Even though I am currently battling flu, I woke up this morning to learn that Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing has mysteriously vanished over the Gulf of Thailand, not far off the coast of Vietnam. This was a flight operated by the very reliable Boeing 777-200 aircraft (specific registration 9M-MRO, which actually suffered some supposedly incidental wing damage at Shanghai last year – see photo further down). Until the fate of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 last July, which crash-landed at San Francisco killing a mercifully small number of people on board, the B777 had an unblemished record. An international search operation is continuing in the days to come to locate the wreckage and scout for the unlikely presence of survivors.
The Gulf of Thailand and the nearby South China Sea can get very choppy with all the tropical storms around, and this can cause turbulence for planes overhead. I once flew on Singapore Airlines from Singapore to Tokyo and most of the flight was heavy turbulence with the seatbelt turned on the whole way. It was not an enjoyable flight by any means, but at least I lived to tell the tale. The passengers of Flight MH370 are not going to be so lucky.
Before I go any further, I want to mention that The Straits Times in Singapore has by far the best information on the whole issue and is a great resource to use to learn more about recent developments.
What startles me is that the plane initially went missing at around 02.40 local time, yet the search did not begin until around 6 hours later. The arrivals board at Beijing Capital Airport simply listed MH370 as “delayed” for several hours. It seems a very slow response from the authorities, although now Malaysia Airlines on their Facebook page supposedly 80% of the families to those on board have been notified of the planes apparent disappearance. However, as I expected, many media outlets are criticising the slow response from MH.
Here is the official statement from Malaysia Airlines.
There were reports soon after the plane was declared missing that it had landed safely at Nanning Airport in China, but this has not been confirmed and I am pretty sure it was a red herring. A plane the size of a B777-200 that has been missing for over 12 hours, flying over a busy shipping lane, and carrying 239 passengers on board – including two infants – does not just secretly land somewhere and then not tell anybody about it afterwards. Even if it was a terrorist/hostage situation, the hostage-takers would still need to make their demands at some point, at which point their location would have long since been revealed.
Alas, it seems Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 has been lost to the sea, with hundreds of fatalities. I hope I am wrong, but the plane has long since run out of fuel so it cannot be still in the air, so it is either in the sea or on land somewhere. Unfortunately, the former is much more likely. There have also been reports that a Vietnamese Navy Admiral claimed he had been notified of wreckage being found off the coast of Vietnam, however he later retracted his statement. I find it unlikely to suggest pilot suicide as the pilot in question was a trusted and respected Malaysia Airlines veteran who has been working for the airline since 1981, so this is something I cannot contemplate at this juncture. The only other options were terrorism or a fatal structural problem with the aircraft itself, as MH370 was flying in good weather conditions at the time, with no reports of storm or moderate turbulence.
Less than 18 hours since the plane went missing, there are now reports coming from the US Embassy in Taiwan who had picked up an SOS call from MH370 who were complaining of “disintegration of fuselage” and requesting a place to land. Quite why the US Embassy picked up this distress call and nobody else did is a mystery to me, but at this juncture it does seem like something went wrong with the plane.
Until we retrieve the Flight Data Recorder and Cockpit Voice Recorder, I fear we can only speculate about what happened to the poor souls onboard MH370. We need to understand that if the FDR and CVR carried on recording until the point of impact, then it would indicate a gradual decline in the aircraft caused by such factors as technical problems or bad weather (or possibly eventual pilot error like with Air France Flight 447 in 2009). If, however, the FDR and CVR had a sudden loss of data then it would imply that a catastrophic explosion occurred in the air, and whilst this is clearly all speculation at this point, I would not rule out terrorism.
There is additionally the mystery of why the passports of an Italian and an Austrian passenger were used to let someone else board the plane. Those passport holders are safe and sound, and they did not board the plane. They have long since reported their passports stolen, and it is clear that someone (presumed innocent until proven guilty) has been trying to get to Beijing with fake identity. But then that asks us another question: were they actually trying to get to Beijing, or was it their intention to blow up the plane mid-flight? After the horror of the Kunming Massacre only days before the demise of MH370, it is clear that terrorism is now a real threat for Chinese nationals, both at home and abroad.
For more information on the ongoing search, please keep up to date with BBC NEWS.
Beijing was one of those places that touched me. The friendly Chinese people and the amazing cultural attractions were the main draws. It is certainly my favourite Chinese city that I have been to, although I can understand why Shanghai or Chengdu may be top of the list for some other people. For me, though, Beijing has so many things to do in and around city limits (even the Great Wall of China is only 45 mins from downtown), that I could easily spend a few weeks here and still not run out of things to do.
