A feature of our gap year has been the wide range of travel. There’s the flights of course, most on our round-the-world tickets, and others added, liked the ones in Australia, to reduce the domestic miles. But also: trains, ferries, hired vehicles, and long-distance buses.
For our journey from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, we went by bus – rather than flying – as we wanted to stop-off at the port city of Melaka. It was a drizzly 8am departure from Orchard Road and we crossed the Tuas border causeway about an hour later. For the three hour journey through Malaysia, sitting in the front seats upstairs, we had a perfect view of all the palm plantations.
So here are some thoughts about choosing the right mode of travel for any particular section of your gap year…..
To save time covering long distances there’s no alternative to additional flights. We used Expedia.com to find the cheapest options from north to south Chile, around Australia and to travel from Hong Kong to Bali. Remember, to check-in your baggage on these low-cost routes will often cost extra, but with both our backpacks well under 10kg, it wasn’t too bad.
The use of trains depends very much on the country. In China and Japan they are fast, incredibly efficient and great value for money; in Japan don’t forget to buy in advance the railway tourist pass. But most countries we travelled through, including incredibly the USA, simply didn’t have a railway system that’s fit for purpose.
Often luxury coaches rather than old-fashioned bone-shakers, buses are the best option in South America and much of south east Asia, especially if you want to get a feel of the landscape. Given limited seats on many routes, we found it best to book our bus out as soon as we arrived in any town.
Use hire cars when public transport is limited and there’s much to visit out of town. For instance, in the USA and Hawaii there really wasn’t any alternative to hiring a car. Explore one-way routings, check insurance issues carefully, make sure it includes collision damage waiver, and of course in Australia enjoy the camper van experience. But do recognise, the downside of all the convenience and mobility of a car is feeling cut off from the locals.
This is one of our occasional tips for middle aged gap year travellers. To see the others, click below on the link – Travel Tips
With its open spaces, and perfect infrastructure, Singapore is a pleasure to walk around. We spotted August Rodin’s The Thinker at the OUE Bayfront building by Marina Bay.
Whilst some cities are getting into problems with statues of their heroic or dubious past (dependent on your world-view), here in Singapore it’s all about fresh contemporary images. Below are a few examples of the public art we enjoyed.
With Singapore positioned as a Garden City, it’s entirely fitting that a whole swathe of the reclaimed land beyond Marina Bay became the Gardens by the Bay.
Opened in 2012, it’s the number 1 tourist attraction in Singapore and deservedly so. Gardens by the Bay is a showpiece of horticulture and garden artistry, presenting worldwide plants in both an educating and entertaining way. Key features are two massive glass conservatories (so much larger than the ones at Britain’s Eden Project), displaying plants from cloud forests and mediterranean regions, and the collection of 18 iconic Supertrees.
Designed by landscape architects from Bath (England), these steel framed structures covered in vertical gardens of tropical plants with lots of added environmental features, are up to 16 stories high and strangely ethereal and captivating.
And at dusk the Supertrees turn into a wonderland of lights and moods that ‘perform’ to music, in our case a medley of golden oldies themed around the ‘moon’. They are a fantastic creative achievement and a must see.
If you plan to do this Allow a good few hours to fully enjoy the Flower and Cloud Forest Domes. And be sure to see the evening Supertrees light show. We found the best view was from the raised bank on the east side of the Supertrees Grove – this gets you away from the noisy crowds, and enables you to see the top of the Supertrees without getting neck ache.
We would definitely put Singapore into our top three city experiences of the gap year, alongside Vancouver and Sydney. After an incredible programme of land reclamation and development, the compulsory stop-on-the-route-to-Australia is now a city destination in its own right, with some of the world’s most distinctive attractions.
The Gardens by the Bay with its Supertrees (see our next blog) and the Marina Bay Sands Hotel (the building on the left in the photo above) have simply rebranded the city, giving it a new visual language for the Instagram age, and as tourists it’s initially hard to see beyond them.
But we were also interested to explore an earlier Singapore, the city of Raffles, the Japanese invasion and the birth in 1965 of an independent country. So we spent time walking up the Singapore River, through Fort Canning Park and loved the National Museum.
Singapore is without question a clean and green city, a clear reflection of an efficient, orderly and wealthy society. It has come on a ton since Hilary was here in 1987, when the river stank, there were still rows of squalid Chinese shanty houses and lots of spitting in the streets.
We’re glad to say, our flight out of Bali to Singapore wasn’t delayed by the volcano.
It was time to leave Bali, but we boarded the plane feeling we had only scratched the surface of Indonesia. The impression we have is that the real beauty and spirit of the country lies beyond Java and Bali, across the seas to the other 13000 islands. After all, it’s a country with hundreds of distinct ethnic groups, 700 spoken languages, the 4th largest population in the world and the 14th largest land mass.
So, with its wonderfully friendly people, who laugh a lot and don’t take themselves too seriously, and incredible good value, it’s somewhere we might well return to. But, next time we’ll have to give ourselves weeks and weeks to do it justice, to island hop at will, to immerse ourselves in local communities and to trek into the wild countryside.
