I’m back in England thinking about where to go next! China has a strong calling and a return visit to Hong Kong possibly.
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Schipol Airport, Amsterdam, Netherlands: Its been a very long day having left Kathmandu about 16 hours ago flying home to Norwich England via 2 airports. The sun sets across continental Europe as we board the bus transporting passengers bound for Norwich to the remotely parked aircraft. Its a KLM City Hopper Embraer 195, a relatively small plane seating about 50 passengers and used extensively on the short city routes such aa this 35 minute hop across the north sea to Norwich. Yes, soon I shall be home, exhausted but relieved to be sleeping in my own bed for the first time in 7 months.
Nothing to see from the windows on this flight because its almost dark, after being delayed on the ramp for about 20 minutes – waiting for the co-pilot to turn up apparently! And so that draws to a conclusion my travels for 2018. Over the next few days I’ll reflect on the highs and lows, the good, bad and the ugly aspects of traveling across Hong Kong, Japan, Nepal, Malaysia, and Singapore.
Istanbul, Turkey, July 2018: In a couple of hours flight number 3, but first we have to navigate Istanbul Airports international terminal which can best be described as organised chaos! The place is clearly to small for the number of passengers here on this Friday afternoon. Big queues at the transit security check but at least its moving -about 30 minutes here, in a slow shuffle towards the screening belt and metal detector booth. Once through the formalities one is free to roam around the place and figure out directions to the next departure gate and Turkish Airlines flight 1953. Regular flyers to Istanbul may be pleased to know that a new airport will open in October, theoretically making the Istanbul transit a somewhat more pleasant experience, but for now one will just have to suffer with the congestion – in the terminal and on the tarmac.
Sector 3 is just a short flight, about 2 hours and 50 minutes to Amsterdam. The aircraft slowly inches towards the runway joining the long Friday afternoon departures queue – 40 minutes before the plane actually reaches the number one spot for take off. So, as this penultimate flight to Norwich England lifts off Ataturk’s runway seventeen left, one gets the sense that in a few hours trip 2018 will really all be over.
Sadly solid cloud cover prevents any good photos of the Central European landscape as the plane sets course for Amsterdam’s Schipol airport, so lets just eat delicious pasta, take a nap and wake up near our destination in about 2 hours.
Passing around the Northern tip of Amsterdam, a city easily recognisable from its plethora of canals and waterways, and of course windmills. So, as the aircraft twists and turns its way onto the final approach here’s the view from a left side window seat.
The last sector, a short 35 minute hop across the North sea in about 2 hours. For now we leave Turkish Airlines for this trip and transfer to KLM for the flight to Norwich and home! Yes, after leaving Kathmandu about 13 hours ago, the end is almost upon us. First grab my boarding pass from the self -check-in kiosk then its another round of security checks. No queuing this time since I’m the only one present in the giant security hall! I’ve traveled through Schipol plenty of times over the years and its always been a pleasurable experience. Quick and easy formalities every time, plenty to eat from a huge choice of foods and of course good coffee – but its not cheap. However, they will take credit cards so one can forget about the cost. for a month at least.
Kathmandu, Nepal July 2018: Tribhuvan International Airport, Kathmandu is definitely old school – queuing for a boarding pass is mandatory and the queues are long. No automated check-in kiosks, no pre-printed boarding passes accepted here and with around 270 passengers each taking up to 6 minutes to process its a very long wait for those of us near the back!
If one is to get ahead of the queues, arrive at the airport around 4 AM and camp out at the door since the place is closed until around 5.30 AM. I arrived at 5.15 AM, the airport was closed and I was pretty much back of the queue! Right now its hard to see how my Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul will depart on schedule at 7.35 AM.
