Southwestern Serendipity – a Singaporean female in Exeter

I awake slowly, my eyes opening incrementally in millimetres every minute. My forehead and nose is telling me that outside is cold and no sane person would consider leaving my (third level) bed at 6.45 a.m. But then again, not everyone finds out a day before their trip to the UK that their ex-colleague and dear friend from Singapore is now studying in Exeter, a 3 hour train journey from London. So yes, amidst much whining from my snug-in-a-blanket warm body, I pull myself out to have a cold shower (my hostel didn’t believe in hot showers in Winter…. tragedy). 30 minutes later, I am at Waterloo Station all excited to travel down to Exeter to meet Netti!

As said, UK really put on its best dress for me. Here was a picture of the sunrise that I was treated to on the journey down to Exeter.

The beautiful sunrise that greeted me enroute to Exeter

The beautiful sunrise that greeted me enroute to Exeter

Exeter Cemetary?

Exeter Cemetary?

Some berries spotted on our country walk

Some berries spotted on our country walk

Not sure what berries these were, but I HAD to stop and snap a shot of them. Pretty, aren’t they? Originally, Netti and I had planned to visit a Donkey Sanctuary near Sidmouth, Devon. However, we had overestimated the capabilities of Sunday public transportation. In the end, we were (somewhat) stranded in the country at 2 p.m. and took a leisurely stroll down the countryside.

Netti & I

Netti & I

Came across this small stream and had to stop to take a wefie. I’ve missed this girl. She was a bedrock for me when I started my contract teaching in CHIJ Katong. We started together and although our paths have diverged, it felt so good to get the opportunity to meet up with her again and see the many blessings that life has brought her after a tumultuous period in her working life.

Exeter Cathedral

Exeter Cathedral

High Street, Exeter - reminds me of Perth's city centre!

High Street, Exeter – reminds me of Perth’s city centre!

Netti & I at High Street, Exeter

Netti & I at High Street, Exeter

We ended up having a hot coffee at Costa and taking some pictures along High Street. In many ways, Devon reminds me of Western Australia and Exeter, Perth. The public transport, the buses, the weather, the long leisurely walks, beautiful scenery and the city centre structures. I’ve barely been here a day and I see the many ways I could fall in love with Exeter. Oh, to leave parts of your heart everywhere you travel. It is both a blessing, and a curse.

Trains from London to Exeter depart from both Waterloo and Victoria stations. More details may be found on Southwest Train’s website at http://www.southwesttrains.co.uk/exeter-guide.aspx.

Advertisements

Accommodation Review: Smart Russell Square

Overall Rating: 2/10

– Stay Away unless desperate and the only option is to sleep out on the streets.

Alright, alright. So I booked into the hostel of hell. To be fair, I’ve visited my share of hostels and I expected to be slumming it (the one in Naples was scary enough – I thought I was going to wake up raped or sliced up in bed). But still, this one was one for the infamous lists.

Let’s start with the Positives.

1. Staff were friendly. The doorman always greeted me with a smile, and the baggage check person (Ryan) had a nice conversation with me.

2. Location was very convenient. It was within walkable distance of the tube station (Russell Square) and a supermarket.

3. Beds had a curtain to draw which hid your bed from the room and allowed me to change in privacy.

Moving on to the Negatives.

1. Toilets were only located at Level 1 (separate from bathrooms) and Level 3 (with some shower stalls). If you wake up with a near bursting bladder and had the misfortune to be located all the way up top of the bunk beds, let’s hope you have practiced your kegel exercises.

2. Charging points – only 2 charging points were provided in my room of 9. The math doesn’t compute.

3. Common Room was crowded and there was nowhere to sit (except for the tables). This was caused mostly by the lack of charging points in the rooms – people started bringing their electronics to the common room to charge.

4. The kitchen was dirty and had unwashed dishes in the sink. In these type of 9-bed and 18-bed hostels, it only takes one to set off a chain reaction and I suppose I was there during those bad days.

