Asian Adventures – An Amalgamation of the ‘Best (and worst) Bits’

This will probably be the trickiest blog I’ll ever write but I’d like to try and summarise the best and worst bits of my travels in Asia (Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia and Singapore). I’m going to be as objective as I can. These are still my own personal thoughts and opinions so don’t be offended if I think something was a worst and you think it’s a best. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion and you’re allowed to have differing ones so no bees in bonnets please.

There’s some categories where I have winners and runners up because it was too close for me to call a single best or worst.

Here goes:

Best Hostel

WINNER:
Siholme Backpackers, Vientiane, Laos
Although I only stayed a single night I was still very impressed. The dorms were great, the bathrooms were clean and modern, the atmosphere was friendly, there was a movie room, a pool table, a bar, friendly staff and amusing murals/slogans painted around the place. Just a great all round hostel with, honestly, no bad points.

RUNNER UP:
Mojzo Inn, Nha Trang, Vietnam
This place was amazing. The breakfast included in your room price was cooked fresh for you and there was a choice of four things. The dorms were air conditioned all day and there were decent sized lockers in the rooms. The refillable water tap was great. The WiFi was fast and available all over the hostel. The place is a two minute stroll from the beach and the staff are so lovely it’s ridiculous. The only reason Mojzo Inn isn’t the overall winner is because the dorm was a little small for six people and the bathroom did smell a little bit musty.

Best Food

WINNER:
Taiwan
The food in Taiwan is plentiful, cheap, fresh, full of flavour and a great balance of traditional and modern novelty . I was not disappointed with anything from the food markets or restaurants in Taiwan. It was consistently superb. Taiwan has some amazing night markets where you can get some of the best food I’ve ever eaten. Do not miss the Taiwanese milk tea. It’s absolutely delicious and you can get it with tapioca pearls or jelly to make it more of a dessert than a drink. Don’t be surprised or concerned if your food/drink is served to you in a bag, that’s normal. Basically, go to Taiwan and eat all the food.

RUNNER UP:
Thailand
Thai food is full of flavour and reasonably cheap. It’s also on the milder side of spicy. Traditional dishes such as pad thai, thai red and green curries and massaman curries are widely available and generally very tasty. Restaurants and food stalls seem to turn out a similar quality of food. My ‘don’t miss’ food in Thailand is sticky rice. It doesn’t matter if you have mango and sticky rice as a dessert or get a savoury sticky rice wrapped in a banana leaf from a stall, just make sure you try it!

Best Locals

WINNER:
Cambodia
When it comes to resilience, determination and a forgiving spirit, I don’t think you will find a nation of people who can best the Cambodians. They are simply some of the friendliest, kindest, most welcoming and genuinely happy people I have ever met.

When you look at Cambodian history, it really does paint a grim picture, it’s all war, death and strife. The most recent horrors happened when Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge tried to reshape Cambodia as a self sufficient, farming Country. It ended with an incomprehensible genocide leaving around 1 in 5 Cambodians dead or missing. This was all very recent, we’re talking within my parents life time, so there are Cambodians alive today who remember the regime, their dead relatives and everything that went along with it pretty vividly.

Despite their recent and harrowing past, Cambodians are upbeat and optimistic. There’s no wallowing or ‘woe is us’ attitudes, only respectful remembrance and an upbeat attitude towards the future. For me, this is a singularly amazing thing. An entire nation was subjected to immense tragedy and hardship but have emerged the other side determined to right the wrongs and heal their communities.

This, coupled with their enthusiasm, genuine nature and overall loveliness, makes the Cambodians my favourite people in Asia.

RUNNER UP:
Taiwan
Taiwanese are incredibly hospitable and happy go lucky. I don’t have a bad word to say about them. If I needed help and someone didn’t speak English, other locals would pitch in to help and make sure I was ok. They really are fabulous and never got annoyed at any level of incompetence on my part. Simply lovely.

Best Shopping

WINNER:
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Amazing mix of markets and super modern malls. The shopping here really has something for everyone. Want some good fakes? Head to Petaling Street. Want something crafty for a souvenir? Get to the central market. Want to feel more at home with western brands? Any air conditioned mall will sort you out with a good range of budget to luxury brands. I really mean it when I say I think you could buy anything in Kuala Lumpur.

Best Historic Sights

WINNER:
Angkor Historic Park
I did three entries on the Angkor temples so I’m not going to repeat myself. I’ll just say, do not miss.

Best Natural Sights

WINNER:
Sapa, Vietnam
Again, I wrote a while entry dedicated to Sapa so I won’t re-cover old ground. Amazing views across an amazing Country. Make time to go to Sapa.

