Budabest

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It’s 25 years (TWENTY- FIVE YEARS) since my first visit to Budapest.

In the early summer of 1989 the Berlin Wall had only a few months left standing – not that we could have known when we passed through Checkpoint Charlie that June – the Hungarian government and people sensed the coming opportunity and the first tears in the Iron Curtain began to appear along their Austrian border. Gorbachev let it happen and thousands of East Germans made their way to freedom, the first signs-for-real of the collapse of the Communist Bloc and the end of the Cold War.

I passed the same way just before all that, reading and underestimating Hamlet on the way to Vienna, which was expensive and the first place I saw salad at McDonalds.

A plan to visit Caucescu’s Romania had been cancelled – a decision regretted ever since – on the advice of a man I met in the Gellert Hotel who told of a million persecuted Hungarians in Transylvania. That Christmas Europe’s last despot and his wife were chased from their palace and power to die on the run a few days later. A lesson learned; if there is something you want to see, see it soon – you never know how long it’s going to be around for (North Korea next Spring anyone?).

Budapest in the summer of 1989 was fun. We arrived by inter-rail train from Prague (never been back), we slept cheaply with hundreds of other young people at a University hall of residence in Buda, ate cheaply at the Büfe and drank lots of cheap local beer. I met my first Iranian in an underground (literally and figuratively) punk nightclub and bought an accordion that I still cannot play at the flea market (not the best idea with two weeks of train travel still to go).

Between then and now I’ve returned to Budapest half a dozen times attracted by the cities laid back pedestrian charm, and by the baths particularly – whatever the time of year. In the summer of 2004, 15 years too late, I took the train from Budapest to Bucharest and visited Transylvania. I loved it.

I’m writing this on the – more delayed by the minute – train from Budapest to Belgrade at the end of a four day visit primarily again about the baths.

Over the last five or six years many of the baths have been refurbished (in some cases with the help of EU money Mr Farage).

Rudas is my favourite but it’s single gender except on weekdays so I’ve not been there this time. I have been again to Szechenyi, Lukacs and Kiraly.

Kiraly (2400Ft) still looks the same as it did the first time I was there, not so different from when Mustafa was building it in the mid 1500s, but Lukacs and Szechenyi have been very much smartened up.

Szechenyi with its famous and photo-friendly outdoor pools is – at this time of year especially – a tourist trap (with prices to match – 4200Ft) of the very best sort; if the babel fish exists it maybe does its language learning here.

Lukacs (3000Ft) is the most medicinal of the lot. It’s thermal pools are fewer but its swimming pools (cap!) and especially its rooftop sun decks make it worthy of an all-day-stay.

Wandering about in the neighbourhoods of Pest I’ve found smaller baths that are priced with only locals in mind (1400Ft) that must be worth a try some time.

This time, for the first time for some stupid reason, I went to Margrit Island in the middle of the Danube. It’s a beautiful and expansive park, the site of the lengthy Sziget Festival each August and this week the venue of the European Water Polo Championships which are a big enough deal here to be shown live on TV in many bars and restaurants. The F1 Grand Prix is at the Hungaroring is tomorrow. Likewise.

I walked around the VII and VIII neighbourhoods dropping in at ruin bars and up at rooftop bars, almost avoided the heavily touristed Vaci Utca, dined and drank, almost to excess, at the excellent all you can eat and drink – including champagne – Mongolian BBQ Restaurant (5000Ft. Manravy Utca, Buda. Thanks Tenna) and marvelled at a night-time economy that has sprung up out of almost nothing to attract thousands of young people from all over the (white it must be said) world to drink and dance and ‘inter-mingle’, indoors and outdoors, all night long.

In the twenty-five years since my first visit and the end of communist rule (I’m not suggesting to two are connected) Budapest has made the most of all it already had and has created many new reasons to visit.

It feels to me as if the forty years of communism, whilst still an obvious and significant influence, are now much more in context, less defining than they have been. It’s the longer-lasting legacy of the wealth and grandeur of the pre WW1 Austro-Hungarian Empire that resonates most loudly. And it’s a modern European modernity that speaks most clearly of the city’s future.

However much I’ve done this time – not much, relaxing was the plan – no single short visit does more than scratch again at the surface of this first class city.

I never leave Budapest thinking there’s no reason to return.

I always leave thinking I’ll be back.

The WOOF Guide. Easyjet from Gatwick, easy as and not too expensive even at the start of school holidays. RyanAir from Stanstead and Whizzair from Luton are other options.

Taxis from the airport are pricey (as much as €20). There are minivan shuttle buses too.

The public transport options are easy enough though a bit more time consuming late at night.

Until 11 pm turn immediately left out of the terminal building. About 100m up there is a bus stop. The regular 200E (450Ft) runs in about 30 minutes to Kőbánya-Kispest, the end of the M3 (Blue) Metro line, from where you can be in the city centre (350Ft) in not much more than 15 minutes.

There are loads of hostels and hotels of course, plus a lot of apartments to rent. This time I airb&b’d in a great little apartment near the Parliament for €55 a night.