5. Organization of Room – the beds weren’t bunk beds, they were set into the walls. Which were both good and bad. There was sufficient space (in my 9 bed room) for luggage. However, they had 3 beds on top of each other – which kinda sucked if you have vertigo and are stuck on the top bunk (moi!). I was convinced I would fall off every time I climbed down the hell long ladder.

6. No free lockers (I even brought a lock). Either way, a group of 7 checked out the second day I was there and hostel staff also removed my linens and towel by accident (which I had paid 5 pounds and a deposit of 10 pounds for). This was in spite of me putting in my check in and check out dates in the little dongle provided. No effort was made to replace my towel. My slippers also went missing, I assume it was thongnapped by one of my hostel mates.

7. I had two showers here. The first time, I tried the shower stalls in the basement. The basement showers were worse than communal gym showers. Curtains that stuck onto you. To turn on the water, you had to press down a knob otherwise the water stopped running after a few minutes. This would be alright if the water wasn’t so BLOODY COLD. IN WINTER.

The second shower I had was up in the 3rd level showers, which at least had nicer shower cubicles. However, the water was still cold. My first few showers in Europe in winter were yes, cold showers. I nearly froze to death.

If you would like to sleep in discomfort, there are probably better places to do it in London.

Website Link: http://www.smartrussellsquare-london.com/

Tripadvisor Reviews: http://www.tripadvisor.com.sg/Hotel_Review-g186338-d1233082-Reviews-Smart_Russell_Square_Hostel-London_England.html

Hostelworld Reviews: http://www.hostelworld.com/hosteldetails.php/Smart-Russell-Square/London/29412/reviews

London; Here comes the Sun.

As I step off the plane, a shiver of anticipation rushes through me. The air of London at 5 a.m. is refreshing and crisp, a stark contrast to when I left Singapore at 11 p.m. the night before. In fact, the wind is bitingly cold as it freezes its way down my lungs.

First order of business was a cup of heartwarming orange chocolate from Costa at Heathrow with Stuart. What followed the next few days were several deja vu type moments. Names I’d heard of from reading way too many historical romance novels and playing Monopoly now have an image to go with them, etched in my brain.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to visit the Tower of London. I also didn’t take a touristy picture in the red telephone booth (sheesh). Last but not least – I kinda wished that I had the time (and energy) to visit Fabric Nightclub or Ministry of Sound. Unfortunately, I booked into the Hostel of Hell (review posted here) which kind of annoyed me everytime I returned back and sapped my motivation to head out.

Highlights of London: A really nice cozy pub lunch (Bangers & Mash) with Stuart, Sightseeing with Stuart, meeting up with Longzhao and having a stroll around South Kensington & catching Wicked at London’s West End (one item off my bucket list!).

The Tube - uniquely London

The Tube – uniquely London

The London Underground (or Tube) – people here seemed to always be in a rush or walking really quickly. Definitely none of that face stuck in their mobile phones stuff here.

Big Ben and the Red Bus.

Big Ben and the Red Bus.

Big Ben / Clock Tower – apparently this tower holds the largest four facing clock in the world. Also saw the Parliament close by and the Palace of Westminster. Of course I had to take it with the red double-decker bus in the foreground. Gahhhhh I’m such a tourist 😉

The London Eye

The London Eye

Life Guards of the Household Cavalry

Life Guards of the Household Cavalry

We were lucky enough to come by at exactly the right time to catch the changing of the Life Guards. The Life Guards are a regiment of the Household Calvary of the British Army and since their first action in the Battle of Maastricht in 1672 the Life Guards have won numerous battle honours, including Waterloo, Marne, Brussels and El Alamein. The changing of the Queen’s Life Guards take place daily at 11 a.m. on weekdays & 10 a.m. on Sundays at the Horse Guards Parade.

On the tube with Stuart to Croydon

On the tube with Stuart to Croydon

Christmas Lights a la London

Christmas Lights a la London

At the Natural History Museum of London, no dinosaurs came to life.

