A Travellerspoint blog

The beautiful Taj Mahal

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From Varanasi we caught an overnight train to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. I have been before and Agra is a pretty unexciting place apart from the Taj so we only stayed over night. We arrived in Agra in the morning and then saw the Taj Mahal ay sunset which was just beautiful. While we were there so many people wanted to take our photo it became a bit exhausting. Whenever we sat down to enjoy the sights people would line up to sit next to us and take their picture with us so we were reluctant to sit anywhere. I was a bit confused about them wanting to take photos of us when we were at one of the most amazing places in the world and the Taj Mahal was right there to photograph instead. Anyway we stayed all afternoon until the sun totally disappeared. It really is a magical place.

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Posted by Evalikat 22:24 Archived in India Comments (0)

Varanasi - The place of burning and learning

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Varanasi is a crazy place. It is one of the most important religious places in India and is considered the spiritual capital. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and is located on the banks of the Ganges River. The main highlights in the city are the ghats which are sets of stairs that lead down from the town to the River. Along the river the ghats have different purposes. There are two burning ghats where bodies are cremated 24/7. Because Varanasi is a religious place Hindus believe that by dying here the cycle of life and death will end. They bring bodies of their families here for cremation. There are constant burnings everyday and it is said that 100,000 bodies are cremated here every year. It was not uncommon for us to be standing in the alleyways of the old town to be pushed aside by a group of people chanting and carrying a dead body past us. It is really confronting to think that these are actual bodies being burnt in front of everyone but for some reason it is not as gruesome as you would believe and no-one blinks an eye.

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Other ghats are used for sunrise and sunset ceremonies called Aarti which is a celebration of the Ganges where Hindu priests play drums and use fire to worship their mother ganga. It is almost impossible to describe Varanasi, it is a unique place and one that needs to be experienced to be understood.

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There are lots of cafes and street foods everywhere as well as yoga halls, temples and places for both music and astrology lessons. If you are looking for something, no doubt Varanasi will provide. The river is really quite beautiful at sunrise and sunset. One morning we took a 5am boat ride which was very serene and lovely. The city was just waking up and the vibe was very different to the usual chaos.

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There is so many different types of people here, from the intensely religious to the intensely opportunistic. Touts hassle us at every turn, offering boats rides, massages, astrological classes, blessings, marijuana, tuk tuks, silks, clothing etc etc it doesn’t end. We get asked every single day by people where we are from, where we are going, do we need help getting there (for a price). There are a few people who are just curious and want to say ‘Namaste’ (hello) but these people are few and far between. If your looking for some spiritual guidance, there are people who can tell you about your past life, your present and your future. Gurus who can tell you everything about yourself based on your date of birth and your aura. The streets are very colourful full of bright saris and characters. Traffic is the usual Indian madness but we are getting used to the blaring horns and near death experiences when we almost get run down.

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Temples are in abundance but are mostly for the devotees and whilst we were not stopped from entering we were not exactly warmly welcomed. Animals are everywhere, in particular goats and cows who sadly due to having no grass to eat have diets that consist of rubbish, food scraps and lots of plastic. I often saw a goat or cow looking around happily chewing on a chip packet. The cows are respected here and people get out of their way. If a cow decides to cross a busy street that is almost impossible for a person to cross the traffic will go around the cow, even making a path for it to slowly meander across the road.

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One day we took a day trip to Sarnath to visit the birthplace of Buddhism. Sarnath is located 13km from Varanasi, roughly a 45 minute tuk tuk ride. The area attracts many visitors who come to see firsthand the place where Buddhism originated. It is here in Deer Park, Sarnath that Buddha first taught the Dharma (his first sermon). Sarnath also attracts members of Jainism, as it is the birthplace of Shrevansanath, a Tirthankar (person who has conquered life and death) and there is temple here dedicated to him.

It is a pleasant place to visit as the grounds are nicely kept with many trees and manicured gardens and there seemed to be a lot of people there that were using the space to relax and escape the heat. There are several highlights such as a Bodhi tree that was grown from a clipping taken from the original Bodhi tree under which Buddha reached enlightenment and structures from 500BC and 250BC which were amazing to see.

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Our days in Varanasi were spent wandering through the streets, people watching and just enjoying the vibe of the city. Evan took a music lesson with a star player which was interesting and while he liked the sitar he did not connect with the teacher and did not return for further lessons. He plans to buy a sitar during our time in India though.

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We have been enjoying some Indian street food and lots of cheap curries (average price is about $2). The places that food is served in (fancy restaurants to street side diners) vary greatly but the quality is very similar and it is so easy to get a really cheap and delicious meal here.

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Varanasi is such a colourful photogenic place and there are so many photo opportunities at every turn we were snapping like crazy. The chaos and the colour make it such an amazing city to visit and one that I really enjoyed. It is a wild ride but one you shouldn’t miss.

