Hong Kong — last stop before home

DonQui Oaty is in Hong Kong on the last leg of his around the world trip.

His ability to canter around Hong Kong with alacrity is hampered thanks to a sprained ankle incurred whilst exploring the monkey sanctuary in Ubud, Bali. He goes to the vet, slightly concerned that his condition might result in a swift merciful bullet to the head, as a donkey without the use of his hind legs is not really very much use at all. 

Fortunately the kindly Indonesian doctor pronounces that there is no fracture, bandages up DonQui’s ankle, gives him some anti-inflammatories, and then packs him off to Hong Kong.

DonQui is rather entranced by Hong Kong. He feels the sense of history of the place — it is hard not to when his hotel is on Salisbury Rd overlooking Victoria Harbour. At the same time the city’s vibrant modernity gives him the impression of a young city very much looking to the future. 

With Fortnum & Masons just around the corner, British three pronged plugs, double decker buses and English place names, much of Hong Kong feels very familiar.  With excellent public transport and traffic that obeys the rules, it is a city that functions well despite the high population density. There is none of the chaos of Bangkok or Denpasar (Bali).

Many places in Asia love their shopping malls and Hong Kong is no different. Now DonQui is no fan of malls but, hampered by his gammy leg, he cannot canter all over the city and the nearby K11 mall offers a number of excellent restaurants. Despite his mall phobia he has to admit that the interior design is pretty stunning.

His bad ankle precludes him from wearing Louboutins any time soon, so he gives the local shoe shop a miss and goes off in search of the highly recommended Ye Shanghai restaurant on the 7th floor.

There he has a most excellent meal. The crab is the highlight of many very good courses.

Wanting to see more of the city but unable to walk far, DonQui books himself on a boat trip abroad the junk Aqua Luna.

This trip provides him with some wonderful views just as the sun is beginning to set.

The following day he hops on the atmospheric Star Ferry to cross from Kowloon to Hong Kong Central (at a cost of just 20p!)

A bus tour around Hong Kong Island gives him a good overview of this part of Hong Kong even if he is not quite up to very much exploration on foot.

He does manage to hobble over to the Peak Tram — an incredibly steep funicular railway that takes him up Victoria Peak. It is unfortunately a bit cloudy but the view over Hong Kong is still quite spectacular. It is a shame that the viewing area at the top is marred with lots of tourist tat. 

The culinary highlight of DonQui’s stay in Hong Kong is lunch at Wing Restaurant on Wellington Road in Hong Kong Central. Time Out warns that it is one of the toughest tables in Hong Kong to book as it has such a high reputation and is very small. Wing is usually only open for dinner but on the day DonQui is looking to dine they open for lunch for the first time and so there is a place available for him.

The set menu of 12 dishes is exquisite, offering DonQui a wide range of ingredients and tastes he has never experienced before. These included (amongst others) lion head croaker (a local fish), Chinese almond soup, fish maw with abalone sauce and king crab with crispy cheung fun (rice noodle rolls).

The highlight is the baby pigeon smoked over sugar cane. And yes he did try the head.

Thoroughly satisfied DonQui is now ready to head home, completing his around the world adventure.

DonQui cooks Thai

DonQui Oaty is rather fond of Thai cuisine and he tastes some excellent dishes whilst in Bangkok — not least the set menu dinner at Chakrabongse Villas.

Wandering through the picturesque Tha Tien waterfront market, DonQui stumbles across the delightful Rongos restaurant. The name means House of Flavours and that is indeed what it is.

Here he samples morning glory (water spinach)— a favourite Thai vegetable — in this case in a tempura batter with tamarind and coconut dressing.

This is followed by fried rice with salted egg and grilled prawns. Both dishes are utterly delectable.

Michelin listed Rongos is very small and very popular — often booked up days in advance. DonQui is lucky to get a place on spec thanks to arriving when they open with enough time for him to have his meal and watch the sunset over the river before the booked diners arrive to take his table.

