London 2014 Part 2: Harry Potter and London tour on a bus

Sharing with you another of my travel memoir in London. Day 3 was filled with a tour to Harry Porter Warner Bros studio. A must for any fans of the box office film series. A chance to experience the wizardy world and learn to fly on a broomstick.

On our final day in London, we took the hop on hop off bus for a leisurely tour of the city on a rare bright sunny day. Happy browsing…:)

11 x 8.5 Medium Landscape Imagewrap Hardcover London 2014 Part2.

London Trip 2014 – Part 1

It has been quite sometime since I post something about my travel experience. I had just finished with my photobook project on a recent trip to London. Click on “london part 1” at the bottom, for a sneak preview of the photobook in pdf version, covering our first 2 days in the city. May be you can pick up some tips. Happy reading.

london part 1

Retail Theraphy in Amazing Bangkok

I’ve been to Thailand a few times, however this time we did it when the country is in political turmoil. But I’m glad that we went ahead and didn’t cancel the trip despite warnings from some quarters that it’s not safe and travelling to Thailand is at best be avoided.

Arriving on late Friday night at Survanabhumi International Airport, we took the public taxi to our hostel in Bangrak. The ride was slightly less than an hour and cost 500 Baht (without meter). We have booked a room at i-sanook Residence in Bangrak, a very comfortable upscale hostel that has private rooms with ensuite toilet, offers complimentary breakfast, a guest kitchen that allows you to cook, a swimming pool and a gym. It also offers complimentary Tuk-tuk ride (from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. only) to Si Phraya Pier or to the nearest subway or BTS station. I have 6 leisurely days, it’s free & easy with no pre-planned itinerary.

The first day being Saturday, a visit to the weekend Chatuchak Market beckons. Chatuchak is arguably one of the biggest market in the region with more than 10,000 stalls, opens only on Saturday and Sunday from 8.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m. It’s not difficult to find something of one fancy; ceramics, puppets, essential oils, bags, blouses, beads, bronze and copper bowls, arts of all kinds, t-shirts and souvenirs, even pets can be found here. After breakfast at the hostel we took the Sukhumvit BTS line to Mo Chit. The market is very crowded with shoppers; locals and tourists. Passing through the crowded narrow alleys is in itself can be a challenge. Some of the shops do look alike and occassionaly I lost the sense of direction. The place can really overwhelmed you. The best is to be patient and take things slowly. In this trip I have also noticed a few new food stalls with “halal” sign. But we went to the one near clock tower and to my surprise the owner looked exactly the way I remembered her 7 years ago. The place was full and we were lucky to get a table near a boiling pot. “Hot and stuffy”, we ordered “mee celup” and chicken briyani and ate our lunch quickly.

For me Chatuchak is a great place for some retail theraphy. The price is generally lower than home (Malaysia) but we still haggled hard for better price and went home a satisfied shopper. There are plenty of “halal” eateries, so I could shop till I drop and not getting hungry. When my feet starts to hurt, I just stop at one of the are air-conditioned foot massage parlour. It costs 180/250 Baht for a 30 minutes/1 hour foot massage. One could easily spend half a day here and I have seen serious shopper end up going home with a full suitcase after spending a whole day here.

If you can’t stand the heat and crowd at Chatuchak Market, Asiatheque has similar offerings with less crowd but the price is more expensive. Opens from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. everyday, it is an option for those who are not in the city during the weekend. To get there, take the BTS to Saphan Taksin and there’s the free ferry ride to Asiatheque.

Bangkok is also popular with quality custom-made tailored suit, shirt or pants. There are plenty of choices at Nana and Sukhumvit area. Prices ranges from 5,000 Baht to 10,000 Baht for a suit, 700 Baht to 1,500 Baht for a shirt and 1,500 Baht to 2,000 Baht for a pants depending on the type of fabric. Most are closed on Sunday and it takes between 2-3 days to have it done with at least 2 fittings. Based on some good reviews found in the internet, I decided to try Custom Tailor on soi 8. I got my measurement done on Saturday after the visit to Chatuchak, but due to “Bangkok Shutdown” on Monday 13/1/2014, I could only do the 1st fitting on Tuesday evening. That’s not a problem for me because I wasn’t due to return to Kuala Lumpur until Friday morning.

Despite the ongoing protests in Bangkok, it was business as usual. Unaffected by “Bangkok Shutdown”, on the last day of this trip, we decided to spend some time near Siam for another retail theraphy at Siam Square, Paragorn Mall and HRC Bangkok. This is probably the closest we got to the much talked protest in Bangkok. Things were still in orderly manner and sometimes it felt like a carnival. The Thai people are in election mood. T-shirt, headband, ear rings etc all depicting the national flag are on sale. We even joint the crowd on the street for a taste of what it’s all about.