RUNNER UP:
Cameron Highlands, Malaysia
Truly lovely landscape in the Cameron Highlands. Lots of winding roads and walks to do. It’s the runner up here as the area does feel very much like it’s all for tourists but you can escape that if you walk the right paths. The touristy aspect does spoil the natural beauty of the area a bit for me though.

Best Modern Sights

WINNER:
Singapore
Singapore is a clean, shiny, modern metropolis with stunning high rise buildings. It’s well planned and executed better. Stunning modern city with a stunning modern price tag.

Best Border

WINNER:
Malaysia to Singapore
Overall it was the least worrying and easiest to navigate because the English spoken on both sides was of a good level.

Best Bus

WINNER:
Hanh Cafe Sleeper bus from Ho Chi Minh to Nha Trang, Vietnam
The route has decent roads, the bus was swanky and single seated (so no snoring stranger in your ear hole) and the ticket was a reasonable price.

Best Overall Value Attraction

WINNER:
Huê City, Vietnam
Lots of the heritage sites in Huê don’t have an entry fee so it’s incredibly cheap to see lots of important historic and cultural areas.

Best Overall Value Country

WINNER:
Laos
Accommodation and food in Laos is cheap and generally of good quality. Entry fees to attractions seem to be good value and shared taxis/tuk tuks make travelling short distances reasonable. Longer distances can be covered by boat or bus at, again, a pretty good price. Overall, Laos works out as the best value for me.

Best Overall Town/City

WINNER:
Tokyo
Tokyo might be expensive but it’s worth it. The city is huge, sprawling and complicated but it’s fabulous. There’s still plenty of hidden gems in alleyways nestled between modern high rises to discover. There’s also tonnes of heritage stuff to see and explore. The Japanese definitely put a lot of emphasis on preserving their history and culture. As modern as Tokyo is, if you look around, you will find temples nestled in the centre of busy metropolitan areas.

It’s a unique city that I enjoyed immensely. If you want more details, you can see my blog entry on Tokyo.

Personal favourite thing

WINNER:
SCUBA diving, Koh Tao, Thailand
Learning to dive was the single best experience I had on my trip in Asia. My dive school (Big Blue) was well organised, the instructors (and trainee instructors) were friendly and professional, the island is beautiful and the diving itself was fabulous.

SCUBA diving is the overall winner because it’s something I can do for the rest of my life and will be doing again on the rest of my trip.

RUNNER UP:
Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Walking around with, washing and feeding elephants is something I probably won’t ever get the opportunity to do again and it was incredible. If you want more details on the park, please see my blog post on it.

Worst Hostel

WINNER:
Rainbow guesthouse, Khao San Road, Thailand
Hideous! Awful mattresses, dirty dorms, terrible security (the door to the room didn’t lock and the provided lockers in the restaurant are less than ok), disgusting bathrooms, air conditioning was inadequate and got turned off at 8am, sheets were stained and the whole place was just worn down and broken.

Worst Food

WINNER:
Hong Kong
The food in Hong Kong is questionable unless you are paying top dollar for it. I was never really sure what went into any of the food I ate and a lot of it was flavourless mush. There’s a few hidden gems but, on the whole, food in Hong Kong is dodgy.

Worst Locals

WINNER:
Vietnam
I found the people of Vietnam to be consistently rude and biased against foreigners or to be the nicest people in the world. There seemed not to be a middle ground. I found the prejudice really hard to deal with and the attitude of locals intent on not accepting tourists onto buses or into food places really tainted Vietnam for me. It’s a real shame because the lovely locals really were very helpful and sweet but they didn’t quite off set the venom I felt from everyone else.

Worst Shopping

WINNER:
Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh didn’t seem to have much in the way of shopping. Even in the markets it was mostly food, household items or technology. Even though there would be many different stalls, they seemed to all sell the same items. Just not very varied or accessible for most people.

Worst Historic Sights

WINNER:
Singapore
Singapore is very shiny and new so it doesn’t really have much in the way of historic buildings or culture to experience. If you want new and modern, Singapore is for you. If you’re into history, maybe think carefully as it how much time you need in Singapore.

Worst Natural Sights

WINNER:
Bangkok, Thailand
Bangkok really doesn’t have parks or walks you can enjoy. It’s all incredibly built up and concreted over.

Worst Modern Sights

WINNER:
Cambodia
Cambodia had a distinct lack of modern buildings and very few high rise buildings. Most Sights in Cambodia are old and for history buffs. There’s no shining buildings beautifully lit at night to stroll around in Cambodia, it all has a rustic feel.

Worst Border

WINNER:
Thailand to Cambodia
This border was the worst because it was the only one I could not get an international bus for. Having to work out onward transport from the border further into Cambodia was pretty slap dash. It’s a stressful feeling when you’re doing it alone, for the first time so I guess that’s why it was the worst.

