Friday, October 26, 2012

Housesitting in Toronto (part 1)

After our trip to India, we returned to the UK for a couple of months where we caught up with family in Eastbourne and Norfolk and our friends in Brighton. We actually did our first official house sit in Brighton, looking after a couple of incredibly cute dogs.

We are now house sitting in Toronto, Canada. We have had the time to start our blog at last, and have written about our travels over the last two or three years. We have finally caught up and everything we write from now on will be up to date!

We applied for the four and a half month house sit, and after exchanging emails with the house owner and having a chat on the phone, we booked our flight to Toronto. We are taking care of a house and sweet natured cat in Scarborough, a sprawling suburb of Toronto about half an hour by public transport to the downtown area. It's a very multicultural neighbourhood full of immigrants from all over the world. At the end of our road, about a minute's walk away, we can see Lake Ontario through the trees.

It's a lovely time of the year to be here as the trees are amazing colours. Halloween is approaching and there are pumpkins everywhere you look. Many of the houses and gardens have spooky style decorations. The house opposite has a giant inflated pumpkin. It's fun to check out the decorations as you walk round the neighbourhood.

We have enjoyed exploring Toronto. It's a fantastic city with lots to do, some fascinating ethnic areas, a great music and art scene and lots of green spaces. Initially, we bought Discovery Passes, which work out a lot cheaper than buying individual tickets. The pass includes entrance to Casa Loma, CN Tower, Toronto Zoo, Royal Ontario Museum and Toronto Science Center. You get nine days to visit the five attractions. Even though we gave the Science Center a miss, it still worked out better value than purchasing individual tickets

On our first trip downtown we took the elevator to up to the viewing deck of the CN Tower for panoramic views of the city and Lake Ontario. We walked up University Avenue to Bloor Street where we had lunch at Gabby's Diner before visiting the Royal Ontario Museum. It's a very impressive contemporary building with extensive natural history and world cultural departments. We both loved it and the gift shop is fabulous!


On another occasion, we checked out St. Lawrence Market, an undercover market with an array of speciality foods including bread, cheese, fish, meat and cakes. I tried a pea meal bacon bun, which is apparently a Toronto tradition and it was rather delicious!

 The Distillery, an inside/outside gentrified area is full of galleries. Apparently, they have a Christmas market there, so we are looking forward to checking that out. Kensington Market is similar to Camden in London. Adjacent to Chinatown, its got funky cafes/restaurants and shops, organic bakeries, fruit stalls and colourful murals. We ate burritos at a Mexican cantina and sat to people watch for a while.

Casa Loma is a hundred year old castle on a hill overlooking the downtown area. It has been used in many movies including Cocktail, Chicago and Skulls. It's a Gothic building with secret passages and towers and was interesting to have a wander round.

We were able to get tickets to see 'Sister Act' at The Ed Mervish Theatre, which was a fun and very dynamic show.

 Before we left the UK, we had booked to see Alanis Morrisette at The Sound Academy. The venue is rather detached from the downtown area and located down at the port by Lake Ontario. We started walking, not realising just how far it was. When we finally got there, there was an amazing nightime view of the Toronto skyline. It was a pretty quiet and desolute area, but luckily we found a cosy bar for dinner and drinks before the gig. Alanis was fantastic, even though it was somewhat difficult to catch a glimpse of her as we were standing at the back.

We took a tour to Niagara Falls. We don't usually do tours, but it was the cheapest and most convenient way to get there from Toronto, so we set off in a mini-bus with five other people. We stopped at Niagara On the Lake, a quaint town crammed with independent shops, including a Christmas store. From the lake, we could see the Toronto in the distance. We continued on to a vineyard, where we did a little wine tasting. We sampled Ice wine, a dessert wine, which was surprisingly good. Apparently, the grapes are only picked at night and only after the temperature has been below -20 centigrade for three consecutive days.

Niagara Falls is of course, spectacular. We donned plastic capes for the Maid of the Mist boat trip. It was very windy when we got out there and we got saturated by the spray. It was difficult to see the falls through the mist, but it was fun. We got a better view when we walked to the brink afterwards. We wandered up Carlton Hill, which is like a mini Las Vegas, but full of haunted houses, waxwork museums and houses of fun on various themes. After a quick (and unprofitable) visit to the casino, it was time to head back.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Souks and Snake-Charmers in Marrakech

Having purchased four incredibly cheap Easy Jet tickets, we were off to exotic Marrakech for a few days with our friends Anton and Ian.

It was February when we flew into the fabulously warm land of Morocco. We had booked to stay at a riyadh in the old city. They were supposed to pick us up at the airport, but apparently there was some mix-up, so we were left to our own devices. Our taxi drove through the busy traffic, until we were skirting the walls of the old city. When we arrived at the riyadh, the brothers who owned it made up for their transgression by plying us with mint tea while we sat in the splendour of the courtyard. The colours of the riyadh were amazing and there were intricate designs everywhere you looked, from the chairs to the lanterns.

We dumped our backpacks in our equally colourful  room, and headed out to explore the city. Walking through the streets, we passed the Koutoubia mosque and minaret and soon came across the Jemma El Fna. It's a massive square surrounded by restaurants and stalls and full of storytellers in flamboyant costumes, monkeys, snake-charmers and tourist laden horse-and-carts. We had lunch in the square and headed through the adjacent souks that were full of fascinating temptations.

The lanes leading off the Jemma El Fna were full of mystery. We spotted a hooded figure wearing a djellaba (a traditional Berber robe) unlocking an ornately painted door with a large key and couldn't help but wonder what was behind the door! There were splashes of vibrant colour everywhere, the doorways, the window frames and brightly coloured carpets hung out of windows to dry.

By dusk we made our way back to Jemma El Fna enthusiastically assisted by a small boy who demanded a big tip. We sat at a rooftop restaurant with drinks as the light faded. It was an incredibly exotic scene, made more so by the soundtrack of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer. Scores of food stalls set up in the square, mini kitchens along with tables and chairs while touts armed with menus attempted to entice passersby to their stalls.