In short, we’d like to see more of the fishermen who take their boats out each morning across picture-perfect isolated islands, and less of the traders who sell motorbike parts and brooms in the polluted noisy streets.
But how lucky we are to come here at all. We got to see wonderful Borobudur, travelled across Java by train, and saw the sunset from Bali. Wonderful memories.
This gap year constantly reminds us that to understand the world today you need to appreciate the depth of faith in so many people’s lives. Sometimes the religious sights are uplifting (think Italian churches), sometimes emotional (women crying at a service in Quito) and sometimes disturbing (the very wealthy new churches going up all over the southern USA states).
But in largely Hindu Bali we perhaps saw the strangest, yet in some ways the sweetest, sight – the daily cabangsari offering.
This is a small palm-leaf basket with an assortment of gifts for the Gods. Every morning, right across the island, they are left outside most shops, businesses and restaurants. We saw women with trays of them going from street to street dispensing these, no doubt to order.
The funny thing is many of the trays included hand-rolled cigarettes. Also by the end of the day, their job done, the cabangsari get trodden upon or driven over, making a complete mess of the pavement.
Muslims view dogs as inherently dirty and do not keep them as pets. So, there were very few dogs at all on Java, a Muslim majority island, and no stray dogs, which have presumably found it impossible to survive.
Bali, because it is largely Hindu, is the total opposite, with lots of stray dogs everywhere. These dogs look like they have lots of fleas (judging from their scratching) and are in a mangy condition. They were a constant hazard on the roads, since they would just run out into traffic, and we saw one accident within a day of arriving. They are also a big irritation on the beaches.
In respect of dogs, Bali therefore reminded us of South America. All countries should perhaps develop a policy for dealing with strays, since this problem will just get worse as populations rise.
As the photo above shows, we also saw a group of big huskies being walked along Echo Beach at 7am. They looked very hot, panting already in the tropical climate. When they are bred for snow, why would anyone think it’s a good idea to bring huskies to Bali?
On our second day with the scooter we headed up the coast. After a 25km journey of sensual overload, we reached a different world; of black sparkling sand (think best kitchen granite) secret coves, windswept palm trees and locals fishing.
It was the perfect place to walk and talk, we touched on aspects of Indonesian society, which Hilary had been reading about in the book “Indonesia etc” by Elizabeth Pisani, as well as all our plans when we get home.
Spontaneously, we splashed out on lunch at the palatial uber stylish Soori resort nestled away in the palm trees. We stood out as the only Europeans in the restaurant amongst young, graceful Korean and Chinese couples, who obviously have a lot more money than a couple of Brits travelling around the world.
An ideal stop on the way back was the Tanah Lot Hindu temple. Built in the 16th century, this is one of seven sea temples around the Balinese coast, each established within eyesight of the next to form a chain along the south-western coast. It was fun to watch the tourists take selfies, whilst getting soaked by the waves.
Then it was back to “the junction of death”. Hilary executed the nerve-racking right turn, squeezing through the other scooters, and we were safely back in our hotel.
After a couple of days in Canggu, we were ready to see more of Bali. Despite concerns about road safety, we decided to hire a motorised scooter for £4/day – this has to be the bargain of the year.
After a two minute lesson on the controls, Hilary set off with Roger holding on behind, doing the navigation. As we sped along, it was like one of those DVLA Hazard Tests. Everywhere wayward chickens, stalking dogs, kamikaze pedestrians, sudden potholes and hundreds of other scooter drivers who were happy to drive on both sides of the road. At a crossroads your bloggers nicknamed “the junction of death”, we narrowly avoided both a woman scooter rider with dozens of egg trays on the back and a man with carpets, rolls of long grass and everything but the kitchen sink on board his scooter. Despite the risks it was great fun and our senses were bombarded with colour and sounds!
It was a round trip of 90km to the UNESCO World Heritage Jatiluwih rice terraces and back. Originally built in the 9th century, these terraces have provided the staple diet for generations of Balinese. The communal irrigation still works brilliantly, though sadly we spotted some barren terraces, no doubt youngsters deciding it’s vastly more profitable (and easier) to be driving tourists around, than doing back-breaking work in the sweltering sun.
The journey there had been hot and noisy, but at last we found an oasis of calm and green beauty. A rarity in this crowded island of 4.2m people.
Our base on the west coast of Bali, about an hour’s drive north of the main resorts, is more Costa Rica than the south of France. And we like it that way.
There’s a hippy-like charm to the beaches. Surfers wait patiently for their next wave, beautiful millennials assume yoga positions, and met-last-month couples smile hand-in-hand. Australian expats are up the earliest, walking along the shoreline past the spaces cleared for the next stage of “touristisation”, probably wishing time would stand still.
With boutique shops and beauty salons lining the road down to the beach, this isn’t the place to escape the pace of change. But where is today?
But change brings facilities and fun people, and to chill out we both joined a 90 minute intense yoga session, our presence raising the average age by some 10 years. Hilary looked great throughout with brilliant posture. Roger wasn’t quite so supple. So, to his list of post gap year actions, he’s added joining a class.