Taking The Journey “Home”

Having postponed the intended 5 months trip across the world due to work commitments, I do have a couple of weeks to spare for a shorter trip. Initially I couldn’t make my mind where to go. I have a long list of “places to go before I die” and eventually I settled for taking the journey “home’. It’s supposed to be one of the stopovers in my “Journey of A Lifetime”.

You may be wondering wasn’t I already at “home”. The answer to that is YES. I’m based in MALAYSIA, my beloved country which I proudly called home. However having spent 5 good years studying in UK in the late 80’s, somehow I do have a soft spot for this country which I consider as my 2nd home. I have always look forward at every opportunity to revisit UK. Before this trip, I was back there twice, once in 1997 and another one in 2008. However, in both occasions they were only short working trips in London and opportunity to venture out were almost non-existence. This time I’m doing a solo trip and I hope to revisit some familiar places and venture out to unfamiliar places too.

Firstly I have to survive the 12 hours 35 minutes long-haul flight, something that I dreaded with the hours spent on board on an “economy” seat, it is never easy to kill the boredom and more so as I’m not a good sleeper on board. But this time around it was different. I was really looking forward to get on A380 for the first time as much have been talked about this awesome flying machine. I boarded on the 100th A380 owned by Malaysia Airlines. Somewhat the economy seat and leg room seemed to be bigger and longer. Flight MH4 to London Heathrow is ready and preparing for take-off. One of the feature you get to see live on the video screen, the aircraft taking off and landing. It was quite interesting. You could watch the video here and see the pilot taxied the aircraft to KLIA’s runway 32R -14L before the engines were ramped to full speed, the aircraft was off the ground and speed through the clouds. The other video is how the pilot landed the aircraft safely on LHR runway despite a slight cross wind. Taxing the aircraft to the terminal has to be done with precision and a single mistake could end up with ground collision.

Flying on Malaysia Airline has always been pleasurable with excellent Malaysian Hospitality service. The food served were acceptable. I had tomato rice with chicken for lunch and beef kurma with white rice for dinner. I had miserably failed to sleep ¬ well a short nap of less than 2 hours was all I get before the girl seated next to me had to wake me up because she needed to go to the toilet. To kill the boredom, I went on a movie marathon; Iron Man 3, Disconnect, 42 and 12 Rounds. By the time the plane landed at London Heathrow Airport, I knew I haven’t got enough sleep.

I wanted to see a bit of London before my night coach to Newcastle. The best and cheapest way to Victoria Coach Station is to take the National Express direct service. However, it is not the fastest way. In order to get more sightseeing time, I have opted to take the Heathrow Express to Paddington Station and then take the circle line to Victoria Station where I have planned to leave my luggage at the left luggage service. Yes I did get there in less than an hour, but honestly I regretted doing it. I have totally forgotten that London Underground was not people friendly. Most of the stations do not have elevator or escalators. There are many flight of stairs that one have to go through. It was a back breaking experience for me as I have a 22kg suitcase, a 10kg camera bag and a 2kg sling bag to carry. By the time I get to Victoria Train Station, I was so exhausted and drenched in sweat. But again my spirit was still high for some sightseeing. After all I had slightly more than 4 hours before my night coach to Newcastle. I could still remember how during the school term break I had to assist Kak Sharifah who’s my foster family in London entertained her VVIP guests from Malaysia. She would let me be the tourist guide. I would normally take them around Westminster, see the House of Parliament and Big Ben, Horse of Guards, No. 10 Downing Street (home of the Prime Minister), St James’s Park with its exotic wildfowl and around Tower Hill to see the Tower of London and Tower Bridge. Then I will take them to Oxford Street and let them do their shopping. My very own favourite places to wander especially during the weekend are the markets such as at Covent Garden and Camden. Sometimes I go to Little Venice just north of Paddington where I could enjoy the tranquility of the waterways that feel like a million miles from the busy London streets. However, this time around I won’t be able to visit all the places mentioned above. Westminster is only 2 stops away on London Underground and would be my best option for a short sightseeing. I hope to take a few photo shots of the House of Parliament during sunset. But I end up disappointed as it was too overcast for a good sunset light. I end up taking shots of London buses. After about an hour in the area, tiredness and lack of sleep started to kick in. It’s time to get some rest and my body is saying don’t push it. I head back to Victoria Station, picked up my bag and dragged them another 100 metres to Victoria Coach Station. I found a seat to rest and waited for the 11.30 pm coach to Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

The National Express coach ride number 435 was right on time for the 6 hours journey to Newcastle. I only paid £11 instead of the full one way fare of £35. What a bargain eh! They called it “fun fares”, and you could get it by buying the ticket online well in advance. Not long after I settled in my seat, I finally fell asleep. My body and mind needed to shutdown for a while. Well this is only the beginning of the journey “home”. Good night everyone.

