Dubai – so much more than camels and shops

Well I guess it’s time that I start to share some of the things about a place that is increasingly on people’s list of places to visit and has for the last 4 and a bit years been my home – Dubai.

Dubai, a fast paced city with a uniquely Middle Eastern flavour, is the ultimate travel conundrum, as it is:

  • An open and accepting place welcoming tourists from around the world that is also a devoutly Muslim country governed by Sharia Law.
  • A land where vast tracts of desert sit within 20 minutes of some of the largest, smartest and most extravagant shopping malls on the planet.
  • A land of sand and desert that is home to the most northerly permanent flock of flamingoes in the world in its wetlands.
  • A place that has less than 15cm of rain a year (compared to 120cm per year in Brisbane and 60cm in London) but has some of the best municipal plantings I’ve seen around the world.
  • A progressive city looking for ways to maximise its “green credentials” but relies on oil and aviation for the bulk of its economy,
  • Known to be one of the most expensive cities in the world and yet you can go out for and a fabulous lunch for the same price as a cup of coffee in cities like London, Sydney and New York.
  • Home to the world’s busiest long haul airport and yet only has a population of about 2.5 million

I will try to give my view of this amazing place and hopefully inspire a number of you to visit.

Bali – Wake up, smell the coffee and cycle home

One of the best days that my family and I spent in Bali was the day we went on a cycle tour through rural villages, paddy fields and mountain scenery north of Ubud.

We were picked up from the place we booked the tour and driven about an hour to a “coffee farm”.  I am not convinced the place we stopped was anything more than a tourist spot but we had good time seeing what coffee and cocoa plants look like, tasting various coffees and teas and eating breakfast looking out over the forest in the valley below.  Although they also had lewaks on site, they were hard to see, and in fact we got a better view of them in the markets at Tanah Lot.

Mount Batur

Mount Batur

After breakfast we drove another 30 minutes or so to a look-out over Mount Batur and after a brief photo stop we headed 5 minutes back down the road to meet our “hogs” for the day’s trip.  Bikes and helmets are supplied as part of the tour and we cycled back down the hill towards ubud stopping at some of the key sights along the way.

Bike Stop

Bike stop at the village temple

We stopped in a traditional Balinese home in a rural village and visited the local temple in the town where our guides gave us some information on the traditions and culture of the area. (This is one of the areas where I believe you get what you pay for and we went cheap so we got pretty rudimentary information.)

A man herds his ducks down from the paddy fields

A man herds his ducks down from the paddy fields

We cycled further and stopped to look at a cock fighting arena.  Whilst the arena itself wasn’t really much to look at while we were there one of the local farmers was herding ducks on their way to market.

Duck Wrangling

Duck wrangling

He was getting the ducks from the paddies and herding them to the flat area afforded by the arena and from there they were corralled and loaded on to a waiting pick-up truck.  We watched this amazing scene unfold for some time and have to say it remains one of my best memories from our travel in the region.

Ducks ready for market

Ducks ready for market

Our penultimate stop on the tour was a set of paddy fields where a farmer was ploughing his paddies in readiness for planting.  This was pretty interesting and made all the more exciting by the balancing act that was required as we made our way along the tiny paths between the flooded paddies.

A man ploughs his paddy fields in readiness for the next crop

A man ploughs his paddy fields in readiness for the next crop

Finally we stopped at another set of paddy fields where we thanked our guides before re-boarding the minibus for lunch – Nasi Goreng at a local restaurant overlooking the river, where they initially “didn’t realise” lunch was included in our tour and tried to get us to purchase from their hugely over priced menu so be aware of what’s included in the tour you book.  Then after lunch it was back on the mini bus and the trip “home”.  All in all a great day and a bit of exercise.

The rice fields near Ubud, Bali

The rice fields near Ubud, Bali

For me the key take aways are:

  • Based on our tour don’t expect breakfast to last you till lunch – eat before your tour begins.
  • Be aware of what the tour includes as the lunch fiasco we had just felt more like a scam than an innocent mistake.
  • Suitable for almost all levels of fitness as the route is carefully selected to ensure most of the trip is downhill and gravity does most of the work (on our tour I think we had 3 hills to climb the longest of which was less than 100m in length).
  • Take your time and don’t be rushed so you can see what’s happening around – without that we would have missed the duck herding.
  • You get what you pay for.