Well, its taken 90 minutes to get to the check-in desk and obtain my boarding pass, lets hope the immigration and security process is much quicker! Yes, the immigration line for foreigners is empty, i’m through in 2 minutes with a polite nod and a smile to the officer. Equally, the security line is pretty empty too, and another 5 minutes for the necessary bag scan and body frisk gets one into departure hall with just enough time to grab a 300 NRP cup of coffee before boarding the Turkish Airlines A330 to Istanbul.
Its a full flight today, something I didn’t expect with Nepal being in the grips of the rainy season. Perhaps this is the week all those brave rainy season trekkers chose to leave today! Climbing out of the airport and those sitting on the right by a window get to see a pretty good view of the city as the plane circles to gain altitude before setting course to Istanbul. A 7 hour flight over northern Pakistan, central Afghanistan, Iran and on into Turkish airspace. So, as we say good bye to Nepal for another season, here’s a final look at the Kathmandu and the Himalayas from seat 32K as the plane climbs to 38,000 feet.
So, what’s it like flying Turkish Airlines in economy class? well, in short, same as any other economy class cabin. Similar seat space, if one is unlucky enough to have an obese seat mate then rubbing shoulders isn’t uncommon! The in-flight entertainment system is pretty average with the same American movies and comedy shows popping up here as they do on the Middle Eastern carriers. Unfortunately the earphones supplied only work in one ear – a technical hitch! This is my fourth sector with Turkish though and what sets them apart from other economy class cabins is their food menu’s. Food offerings are consistently tasty and appealing, especially when one hasn’t eaten since last night! Today is no exception and breakfast on Turkish Airlines from Kathmandu consists of –
About 2 hours from Istanbul now and its time to eat again! yes, just a snack this time but quite a substantial few mouthfuls, and the coffee’s good too – a different brand of Nescafe than i’m used to, or perhaps its my imagination! Unlike the appalling offerings from Etihad last year, this snack is something I’m already looking forward to.
So as this flight closes in on our destination of Istanbul, time to pack up the laptop, check passport and onward boarding pass in preparation for sector 3 to Amsterdam and snap some photo’s as the plane appears to be meandering around the eastern edge of Istanbul. giving one a fabulous aerial tour of the area.
In a couple of hours, sector 3 will take flight…hopefully!
Kathmandu, Nepal, July 2018: Today begins the flight home – Nepal to Norwich, 4 sectors across 2 days with a night stop in Kathmandu. I’m sitting on the roof of the small passenger terminal here in Pokhara watching the clouds roll in and the drizzle turning to steady rain. If the clouds get any lower than this then flight’s will get cancelled, I’ll miss my connection to Europe in the morning costing me the price of another air ticket out of Kathmandu! Yes, flying around Nepal in the rainy season is not without its risks. I’m waiting for a Buddha Air flight to Kathmandu, the information screen indicates ‘Delayed’! Backup plan is to ditch the flying and take the overnight bus which should just about get me to the check-in desk at Tribhuvan International Airport by 5AM.
1 flight cancelled, another waiting on the ramp for the rain to ease, but thankfully routes to Kathmandu are operating more or less as normal with one exception, my flight Buddha flight 606, but it’s on the way according to Mr. Airline representative. So, with little else to do but keep a listen out for boarding call, lets grab some expensive coffee and take some photo’s.
At last, Buddha 606 has arrived and will shortly leave again, with me on board. The rain has stopped, even some chinks of blue to be seen, easing ones anxieties of either that 10 hours of bumping along the Prithivi Highway or having to buy a whole new set of air tickets. As the flight is called, passengers slowly drift towards the plane, stopping for selfies much to the annoyance of the police. Its a new ATR72, clean and with reasonably good visual quality out of the windows – no mountain views today though, still too cloudy. A 25 minute flight between clouds, no drinks, no snacks even – Buddha have nothing to offer its passengers. Rival carrier Yeti will offer water, squash and a packet of snacks!
The scene here at the baggage pick-up building can be described at best as organised chaos as hundreds of passengers jostle for space at the small table while officials insist on matching up baggage tags. Since I’m in no hurry the thing to do is wait until the dust settles and hopefully my bags will still be awaiting collection!
