Bali is one of the top surf destinations in the world and Padang Padang beach hosts the annual Rip Curl Cup, a prestigious event open to Indonesian surfers and selected invitees only. The competition takes place on a single day in a seven week period between July 15th to August 26th based on when the conditions are likely to be as close to perfect for surfing as possible. As the Rip Curl website says – 'IT'S ON when IT'S ON!' The 9th August happened to be the chosen day for this year's event and we were lucky enough to be around to witness it

Surfing has it's own language. We were treated to a running commentary describing gnarly barrels, inside and outside lines and pumping six foot tubes. By the end of the day we were pretty much fluent in 'surf speak'

One of the competitors was Bethany Hamilton who sprang to fame in 2003 when, at the age of 13, she was attacked by a 14-foot tiger shark while surfing off Kauai. The attack left her with a severed left arm but miraculously she was back in the water just a month after the attack. She's since become an inspiration to thousands but sadly progressed no further than the quarter finals

Winner on the day was surfing's enfant terrible, Chris Ward, whose been a surfing phenomena since childhood. His track record has been patchy both on and off the surf including getting arrested for assault outside a bar in California in 2008. That said, he's becoming a changed man evidenced by the fact that as soon as the winners cheque in his hand, he was down on one knee proposing to his girlfriend….

The setting was fantastic, probably one of the best beaches in Bali not least because of its dramatic entrance down a narrow set of steps hewn out of solid rock. The atmosphere on the beach was great, constant music provided a perfect soundtrack to the day, drinks were cheap and there were plenty of beautiful people around to share the occasion with

As far as spectators sports go, surfing's a funny one. As the competition progresses the four surfers in each heat get progressively longer times to select the two waves that they are going to ride with 50 minutes being the allotted time in the final. As a consequence there's a lot of watching and waiting but then when it does happen it's an amazing thing to see. We were lucky enough to see two 'Perfect 10s', one from the local hero Mega Semadhi who led for 49 minutes of the 50 minute final, and one from the winner Chris Ward who snatched victory when he rode the perfect wave in the very last minute of the competition. Thrilling stuff!

….and of course she said 'YES'!

 

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From the traditional knowledge of how to cultivate rice, to the use of animals in preparing rice fields for planting, to the flying of kites to scare birds away from rice harvests, the cultivation of rice is inseparable from Balinese customs and beliefs. The Balinese culture is so intimately connected with rice farming that virtually every ceremony is related to it in one way or other and many rice fields have small shrines containing flowers, fruit and other offerings to Dewi Sri, the Goddess of Rice in order to ensure a bountiful harvest

Water levels in the rice fields are carefully managed through the ancient 'Subak' system of governance where farmers whose fields are fed by the same water source meet regularly to co-ordinate the planting of rice, agree and control the distribution of irrigation water and ensure that the construction and maintenance of canals and dams is effectively managed. Quite a feat when you consider the elaborate, terraced structures of many of the rice fields and the number of stakeholders involved. In fact Subak is considered to be of such historical and cultural importance that it has recently been awarded UNESCO World Heritage Organisation Activity status

Little has changed in the way in which rice is grown and harvested. Animals play a big role with buffalo ploughing the fields into a muddy soup into which the rice seedlings are planted and ducks being shepherded to the rice fields each day to eat the pests and, together with the buffalo, provide natural fertiliser for the rice

After about twelve weeks the rice is fully grown and harvesting begins. The rice stalks are cut off at ground level and collected to then be threshed and winnowed before being dried and stored

It's not all good news though as large areas of land which were formerly rice fields have now been built on to meet the ever increasing demands from tourists and visitors for holiday accommodation or, in some cases, something more long term. Every year some 700 hectares of land is lost to hotels, luxury housing for wealthy foreigners or additional roads. Some landowners are clearly fed up of being pestered to sell their land and have taken it upon themselves to make their feelings abundantly clear to everyone

 

