Sunday, 25 November 2018

Ubud, central Bali, Indonesia

After two very relaxing nights in the Uluwatu area of Bali (read here) and a two and a bit hour taxi, we arrived in Ubud. Centrally located Ubud is described as the cultural heart of Bali, and is a beautiful and thriving tourist area, set amongst rice terraces and nature. 

We stayed at a villa resort called Calma, which was a couple of miles out of town. The view from the dining area and pool onto the rice fields was incredible and it was a very quiet and chilled place to stay. Calma offer a regular shuttle service into town, however it was easy and pretty cheap to get a taxi to and from town, outside of the Calma shuttle hours. Ubud has an abundance of accommodation in different price ranges; it appears that many of the more spacious and quieter options are a bit further outside the hustle and bustle of the main town.

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Terrace River Pool Swing in Ubud

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Calma resort in Ubud

The main town of Ubud itself was very enjoyable to explore, with a mixture of souvenir shops and stalls, and recognizable brand name shops. As with any tourist spot, there was an element of people trying to sell you their services or wares, but it didn't feel too full on, as it can do in many places. The only strange and irritating thing we found is taxis honking their horn at you to see if you want their services, which gets a bit repetitive. The taxi to people ratio in Bali seemed to be very high! 

Ubud has so many great places to eat and drink - many of them with nice seats out the front, overlooking the street, which are perfect for people watching. Our friends Kirsty and Dan visited Bali last year and gave us some recommendations, including visiting the restaurant Kismet. As with many places in Bali, and particularly in Ubud, Kismet is a vegetarian restaurant and had so many great menu options. I've been a vegetarian for over ten years and have had mixed success with finding good veggie options in various countries I've been to. Most of the Asian countries I've visited have had a reasonable amount of veggie options, particularly Thailand, however Bali was by far the best place I've visited to have such a wide variety of veggie spots and things to eat. 

bali temple
Tirta Empul Water Temple

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Temple in Ubud

On our second day in Ubud, we booked a half day tour with a taxi driver via Calma. This seems to be the easiest and most popular way to explore the area. We had a knowledgable and funny driver named Wayan. We met several Balinese men named Wayan and later discovered that this means "first born". 

Wayan first took us to Terrace River Pool Swing, where there are several giant swings that sweep out over rice terraces, and offer some nice photo opportunities. There are several similar operations in the area (including Bali Swing) but having seen others whilst driving around, this seemed to be one of the better looking facilities. It's worth noting that Wayan asked us on the way if we'd like to go here, which we did, and as with many things on these tours, it's clear that the driver gets a commission if you go ahead with the activity. We wanted to go here and were happy with the facility, but if you have a particular location in mind, you will need to be clear with your driver where you want to go. Terrace River Pool Swing was quite expensive in the grand scheme of other costs in Bali, but we did feel safe with the high number of staff and safety equipment they had.

ubud swing
Terrace River Pool Swing in Ubud

After a fun stop at the Terrace River Pool Swing, Wayan dropped us off at the Tegallalang Rice Terraces, for a self guided tour. This was a pretty and photogenic place to explore, with nice walkways looping around, up and down the rice terraces. The weather was very hot and we were pleased to stop for local coffee at a small cafe with a nice veranda overlooking the terraces.

Next stop was Tirta Empul Water Temple. This has natural spring water flowing into pools in the centre, bathing in which many people believe has healing powers. We opted to stay dry and enjoyed wandering around the grounds, which included some vibrant pools, filled with giant fish. We enjoyed our visit here, but we were disappointed that the "exit through the gift shop" consisted of a very long labyrinth of market stalls, all selling the same stuff.

ubud rice terrace

Tegallalang Rice Terraces, Ubud

water temple bali
Tirta Empul Water Temple, Ubud

After lunch, we decided to head back and relax by the pool at Calma. Our friends Kirsty and Dan had highly recommended we do a Mount Batur morning sunrise trek, which we had been planning to book. This involves being picked up from your hotel at 2am, to drive to the area, climb before sunrise and have breakfast at the top of this active volcano, with (hopefully) incredible views. As much as we loved the idea of most of it, and with only a short time in Ubud, we decided we couldn't face the early start and writing off most of the next day. 