Between 11pm and 4am the 900 Nightbus leaves the airport every 30 to 60 minutes. It connects with the 950 Nightbus at Bajcsy-Zsilinsky Utca. The 950 goes to Ràkospalota via Deák Ferenc tér (right in the centre of Pest) and Nyugati train station. (No idea what these cost).

At the time of writing (July 2014) £1 = 380Ft and €1 = 308Ft. That’s good going. Go soon.

mandalaysaway@gmail.com

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How far is it to the beach? … Assuming you’re at Shkolla in Vuno .. the best place to be(ach).

Which beach? There are so many.

The nearest are at Jal which is straight out in front of you over the cliff, below the olive grove, between here and Corfu (yes, that’s Corfu, if you can see Corfu today; sometimes you can, sometimes you can’t).

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There is a very good road down to Jal beach and there is normally no problem, even if you wait or walk a while, hitching a ride up or down.

You could walk all the way from Shkolla in about 40 minutes. Or an hour. Take the path down beside the toilets and so long as you stick to the right path through the olive trees (it is / was marked with blue tape) then you will meet the road right by a small campsite – just above where the road cuts through the rock to go down to the sea.

Don’t follow the road down; that’s a long, winding and hot way to go. Instead follow the road only for about 100 metres, just as far as the first turning on your left. Take that side road. Walk as far as the electricity poles and then another 20 metres or so. On your right you will find a path that goes straight down the steep hill parallel with the electricity poles until it meets the road again just a few hundred metres above Jal and the beach. It’s not the easiest of paths down the hill. It gets overgrown and it’s very hot and exposed at the wrong time of day. Ask for up to date info on the state of play.

While Jal beach is pretty it’s probably not the idyllic beach of your imagination (don’t worry that one is not too far away). Jal is a small village, really quiet most of the year but popular, busy and a bit noisy in late the July /August high season when there are rooms to rent, camping sites, bars and restaurants (great seafood) a shop (water and ice cream) and ever more umbrellas on the beach – not least at Folie Marine on the smaller beach at Jal. It’s a riviera version of one of Tirane’s bar-nightclubs. You might like it if you like that kind of thing; it is typically – modern – Albanian.

But never mind the time of year – some say sleepy, empty June and September are best, others like November – and however much activity there might be on the beach or in the bars, Jal is always good for swimming, especially first thing in the morning or at sunset.

Beyond Folie to the north there are a couple of very small beaches that do have names and that you can swim to if you are looking for a bit of solitude. Bear in mind though that there is not much shade.

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Heading south on foot from Jal it’s only a quick 10 minute or slow 15 minute walk to two small beaches that go by the names of the Mirror and Aquarium. They really are very nice and well worth the effort of getting there even though it means crossing the local rubbish dump which is not pretty and can be a bit smelly and late in the season there can be a bit of rubbish about. Albania’s a great place to do a bit more than leave no trace; why not take somebody else’s rubbish home with you?

Beyond these two beaches the path that climbs up the hill will take you in no more than 30 minutes of really pleasant and often shady walking to the big beach at Livadh. I like this beach very much; it’s big and set in a dramatic spot amongst the hills with Himare castle looking down on it.

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There is accommodation at Livadh, including camping, a few bars and restaurants but all these are set far enough back from the water’s edge so as not to intrude. It’s the best of both worlds – a big, often empty beach with food and drink nearby.

Maybe the northern end of Livadh beach in front of the San Marco bar is the best spot for swimming. If you prefer waves then you’re most likely to find them at the southern end. Just beyond what seems to be the southern end of the beach there is a separate small bay with a good beach bar. Check that out.

You can get to Livadh easily by car. The turn-off from the main road to Himare is halfway down the hill into town.

If you’re walking continue heading south and the path at the very end of the beach will take you winding through trees, up and around a few small bays and pretty view points to Himare in about 20 minutes.

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Himare is a relaxed and relaxing small town that bursts into life in summer. It’s the best place for shopping and for ice cream and it has good and good value seafood and grill restaurants.

Himare has three beaches. The town beach, Spile, Potame, the least busy to the south of town, and in between one who’s name I cannot recall. All are good enough for a quick dip if you’re already there – especially if you’re staying at Himara Hostel or Camping Himare, both recommended, tell them I sent you – or for a longer stay out of season.

But with so many other beaches to choose from they are unlikely destinations in themselves. The water at Potame is particularly cold as there is a spring running into the sea there. It’s also a great beach for sunset.

Just around the cliff from Potame is Filicur a fabulous, empty, wild, wavy beach from where you can only see the sea. It’s not easy to get to. You must follow the track up the hill, find the right path down to the beach and then be capable of getting down a very steep cliff. You might decide it’s easier, even safer, to rent a canoe. Make the effort.

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La Mann is the first beach out of town along the road south from Himare. It’s an attractive small bay spoilt only by a few upmarket bars and restaurants and their umbrellas.

I definitely recommend visiting Porto Palermo for the fort and former submarine base, Qeparo, for the beautiful high village more than the beach, and even Borsh, apparently the hottest place in Albania, for the change of scene.

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Of course the Albanian Riviera stretches all the way south to Sarande. Beyond Borsh there are more villages and more beaches but I’ve not been to them – yet.

