Sydney

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The Opera House and Harbour Bridge in Sydney have to be the most iconic sites I think I’ve seen on this trip. More than the Great Wall, St Basil’s Cathedral or the Hong Kong skyline, there is nothing that tells you ‘Welcome to Australia!’ quite like that view. In glorious sunshine, we spent our first day gawping at these constructions, wandering around the Botanic Gardens, meandering through the New South Wales Art Museum, and finishing up with street food in The Rocks for dinner. This was an auspicious first day. I have to say, I absolutely fell in love with the place.
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If anything, this got even better the next day. We took the bus to Bondi beach and did the Bondi-Coogee clifftop walk. This is a 7km walk across beaches, up over hills and with stunning views down the eastern coast of Australia in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs. Walking past lovely art deco houses, a variety of beaches (7 in all), past a bowls club and a cemetary in the sunshine and sea breeze is a fantastic experience.
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The next couple of days we took in excursions to the Blue Mountains and Manly. The Blue Mountains is a couple hours on the train west of Sydney. The mountains are so called because of the blue haze in the air from the evaporated eucalyptus gum suspended in the air. Manly is a lovely little suburb a short ferry-ride across Sydney harbour, with a huge stretch of beach filled with surfers and volleyball players.
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Sadly it was a bit grey in Manly – and this continued through to Christmas Day. In fact, it ended up raining all day, which was NOT what we’d been expecting for our summer Christmas! Despite the poor weather, we braved Sydney Zoo (Amy picked up a jumper on the way!) to see some other animals unimpressed by the weather, and some enthusiastic seals. I think this was as excited as Amy has been since the Nerpanarium in Lake Baikal. She turned to me halfway through the show, commenting that she’d just been waving at a seal. I think she felt like this was something she should be ashamed of, but it was tough to get past the joy on her face!

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This animal is called a 'Bongo' and is awesome

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'Hi Amy!' 'Hi Seal!'

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Afterwards we gave up on our idea of a beach Christmas and had our picnic back at the flat we were staying at. There we interspersed food, wine and skypeing with relatives with the rather more Christmassy pasttimes of watching ‘Die Hard’ and ‘The Avengers’. The next day we took our leave of Sydney (which was sunny again after it’s unfairly grey Christmas) and headed to Melbourne.
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Sydneyside

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Our tickets to Sydney were on the budget airline Scoot (think Ryanair; charging for check-in on up). However, after our miserable red-eye to Hong Kong on India Air, we stumped up for an upgrade to business class. At least one benefit of travelling on a budget airline is that their business class is also reasonably priced. As it turns out, our upgrade got us a decent amount of legroom, a terrible free sandwich, and the ability to stream Scoot’s entertainment on our own device without paying (goody). But at least we weren’t hideously cramped.

Once again, we were Airbnb’ing it in the Sydney suburb of Randwick, and this time sharing space with Emma and her black cat Millie. (Loz has an unofficial pet policy for Airbnb, reasoning that people with pets are probably more established and thus minimising our chances of finding ourselves staying in a party house). Loz fell in love with Sydney almost immediately, and there’s a lot to love – the harbour and all its endless intricacies; the dry but friendly Aussie sense of humour; the weather. When staying with Tim and Sue in Singapore, they’d warned us that the rules on bringing any foodstuffs at all into Aus (summary: “Don’t”) were very strict indeed, but I had a hard-won packet of ginger tea I’d acquired in Phnom Penh, so I dutifully filled out the customs form and ticked “Yes” next to “Plants, herbs, etc.” The conversation with the customs officer went like this:
Him, glancing at the form: “So what’ve you got, then?”

Me: “Some lemon and ginger tea.”

Him, with enthusiasm: “YUM! Go on then.”