Posted by Evalikat 05:51 Archived in India Comments (0)

Gangtok

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Our days in Gangtok were relatively low key. We did a few activities but mostly relaxed. We got a ropeway (cablecart) down the bottom of the town that offered nice views of the streets and valleys below, to visit the Tibetology Museum. It was really interesting and it covered the history of Buddhism and had lots of scholarly articles, artefacts and statues as well as tapestries. The building itself was pretty cool however we were not allowed to take photos inside.

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While we were there we walked further uphill to visit the nearby Dro-dul Chorten Stupa which had nice views and was peaceful as it was virtually deserted. Later as we were leaving, lots of monks started to arrive for the afternoon prayers.

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The room Evan booked for my Birthday My birthday was a special day, I felt very lucky to wake up in a beautiful place like Gangtok. Evan had organised three nights accommodation in a place that was perched high up in the mountains and from our suite we had amazing mountain views off a balcony. Ordering room service and relaxing in this awesome room was one of my favourite things about staying in Gangtok.

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On my birthday, we visited a bakery that had views of the valleys below. The food was so good from there and they made me a special vegan pizza. We wandered through town and were invited in to celebrate the Hindi Festival of Vishwakarma Puja, god of machines. We were given food and tea and the people there were so friendly, fully welcoming us into their community. It was a rare and special experience. In the afternoon we returned to our room to watch the sunset and had a few drinks and room service dinner.

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The next day we walked around the hills climbing as high as we could till we reached a temple perched high on a mountain. The views from here were really good, we could see the whole town on Gangtok. It was a hindu temple and there were statues of Ganesha there. The day before was her birthday so there were still a lot of worshippers visiting the temple. There were some army guards up there too that were watching us closely. With their guns and stares, they seemed quite intimidating, that was until we were approached by them to ask for a ‘selfie’. One guy put his arm around me and wanted to wear Evan’s ‘goggles’ (his sunglasses).

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Gangtok is really picturesque, with mountains and valleys to see from almost everywhere in town. The snow capped mountains in the distance which were visible from our room only made an appearance on the last morning as they were covered in cloud until then. They were magnificent to see and looked just like a post card.

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We left Gangtok to make our way inland, towards Varanasi. It is quite a distance and we have been having trouble getting train tickets so we are having a two night stop over in a nothing town that people only visit because it is a transport hub. Here we hope to get some train tickets from the station to catch the 14 hour train to Varanasi. Lets hope this trip is a little better than the 24 hour bus we caught from Kolkata.

Posted by Evalikat 07:58 Archived in India Comments (0)

Gangtok - Capital of the Himalayan state of Sikkim

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Sikkim is an interesting area, an independent state with its own policed borders. To visit the area we had to pass through a checkpoint, apply for a permit and we had our passports stamped. We are only allowed to remain in the area for 15 days. It doesn't feel like India, rather it feels more like Tibet or Nepal.

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Set in the Himalayas, everywhere you look there are amazing landscapes featuring beautiful green mountains and forests. The third highest mountain in the world, Khangchendzonga is visible (when clear) from almost the whole state. The people here are lovely, very welcoming and happy. The state is very strong on Buddhism and there are many monasteries to visit.

We decided to visit Gangtok, which is Sikkim's capital. The city is built on a mountain range and there are steep hillside climbs to reach any part of the urban area. There is no a great deal to do here in the city itself but there are loads of amazing tours and sightseeing to do just a few kilometers away. There are several monasteries to visit and a fairly decent shopping area that also features some amazing restaurants (mostly pure veg). From here you can arrange tours or day trips to paraglide, ride a yak, trek or white water rafting.

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We spent our first day exploring the area, wandering further uphill to see the monastery at the top. It was well worth the climb as when we were visiting, we witnessed the monks that live there exercising, chanting and playing music. The majority of the monks were really young and it was here that I saw the littlest monks I had ever seen, probably close to the age of 5, and so cute.

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Along the way we visited the Flower Exhibition Centre that had some beautifully coloured flowers in bloom.

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Walking back from the monastery we met some extremely polite, happy and well spoken kids who were walking home from school. They shook our hands, introducing themselves and then asked for a photo. They were really cute and made us feel very welcome.

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Posted by Evalikat 10:09 Archived in India Comments (0)

Beautiful Darjeeling - The City in the Sky

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After a night of rest and some serious scrubbing with heavy duty soap we left for Darjeeling. We were taken there by jeep. The drive there was awesome, very scenic and we had amazing views of the valleys as we climbed higher and higher. The road was quite windy and after driving for about 2 hours we reached Darjeeling.