Worst Bus

WINNER:
Luang Prabang, Laos to Chiang Mai, Thailand
This was an overnight bus along scary, winding mountain roads. The turns were so sharp that my head hit the widow on several occasions. It was a sitting bus so sleeping was an unlikely prospect anyway but the turns made it completely impossible. Just a long, scary journey.

Worst Overall Value attraction

WINNER:
Royal Palace, Bangkok, Thailand
600 baht is too expensive. Full stop.

Worst Overall Value Country

WINNER:
Singapore
Singapore is just heinously expensive for everything. Considering labour is still relatively cheap in Singapore, there’s no real justification for it.

Worst Overall Town/City

Bangkok, Thailand
I just didn’t like Bangkok. It wasn’t for me. I felt like everyone was out to fleece me for all the money they could and that the locals were insincere. It smells funny too.

Personal least favourite thing

WINNER:
The Climate
Asia is too hot and humid for me.

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Chinese New Year in Hong Kong (Kung Hei Fat Choi).

Hong Kong was transformed for Chinese New year as, I expect, was most of China. Bringing in the year of the snake really is a massive deal. There are 3 public holidays and many, many events to attend. The main ones are the night parade, the new year markets and the fireworks display. I participated in two of them.

Firstly, I visited the New Year market in Victoria Park. It was, large, noisy, crowded and fun to walk around. Here’s a picture of the crowd at about 17:15 on a weekday i.e. not even busy.

crowds

A large section was for flowers associated with Chinese New Year. There were lots of blossom branch cuttings and mandarin plants.

blossom trees

mandarin trees

I was sorely tempted to buy some flowers but I am lacking in any green fingered skills and therefore would only be throwing away very dead plants in a few days time so I refrained from paying the inflated festive prices for anything.

The remainder of the market was selling mostly food and other traditional sweets/decorations for Chinese New Year. There were also completely random stalls held by local schools selling everything from cushions of popular internet memes to soft toys. The market really was big and I enjoyed my walk around but did not visit a second time as I really had no need to.

The second thing I made sure to partake in was the Chinese New Year fireworks display over Victoria harbour. We had learned our lesson from National Day and knew we had to get to the harbour front early and save a spot. The show was due to start at 20:00. We were in our spot at 18:00 with sandwiches and drinks ready to wait out the crowds. Wait, we did. Rewarded, we were. Our view was spectacular and, for the most part, unobstructed as we had unwittingly placed ourselves next to an emergency exit pathway so we only had a crowd to our right hand side. Our left hand side was completely empty. I have added a selection of my pictures below and also the video I made of the last 30 seconds or so of the show.

One word sums up the display: breathtaking.

NY fireworks HK 2013 1

NY fireworks HK 2013 2

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NY fireworks HK 2013 6

My attempt at a ‘Hong Kong 101’

So far, my blogs on Hong Kong haven’t been all that useful to any new comers so I am going to attempt a (very basic) Hong Kong 101 style post. First of all though, I will say that the Hong Kong Tourism Website is quite good.

Here goes….

Basic Geography

Hong Kong has 3 main bits and a couple of other islands. The three main parts are Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and New Territories.

  • Hong Kong Island is across the water to the south of the harbour.
  • Kowloon which is the coast from the north of the harbour to around Prince Edward district.
  • New Territories is North from Prince Edward(ish) to China.

Kowloon and New territories are one land mass but two separate areas if you understand what I mean. It’s like England and Wales/Scotland. The other main islands are:

  • Lantau Island
  • Lamma Island

Getting Around

Types of transport

There are six main transport types. MTR, bus, mini bus, tram, taxi &  ferry.

  • MTR – The MTR is essentially the London Underground but in Hong Kong. It covers mostly Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. The East Rail Line (which is part of the MTR but not really) goes up into the New Territories. There are different lines which take you to different places. I highly suggest a bit of research on the MTR Website before you arrive.
  • Bus – They go practically everywhere but I would not try and tackle the bus system on a first visit. It’s confusing. If you’re feeling brave, check the supplier websites for details of routes and fares (Citybus & New World First Bus, KMB).
  • Mini bus – Green Roof – Government endorsed with a set route and set pick up/drop off points. I would not try and tackle the bus system on a first visit. I can’t even point you to where you could find out about the minibusses. Sorry!
  • Mini bus – Red Roof – Government endorsed but route and pick up/drop off points are determined by the driver. Normally go further than the green roofed version. I would not try and tackle the bus system on a first visit. I can’t even point you to where you could find out about the minibusses. Sorry!
  • Tram – Only operate on Hong Kong Island. Runs from Shau Kei Wan to Kennedy Town and Happy Valley
  • Star Ferry – The Star ferry goes between Tsim Sha Tsui and Central/Wan Chai.
  • Taxi – Taxis are red on Hong Kong Island and green in the New Territories.