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Ketut himself at Ketut's Cooking Course, Ubud

cooking course ubud
Emily at Ketut's Cooking Course, Ubud

As an alternative daytime activity for the next day, we booked a cooking course with Ketut's Cooking Course Bali. We've done cooking courses in Thailand and Vietnam in the past and really enjoyed them, so we thought this would be a fun way to spend part of our last full day in Ubud. Ketut's is highly rated on various sites and reasonably priced. We were picked up from our hotel and taken with other people to the local market to be shown and taste local produce. Upon arrival at his home facility, Ketut and his family welcomed us and approximately a dozen other people with welcome drinks. Ketut was a warm and funny guy, which is one of the reasons why we enjoyed this course the most of the three Asian cooking courses we've done. 

Ketut showed us how to make traditional Balinese coconut oil, which is a surprisingly simple, but laborious process. The freshly made coconut oil was used in many of the delicious dishes that Ketut and his family helped us create. After a couple of hours of culinary magic, we sat down to eat the feasts we had created, which for me was a vegetarian menu of curry, noodles, tofu peanut satay and several other small dishes. 

cooking course bali ubud
Eating our creations at Ketut's Cooking Course, Ubud

cooking courses in bali
Ketut and his wife, with Emily and me, at Ketut's Cooking Course, Ubud

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Crazy spider outside Ketut's Cooking Course, Ubud

Later in the day, we headed back into the town for more exploring. We checked out the Royal Palace grounds, which is free to enter and decided we would return later in the evening to watch a traditional dance. Ubud has regular dance performances and parades, and we wanted to make sure we got to see one before we left. We sat on a rickety looking bleacher stand and enjoyed the impressive show, which was performed by many dancers, along with a large percussion band. We were also entertained by the persistence of the ladies trying to sell beer and other drinks to the audience, which although funny, did get a bit much after a while.

If you're visiting Bali, Ubud is an essential stop. We loved our short visit and easily could have filled  another couple of days of exploring in the area and enjoying more of the local food and drink spots :)

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Entrance to someones home in Ubud 

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Royal Palace in Ubud by day

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Traditional dance performance at Royal Palace, Ubud at night

Saturday, 24 November 2018

Uluwatu area, Bali, Indonesia

I arrived home today from an incredible nine days of adventure in Indonesia with my wife Emily. Before visiting Bali and Gili Air in Indonesia, we had a three-night short trip/layover in Hong Kong, which I'll blog about separately soon. We flew with Cathay Pacific; they were an average airline and nothing particularly stood out as being great or bad, except the food which was by far the worst we've had on any airline. That's a first world problem if ever I heard one!!

We usually find ground transport on arrival at an airport, however thankfully we decided to arrange a taxi via our hotel before we arrived at Denpasar Airport in Bali. After clearing customs and appearing with our luggage in the arrivals hall, the number of 'transport service' individuals and companies vying for your business is quite overwhelming. We were pleased to spot our driver with a placard with our names on it straight away, and we travelled in his car to our hotel, best part of an hour away. 

uluwatu hotel
Perfect pool at BoHo Bingin Beach 

The hotel we booked was called BoHo Bingin Beach and was an absolutely perfect place and location to start our time in Bali. The hotel grounds and pool were beautifully laid out and spacious, and it was a very relaxing place to stay for two nights. Our trip started in the middle of November, which is when the rainy season is starting in Bali and tourist numbers area lower. We were lucky enough to experience very little rain during our trip (except sometimes hearing it at night) and we benefited from pretty much everywhere we went not being busy. 

bali hotel
BoHo Bingin Beach 

bali hotel pool
BoHo Bingin Beach 

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Emily at BoHo Bingin Beach 

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The neighbours at BoHo Bingin Beach!

The BoHo staff were very friendly and gave us recommendations of good beaches to go to and things to do in the area. A few minutes walk from the hotel is a stunning beach called Bingin Beach. As with the other beaches in the area, the beach is accessed via steep and winding steps, and your energetic journey down to and up from the beach are rewarded with quiet and absolutely beautiful sand and sea. Shortly after we arrived at BoHo, we headed down to Bingin Beach and caught a breathtaking sunset, which was the perfect way to end a relatively long day of traveling. After dinner in a little restaurant on the beach, our phone torches were needed to navigate our way back up the steep and winding steps to the hotel.