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We took the bus straight to Circular Quay and spent our first morning just wandering around the harbour and the CBD. The Sydney Opera House sits in a prominent position by Circular Quay, and it’s just so striking a sight, and in such a beautiful spot, that we headed straight there to photograph, walk around, and admire. From there, we wandered into the Botanic Gardens, where we just enjoyed a temperature of 25C and minimal humidity over lunch, some strolling, and watching boats enjoy the breeze. Central Sydney has a number of great art museums, so we headed over to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. It begins with an extensive collection of European paintings and sculpture from the seventeenth and eighteenth century, before shifting to focus on Australian art. At first Australian art was an aspiring younger cousin – most of the early paintings look like European bucolic scenes with roos added in – but, as the curation demonstrates, Australian schools eventually arose independently. The gallery also includes a selection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, with thoughtful explanations.

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Our second day, we set out to do the Bondi to Coogee clifftop walk. Sydney Harbour is a long, crenellated and wavy stretch of coastline which is very rewarding to walk along, and the walk began with taking the bus out to the long golden stretch of Bondi Beach. It was full of surfers and swimmers, although Antipodean beaches thus far tend to be strewn with rather alarming warning signs about rips, drops, and jellyfish, and swimming is generally only allowed on narrow strips watched carefully by lifeguards. The breeze was stiff enough that we decided not to go in for the day, although the walk took us past a half-dozen assorted beaches of different characters, as well as some rocky cliffs. The next day, we headed back to the CBD to take in the Museum of Contemporary Art, which is located right on Circular Quay beside the mooring point for international cruise ships. The museum had some modern sculpture odd enough to worry even me, but again the curation and the information provided was excellent, and the curators have gone to great trouble to develop and explain a wide collection of Aboriginal art, which can be difficult to understand and interpret from the outside.

Our next trip was out to Katoomba, the town in the Blue Mountains famous for its views. The Blue Mountains sit to the northwest of Sydney, and are so-called because of the eucalyptus trees which constantly secrete oil into the air; the oil picks up atmospheric dust and particulates until the entire area seems to be seen through a blue haze. It was two hours on a slow commuter train from Sydney’s Central Station, but when we reached its viewpoint, Echo Point, it was worth it. A panorama of forests and of rocky peaks and plateaus was punctuated by the three tall sandstone towers called the Three Sisters. We took “the world’s steepest train” down a short, terrifying incline and spent some time on the elevated walk above the rainforest floor before returning to the city. On Christmas Eve, we took the ferry across Sydney Harbour to Manly, the beach suburb very popular for its daytrips. Unfortunately, it was clouded over and nippy enough that the surfers had broken out wetsuits and the swimmers were mostly refraining. Instead of swimming, I walked a few miles up to my ankles in the surf, singing Christmas carols to myself.

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What to do on Christmas Day had been something we were attempting to figure out from our first day in the city. We were too late to book a lunch cruise in the harbour; we toyed with buying tickets for the dance music festival on Bondi Beach, but decided against it. Eventually, on discovering that Taronga Zoo was open 365 days a year, we opted to hit the zoo and then picnic, traditional Aussie style, on one of the beaches. Our trip to the zoo on the ferry went fine, at least up until the point that it started to rain, and carried on nearly all day. But we had donned Santa hats and were not to be daunted, although I had to buy a sweatshirt in the zoo shop to keep from freezing. The zoo has an amazing selection of animals; we watched the Asian elephants bathe and play in the water from a few feet away, and were enchanted by the bongo, an African gazelle which looks like a misshapen zebra with enormous mouse-ears, and whose existence was completely unsuspected by either of us previously. There was also a seal show, to which I clapped my hands like a tiny child, and caught myself waving back at a seal shaking his flipper. Our beach picnic became a living-room picnic, but after Skypeing with friends and family at home, we went to bed content and packed up ready for our flight to Melbourne.

Singapore Is _________

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‘Designated graffiti area’, Singapore

From Kuala Lumpur it was south again, on an overnight train leaving at 10:30pm. It transpired that we were able to get a deluxe sleeper for around £20 each, and the overnight train performs the nifty trick of saving you money on accommodation. “Deluxe” class got us a whole compartment to ourselves, with shelves, two narrow bunks, and – glory of glories – a bathroom of our own with a shower, plus dinner (which we ignored) and breakfast sandwiches (which we wished we could ignore). We’ve become quite adept at sleeping on trains, and the ride was smoother than, say, the Vietnam Reunification Line, but the track took some steep curves that nearly threw me out of my bunk. Sleep did not come easily.