Paying for transport

  • Cash – Cash is accepted on all forms of transport. You can pay the driver directly on busses, minibusses, taxis and trams. You can buy tickets for the MTR and ferries using cash in all stations/piers. NOTE: Drivers will NOT give change for direct cash payments. Have the right change or prepare to lose some dollars.
  • Octopus Card – A plastic card with ‘touch in’ technology. You pre load it with credit then touch it on the readers available. You can buy them in MTR stations. You can use Octopus cards on trams, busses, minibusses (GREEN roof only), ferries and the MTR. NOTE: Octopus is NOT accepted in taxis or in RED roofed minibusses. You can also use credit form your Octopus to pay for things in lots of shops e.g. 7-11 and McDonalds.

Other things that confused me/I wish I’d known

  • ‘Ts’ is pronounced ‘ch’. Tsim Sha Tsui is pronounced Chim sow Choy (kind of but it’s a lot closer than saying Sim show shoe as I stared off doing) .
  • Boil the tap water before you drink it or stick to bottled water.
  • Happy Hour is king if you want to drink.

My tiny knowledge of Cantonese (limited to 90% food)

Cantonese is a tonal language meaning that your accent of tone up or down as you speak a word influence the overall meaning. This makes it tricky for us Westerners to grasp as, apart from raising tone up at the end of a sentence to indicate a question, we rarely use tone in our language day to day. Most of the time, with Cantonese, you can get away with a flat tone when speaking the odd thing. Where tone is important, it’s really important and any teacher/Cantonese speaker will make it very clear to you that you need to accent up or down. Anyway, here’s what I can say in Cantonese.

Note: All phonetically spelled (well attempted) and quite probably not correct

  • Dung Lie Cha – Iced Milk Tea
  • Gar Lay – Curry
  • You Dan (say Dan like you are asking a question. You must accent your tone UP at the end of the word) – fish balls
  • Chung Fun (Your tone needs to be higher in the middle of the words than at the end i.e. chUng fUng) – flat white rice noodle
  • Fan – rice
  • Char Ts-oo – BBQ Pork (The T is really soft. Think of assing a slight T at the start of saying the name ‘Sue’)
  • Guy – Chicken
  • Ow Yok (very soft k) – beef
  • Mean – noodles
  • Chow Mean – fried noodles
  • Toe Mean – noodle soup
  • Bow – bun (normally steamed)
  • Sh-ow My – Shrimp dim sum (ow as in “ouch, that hurt”)
  • Har Gow – Filled dim sum
  • Jo San – Good Morning
  • M Goy – Thank you/Excuse me/I’d like your attention

You can combine these to order food. e.g. Gar Lay Guy = curry chicken. Gar Lay Guy Fan = curry chicken with rice. Char Shoo Fan – BBQ Pork and rice. Char Shoo Bow = BBQ pork steamed bun. Guy chUng fUn – chicken flat rice noodle.

I manage to feed myself on this. For everything else, there’s arm waving and googling a picture of the food you want.

2+0+1+2 = a very busy year

Oh heck, this year really has been monumental in lots of ways. There have been highs which left me feeling there was nothing left to achieve and lows when I hit the bottom and still kept going. What a year.

So, what did I actually do?

Re-affirmed my National pride

I have always been extremely proud to be British. I love Britain in spite of her faults because Britain always pulls it out of the bag. Always.

This year, Britain pulled two amazing things out of the bag. Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Celebrations and the London 2012 Olympics. Lets go in chronological order and start with the Diamond Jubilee.

The Diamond Jubilee was an utter joy. Never have I seen National pride quite like it before. There were very few people being grumpy about the festivities. You could see reminders everywhere you looked. My personal favourite was the Jubilee line London Underground trains.

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The Nation got behind our Monarch and celebrated the only way we know how; Eat, drink and be merry (even when it’s raining). I was back in the home town for the Jubilee celebrations and went to several street parties. They were at schools, in fields, at leisure centres and just everywhere, really. There was food, music and general Community spirit wherever you looked. I baked some British inspired cakes for the occasion. I made mini victoria sponges, Cherry ‘fakewell’ cakes and a large union jack sponge.
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One of the parties I went to was organised by my sister and a few other families with whom they regularly holiday. You can see the very British spread here (please note the awfully 70s cheese on sticks stuck into tin foil covered cabbages prepared by me).

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The whole country really did get involved. The Thames saw record breaking numbers of ships sail along it for the flotilla, massive music concerts were staged and London, in general, was transformed into a celebration City. Truly fantastic! The vibes you got walking around, talking to people about it or just enjoying the bunting and Union Jacks everywhere really got the blood in my veins running red white and blue again.

