Monthly Archives: May 2014

1 Year on the Road – Kit Review

Before we set off, we did a lot of research to decide what we needed to take with us on our two year trip. After a year of travelling 12 countries, through various climates, here’s a run-down of how our initial packing decisions turned out..

Our passports - pretty essential kit for crossing borders

Our passports – pretty essential kit for crossing borders, checking into hotels & hostels, and for renting scooters

How much of your original kit are you still carrying?

Most of it, which shows that the careful thought and lots of research we did largely paid off.

What was the first thing you bought on the road?

A fleece hoodie in our first country, Riga. I knew it would be cold, and having grown up in the north of England I thought of myself as pretty hardy, but my word Riga in March was bitter. Two shirts, a jumper, gloves and a windproof jacket just weren’t enough, so we bought a hoodie and a fleece-lined beanie hat to cover my ears.

What was the first thing you ditched?

After almost a year, Julie ditched her camera bag in favour of a smaller waterproof pack. She found the camera bag was bulky in her hand luggage, and made her back ache when carried all day on its own.

With hindsight, what would you have left at home?

The tripod. I’ve used it all but a handful of times, and while it’s definitely the right bit of kit for those times, honestly, a table-top-sized one would have served just as well without the bulk and weight.

.. and what do you wish you’d brought with you?

We’ve found it easy to buy the odd thing we’ve needed, and there’s not been much besides the usual consumables (toothpaste, shower gel, sun cream, etc).

What piece of kit do you find you use the most?

We use most if not all of our clothes and kit on a regular basis, with the fortunate exception of our medical packs, but the most regularly reached for kit would be our iPads.

As I mused in our 12 month summary, and discussed with fellow travellers we’ve met on the road, the prevalence of mobile internet connected devices makes backpacking so much easier. Some posit that they mute the spirit of discovery and adventure as it’s too easy to research destinations before going. For us, finding somewhere to stay in an unfamiliar town when tourist visas are too short really helps our planning and means we can visit more places, and they’re invaluable for backing up our photos too.

A special mention also goes to the excellent Skross multi travel adaptor. It’s pricey, but with the separate dual USB charger that fits most Asian sockets, it’s meant we can charge both iPads and Julie’s camera at the same time.

.. and what piece of kit do you find you use the least?

In terms of what I thought would be more useful than it has actually been, I’d say my penknife. I remember using it all the time when I went camping as a young lad. I used it so often it had a designated pocket in my trousers so it was always at hand. For some reason I thought it would be as handy on this trip, but like the tripod I’ve only used it a handful of times. However, it’s one of those things that for its size and utility, I wouldn’t be without.

Have you had to replace anything?

Tragically, my Tilley Hat of Trekking suffered a critical injury while taking a shower in Vietnam. But, because of Tilley’s guarantee and amazing customer service, they arranged for a replacement to be sent to us in Thailand. I have a brand-new Tilley Hat of Trekking! (it’s an Organic Airflow in Khaki/Olive if you’re curious).

Julie bought a new pair of jeans, and I’m on to my second pair of Scarpa hiking shoes, both of which her parents delivered when they arrived to meet us in Beijing.

Finally, do you have any kit-related advice for travellers about to embark on a long period of travel?

The best bit of advice from our experience is that you don’t need as much clothing as you think you will (extra hoodie notwithstanding). I originally brought 6 t-shirts and I probably wear 3 of them regularly. It’s handy to have more because it means we don’t need to do our laundry as often, but it does mean we have more to carry. Trying to choose items that you can layer up or down is helpful too.

Basically try to pack as light as you can, you’ve got to carry it.