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Sunset at Bingin Beach, Bali 

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Busy Instagramming the sunset at Bingin Beach, Bali 

The next morning, after a delicious breakfast at a huge ornate dining table at BoHo, we got a taxi to the Uluwatu Temple, which is the main tourist spot in the area. Uluwatu is a very scenic Balinese Hindu Temple, situated on a cliff face and home to many cheeky (and terrifying) monkeys. As anyone who has traveled in Asia will likely know, monkeys are not the cute cuddly little creatures we are led to think they are, rather somewhat scary and mischievous little things that should be given a wide berth. We paid a small entry fee to the temple and were given sarongs to wear, in order to be dressed appropriately to enter. We declined the offer of a paid guide, whom many tourists opt for, to keep the monkeys at bay. We enjoyed our self guided tour for the best part of an hour, with beautiful sea views from the steep cliff.

uluwatu temple
Uluwatu Temple, Bali

temples in bali
Uluwatu Temple, Bali

After another short taxi ride a few minutes down the road, we stopped near Thomas Beach in Padang Padang. One of the top rated cafes in the area is called Suka Espresso, which was bustling with tourists and served great food.  From there, we wandered for a few minutes down a stoney track to a set of steep steps that took us down to Thomas Beach, which was recommended to us by BoHo as being the best in the area for swimming. The beach was very quiet and we enjoyed an afternoon of swimming in the sea and eating local food. 

uluwatu food
Suka Espresso near Thomas Beach, Padang Padang, Bali 

That night we booked a table ahead at the Cashew Tree, which is a bustling spot a few minutes walk from BoHo. Our trusty Lonely Planet travel guide describes this as 'the place to be' in the area, and by chance it hosts live music every Thursday. Despite the musician being incredibly talented, the cover songs were somewhat slow (e.g. Radiohead!!) and unfortunately not the upbeat sing and dance-along songs we had hoped for. Still, it was a great place to chill, eat great food and drink a few Bintang beers. 

If you're visiting Bali and wondering which areas to stay, I cannot recommend this area highly enough. Later in our trip, we had a wonderful time in Ubud and Gili Air, which I will blog about soon, but we are so glad that stumbled across the Uluwatu area when planning our itinerary.

Seeing in the new year in Budapest, Hungary

A couple of years ago, three friends and I travelled to Budapest, Hungary, to see the sights for three nights and celebrate New Year's Eve. I've had this blog post sitting as a draft for a long time and finishing it brought back great memories of a very enjoyable trip!

This was a beautiful time of year to visit, with a touch of frost and Christmas decorations aplenty. Of course it was also very cold, so many layers were needed to explore the city by foot and bike! Much of the ground in the city is easy to cover by foot, however there is a fairly new public bike rental scheme and exploring by bike allowed us to cover a lot of ground very quickly, using the huge number of bike lanes. The city is so pretty and interesting, that you can fill two or more days very easily just by seeing the impressive buildings and views without paying entry fees.

budapest bridge
The iconic Szechenyi Chain Bridge

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Exploring Budapest by public rental bike

We stayed in a huge AirBnB apartment in the Jewish Quarter, which we found to be a perfectly located part of the city to stay. The buildings have wonderful character and there is no shortage of interesting bars and restaurants. You may have had of the infamous Budapest 'ruin bars'. These are awesome venues, which make use of old buildings and courtyards to create quirky and fun places to drink, dance and be entertained. We found a particularly great ruin bar in the Jewish Quarter, called Kuplung, where we saw in the new year in style! They had live music in a huge venue space at the back of the building, where Hungarian rock bands played a mixture of local and English cover songs. It was definitely a night to remember :) 

The city has a perfect mix of culture, history, street art and entertainment. It was the best city break trip I have been on, and I can't wait to return - perhaps next time in the summer months.

budapest friends
Seeing in the new year in Budapest with friends

synagogue at night
Dohány Street Synagogue, Budapest

danube river

budapest trams
Hungarian Parliament building

buda castle
Buda Castle grounds

budapest views
View from Buda Castle

budapest fire station
Very old and cool looking Budapest Fire Station

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Budapest skyline at sunset

budapest buildings
Budapest street art

budapest street art
Budapest street art

budapest street art
Budapest street art

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A Budapest ruin bar

kuplung bar
Kuplung New Year's Eve 2016

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Toyko, Japan

After a perfect wedding, my wife Emily and I recently went on a three week honeymoon adventure to Japan. We travelled with Qatar Airlines, booking a flight deal to fly via Doha in business class, for the same price as an economy flight from London. The only 'snag' was having to fly from Amsterdam, so we had a 30 hour layover there, which gave us enough time to quickly explore the city, as neither of us had been before.