The idyllic empty beach of your imagination may be called Gjipe and it lies to the north of Vuno. For now at least it’s completely undeveloped; what few buildings that have been built there have also been knocked down. You need a vehicle to get there and then it’s a hot twenty minute walk down from the nearest parking place (even if you have a 4WD you should not drive it onto the beach) but it’s an effort massively rewarded.

The very special thing about Gjipe is that as well as being a fantastic beach there is a dramatic and beautiful, dry or almost dry in summer, river canyon to explore. You can easily spend an hour or more in the canyon. With it’s own micro-climate, much of it never in sun, it’s a cool retreat from the heat of the beach.

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Take plenty of water and an umbrella, there is not much shade on the beach – though there is in the trees behind. Gjipe is a great place to spend the night especially at full moon, though it can get a bit – relatively – busy in August.

Go north beyond Gjipe to find popular beaches at Dhermi (head to the very north of the beach to find a string of fur-lined coves that few people trouble to reach), Drimades which is best described as the party beach and beyond that, just before Llogara pass, the vast emptiness of the stunning and hard to reach Palasa where Julius Caesar came ashore when he visited the Albanian Riviera.

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How far is the beach? These beaches are on the same 40km stretch of coastline. Why not enjoy them all?

And be sure to dine at Kafe ne Vuno.

mandalaysaway@gmail.com

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A Bone Fide Journey?

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It’s great that London’s canals are alive with boats and boaters but the growth in numbers raises issues that need addressing. CRT is consulting on some changes and wants boaters views on them. These are mine.

There were 60 continuous cruising boats between Limehouse and Paddington in March 2010. By March 2012 there were 250. Two years later numbers are growing faster than ever and CRT is proposing – at last – to do something about managing the situation.

I think CRT proposes too little. And too late. I think it seeks to legislate for the issue it wished it faced rather than the issue it actually faces but the genie is too long out of the bottle for that.

I think CRT needs to recognise the situation for what it is, be more ambitious in what it proposes, get ahead of the game rather than trailing behind and that it needs to be prepared to do things that will not prove popular (nothing new there).

I think CRT’s proposals are conceptually flawed because they fail;

1. To acknowledge (again) the true nature of the issue in hand – that the increasing numbers of boats on London’s canal is at least as much a housing issue as it is a boating issue.

2. To distinguish between, and to address separately, bone fide visitors, be they continuous cruisers or boats with a home mooring, and London-resident boaters better described as Continuous Moorers than bone fide Continuous Cruisers.

The mooring capacity issue on London’s canals needs to be addressed as soon as possible. Capacity is defined in CRT’s consultation as all visitor moorings being single-moored. London, from Kensal Green to the Lea is therefore already at capacity, in many places at double capacity.

It is common to meet new boaters coming into London to join the London boating community, often not fully aware of the requirement of ‘continuous cruising’ to be on a bone fide journey or how they will comply beyond swinging back and forth between Kensal Green and the Lea.

It is not uncommon to meet bone fide visitor boaters who describe their experience of boating into London negatively or to meet boaters on other parts of the network who say that they would not dream of boating into London, discouraged by what they have heard about mooring difficulties.

The proposals in this consultation are not without merit but they do not go far enough to address the issue. I’d go further and introduce a – paid for – London Continuous Moorer Licence, the revenues from which should be used to pay for the installation and maintenance of additional boater facilities – water, toilet, power, laundry – and for significantly increased monitoring and enforcement.

The fixed price of this licence, to be purchased in addition to the standard licence, should not be boat-length related – that differential is covered by the standard licence – but it should be boat width related; wide beams are a mooring capacity issue – for each foot of width over 7ft add 10%.

Continuous Moorers should not be required to be on a bone fide journey and should be allowed to move between any 14 day visitor or casual mooring as they wish. I think in this model there is a case for the introduction of 30 day moorings at some locations – Kensal Green, Mile End, the Lea.

It’s right to introduce new 7 day visitor moorings as CRT propose but they must be just that. This change is of no value if those mooring spaces are not available to bone fide visitors because they are all taken by Continuous Moorers. There are already seven day moorings in Paddington Basin, Camden and Islington that are almost always mostly taken by Continuous Moorers.

Continuous Moorers should be excluded from using new – and existing – seven day moorings. These – at Paddington Basin, Camden, Islington (in winter when capacity is halved) and part of Victoria Park – should be reserved for bone fide visitors who should be permitted to use each of these moorings twice in any calendar year (allowing for a long return through trip or a number of short stay visits).

A voluntary scheme is not likely to work – stay compliance is not working voluntarily now – so increased monitoring and the issuing of penalty notices – as per an illegally parked car – and their enforcement including ‘clamping’ and tow-away are a strict but necessary sanction.

There is an upper capacity limit on London’s canals. CRT should define that limit and not issue more Continuous Moorer Licences than there is capacity for. After that it’s a one-in, one-out situation unless additional capacity can be created – which brings the Olympic Park issue into focus.

Continuous Moorer Licences should not be transferable, that’s a recipe for them being sold with boats at a premium – resulting in similar problems that result from transferable mooring rights.