This brings us to another reason I so thoroughly did not get along with Kuala Lumpur: sleep. For the first time in Southeast Asia, we were sleeping in a room without air-con, and even with the windows open and a fan running full blast, we got only restless, sweaty sleep. Running four nights short, after negotiating the long immigration queue in Singapore Woodlands station at 7pm, I retired to bed for several hours. If we’ve learnt one thing from travelling this long, it’s that sometimes you just have to take the day off, and our first day in Singapore was definitely one of those days.

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We were in the lucky position of having been invited to stay with Loz’s friend Tim, his wife Sue, and their toddler Jenson. This gave us a comfortable place to stay close to Singapore’s Little India and good company and advice. Singapore certainly scored considerably higher than Kuala Lumpur on the walkability scale; despite the equatorial heat and legendary humidity, the central streets are well-signed and equipped with good pavements, and the metro system is extensive and easy to navigate. Somehow trouble seemed to have followed, or preceded us, again, with race-based rioting in Little India just before we got there – the first time this had happened in straitlaced Singapore in more than 40 years. I found this particularly interesting after our crash course in the racial and ethnic dynamics of the area via the National Museum of Malaysia and (in a considerably less PC version) Suresh, the Indian guide. “Racial harmony” is considered so important to the success of Singapore that the government has formally incorporated it in “Singaporean values”, and celebrates an annual “Racial Harmony Day”, but for the first time in decades, some of the cracks were visibly showing. (Another interesting note: the National Museum of Malaysia gives the impression that Singapore left Malaysia by mutual agreement, the Lonely Planet Singapore uses the phrase “kicked out”, and Suresh’s version, which aligns with the view of most political scholars, is that it was a calculated move to neutralise the growing power of the Chinese lobby in Malaysia. While modern Malaysia is 30% Chinese and 52% Malay, Singapore is fully 74% Chinese, and in both countries Indians sit at the bottom of the social hierarchy.)

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We began with a walk through the Singapore Botanic Gardens, laid out with almost pedantic neatness, but lush, green, and relaxing. It contains an extensive and beautiful Orchid Garden, which showcases rare crossbred orchids that have been created to honour important visitors; Princess Diana has one (a delicate cream marbled with pink), as does Nelson Mandela (rich purple). From there, we spent time enjoying some of Singapore’s well-curated modern museums, starting with the National Museum of Singapore. Their exhibits included one on the introduction of TV to Singapore and the role it had played in shaping Singaporean culture, as well as one on the street food of Singapore, and the Chinese-Malay-Indian influences that had given it particular dishes. To round the day off, Tim and Sue took us to the SkyBar, 57 floors high, to watch the sun go down over the city.

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The next day, we took in the Singapore Art Museum, where I indulged myself in a stunningly presented and often unsettling selection of art. Singapore has a certain… sterility to it, and its creative arts are lacking the kind of ragged, bleeding edge you’d find in London or Hong Kong, but the art museum brings in works from all over the region, and has plenty to interest. Afterwards, we took in the ArtScience museum, designed in the shape of a deconstructed lotus flower, but more popularly referred to as “THE CLAW”. The idea of an ArtScience museum that refuses to draw a line between the two is like catnip for me, and I enjoyed the place hugely. Their showcase exhibition at present is on the work of Charles and Ray Eames – a married couple, not brothers – who created not only a dozen pieces of iconic furniture for the Herman Miller company, but conceptual and educational videos and museum displays, and a bentwood splint for the U.S. Army that used revolutionary techniques. The relics of Charles and Ray’s life show a couple so in tune with each other and with such a common vision that they were able to amplify and build on each other’s work to make something greater than the sum of their parts. I felt both jealous, and deeply touched. Charles was also a photographer, and the dozens of his photos displayed show someone with an eye tuned with microscopic precision to texture, shape, and juxtaposition. (When his sister called from Louisiana, the story goes, to report that a hurricane had hit the area hard but she and her family were all right, Charles responded, “Yes, but did you get pictures?”) It’s a fantastic exhibit for anyone interested in design, symmetry, or – believe it or not – mathematics.