One of the best places to visit in Beijing is The Temple of Heaven – China’s most famous ancient sacrificial building. This is located at Tiantan Park and be accessed by riding Subway Line 5 to Tiantan Dongmen Station and leave the station at Exit A. From here you will be at the East Gate of the site. Entrance fees are currently 15CNY for a basic admission ticket, or 35CNY for a bulk ticket which gives you effectively an ‘access all areas’ pass of the complex, including the famous highlight of the temple which is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (please know that this Hall cannot be accessed with just a basic ticket). There are also plenty of water fountains and rose gardens around here, although these are best enjoyed in the spring and summer months.
I entered the Temple of Heaven through the East Heaven Gate, and saw many locals sitting around playing card games. It was tempting to watch them, but I wanted to explore the temple further. From my entry point to the south there is the Circular Mound Altar. Further ahead (heading straight on from the gate) there is the Palace of Abstinence. Yet it is northwards from here where the true beauty of this complex lies: The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. This is one of the most famous icons of Beijing, and can be found all over the internet and on many postcards of the city. It is almost as synonymous with Beijing as the Great Wall itself.
The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is a three-tiered building where the Emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties used to come and pray for good weather and a prosperous harvest season, at a time when crops where very important to the economy of this area of China. Before this ceremonial process could be initiated, the Emperor would fast in the nearby Palace of Abstinence beforehand. The Circular Mound Altar in the southern parts of the complex were literally the place where the Emperors of old would sacrifice themselves to Heaven on Winter Solstice each year.
The Temple of Heaven really was one of my favourite places not only in Beijing, but in all of China. Unlike the Forbidden City, which left me disappointed, the Temple of Heaven left me craving more, and I must have spent a good few hours around here in the freezing cold sub-zero temperatures taking photographs and otherwise just soaking up the atmosphere and learning a bit about Chinese history. It is certainly one of the places I would recommend you go and visit during your stay in Beijing, and I would actually recommend that you prioritise it over a sortie to the Great Wall!
For more information on the Temple of Heaven, with more focus on the whole site as opposed to the areas on which I focussed, check out this blog from Olivia Sydow.
Dubai may very well be one of the ultimate destinations in the world, with its fancy shopping malls, luxury hotels, and impressive skyscrapers. However, for the backpacker or budget traveller there really is no incentive to come here, as the emirate does not cater to those kind of travellers with no money. In fact, none of the so-called Gulf States have any kind of backpacking culture whatsoever. It’s as if we are simply an irrelevance and a bit of an embarrassment to the masses of rich tourists hanging out in the Dubai Mall showing off their new Gucci handbags.
I have been to Dubai many times, whilst Abu Dhabi and Doha in Qatar I have visited on just the one occasion. And I really like those cities, especially Dubai. It has an incredible amount of free beaches, with great warm water, and amazing Arabian sunsets. There are also nice restaurants and great shopping facilities, all complemented by the warm hospitality of the local Emiratis. However, it’s the accommodation options in this part of the world – especially in Dubai – that I find somewhat irksome.
I have never seen a suitable 3* hotel in Dubai for less than £70 per night. Usually the so-called “budget” accommodation in Dubai is centred around Bur Dubai, such as on Al Rigga Road, or at the Dubai Creek. Yet many of these accommodations are unsafe and decrepit, which would certainly not entice me to stay there, and I doubt many of you either.
The brochures and videos (like the one I have embedded below from Dubai’s flagship airline Emirates) make Dubai look like such a nice destination with so much to offer. And it is. And it does. However, without any money to enjoy the kind of facilities around these parts, it is hardly worth leaving the airport.
For my 100th blog post I thought I would write another entry for my Foodporn series, which has thus far studied the most popular foods from within the cuisines of Thailand, Korea, the Arab World, Indonesia, and India (you can check them all out HERE). Now, I am going to focus on some elements of Chinese food, specifically from the south-eastern regions of Guangdong province (i.e. Guangzhou and Shenzhen), and Hong Kong!
There are Four Great Traditions of Chinese cuisine, and these incorporate the following regions: Cantonese, Huaiyang, Shandong, and Sichuan. Furthermore, there is an extended Chinese culinary family involving the above, plus four additional cuisines from Hunan, Anhui, Jiangsu, and Fujian. And I haven’t even mentioned the Imperial Cuisine from Beijing yet (i.e. the legendary Peking Duck)!
In this article, I am going to list some of the most popular – and some of the weirdest – dishes from Cantonese cuisine, as this is the area of China that interests me the most and the area in which I have travelled most. Additionally, Cantonese cuisine is the most popular and most acknowledged variety of Chinese food the world over! You will see below some popular dishes and delectable delicacies from this vastly misunderstood cuisine.
Zaa Leung is a popular breakfast in Cantonese cuisine, and is basically rice noodle roll wrapped around a fried dough called You Tiao. The fried dough can of course be eaten as a snack on its own. Zaa Leung, however, is usually consumed with congee and soy milk.