Keen to improve his own cookery skills, DonQui books himself in on a course at Silom Thai Cooking School. Here he learns all about the key ingredients of Thai cuisine. Not all of these will be easy to get back home, so he will have to think about substitutes or make an occasional trip to London’s Asian markets.

He is not entirely unhappy to find that he is the only westerner, only male, and only donkey on the course. 

DonQui learns how to make Tom Yum Goong — a sweet and sour soup with great depth of flavour. It is very quickly cooked up in a wok with coconut milk which he makes himself by hand-squeezing freshly grated coconut. 

He also cooks up a pretty good Pad Thai, learning to vary the cutting of the hot bird’s eye chillies depending on how spicy he wants it. If he wants it fiery — cut the chillies and then crush them with the flat of the knife blade. For pretty hot — cut them fine, and for a milder version (but still with some heat) cut them into relatively large pieces.

And here is his completed dish.

His is quite proud of his green curry with chicken and round Thai eggplant. He makes the paste by hand with a mortar and pestle, the green colour base coming from a dozen long green spur chillies (crushed into the paste). Spur chillies are quite mild. A red curry is made using red spur chillies (also relatively mild). As a rule of thumb DonQui’s instructor says that larger chillies are milder than small ones.

The delectable mango sticky rice is mostly prepared by the staff although the various steps are clearly explained and demonstrated. DonQui will try this at home.

All of the recipes are pretty simple and very quick to cook — almost always in a wok on high heat. Armed with an illustrated recipe book DonQui can hone his skills when he gets home.

Bangkok’s Backwaters and Backstreets

There is of course much more to Bangkok than awe-inspiring temples. DonQui is determined to explore further — seeking out the backwaters and backstreets.

DonQui has engaged one of Bangkok’s famous long tail boats to give him a tour of the river and canals.

Along the way there are yet more temples and this impressive statue of Buddha, nicely set off by the pink of the setting sun.

For the most part, the canals are lined with various wooden shops and habitations.

…not all of which are in the best of repair.

After a most interesting trip the boat pulls in to the dock of the Chakrabongse Villas on the posh side of the river. DonQui is lucky enough to be staying here for a couple of nights.

Later he tries out the spanking new Metro to get a little further afield. The station entrance looks more like the lobby of an expensive five star hotel than an underground station. DonQui ponders the fact that the Victorians had similar ideas when they first built London’s grand railway stations such as St Pancras.

Clean and efficient, the Metro is pretty easy to use with signs in English as well as Thai. The same unwritten rules seem to apply as on the London Underground — no one talks to anyone. Given that there is a phone signal, phones replace newspapers as a device to ensure that no one disturbs the peace and quiet of one’s journey.

For shorter trips it is hard to beat a tuk tuk. Prices are flexible with tourists often paying a premium. DonQui is lucky to have a local negotiate the fare for him.

No trip to Bangkok is complete without some time in the backpacker hub of Khao San Road with its many bars, restaurants, cannabis cafés and places offering Thai massage.

There are a huge variety of interesting street food stalls — some offering cooked spiders, scorpions and other unsavoury creatures which DonQui is not tempted to try. The area may be a bit of a tourist cliché but it is a lot of fun.

So he takes a pew, orders a beer or two, and settles in to watch the wild life.

Temples and Palaces

The next leg on DonQui Oaty’s around the world adventure is Bangkok Thailand. He is only spending a few days here so he will be staying in the city and not venturing out into the Thai countryside. Hopefully he can do that another time in the future.

He starts his explorations with a visit to Wat Pho buddhist temple.

DonQui is rarely at a loss for words and he likes to think he is pretty good with them. Yet the awe inspiring beauty of Wat Pho takes his breath away. 

No amount of superlatives can do justice to what he feels as he trots around the temple in a state of bemused amazement.

He goes to the Royal Palace early the next morning — warned in advance that later in the day it is overcrowded with large groups of Chinese tourists.

The huge sprawling complex has its fair share of incredible structures.