There are a number of boating, welfare and safety concerns – public health, fire, towpath-sharing etc – arising from so many boats being moored together on London’s canals. These also need better addressing, by CRT in partnership with Local Authorities and other bodies such as the London Fire Brigade and Transport for London. But that’s another story.

mandalaysaway@gmail.com

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Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur by train on the Jungle (is massive) Line. 

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This post is not a ripping yarn. It’s a reflection on a short trip that might be useful to anyone heading the same way. For travel details that are not in the text check the WOOF Guide at the bottom of this page.

To get most of the way from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur, en route to Indonesia, I let the train take the strain. Firstly by overnight sleeper (destination Butterworth 14.45) from Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong station to Hat Yai (arriving at 06.35). Then not continuing on the main line via Butterworth and Penang to Kuala Lumpur but instead taking the eastern route, crossing the Malaysian border at Rantau Panjang, very near to Su-ngai Kolok, and then from Khota Bharu heading south on what’s called the jungle line because it runs through the jungle serving many small and relatively isolated communities along the way.

British Embassy travel advice warns against all but ‘essential travel’ through the parts of southern Thailand this line runs through. ‘Islamic’ militants have been engaged in an ongoing terror campaign here for years. Two weeks before my trip a bomb killed people in Yala, a town through which the line passes a couple of hours before reaching the border. A month later another bomb or two ripped up some of the tracks. Take care.

For balance the Tourist Information office, the railway information office and anyone else you ask in Hat Yai says it’s quite safe to go that way; the railway line is well protected. Most of the time.

Armed soldiers join the battered old, naturally air-conditioned train as it pulls out of Hat Yai (10.18 in theory, later actually) and the view becomes pretty very quickly. Green, lots of green. Flowers on station platforms. Pineapples growing beside the line.

As we pass through Yala all is quiet but there are more soldiers on the platform of each station we pass after there, all of which are wrapped-around by eight foot, barbed-wire topped fences. Closer to the border I see several armoured personnel carriers, a few roadblocks and very many black-sandbagged sentry posts and guard houses.

So no need to hang around in Sungoi Kolok, best to get across the border sharpish. Despite there being a railway bridge – with railway track – crossing the river that forms the border, and despite the proclamations of Thai-Malay friendship that adorn the road bridge that opened in 1972, no trains cross the border here.

Clocks jump forward by one hour.

To continue by train, on the jungle line itself, requires a bus ride to Pasir Mas or Khota Bharu where you can catch the Malaysian trains.

Khota Bharu must be a contender for the city with the most hotels with the worst rooms at the worst prices. A $20 Thai hotel room might come with a swimming pool, even if you might not want to swim in it. In Khota Bharu $20 will get you an always tatty, sometimes smelly, often damp, possibly dirty room without a view, most likely without a window. And worse if you want to spend anything less.

It turns out Khota Bharu does not offer much in the way of entertainment either, especially on a Friday when in ‘the Islamic City’ all but a few shops and restaurants are closed. I did come across a body-building competition and a gathering of Volkswagen Beetle enthusiasts (and their lovely cars) and it is possible to get steak and (too few) chips for £3. So not all bad but overall, if you’re pushed for time then Khota Bharu is probably not the place to spend much of it. If one night is necessary, it’s enough. But there is a way to avoid even that.

Getting out of town on the jungle line is best achieved in daylight as it is the view from the train that you have come for. This gives good reason to skip the train at 4.18am (No.81) and stay in bed as late as 5.15am to catch the No.91 train at 6.16am (No.91). This service runs all the way to Singapore (18 hours) should you wish to go that far in one hop.

It’s a 15 minute, 20MR taxi ride to the train station which is actually at Wakaf Baharu. Trains are either Express trains or Jungle trains. The former stop less often and cost more than the latter, though they are still cheap. The latter stop everywhere and are really cheap. The journey time difference is not so great. Most of the time.

If you don’t want to go any further than Gua Musang to begin with there is a train (No.83) at 7.48am that may better suit those who enjoy a lie in.

The option I took was to take the 6.16am Express train with a ticket for Gua Musang (3 hours, 18MR / £3.50) and to hop out at one of half a dozen stops along the way, if I liked the look of a place, knowing the following 7.48am departure train would be stopping there if I wanted to resume my journey.

I think a better, time-saving and Khota Bharu-avoiding option would be to leave Hat Yai on the early train (07.20 to 11.20), cross the border and take the bus to Pasir Mas to connect with the jungle line train at 16.02. Then go as far as Dabong (arriving at 18.22) and spend the night there.

The jungle line, already never unattractive, becomes really quite pretty after Krai, the train tunnelling half a dozen times as it climbs noticeably into the deep green of the forested hillsides. I liked the look of Dabong on the map and I liked the look of it as we approached along the orange-watered river so I left the train there (at 9.09am), left bags with the station master and went for a wander.

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On closer inspection I liked sleepy Dabong, population 2,000, even more. I let the late-running No.83 (due at 10.54) leave without me – there are always more trains tomorrow – and took up residence at The Rose House which is the nicest (and maybe the only) place to stay in Dabong. It’s a better place to stay by far than any I saw in Khota Bahru (and I saw many). It’s smart, clean, fresh – and friendly. No pool though.