Will I come back here for more retail theraphy? The answer is an easy YES 🙂

A Beautiful English Countryside ~ Part I

After a short stop to see Angel of the North, I was on the road again, driving south along A167 into Durham County. Durham City is another beautiful university town with its fascinating castle and cathedral. But this time around I’m skipping Durham and head straight to Teesdale, an area I haven’t explored before. To be honest I didn’t have a specific plan which made this aimless drive somewhat less stressfull. When I came across a big signboard stating Raby Castle, 2km further up, I made a decision to check it out. There’s an entrance charge of £6 to the parks and garden or £10 if you want to enter the castle too. I decided to do some short walks around the castle parks and garden and paid the £6 charge. I was a given a small pamphlet with a map and a short history of the castle. The castle sits on 200 acres land and said to be one of England’s finest mediaeval castles. Even from the car park, the 14th century castle do look great, a fortress that stands proud and defiant.

DSC_1988-1

“King Cnut also known as Canute II the Great owned the Estate in the early 11th Century but it was the Nevills, one of the most powerful families in the North who built the castle. After Charles Neville, 6th Earl of Westmorland, led the failed Rising of the North in favour of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1569, Raby Castle was taken into royal custody. Sir Henry Vane the Elder purchased the castle in 1626 from the Crown. The castle is currently owned by Lord Barnard”.

The first part of the castle that I explored was its beautiful English garden. Parts of the garden are walled that provide one with privacy. If this is my garden, I could see myself spending my free time seating in one of the benches with a good book to read. There are the two fine old yew hedges, formal lawns, an ornamental pond, garden filled with roses, heather and conifer.

With 200 acres of park land, there are a few paths one could take. The footpaths are uneven but can be easily walked. After walking for about 20 minutes, I could see from a distance a herd of deer sitting under the shades of trees. I walked slowly towards them for a closer look. However, some seem to be bothered by my presence and started to walk away. Hiding behind a tree, prepared with a Sigma 150-500 mm zoom lenses, I was able to capture some shots without getting too close to them. There are two types found in the park; the Red deer is the largest British wild land mammal, and the smaller Fallow deer, both herds are said containing the descendants of deer preserved in this area since Norman times.

On the other side of the park, there’s a large lake which gives a fantastic view of the castle. It’s one picture perfect spot not to be missed. I wished the water in the lake had been calmer for me to get a beautiful picture of the castle with mirror like reflection.

There’s also a story that the castle is haunted by Charles Neville, who was once the Earl of Westmorland. Charles was forced to surrender to Henry VIII after the unsuccessful Rising of the Northern Earls. His ghost is often seen heading for the Barons Hall, where in 1569 he and his men were deciding whether to stand up against the King, They were interrupted by Mrs Neville who hearing their discussion called them a bunch of sniveling cowards. In response to this provocation, the men went to battle and lost. The Earl was forced to flee to Scotland, and then on to Holland where his body is now buried.

The story goes that Hamish McGool, a paranormal researcher, when he visited the castle he taunted the spirits by shouting, ‘Hey Charlie – will you now come out and have a wee fight with me?’
When nothing happened after ten minutes of this taunting a ghostly voice was heard that of Mrs Neville. She said, ‘Once a coward always a coward.’
Angered by the persistent humiliation by his dead wife, Charles’ ghost did appear, giving Hamish a proper Glasgow Kiss for his efforts.

I had an early lunch at the castle’s cafe, tuna sandwich and lime juice to quench my thirst on a very hot day before continuing my journey to a historic market town the locals called “Barney”. About 2 miles from the town centre is Bowes Museum. I didn’t enter the museum but instead admire the beautiful setting of the magnificent French style château from its garden.

From here I made my way to Upper-Teesdale. The road is good but it can turn out to be dangerous as I had difficulty in keeping my eyes on the road. The beautiful scenery of rolling hills with grazing sheep, isolated farmhouses and cottages were a big distraction and I almost drove into a ditch. I reached High Force Hotel hoping to get a room for the night. But I was unlucky as it was full. Blimey!!! My fault for not making any reservation. It’s Bank Holiday Monday and it seems all the B&B in the area had no vacancy. The only plan B that I had was overnight in the car.