Dim Sum is the immensely popular Cantonese snack that is served as light bites in circular bamboo baskets. These baskets give a very distinctive appearance, and the contents of dim sum can be almost endless. In western cuisine, dim sum could be compared to eating ready-made snacks from a trolley (i.e. on board a train or plane) or in a sandwich bar. I have had dumpling and lotus leaf rice variations of dim sum this week alone, so the tradition has now spread across the world. Sea cucumbers are known to have positive effects on health and as such are served in Cantonese cuisine as delicacies, especially in side dishes before or in between meals.
Frog’s legs as food originated in France, but in true Cantonese style they are served with lotus leaves over here. The so-called Edible Frog is used for these dishes, and the taste is said to be very similar to chicken.
Char Siu is basically barbecued pork which is specially prepared and then skewered over an open fire. It can then be served with rice and vegetables. It is a staple dish in the Cantonese household. Pig’s Tongue can be used in much the same way, but it has a much chewier texture, and does not require such elongated cooking methods. Bao Yu is abalone, and the seafood product produced from within the abalone’s adductor muscle. This product in its dry form is a very expensive ingredient in Cantonese cuisine, although very rarely eaten fresh in regular Chinese households; rather it is rehydrated from a packaged wholesale variation and then eaten accordingly. I have never tried Bao Yu, and I still don’t really understand what it is! Any help?
Soups are also very popular in Cantonese cuisine. Two of the most popular are Wonton Noodle Soup (Wonton Mee) and Snow Fungus Soup, which is a sweet dish that is actually completely tasteless, and the fungus itself is merely used to add texture to the other ingredients.
One of the most controversial delicacies in the world is actually Shark Fin Soup. There is a lot of debate as to whether sharks should be killed for age-old Chinese culinary traditions. Some parts of the world have actively banned the sale of shark fins, and nowadays even in China there is less people eating the once popular delicacy. However, it is seen as a sign of economic prosperity and the upper classes still consume the soup in fancy restaurants and high-end hotels. I have never tried Shark Fin Soup myself, but I am told that the actual fin itself is tasteless and is instead used for adding texture to the soup. The fact that the fin is tasteless surely raises more questions as to the legitimacy of eating such things?
I find it very interesting that Bird’s Nest Soup sells for an absolute King’s Ransom (I have seen them selling for up to around £700 per bowl) which is quite astonishing considering it has quite simple ingredients! Edible bird’s nests are in high demand at the moment, with Thailand in particular providing a lot of breeding grounds for getting these bird’s nests on to the market. Not all bird’s nests are sold as soups; some can be sold simply packaged as a nest in itself readily available for home usage.
N.B. All Bird’s Nest Soup photos were sourced from Wikipedia
According to Hmong legend, Gods came down from the sky one day and began using these jars at Phonsavan to drink rice whiskey. Then, when all was said and done, and presumably a merry time was had by all, the Gods went back up the Heavens but forgot their drinking jars. Thus, the Plain of Jars was created. I am not sure I believe this legend, but it has a certain mystical romance to it, doesn’t it?
As I was pressed for time during my entire trip to Laos, my adventure to Phonsavan was primarily to witness the Plain of Jars and to tick it off the bucket list. As such, many of the old war museums and exhibitions, as well as the famous copper mines, had to remain unnoticed by me. I cannot comment much about those attractions here, but for more information on the other stuff to do in the Phonsavan area you should check out this following blog from THP Travels. Nevertheless, I arrived in Phonsavan after a private minibus journey from my hostel in Luang Prabang. This journey took around 7 hours, although surprisingly I slept for a lot of the journey (and missed, alas, lots of the spectacular scenery).
Once you are actually at the Plain of Jars, which is itself a little way outside of Phonsavan town, you can begin to get an impression of the scale of the site. Nobody really knows how these giant ‘jars’ came to be and their origin is completely unknown. There are a lot of landmines in this part of Laos and you should be very careful of where you tread. However, clearly marked walkways give you a guide as to where to lay your feet and these areas are completely safe. That said, over 60 people each year die from landmine explosions, although it is unclear how many – if any – of these are tourists.
There were some interesting caves in the area, too. They were used in what was termed ‘The Secret War’ in Laos. I can recall great caves in Luang Prabang as well, on the banks of the Mekong. Laos is fast becoming a country with great cave-exploring opportunities, it seems!
One of the final things I did in Phonsavan was take a look at the market. Although I was perusing in the afternoon, I think the market had been in full swing since the crack of dawn, yet the supplies remained very well replenished. Lots of chilies were on sale, and many dead animals such as birds and rats, which I imagine would be taken home and cooked by the locals for their family dinners. I didn’t buy anything here, although it was still interesting to walk around and soak up the atmosphere.