We wandered back to the riyadh where one of the brothers magically conjured up a couple of bottles of wine for us to enjoy on the roof terrace. (Finding wine in Marrakech was no easy task, but we persevered and on a number of occasions were successful!) Whenever we were served alcohol, it was always accompanied by a delicious array of olives, almonds, pistachios and walnuts.

The next day we managed to find a place that served alcohol that we had read about in Lonely Planet. It's called Kozy Bar, and although a little tricky to locate, it was definitely worth the search. It's a great wine bar/restaurant with a roof terrace overlooking El-Badii Palace where you can watch nesting storks. We made ourselves comfortable and ordered some excellent wine and tasty food. It was a gorgeous slightly breezy, but sunny day. We got through a few bottles before we left several hours later!

The following day we left the old city to visit Marjorelle Gardens. We did get lost (as usual), but got there eventually. The gardens were an oasis of calm in the midst of the busy city - palms, bamboo. cacti and pools. There were pathways winding through the vegetation and huge brightly painted pots. The contemporary house was electric blue and yellow. The garden had been owned by Yves Saint Laurent, who had restored the gardens and whose ashes were now interred within. It was one of the highlights of our visit to Marrakech.

That evening we went to one of the best hotels in town where we sat by the swimming pool drinking cocktails amongst the palm trees. A local musician played traditional Morrocan music nearby. The cocktails weren't cheap, but worth splashing out on for the ambience. We had dinner at a Moroccan restaurant. To be honest, neither of us really got into the local cuisine. Tagines, at least the ones we tried, didn't really do it for us. The snacks were nice though!

The next day we hired a car and driver to take us to the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. About five minutes into the journey, on the outskirts of town, we ran out of petrol. Our driver had to call another guy on his mobile, who showed up half an hour later on a motorbike with a petrol can  So, we set off again. Our first official stop, not surprisingly, was a carpet shop. We didn't seem to be given an option about this although we all knew there was a zero chance of any of us making a purchase and told our driver this. The carpet seller was at first charming, unravelling carpet after carpet. Of course, some of the carpets were lovely, but we weren't buying. When the carpet seller finally realised this, his attitude changed and he became sullen, barely able to say goodbye when we left.

Driving through several tiny Berber villages, we continued on until we reached Ourika valley. A river snaked its way through the village and a waterfall ran into the fast-moving river. We crossed the river on a rickety bridge and hiked up to the first level of the waterfall on a rocky trail passing huge boulders. It was a lovely setting, but was slightly spoiled by the crowds of day trippers from Marrakech and a fair amount of rubbish that had been dumped alongside the trail. The driver had passed us onto a guide. It was the type of situation that we were always resistant to, as we liked to be independent, especially with something as straightforward as a short hike!

Afterwards, we sat at a cafe, having a drink with our driver. We headed back, stopping off at a place selling essential oils and perfumes (again, not out of choice). It was an enjoyable day and we saw some nice scenery, but obviously in the time that we had, we weren't able to see as much of the mountains as we would have liked to.

On our last full day, we went to Ali Ben Youssef Medersa, an Islamic school until 1960 when it closed. It is a beautiful building with stunning mosaics and gave an interesting insight into Islamic culture. In the afternoon we returned to Kozy Bar . Due to heavy winds, the roof terrace was closed, but we sat inside in our own private section. The furnishings were typically Moroccan - heavy curtains, over sized cushions and rich colours. We drank lots of wine and Ian danced on a table.

On the day of our departure, we headed once more into the depths of the souk to make a few last minute purchases. One of the nice things about being in Marrakech with the boys was that we didn't receive any hassle at all! Instead of us, it was always Anton or Ian who were consulted or approached. I suppose we should have been insulted, but having been in many countries where the hassle is constant, it was a pleasant relief!

Marrakech is an atmospheric and exotic city full of vibrant colour, evocative sounds and mysterious alleyways and we will always have a place for it in our hearts.

A quick jaunt to Bilbao

We flew into Bilbao on the evening of T's birthday looking forward to checking in at the funky Hesperia Hotel and having a few celebratory drinks. Unfortunately for us, our trip coincided with a Spanish National Holiday and everything was closed! We arrived just in time for the only supermarket in the city still open, to pull down its shutters! We trawled the streets in the hope of finding a bar or cafe that was open, but were forced to concede and return to our hotel, hungry and a little sad that we weren't able to have a birthday toast.

The next day we wandered along the river to Casco Viejo, the old town, where a couple of shops had opened and we bought some chocolate croissants for breakfast and sat down by the river to eat them.

We took the funicular up Artxanda Hill from which there was a lovely view of the city. It was only March, but the weather was warm and sunny. We took a look round a small park on the hill where there were a couple of sculptures before hiking down to the river.

It was still an official holiday and the promenade next to the river was busy. Families strolled along, eating ice cream and enjoying the sunshine.

Our main purpose for visiting Bilbao was to go to the Guggenheim Museum, the city's most famous attraction. Frank Gehry's creation was certainly a spectacular sight, situated on the river with Louise Bourgeois' giant spider adjacent to it. The following morning, we arrived early to purchase our tickets. Near the entrance was a massive exhibit of a giant puppy, made of flowers. The exhibition that was on at the time was that of Japanese pop artist, Takashi Murakami. It was a colourful show and the interior of the Guggenheim was contemporary, quirky and cool.

If it hadn't been for the draw of the Guggenheim, we wouldn't ever have thought of visiting Bilbao. It transpired that Bilbao was a pleasant and interesting place to stay for a couple of days. There was some attractive architecture, a scenic river, some lovely green spaces and a fantastic art museum. Despite the unfortunate beginning, it turned into a very enjoyable jaunt!

48 snowy hours in Amsterdam!

We took the train from the airport to the heart of the city, where we checked into Hotel Ben. Our tiny room was situated at the top of a very tall, narrow building. Luckily, it was warm, as it was freezing outside! The chill factor was high, and it had begun to snow. After purchasing some thick woolly gloves, we set off to explore. We went to Dam Square, wandered through the red light district and checked out the funky shops. Later, as it began to get dark and the snow became heavier, we sought shelter in a pub where we drunk wine and sampled some tasty Dutch snacks.