So, having made it from Pokhara to Kathmandu in one piece. time to find the hotel and some lunch. While most foreigners arriving here head straight for the tourist ghetto of Thamel, I’m heading to the OYO Baltic hotel, found on Booking.com and situated just across from the airport. £10 for a pretty nice room and with air-conditioning, fast wifi and a flat screen TV – I’d say, bargain of the day for an airport hotel.
And so with a few hours to kill before night fall, i’m going to grab some aloo paratha, a cup of milk tea then hop on a bus towards the end of the runway for a little airplane sightseeing. I’m looking for a shopping centre somewhere close to the end of the runway and from there one should have a scenic view across the airport and beyond. Yes, after searching for a while, there is a complex of sorts extending up about 3 or 4 floors. the views from there are pretty good I have to say…
And here’s a few of the planes arriving and departing Kathmandu airport…
Pokhara, Nepal, June 2018: Mountain flying is a popular activity from here in Pokhara. Every morning there’s a trail of small planes to be seen heading over the lake, up past Sarangkot and on into the Annapurna Himalayan range. Every few yards in Lakeside there’s an advert for mountain flights by ultralight aircraft. Flying small ultra-light planes is pretty exhilarating at the best of times but to be hanging from what is essentially a cloth wing with nothing but jagged mountains underneath, well, lets just say its not for the faint of heart! Since today is one of those rare cloudless days and I’m definitely not faint of heart, lets take to the skies and forge a close friendship with the Himalayan mountains.
I’m not one for hanging out in the freezing cold slipstream of a propeller while being precariously attached to a cloth wing, no not at all. Thankfully, the Avia Club Nepal have a normal plane, one with an enclosed cabin with the wing firmly attached above, giving one a better sense of security at least. Theses are the kind of planes I’m used to flying and although they may look flimsy to the onlooker, they really are quite solid planes. So, lets climb in, start up and off we go!
So as we meander between the peaks and canyons, lets enjoy the magic of the mountains, the Himalayan mountains of the Annapurna range.
Its not a cheap experience by any means, but its probably one of those once in a lifetime activities. Best time to take these flights is early in the morning when the air is at its clearest between October and January. Since clear weather is unpredictable around here, I’d wait for the morning of a planned trip and if its clear head straight for the airport where there are booking offices for various flights with about 3 companies. Booking with one of the travel counters in Lakeside requires payment the previous day and if the morning of your flight is cloudy but still flyable you won’t see any mountains and might struggle to get a refund if you cancel! These flights cost in the region of £250-£260 and last for about an hour and don’t forget to take a camera! More about mountain flying here…
Kuala Lumpur, June 2018: Time to say good bye to Johor Bahru and head over to Senai Airport for the late afternoon flight to Kuala Lumpur. A night stop there before a flight to Kathmandu and hopefully a flight to Pokhara but with just 35 minutes from landing, applying for the visa then queuing for the passport stamp, making that Pokhara connection will be pretty tight to say the least – if luck is on my side, the Kathmandu flight will arrive early and the Pokhara flight will depart late!
Here’s a few snaps from the airport bus as it travels the motorways north to Senai. A very rustic scene harking back to old Malaysia where dwellings consisted of wood and tin surrounded by jungles…
Senai Airport is a local regional airport with most flights being on domestic routes. A small terminal with about a dozen departure gates, so the usual advice of turn up 3 hours before departure isn’t really necessary here – I’d say an hour and 10 minutes would suffice. Just a word of warning about the coffee in the departure lounge here – there’s just one place to get it and it tastes damn awful! Bad coffee aside, the place is bright and modern with nice big windows, good enough for a bit of plane spotting before boarding that Air Asia to Kuala Lumpur.
