Thursday, December 29, 2011

I love every aspect of Dar el Menia - Fes Medina, Morocco

Dark, tiny alleys to Dar el Menia....but wait until you're inside the house
The bathroom on second floor
This 250 years old Dar el Menia (Moroccan Traditional House) is one of the most interesting accommodation I have ever stayed. We arrived in the walled old city of Medina in the evening. From one man, we were transferred to another and finally, we trotted behind the man pushing our luggage in a small cart, like a wheel barrow. Not a word was spoken. I began to wonder, "Where am I?" The ambience was weird, nothing I have seen before in my life. Stealing a glance at my surrounding, I began to worry about the accommodation I've booked! Must be scruffy!

As we got deeper into the Medina, the alleys were getting smaller and darker...it was scary. The man suddenly stopped in front of a huge, heavy iron door and began banging it.  As soon as the door opened, a tall, lean English man appeared in front of us. I felt relief, it must be none other than Graham, the owner of Dar el Menia whom I've been corresponding through emails. He greeted and invited us into his charming Dar. Graham took time to explain about the house and the Medina. I was utterly impressed by every detail of the interior and obviously, he has done an impressive pain staking job to preserve the house. It is an amazing Dar (house).

Narrow bedroom Moroccan style
This is a place I would recommend to anyone who loves to experience the rustic and authentic Moroccan living in the Medina. The house can actually sleep 11 but the four of us rented the whole house for privacy. It has 4 bedrooms over the three floors, all with attached bathrooms, a communal salon and 2 kitchens; one on the ground floor and the other at the roof top. In the morning Um Kalthum and her husband, Mustpha came to prepare us breakfast and kept the house immaculately clean. They only speak French and Arabic but the sign language works pretty well for us.

Dar el Menia has been featured in Lonely Planet, Sunday Times Travel Magazine and it has been fully restored by the owner, Graham Coules. It is a wonderful place that we wish to stay when we visit Morocco again.
website: www.medinafes.com

In another bedroom at level 2
Cozy day bed
The bathroom on the third level
Interesting ceramic piece
The kitchen
The wash basin
The shower head

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Hiking in Lower Belum Rainforest - Lake Temenggor, Malaysia

Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints
Hiking the Lower Belum Rainforest is an unforgettable experience. It is pretty strenuous and a real challenge walking for hours, climbing the slippery muddy trails and crossing the deep rivers. The density of the tropical forest and humidity remain a huge challenge - it can be so tiring. Hiking in Belum can take days but we opted for a day trip which took about 8 to 9 hours. A good pair of hiking boots is essential and for those unfamiliar with leeches and mosquitoes take along insects repellent. Though exhausting, there were so much to learn from our lush, dense Rainforest and at the end of the day the hike was well worth it. 

We hired a boat with a driver and a guide who happened to be husband and wife team. It cost about RM 400 for the whole boat inclusive of driver, guide, water and lunch but it'll cost much more if you book the trip from the hotel. We carried some fruits, snacks and extra bottles of water to hydrate ourselves adequately. The boat can accommodate about 8 people and it is best to start as early as possible before it gets real hot.

Our guide estimated the elephants were here in less than 8 hours
It took about one and a half hour boat ride to get to our first destination in search for the salt lick spot. According to our guide there are about 60 salt lick spots around Belum and many wild animals frequented the area to lick the needed salts for their general well being or when they are ill. Our first stop was Sira Gajah and there we found fresh elephants dung and their tracks, which our guide could easily tell that the elephants were there in less than 8 hours.

With the help of our expert guides, we penetrated the thick forest and the humongous leafy trees were like a canopy protecting us from the blazing sun. Though shaded we still sweat profusely due to humidity. Along the trail, our guides showed us many medicinal plants usually used by the natives to cure their illness but some, like the Agarwood (Gaharu) and Tongkat Ali have been heavily commercialized for all purposes. Another interesting discovery during the hike was when we were shown fresh scratches of tigers claws on the tree barks and deep marks of the Sun bears claws. We were lucky that we were not greeted by them on that day!