Tanah Lot – Bali’s rugged coastal temple

The temple of Tanah Lot sits on a small island located about 50 m off the coast and at low tide is accessible via a soggy, rocky pathway that at other times is hidden beneath the waves.  The setting is spectacular and as it sits on the eastern coast of Bali, the sun sets behind it making it even busier in the hour before and after the sun sets.

Tanah Lot Temple

Tanah Lot Temple

The temple is about a one hour drive from Kuta (less from Seminyak and only about 25 minutes from Echo Beach – of Martha and the Muffins’ 1979 hit song) although a trip in the early morning or late afternoon will inevitably extend this as traffic snarls in the daily rush hour in Denpasar.

There is a second temple across a cliff bridge in the Tanah Lot complex

There is a second temple across a cliff bridge in the Tanah Lot complex

There is a fee per car at the Tanah Lot parking lot and then a per person entry fee (of Rp20,000 per adult and half that per child) to access the site of the temple.  Having made your way through the gates there’s about a kilometre of stores selling the usual Bali knick-knacks that you will need to negotiate before you reach the coast and the temple reveals itself to you.

A traditional gamelan recital entertains the crowds at Tanah Lot

A traditional gamelan recital entertains the crowds at Tanah Lot

On the day we were there the temple was extremely busy being the Balinese festival of Kuningan,with Balinese worshipers delivering offerings to the spirits of their ancestors.  Although this meant that the complex was extremely busy there was an air of celebration to it as white clad figures made an endless procession up the steps of the temple island to deliver their baskets offerings.

The waves roll in across the Indian Ocean and crash on the shore north of Tanah Lot in Bali

The waves roll in across the Indian Ocean and crash on the shore north of Tanah Lot in Bali

Take the time to walk along the cliff tops to the north of the temple as the coastline in this part of Bali is spectacular with rolling waves crashing against the cliffs and swirling mists giving a real sense of mystery to the landscape.

My recommendation would be to ensure that you visit his spot but be prepared for the crowds, especially if you come for the sunset.

Ubud – Peace and Tranquility

As anyone who has read previous of my posts regarding Bali will know I am not a believer in the notion of Bali as a destination for a tranquil holiday.  That said it is not impossible to find those tranquil and quiet moments of ones imagining in Bali it just needs a bit more work than I think is the case in other parts of the world.

If you really want a quiet and serene moment in Ubud then I suggest that you look at an early start – how early is up to you but I went out at 6.30 am although the town really heats up after about 10.30 am when all the day trippers from the coastal resorts make their way to the town, so I would suggest heading out before about 8:30 am.

Reflections in Rice Fields Ubud

A farmer’s hut in the Ubud paddy fields

Make your way north on Monkey Forest Rd all the way to the end and turn left into Raya Ubud Road.  Just before you get to the museum car park on the right hand side of the road is a small lane-way with an even smaller sign that directs pedestrians to the paddy fields.  If you’re anything like me when you walk up the small track between the buildings you will assume you’ve taken the wrong turn and just when you’re about to turn around the lane opens out into the paddies – which really are spectacular.

I spent a fascinating hour walking along the paths through the fields watching the farmers tending their crops, a duck farmer “herding” his beasts to the far end of the fields, a lone Balinese woman jogging and best of all there was no other tourists around.  All this made for a great start to my day without the crowds and noise I had become accustomed to in the region.

Lotus Garden and Water Palace - Pura Taman Saraswati

Lotus Garden and Water Palace – Pura Taman Saraswati

On returning to Raya Ubud Rd turn left back towards the markets and when you see the signs for the Lotus cafe turn into the gardens of the Water Palace – Pura Taman Saraswati.  The lotus garden in front of the temple is one of Ubud’s most spectacular sites and being able to see it when the light is subtle and you are the only visitor certainly makes the early morning worth while.  If the cafe is open then why not have a coffee and although I can certainly vouch for the setting I have to admit that it was not open when I visited and so am not in a position to recommend the coffee itself.

So my advise for getting that feeling of tranquility in Ubud is to get an early start and head to the paddies and the lotus garden before breakfast somewhere on the way back to your hotel all before the day trippers arrive from the coast.

Ubud – Monkey Business

A short walk from the market in Ubud (we managed to do it in about 15 minutes) is one of the most famous attractions in the area – The Monkey Forest.  Now this may conjure many images in one’s mind, but if quiet trails and serenity are amongst those then I’m sorry to have to disappoint.  Like so many other parts of Bali in the peak summer months, which is when my family and I visited, the place is busy with other people (the official web site states that on average the Monkey Forest sees 10,000 visitors a month).