A very quick 35 minutes to Kuala Lumpur with some pretty nice views of rural Malaysia along the way as the aircraft heads towards Melaka, Port Dickson and the final approach to Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Over recent decades, Malaysia has bulldozed its natural jungles to create giant ‘Palm Oil’ plantations. Vast swathes of these palms stretch pretty much across the whole country and is seen as an important commodity, especially in food production. More about palm oil here…
Another transit stop in Kuala Lumpur. The Skybus to Brickfields – eat – sleep – Skybus back to the airport for a late morning Air Asia departure to Kathmandu. I’ve written plenty about the Brickfields stopover – here’s a link to those past posts.
Today’s trip to Kathmandu is a 4 1/4 hour flight on an Air Asia A330 Airbus. There isn’t a great deal to see as the aircraft routes across Thailand, India and into Nepal airspace. Haze and clouds over terrain then nothing but sea until the baron wastelands of India. The best part of the flight comes right at the end as the plane descends into Kathmandu – the scenery is pretty awesome!
And as luck would have it, were about 15 minutes early and if the folks over at Yeti Airlines in the domestic terminal have a little sympathy, I should be on that last flight to Pokhara! My ticket is actually booked for a flight tomorrow since the connection time for the last flight of the day was pretty tight. Kudos to the Yeti staff for getting me on that flight, the last seat, on the last flight with just minutes to spare! I really didn’t relish spending a night in Kathmandu. 25 minutes to Pokhara on a British built BAE41, just enough time for the hostess to serve a drink and some nuts.
Johor Bahru, Malaysia, May 2018: A city that in part owes its success due to its proximity to Singapore. At weekends Singaporeans make a beeline for Johor’s shopping malls to take advantage of cheaper goods. They queue at fuel stations for cheaper fuel and are encouraged to purchase property, indications perhaps that Singapore’s inflated economy is becoming a little too much to bare for ordinary citizens. With Land reclamation over recent years and the rise in condominium constructions all the indications are that Johor will develop into a mini version of Singapore with the focus being on waterfront living.
Having spent the 4 weeks here one can say that despite its gleaming new developments the place is still a little shabby around the edges, a hangover from 1970’s and 80’s developments. An abandoned mall along the waterfront and older malls with empty units around the place are indications that perhaps JB was developing ahead of its time during the 1980’s, attempting to capitalise on the rise of Singapore’s new found social and economic landscape. One can’t help but feel Johor is in a mode of catch-up with its neighbour across the causeway.
Here’s a look at the modern face of Johor Bahru…
Johor Bahru in a nutshell…
Plenty of hotels in downtown although somewhat pricey for average budget traveler. Thanks to Air BnB, there are several options to stay in neighbourhoods just outside the city centre, and well connected by bus routes, a lot cheaper than the hotels. JB is more of a domestic tourists destination – in the few weeks I spent here I probably counted about 12 white tourists. In short, there isn’t a great deal to attract western tourists to JB as a destination thus making the place a good base for digital nomads – little to distract! Most heading to this part of the world are passing through, traversing between Bangkok and Singapore or heading to the township of Danga Bay where there are some Disney style theme parks. Personally, Johor Bahru has a distinctively different character to Singapore, not quite as clean cut, a little rough around the edges but worth exploring for a few days. Google Maps is a good resource for picking out sights to see in and around Johor Bahru!
Arrivals by Air into Senai Airport can get a bus to Downtown for 12 MYR. 1 departure an hour and takes 35 minutes. Arrivals by long distance bus will disembark at the Larkin Bus Terminal some distance north of the city centre. From Larkin there are plenty of local bus routes to Johor Bahru Sentral for the city and the CIQ Checkpoint for onward to Singapore. Bus fares typically 1.50 to 2 MYR, no change given!
NEXT, on the move to Nepal with a transit stop in Kuala Lumpur.