The next day, we walked along the scenic canals to the Van Gogh Museum which housed an extensive collection of his artwork and it was fascinating to read about his life as we perused the paintings. We walked back through Vogelpark and stopped for lunch at an Irish pub.

On our final day, we went to Anne Franks house. Part of the museum is a modern building attached to the original house. As the house is very popular and you can't always get tickets on the door without a very long wait, we had booked online a few days before. At ground level was the jam factory where the people who helped hide the family worked. Upstairs was the annex where Anne spent two years of her life hiding. There are still pictures and postcards that Anne had stuck on the wall. It was a very moving experience and gave us a real sense of the conditions that Anne and her family had to tolerate.

Amsterdam is an intriguing combination of historical buildings, coffee shops, flower stalls, scenic canals, bicycles and brothels. It's pretty compact, and easy to get around on foot. It had been an interesting forty eight hours in one of Europe's most vibrant and quirky cities.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Istanbul to Cappadocia

We spent a few days staying in Sultanahmet, the cultural centre of Istanbul. Our hotel had a roof terrace overlooking the Bosphorus Sea. The room was fine for a budget hotel, apart from the fact that it was situated adjacent to the metal stairway leading to the roof terrace, so it was a somewhat noisy at night, as guests stomped up and down the stairs! The road was in a pleasant leafy area, only a five minute walk from the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sophia.

We visited the the aforementioned attractions, enjoying the magnificent history, stunning ottoman architecture and soaking up the atmosphere. We checked out a few of the many rooftop bars, most of which had glorious views of the Sultanahmet area. One day we took the ferry on the Bosphorus Sea, making stops at villages en route. The Grand Bazaar is a confusing labyrinth of alleys, a mini city in its own right where you can buy anything from ottoman slippers to gold. The Spice Market is crammed with spices (naturally!), dried fruits, nuts, perfume oils, nougat, honey and Turkish delight. We enjoyed the Basilica Cistern, an atmospheric underground reservoir complete with fish and surrounded by Roman pillars.

Crossing the Galata Bridge, we took advantage of 'Free Thursday' to visit the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art. It is a cool contemporary space full of striking artwork. We walked up the hill to Taksim Square, the heart of Istanbul. There were sweet shops full of Turkish delight (locum), which we purchased as gifts.

Our favourite Turkish snack was the simit, a sesame encrusted bread ring sold by street vendors.
We loved Turkish foods - a meze consisting of freshly baked Turkish bread, dips such as tzatziki. hummus and haydari with marinated vegetables and pot kebabs (when you have to smash the pot to release the contents of your meal) followed by delicious sticky baklava.

A night out in Sultanahmet involved the amazing feats of a whirling dervish and hangovers the following morning. Turkish wine was surprisingly good!

After a few days in Istanbul, it was time to make tracks to Cappadocia. A mini-bus picked us up at our hotel and took us to the biggest bus station we had ever seen. It was virtually a town - on several levels, it was a confusion of buses heading to and from destinations all over Turkey, Bulgaria, Greece, Romania and the Balkans. There were one hundred and sixty eight ticket offices and gates, a metro station, shops, restaurants, a police station, a clinic and a mosque! Thankfully, the mini-bus dropped us off adjacent to our bus, so we didn't have to try and locate it ourselves!


We had wanted to go to Cappadocia for many years, having seen photographs of its weird and wonderful landscapes. At last we were on our way! The journey would take about twelve hours on the overnight bus. We made a couple of stops in the night at garishly decorated shops full to the brim of sweet treats and nuts.

As the sun came up, there were hints of the spectacular landscape to come, which became more apparent as we continued our journey. Goreme and its surrounding area is like a wondrous fantasy land. You expect to see elves wandering the streets, instead of humans! Houses, churches and more recently hotels are burrowed into the bizarre rock formations to create the town of Goreme.

We checked into our cave hotel. The bed was carved out of the ground and the shelves carved into the wall. Unlike some cave rooms which are apparently rather luxurious, it was pretty basic, but it was home for the next week or so.

We walked up the nearby hill and looked out over the valley of Goreme - it was an extraordinary sight. Hot air ballooning is the thing to do for those who can afford it, and its easy to understand why. Cappadocia must be one of the most spectacular places in the word to take a balloon ride.

On our right, we looked down upon a group of phallic-like rock formations, and a little further on we came across a massive chasm in the ground. It seemed that in this unreal landscape, you never knew what you were going to come across.

As T started descent of a very steep slope, she slipped on the gravelly surface and slid at full speed down the slope coming to an abrupt halt when she collided with a tree! She was in the process of warning me to be careful, when I too tumbled, and took the same route crashing into the tree at the foot of the slope! It was a funny moment and not unlike the memorable scene in 'Romancing the Stone'!

We had a fantastic week in Cappadocia. We went to Goreme Open Air Museum which is an area with a dense concentration of cave churches and dwellings built into the stone cliffs and rocks.

Everyday we hiked through the surreal and astonishing scenery. Sometimes we sat in a cave simply looking out at the Dali-esque landscape, listening to the muezzins call to prayer reverberating through the valley. We walked to nearby villages through valleys packed with eroded rocks resembling mushrooms, chimneys and pointed witches hats. A stunning scenario awaited us at every twist and turn. We wandered at will, unrestricted and saw very few people.

Back in town, we smoked shisha pipes, drank wine and watched the sun go down over the fairy chimneys.

It was time to leave. Cappadocia is one of the most awe-inspiring places we have visited on our travels and it was with regret, that we caught our bus back to Istanbul for our flight home.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Following the Mekong in Laos

We had booked a combo ticket in Kratie, Cambodia that would apparently take us through the border and all the way up to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. We didn't have much confidence in it all coming together, but somehow it did. It involved a jeep, a bus, a mini-bus and a sleeper bus, and was a very long (about twenty four hours) and at times uncomfortable journey. The final leg in the sleeper bus was the best - a cosy bed with fresh linen and plump pillows!