Chasing cherry blossom in Japan

Cherry blossom (sakura) is a big thing in Japan. Its beauty is celebrated with ‘hanami’ or cherry blossom viewing parties with family and friends held in parks, shrines and temples across the country. The blossoms are such an integral part of Japanese culture that they even feature on the 100 yen coin! We knew that by arriving in Japan in the second week of April we had a chance of catching the blooming time but when we checked the forecast (yes there is such a thing) from Singapore it looked as if we would be too late for everywhere except the far north which we weren’t planning to visit at the start of our trip. Our search for the sakura was reminiscent of the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears

Too hot…

We arrived in Nagoya, in the centre of the southern coast of Honshu, Japan’s main island, and although there were a few flowers left we were about a week too late.

20140424-172754.jpgThis cherry tree lined path near Nagoya Castle must have looked stunning in full bloom

20140505-084151.jpgThere were a few late blooming trees like this well placed one near the main tower of Nagoya Castle

Too cold…

Our next destination was Takayama in the mountains north of Nagoya. Aha we thought, a higher altitude might mean later blossoming, and indeed it did except that this time we were too early!

20140424-173329.jpgIt had been very cold in Takayama for the week preceding our visit and the flowers hadn’t quite woken up although they were tantalisingly close

Just right…

From Takayama we travelled north-west to Kanazawa on the northern coast of Honshu. We were expecting the situation here to be similar to Nagoya but as the train moved down from the mountains we started to notice cherry trees in full bloom and hope started to grow. At last our timing was good, we spent a couple of hours wandering through the Kenroku-en garden admiring the many trees.

20140424-174759.jpgBeautiful, almost sculptural cherry tree in Kanazawa Castle Park

20140424-174806.jpgCherry trees lining a stream in Kenrokuen Garden

20140424-174816.jpgBlossom close up


Singapore Round Up

We only spent a week or so in Singapore, and our stay was ostensibly to recuperate, catch up on administration (blog writing and photo backups), before heading to Japan than it was to check out the sights.

That said, we found we could only sit inside for so long in a new country before we felt the urge to be out exploring, and here’s the short list of what we found, followed by our Round Up..

Downtown Sightseeing

St Andrew's Cathedral, Singapore

The majestic St Andrew’s Cathedral, Singapore. On our way out we got chatting to a Singaporean woman called Rebecca who was there to volunteer at the church. She said a little prayer for us and more than filled our itinerary of things to see in Singapore!

After St Andrew’s, we headed towards the marina and the birthplace of the modern day Singapore. Sir Stamford Raffles landed just north of the present Marina Bay in 1819 and established a trading post for the East India Trading Company with the permission of the Johor Sultanate. Today, Singapore is the fourth largest financial centre, and has the third highest per-capita income in the world.

Sir Stamford Raffles

Sir Stamford Raffles, looking pretty pleased with how it turned out

South-west of the marina is South Bridge Road, an otherwise nondescript road except that it has 3 different religious places of worship or reverence along it: Jamae Mosque (Chulia Mosque), Sri Mariamman Hindu Temple, and the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum.

Jamae Mosque

Jamae Mosque, the subdued one

Sri Mariamman Temple

Sri Mariamman Temple, the brightly, over the top-ly embellished one

Buddha Relic Tooth Temple

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum, the one that stands out as taller and wider than the rest of the street

My favourite of the street, the recently completed Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, so named because on the 4th floor there’s a golden throne in a golden room displaying a piece of bone purported to be the Buddha’s tooth. It’s so small and surrounded by such grandeur that it’s difficult to see. Fortunately there are screens showing close-up photos and multi-lingual descriptions.

Singapore at Night

Synonymous with Singapore is Marina Bay, and its skyline is dominated by one of the most distinctive and iconic buildings in the world – the Marina Bay Sands hotel.

Marina Bay Sands in Singapore

Marina Bay Sands Hotel in Singapore

The ground floors are given over to high-end shops, there’s a 200k square-foot arts and science museum, an exposition and conference centre, a casino and six towers of hotel that lean together in pairs, topped with a spaceship cum boat that is the hotel’s park and infinity swimming pool. We weren’t staying in the hotel, which means we’d have to pay $80 SGD (about £38) to visit the SkyPark, but we were happy to just wander through the vast atrium underneath, on our way back to the MTR from the stunning Gardens by the Bay.

