo...

Getting to Bromo
We didn't stick around for long - after our Ijen trek we dashed to catch the 9.15am train to Probollingo. The journey took about 4.5 hours and we were lucky enough to get business class seats with aircon - such luxury! We hopped on a bus which took us from the train to the bus station, and despite reading loads about bus scammers... we got scammed!! Agh. There is a super cheap local bus that goes to Cemoro Lawang, but we missed this (somehow) and ended up having to pay for a car to take us and some Italian lads. We then faced a further charge of a 10k 'entry fee' to Cemoro Lawang. We were so fed up with being scammed by this point - and we thought Vietnam was bad! This site gives more info on how to get to CL.

Where we stayed
We stayed in a cheap hostel type thing, can't remember the name - it was as you'd expect; basic verging on grim, but did have hot water! 

Trekking Bromo
We didn't do a tour or organised trip with this one, just walked up ourselves! Well, actually, we didn't walk up Bromo itself, we walked up neighbouring mountain Penanjakanso so we could get views over Bromo. This avoids the 220k entry fee to Bromo itself, and gives you an amazing view. 

Basically head uphill through the main town, and follow the road until you get to the foot of the mountain. We did a little recce the day before so we knew which road we'd be starting on as again we did this trek at sunrise. We left just after 3am and set off towards 'sunset point' on Mount Penanjakan. Again, the climb was tough. I think it was at this point that I admitted that perhaps I wasn't fit at all! 

We stopped briefly at sunrise point 3, but carried on up to sunrise point 2. You can go further to point 1 (and there are jeeps that can take you there!) but point 2 was really quiet - when we arrived at least - and had amazing views over Bromo. My only advice would be wrap up warm! It was freezing; we bought wooly hats in the town and wore all the clothes we could manage - there was also a lady selling hot drinks at the view point. Watching the sun come up and the mist rising was truly magical, and completely worth the lung-bursting trek!

Both Ijen and Bromo were just so beautiful - once in a lifetime experiences and I would recommend visiting if you are visiting Indonesia. I imagine they are more touristy now, but when in SE Asia we learnt not to write experiences off just because they were touristy - they're popular for a reason! It's just about picking your timings, going without a tour if you can and searching online for tips and tricks. Good luck!

After this, we headed back to Probollingo by bus before getting a train to Yogyakarta. More on that here.

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