Next, the Olympics. The first thing that I adored about the Olympics was the torch relay. What a completely amazing way to remind the Country that it’s not just the London Olympics. It was a very British Olympics. Training camps were all over the UK, the sailing and rowing events happened outside of London and the whole Country was encouraged to, and did, get involved. The torch relay was a huge part of this. 8,000 local heroes and celebrities were nominated as torch bearers and had the enviable, once in a life time opportunity, to play their role in celebrating everything that’s Great (and good) about Britain. The torch passed through over 1000 villages, towns and cities in the UK. It was brilliant, you could even watch the ‘torchcam’ for live coverage of where it was and who was carrying it. Super! I was lucky enough to meet a torch bearer in Look Mum, no hands! on Old Street in London.

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This lady is Katie Ford. She is an ultra cyclist who has epilepsy and she carried the torch. I met her whilst watching the mens road race at Look Mum, no hands!. She spent the entire time posing for photos and being a complete joy. A genuinely lovely lady who does amazing work campaigning for epilepsy. If she is a benchmark for the kinds of Britons who carried the torch up and down the Country then, I will tell you for free, we are going to be a ok Britain. We really are.

For the past few years, I had been living in the east end of London literally minutes away from the Olympic Park site. In the three years leading up to the Olympics, the areas of Stratford, Leyton and Leytonstone were dug up, re worked, re paved, re painted and generally given a very fresh faced look to them. This is obviously great for local residents when it’s finished but. I won’t lie, it was a pain in the bum whilst it was all happening. Trying to keep informed about what roads were closed and when, which busses were diverted, when the extra tube outages were going to be etc was a daily thing. And it wasn’t just the east end. Central took a hammering too. There’s no wonder that, by the time the Olympics actually arrived, Londoners were generally feeling quite grumpy about the whole thing. It was a very long and expensive inconvenience to them. However, come the opening ceremony, even the most hard nosed Londoner and cynics everywhere found their hearts warming and cynicism getting lost between the sofa cushions.

A lot of this was due to the amazingly fabulous job Danny Boyle did with the opening ceremony. It was amazingly British, utterly inspiring and gave the Country exactly what it needed and wanted. A massive reminder that Britain is Great. Despite all the rubbish we are dealing with (and have dealt with in the past), we always come out with weather as mild as our manners and a quiet ‘can do’ attitude. I adored the opening ceremony. When I said earlier I live minutes form the Olympic park, I wasn’t kidding. Here’s a snap of the fireworks of the opening ceremony as watched from my front door.

Olympic fireworks from my street

I spent a lot of the opening ceremony seeing if I could spot any of the friends I knew were participating in it. Alas, I never spotted a single one of them, but, I adored their Facebook profiles after the ceremony was done. All of the secrets they had been keeping, all of the photos they weren’t allowed to show before, all of the gossip was finally free and filling up my Facebook feed! I cannot believe how they all kept it such a secret. Them and the audiences at the two rehearsal shows. Just unbelievable  Well done you fine guys and gals for keeping it all under your hats. I didn’t appreciate it at the time but, watching the ceremony and having literally NO idea what to expect was sheer joy. Thank you, one and all.

Other moments that made my National Pride swell was seeing the purple army and athletes swarming East London. I have never seen anything like it. It was wondrous  You could barely walk 5 minutes without seeing a National tracksuit wearing sports person/coach or a purple clad Games maker. Everyone had this permanent look of ‘is this really happening’ on their faces. Just amazing. The BEST thing I saw though was this Youtube clip which reminded me of why most other nations do not get us Brits. This lady epitomises  for me, what it is to be British.

But that’s enough of me gushing about how much I believe in Britain and how Great it is. Let’s get on with what else I have been up to this year.

Continued my love affair with cycling

I have discovered that my enthusiasm for showing pictures of my bicycle, and her various components, to other people is very similar to the enthusiasm other people have about showing pictures of their children. This may seem strange but my bicycle is just a good as a child. No, better than a child. She’s quieter, does exactly as she’s told, she’s more environmentally friendly and she actually SAVES me money. That’s right, saves (just in case you were wondering, that was supposed to be tongue in cheek and not a reference at all to my lonely, childless existence).

Anyway, in 2011, I cycled the British Heart Foundation London to Brighton. It was a 54 mile ride that I considered to be a real target. I completed the 54 miles in 4 hrs 45 minutes. In 2012, I participated in three organised cycles of varying distances. The first was The London Classic.

The London Classic was a 35 mile ride across the cobbles and hills of London. I LOVED it. We started and finished at Gypsy Hill (SE19). The 35 miles was essentially a massive loop of London. It was an amazing way to see South London which, for me, had been previously uncharted territory as well as seeing the more familiar sights too. I only had to bail out and push my bike up one hill. That bad boy was the hill at Canonbie Road (SE23). The view from the top was this (also, the incline does not look too bad on this picture but I can assure you, it was horrendous):

Canonbie Road SE23

Pretty spectacular, no? Anyway, the London Classic is free to enter, the organisers simply ask that you support their chosen charity. The sign up for the 2013 ride will open in February and I suggest that, if you like cycling, are in London and can safely commit yourself to a 30+ mile ride, that you sign up. It was brilliant.