We woke up in Vientiene. Having checked into our hotel, we went for a breakfast of French Croissants (a remnant of French colonialism) and had a wander round. Vientiene is probably the smallest and most sleepy capital city in the world. Situated on the banks of the Mekong, it wasn't until the 1990's that the city started to develop. There is a promenade, a cluster of restaurants, shops and several temples. The largest monument is Patuxai Gate which is inspired by the Arc de Triomphe.

After a couple of days, we took the ten hour bus trip to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Luang Prabang. Originally, we were going to stop off in Vang Vieng to go tubing, but T had an unfortunate incident. She had been bitten on the sole of her foot. When she checked the bite, which was quite painful, a huge bug crawled out from beneath the skin! It then became infected and remained painful, so she thought it best to give the tubing a miss. Fortunately, it cleared up but it was rather an unpleasant experience!

The road to Luang Prabang was a spectacular journey through the mountains. Up until now, our route through Cambodia and Laos had been through a very flat landscape, so it made a change to be in the mountains. We had heard great things about Luang Prabang and felt as though we were going somewhere remote and special. Somehow it felt fitting that we would arrive somewhere like that at the end of a long and scenic road, rather than just flying in!

As with our last three stops, Luang Prabang is situated on the Mekong, a charming town set against rugged mountains and verdant jungle. It is bursting with boutique hotels, quality restaurants, craft shops, monasteries, golden roofed temples (wats) and wandering saffron robed monks. We stayed for a week. The pace was slow and unhurried, but there was plenty to keep us occupied.

We climbed the three hundred and twenty eight steps to the hilltop Wat Phousi, situated in the middle of the town. On the way up we passed brightly coloured sculptures, shrines, caves and Buddhas. From the summit, we were rewarded with panoramic views of the rivers on either side. We went to the Royal Palace, a splendid Laos style building with a gold plated roof and an adjacent museum and the most impressive of all temples, Wat Xieng Thong which had a richly ornate exterior and glass murals. All of the temples were beautiful in their own unique way and we wandered from one to the next exploring them all.

One day we took a narrow (rather unstable!) wooden boat down the river to the Pak Ou Caves, which are full of Buddhas of every shape and size. On our way, the boat broke down and we had to climb into another equally unstable boat that pulled up alongside us. Health and safety doesn't exist in Laos!

One of the highlights was watching the monks alms ceremony. Every morning, the monks would pad barefoot through the silent streets to collect rice and fruit in their alms bowls. The giving of alms is a closely observed tradition and according to Buddhism, is merit making for those who make offerings.
It was a peaceful and spiritual ceremony and remains one of our most lingering images of Luang Prabang.

One of our most fun days was a ride through the nearby jungle on an elephant. The mahout was clearly fond of his charge, singing in the elephants ear and treating it kindly (not always the case in our experience). After the ride, we fed the elephant a bunch of bananas, and walked through the village to the nearby river for bath time. I sat on the elephants back while it sprayed water everywhere, and then promptly dumped me in the water!

In the evenings we had dinner at one of the many good restaurants, or had cocktails as we watched the sun sink over the Mekong. Our favourite restaurant was Dyen Sabai, situated on the other side of the river we had to cross a rickety bamboo bridge to reach it. It was a chilled hangout, where we sat on cushions eating fried river weed and drinking mango margaritas, surrounded by fairy lights and lanterns.

There was a nightly handicraft market which we would regularly stroll through, where you could buy everything from cushion covers to slippers. Refreshingly, there was no hard sell techniques as there often are in Asia.

The week came to an close and it was time to make our way back to Vientiene. Exhausted, after a long and arduous journey, we picked up a tuk tuk and set off to our hotel. Half way back, we ran out of petrol and the tuk tuk came to a stuttering stop. The driver dashed over the road to a garage which promptly closed up for the night as he arrived! We waited in the abandoned tuk tuk on the busy highway while he ran off down the road with a petrol can.

We did eventually make it back and enjoyed the next day taking in yet more temples in Vientiene. (There was something addictive about them - once you started, you couldn't stop!) The following day we left Vientiene over the Laos-Thai Friendship Bridge and took a sleeper train back to Bangkok, where it all began.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Temple-hopping in Cambodia

On entering Cambodia, we were herded onto a bus along with a bunch of other backpackers, and taken to a bus station. It felt like something official as there didn't appear to be an option. It wasn't until the guy doing the herding hassled us quite aggressively for a tip, that we realised what was going on.

We had to choose our mode of transport to Siem Reap and opted for a taxi, which was a lot quicker.  We shared a car with a couple of Japanese guys and hit the road. We were very excited - Siem Reap is the nearest town to our dream travel destination of Angkor Wat, and we were on our way!

As we sped along (good choice!) it started to rain. Kids danced on the roadside, rejoicing in the downpour. It was the beginning of the monsoon season and had been unbelievably hot - sweltering,  energy sapping heat, so the rain was sweet relief.

When we arrived in Siem Reap, there was more hassle from a tuk tuk driver who wanted to take us to a different hotel to the one we had already booked! He was a very angry character and after he finally agreed to take us, collided with a motorbike with a girl perched on the back. Luckily, there was no harm done, but no apology was forthcoming from the driver.

We made it to the Golden Mango Inn, a great budget hotel with friendly staff. Our plan was to walk to Angkor Wat the next day, but when the guy on reception explained just how far it was, we agreed that it would be best to hire a tuk tuk for the day.


We were up at four the next morning to meet our driver. He was ours for two days, and thankfully, was a really nice guy. It was still dark when we set off through the streets of Siem Reap, in anticipation of the day ahead. We reached the entrance of the complex, where we had our photographs taken for our passes. A little further along, we stopped at Angkor Wat itself, the most famous of all of the temples. We strolled down the walkway leading to the monument in awe, just in time for sunrise. It was a spectacular sight, the sun reflecting in the pool in front of Angkor. Having explored the remarkable temple, we got back on the road in an attempt to beat the crowds.