For more great information on Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars, this blog from The Plucky Pixie will provide you will everything you need to know, including some amazing photos!
There were parts of the Imperial Palace that I was not able to visit, but the free tour that I took last year was among the highlights of my time in this part of Tokyo. It is even today the main residence of the Emperor of Japan, much like Buckingham Palace in London is home to Queen Elizabeth II. In the 1980s, the Imperial Palace had a real estate value superior to that of everything in the entire state of California!
There is a moat all around the palace, and two bridges connect the outer side where you can begin your journey to the inner grounds of the palace. However, you are usually only able to visit the inner grounds on select days of the year. Otherwise this area remains off-limits to the general public at all other times. The Imperial Palace East Gardens are the parts of the compound open to all visitors throughout the year.
The architecture on display was amazing, and truly fitting for Emperors.
In the spring, these palace grounds are awash with bright colours, but even on darker days in the winter, there is still a lot of peace to be found from walking around the gardens. There are remnants of old castles and forts, which were once destroyed and were never attempted to have been rebuilt since. I walked up one of these old towers myself and although it is not very high, I still enjoyed the view and wondered about what it was like when it stood tall and grand back in the Edo period.
I very much enjoyed the Ninomaru Gardens. It seems all gardens in Japan are intricately manicured and the presentation of these gardens are usually always excellent. The Ninomaru Gardens are found in the second circle of the Palace and lie in the area where the most important parts of the palace once stood. There are lots of little huts and small buildings where you can take photos and perhaps shelter from the elements.
I did not spend very long in Laos, only for a few days in Luang Prabang, and then an additional overnight trip to the mystic Plain of Jars at Phonsavan, but the time I did spend in this sleepy and tranquil country will stay with me forever.
Luang Prabang is situated at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers in northern Laos, around 300km from the capital Vientiane. The population of the city is apparently just 50,000. The whole of Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and until the Communist takeover in the 197os, it was the seat of the Lao Royal family. Although Luang Prabang is dotted with many Buddhist sites, it is always nice to look at some of the regular buildings around town, including in the simple village life that ordinary Laotians live.
I really like the Mekong River, it is probably my favourite river in Asia (is that a little geeky to have a favourite river?). I liked to stand beside it and imagine what it must be like to listen to the raging waters during monsoon season, for unfortunately flooding from the Mekong is a very real problem for villagers here. Very near to the Mekong is the Pak Ou Caves, which are noted for their miniature Buddhist sculptures. These caves are located nearly a two hour longboat ride upstream from Luang Prabang, and can get very busy as they are a favourite haunt of backpackers in the area (though thankfully not so much as at Vang Vieng).
For me, one of the ultimate things to do in Luang Prabang was to climb the modest Mount Phousi, which sits literally in the middle of town, and offers amazing views of its surroundings. Flanked either side by the rivers of Nam Khan and the Mekong, Mount Phousi also has many Buddhist shrines and wats, which I did not get the time to admire regrettably. However, at the foot of the hill, I was lucky enough to see some traditional Lao Buddhist monks collecting alms, which makes a great postcard!
One thing I was not aware of when I came to Luang Prabang was the Haw Kham Royal Palace Museum. I was actually advised to come here by a friend who I met at my hostel in town. It was nice to spend an hour walking around the lovely gardens of the Royal Palace. It reminded me very much of the Grand Palace in Bangkok, but a little greener – and certainly not so frenetic! There are many statues of old Lao Kings here, and the Throne Room contains the crown jewels of Laos.
I plan to blog separately about other attractions in Luang Prabang, and I have already written of my love for Wat Xieng Thong, and its marvellous architecture. It was a great place to spend some time, and I think I was there for a good few hours (much longer than I had anticipated). The Kuang Si Falls were mesmerising, and I wish I had hopped in for a dip. They were certainly very photogenic, although I must advise people that I had lots of mosquitoes chasing me in the area, and with the worries of Dengue Fever, it concerned me so I didn’t stay for long.
For some beautiful photos from the Kuang Si Falls and some more information, check out this blog from The Traveluster.
Next to these falls is the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre. I am unsure of my opinion of this Bear Sanctuary; on the one hand I want to believe they are doing some good when they claim that 100% of the admission fee (I paid 30,000 Lao Kip for the falls and bear centre combined) goes to the upkeep of the bears in captivity; yet in reality, I actually worry at the condition of the bears and think that perhaps more can be done to help them rather than keep for tourist purposes. This is probably down to my scepticism of these kinds of tourist attractions in this part of the world (i.e. the Tiger Temple in Bangkok). However, many people have provided me with feedback that their visit to the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre was actually a very positive experience and they cannot see any evidence of mistreatment of the bears.
Thank you for reading. I hope you get to visit Luang Prabang soon. If you have already been to the sleepy town, what were your impressions? Please let me know in the comments below!