At the Natural History Museum of London, no dinosaurs came to life.

Yep – this is where they filmed Night of the Museum. No dinosaurs were harmed in this process.

A Major Highlight, Watching Wicked at London's West End!

A Major Highlight, Watching Wicked at London’s West End!

Definitely a major, major highlight. I would have loved to catch Book of Mormon – however the agent who was meant to book it mucked up the dates I was in London and this was the replacement he provided me with (nice discount too!)

For sure, London put up its best shot. The weather was magnifique – sunny wintry days, no rain at all (am I in London, really?). Au Revoir London. Maybe I’ll be back one day.

Bangkok Birthday: #2 Part I

Consciousness slowly rolls into my mind, like slow fingers of orange that creep upon the horizon at sunrise. I wake up with a slumberous stretch, my hands rubbing the sleep out of my eyes. Uncurling out of bed, the realisation hits me – this is my first official day in Bangkok. No time for the weary! I am raring to go.

As I found out quickly enough, this sentiment was not shared 😦

So maybe yes, we got back to the apartment at 4 a.m. Still, 9 a.m. should have been a decent time for people to wake up, right? Apparently not. Well, no fuss. Throwing in the bare necessities into my backpack, I am out the door.

bangkok, streets, thailandMy first step onto the pavements of the Land of Smiles is like stepping into a new world altogether. Unlike Singapore, Bangkok is organized chaos. It is loud, it is vibrant, it has a rich fragrance of oil saturating its streets. I lose a little piece of my heart to this city.

Walking a good 40 minutes, a taxi driver stops for me and offers me a ride. Naturally, my defences go up. But well, he offers to put on the meter and I am sweaty by then. I accede and take the front passenger’s seat. Which is when things go awry (as they are apt to).

A hand snakes up my leg and my thoughts start running wild. THIS IS THE LAST MY FRIENDS WILL EVER HEAR FROM ME. WHY DID I LEAVE BY MYSELF? OHMYGOD I’M GONNA GET KILLED AND KIDNAPPED AND RAPED. In his broken english, the cab driver propositions me – “I Want You” (Yes, I could hear the caps). Except – y’know what, driver? I think I see that mall. Yeah! There! I want to get off there!

Thank god he let me out of the cab – my phone battery was naturally, dead (because why would it work when I’m lost in the city, right? That would be too convenient).

I exit and for am a moment, slightly bewildered. Keep Calm and Pad Thai, I say however. I sit on a small stool by a roadside shop and order a plate. This English boy – Shaun – plops himself next to me and voila I have a new friend. His pup (Chocolate) is too cute, too! Naturally, Shaunie is here to teach English and has an adorable british accent. Which works very well on the shopkeeper, since she offers to teach us how to make our own Pad Thai. Which we did.

motorbike taxi, bangkok, travel, travelogAfter we are done, Shaunie helps me charge my phone for awhile as he drives me in his pickup to a local grocer’s, where I catch a motorbike taxi to the BTS station. All this, and it has just turned noon. What an adventure.

And while I am on the back of the motorbike, wind teasing my hair and hippy pants flying in the breeze, Mandy and Supei hunker down in their seats, waiting to join the cray of Bangkok.

Flying Solo: Why Should You travel Solo (as a female)

Waking up. The alarm beeps and she blearily rubs the sleep out of her eyes. For a minute, she’s disoriented and groggy – the phone is still going by her ear, the sheets are new, crisp and stark. She takes a deep breath. The air is cool and refreshing, a precursor of the possibilities and of things to come. She throws off her covers, Gets up and Go.

Why do I travel solo?

This is one question that I get asked a fair bit. By my parents, by my friends, by total strangers. And sometimes, it’s even a question I ask myself.

Do I travel to escape from my life in Singapore? No, I don’t think so – despite recent setbacks, I do have to admit that as far as life goes, I have it pretty good. Do I travel for that freeing independence that so many others spew on about? Not really, either. 