An Insight of My Home Town ~ Historic Malacca

Finally I have completed my 2nd photobook. This time it’s not those far away escapade but closer to home about my home town, the historic city of Malacca. You may have a sneak of the photobook in pdf version here My Hometown Malacca – Part 1

Planning and budgeting for a trip to Italy

Many people asked me how did I plan for the trip to Italy in 2010 and how much it costs. Firstly, for those who know me and those that are familiar with my blog would have probably realised that I fall into the group of independent budget traveler. Therefore I make my own travel arrangement and look for bargains and best value for money where possible.

Planning
Planning for the trip started in 2009, after deciding on Italy as our next vacation destination, I started searching for information and used the internet a lot. Example of websites that I found useful in my initial planning and research are:-
For general overview – http://www.lonelyplanet.com/italy, http://www.frommers.com/destinations/italy, http://www.goitaly.about.com
For getting specific travel information from fellow travelers – Lonely Planet Thorn Tree travel forum, Tripadvisor travel forum, Rick Steve’s Europe Travelers Helpline
For Transportation – Trenitalia Home Page ( http://www.trenitalia.com )

There will be high tendency that during your research you get excited and get overboard with a long list of places you like to visit and things to do. I remembered a much younger me 25 years ago would do a dash across Europe 11 countries in 30 days. But looking back I didn’t really see much of the country i visited because I end up spending so much time moving from one place to another. In recent years, I realised a slower paced itinerary provides a more fullfilling travel experience. So do try to narrow down your wish list. This is how I do it now.
a) I prioritize and rank them as MUST SEE, nice to see and OK not to see.
b) I categorise them into type of attractions such as museum/archaeological sites,arts & galleries, architecture, scenery, culture, food and shopping.
Then I will only pick on the MUST SEE. Strike out one or two if there are too many with similar type of attractions because you don’t want to be doing and seeing similar things over and over again. Based on the shorter list, I try to draft an itinerary.

Mode of transportation
It’s important to identify the mode of transportation into the country and how to move around the country. Transport could be a significant component in your budget. In my case, coming from Malaysia I have no choice but to take the flight to Italy. I prefer a direct flight and when possible avoid flights involving transits. Knowing the airlines which meet my requirement I will go into their website and find out when they offer cheaper fares. In most cases they would have blackout time during peak seasons and have special fares during low seasons. For that reason, I have decided a trip during autumn. To get the cheapest fare I bought the flight ticket 8 months ahead during the airline travel fair.
Italy’s public transportation is very good. Train is the most convenient way to move around from one city to another. Trenitalia has on-line ticket purchasing service but I chose to purchase the ticket just before departing as I would like some flexibility in my itinerary. You could print the schedule and fares to assist you in your planning and budgeting. Depending on how long you are staying in a particular city, I sometimes find passes can be a cheaper option if you plan to travel extensively. During our trip to Italy, we bought the Roma Pass which entitle the holder to free use of public transportation for 3 days and entrance to 2 museum/archeological site. In Venice we bought the Vaporetto Pass and use the ferry a lot to get around Venice including to the island of Murano.

Taking leave from work
I normally applied my leave 3 months ahead so I could finalised my travel itinerary. Once you have your leave approved, it’s time to revisit your draft itinerary. With the additional information on your transportation choice, allow for travelling time in your itinerary. Add queuing time for attractions that is likely to have long queue. You may need to narrow down your list further to fit in the available time for sightseeing. Now you can finalised your itinerary.

Accommodation
I normally stay in independent hostels, guesthouse or pensions. In Italy this could cost between 30 – 40 Euro per person per night. My favourite sites for bookings are http://www.hostelbookers.com and http://www.worldhostel.com.

Meals
Most of the independent hostels, guesthouse or pensions in Italy provide a basic breakfast included in the accommodation price. I only eat out once a day and uses the guest kitchen to cook for other meals. For 15 Euro could get you a descent meal excluding drinks.

Attractions
It’s worthwhile to check the attraction’s website. I would normally find out the opening/closing time and entrance charges. Some would offer discount for tickets purchase online. Some would offer reduced entrance fee on certain day or after certain hour. Posting a question in travel forum for information can be useful as others would share their own experience and give feedback on what’s doable or not. Knowledge is power and can save you time and money.

Shopping
This is quite subjective because it vary from one person to another and how much budget one has for some retail therapy. For the trip I have allowed €800 but didn’t get to finish it :).

In summary, in 12 days we have covered Rome, Pisa, San Gimignano, Florence, Venice and Lake Garda. We spent about €750 for accommodation, €400 for meals, €250 for transportation and €100 for entry to attractions. Excluding flight tickets and shopping money, we spent about €1,500 in total for two person. It’s about €65/day/person. I had used my Air Miles and only paid €186 for the return tickets from Kuala Lumpur to Rome, whilst my travelling partner paid €627. You may like to view my photobook here: Italian Escapade 2010

Please do take note that the above was amount actually spent. For example I have skipped visiting galleries and attending an opera due to time constraint so these activities are not included in the expenses. Hope the above help for your own planning a trip to Italy.