Gardens by the Bay, Singapore Marina

Gardens by the Bay, Singapore Marina

Gardens by the Bay looks simultaneously familiar and other-worldly – the giant SuperTree structures stretch their angular, bare-metal branches skyward like TV antennae, which made me think they’re entirely artificial. However, their trunks are covered in diverse species of plants, kind of like a giant, vertical conservatory.

Gardens by the Bay, Singapore Marina

Each SuperTree is a living conservatory of plants – Gardens by the Bay, Singapore Marina

While the SuperTrees do indeed look super during the day, I think they look even more superer at night, and there’s also a free light show several times every night that is set to music!

One sight that Singapore insists you visit is their mascot, the Merlion, a mermaid lion statue that continuously spouts water into Marina Bay.

The Merlion

The Merlion

Singapore Art Museum

We do enjoy art museums, and the Singapore Art Museum (or SAM as it affectionately calls itself) is set in a beautiful building that houses a wonderfully varied collection of modern art.

Of all the exhibits, we especially liked the nuts and bolts repurposed to look like sea creatures; the delicate miniature landscapes made from retractable pencil leads; the interactive sound installation of sun-baked clay pots powered by the same clay in jars; and the piece entitled “pulling at grass to make it grow” – a powerful reflection on the pressure to educate children sooner and with more testing. All of these were part of the Unearthed exhibition.

Some of our favourite artwork at the Singapore Art Museum (SAM)

Some of our favourite artwork at the Singapore Art Museum (SAM). From top-right: Sea creatures made from nuts, bolts, screws and thimbles – “Landscape Portraits: A beautiful place nearby” by Donna Ong; Landscapes made from pencil lead – “Terra Firma” by Frayn Yong; A family playing with the earthen clay pots sound installation – “Sound of the Earth” by Chen Sai Hua Kuan; and the thought-provoking green threads pulled and woven – “Pulling At Grass To Make It Grow” by Jennifer Ng

TreeTop Walk in MacRitchie Reservoir Park

Singapore, like Hong Kong, has many public parks and green spaces. The nearest to us also included a free TreeTop Walk which we liked the sound of..

On the suspension bridge that is the TreeTop Walk in MacRitchie Reservoir Park

On the suspension bridge that is the TreeTop Walk in MacRitchie Reservoir Park

While we didn’t see any wildlife from the TreeTop suspension bridge, we did see plenty from the ground..

Wildlife at the MacRitchie Reservoir Park

Wildlife at the MacRitchie Reservoir Park: Close encounters with the Macaque monkeys and Monitor Lizards. We saw lots of butterflies and Sun Skinks too

What photo takes you right back to Singapore?

Us with the Merlion

Us with the Merlion

Summarise Singapore in three words.

  • Spotless – even if we hadn’t just arrived from the messy, bustling Bangladesh, Singapore is the cleanest city we’ve visited so far. If it were an animal, it would be a show dog at Crufts
  • Familiar – The cars drive on the correct side of the road, and they’re well behaved (courteous even), the roads have traffic lights, pedestrian crossings and, gosh, pavements!
  • Muticultural – I must confess to not knowing much about Singapore before we arrived. In the taxi from our arrival flight to our apartment I asked what the main language was and our driver said there are 4: English, Mandarin Chinese, Malay and Tamil. This diversity, together with its growth from imports and exports influences everything from clothing to cuisine

You really know you’re in Singapore when…

You find yourself overwhelmed and unable to choose what to eat at one of the many Hawker food markets. Singapore is an Asian melting pot of deliciousness with local variations and concoctions too many to sample. We tried our best though!

What one item should you definitely pack when going to Singapore?

Your smart casuals. This is a city built on big business, and it takes its leisure time with the same professionally serious vigour – everyone is dressed to impress, always!