DonQui is glad that he gets to the palace early in the day. Although there are a fair number of other visitors, he is able to contemplate the beauty and intricate craftsmanship in relative peace and quiet.

The prang of Wat Arun is a dominating landmark on the other side of the river from where DonQui is staying. Also known as the Temple of Dawn, it is actually shown off to its best advantage at sunset.

DonQui hops on a ferry for the short ride across the river to see it close up. 

These monkey-warrior guard statues look pretty formidable.

As does the man dressed in costume to resemble them.

There is actually quite a bit of cosplay going on. Pleasantly surprised to see so many people dressed in traditional Thai costume, DonQui wonders if there is a special celebration happening. Then he hears a group of them speaking Japanese. He later learns that there is a roaring business of little stalls renting traditional costume for visitors to wear, taking pics of each other for their instagram feeds.

Grazing around Bali

Continuing his search for good Balinese food, DonQui heads to the Denpasar night market.

The delightfully enthusiastic Micheal Sega is DonQui’s guide for the evening. He takes DonQui to the best food stalls, explains the different foods as well as giving insight into Balinese culture, beliefs and legends.

The onde and pisang snacks are very moreish. 

Pisang (right) are bits of banana (sometimes also with chocolate) wrapped in a light batter and deep fried while the onde sesame coated balls (left) are filled with mung bean paste. Both are very good but DonQui adores the latter. They also keep well until the next day.

The highlight of DonQui’s taste journey is soto ayam. DonQui’s guide assures him that the soto ayam at this stall is the best one can find anywhere. In many other places he says that it can be lacklustre as they do not know how to cook it properly.

Soto ayam is a hearty chicken soup flavoured with turmeric and coriander and including hard boiled egg, cabbage, glass noodles and potato. It is eaten by scooping out some of the solid ingredients onto the accompanying rice, rather than adding the rice to the soup which would change the taste and constituency. A chilli sambal adds a bit of spice to the rice, meat, egg and veg combination. A spoonful of crushed crackers adds body to the soup.

It is washed down with a deliciously refreshing bottle of temulawak — a non-fizzy soft drink made with turmeric.

Another of DonQui’s favourites is tender goat satay, freshly grilled over hot coals and served doused with kecap manis (sweet soy).

The babi guling (various parts of a spit-roasted suckling pig) at the night market is a bit of a disappointment. It is lukewarm and bits of it are quite chewy rather than crispy.

He had a far better one at Babi Guling Men Lari on his lunch stop coming back from Tanah Lot (see Canggu Explorations).

There are so many other delectable treats that DonQui begins to loose count of them as his capacity for more food is stretched to bursting. 

The choice of exotic fruits to finish off with are simply astounding. He is slightly relieved to hear that the rank-smelling durian fruit is out of season as pride and curiosity would have made him try it. 

Instead he opts for a delicious (and apparently very healthy) mangosteen which he enjoys very much, taking a bag back with him to his abode.

At other times during his stay on Bali ,DonQui is able to try a variety of other dishes. Of course at some point he has a nasi goreng (fried rice) which is a bit of a staple and not unknown to him.

Beef rendang is a favourite which he has also had before — deliciously slow cooked in coconut milk, turmeric, lemon grass and ginger.

DonQui is quite surprised that, although living on an island, the Balinese do not seem to eat much fish. Eventually he comes across gulan ikan. This is a curry, made with barramundi fish and tomatoes. DonQui has never heard of barramundi before but it is apparently quite common in S.E. Asia. The flesh is flaky, a bit like cod, but the taste is milder — more like sea bass. This means that it takes the spicy coconut curry sauce very well.

Canggu Explorations

DonQui’s fabulous yet inexpensive lodgings are an oasis of greenery and calm in the buzzy backpacker/surfer/hipster enclave of Canggu, Bali.

Next door is the highly rated Crate Café which does have very good coffee. However the weird combinations of food on offer seem designed to be instagram-able, and to please the taste buds of homesick Australians rather than a travelling donkey. There is nothing local on the menu and all the customers are white — apart from DonQui who is slightly greyish.