We arrived in Tokyo early in the evening, flying into Narita, which is quite a distance away from the action in Tokyo. We bought train tickets at the airport on arrival to get to our hotel, and with various changes and trying to navigate the train system for the first time, it ended up taking us the best part of three hours to go to our hotel. We were so glad to finally drop our bags and head out for our first bowl of Ramen :) 

We stayed at the APA Higashi-Shinjuku-Kabukicho hotel, which was only a few minutes walk from the more bustling parts of Shinjuku, but quiet enough to get a reasonable nights sleep. As we had heard is common in Japan, the room was tiny, but perfectly fine when we wanted to spend most of the time out sightseeing anyway.

tokyo art
Street Art in the backstreets of Harajuku

On our first full day in Tokyo, we again tried to master the train system and again got a bit lost, but that's all part of the adventure! We headed to Harajuku, which sounded like a cool area to visit, reading our trusty Lonely Planet guide book. Harajuku is essentially a very hipster area, full of lots of different weird and wonderful shops, along with lots of big brands that have moved into the area. It's well known for streetwear and interesting fashion, and is notably written about in Gwen Stefan's song Harajuku Girls. Harajuku also has plenty of street art and great places to eat; particularly lots of places for sweet treats, crepes and ice cream. 

takeshita street
Takeshita Street

The Takeshita exit of the JR Harajuku Station takes you straight out onto Takeshita Street (I laughed), which is a great starting point to browse lots of shops and pick up souvenirs. The street leads out onto a main road and then beyond that, there is a small labyrinth of roads that are filled with streetwear and other cool shops. 

When we returned to Harajuku for a bit of shopping at the end of our honeymoon, we visited Cat Street, which has lots of bigger brand shops and particularly outdoor and skate brands, including Patagonia, Burton, DC, Columbia etc. I picked up an awesome Burton t-shirt with a Tokyo design on it.

tokyo old building
Thought this rundown building looked cool!

japan street art
Harajuku Street Art

harajuku shrine
Tōgō Shrine in Harajuku

Whilst working our way around Harajuku, we stumbled across the Tōgō Shrine, which was a nice little spot to wander around and have our first taste of Japanese history. We didn't get any photos of the main shrine itself as there was a wedding going on, so we kept out of the way and let them enjoy their special day. 

We decided to visit the Harry Harajuku Hedgehog Cafe, which is very close to the JR Harajuku Station. We were unsure about whether or not to visit, as I am very conscious of animal welfare. The hedgehogs seemed well looked after, although I'm not sure they really want to be manhandled quite so much on a daily basis! It was a fun experience and cost about JPY 3000 for the two of us to sit and play with the hedgehogs for 30-minutes and have a coffee, which was included in the price. 

hedgehog cafe tokyo japan
Emily with Harold II. Harold I was not so friendly.

After our time was up with the hedgehogs, we headed to the highly regarded Meiji Shrine. This is classed as being in Shibuya (a big and famous area next to Harajuku), however the main entrance is actually located directly outside of the JR Harajuku Station. The Meiji Shrine and grounds surrounding it were impressive, and despite there being a lot of people there, was a relatively relaxing place to wander around for an hour. 

sake barrels japan
Sake barrels at the Meiji Shrine

After an action packed first full day in Tokyo, we walked from our hotel to the busier area of Shinjuku to go to the Robot Restaurant. We had heard about this from a few different people and a visit here seemed to be an essential part of visiting Tokyo. The tickets were quite pricey at at JPY 8000 each, but we were told it was worth it. The show itself is in a small auditorium and is a carefully choregraphed and crazy show, featuring radio controlled carnival floats, dozens of performers and a sea of light and colour. The production value was huge - they definitely had not skimped on making it a 'full on' experience! It's hard to explain the craziness of the show, but there are plenty of videos online if you want to check it out.

Our friends Alyssia and Jon had been to Robot Restaurant a couple of years ago, for Jon's birthday. They didn't say what what the surprise would be, but to say that it was one of our birthdays. We did try and say at the ticket counter that it was in fact our honeymoon, but it was lost in translation a little bit. They did a big embarrassing announcement about it being my birthday and gave me a robot souvenir. It was hilarious!

robot restaurant photo
Emily outside the Robot Restaurant

robot restaurant tokyo
Robot Restaurant show

robot restaurant japan
Robot Restaurant carnival float

The next day we headed to Shibuya, which is synonymous with the Shibuya Crossing - supposedly the busiest road intersection in the World. Throughout the day, hundreds of people cross the road from all angles at the same time and it's quite an impressive spectacle. There is a Starbucks that overlooks the crossing - incidentally probably the only Starbucks in the World to only serve small drinks, as it's very popular and they want you in and out quickly. The Starbucks is a great place to watch the crossing - even better if you're lucky enough to grab a seat at the window.