The second ride I did was for the Stroke Association’s Thames Bridges ride. It was a 50 mile ride across the iconic bridges of London. I did blog about it so I won’t bore you with more details. I will however point you at the entry which you can find here.

The final ride I completed was the Tour de Latitude. I was incredibly lucky to win a pair of tickets for the Tour de Latitude from a blog I follow (London Cyclist). This gave me and a cycling mad friend the opportunity to cycle to the Latitude music festival. We could start from Ipswich (35 miles to Latitude), Sudbury (55 miles to Latitude) or Hackney in London (113 miles to Latitude). After umming, ahhing and shrieking with excitement several times, we went for London. That’s right. 113 miles. On a bicycle. In 1 day. The blood drained from both of our faces when the enormity of it sank in but we were mostly excited.

There were several things which definitely perked us up:
1) It was sponsored by M&S. This meant that at our rest stops, we could load up on M&S food and drinks. Woo Hoo!
2) We got upgraded to VIP camping. That meant hot showers all weekend and the ability to take our own booze into the arena.
3) The tickets to not only the ride but also into the festival were completely free!
4) We knew that, if we managed it, we would be VERY proud of ourselves.
5) I could now legitimately buy the tires I’d been wanting on the premise of needing skinnier tires for the ride.

I planned meticulously, as always:

Tour de Latitude planning

We began at 7:30am in Hackney and found ourselves at Latitude festival 11 hours later. We were greeted by M&S prosecco and more Percy Pigs than anyone can reasonably consume in one sitting. We also befriended Pery and Colins helpers which ensured we continued to receive unhealthy amounts of Percy Pigs whenever the M&S people spotted us.

Colin & Percy

We also spotted multicoloured sheep, as you do in the Countryside.

sheep and us

The festival was brilliant. I had a truly amazing time. Latitude is very well organised. The food vendors had tasty offerings for you every day, the stalls weren’t just selling normal tat and they even had an Oxfam tent. brilliant! Latitude tries really hard to include all ages but still holds enough ‘cool’ for the young kids. I felt my age at Latitude this year when (during Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes) I had a nice sit down in the seating banks at the back of the main stage. The bands we saw were great (Bon Iver in particular stole my heart), the comedians were pant wettingly funny (Russell Kane in particular), the VIP camping was superb (never underestimate the joy of a hot shower at 4am whilst you are drunk and in a field) and the company was excellent. I also remember some raving and have  a vague recollection of some kind of theatre but I was very drunk…. Anyway, fun times were had by all and I feel such a sense of achievement and reward after cycling there from London. I really do.

I also love Daisy more than ever.

Daisy

Attended the most anticipated gig of my life

I finally saw Incubus play live this year. I have been a fan of Incubus since the late 90’s but, I’d never managed to see them live. This year. It happened. I will never forget it and it was entirely worth the wait. All of my pictures were rubbish apart from the picture of the ticket as you can see.

Incubus ticket

Their set consisted of 90% old stuff and 10% new stuff. Those are the kinds of splits I like. They played everything I wanted them too. I got embarrassingly excited when I recognised the opening riff to ‘Sick Sad Little World’ about half a second into the song starting and shrieked like a banshee.

Incubus were so tight technically it was obscene. I was almost offended by how good at their jobs they are. The crowd was whipped up, there were three separate mosh pits and I relished every second of it. Thank you Incubus.

There were many other fabulous gigs this year but the only other one I will mention is ‘Twas the night before Wembley’. This gig was a celebration that Frank Turner had sold out Wembley Arena. Frank Turner is signed to a fairly small record label (Xtra Mile Recordings) so for one of their artists to sell out a big venue like Wembley Arena is a big deal. Therefore, they rounded up some Xtra Mile artists and put on a teeny tiny show at the Barfly in Camden. The headline was Billy Bragg (who is a legend don’t you know) with Jim Lockley and the Solemn Sun, Crazy Arm and Ben Marwood too. It was a great gig full of atmosphere and basically a massive middle finger to huge record labels. You don’t need to be huge to be great at what you do. Xtra Mile proves it, all the freaking time. As does Fat Wreck Chords. Smaller, independent labels make my world go round. Please don’t ever quit what you’re doing guys. I’d cry if you did. A lot.

Continued to bake and bake and bake and bake and bake…….