Not that I did not get wet. Thunder rumbled in from far away, stalking closer as the afternoon wore on. At 5pm a pleasant, cooling shower of heavy warm rain drops was welcome while it lasted. Half an hour later the tap was opened further and fifteen minutes of heavy rain were the prelude to a tropical downpour that filled the roads with water and forced even a bunch of ducks to take shelter in a half-built house. I joined them there along with a dozen chickens of various breeds and nine goats, staying until kidded by a brief respite that the deluge was waning. Walking back to the village the rainclouds cloaked the now invisible hillsides in mist, lightning creased the grey sky and the rain fell heavier than ever, only letting up after dark.

The 6.54am (2.6RM) jungle train out of Dabong stopped in still misty Kemubu for a passing train and breakfast. There was time to take a walk over the river bridge where the orange water boosted by the previous evening’s rain swirled swiftly by below. The station master, twenty-three years in the job, asked where I come from and suggested that my grandfather might have built his pretty, well-looked after little station. You never know; one of my grandfathers claimed to have built a lot of things.

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Gua Musang’s (new) train station sits below and beside four big chunks of limestone rockery. It’s a dramatic setting for a small town that I did not stay in long enough to recommend other than to say it has banks and really good, cheap food – which does not much set it apart; everywhere in Malaysia has good, cheap food it seems. Jumping off the jungle train here (at 09.36) gives you time to have a quick look around with the option of catching the express that comes through (at 11.06, 14RM) which is what I did.

The jungle line where it runs between Gua Mesang and Kuala Lipis is where it really lives up to its name for me. All the Malaysian trains on this line are modern and air-conditioned but that’s not the feeling I was after. There is a £200 fine for opening the train door whilst on the move but no-one seemed to mind and to sit on the step, feeling the heat and smelling the sweet greenery up close is to have the best seat in the house. The tourist seat.

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It was after lunchtime when the train pulled in late to Kuala Lipis, but no complaints from me. That was three of the best hours I’ve spent on a train in a long time.

Kuala Lipis is another small town, prettier perhaps than Gua Mesang and more worthy of an overnight stay. If you get through a visit without meeting Giri then he must be out of town. I found him helpful and overbearing, initially in equal measure, latterly leaning towards the latter. Take him as you find him, I’m sure he would be helpful in a crisis.

Kuala Lipis is the first getting off point if you are heading to Taman Nagara National Park, especially if you are wanting to go by boat (2/3 hours, 23MR plus 70MR for a taxi to the jetty at Kuala Tembling). It’s a lovely boat trip and a lovely park with at least one great place to stay. More about that below.

Alternatively you can carry on along the jungle line to Jerantut arriving at 14.20 and take the bus to the park from (90 minutes, 7MR, twice a day) from there.

After Jerantut the jungle line continues in to Gemas where it joins the west coast (main)line. I can’t tell you anything about this bit of the journey other than to say it’s supposed to be less jungly and more palm plantationy.

I took the option of taking the (hourly) bus to KL (3 hours, 29MR).

The WOOF Guide.

Bangkok to Hat Yai.

The easy option is to take the 14.45 train from Hua Lamphong that is going to Butterworth. It’s 875 Bhat (less than £20) for a comfy sleeper. The train is due into Hat Yai, where the line splits, at 06.55 but can run a bit late.

Bangkok to Yala is another option. I’ve not been to Yala other than to pass through it and at the time of writing I don’t think it’s a smart move to go there.

Hat Yai accommodation.

There is plenty of it, some of it cheap but a bit ropey. If you can afford to spread your wings a little then King’s Hotel – only 150 metres from the train station – with modern, clean rooms is good value at 750 Bhat. There are a few places offering a different kind of value for 250 to 350 Bhat, also close to the station. There is a handy map that’s available at the station information desk (on the platform). It has more than enough places to stay marked on it.

Hat Yai to Sungoi Kolok.

There are several morning trains from Hat Yai to Sungoi Kolok which is the last stop on this line (for now?). Trains leave Hat Yai at 05.52, 06.30, 07.20, 10.07, 12.13 and 14.20 – probably not all on any one day and the last two will get you the border after 17.00 Thai time which means you will be hard pushed to get across the border in time to catch the bus to Pasir Mas or Khota Bharu (they run until 7 pm Malaysian time – Malaysia is one hour ahead of Thailand).

At the border.

The Thai Immigration office is a (short, easily walkable) kilometre from the train station. It takes just a moment to get an exit stamp and a few minutes to walk through to the Malaysian side where business is conducted just as quickly. There is no need to accept an offer of a ride to the bus station; it’s about a two hundred metre walk.

The number 29 bus to Pasir Mas (26Km) and Khota Bharu (40km) leaves (until 7pm) not from the bus station but from the nearby roadside, opposite the Caltex petrol station (and appears to be free). Longer distance buses leave from the the bus station itself.

There are ATMs at the Caltex and the other petrol station.

Khota Bharu hotels.

The Sabrina Court hotel got my reluctant best-of-bad-lot business at $22. The room and bed-linen were indeed tatty, last re-equipped sometime in the 70s – maybe – but it did not smell and it was not damp. There was a window. That was the clincher. The staff turned out to be friendly, the water ran hot and the wifi worked. I slept very well. At a stretch I recommend it.

