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.

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 to Amazonia

Wishing to explore Ecuadorian Amazonia, DonQui is given two options to get there from Quito — a 12 hour coach journey or a 25 minute flight.

“You get some great views on the coach,” says the kindly lady from the excellent Quinana Tours in Quito.

Regular readers will not be surprised to learn that DonQui pays the extra money for the 25 minute flight to Coca (officially Puerto Francisco de Orellana but no one calls it that) followed by a 2 hour car journey to Lago Agrio (officially Nueva Loja but no one calls it that). 

Lago Agrio is a gritty, ramshackle frontier town carved out of the Amazon rainforest in the 1960s by Texaco as a base for oil exploration. Close to the Columbian border it is an infamously dangerous, polluted, unattractive place, filled with oil workers, Columbian drug traffickers and impoverished looking locals.  It is, however, gateway to the fabulous Cuyabeno Nature Reserve. DonQui needs to spend a night there in a drab hotel in which most of the other occupants are dressed in red Halliburton branded boiler suits. He does not stray very far from the hotel.

Early next morning his driver takes DonQui on the 2 hour journey to the Cuyabeno Bridge — the meeting point for those wishing to head down the Cuyabeno river into the reserve.

Despite the insalubrious layover in Lago Agrio, DonQui is most pleased that he opted for the flight when he sees his bedraggled fellow travellers stagger off the overnight coach. As they gather their belongings for the canoe trip downriver there is universal agreement that the 12 hour coach trip was an absolute nightmare.

it is another two hours down the Cuyabeno by motorised canoe for DonQui, nine other passengers and an ebullient guide named Victor Hugo. 

The two hours stretch to three as the canoe stops whenever Victor Hugo spots monkeys, birds, snakes and the occasional sloth. His ability to spot wildlife whilst on the move is impressive. Even when the canoe is stationary DonQui often has a hard time to locate the animal or bird Victor is pointing out.

See if you can spot the bats clinging to the upright log in the water. It takes DonQui several minutes to do so from the canoe.

These colourful butterflies are quite a bit easier to see.

Finally the canoe pulls up at Dolphin lodge which will be DonQui’s base for the next few days of Amazonian exploration. 

The lodge is rustic but comfortable with only a dozen or so guests. Deep in the rainforest it is completely off grid with no wifi or phone signal and there is only a limited amount of electricity provided by the lodge’s solar panels. The sense of being away from everything suits DonQui perfectly. The food is pretty good considering the limited cooking facilities and the fact that absolutely everything has to be brought in by canoe. 

Grazing in the Galapagos

There are plenty of good watering holes and eateries in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz, where DonQui has based himself on the Galapagos. The food is good (especially seafood) but prices are very high. This is unsurprising given that almost everything, including water, has to be imported. Fish, coconut, bananas, plantain, and some chicken is local but vegetables are in very short supply. 

Quite a few places brew their own craft beer and it is rather good, although it costs around $10 a pint (Ecuador uses the US dollar).

One of DonQui’s favourite watering holes is The Rock brew-pub. It has some excellent beers and the food is also very good. In the evening local musicians play outside.

Restaurante Almar is a great place for a sundowner and it has excellent seafood. 

On his last day on Santa Cruz island DonQui takes a water taxi across the harbour.

There he treats himself to a bit of luxury at the Finch Bay Hotel. The bay is home to many species of Darwin finches — the birds famous for inspiring Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.

For supper DonQui opts for the tasting menu with paired wines. Although expensive it is not unduly so by Galapagos standards.  Although DonQui associates lemongrass with Thai food, it is grown in Ecuador and often used in many Ecuadorian dishes. The coconut shrimp and lemongrass soup is an absolute delight.

Each dish is superb, especially the fish and seafood.

To finish is a delightful (and most appropriate) chocolate lava cake celebrating Charles’ Darwin’s birthday (12 February).

Now DonQui is at the airport on Baltra island for a flight back to the mainland. There is a pleasant VIP lounge which DonQui can access thanks to the ‘Dragon Pass’ which comes with his bank account. Apparently real dragons have free access to come and go as they please!