Johor Bahru, Malaysia May 2018: When ever I need a cheap place to hangout for a while, a place to recoup from travelers burnout (Read about travel burnout here) and a place to gather ones thoughts, I’ve always ended up here in Johor Bahru. This is my 4th visit to the city since 2011 and each time the city grows on me. Why? because its a city with an interesting mix of modern and historical character, a city that’s easy going and a city that sits right next door to Singapore. Just like anywhere else, Johor has its fair share of shopping malls, but the place has also retained plenty of its shophouses too harking back to the days before malls were even invented. Add to the fact that one can skip across the causeway into Singapore on a whim, then Johor Bahru is a pretty neat place to bunk down for a few weeks.
Johor Bahru, a small city centre with pretty much everything it has to offer within walking distance of the Sentral Bus Station that’s conveniently situated next to the CIQ Checkpoint complex. Before reaching the old original city, one has to navigate through a plethora of malls and for first timers this can be quite frustrating due to the lack of exit signs! Success at beating the system of potential shopping mall entrapment has its rewards though as one arrives at the Johor Bahru city. So, with Starbucks, MacDonald’s and the swanky boutiques left firmly behind, its time to enjoy the character of old Johor Bahru, a character that encompasses all of the ethnicity that is Malaysia.
Quite a relaxed vibe here as locals enjoy their afternoon tea and toasted coconut jam sandwich. Surprisingly the place isn’t the touristy scene one might expect to find here in the old downtown quarter. Mostly natives, perhaps a few Singaporeans, but definitely not the international tourist hotspot one might have expected given the places proximity to Singapore.
While stomping between the malls and old downtown one comes across a Chinese Temple, in the shadows of a giant office block. A temple with all the usual decorations but here the walls are adorned with some pretty nice artwork. Some good sketching’s to be seen. Although I’m no expert I’d say probably worth some money on a good day at auction! On Google maps as ‘The Old Temple of Johor Bahru’.
The Galleria mall, located right next to the old downtown heritage quarter is a useful spot for getting some panoramic photos of Johor city. The 6th floor of the car park is free of security guards and one is able to freely wander around at will, with something to be seen in every corner.
Here’s a few snaps of Johor Bahru taken from the Galleria Mall car park…
Next, The new downtown, Johor Bahru…
Johor Bahru, Malaysia May 2018: Today will be the last border run into Singapore from my base here in Johor Bahru. Although I’ve been to Singapore a few times, this trip has seen me cover new ground, digging a little deeper into some neighbourhoods that have previously gone unnoticed. Now though it’s time to quit while I’m ahead as the saying go’s. Yes, the Immigration authorities at Woodlands are stepping up interrogations ahead of the impending North Korean/American meeting and to have a foreigner like me going back and forth like a yoyo will undoubtedly fray some official nerves. So, for the last border run, Changi Beach is the destination.
Once again Google has worked out a route – Woodlands to Bishan to Macpherson and the final MTR stop at Tampines East beore transferring to bus 9 or 29 to Changi Village. The track to Bishan is elevated overground giving one a view of modern Singapore. A skyline of government built flats along with a handful of private condominium towers is not an entirely unpleasant scene. Tastefully constructed without the density one sees in Hong Kong or Taipei for example. Clearly the redevelopment planners of Singapore have put a good deal of effort into making pleasant surroundings for its population of flat and apartment dwellers. Yes, the days of living in wooden houses on stilts in village communities have since long gone.
Back in history, Changi’s first generation redevelopment was as a Royal Air Force Station with its main runway close to the small Changi village and pretty soon the whole area became a British Military enclave, 1940’s to 1960’s. Today the village resembles nothing like its origins, the airbase as was has long gone, but its where the bus terminates and its where one accesses the beach via a giant food court. Since I’m feeling a little hungry now is a good time to grab some noodles before hitting the beach. The prices are good, the food is good too and the choice is mind-blowing.