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Darjeeling truly is a city in the sky. At an elevation of 6700 feet this is the highest altitude we have visited. It is a UNESCO Heritage Site and part of the Lesser Himalayas. The scenery is absolutely breathtaking. As you look out, there are clouds right there and the valleys below look amazing. On a clear day you can see Mount Everest and Kanchenjunga, the world's third highest mountain. We were able to catch some glimpses of this amazing sight from our hotel terrace on a clear morning. It was spectacular and looked like nothing I have ever seen before it was difficult to believe the view was real.

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Set in the hills, the streets of Darjeeling are a constant upward climb, zig zagging across the mountain. Along the streets are small shops, restaurants, clothing shops and of course, tea houses. The people here are a mix of Nepalese, Indian, Tibetan and Chinese. The mixture of cultures is interesting, influencing the clothing and the food of the area.

Been up so high the altitude effects our breathing, especially when climbing up the hills. The air is very clear here and it is cold. We have been rugging up against the chill which sets in during the afternoon when the sun starts to disappear. There are lots of outdoor activities to do here like visiting temples, walking to lookouts, visiting tea farms and catching the toy train as it is known, a small train that does a loop of the area.

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There is a zoo here that has leopards, a tiger, bears, lots of types of goats, yaks, a really good bird avery and red pandas. It is set quite high up in the hills and the views are amazing. There is moss growing everywhere and the whole area is very green. Also in the zoo grounds is the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute that was all about different treks people had done around the Himalayas including Everest. It was really interesting.

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Walking back from the zoo, we visited the Happy Valley Tea Estate. It is a well known estate here and ships the majority of its tea to England, in particular the famous department store, Harrods. The visit was interesting as we were intercepted by a very eccentric woman who invited us into her home and made us some tea. She then used Evans camera to take some photos of us where she directed us in different poses. She was very funny. After a tour of the factory we wandered the grounds which were beautiful.

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The vibe here in Darjeeling is very relaxed. The people are so friendly and even though they are curious like in Kolkata, they are smiling. The food is amazing, with the mix of cultures influencing the cuisine. This means that I have been eating many momos and noodles. The curries are really yummy as well and because of the cold the warm hearty food is really enjoyable. Of course I have been getting stuck into the tea, sampling different varieties of Darjeeling blends. All have been delicious. There is awesome street food here that I have been enjoying as well.

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We visited Mahakal Temple, originally built in 1765, destroyed during an invasion and rebuilt again in 1861. Interestingly, the temple is a place of worship for both Hindu and Buddhist devotees and people of both faiths regularly visit the serene area for a spiritual experience.Because of the temple being of equal importance to both faiths, here at Mahakal Temple, one can witness the simultaneous chanting of a Hindu priest and the reading of Buddhist scripture by a Buddhist monk.

The colours of this area are something to behold. The multicoloured Buddhist Prayer flags, the bright green of the moss and the varying hues of the trees create a sense of enchantment. The prayer flags are everywhere. Innumerable strands are tied to trees and structures stretching across the area, the brighter newer flags piled on top of the older faded ones. Devotees will ring the bells around the shrine as they walk around it three times, as well as ringing the bells that hang from each entrance. The chiming of bells fills the space creating a enchanting musical sound. It is a peaceful area, a beautiful place of tranquility in the sky.

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We have loved our time here. This is the India that I fell in love with when I visited in 2013. I remember the cities were really awful but the further North we went it got better, more scenic and peaceful. We are going to spend a bit of time in this region,, making our way along the Himalayas towards Sikkim. We are very happy here in the North of India.

Posted by Evalikat 08:33 Archived in India Comments (0)

Kolkata - not the most gentle introduction to India

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We arrived in the evening via a flight from Luang Prabang to Bangkok then onto Kolkata. The taxi ride from the airport took us through the city where we saw absolute chaos on the roads. Cars, tuk tuks, bikes and people all fighting for position, crossing over from all directions. Once we finally found our accommodation we walked to the front (no signs or anything) and knocked on the door. There was no answer and we walked around the back into the building, straight through someones home. We we taken upstairs where about four men were waiting for us and through difficult communication we worked out that we were in the right place and sorted out our paperwork.

We were then taken to our room which was actually really nice and somehow we figured out how to communicate and they cooked us dinner at the apartment. Those guys could really cook! The food was top notch and really cheap. With full bellies we were content to rest and eventually slept waking up the next day to face the chaos that is Kolkata.

During our time there we visited a few sights but mostly walked through markets observing the people. It is so populated, totally packed everywhere you go. The poor are so poor and live in the streets in little makeshift shelters - one man was propped up against a fence with a small piece of corrugated iron over his head. The children are really intense, grabbing at us and asking us for money. They even try to put their hands in our pockets or bags. The adults that hassle us the most are the men. They are either fascinated by us or want something from us. Evan is particularly popular, with comments about his clothing and beard coming from everywhere.