Not deterred by this shortcomings, there was still about 4 hours before night fall. I parked my car at Bowlees Nature Reserve to do some short walks. Upper Teesdale looks even better while walking as I was able to stop and admire the views without slamming into a ditch. I made a short detour to the Summerhill Force, one of the many waterfalls that can be found here. Over the years, the force of Summerhill had undercut the limestone behind it to form the picturesque cavern known as Gibson’s Cave. Even though Summerhill is only a small waterfall, but I like it. I found a perfect spot where I can just sit and enjoy the beauty of this God’s creation and feel the tranquility of the area. Somewhat the place inspires me and quietly I was humming a poem while taking pictures of the waterfalls…

I have a place where I can go;
Like the river all my troubles flow;
A place to sit and dream a while;
Of pleasant things that make me smile…

I was done with taking pictures of Summerhill. To get back to the footpath I need to climb up the slippery rocks, the same way I had come down. The say accidents come without warning. I slipped and tumbled down 6 foot into the river. I was fine with just minor bruises but couldn’t save my DSLR camera. The water had damaged the electronics. Dusk was nearing and it was a long walk back to where I parked my car. I was all wet and it’s getting colder…

Oh!!! What an end to an almost perfect day. After cleaning up and putting dry clothes on, I was able to put things into perspective. Firstly, I thank God that I’m still in one piece without carrying any major injury. I still have my little camera and phone camera to capture moments of the remaining of this trip. The images in the memory card were intact and I’m able to share them here. Things could have been far worse.

I returned to Barney, find a bright spot in the parking lot, had fish and chips for dinner before retiring in my car for a much needed rest.

A Walk Back To Memory Lane

The following morning, I woke up to the sound of my alarm clock, it was 5.00 a.m. Others in the dorm were still fast asleep and one of them was snoring loudly. The rain had stopped and breakfast would only be served from 7.00 a.m. I decided to go for a short walk over the Tyne Bridge, a prominent landmark in Newcastle which resembles the Sydney Harbour Bridge. There was little traffic in this early hour, and for the first time I had used my new Cokin Filter to capture a descent photo of the bridge during sunrise.

Sunrise over Tyne Bridge

Sunrise over Tyne Bridge

The weather was forecasted to be cloudy but no rain. It was a perfect day to explore the city on foot. After another hefty breakfast at the hostel, I was back on foot to explore the city. I wanted to see more of the city and wonder how much it has remained or changed after 23 years. My first stop was Grey Street, which is only 2 blocks away from the hostel. The street lies within “Grainger Town”, a beautiful and historic heart of the city with classical streets built by Richard Grainger between 1835 and 1842. Some of Newcastle upon Tyne’s finest buildings can be found along Grey Street include the Theatre Royal. The theatre which was opened in 1837, presents more than 380 performances a year. It is the third home after London and Stratford-upon-Avon of the Royal Shakespeare Company. If you like theatre performances, the tickets here are a lot cheaper compared to those in London. Listing of performances can be found at http://www.theatreroyal.co.uk.

One could not miss Grey’s Monument, located on the upper end of Grey Street dominates the square. Built in 1838 in remembrance of Charles Grey, the 2nd Earl Grey. The square is a popular spot for people watching, buskers, fairs and protestors demonstration. An entrance to Central Arcade, a beautifully preserved Victorian shopping arcade, could also be found nearby. Everything looks familiar but I can see that the al fresco restaurants and bistro culture have really catched up in the North East.

From Grey Street, I entered Northumberland Street, the main shopping high street in Newcastle. Fenwick department store is still at the same spot. I remembered how during every winter and summer sale I will come looking for bargains to complete the Eternal Beauty tea set that I was collecting. Newer high street department stores such as Primark can also be found here. I came across a Vodafone shop and bought a data packet for my phone which allow me to surf the internet and keep in touch with friends through social media network and email. When I passed over Argos, I can’t help myself from not smiling. There were a few occasions I bought a camera and video player, used it extensively and return in less than 30 days from date of purchase. It was one of those money back guarantee policy that was abused and used to my advantage. Finally as I approached Haymarket, a familiar Newcastle University buildings came into sight.

Opposite of the university campus, is a small park which housed the Civic Centre and Church of St Thomas the Martyr. The grounds also include various war memorials including The Response, 1914 by Goscombe John, said to be one of the finest sculptural ensembles on any British monument.