Despite it pouring with rain all day, we enjoyed wandering around Shibuya, particularly Center-gai, which is a pedestrianized shopping area.

shibuya japan tokyo
Emily with a very Instagrammable building

Emily had heard about a Tokyo fad called Purikura, which is essentially a room filled with elaborate photo booths - you take your photo and you can then edit yourself to be the wide eyed, made up popstar you've always dreamed of. Check out the glamorous photos below!

purikura kawaii

purikura photo

After lunch we headed to Akihabara, also known as Electric Town. The area is well known as the 'geek district' where everything seems to evolve around all things gaming. It was cool to see all the buildings covered in gaming imagery and advertising and see all the different shops - even though I'm not a gamer myself. Well worth a visit for a couple of hours.

geek district japan

After staying in Shinjuku for two nights, it was time for us to move to an AirBnB in the 'Old Town' part of Tokyo, nearer Ueno. We had decided that it would be nice to stay in two separate places to explore more of the city. Although the AirBnB was great, in hindsight it was not necessary to move, as it is so easy to get around Tokyo with the trains being so efficient. 

Top of our list of things to do the 'Old Town' was to visit Ueno Park. This is well known for being very beautiful, and alongside being a lovely park to wander around and visit shrines and temples, is also home to several museums - which we did not visit. We spent a couple of hours wandering around the park, taking lots of photos and enjoying the beautifully colored trees. 

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Ueno Park

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A temple in Ueno Park

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A pagoda in Ueno Park

honeymoon in japan
A shrine in Ueno Park

japan pretty trees
Views from the top of a temple in Ueno Park

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Ueno Park 

A reasonably short walk from Ueno Park is the historic area of Yanaka, which is a very relaxing area to walk around and has many temples and shrines to visit. In the photo below, I enjoyed the contrast between the very old building, alongside the zebra crossing in the foreground.

yanaka japan tokyo

My boss Grahame and his pals James and Alan had booked the same awesome flight deal as us, and arrived in Tokyo three days later for a short trip. We arranged to meet them at the Park Hyatt Tokyo, where we enjoyed the incredible views of the Tokyo skyline from the 41st floor at the Peak of Joy bar, whilst making the most of the 'all you can drink' bar and tasting board. The food wasn't magnificent, but we did well with the drinks and the view and company were great. Later in the evening we heading further up the building to the New York bar, as seen in the movie Lost in Translation. The views were again amazing and we had some live jazz to set the mood nicely too! We later headed into Shinjuku for drinks, and a bizarre Michael Jackson themed bar and live show.

The next day Emily and I dragged ourselves out of bed with sore heads, to travel to Hakone to see Mt Fuji, which I'll write about in my next blog post.

peak of joy bar
Tokyo skyline from the Peak of Joy bar at the Park Hyatt Tokyo

After spending another two weeks traveling around Japan (which I'll write about in further blog posts), we returned to Tokyo for two days at the end of our honeymoon, to do some shopping and fly home. We visited Harajuku again, as we enjoyed it a lot the first time round and thought it was the ideal place to do some last minute shopping.

This time around, for our last night, we stayed in Kinshicho, which is much further out from the main action in Tokyo. We wanted to stay at the Moxy hotel there, which is a new brand of hotel by Marriott, which we had stayed in earlier in the year in Berlin and really enjoyed. The hotel was brand new, only opening five weeks before our stay. The hotel was spacious, modern and with a hipster vibe - and a quiet and ideal place to spend the last night of our honeymoon. It took the best part of an hour each way to get from there to Harajuku/Shibuya, which would have been a pain if we'd book there for all of our nights in Tokyo. 

moxy hotel
Moxy hotel Tokyo Kinshicho

Near the JR Kinschico Station is the Skytree Tower, which we're told has great views of the city. We decided we'd go up on our last morning, however unfortunately it was a very cloudy day, so we gave it a miss. On our last night we had a drink at the Skytree View Bar, located opposite and a couple of blocks away from the Skytree Tower. We had a cocktail each there and it was pleasant enough, although not as impressive or as luxurious as the Park Hyatt bars we had previously visited.

skytree tokyo japan
Cocktails at the Skytree View bar

I'll write some more posts soon about the rest of our honeymoon in Japan, including Mt. Fuji, Ito and the Izu Peninsula, Kyoto, Osaka, Nara and The Japan Alps. Thanks for reading!