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To get around we caught the metro and didn’t see another tourist the whole time we travelled back and fourth. Looking around the carriage all we saw were these brown eyes staring. I understand the fascination however they are different to the people in South East Asia that stared at us because the people there would smile when they were caught out or even say hello but in Kolkata they just continue to stare, unsmiling. It is actually really unnerving. We have been asked for so many photos and this one guy followed us around and asked Evan for his Facebook and Email details so they could be friends.

Kolkata really comes alive in the evening, just before it gets dark. Everyone is out on the streets buying food, shopping at the markets and making their way home. It is during this time that we enjoyed the city, getting lost in crowds and observing their daily rituals. The people were less likely to hassle us during this time as everyone was too busy going about their own business to care about us.

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During the day walking around we visited the flower market. We had read that it was worth seeing and a nice market. It was so dirty and smelly and the people there were really intense and scary, we felt so out of place. After a while though we got used to it and started to take some photos and watch people. In the end it was worth seeing but defiantly not anything like the flower markets we have at home!

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Walking back from the markets we were heading to the metro and ended up in an area that was basically industrial filled with trucks and cars as well as slums. People were living in such rank conditions. We really only saw men and they were bathing in the streets, eating dirty food and pissing in public. The smell was atrocious. We were watched and harassed by virtually every single person. In the end we had our heads down and walked as fast as we could to get away from this area. We both absolutely hated it.

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When we reached the more developed part of the city, Park Road we felt better and did enjoy some of the things we saw. All in all Kolkata was awful, dirty, smelly and chaotic but it was definitely worth seeing as it is so very different to anything you could ever imagine in our daily lives. We organised an overnight 12 hour bus trip to head further north to Siliguri and from there a jeep ride to Darjeeling. Unfortunately we were misinformed and the bus was actually a 24 hour trip. We had booked sleeper seats which are like bunk beds above the usual seats on the bus. The mattress was absolutely rank, covered in dirt. The bus had no air-conditioning so we had to leave the window open and as we travelled the dirt came in and covered us. We stopped so many times for unknown reasons and when we tried to sleep besides the fact we were so uncomfortable due to the filth, the bus was flying over potholes and slamming us around knocking us into the metal frame. We were the only tourists on the bus so everyone watched us the whole time, we provided the entertainment for them. It was especially freaky when I was resting my eyes and opened them to see people staring at me. It was seriously the worst 24 hours I have ever experienced. I felt disgusting. 24 hours on a bus under decent conditions is not fun - under the awful conditions we had to endure was like torture. We were both so mad. When we reached Siliguri we could no bear any longer on transport and stayed the night there.

Posted by Evalikat 08:25 Archived in India Comments (0)

Luang Prabang and the end of our South East Asian Travels

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Luang Prabang is a fairly quiet town that it spread to between two rivers - the Mekong and the Mae Kok River. The majority of the attractions such as temples and museums are set in the hills and the roads below the hills are where the restaurants and markets are. Being a UNESCO heritage site there are many ancient houses and buildings and the town has a very relaxed vibe, particularly as it is wet season.

Most of the activities available in the town are based around visiting the temples, markets and walking alongside the river, watching the morning collection of alms by the monks and bike riding. There are more than 30 temples in Luang Prabang so throughout the day there are lots of monks wandering between them and during prayer time or meditation you can hear the chanting or drumming coming from the various temples.

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Every morning between 5.30 - 6am the monks walk down the main street, holding silver bowls attached to straps that they wear like a bag. The locals line the streets, kneeling on the ground with baskets of sticky rice and other food offerings and as the monks pass they offer their bowls and the people place a portion of food inside. This is called the collecting of the alms and is a very spiritual and peaceful tradition. There is little or no talk and is a highly respected practice that needs to be recognised as such however there are certain tourists that cannot resist acting like paparazzi and stand right in front of the monks using gigantic cameras, flash exploding. This has caused some problems with the procession and it is largely frowned upon however this does not stop it from happening. Admittedly, we were also guilty of taking some pictures but we made sure we were sitting right back and did not stand to take them. I didn’t notice anyone looking our way but I did see some of the monks shooting disapproving glances towards some of the more inconsiderate tourists taking pictures. It is a truly beautiful thing to have witnessed and totally worth getting out of bed so early.

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Another big attraction in the area is Kuang Si Falls, famous for the perfect blue water that gathers in a pool at the base of the waterfall. This happens because the water passes over limestone on its way down the rocks. Unfortunately when we visited due to rain the water was a muddy mess, a perfect shade of brown rather than blue. It was disappointing but still the area is very beautiful and it was nice to walk through the rainforest. We walked to the top of the waterfall, climbing up a muddy slope and then reaching some stairs that run parallel to the waterfall upwards that in dry season are an easy walk but in wet season with the swelling of the river it is covered in rushing water, like a waterfall itself. We had to take off our shoes and carefully negotiate the slippery stairs. It was worth the risk because at the top were nice views and trees.