The Angkor Wat complex is the most important archaeological site in South East Asia covering 400 square miles of over one hundred 9th-15th century Khmer ruins. It is an astonishing and atmospheric place surrounded by dense jungle. Our favourite temples were Bayon and Ta Prohm, which are both stunning. Bayon has huge sculptural decorations of the Buddha on its exterior, an image that is frequently used to represent Cambodia. Ta Phrom is most well known for being the 'Tomb Raider' temple. It is an awe-inspiring example of what happens when nature is left to do its own thing. Tangles of massive tree roots wind themselves round the ancient temple, giving it the appearance of some kind of mystical fantasy land.  It's a magical place and we sat under a tree for some time, just taking it all in. Unfortunately, our time there coincided with the arrival of busloads of Japanese tourists! Nothing could detract however, from the mystique and wonder of this amazing place. It was a very special day and without doubt, the highlight of our Cambodian adventure.


The next day we headed along the highway with our trusted tuk tuk driver to The Roulos Group of temples. These temples, which included Bakong, Lolei and Preah Ko, were the supporting cast to the famous Angkor group. Although less spectacular, they were consequently less crowded, more tranquil and a pleasure to explore.

On our return to Siem Reap, we hit Pub Street for cocktails, food, a little shopping and a fish pedicure! It's a one stop street that caters to the backpacker's every need. The Blue Pumpkin, a cafe serving great food with the added bonus of air conditioning offered heavenly relief from the intense humidity outside. Who's idea was it to visit Cambodia in May?!!

The next day we caught a bus to Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital, about four hours drive away.  On the bus, we were presented with a small box of freshly backed sweet pastries. Fortunately for me, T doesn't eat pastries, so there was a double helping for me. (I was hoping that all buses in Cambodia would provide baked goods, but alas, it was not to be!)

In Phenom Penh, we visited The Royal Palace, which was an impressive building with well maintained gardens. We also went to The National Museum, which houses the largest collection of Khmer art in Cambodia. It is a pleasant open building in a very pretty setting. We had never seen so many Buddhas in one place!

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is the prison building where the Khmer Rouge committed the worst atrocities imaginable. Our visit there was a moving experience. The prison cells and torture chambers had been left in exactly the same condition as when the prison was liberated. The weapons of torture and shackles were still present. In larger rooms, there were row after row of photographs of the victims. The dark history of what had taken place within the walls made for an oppressive atmosphere, and we left with heavy hearts.

Our next destination was Kratie in North East Cambodia, on the banks of the Mekong River. Our bus blew a tyre en route and we continued for some distance with a flat tyre. We eventually stopped, the tyre was changed and we continued our journey to Kratie.

There wasn't a lot going on in Kratie, but it was a laid back place to spend a couple of days. We watched the sun go down over the mighty Mekong, and then appropriately went for dinner at a restaurant called 'Red Sun Falling'. It was run by an ex-pat American called Jim who was a bit of a character. The restaurant served a mixture of Asian and Western cuisines, and we ate there two or three times.

We took a boat across the river to a massive sandbar in the middle, where we hired bikes to explore the villages, paddy fields and the single temple. As we cycled past through the clusters of tiny villages, locals waved. It was very rural and an interesting insight into traditional village life.

We also hired a boat to go in search of the Irrawaddy river dolphins. Completely different to the common dolphin, they are smaller with bulbous heads. We did see quite a few, but they were difficult to spot, as only their little heads came above the level of the river.

Despite Cambodia's horrific recent history, we found the people warm and welcoming and really enjoyed our time there. Now it was time to move on to neighbouring Laos.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Happy New Year Bangkok (Thanks for the soaking!)

As flights to Phnom Penh from London cost substantially more than flights to Bangkok, we decided to fly to Bangkok and catch a train down to the Thai-Cambodian border. We had a couple of days in Bangkok before heading out of town.

As we had both been to Bangkok before, we didn't feel the need to rush around seeing the sights, but we were both keen to visit Jim Thompson's house, which neither of us had been to before. Jim Thompson was a successful and wealthy textile trader who went for a walk in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia in 1967, and was never seen again. He built his Bangkok house in traditional Thai style, consisting of six teak buildings and a surrounding lush tropical garden. Inside the buildings were an impressive collection of Chinese ceramics, Thai paintings and 13th/14th century Buddha statues. The house was an oasis of calm amidst the chaos of the metropolis.

We thought we would head to Dusit Park, a leafy area and home to a complex of palaces, royal residences and elephant stables. Instead of the peaceful stroll in the park that we were anticipating, it was bursting at the seams with excited children and their parents celebrating the Thai New Year (Songkran). Completely unintentionally, every time we have visited Thailand it has coincided with the festival. Songkran is basically an excuse to spray, throw or squirt water over passersby. Foreigners (farangs) are particularly targeted by the fully armed Thais!

There was a fun-filled atmosphere in the park, and in addition to the abundance of  brightly coloured plastic water guns present, balloons and candy floss vendors were doing a roaring trade. There were boat trips on the lake, families enjoying picnics on the grass and amusement stalls and food stands. Adjacent to all this activity, there was a zoo, which was home to a surprising number of animals from capybaras to tigers.

Somehow, we miraculously managed to avoid a soaking at the park, but this wasn't the case on the way back to our Chinatown hotel. We stopped at some traffic lights and before we knew it, were attacked on both sides by laughing youths armed with over sized water guns.  We walked into our very nice hotel looking like drowned rats!

We stayed at The Shanghai Mansion, a boutique hotel incorporating the style and atmosphere of 1930's Shanghai. There was a lovely water garden full of fish, overlooked by Chinese lanterns. It was a special place to stay and at only $40.00 a night between us, very good value.

Our train for the border left Hualamphong train station early in the morning. At $1.50 per ticket for a five hour journey, it was the bargain of the trip. We had read about the scam used on unsuspecting travellers near the border, and we were ready! Sure enough, our tuk tuk driver took us not to the border, where we had asked to go, but to a tiny office, where we told we had to purchase our visas. Naturally, they were going to charge us two or three times the going rate. We refused to get out of the tuk tuk and once again explained that we wanted to go to THE BORDER! After T raised her voice considerably, the driver relented and took us to the official border, where we only had to pay a small bribe to the officials to let us into Cambodia!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Holy Cow! Back to India!