My first solo travel experience was Sydney (June 2013). What was it like?D20

I’ll admit that Travelling Solo has its benefits and its drawbacks.

1) Self-Discovery: You Get to Focus on Yourself.

When travelling solo, you choose what you want to do. There’s no need to compromise, no need to go back and forth with mates or strangers deciding what you want to do for the rest of the day. You are in charge of your own itinerary and  you set the pace for the day. How hard do you want to go? What do you want to see?

Those chillax days – where you’re just sunning yourself on a rock or just lying in bed convincing yourself to get up and go, those are important for you to just take a break and disconnect from life. 

On the other hand, those days where you’re hitting one spot after another and walking some 15 k’s a day, those are great as well. Because that’s what tells you that you’re in a different world, experiencing a different culture and in a different city.

Both kinds of travel are essential because you learn more about what you value in life. Things you notice while walking and exploring, thoughts that drift through your head (or not) while you are taking an easy day – these are the thoughts that are at the core of you, when there is nobody hassling you for that piece of work and you’re just free to be yourself for yourself, not put on a mask for society or for other people.

2) You Get to Meet many more (interesting!) People 

So there I was, sitting on a bus in Finland on my way to Helsinki city centre. And this person who’s noticed my obvious tourist status (try being the lone Asian onboard Finland’s public transport!) gives me a smile. Why not, let’s strike up a conversation with him. He’s a business reporter (what an awesome sounding job, ey?) and was a genuinely fun conversationalist. These sort of experiences have only ever happened to me as a solo traveller.

Prior to travelling solo, I normally travelled with my ex-boyfriend (Which made it a little difficult to socialise because people see  a couple and go ‘meh’ sometimes. Other times, well let’s just say my ex-boyfriend was not the most sociable of characters and so I felt as though I was stepping on his toes because he’s way more introverted than I am. Which means small talk with strangers could be pretty tough on him! Whereas that tends to be my mainstay type of conversation (at the start anyway) as a solo traveller. You learn to breeze through it quickly. People are generally quite interesting when you find out what makes them tick.

3) Problem Solving: You Grow Up

As a solo traveller, you HAVE to be more aware. There are a lot of things I take for granted, living in Singapore. But when I travel solo, my eyes are always returning to my valuables and belongings. I’m constantly checking my surroundings and people around me. This may surprise quite a lot of people as I am usually rather careless and I tend to misplace my things. That is, when I’m at home or in a familiar environment. You don’t quite get that luxury when you’re in charge of yourself in a foreign country.

Screen Shot 2014-08-29 at 10.32.32 amI’m proud to say I’ve never had trouble navigating a foreign subway system. The only time I’ve faced issues like this is when the train I was on in Italy broke down and I had to get off at a train station in the middle of Nowhere, South Italy. I sat around, waited for the next train (sneaked on, rather) that was going in the same direction as my original destination. I made it in one piece. Experiencing stuff like this while you’re a lone traveller – might be a little daunting, but the sense of satisfaction you get means so much more (ha! I didn’t die!).

4) Rediscover your faith in humanity

Haha, this sounds so cheesy! But, it’s also true. People are more aware of a solo traveller. Sometimes, they’ll even admire you for it. You get better service because people are amazed you’re travelling alone. They keep a watch out for you. Some of the most amazing people I met were my B&B owners in Salerno. They took me around, met me at the train station and helped me carry bags over uneven cobblestones. My original host in Salerno (Francesco) was such a gentleman and a sweet guy that I was happy to say that Salerno was one of my favourite cities in Italy. Because sometimes, travelling is about the people you meet and not about the places you’ve been.

5) Put Yourself Out of your Comfort Zone

When travelling solo, I’ve had to eat alone (I got over my fear of this a long time ago. I’ll just bring along my kindle or reading material, I’ll whatsapp friends from all around the world – I’ll send pictures of my food!, or I’ll just people watch). In addition to eating alone, I’ve had to navigate a strange country by myself. I’ve had to walk up to total strangers and strike up conversations on where to go and what would they recommend? Some people have been brilliant, some have been strange, but it’s always been an experience. Tinder makes this easier, lol (TinderTourGuides?!). And it’s different. It’s an experience you don’t get in your hometown and I would thoroughly recommend it anytime.