Bali, and in particular Ubud, is the perfect holiday destination. Unfortunately this is no secret following the success of the book Eat, Love, Pray and the subsequent film release. As a consequence the town is inundated with all kinds of holidaymakers . In some respects this is no bad thing as it means there's something for everyone here and you can spend as much or as little money as your budget allows

We watched a film made on the island in the 1930s. It's a classic love story which also gives an insight into many of the the ancient traditions, customs and pastimes that the islanders enjoyed nearly a century ago. What's remarkable is that many of these still exist today and are not just for the tourists. They're so embedded in the island's people that they form the backbone of their identity. Add to this beautiful beaches, crystal clear seas, warm and friendly people, perfect year-round climate, delicious food and lots to see and do and it's not difficult to see why Bali is, by some margin, the best place we've visited in Asia and the one providing the greatest temptation to live the island life – permanently!

Next stop is the immigration office to see if we can extend our visas by another 30 days!

 

We thoroughly enjoyed our first house-sitting assignment. Luke and Sue were more than generous as clients and Finn (dog), Len (cat) and the fish were very easy to look after. Their house is one of the very desirable 'Black and White' houses, built many years ago when Singapore was a British colony

The two nights we spent with Luke and Sue at the start and end of our week left us with major hangovers, especially the last one when we shared a bottle of Kweichow Moutai, a Chinese liquor that is usually drunk on celebratory occasions. The warning signs were plain to see as the glasses that came with the drink were little more than thimbles. The taste was a cross between soy sauce and petrol, it gave a burning sensation all the way down your throat and left its taste in your mouth for most of the following day. Add the fact that the alcohol content is 53% and it's no wonder that drinking it becomes more a question of daring rather than pleasure. Despite this, or because of it, a bottle costs around £200! The manufacturer has the fourth highest brand value in the world, sitting just above Mercedes Benz and Chanel, clearly somebody, somewhere likes it a lot!

We thought about trying to get a family photo as a memento but trying to get Luke, Sue, their two girls Maya and Fran, and Finn and Len to keep still for more than two minutes to have their photo taken would have been an impossibility!

Let's hope we get the opportunity to house-sit again as it's a great way to experience a home-from-home and to meet and get to know people who live and work in the local community

 

Singapore has a reputation as being the most expensive and highly regulated place in Asia. From our experience it's all true. It's also very humid, it rains a lot and there are lots of mosquitos!

Were it not for the fact that we've been house-sitting for a week, we'd only have been able to afford to stay for two nights at most. As it was we stayed for just over a week and still didn't get to see all the sights we hoped to.

Of the sights we did see the highlights were the cable car ride over to Sentosa, the Botanic Gardens, the 'Battle Box', the Chinese Heritage Museum and last but not least Marina Bay Sands

Sentosa

Sentosa is a manufactured resort which can be accessed from the mainland by cable car. The resort has all sorts of attractions, however most of these are an anti-climax after the cable car ride to get there!

Perhaps the oddest of all the attractions is the 'beach' which looks out onto one of the busiest shipping lane in the world. I guess you can always close your eyes and dream that you're on a desert island! Next to the beach is the wave machine and next to this the 3D virtual log ride. On the plus side it has two golf courses, including the host course for the Singapore Open ($450 Singapore Dollars about £250 per round!) and is home to Univeral Studios, Singapore, which sadly is a poor relation to its American cousin. Overall Sentosa is a somewhat bizarre place but nevertheless hugely popular with some 19 million visitors a year. This is in spite of its local nickname which is So Expensive and Nothing TO See Also!
 

Botanic Gardens

The Botanic Gardens are one of the free (!) sights to enjoy in Singapore. The gardens cover such a large area and with nature left to its own devices they're also a haven for wildlife. It was a pleasure to walk around such a large 'natural' area in the middle of one of the most developed cities in the world

The Battle Box

Singapore holds an unenviable reputation in British military history as being the only place where the British have surrendered to the opposition. This followed the Japanese invasion of the island in 1942. The events leading up to the decision to surrender are recreated in the 'Battle Box', an underground bunker in Fort Canning that remained undiscovered until 1988. The bunker has been painstakingly restored and together with the lifelike waxwork figures (courtesy of Madame Tussauds) it now offers a very realistic glimpse into what life was like for the individuals operating out of the bunker up to the time of the surrender