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In this area is also a bear rescue centre where they keep bears that have been rescued from illegal trading. The bears live in nice open enclosures, lots of space, trees and company (there are about 20 bears in there) and they are free to do as they wish. The poor things have lived awful lives prior, kept in cages barely bigger than themselves, not able to stand or stretch, some of them for 10 years.

We hired bicycles one day to explore the area and rode out of town past some villages that were cool to see. Everyday we ate baguettes for lunch from the many stands that sell this. There are at least 15 in a row, all selling the same baguette and fruit shakes. They are very cheap, 10,000 kip each so for a baguette with avocado and salad and a mango, dragon fruit shake it costs $3.50. They also have night markets here and sell lots of traditional clothing and bags as well as the usual key rings etc. It is a nice place to wander through at night. Food stalls are set up here and they are mostly all buffet style. You pay 15,000 kip ($2.60) grab a bowl and fill it as much as you want. They are mostly vegetarian so there were lots for me to try. We thought it was good at first, a giant feed for so cheap but towards the end we were hating the buffet cause the food really was not that great.

There is a mountain in town called Phou Si which you can climb for good views of the town and rivers. We went up there one day and got caught in the rain. Seeking refuge in a temple there we found ourselves alone with some monks. One of them came over and started talking to Evan. He took a real liking to him, spending more than an hour talking (more like gesturing, he spoke no English). The monk thought Evan was just the best and was so happy laughing and smiling, showing him pictures and videos from his phone and Evan was sharing his with him too. He wasn’t too interested in me, whenever I was brought into the conversation he only wanted to speak to Evan.

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We had a nice relaxing time in Luang Prabang, wandering slowly through the town and just taking our time. Laos is a really amazing country offering spectacular landscapes and scenery mixed with really friendly people and interesting culture. We were not even sure that we were going to make it here but I am so glad that we did. This ends our South East Asian adventure, we are flying to India next so that will most probably be a shock to the system after been so sedated in Laos.

Posted by Evalikat 08:08 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Tubing in Vang Vieng

semi-overcast 33 °C
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Vang Vieng is notorious for getting wasted & water sports or getting wasted whilst participating in water sports in one of the most scenic areas in Laos. The whole town is surrounded by beautiful limestone cliffs that at times during the day become very mystical looking as mist descends over them. The peaceful surrounds are a real contrast to the crazy antics that people get up to in the town. During the day it is dead quiet in the main streets as people spend their day participating in various waterspouts such as tubing and kayaking or riding through the mud on ATV’s or motorbikes. Then as dusk descends, the tourists return, some sporting very painful looking injuries and others completely drunk from the pub crawl that happens as they tubed down the river. Those who are not drunk already will soon have the opportunity as several of the pubs in town offer free drinks on arrival or like one place I saw, one hour of unlimited drinks. We stayed here for two nights and day one was spent participating in our water sport of choice which was tubing.

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After meeting at the tubing office in town we waited for more people to come before being driven 4km out of town up the river to the tubing starting point. As soon as we hopped off the tuk tuk I groaned internally as we were greeted by young ‘cool dudes’ who promptly used the word ‘awesome’ in barrage fashion whilst explaining to us that this was the first drinking spot and that we were all going to float down the river together, stopping at various pubs along the way for free shots and beers. We were then handed shots while armbands and cotton bracelets (for good luck apparently) were tied to us, then invited into to pub to play beer pong.

Evan and I had a slightly different idea of how we wanted to enjoy our tubing experience so we ditched the group, grabbed our tubes and set off down the river. For those who have never experienced such a thing, you basically sit in a giant tractor tube whilst you float down 4km down the river at the mercy of the currents. There is no way of controlling your direction or speed, apart from wildly paddling with you arms which is largely a fruitless exercise. As we passed various pubs, we were thrown ropes weighed down by bottles which we could grab onto and pulled back to shore to have a break from tubing and enjoy a drink (or two).

We were taken by the current and separated so at the next opportunity we grabbed onto the rope and were pulled ashore to one of the pubs. This was our one and only stop and after having a drink, we chose to spend the rest of the day enjoying the scenery instead of stopping. When we re-entered the water we decided to hold onto each others tubes so that we didn’t separate and this worked well as we managed to stay together the whole time as we floated down the river.Along the way were passed by people kayaking and some locals swimming. Once we reached our final stop and thrown our ropes to be pulled in the current became quite strong and it was a less than graceful exit as I clawed at the riverbed dragging myself ashore. It was such a fun experience, something that was totally unique to this area and I am so glad that I gave it a go.