We rounded off our time in the city by having dinner with Sam and Coco at a vegetarian Peranakan (Malay/Chinese fusion) restaurant, before catching a cab to the airport for our red-eye flight to Sydney, and a whole new phase of the trip.

South-East Asia Reflections

South East Asia was an interesting part of our trip. There were places I loved (Hanoi, Hoi An, Chiang Mai) and places where we had a pretty rubbish time of it (Saigon, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur). There were signs of incredible human courage and incredible atrocity (Phnom Penh), There were some fantastic museums (Singapore, Hanoi, Phnom Penh, Bangkok) and some slightly rubbish ones (Saigon, KL).  There was a lot of rain in Hué and Singapore, and some scorching heat in KL and Siem Reap. In general, I think the food was pretty great throughout the region, with some superb seafood in Mui Ne and a great steak in Phuket. There was constant hassle of foreigners in Vietnam and complete indifference to them in Singapore. Above all there was incredible natural beauty, particularly in Cat Ba and Chiang Mai, as well as impressive amounts of manmade beauty, both old (Angkor Wat) and new (Singapore).
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So the short summary is that there is no consistency. South East Asia is massively varied (shock, I know), from the Communism of Vietnam, its legacies and presence in Cambodia, the democratic protests in Thailand contrasted to the worship of their king and his lese majeste, to the single-party (and monocultural) capitalism of Malaysia and Singapore. In general I found the people to be extremely friendly. One particular girl jumped off her bike in Danang to warn two wandering westerners of the coming typhoon if we weren’t aware, and a guide in Tonle Sap told me the story of how his wife had left him with their kids and taken all their money – so he couldn’t afford the exam to be a tour guide at the more lucrative Angkor Wat. Across Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand the guides stressed education as the most important thing to develop their countries, while acknowledging the challenges they had in pushing this through to the deepest countryside.
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There was bitterness too. Bitterness to the Americans in Vietnam, to the French in Vietnam and Cambodia, to the Chinese in Cambodia, to the Malays and Chinese in Malaysia (and to the Russians and the Brits in any tourist beach spot). But the region as a whole shows huge signs of growing wealth, roads are pretty excellent (although Cambodia is still a work in progress) and trains are slow, but growing in use and access (there’s talk of reopening the train line across Cambodia, which would allow a traveller to go from London to Singapore by train!). It’s generally too damn hot, but that’s kind of understandable. The hassle in Vietnam and Bangkok really isn’t that bad (especially having been to Delhi). And there are an evergrowing number of airlines, regional and intercontinental connections. There is still so much to see and experience.

A Musical Interlude

One advantage of travelling has been that I’ve had far more time to listen to music, whether on planes and trains, walking in the Himalayas, or on a ferry across Sydney harbour. Probably my top highlight was listening to all three Portishead albums back-to-back while climbing up the Thorong La pass with the stars all around us.

A particular assistance to my musical consumption has been Google Music’s All Access. For £8/month I can download anything I want from my collection to my phone – and any other album from their library as well. Given I’ve got no streaming access when I’m out and about (data charges being eye-watering) this means that I can just pick and choose albums when I’m on wifi and listen to them stored on my phone. This has genuinely been great for catching up with new music, it means that on a whim I can try new bands and I can explore back catalogues too. All for the cost of 1 album a month. Awesome.

Ahem, anyway, that advertising aside (and because everyone else is doing it) , I present my 14 favourite albums of the year:

14. Marnie Stern – The Chronicles of Marnia


Would have been a top 13 list, but I couldn’t resist the pun title. This is a great punky, folky album. The first bars of the first tracks are a challenge into the album, but it’s a very rewarding listen. The first (of many) female singer/songwriters on this list.