I can’t count how many cakes and biscuits I baked in 2012 so I’m just going to add lots of photos instead:

Maggie's cakes

Chocolate cake with chocolate ganache and butter cream icing. Banoffee pie.

cakeadots

‘Cakeadots’. Vanilla sponge, strawberry jam butter cream, chocolate buttons.

Bailey's cupcakes

Mini Bailey’s Cupcakes – Chocolate, whiskey and Bailey’s Irish Cream sponges with Bailey’s Irish Cream buttercream (recipe from the ‘Baking Cupcakes with Lola’ book).

Julie

Double layer vanilla sponge with chocolate ganache inside. Choclate fudge, baileys and vanilla butter cream outer.

Gingerbread House

Gingerbread House – Gingerbread and royal icing. Decorated with mini smarties, glace cherry window and choc chip roof detail.

Lion King Cake

Chcolate sponge inner. Vanilla buttercream outer.

99 fakes

’99 Fakes – Chocolate/Vanilla sponge baked inside the wafer. Vanilla butter cream top, small piece of 99 flake.

Reunited with the guys

I played a gig with my band for the first time in 18 months or so. It was amazing and I am truly grateful to the boys for agreeing to such a hair brained idea with such gusto.

The boys

I moved to a different Country

Yes! This year, I left Blighty for Hong Kong. My experiences, thus far, have been blogged about so I won’t repeat myself. I’ll point you to the following entries instead:

Hong Kong you say? No Problem says I!

What are the differences between Hong Kong and Blighty? My observations thus far.

Hong Kong – doings so far

Not the kind of Festival I’m used to.

Something big, bronze and better than expected.

National Day in Hong Kong

Hobbies in Honkers

Summary

I’ve been blooming busy and this is a very long entry. So I will leave it at that even though I want to also tell you about:

Music I listened to

Movies I saw

Parties I went to

And this one time, some stuff that happened at band camp……….

Tis the month you can be legitimately jolly in, fa la la la la la la la la.

I started organising Christmas quite early this year due to my geographical displacement. I knew it would be a task to organise gifts from Hong Kong to England. As many of my friends, and previous employers will testify to, if there’s one thing I can do it’s organise. Organise anything, almost. I even enjoy it. So for me, this was a pretty basic task.

I went for a variety of methods in order to organise myself. Some gifts were purchased via the internet and delivered to the central shipping location (a.k.a. my Mum’s house). Others were bought in Hong Kong and delivered to the central shipping location, via the Philippines, by hand courier (an incredibly helpful best friend’s Mum). They were then dispatched to various local and national addresses by the location Manager (my Mum).

In order to fully address present protection issues (i.e. Mum can’t wrap her own present, that’s not right), I had to set up an auxiliary shipping location (a.k.a. my sister’s house). Gifts for my Mum & Dad were duly dispatched to the auxiliary location and will be successfully re-routed in plenty of time for Christmas day.

Organising Christmas from abroad has been fun but it is actually all done now. Therefore I have been looking for other way to get festive now December is here (hooray)!

I can officially, and unashamedly, begin to get over excited about Christmas. I have, so far, crammed in a lot of festive activities in just two days. This has left me practically foaming at the mouth in anticipation of the rest of December, Christmas and New Years. What have I done in 2 days? Well, I’ll tell you:

I have decorated the tree for the flat and I think it looks pretty snazzy to be honest. We found the tree when we moved in but we didn’t have decorations. No problem for Hong Kong. I simply took the lift down to the ground floor, walked 3 shops to my right and bought all the decorations and lights. I went for a blue and silver theme with coloured LED lights. The lights are very cool. There’s a magic button that you can press and make them do different things. They can flash, they can chase, they can feed in and out, basically, they’re very snazzy. Here’s a not very good picture of the tree all lit up.

tree

Secondly, I went to the Christmas market at Hullett House. The main reason I went to this market today was to take advantage of a free festive nail art offer seen on http://www.sassyhongkong.com. The market itself was mainly food stalls (none of whose products I could actually sample) but there was a lovely vibe there. They had a section where local schools sung carols and performed dances. They had a Christmas tree and Hullett House is actually a very nice building. I believe it’s normally a hotel. Here’s a little picture of the market.
Christmas market

The few goods stalls there sold interesting stuff. There were your expected Christmas decorations, jewellery and less traditionally, flip flops and cacti. The decorations on offer covered a good range of traditional (think embroidered mini cushions saying ‘Seasons Greetings’) to the ultra modern (minimalistic metal Christmas trees). We had a jolly good poke around and I purchased some festive rings. I also cashed in my festive nail art offer and enjoyed free nail painting. I am very incredibly pleased with the results of my free session. Here’s a picture of the nails and the rings.
festive nails
As you can probably tell, I’m pretty blooming excited it’s almost Christmas, are you?