I also noticed that the university has a few new buildings. What was an empty park in front of the Student Union Building is now a theatre. Modern looking wooden benches have been put along the path leading to the Student Union Building. Unfortunately I was not able to enter the building as access is through the student smart card. I remember that I will come here for the cheapest sandwich in town. As the Malaysian Student Society treasurer, occasionally I had to visit the student bureau to apply for funds for the society activities. The Student Union Building is also a good place for information. There was a huge notice board for lost & found, buy & sell, lodgings etc. The building basement was also used to host gigs by upcoming bands. One of my favourite part of the university is the Armstrong Walk, some referred it as the University Quadrangle. It is lined by the university’s oldest building which housed the School of Architecture, Fine Art Building and the Old Library Building. Convocation would normally be held at King’s Hall here.

My final stop is the Great North Museum also known as the Hancock Museum managed by the university. The museum displays some outstanding natural history collections from the Ice Age era to the history of Hadrian Wall, the Egyptians and Romans. What I like about this museum not only entry is free but you are allowed to take photographs.

Since it was a Bank Holiday weekend, many of the shops were offering discounts up to 70% discount. I spent the rest of the afternoon browsing at shops along Northumberland Street and in Eldon Square. My only purchase for the day was a light weatherproof jacket by Northface. It would cost more than RM500 in Malaysia but I got it for RM250 here.

Later that evening, I went for a stroll along the Quayside. Walking along the waterfront of River Tyne has always been my favourite pastime but again my expectation for a quite walking experience fell short as the place is now a lively waterhole with a string of pubs and restaurants. I could see the new additions to Newcastle cityscape, the Millenium Bridge and the Sage. There are plenty of great viewpoints, the cloud has cleared and I had my tripod with me for the evening shots.

The following morning, after breakfast I checked-out from the hostel and picked up my car rental. It’s bye-bye Newcastle for now. I took the A167 to see one of the city’s new attraction, Angel of the North before venturing into Durham County.

I Bleed Black & White

I arrived in Newcastle around 5:00 a.m. an hour earlier than expected. The driver must be driving so fast. I wished I could have another hour of sleep. There wasn’t much I could do as it was raining heavily and there was no taxi insight. At least 10 passengers including myself waited for the rain to let up. I sat next to Paul, a young guy from London and we started chatting. He is a West Ham fan who’s in town for the game later on that day. I told him I’m going to the game as well but unfortunately I won’t be on his side. Having something in common where both of us support our “hometown” club make it very easy to build up a conversation. We talked about Andy Carroll and Kevin Nolan, both players had donned the famous black & white shirt but are now playing for West Ham. There was no nasty footie banter, just a civilised opinion about our team chances. Apparently, Paul has also been to Malaysia in 2008 which he said a “lovely” country. He went to a few islands on the east coast , KL and Penang. By the time the heavy rain turned to slight drizzle, it was almost 7 a.m. I wished Paul goodbye and dragged my bag for a few hundred metres to Euro Hostel. I couldn’t check-in yet so I left my luggage at the reception. The lady at the reception was so nice that she let me have the buffet breakfast without paying. I felt so welcome and had a bowl of cereal, two glasses of orange juice, toasts with butter and jam, an apple and a cup of coffee. I guess enough for me to skip lunch.

It wasn’t until 10 a.m. when the rain finally stopped. I need to go to St James Park, the home of Newcastle United Football Club. Firstly to collect my game’s ticket which a friend had pre-booked on my behalf. Secondly a compulsory stop at the club’s shop. I have a long list from fellow Toon Army in Malaysia to get them the latest Newcastle United replica jersey. It was serious shopping. Unfortunately some of the sizes were not available and I pity my friends once they hear the bad news. Somehow my shopping basket was still full and the “good looking” cashier gleefully ring in £315 worth of merchandise. With my hands full, it’s time to head back to the hostel. I was able to check-in and the hot shower was welcoming. I made a quick phone call to the car rental company informing them that I’m already in town and will be picking the car on Monday morning. Looks like everything is in order. With a peace of mind, I look forward to Newcastle United’s first home game of the season against West Ham United. Despite all those years, I have never stopped supporting the team. Yes, I’m an adopted Geordie and I bleed black & white. To be in the stadium with 50,000 other fans, cheering your team is an experience to savour for every Toon Army. The moment I entered the stadium and sat on my seat, emotion starts to build in which just come short of crying. It may not be a home-coming winning game as the game ended with a scoreless draw but I will cherish the moment as if it was my very first live Newcastle home game back in 1987.

During the game, it started to rain again. After the game finished, I put on my rain jacket and walked back to the hostel. Looks like I won’t be able to see much of the city on my first day here. I had dinner at the hostel’s cafe, sweet potato with curry chickpeas, spinach and rice, one of only two vegetarian dishes available. I was totally knackered, somewhat the hostel’s bunk bed looked so inviting. After 23 years I’m back in my “2nd hometown”, watched my beloved football team play and had bought the latest merchandises from the club shop. I knew that night I went to bed smiling :).