Scratching his head, DonQui wonders why people travel so far just to have the same stuff they would have at home, Then he trots off in search of something vaguely Balinese to eat. This is harder than he would have thought. Amongst the tattoo parlours using 100% vegan ink and barber shops offering beard trims, there are plenty of restaurants. On offer are vegan ‘whole foods’, Keto-friendly options, poke bowls, protein smoothies, ramen, tacos, sushi, and avocado on everything. In short nothing that appeals to DonQui’s taste buds.

Finally DonQui stumbles upon Pali — an actual Balinese restaurant in an airy setting overlooking a rice paddy, and not a stray hipster in sight. DonQui samples the utterly delicious Nasi Campur Rendang. The spicy chicken satay skewered on a lemongrass stalk is a particular treat, as is the Urap (cold steamed vegetables with spiced grated coconut).

Feeling thoroughly refreshed, DonQui walks down to nearby Echo Beach and then along the black sands towards Pererenan.

Passing a family at their devotions, DonQui enjoys the underdevelopment of the beaches here and wonders how much longer they will remain so.

The beach at Pererenan is dominated by the amazing Gajah Mina statue which depicts Lord Baruna, ruler of the sea, riding a fantastic mythical creature.

Deciding that he wishes to explore further afield, DonQui realises that he needs to join Bali’s scooter madness, since hiring a scooter is really the only way to get around.

Before allowing himself to create mayhem on the streets he books himself in for a session with the excellent Mamo from Canguu Scooter Lessons. Soon DonQui is feeling confident enough to be let loose on the road.

A half an hour ride takes him to Tanah Lot temple which is spectacularly set on rocks above the Indian Ocean.

There are some pretty stunning views…

… and a parlous crossing at high tide.

Before leaving the temple, DonQui decides to stop for a famous Luwak Coffee. This is made from coffee beans which have eaten by luwaks (civets), partially digested and then evacuated before being gathered up for processing. Due to its unusual and limited production method this highly prized coffee is amongst the most expensive in the world. DonQui thinks it is a most excellent brew and he is getting a bargain at Rp 50k (around £2.70) a cup. 

The café owner even has a luwak (related to a mongoose) resting on the bar after its digestive exertions! 

The mobility of the scooter allows DonQui to reach further away beaches and find more authentic Balinese restaurants beyond the hipster ghetto. Of the latter, the unobtrusive Home by Chef Wayan is particularly good. He also enjoys Babi Gulung (Balinese suckling pig) from a roadside stop.

And no, he does not try his hand at surfing.

On Road and Trail

After a hearty breakfast of french toast and bottomless cups of coffee, DonQui is ready to hit the road again.

He hastens to add that this is not the vehicle he will be driving, although it would probably be a bit of fun to do so.

The bleak, open, desert landscape is striking…

… and the road seems to go on forever.

It looks like some pretty nasty weather up ahead. Sure enough, when it reaches him, it brings driving snow and blizzard-like conditions. Fortunately DonQui is soon through it and out the other end.

He skirts the southern end of Death Valley, which today does not quite live up to its reputation for brutal heat. Then DonQui approaches Clark Mountain pass.

Once through the pass the drive takes him down to the flat lands of Dry Lake and the Nevada state line.

Crossing into Nevada, DonQui heads off on a small road through Spring Mountains. Unfortunately they look anything but Spring-like thanks to the unusually cold, snowy weather.

Five hours after setting off from Joshua Tree, DonQui reaches his destination. This is Sandy Valley Ranch.

Here DonQui trots along the Old Spanish Trail together with a couple of horses and a wrangler called Randy.

The desert views along the trail are starkly beautiful.

DonQui’s trail guide is a most pleasant companion. His horse, however, is not keen to be seen engaging in conversation with a Donkey.

From Jungle to Desert

After two weeks in Ecuador, DonQui sets off on the third leg of his around the world trip. Next stop Southern California. 