Pulau Batu Putih
From Sira Gajah  we continued our journey by boat to Pulau Batu Putih (White Rock Island) which was said to be inhabited by dinosaurs million years ago. From the white limestone rocks grew the Bogak trees as evidence that dinosaurs existed in the area according to the guides. After a stop at the Temenggor Hydro Dam we headed for a picnic spot to have a late lunch. Not just a simple walk for a picnic but we had to wade the river for more than a kilometer towards the waterfall in the jungle. Some parts of the water was shallow but some can be as deep as 5 feet and it was a good dip after a sweaty hiking.
Wading through the river for a picnic spot near the waterfall 
Sira Gajah salt lick 
The inhabitant of Lake Temenggor waving us from a distance
Part of the trail to the waterfall
Rocks along the river
Our guide protecting our bags packed with camera 
Cool fresh green water

Ancient limestone hills dating back 400 million years 
I'm not sure what this is?
Breeding Telapia fish for exports

Lake Temenggor is the home of Telapia fish
The visible sun bear claws marks on the trees
Huge fresh elephants dung near the hot spring
Our guide cuts the Agarwood (gaharu) bark to give us the smell
Cute little monster
Some fungi found in the forest

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Imagine you're in Devrent Valley - Goreme

A camel? A hen?
Devrent Valley is also known as Imagination Valley. There are no cave churches, ruined castles or abandoned village here. In fact it was never inhabited. Located 10 minutes drive from Goreme, this valley is famous for its red lunar landscape. Just let your imagination run free and you will be able to spot many animal shaped rocks sculptured by nature.

Our guide had fun quizzing us on the shapes of the rocks visible around us. When we say camel, he says hen and when he says snakes, we can’t even see them. And when he says we are wrong, I objected because after all it’s up to our imagination. We can’t be wrong!

The Valley
Napolean Hat

Monday, December 12, 2011

Tea Culture - Iran

Tea served in open air Sa'adabad Restaurant in Tehran
Tea is served almost everywhere and in every occasion in Iran. Brewed in the kettle, it is usually darker and bitter than the one I usually have back at home. No wonder, Iranians would put a lump of rock sugar in their mouth before sipping their tea. Unfamiliar with the way tea is consumed in this country, I'd rather stir my sugar until it dissolved perfectly. In the bazaar, the chai (tea) boy runs around delivering tea, while the shop owners interact and do business with tea. The tea culture is so dominant and imposing that it's hard to reject an offer for a cup of tea.
Swirling the saffron flavored crystal rock sugar in our tea

Our experience with tea began as soon as we stepped our feet in Iran. We had an eight-hour flight to Tehran followed by another 5 hours drive to Mazandaran. In the middle of the darkness, our taxi driver stopped at one of the tea house on the highway to have a cup of tea. It was about 1 am and he must be sleepy - the tea kept him awake until we arrived to our destination. On arrival at our host's house in Babol, Mazandaran we were served tea at 3am. The greetings and welcoming was as warm as the cup of tea served!

Taking tea is a ritual unto itself and as such the drink is offered in the beginning of an occasion as well as at the end of most meals. In Eram Garden in Shiraz and Sa'adabad Palace in Tehran, we had tea in Chaikhaneh (Tea House) served on a takhts (low rise platform) covered with rugs and pillows. We have to remove our shoes, sit on the platform and the tablecloth is laid at our feet. While sipping our tea we could recline on the pillows, chat with our friends and the whole experience was very relaxing especially with green trees and flowers surrounding the takhts. 

The takht we sat in Saadabad

In Sa'adabad, the tea house has live band performing with male singer singing Iranian songs. While waiting for tea and food to be served the Iranians were singing along to the tune and some young vibrant girls started to clap their hands, move their heads and tap their feet to the music. Not long after that, the management staff approached the girls to remind them that they were not supposed to be singing or dancing in public. Though the conversation was in Persian, we understood what was going on when Soudabeh translated the whole conversation between the man and the girls. We smiled when Soudabeh started to sing in a whispering voice and she assured us, "My voice is not going to hurt them!"
Dates, Saffron flavored rock sugar and tea
The cool blue jelly served with tea 
Takht at the tea house in Eram Garden, Shiraz
Tea house in Eram, Shiraz set in a beautiful garden of pomegranate  
Tea served in the street shops in Shiraz
Happy girls clapping and enjoying themselves for a moment
Live band in Sa'adabad
Tea House in the middle of the highway to Mazandaran