The backpacker places were particularly uninviting. Ideal guesthouse belies its name. There are a bunch of more upmarket hotels – all full at the time of writing, it’s easy to see why – where you can lift yourself out of this mire if you’re ready to pay $35 or more. Later a friend told me stayed in a good, cheap hostel. She could not remember it’s name or where it was.

The train from Khota Bharu.

This first requires a 5km taxi ride out to the train station at Wakaf Bharu. This is going to take 15 minutes and, extravagantly, costs between 15 and 25 Ringit depending on the time of day and other variables.

Alternatively you could overnight in Pasir Mas and take the train from there (app. 15 minutes after the Wakaf Bharu times).

The timetable does not show a stop at Manek Urai but we did stop there – to wait for another train to pass – it’s a single line – and for long enough to buy a great and cheap rice and curry (egg) breakfast on the platform.

The Rose House, Dabong.
Telephone .. 019 960 6789.

Six rooms. Shared bathroom. From 60RM. There is a kitchen, though unfortunately no cooking facility, a washing machine and a motorcycle for rent. There is no wifi but there is an internet place just around the corner that may open at some point.

Onward trains from Dabong.

There are three daytime services. The 81 (to Kuala Lipis) calls at 6.54am, the 91 (to Singapore) at 09.09am and the 83 (Gua Musang) at 10.54am.

Later on the 85 calls at 18.22 (to Kuala Lipis, leaving Wakaf Bharu at 15.46), the 29 at 20.57 (to KL, leaving Wakaf Bharu at 18.17) and the 27 at 23.01 (to Singapore, leaving Wakaf Bharu at 20.19).

I took the 6.54am Jungle train to Gua Mesang (2.6RM). It stopped only 15 minutes later in Kemubu and waited a good 35 minutes for another train to pass. This gave time for a walk to the river and the chance to buy another great curry (beef and bean) and rice breakfast. The passing train was running late so that put my train behind schedule too.

Gua Mesang.

There are places to stay but I did not. Some, but not all of the banks have ATMs that take Visa and MasterCard. Head up to the main road. CIMB is a few hundred metres along on the left. Turn right and walk (further) into the centre of town for Maybank.

Kuala Lipis.

There are a few accommodation options. Some are pretty unattractive and best avoided. Hotel London is disgusting; Boris should sue. Another apparently doubles as a brothel. Others are overpriced and above themselves. Luckily the best of them all is not far from the station. Walk up to the road, cross over and drop down the stairs of a covered walkway lined with eateries. Turn left at the bottom of the stairs and 50m along the street, upstairs, is Hotel Jelai (one of two in town) which offers good enough value, clean enough rooms – the best with a view of the river – and decent wifi. I would not bother looking at any of the others unless this place is full (or you are looking for a prostitute).

I had a great meal at a small place with outside tables very near the station (on your right hand side if you are about 20m from the station and you looking at it). It only opens up in the evening but no worries, the place next door opens at lunch and the food there was excellent too.

Taman Nagara National Park.

Only one thing to say. Stay at Park Lodge (below). It’s a little away from the jetty area and the better for it. Great people, great place. Fan rooms 60MR (negotiate if you’re solo). Call or WhatsApp +60197731661.

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Jerantut.

Sorry, I did not stay long enough to find out anything other than where to get an ice cream.

A train leaving Jerantut at 14.20 will get to Singapore at midnight (?MR). Another leaving at 03.14 gets in at 12.30 (?MR)

If you’re wanting to continue by train to KL then the train leaving Jerantut at 01.08 (36MR) will get you in at 08.00.

Kuala Lumpur.

In KL I think the Container Hotel is a pretty neat place to stay. Stylish in a way, clean, friendly, quiet, quite well located if your bags are not too heavy (it’s a 10/15 minute walk from the monorail) and reasonably priced for what you get in KL. (Dorms from 50MR, Doubles from 110MR. http://www.containerhotel.com).

Flying out from KL?

The monorail to KL Sentral and the bus (1 hour) to KLIA 2, the new terminal for AirAsia etc, costs just over 12MR. It’s just over 37MR if you take the train (30 minutes).

If you are pushed for time or just need a quick kip the same people who own Container Hotel have opened the first airport Capsule hotel at KLIA 2 (45MR for 3 hours, 90MR for 12 hours). http://www.capsulecontainer.com

Myanmar Visa Run?

This could be an easy, yet diverting and different, visa run from Yangon, one that does not need an overnight stay in Bangkok. it could be done with only two overnights (Dabong and KL). Take the 08.30 AirAsia flight from YGN to DMK and then the train (1 hour, 5 Baht) from Don Muaung airport to Hua Lamphong train station and be in plenty of time for the 14.45 overnight train (destination Butterworth) from the same station that kick-starts this trip. AirAsia flights from KL to Yangon at the time of writing were on offer for as little as $5.

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Planes, trains and submarines

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Since Mandalay was last away I’ve been in Myanmar and I wrote about it HERE.

Mandalay’s away again and this summer’s water-tales will appear here.

We’re two days out, settled in a favourite spot at Cranfleet.