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Our second day was spent walking around the village and wandering over a bridge to check out a more rural village with lots of cows and rice paddies. We saw a sign that said there was a nice swimming hole about 400m away. Sweat dripping off our faces we thought this sounded heavenly. So we jumped the fence and wandered through the rice paddies until we reached the base of some caves and were greeted by a couple of locals. They then explained the swimming was only two minutes along the path and that we needed to pay to see the swimming hole. They had tickets so we paid and a young guy led us to the area. After walking more thank five minutes we crossed a river and then entered one of the darkest and narrowest caves I had seen. Evan is claustrophobic and it seemed so dodgy been led deeper and deeper by some guy into a dark cave that we decided to turn back after only just entering the cave, before we even saw any water. The guide lost interest in us once he realised we were not going to follow and he took off back to the starting point. When we eventually reached him, the cheeky bugger actually asked for money because he was our guide. Of course we said no, we didnt even go into the cave and we didn't request a guide. We backtracked into the town where we were getting a bus to our next and final destination in Laos, Luang Prabang.

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Posted by Evalikat 19:01 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Vientiane

sunny 35 °C
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Having found ourselves with lots of time in Vientiane, a city that does not particularly offer a lot in the way of entertainment, we did a lot of walking and riding around finding parkland and visiting what sights there are. We visited the cities oldest surviving temple, Wat Si Saket and when we were taking some photographs two monks who were relaxing in the garden approached us to have a conversation. They were so friendly and very informative. One was a monk and the other a novice and they encouraged us to ask questions about being a monk and what the Buddhist faith is about. They in turn asked us a lot of questions about ourselves and Australia. They were both learning English and had a little book of difficult to pronounce words so we helped them with that too.

The monk asked us whether we were interested in seeing another temple, Pha That Luang and if we wanted he would meet us there the following day and act as tour guide explaining the symbolism of the temple to us. Of course we said yes, however he gave us Facebook details to contact him (yes he has Facebook) and unfortunately we were not able to locate him and therefore missed our opportunity to meet the next day. We were both so disappointed as we really enjoyed the conversation and we had some more questions for him. He was also going to explain meditation to us and teach us some things. We still visited Pha That Luang the next day, keeping an eye out for our monk friend but we never saw him again.

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Pha That Luang is the most important national monument in Laos, a symbol of Buddhism. It is said that the stupa houses part of Buddhas breastbone, put inside the stupa by Indian missionaries in 3rd century BC. The stupa is quite tall and can be seen across the city if you are in the right spot. The day we went the sun was alternating between shining brightly to being hidden behind grey skies and therefore we have some really interesting photographs that capture the golden stupa in varying light. Around the stupa there are several wats (temples) which were also nice to visit and in the garden there is a large golden reclining buddha statue.

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We were suffering from the heat the whole time in Vientiane, one of the driest and sunniest places we had visited this trip. We spent an afternoon at the local pool the get some relief but even the pool water which was in direct sunlight was warm. We still swam there and relaxed in the shade.

Outside of the city is Buddha Park, a 45 minute bus ride away, It is a fairly large area that is a sculpture or statue garden completely designed by this one guy who as the legend says, fell into a cave an met a hermit who then became his spiritual leader. This unusual story is right at home in this quirky space. There are many different variations of buddhist and hindu statues in the park, ranging from the grotesque to the down right weird. There is a massive pumpkin sculpture in the park that represents heaven and hell which you are able to climb inside to reach the top. At the top there are good views of the park and it is a nice place to sit.

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During the Vietnam war, Laos was the most heavily bombed country, so heavily in fact that it equates to one bombing mission being conducted every eight minutes 24 hours a day for nine consecutive years. Many of the bombs didn’t explode and therefore a large percentage of Laos is still littered with these bombs or UXO (Unexploded Ordinance). Because there are still so many bombs remaining in Laos, often people are completely unaware if there is one in their village and are injured or killed whilst digging for farming or even cooking at a fire. Unfortunately people in the rural areas are willing to risk their lives for to unearth these bombs so they can sell them in the illegal bomb scrap trade. This means that often the bombs explode, killing or seriously injuring people including children who are all too aware of the value of the scrap metal and also participate in the trading. Bomb scrap metal can attract up to 2000 kip per kilo, which creates an appealing incentive for the poor.

Post war, more than 20,000 people have been killed or injured as a result of coming in contact with UXO. COPE (Co-operative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise) visitor centre is part of the rehabilitation centre and the largest supplier of artificial limbs, walking aids and wheelchairs in Laos. They offer information at the centre through video and exhibits to help educate people about living with a disability, mainly with a focus on the UXO that causes so many injuries in Laos. There are movies playing in a theatre covering different aspects of UXO such as the detection and removal of bombs and stories of people who have been directly effected. The centre is very well laid out and informative. COPE do fantastic work, helping families that have been impacted by disability by offering support and providing healthcare and meals to the disabled for the duration of their hospital stay as well as rehabilitation afterwards. There is no fee for visiting the centre however donations are appreciated and there is a small gift shop with 100% of the proceeds going to the rehabilitation centre.