As the sun came up, a bicycle rickshaw took us to the border where a mile long row of lorries were waiting for the enduring Nepalese strike to end. The crossing was smooth, informal and only took a few minutes. We grabbed some bottled water and jumped onto the Varanasi bus, sitting behind the driver where there was room to stretch our legs.  He was a friendly guy and proud of his rust bucket of a bus. At one point T put her foot through a hole in the floor of the bus and a few minutes later the cover fell of the gearbox. There were a tangle of naked wires above the driver. When the bus broke down, several passengers got out to push, and received a small cheer as they re-boarded. We continued maniacally along the road to Varanasi, avoiding oncoming traffic as we consistently overtook. Eventually, we became accustomed to driving techniques in India. At least when you on a sleeper bus you couldn't see what was going on!


Ten hours after we left the border, we arrived in Varanasi - sacred city on the banks of the Ganges. We were picked up by a rather snazzy tuk tuk. The driver stopped in an alleyway. We were about to jump out and run, when he started to show us his 'book of recommendations', and tried to talk us into booking various tours around the city with him. Although sometimes a driver is a necessity, we generally find this type of hard sell off putting. We also like to get our bearings when we arrive in a new city, and weigh up our options. Anyway, he dropped us off as close to the Ganges, (where our guesthouse was situated), as he could (or so he told us!) There are a mass of alleyways called galis leading to the holy river, where apparently it is impossible not to get lost. Despite, being aware of their reputation, we did attempt to find our way by foot (big mistake!) We were hot, tired and frustrated, so we took a bicycle rickshaw (another big mistake!) The driver didn't seem to know where the Ganges was! We jumped out having exchanged a few words - as well as not knowing where he was going, he had a very cocky attitude!

We wandered a little more and went into a tiny shop to buy some water. When we came out of the shop, we spotted some men carrying a body along the road chanting as they went. Not good news for the body, but good news for us! If we followed them, surely they would lead us to the Ganges, where the body would be cremated! We ran after them, but small as they were, as packs felt heavy and our general weariness and the heat made it difficult to catch up! They were moving pretty quickly considering they were carrying a dead body! The alleyways became more dense, but, between the gaps in the buildings, we could see the river at last. We arrived at the 'burning ghat' where a man stood telling us not to take photos. The last thing in the world we wanted to do at that precise moment was take photos! We just wanted to find the Ganpati Guesthouse and crash out! He offered to take us to the guesthouse, which it turned out, was only a two minute walk away. When we got there, we offered him 100 rupees (generously, we thought), but he wanted 500 rupees! We walked up the guesthouse steps, with his demanding shouts ringing in our ears! Never had we been so happy to finally be given the key to our basic, but air conditioned room!

The Ganpati actually had a lot of character. There was an enclosed brightly coloured courtyard with hammocks, a fountain, murals on the wall and a roof terrace with terrific views over the river.

The following morning, we took a walk along the river, taking in the weird and wonderful sights of Varanasi. There were crowds of pilgrims, women in vibrant saris, brightly attired sadhus, dogs, cows and goats all mingling together. Pilgrims carried out their morning ablutions, as children splashed in the polluted water and the locals washed clothing. Even early in the morning, it was hot. When we went out later to get some lunch, the temperature had hit 48 centigrade. There was virtually nothing going on, just a few people sleeping in the shade and the occasional cow wandering by.

In the evening, we hired a boat with guide. A little girl joined us to sell us lotus flower candles which we placed on the river and watched float away. We passed the burning ghat, where bodies were laid out in preparation next to stacks of wood. Apparently, being cremated in Varanasi is highly auspicious for Hindus. Even if the families cannot afford afford cremation, they will simply throw the body in the river. A little further along, children were having a swimming lesson as their parents looked on. Meanwhile, a dead water buffalo floated past, brought to our attention by a rather putrid waft in the air. When the sun went down, boats gathered to watch the nightly event of Ganga Aarti, the river worship ceremony.

Varanasi is a fascinating place and completely unique. It is understandably not to every ones taste, but is an experience we feel privileged to have had.

From Varanasi, we flew to Delhi, where we waited for about eight hours for a bus to Jaipur, where we would change buses to Udaipur. We arrived in Jaipur at 2.00 am and decided to change our plan and head to Jodhpur, simply because we didn't want to wait for the Udaipur bus which was leaving much later. As it was, we spent a few grim hours at the bus station being pursued by some weirdo before being able to get on the Jodhpur bus!

We arrived in the blue city, Jodhpur and took a pleasantly straightforward tuk tuk ride to Krishna Prakash Heritage Hotel. It was a fabulous place, situated at the foot of the Mehrangarh Fort and decorated very traditionally. There were nooks, crannies and courtyards to explore and there were old family photographs on the walls of our room. There was even a covered swimming pool. This was the type of place that we had wanted to stay at while we were in India. It was over our budget, but definitely worth it, and all part of the India experience. To top it off, the restaurant was superb and we experimented with something different off the menu every time we ate there.

We went to the palace, which was situated within the walls of the fort. It was very impressive and there were lovely views of the city from the ramparts. We also visited Jaswant Thada, a cenotaph in white marble, from which there was a great view of the fort.

We decided to go back to Udaipur as we didn't want to miss out on it, and booked an overnight sleeper bus. Leaving Jodhpur at night, we passed a random fire burning in the street with a holy cow standing behind it. Somehow it looked as if the cow was actually standing in the fire - a image exuding a dreamlike quality that could only be seen in India.