National Day in Hong Kong

National Day is held in order to celebrate China’s independence and becoming the People’s Republic of China. As Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China, it is celebrated here too. There is a public holiday on the 1st October in order to celebrate. If the 1st October falls on a weekend, National day rolls over to the next available week day. This year, the public holiday for both Mid-Autumn Festival and National Day fell on the weekend, therefore, we got a Monday and Tuesday off. Marvellous!

The National Day celebration in Hong Kong consists of a fabulous fireworks show. The fireworks are set off from Victoria Harbour which is just down the road from our flat in Wan Chai. We walked over to the exhibition centre in Wan Chai to watch the show. All the roads were closed to vehicles which was useful as there were thousands and thousands of people showing up.

The fireworks were utterly stunning. The first few fireworks actually formed star shapes in order to symbolise the Chinese flag. This picture is blurry but I did manage to capture one of them.

The rest of the fireworks were incredibly impressive. I thoroughly enjoyed the show. It lasted 12 minutes and was utterly awe inspiring. Here are a few of my pictures.

The last 2 shots are the build up to the finale of the show which was so bright that my compact camera simply could not cope.

Finally, here are our smiling faces mid show. I can conclude that Hong Kong did National Day proud with the fireworks.

Not the kind of Festival I’m used to.

One of my reasons for moving to Hong Kong was to experience a different culture and have a bit of an adventure. My first few weeks here did not present many (or any) opportunities for either oft these things. This left me feeling rather disillusioned with my choice. Fortunately, some culture reared its head recently in the form of the Mid-Autumn Festival. Mid-Autumn Festival is basically a harvest festival. You can read up on the roots of it on Wikipedia.

Modernisation of the festival has brought moon cakes to the fore front of the festival. These are baked ‘cakes’ filled with paste and egg yolks. Naturally, we tried one. The symbolism of a moon cake centres on the egg yolk in the cake as it is supposed to emulate the moon. They vary in size and filling. We had a moon cake filled with lotus seed paste and three egg yolks. Here’s a cross section of the cake to give you an idea of them from the inside out.

It’s an odd texture and taste overall. I wasn’t particularly fond of it. The egg yolk was actually rather revolting. It seemed to be in layers and, when eaten, disintegrated into particles. Very odd indeed and really not appetising. I shan’t be hanging my liver out for another moon cake any time soon.

Another tradition of Mid-Autumn Festival is to light lanterns. Big lanterns, small lanterns, electric lanterns, candle lanterns, lanterns that look like something, lanterns that don’t look like anything…. literally, every kind of lantern you can think of. We headed off to Victoria Park which held the main lantern attraction in Hong Kong. It was called the Lee Kum Kee lantern wonderland and really was quite impressive. Here’s a snap of the structure with the full moon shining in the back ground.

On the inside, there were many, many more lanterns and lights. It really was a joy to behold. This is a snap of the inside.

We queued for about 40 minutes to get inside the structure and it was worth the wait as we managed to be inside whilst the music and lights show took place. The music was suitably inconspicuous but blended really beautifully with the changing light colours. The music and lights only happened once every 15 minutes so we were pleased we caught it. I managed to film a section of it. There is also marginally amusing commentary.

There were plenty of other sections to the festivities in Victoria park including an entertainment village. The village was packed to capacity so I couldn’t get in to take any photos but we did manage to get close to the stage. The stage was home to a variety of acts throughout the evening. We saw traditional dancing and also some acrobats in our time there. Here’s a taste of some dancing we watched.

A little further along the park there were wishing lanterns. You could hang a completed wishing card from the structure. I, unfortunately, did not have wishing card to hand so I just took a picture of how it looked instead.

There were also over sized lanterns around the park too. My favourite was the rather un-scary and pink dragon. You can just see the green (and rather more scary) bat in the background.

Lastly, there was a row of shops opposite a large staging area. The shops were mostly food and drink but there were a few other stalls with lanterns and small crafting items. The staging area was for the Tai Hang Fire Dragon dance. The area wasn’t really very well set up for crowds. The video screen was at floor level, it had not been raised so when the crowd got a few people deep, anyone under 6 feet tall could not see a thing. The staging area was blocked from view, as was the screen. It was actually a huge disappointment to have waited for so long and to be able to see nothing. The best view I got was by taking photographs of the screen and then review the photos. This didn’t last long however, as my camera battery died. The best snap I got was this one. This is a picture of the dragons head as it was being adorned with various bits of incense and ribbon.

There was approximately 45 minutes of dragon preparation where various people and groups adorned it with incense and gifts. Once the dragon was stuck up with incense sticks and lit, the dancers performed. I can’t comment on the performance  I couldn’t see it. We were so agitated by the lack of view, we left about 10 minutes in. We were gutted.

Despite the disappointment of the fire dragon dance, I still thoroughly enjoyed my Mid-Autumn festival in Hong Kong.