Planes drop out of the sky above me into East Midlands Airport. Freight and passenger trains criss-cross the junctions of the rivers Trent and Soar and the Dog-shit, sorry, Erewash Canal (see above) and David Cameron is taking us all for a ride on a submarine.

Dave’s been in Scotland today, talking up the threat from North Korea and using it to part-justify replacing Britain’s fleet of Trident nuclear powered-and-armed submarines. He’s also been veiling a threat that Scottish Independence might SNP-threaten the thousands of jobs that Trident sustains there.

If he wants to secure a No vote in the September 2014 Independence referendum, he’d do as well to threaten all the Scots living in London with the loss of their right to work in England (why not, if Scotland leaves the EU in the process of leaving the UK?).

That wouldn’t cost him – us – maybe as much as £100 billion.

Just the four new submarines, needed by the mid 2020s, account for at least as much as £25 billion of that. And that’s maybe 35% of Britain’s total military equipment budget, part of – ridiculously – Britain having the fourth largest defence budget in the world.

I don’t think Trident – or whatever we call its replacement – is ever going to be of much use to us. Kim Jong-un is not deterred by our deterrent. Why would he be? Whatever he does with his maybe-missiles, what is there for us to target-in-return? That big empty tower block in Pyongyang? The mass games? Lots of poor people?

HS2 will cross the canal right here.

HS2 will cross the canal right here.

High Speed 2, the extension to England’s high speed rail network of the (too distant, please just get on with it) future, is going to come sweeping around the sandstone cliffs just to the south of here, and then right over where I’m sitting on some super-concrete, flood-plain crossing viaduct-on-stilts before zooming northwards (a bit).

HS2 is currently costed at about £18 billion; a big figure and one that is bound to get bigger by the whatever-time it opens (2032 or so is the plan).

But, even at that cost, I think super-fast rail connections between many of England’s major cities – and that London – and the cities of mainland Europe are likely to be pretty useful to lots of us, not just those whose jobs depend on it.

Those behind HS2 claim it will support indirectly 30,000 jobs plus directly and temporarily 9,500 in construction and directly and permanently another 1,500.

Unions representing Barrow-in-Furness shipyard workers think 16,000 jobs are at risk if Trident is not replaced though only 520 people are employed directly by the Trident programme.

Estimates of how many jobs an infrastructure project will create or support are always a bit finger-in-the air. Whatever the accuracy of the Trident or HS2 numbers, lots of jobs are dependent on each.

I don’t think we should be choosing between the two.

This is not a one or the other situation.

It’s a one or five of the other situation.

Over its service lifetime Trident will cost £100 billion and will earn not one penny in revenue. For that money we could have five times as much high speed rail as is currently planned. It would be possible to connect cities like Bristol, Liverpool and Newcastle. Cardiff. Glasgow and Edinburgh. Yes, Scotland even. No, Scotland for sure.

It would serve all of Britain, not just parts of England.

It would support and create many more jobs than Trident.

It would be more useful to the likes of you and me.

And it would be just as good a deterrent to the likes of Kim Jong-un as Trident is.

Tony Blair said of Trident, “The expense is huge and the utility … non-existent in terms of military use,” He could clearly see the force of the “common sense and practical argument” against Trident, but in the end he thought giving it up would be “too big a downgrading of our status as a nation …”. [The Guardian]

Grrrrr. Bark. Woof.

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Not the boating event of the century.

This is a bit of a long and boring post for most. Apologies for that; it’s a one-off hopefully. I’ve written on the same subject before here and here and in Waterways World magazine too.

Leaving Harefield Marina before 8am, by mid-day I was turning from the Grand Union mainline onto the Paddington Arm and heading for central London.

British Waterways were pretty quick off the mark in spotting the potential for boaters to enjoy the 2012 London Olympics; canals run right through the Olympic Park and beside the stadium. Security concerns mean the cuts closest to the Park need to be closed to navigation during the games themselves but that still leaves most of London’s canals in use this summer.

BW launched its Olympic activities with grand, aspirational words about bringing the canal network and the games together to create what sounded like it might be the boating event of the century. The greatest rally of them all.

Then they ran a consultation talking of existing moorings being available for booking and additional moorings being installed on the canals (and the non-tidal Thames) as far out as Tring (50 miles and 50 locks from the Park).

The consultation asked how much per night we would be willing to pay to use these moorings. Drop down menus offered a range of price options from £10 a night to £150 a night. Boaters tend to be financially sensible people, I don’t suppose many clicked the £150 option.

Then in April of 2011 BW launched its (functionally annoying) mooring booking website, releasing some but not all of the mooring sites for sale so it was difficult to know that you were buying what best suited your needs or desires.

BW explained that any boat without a paid for mooring would not be allowed into (or to remain in) an Olympic Exclusion Zone (what a nice name) running from 3 July to 10 September, closing a number of key locks and junctions and covering all of the Regent’s Canal and Hertford Union.

Worst of all was the pricing which was set at the higher end of the scale. I paid almost £900 for three weeks in East London. That’s a lot of money to leave my boat somewhere I can normally leave it for free.