Family of Balinese Long Tailed Macaques in Ubud's Monkey Forest

Family of Balinese Long Tailed Macaques in Ubud’s Monkey Forest

That said, it is in my opinion well worth the visit but this relates to those who are not worried about a CLOSE encounter with the monkeys of the forests name – when we visited there was a young woman from the UK making a big fuss and squealing about how much she hates and fears monkeys.  If this is how you feel then stay away, for as the name suggests there are monkeys here and not only will you hate it but you will also negatively impact the experience for others.

The face of a dragon on the end of the serpentine bridge over a gorge in the Money Forest in Ubud

The face of a dragon on the end of the serpentine bridge over a gorge in the Money Forest

The area is a sanctuary for the monkeys but also a religious area so please visit with that in mind and only access any of the three temple areas on the site if you are appropriately dressed to do so – although the actual temples are only accessible by those who are there to pray.

Temple in the Monkey Forest Ubud, Bali

Temple in the Monkey Forest, Ubud, Bali

Under no circumstances should you enter the forest with any food on you – these little guys will smell it out and procure it – and if its not fruit or vegetables then it is fair to assume these guys shouldn’t eat it.  If what you are after is a really up close and personal experience then buy bananas from one of the vendors at the gates and use these to lure your new friends in.

A lion statue lies in wait covered in moss in Ubud's Monkey Forest in Bali

A lion statue lies in wait covered in moss in the Monkey Forest in Ubud, Bali

Believe me when I say you will be instantly one of the cool kids in the forest – this is not for the fainthearted – and the monkeys will climb on and over you to get to the bananas.  Another must follow piece of advice is that when offering a morsel to a macaque, DO NOT be tentative (this means it is unlikely to be a good idea for very small kids to be in charge of the bananas).  If the monkeys feel that you are “teasing” them with the food (nervously pulling food back once its offered certainly will be seen as such) then these fellas can become aggressive.

Monkey in Ubud's Monley Forest

Monkey in Ubud’s Monley Forest

So having decided on the type of experience you want from your visit then my advice is go for it and enjoy a walk with these incredible little guys, enjoy their antics and the wonderful surrounds.  To get the most from the experience allow yourselves a couple of hours there.

Tower of London – Henry’s Building Project

The Tower of London may be best known in the public psyche as the prison of the English Kings and Queens in medieval and Tudor times, but this ancient group of buildings that started life as a Norman Castle in the 11th Century is so much more than that.

In the early part of the 13th century the tower was expanded by Henry III (mainly his regents as at the time of the building he was a new king and a child – having ascended to the throne at 9 years of age) to incorporate an elaborate new set of rooms for the Royal household.  The new addition, St Thomas’s Tower, sits over what would under his son’s guidance become a gateway from the Thames and which in the 16th Century gained its more sinister name – by which it is still known – The Traitors’ Gate.

Although far from being one of his favourite palaces, he stayed there only a handful of times in his 56 year reign, it was a palace that he was known to run to in times of trouble.  He stayed here in 1238 when the Barons revolted and as a result realised an inherent weakness in the defenses and so set about a major bolstering of these with the erection of the huge curtain wall we see today.

The king’s bedroom  in St Stephen’s Tower has been restored to its former glory to give the visitor a great understanding of how the residential parts of the Medieval castle would have looked.  They clearly show that even in Medieval times the Kings and Queens of England lived in luxury – especially if one imagines the lives of those outside the palace walls at this time in history.

The Tower is a must see for all visitors to London (click here for information about tickets).

London from the river

Image of the Queen Elizabeth Tower from the Thames River Bus

Image of the Queen Elizabeth Tower from the Thames River Bus

One of the great ways to see London is from the river. Its not necessary to take an expensive tourist trip just have your guide book at the ready but most of the piers are at points of interest that are announced as the river bus approaches so people know to get off – use this as your tour guide.

A trip from Embankment to Greenwich takes you past many of the cities sights starting with the Houses of Parliament and the Queen Elizabeth Tower – home to Big Ben which is the bell in the clock tower.

Best Pizza in Town

Naples_20150514_243 Brandi

Italy has the best pizza in the world and the best of pizza in Italy comes from Naples and the best in Naples (according to many) is Brandi’s in Salita S. Anna di Palazzo.

Brandi’s has been making pizza since it opened in 1780 (and boy is she now tired) and I have to say I had a really great lunch there. There was a singer in the restaurant singing Italian- esque songs that really made for a magical atmosphere.

I recommend keeping it simple and ordering for the Marinara – which is Tomato, Mozzarella and Basil.