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.

Thaipusam ~ A Walk of Faith

Thaipusam is a spectacular Hindu festival celebrated each year, beginning on the night of a full moon in the auspicious 10th Tamil month of Thai when the star of well-being, Pusam, rises over the eastern horizon which normally falls in January or February on the Western Calendar. It is mostly observed by the Tamil community around the world; however the manifestation of the festival is best witnessed in Malaysia at Batu Caves. Having witnessed the celebration twice, the festivities centered at Batu Caves is an exciting and thrilling spectacle. Over 1 million devotees and visitors has been recorded visiting Batu Caves for the celebration each year.

Entrance of Batu Cave

Entrance of Batu Caves

There are plenty of stories what Thaipusam is all about. Among the most popular is that it commemorates the day the powerful goddess Parvathi, gives her son, Murugan, the spear “vel” to vanquish the evil demon Soorapadman which were plaguing the world. Some say it is to celebrate the birthday of the Hindu god Murugan. However, for the Hindus today, the festival is a day of penance and thanksgiving. They also believed that sins can be cleansed during Thaipusam. On the eve of Thaipusam, the festival begins with a five-ton chariot pulled by two bulls and followed by a procession of several thousand people from the Sri Mahamariaman temple in downtown Kuala Lumpur, on a 15-kilometre trek to Batu Caves. In a loud carnival atmosphere, drums beat and long wooden flute, could be heard crooning devotional tunes and trance inducing rhythms. The procession weaves through major streets of the city and takes more than 8 hours to reach its destination.

On the day of celebration, the devotees who take part shaved their heads and bathed at the nearby Sungai Batu, which is about 1.5 km from the entrance of Batu Caves. Unlike the scene at Varanasi (Banaras) in India where one could see the devotees bathed in Ganges River, here the devotees use open showers to bathe. I can understand why this had to be done. Looking at the river of Sungai Batu, it is in such deplorable state and definitely not fit for bathing. The temple authorities had constructed line of showers as an alternative.

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From here the devotees carry offerings commonly a simple pot of milk, walk the 1.5 km bare footed and climb the 272 steps to the temple in the main cave to seek forgiveness for past deeds or to thank Lord Murugan for wishes granted. Some devotees have opted to carry the Kavadi, a wooden arch decorated with peacock feathers and pots of honey. Kavadi carriers are devotees who have requested favours, and have had their favour granted or wish to atone for past misdeeds. Usually, a vow is made to carry the Kavadi. Common requests are recovery from illness, success in examinations or business. These forms of offerings are overshadowed by more elaborate ones with huge metal frames and bedecked with decorations in the belief that the larger the Kavadi the more resolute is one’s devotion. Skewers protruding through cheeks and metal hooks and spikes are also to be seen. This is a quaint evolution of the celebrations and according to some its origins are lost in antiquity. Some devotees however, choose to believe that the only way to salvation is to endure a penance of pain and hardship. Seeing the Hindu priest protruding a skewer through one of the devotee’s cheeks for the first time, did make my legs feel like jelly but I avoided the embarrassment of fainting. As I watched the whole spectacle, I chatted with a few local Indians and according to them leading up to the event, devotees who take part in the festival prepare themselves by cleansing their bodies by undertaking days of fasting, praying and abstinence. During this period, the devotees usually observed strict vegetarian diet and their minds are attuned to only one thing; spirituality and liberation from all forms of worldly desires. This is my theory though, almost all the devotees are in trance-like state and I believe that the reason for them to be able to tolerate the pain, if any. I don’t deny that I was amazed with what the devotees are willing to go through in the name of faith, but there were times I got goose bump and felt my hair at the back of my neck stood up.

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Family, relatives and friends will accompany the Kavadi bearer to the temple giving him all the encouragement especially through the arduous 272 steps climb to the main cave. Traditional musical instruments are played, and chants of “Vel, Vel” and smell of incense filled the air. Once they reached the temple, the milk or honey offering is poured on the statue of the deity as an act of thanksgiving. Those with hooks and skewers have a priest chant over them. The hooks and skewers are removed and the wounds are treated with hot ash. Believe it or not, there is not a drop of blood, no pain and even more amazing no scar at all. I do have a second theory on this, but this time I’ll keep it to myself.

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Thaipusam is one of the most visually and culturally stunning festivals I have experienced. If you have patience with crowd and are in town during the celebration, don’t miss to see this amazing Walk of Faith.