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Vientiane became a fairly nice place to visit in the end, considering that I was unhappy about being ‘trapped’ here whilst we waited for our Indian Visas. I enjoyed walking along the Mekong and wandering through the night markets. It also helped that we found some nice areas to visit and favourite food places too. Eventually the day came for our visa collection which was accepted and processed (finally!). So visa in hand, we left the city heading further North for the village of Vang Vieng to experience some world class tubing!

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Posted by Evalikat 06:19 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Visa hell in Vientiane

sunny 36 °C
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We arrived very early (6.30am) after reaching Vientiane from Tad Lo on an overnight bus. It was not a fun experience. I think I had a total on half an hour sleep the whole night. On the tuk tuk ride to the city some stupid person was carting a cardboard box filled with ice and some sort of disgusting fish sauce type food that obviously melted and then created a pungent vomit inducing sludge that dripped all over my bag. Once we got to the hotel I had to buy washing detergent and scrub the crap out of my bag. It took ages to get that stench out. Yuk. So I started my day in Vientiane very cranky and hating everything.

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We had to apply for our Visas for India from Vientiane, this being our last opportunity to do so before heading there. We had our paperwork ready to go (so we thought) and walked 5km in the blaring sun to the embassy which was no longer there. We asked for directions and after walking about another 2km we couldn’t find it so asked someone else for directions who had us heading back to our original starting point. Finally we asked the right person and he was so kind that he drove us to the embassy (thank god cause it was another 3km) only to find that it was shut! After being on an overnight bus and having zero sleep, dealing with my stinky bag plus doing all that walking in 36 degree heat I was not a happy person.

We gave up on that for the day and the next day hired bikes to ride to the embassy with all our paperwork ready to go. Of course we were rejected because we had some things missing (which were not listed on the website) and had to go running around town to get ourselves sorted and head out there again for the third day in a row! Finally we got our application in only to be told that it will be one week before it is ready. So now we have to spend more time in this city (which is an expensive city for Laos standards) and because our Laos visas are going to run out we now have to sacrifice time in other places we wanted to visit. Our first few days here have been absolutely crap.

Now the application is in we are going to chill and enjoy the city. Yesterday we saw the Laos ‘arch de triumph’ which looks a bit like the Parisian version but not quite and it has an oriental feel to it. We climbed up the top for some good views of the city.

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One good thing about this place is the selection of Vegetarian food here. There are about five different buffet places that cost about $4 for all you can eat. They sell good stuff too, tofu, soups, sushi etc. Near the Mekong river there is a nightly market and lots of people visit this area so that is where most of the action is. There are heaps of food stalls and restaurants in this area. Each afternoon the road near the river is closed to traffic and people use this area for exercising like walking and running as well as free outdoor aerobics classes.

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There are lots of wats (temples) to visit here and a couple of attractions like parks to visit that are out of the city. It is the smallest and less busy capital city I have ever been to. The traffic is very minimal and it is just so quiet at times. It is good for bike riding, you don’t need to dodge traffic to get around so that is nice and we will hire bikes again to visit some of the attractions that are further away. Hopefully I can relax now and enjoy this city.

Posted by Evalikat 22:52 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Waterfalls, a friendly dog & hanging with locals at Tad Lo

sunny 36 °C
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Our Next stop in Laos was Pakse, a bit of a nothing town. We were just passing through and used it as a stopover before heading further North to a little village called Ban Saeng Vang. Everyone just calls it Tad Lo though, named after one of the three waterfalls in this area. After leaving Pakse we arrived in Tad Lo via bus. The bus trip was interesting. Again we found ourselves the only foreigners on a local bus and after stopping for more than half an hour to change a tyre we were on our way eventually been dropped at the top of a road that we needed to follow for 2km to reach the village.

As soon as we started walking we found ourselves in a very rural area that consisted of dirt roads, wooden huts and so many animals. We saw chickens, goats, pigs, dogs, cats, cows and buffalo. The local people watched us carefully as we wandered through their simple villages with all our brightly coloured luggage. I felt very foreign indeed.

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We reached Palamei’s Guesthouse where we had planned to stay. It is a gorgeous little place. We hired the private hut with its own little verandah, complete with hammock and views of the rice paddies. Our accommodation was very stripped back compared to our usual choices in that there was no TV, air-conditioning or wifi. I didn’t miss any of these things for a moment as the actual surroundings of the place provided enough fulfilment. Evan woke early one morning and sat on our verandah to take some amazing pictures of the fields as the sun rose.