BUT

1) You may get lonely

There’s no way around this. Humans are social creatures and sometimes you’ll be stuck in a hostel full of people younger than yourself and you may feel the feelings of loneliness crawling up on you. Don’t! If you feel shy (for whatever reason) to strike up a conversation with your hostel mates, go out and sign up for a day trip out of the city. Find the local free walking tours. These are excellent ways to get to know other travellers (and maybe bump into other solo travellers looking for company)!

2) Solo Travel is not for everyone

That’s ok, but you need to experience it once before deciding it isn’t for you, right? Maybe sometimes when you’re taking in a beautiful sight, you want to share it with a loved one. There’s nothing wrong with that, it doesn’t make you less self-reliant (I usually share it via Whatsapp!). You might just not feel comfortable venturing by yourself in a strange city. That’s ok. Just because you’re not travelling solo does not make you any less of a traveller, despite what some people might try to make you think.

3) Safety, Safety, Safety

As a solo female traveller, this is something I’m always leery about. I do try to avoid strange narrow streets and dark places, although some times it’s inevitable that I bump into strange characters near train stations. I’ve had a bad experience in Naples (just felt really unsafe) but thank goodness I had some friends that came down from Rome to help me out. 

And while I’m comfortable as a solo female traveller, there are some places – like India, for example – that I would hesitate at travelling solo in. Never take your safety lightly as a solo traveller. 

What have your solo travel experiences been like?

Accommodation Review: Cheapsleep Helsinki Hostel

Overall Rating: 8/10

I wandered into this hostel at around 1 a.m. and asked if they had a bed available. Thankfully, they had a bed available in an 18-bed female dorm.

The room has 9 double bunk beds in it. Next to my head there is a small reading light and a charging point, very convenient. Other pros include: Free lockers, Clean toilets, spacious common room, free walking tour provided on Saturdays and Sundays. Wifi connectivity was also pretty strong inside the room. The tram stops right opposite the hostel and it is a nice walk (~20 minutes) to the city centre (or you may catch a tram there too).

It was about US$25 a night though, which wasn’t that cheap. But hey, this is Finland – not exactly unexpected. Still, I would definitely return here if I come to Finland again.

Website Link: http://www.cheapsleep.fi/

Tripadvisor Reviews: http://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g189934-d2614574-Reviews-CheapSleep_Helsinki-Helsinki_Southern_Finland.html

Hostelworld Reviews: http://www.hostelworld.com/hosteldetails.php/CheapSleep-Helsinki/Helsinki/59673/reviews

Verona: It’s a (Fictitious) Love Story, Baby Just Say… Yes?

Love, ah Love!

Some people live by it, while others die for it. And amongst the latter, the most infamous couple in history are none other than Romeo and Juliet. Even though (yes, it’s true) they might not even have existed. Who knows? And yet to the town of Verona tourists flock, in a bid to see the city in which Romeo and Giuletta was based in (and may have lived). Yes folks, that’s Giuletta and not Juliet to y’all. Them Italians don’t use the letter J!

There’s the whole love locks done to the n–th degree here, as well as the notes to Giuletta (why, I ask you?). And of course, the statue of Giuletta – touching her breast is meant to make one lucky in love. This I DEFINITELY do not understand. Didn’t her love interest ingest poison and well, die?

People will find whatever means to make others do stupid things (or pay money) it seems.

Love locks in Verona

Love locks in Verona

Graffiti on Juliet's House

Graffiti on Juliet’s House (Casa di Giuletta)

Verona Market Square

Verona Market Square

Verona Market Square

Verona Market Square

Verona Arena

Verona Arena

Statue of Juliet

Statue of Juliet – touching her breast is meant to make one lucky in love.

Juliet's Balcony

Juliet’s Balcony