Debate still continues as to whether General Percival's decision was the right one. He was shunned by Winston Churchill and other members of the establishment when he returned to England at the end of the war however there's no doubt his decision saved many military and civilian lives

Chinese Heritage Museum

Another 'life as it was' attraction is the Chinese Heritage Museum which provides a history of Chinese immigration into Singapore. Living conditions of the early 20th century have been recreated based on photographs and personal testimonies, and are so accurate that former residents couldn't believe their eyes when they saw them for the first time. It gives a real insight into the hardships that people suffered in trying to make a better life for themselves as well as the distractions of gambling, prostitution, drinking and opium smoking

Marina Bay Sands

The hotel is probably the most iconic structure in Singapore. The viewing platform offers a 360 degree view of the city. Luckily for us our visit coincided with rehearsals for the Independence Day celebrations in August so we were treated to a firework display and a fly past of jets from the Singapore Air Force. The area around the hotel is equally modern. As with other super-malls in Asia, all luxury brands are present, perhaps even more so here. One of the frustrations of travelling is that the only shopping you can do is window shopping. On the other hand when shop windows are displaying pieces of jewellery for $1,500,000 Singapore Dollars (about £750,000) there's not much you can afford anyway!

So, no visit to the Raffles Hotel and no Singapore Sling cocktail. They'll be first on the list if we return!

 

Penang became the first British possession in Southeast Asia when it was ceded to the British East India Company by the Sultan of Kedah in the late 18th century in exchange for military protection from the Siamese and Burmese armies. It's location in the Straits of Malacca allowed the British to use the island as a natural harbour and anchorage for their trading ships.

The British declared the island a free port to encourage trade and settlers were allowed to claim whatever land they could clear, no easy task as the island was thick with jungle. As the tin and rubber trades flourished Penang became increasingly popular with people from far and wide, making the island a melting pot of diverse cultures and religions, something that is as true today as any time in the island's past.

No wonder then that the island, and particularly its UNESCO capital Georgetown, is rated as one of the world's top places for food. Somewhat ironic therefore that we suffered our first bout of food poisoning within hours of arriving. This did little to deter us however as we set about eating our way through the islands many and varied styles of cooking. Favourite amongst these was the food we had at Teksen, a local favourite for many years. We had fried prawns with tamarind sauce, steamed fish in ginger and rice wine, szechuan pork ribs and pak choi with garlic butter. It was delicious.

Street life in Georgetown is equally diverse. Various trades are carried out in and around the traditional Chinese 'five foot way' shophouses, so called because of the covered walkways within the properties which are intended for public use, providing pedestrians shade from sun and rain. In practice navigating these walkways is easier said than done as they're often built at different heights and usually blocked with shop goods, scooters, or other strategically placed obstacles!

Our visit coincided with the Georgetown Festival, an annual, month-long event which celebrates the melting pot of cultures and religions that make up Penang. We booked tickets for the Manganiyar Seduction. The 'orchestra' is made up of 43 musicians (42 muslim and one hindu) seated in 36 red-curtained cubicles arranged in four horizontal rows one on top of the other. The concert begins when a single cubicle lights up and the first musician begins to play. Soon another cubicle lights up and then another, creating a dramatic build-up of musical instruments and voices. The show has been performed all over the world (as the following clip shows) but by their own admission, getting entry visas for 42 muslims in some countries is not always straightforward!

As we travel south through Asia, its multi-faith and multi-ethnicity becomes ever more evident along with its paradoxes. Tonight we walked home along Chulia Street where prostitutes were openly flaunting themselves as the call to prayer was being chanted from the loudspeakers on the minarets of the local mosques

We had planned to stay a few extra days in Penang before making our way back to KL and onwards to Malaysia's other UNESCO site, Malacca. All that has changed however as we're now heading to Singapore to house-sit for for a family. We've got to look after a dog, a cat and some fish. Fingers crossed it all goes smoothly!