By April of 2012 it was becoming clear that sales were very slow. The boating event of the century was in doubt. There were also big problems brewing amongst the maybe 150 ‘continuous cruisers’ who spend all their time on London’s canal but do not have a permanent home mooring there; they would be forced to leave London for the summer but without any provision in place to make it possible for them to moor up and keep on getting into work or school.

Waking up to all of this very belatedly BW changed things, introducing a ‘Summer Licence’ for £360 that allows already london-based boaters to stay in the Olympic Exclusion Zone (but not to use the visitor moorings they normally over-use) and offering a refund to people like me, reducing our maximum spend to £360 and allowing us to stay in the Exclusion Zone beyond the end date of our booking (but not to enter earlier bizarrely) and to use the ‘premium’ mooring sites we had booked.

BW also closed a number of those sites, converting the one at Mile End into a floating market, offering discounted access to trading boats, meaning that my three different weeks on three different sites was ‘consolidated’ and I will now spend the full three weeks at Old Ford Lock on Victoria park.

I’m better off than I was, getting more for less of my money, but by the time BW had this late change of position I had already booked a holiday overseas and a marina for the boat for the period during which, originally, I would not have been allowed to stay in the Exclusion Zone. I could have stayed in central London all summer.

Last night I arrived at the boundary of the Olympic Exclusion Zone here at Little Venice. It’s further east than where it was originally intended to be, an additional BW cock-up that has resulted in the moorings here being crowded with boats, some of which are ‘summer licensed’ for £360, some of which have paid nothing. BW is now refunding those who have paid for what others are getting for free.

Ten weeks free mooring at Little Venice is a no-brainer option (unless you want to be truly close to the games). Just up the cut in Paddington Basin and a little further on (but both not really anything much closer to the Olympic site) boats are moored and are paying at least £360 to be there.

All this is disappointing, but no so disappointing as the overall outcome.

Setting out to create a fantastic Olympic boating event was a great idea but as of last night only 60 boats are inside the Olympic Exclusion Zone with only another 40 expected.

As I cruised down to London this Spring I met many boaters (mainly going the other way) who said they were steering well clear of London this summer; too expensive, too complicated.

There are tens of thousands of boats out there on the UK’s canal network, only 100 boaters have been attracted to spend any part of this summer in London, one of the two greatest cities on earth at the time of one of the two greatest shows on earth. What a pity.

What a pity that BW did not listen to the original consultation (results never published) or to those of us who contacted them, or wrote about this, between April 2011 and April 2012.

What a pity that BW procured the services of and listened to, Madge Bailey Associates to advise them on this at the outset. Madge ‘not-me-guv’ Bailey is a ‘Waterways Consultant’ (and it seems something of an idiot).

Her cheap looking website says,

Madge Bailey Associates have a passion for the inland waterways – for their special character and the diverse experiences they offer people. We understand how to balance their many functions, enhance their connectivity with land, and, most importantly, how to unlock their potential.

Not in this case. Madge’s passion for the waterways got BW (whose lower order staff have been working hard to make this work) into this mess and we are now in a position where during the summer of 2012 there will be fewer boats moving about the waterways of London than in the summer of 2011 and 2012. London could easily have accommodated many, many more.

That’s an Olympic shame. But let’s have fun anyway.

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London 2012 : My Olympic Story

This is Harefield Marina.

Harefield is in Hillingdon, close to Denham and Uxbridge.

For the past few weeks while I’ve been camping in an olive grove, sunning myself (thirty-seven degrees minimum) on the brilliant beaches of southern Albania and swimming in the warm, crystal clear waters of the Ionian Sea, Mandalay has been moored in that line of boats, getting rained on.

It’s all change now. Boat and boater are re-united, the British summer has arrived at last and we’re off to the Olympics (I’m in the 4x100M Relay).

The Olympic Stadium is about twenty-five miles beyond the hedgerow in this photograph. It would take fifty minutes to drive there.

By boat it’s about twelve hours away.

I’m heading for Victoria Park in hyper-hip-Hackney, to a mooring booked for the duration of the Games.

For the next month I’m going to describe my Olympic experience here.

This is my London 2012 story.

Let’s hope it’s a good one.

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This is not Tirana. These are not my photos.

Koli Vercani took these photographs of Tirana and more like them that can be found here.
Koli Vercani has taken other great photographs of Albania that can be found here.

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What’s Albania Like? 3.Very Central Tirane in Pictures.

There is a big space at the centre of Tirane, much more than a square though that’s what it’s callled. Skanderbej Square. That’s him on the horse. It was a building site when I was here in July and in October, it’s almost finished now. None of these photographs are very good but maybe together, and with the song below them, they convey some sense of just what a cracking place to be it is.

Hapagrup nr.3 Ilirian Pema performing live at Scanderbeg square in Tirana https://www.facebook.com/pages/Hapagrup/267354540004663 video by erandistic

If you like anything here please would you share it on facebook? There should be a button below. Thanks.

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Women I Honour Today.

I posted for International Women’s Day today over at Stephen Barker Says.

BOGUJEVCI // HISTORI PAMORE was at the Galleria e Arteve in Tirane in Feb/Mar 2012, will go to Belgrade later this year and then hopefully to Manchester.

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