Udaipur boasts a palace and the famous Lake Hotel, which at $400 a night wasn't really an option for us (unfortunately). The Palace was beautiful and we took a boat trip on the picturesque lake. We also visited a haveli which housed some strange artefacts. One of the rooms was home to a vast array of handmade puppets, from maharajahs to camels. The puppeteer proudly showed us around, telling us all about them. Elsewhere in the haveli was a selection of sinister looking heads (yes, just heads!), each one having slightly different facial hair and features. A third, rather spooky room was full of dusty saris hanging on headless mannequins.

Jailsalmer was our next destination. The sleeper bus took fourteen hours, with a change in Jodhpur. By morning, we were in the desert. Before we even got off the bus, a tout had approached us. We had heard they were pretty full on in Jailsalmer, to the extent that they board buses at earlier stops to hook the first catch. The big sell here is camel safaris. We managed to make it to our hotel without having signed up for one, despite the pressure. Again, we stayed in a traditional haveli, this time within the fort's walls.

The fortress was a spectacular sight and within it's walls was a town consisting of a network of ancient alleyways. Staying in the fort was very atmospheric, and like going back in time. Many of the buildings had colourful Ganesha's painted on their doors. There was a lassi shop which sold lassi's laced with marijuana (a bhang lassi). Though tempting, we had heard that they sometimes have an adverse effect, and with another long bus journey approaching, we regretfully thought it best to abstain. There was a palace in Jailsalmer, but it wasn't in the same league as Jodhpur and Udaipur.

Bikaner, another desert city, was a pleasant place to stay. It was home to yet another palace, and although we were pretty 'palaced out' by then, it was pretty nice. We stayed at Desert Winds hotel, where the staff were lovely and the room was actually within our budget, for a change.

After two rather manic tuk tuk rides trying to locate our 6pm Amritsar bound bus, we narrowly made it to the bus stop at 5.55pm. At 7pm the bus left. It was an unpleasant journey, laying on a black nylon fur bed cover, which probably hadn't been washed for a very long time!

We rolled into Amritsar very early and woke up the grumpy hotel manager, who had been sleeping on a mattress on the reception floor. This happened quite a few times in India. Sometimes, when we were leaving early, we had to step over sleeping bodies and unlock the front door to let ourselves out.

Amritsar is most famous for the magnificent Golden Temple, a sacred place of worship for Sikhs. Because Sikhism is all encompassing, people of all religions are welcome to visit. Before we entered, we had to cover our heads with fetching Golden Temple scarves, which we purchased for ten rupees each. We then passed barefoot through some water and the main entrance to the splendour of the temple and surrounding pool. We walked around the pool as prayers resonated from the surrounding speakers. The sheer size of the temple is difficult to convey. On a daily basis, the restaurant serves 35,000 pilgrims with food. The participants sit on the floor regardless of caste, status, wealth or creed, symbolising the central Sikh doctrine of equality. There are 400 hotel rooms within the temple.

As often happens at temples and palaces, we were approached by Indians asking for 'one shot, please!'  It was an odd phenomenon, but everywhere we went, people wanted to have their photos taken with us. As soon as we nodded our agreement, one (or often ten or more!) people would surround us posing for the anticipated photo. Occasionally, we would (not very discreetly) be photographed as we strolled around minding our own business. We put it down to the fact that westerners weren't a very common sight in much of India, whereas we were accustomed to living in a multicultural society.

Our hotel arranged transport to the Indian/Pakistan border to watch the border closing ceremony.
On route, we stopped off at the Mata Cave Temple, which couldn't be more different to the Golden Temple, but was equally fascinating. The temple was more like a fairground attraction. There was a specific route around the temple that took you up and down stairs, through enclaves housing vibrant coloured shrines, tunnels, pools of water and cave like rooms. It was like a house of fun, and you didn't know what to expect around the next corner. Definitely worth a visit!

We continued on to the border, and joined the throngs walking to the stadium. It was such a popular event that a stadium had been erected to seat hundreds of spectators. The atmosphere was festive and vendors sold Indian flags, cold drinks and candy floss. We felt as if we were off to a football match instead of a border! Foreigners had a section of their own and we had to go through a security check and show our passports. The atmosphere in the stadium was charged. Before long, people were queuing up to take turns to run to the border waving large Indian flags as they went. Then the dancing kicked off - crowds ran from the stands to join in as the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack came on over the speakers. It was great fun and you couldn't help but get caught up with the party atmosphere.

As the party subsided, the border guards started to strut their stuff taunting the Pakistan side of the border with their aggressive stances. The flag was lowered and with a final salute, the border was declared closed for the day. Considering the political situation between the India and Pakistan, it's a great achievement that the two nations are able to carry out this spectacle on a daily basis.

When we returned to Amritsar, we went to see the Golden Temple at night. It was as busy as ever and looked very beautiful with the lights reflected on the water.

From Amritsar, we got a rather luxurious bus to Chandigarh. It wasn't really luxurious, but seemed it after some of the buses we had been on lately. Unfortunately, it was only a three hour journey!

Our main purpose in visiting Chandigarh was to visit The Nek Chand Rock Gardens. Nek Chand was a self taught artist who started to build sculptures from recycled material found on demolition sights around the city. He built illegally on government land and it was years afterwards that his fantasy rock garden was discovered. Luckily, it was saved from destruction and the artist was even offered help in the shape of fifty workers, who helped him expand his magical kingdom. It was an amazing place and an absolute bargain at 25 rupees for a ticket. The sheer number of sculptures is staggering. You would think you were coming to the end, turn a corner and in front of you were another hundred monkey sculptures. Nek Chand was a genius and it would have been a travesty for the garden not to be saved. Apart from the rock garden, there wasn't too much to see in Chandigarh, so we made tracks to Rishikesh, yoga capital of the world.

After an extremely lengthy and unfortunate encounter with a tuk tuk driver who pretended to know where he was going, but really didn't, we found a not terribly nice room to spend the night. We left in the morning and got a slightly better room at a backpackers place nearby. About that time, we both went down with colds. We did manage a couple of trips out, but most of the time was spent in our room (which unfortunately, didn't have air conditioning). Rishikesh is another spiritual city by the Ganges and was chock-a-block with pilgrims, as we happened to arrive during the holiday season. On the other side of the river was a huge temple which looked like a birthday cake and there was a bridge that connected the two sides. We crossed the bridge - it was an interesting place to take a walk and mingle with the pilgrims, sadhus and westerners who were there to study yoga.