Island hopping

The Galapagos is an archipelago of barren volcanic islands. The equatorial sun burns down on them and there is very little shade.

With no fresh water the islands are not well suited to habitation by either donkeys or humans.

Most of them are uninhabited refuges for a remarkable array of wildlife with unique species that helped to form Charles Darwin’s conclusions about evolution.

To explore a few of the islands and to meet some of the remarkable native inhabitants DonQui needs to get on a boat. There are a wide choice of day trips available from Puerto Ayora and all require an early morning start. This takes some effort on DonQui’s part as he is not naturally an early riser.

A dingy or water taxi takes DonQui to his waiting vessel on each of his three day-excursions to Pinzón, Isabella and North Seymour. The boats are quite comfortable — especially the catamaran which takes him to North Seymour. The groups on board are very small, usually about 10-12 passengers — the number of visitors being strictly limited to avoid overcrowding and too much disturbance to the wildlife.

A dingy is towed along behind to assist with beach landings and to get to good snorkelling spots.

On his way to Pinzón DonQui is lucky to encounter some Dolphins who decided to playfully swim around the boat for several minutes.

… and on the way back from North Seymour a huge Tiger Shark escorts DonQui out of the shark’s territorial waters. DonQui thinks it best not to argue.

The various snorkelling stops are the best part of all the trips. The water is crystal clear so DonQui is able to observe a huge array of tropical fish. Off Pinzón a family of sea lions swim alongside. One comes right up to DonQui and nosily presses its snout at DonQui’s mask. Off North Seymour DonQui suddenly finds himself in the middle of a huge school of whitetip sharks — hundreds of them swimming all around him. It was quite breathtaking.

Whilst snorkelling he aslo encounters marine iguanas, sea turtles, barracuda and several species of rays. 

DonQui also meets many fascinating species of birds such as these iconic blue footed boobies. Nearby DonQui sees a Galapagos penguin swimming and diving for fish.

One of these male frigate birds is puffing up his red throat sack in the hope of attracting a mate. The other looks as if he couldn’t be bothered.

DonQui sees land iguanas everywhere.

And he also comes across a pair of giant tortoises doing their best to ensure the continuation of their species.

Six days on the Galapagos with three spent on the inhabited Santa Cruz and three day-excursions to other islands is just about enough. DonQui thinks it might have been an idea to have spent a bit longer so he could have gone to San Cristobal to spent a night there. However, he has seen more wildlife close up than he could possibly have hoped for. So he is just about ready for his next adventure

Galloping to Galapagos

When researching his ‘round the world’ trip DonQui learned that most people wishing to visit the Galapagos Islands take a cruise ship from the Ecuadorian coast. The prices are eye-watering and the thought of being stuck on a boat for several days with a bunch of strangers does not appeal. Then he discovers that there are plentiful inexpensive flights from Quito, taking only a couple of hours instead of three days. This seems like a much better proposition.

So he wings his way over the Pacific to land at Baltra airport — formally a US Naval base.

He passes several checks to fill in forms, pay various fees and to ensure he is not bringing in any organic material which would harm the wildlife. Then he takes the bus to the ferry which will transport him over the straight to Santa Cruz island. 

The ‘ferry’ crossing on a small boat is quite quick and has an atmospheric air of adventure to it. On landing he could then have waited for a bus but, being a creature who likes his comforts, DonQui opts for a taxi for the 40 minute drive through the barren landscape to Puerto Ayora where he will be basing himself.

Puerto Ayora is a pleasant low-rise, laid back, small tourist town. 

The locals seem very friendly.

DonQui comes across a couple of the locals enjoying a late afternoon beach snooze just on the edge of town.

The lovely Morning Glory ‘boutique hostel’ is DonQui’s base for the next five days and he is more than happy with his choice. His hostess Ruth is very helpful in suggesting day excursions for DonQui to explore these unique islands and to come close to its wildlife.

Tomorrow he will begin exploring.