13. Haim – Days Are Gone


Ah, the 80s. Haim are an LA all-girl alt-pop group and this is their debut, a great pop record with some lovely reminiscent tracks. Forever is a particularly bouncy shoulder pad of a song.

12. Icona Pop – This Is…


This was a cracking year for pop music (some great stuff by Katy Perry and Lady Gaga isn’t on this list). Icona Pop are a couple of Swedes and their song ‘I Love It’ was a top summer tune. I naturally assumed that they would be complete one-hit wonders, but this album is full of excellent synth-pop that will make you smile.

11. Charli XCX – True Romance


Charli XCX is featured on Icona Pop’s ‘I Love It’ and her own debut is even better, slightly darker and more electronic.

10. Tegan and Sara – Heartthrob


And another great female pop group and a mix of the 80s themes that Haim explore with the lighter stuff from Icona Pop. T&S were an interesting stumble from a NOFX track ‘Creepin’ Out on Sara’ from the album ‘Coaster’. That led me to try ‘Sainthood’ and then ‘Heartthrob’, both excellent albums.

9. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Mosquito


This album never quite seemed to take off, but it’s full of great rocks songs and is a worthy follow up to ‘It’s Blitz’. The opening track ‘Sacrilege’ sets you straightaway and the rest of the album maintains a furious pace.

8. Foals – Holy Fire


Breaking a run of female vocalists, this is an excellent indie rock album. I never quite got into any of Foals’ early work, but this is a step-up in terms of sophistication, with a rockier edge.

7. James Blake – Overgrown


Just the song ‘Retrograde’ alone (probably my favourite track of the year) is enough to get this on the list, but it’s a great soulful, elecronic album

6. Arctic Monkeys – AM


Their best album since the first. And not by a small distance.

5. Lorde – Pure Heroine


…and back to the amazing female pop. ‘Royals’ is the track that most people have heard, but this entire album is full of stripped-down, soulful pop. From a 17-year old. Grrr.

4. Savages – Silence Yourself


Another debut on the list. Another all-female band. Intense and utterly impressive.

3. Torres – Torres


Many albums start strong and then peter out around track 7 or so. This (another debut) starts good, gets excellent (with ‘Honey’) and then builds to amazing with ‘Chains’, the penultimate track on the album.  Beautiful.

2. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City


I honestly had no idea that Vampire Weekend had this album in them. Their debut a few years ago was generally very good, but the follow-up Contra was fairly disappointing. This, however, is superb. Far more diverse musically than their previous two albums, and absolutely chock full of great songs. ‘Step’, ‘Hannah Hunt’, ‘Diane Young’ are superb, even the slightly odd ‘Ya Hey’ towards the end is just cracking to listen to. Keep this up.

1. Laura Marling – Once I Was An Eagle


Inconsistency is certainly not an accusation that can be thrown at Laura Marling. This is her fourth album and, at age 24, she has just the most incredible back catalogue. Not only is each of her albums a phenomenal addition to her body of work, her old albums only seem to get better and better. This album is a masterpiece, with songs flowing into each other early on, this is an album that takes you on an intimate journey through vast open fields and shores. Laura Marling has to be one of the best singer-songwriters in the UK. I heard someone discussing this album pondering how good she could be in ten years. I can’t wait to find out.

Anyway, more travel stuff soon. We’re in Australia now! It’s rather lovely.

Reasons To Be Glad, Sort Of, You’re Not In Southeast Asia Any More

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA1. Taking a taxi no longer involves crossing your fingers and praying to any deity that might be handy.

2. Nor does crossing the road.

3. Public toilets that have toilet paper and don’t cost money.

4. No longer having to worry about exposing too much skin and getting hassled, or merely stared at.

5. Or PDA.

6. Better bread.

7. No humidity THANK THE SWEET LORD.

Why, hello, Australia.