Our health didn't seem to be improving, so we decided to splash out and hire a taxi to take us up to Shimla in the mountains, where we hoped the cooler air would aid our recovery. Much of the journey was spectacular and followed a river through the mountains. We passed many mountain resorts, where Indian holidaymakers were eating ice cream and enjoying the scenery. While the lowlands were sweltering in the pre-monsoon heat, the air up here was cooler - you could understand why it was a popular place to escape to.

Shimla was a British hill station, and remnants of the British occupation are evident, a superfluous amount of post offices, a tiny theatre and colonial buildings and signs. It was a relief to walk freely on the pedestrianised streets. In most of India, it was a constant challenge to avoid being run over by oncoming cars and motorbikes. The notion of sidewalks don't really exist, except in certain areas of large cities.

 The monkey population was high, and you had to watch your back! Appropriately, there was a huge statue of Hanuman, the monkey god protruding from the hillside trees, overlooking the city. We took a walk up there one day and were advised 1) Not to wear glasses because the monkeys would grab them and 2) To take a stick. We didn't actually need to use the stick, but it did act as a deterrent as the sizeable troop of monkeys were somewhat aggressive!

We stayed in a hotel with an annex attached to our room. It was a bit like a convalescent home with tired old carpet and armchairs, but it was comfortable and the views were lovely. We spent many an afternoon playing gin rummy and drinking Indian rum (which was pretty good and conveniently cheap!) By the time we left Shimla for Manali, we were feeling better - the convalescent home had served its purpose.

Another scenic road trip and we arrived in Manali. We headed straight for Old Manali to find somewhere to stay. Old Manali was a shock - it was full of western backpackers. We hadn't seen so many since Thamel in Nepal. Most of them seemed to be from Israel. There were signs in Hebrew and the building next to our hotel was completely taken over by Orthodox Jews. We knew that people came to Manali to enjoy the cheap and plentiful supply of marijuana (it was growing wild around the town), but never found out why it was such a popular hangout spot for Israelis specifically.

The laid back town was scenically situated on a hill by a raging river, and was full of the usual backpacker facilities. So for the time we were there, we made full use of the excellent bakeries and restaurants available. We had a great view of the snow capped mountains from our balcony and nearby was a lovely National Park which we walked through to reach downtown Manali. There were lots of hikes to do in the immediate vicinity. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay in Manali and it was the most relaxing place we had experienced in India to date.

Our next Himalayan destination was Leh in Ladakh. We had booked seats on a minibus for the twenty hour journey on the classic Manali-Leh highway. We left at 2am in the driving rain. We made our way up into the mountains, speeding round hairpin bends in the rain and mist. Somehow we swerved oncoming lorries that were thundering towards us in the dark. The pot smoking driver was requested to slow down by a girl behind us, and was told to 'go to sleep'. She replied that she couldn't sleep while she was scared. Meanwhile, T was throwing up, leaning out of the open window in the pouring rain. 'I don't think I'm going to make it', she said. We had been on the road for an hour.

As it grew light, we stopped at a desolate spot, where there was a checkpoint and small cafe that sold drinks, snacks, woolly hats and scarves. It was freezing. T managed a few sips of coffee and someone kindly gave her a travel sickness pill, and we set off again. As we continued, and the sun came up, the sheer beauty of the landscape became apparent - snow capped mountains, desert like scenery and sculpted rock formations. We drove through the runoff from waterfalls formed by snow melt and occasionally went off track. At one point, the van got stuck in a ditch and we all had to vacate it while it was dug out. Some of the road was smooth, and then we would suddenly find ourselves bumping along over rough ground. The road was full of classic travel images. We stopped regularly at parachute cafes - windswept, bleak places on the top of the world.

The highway is only open four and a half months of the year, as at other times snow makes it impossible to pass. On the highway, we drove through five mountain passes. The highest is Tanglang La at 5,328m (17480 feet), the second highest road in the world, the first being Khardung La near Leh.

We rolled into Leh at about 10pm, not surprisingly with altitude headaches, and booked into the Hotel Antelope.

When we woke the next morning, we discovered the hotel was situated directly below Leh Palace, the building that dominates the town. The palace is built in the same style as Tibet's Potala Palace, and during the same period. We fell in love with Leh immediately. The people were friendly, there were a an array of hikes to amazing stupas with prayer flags fluttering overhead. There were Buddhist monks, giant prayer wheels, great restaurants and lovely trinkets to buy. Snow capped mountains surrounded the town and the sky was a deep blue. We haven't yet been to Tibet, but it felt more Tibetan than Indian. There was a big backpacker scene, but Leh retained it's special charm and magic.


Finally, it was time to leave Leh. We took a taxi to the tiny airport and sat, waiting for our flight to be called. Everyone else boarded an earlier flight, and we thought it odd that nobody else was arriving. Indeed, we were the only people there who didn't work at the airport. It was then that a woman came over and told us that there were no more flights that day! We couldn't believe it! We went to see the airport manager who said that we had been sent an email and a text informing us that the flight had been changed to another day. All we had received was an email confirming the time and date of the original flight. We were not happy. We had to go back into town and check into another hotel. Then we spent the day trying to obtain a large amount of cash to book a flight for the next day, change the connecting flights that we had missed and let the family know that we wouldn't be home the following day after all! Although, we did eventually get a refund on the flights, we still had to pay more than twice as much for the new flights and also pay to change the international flight that we had missed!

We felt pretty fed up, and thought we would drown our sorrows with cocktails and dinner at our favourite restaurant in Leh. Unsurprisingly, given the luck that we had that day it was a Buddhist spiritual day and we weren't able to purchase alcohol!

We flew off successfully the next morning, flying over the spectacular snow covered Himalayas. We had been travelling for nearly five months through Sri Lanka, Nepal and India and it had been an amazing trip. Now it was time to plan the next one!