It is a long two day journey: canoe back up the Cuyabeno, car to Coca where he stays overnight, and then three flights in quick succession — Coca to Quito, Quito to Miami, and then on to Los Angeles. He only just makes the connection in Miami thanks to long queues at security and US immigration.

Hiring a car in LA, DonQui drives off towards the Mojave desert.

His first destination is Sacred Sands at the entrance to Joshua Tree National Park

DonQui is more than pleased with his accommodation which is quite a contrast to roughing it in Amazonia.

Joshua Tree National Park is breathtakingly beautiful.

The iconic joshua trees look like a cross between a cactus and palm tree. They are in fact yuccas, which DonQui learns are somewhat bizarrely related to asparagus.

The rock formations dotted across the desert landscape are as impressive as the trees…

… none more so than the other-worldly skull rock.

The small town of Joshua Tree is very pleasant with an artsy, alternative vibe. DonQui finds souvenir shops selling crystals and incense underneath posters advertising spiritual retreats, yoga, sound healings and other sorts of new agey stuff.

The entrance to the Joshua Tree Saloon looks as if a bus load of hippies pulled up several decades ago and stayed. Quite probably they did.

Inside the saloon DonQui feels as if he has entered a movie set with a couple of characters from central casting making good use of the pool table.

DonQui settles in for a couple of hours to watch the locals and enjoy some very good food and beer.

DonQui had expected the desert nights to be cold but his arrival is timed with an unseasonal cold snap with high winds. As he leaves the saloon he is more than a little shocked to find it is snowing. This is not exactly what he had been expecting.

Exploring Cuyabeno

Most of DonQui’s time in the Cuyabeno reserve is spent exploring the magnificent primeval rainforest by canoe (sometimes motorised and sometimes paddling) and on foot.

The trails through the jungle often resemble rivers. There is a clue in the name ‘rainforest’ but although it is the rainy season, DonQui is very lucky that the weather is bright and clear during the days he is there. It is very hot and humid. After a couple of hours trotting and wading through the forest he is soaked with sweat.

DonQui’s wonderful guide, Victor Hugo, is very knowledgeable about the flora and fauna. Here is is demonstrating the uses of sap from the copal tree as an instant fire lighter, candle and also (thanks to its strong menthol aroma) insect repellent. 

His ability to find even the smallest animals and insects is uncanny.

This is a ‘walking tree’ so called because it has ‘legs’ rather than fixed roots. It is able to shift its position by growing new legs and discarding old ones in the never ending search for that little bit of sunlight coming down through the canopy. 

Looking a little like a rocket with its ‘tail fin’ roots this tall ceiba tree is probably around 600 years old.

Towards sunset DonQui takes advantage of the opportunity to swim in the river at Lago Grande — a wide lagoon at the confluence of two tributaries. 

DonQui learns that this lagoon, now swollen with rainwater, is little more than a mud-flat at the height of the dry season in September.

The sunset over Lago Grande is amazing. So too are the stars that come out shortly afterwards.

After sunset a night walk through the forest reveals a hidden world of caymans, snakes and spiders. DonQui would have liked to have seen an anaconda but although he encounters several boa constrictors, anacondas elude him. Apparently they are easier to spot in the dry season. He does however, have a close encounter with a tarantula. This DonQui finds a little challenging as he has a few spider issues. 

During the course of his explorations DonQui sees and hears a huge variety of birds including parrots, toucans and macaws. His favourite is the stinking turkey (hoatzin). DonQui thinks they look a little bit like comedy cartoon characters.

In between exploratory excursions there are a couple of free hours after lunch to rest and relax. Invariably DonQui drifts off to sleep exhausted from long walks and canoe trips in the humid heat.

The absolute highlight is several sightings of pink (actually pinkish-grey) Amazonian fresh water dolphins — one of which DonQui sees frolicking just a few feet from the dock of the lodge. They only surface for a fraction of a second before going back under the dark murky water with a quick flip of a tail fin. This is a stock image as they were are far too quick for DonQui to capture a photo. According to Victor Hugo they become more pink in the mating season (May) and at that time they also leap further out of the water.