As one stomps across the creek bridge its clear that Changi Beach Park is another of Singapore’s gem’s. Well laid out, super clean with amenities like showers, changing rooms and of course a pretty good beach, natural too according to google. On the left is Changi point where small boats ferry people back and forth to Ubin Island (Google Map). On the right is the Changi Creek and a small collection of fishing boats and straight ahead, a queue of planes lining up to land at the nearby Changi International Airport.
Midweek is a good time to visit Changi Beach if one is seeking solitude. Here, its just me and a few locals facing the Johor River estuary, while a handful of old timers shuffle between the stone seats set underneath the trees. Its pretty much the perfect spot if one likes to combine a trip to the beach with some plane spotting! The place is also good for those with an ornithological interest – green and white parakeets flit around in the tree tops as a woodpecker pecks happily at lower levels. Then there’s the ships slipping silently by, giants creating waves along the shoreline.
A decent beach away from tourist crowds. For bird spotters, ship spotters and plane spotters its the ideal spot! Those with energy to spare can take a coastal path walk towards Changi Beach Club looping back through the former Changi RAF camp where there are still plenty of colonial relics to be found. Wikipedia has a comprehensive historical write-up of Changi and its British associations and is worth the read, here
Johor Bahru, Malaysia May 2018: Its pretty well known that Singapore was ruled by the British for most of the 20th Century, finally handing back the colony in 1968. Shortly afterwards a fleet of bulldozers sought to rampage across the Island tearing down primitive jungle, Malay Kampung villages and just about anything else in their path as Singapore embarked on an era of change. Not everywhere though saw the face of a bulldozer. Sembawang, on Singapore’s north coast seems to have been spared, well a small area of the town right on the coastline as Google Maps shows. An area that’s close to a shipyard and with road names like Queens Avenue and Malta Crescent, one suspects there maybe some colonial connections to discover.
Another routine border run between Johor and Woodlands, although with just a week or so before the American president and North Korea’s Mr. Kim descend onto Singapore Island, the authorities at Woodlands are understandably more jumpy than usual. A longer interrogation as they add up all the passport stamps, comes to nothing and I’m on my way once again. Woodlands to Sembawang MTR then bus 882 to Sembawang Park, information courtesy of Google Maps, which so far has been accurate to the minute!
Sembawang Park is where the bus drops off. well kept, impeccably clean and right next to a giant shipyard. Yes, a few pretty big ships are anchored just along the shoreline facing the Malaysian coast. Perhaps more interesting is a good view of a traditional Kampung village of the type that used to be prevalent here on Singapore Island pre- 1980’s. A sight to behold as a thick jungle background offers protection from overbearing swanky condominium towers.
The little white sand beach here isn’t going to win any awards on the international stage, but I suppose its sufficient as a weekend picnic spot with wavelets lapping at the shoreline. The park itself isn’t large by any means but a pleasant enough stroll to while away half an hour or so. The paths run parallel to a what looks like a top secret installation, the Singapore Navy at a guess since according to Wikipedia the whole place has naval and maritime connections right from the early British occupation era. The perimeter fence surrounding a dockyard here pretty much prevents prying eyes from looking in unless one stands on a table, on raised ground from the parks picnic area!
Here’s a look at Sembawang Park, its Cannon Ball tree, the beach and a colonial mansion…
Aimlessly wandering through this park and suddenly one comes across a colonial style villa, or perhaps it can be classed as a semi mansion given the size of the building. There’s a few of them here and at a guess I’d say former residences of British Naval Officers. All looks quite original in this rather sleepy little colonial estate. Oh, and there’s an old bunker, perhaps an air raid shelter, a remnant from troubled times. Several of these properties are laying empty sadly, waiting for the highest bidder to show a hand no doubt – yes, I bet living here in these former British houses is going to cost plenty!
Its an interesting hour wandering around the area, combined with a visit to somewhere else, Changi Beach for example, then its a pretty nice day out from Johor. Wikipedia has a good write-up on Sembawang here.