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After extending our original three day stay to six days, we spent our time in Tad Lo exploring the area by foot, swimming and relaxing. During our time here we got to recognise a few local characters and began to feel at home, waving hello and greeting everyone along the way.

There are a few main guesthouses right in the accommodation and food area of the village. This area is very small. It is basically two little streets that provide simple accommodation - some places offer a bucket wash rather than a shower and most places have cheap food. We ate at a guesthouse called ‘Mama Paps’ a few times. We were introduced to Mama, a lovely older Lao women who cracks jokes and speaks quite harshly. I really liked her she seemed hard but fair and there was no bullshit with this woman. Her motto is “big food, small kip” (kip is the currency used in Lao) and she wasn’t joking - the meals were comically huge. Noodles piled high, enough to feed four people and bowls of soup as large as a serving platter. Mama seemed to really enjoy the absurdity of this, making ‘oooooh’ sounds as she brought the food out then cracking up laughing at our reaction to the giant servings. At least we knew that if we visited Mama we would not be going hungry.

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We also ate at our guesthouse, Palamei’s. This place was well known in the village and popular for people to visit for a meal even if they were staying at other guesthouses. The main attraction here is a family cooked dinner. This was something that anyone eating could participate in. The family would bring chopping boards, veggies and knives for everyone to help in the preparation of the dinner. Different people were given roles in the kitchen and once cooked everyone sat on this long table and ate together. Other than the family dinner, the other things on the menu were really good and because we stayed here we ate brekkie here each day and most of our dinners.

Each day we wandered around the area. We mostly visited the three waterfalls, Tad Lo, Tad Hang and Tad Soung, walking along the river. There is a long road out of town that if you follow for roughly 3.5km you eventually arrive at a bridge that crosses the river. The first day we came out here we were in search for Tad Soung, the waterfall that is the furthest from the village. We didn’t get that far however because we came across some local people bathing in the river under the bridge and were called over by them. We wandered down and the women were encouraging us to swim with them so eventually I very carefully entered the water that was flowing quite fast towards the waterfall. The bottom of the river was made up of huge rocks and there were little pools formed in between the rocks. The water was so clear and cool which was refreshing on such a hot day.

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Another day we walked back to this area determined to get further this time and visit the waterfall. To get to it, you need to trek through a very remote village where the locals are very cautious and less friendly than other villages. It felt like a massive disruption to their lives to be wandering through while they performed their daily duties however since this is the way to the waterfall I am sure we were not the first or last tourists to wander through.

We stopped along the way to swim in a waterhole that looked way too inviting to overlook. Once again the water was lovely and clean. After refreshing ourselves we dried off and continued along the path to the waterfall. Now this path is no paved affair, it is a dirt track that is overgrown with vines and trees, full of bugs and other things that scratch at your skin as you push through the almost jungle area. It seemed impossible in part and we were so uncertain about continuing on when we couldn’t even see a path anymore however we pressed on and were reward greatly. Eventually we reached the water again and the rock pools in this area were the best I had seen. We enjoyed our own private place for the afternoon, bathing in the beautiful water under a small waterfall and laying on the rocks to dry off. Heaven.

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Another area that we frequented for swimming during our time in Tad Lo (mostly in the afternoon after wandering all day) was just under the bridge. There is a grassy area where three huts have been set up and I suppose that in the high season this area is the place to be but because it is low season we had it to ourselves. Well almost to ourselves. The second day we visited our little swimming spot we were joined by some local kids who we continued to see each time we swam there. They were cautious at first, either totally ignoring us or watching us carefully. Eventually they accepted our presence there and on the following days Evan was used as a human climbing pole as the boys clung to him in the water and climbed onto his shoulders while he threw them in the air. They also encouraged Evan’s participation in their favourite game - jumping, flipping, karate-kicking while jumping off a small rock at the river bed. He joined them in jumping in, climbing out and going though it all again. The kids loved the camera, wanting their picture taken and posing for us.

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Each day at 4.30 you can visit Tadlo Lodge to see them washing their two elephants. We witnessed this most afternoons and it was lovely to see. I just don’t know about the elephants being in captivity. They seem well looked after and when they were being washed the handler allowed the elephant to walk along on his own without being controlled but I still don’t know, We patted the elephants and were able to be very close to them. This whole thing is free to witness as well which is great. It was a nice way to end the day.

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There is a dog in town that we saw everyday and we named him very predictably, ‘Spot’. He followed us on our first day when we walked out of town and continued to come with us on each walk. When the path disappeared and we were not sure which direction to take, Spot would take the lead and direct us. When he ran ahead he turned around and waited for us. When we rested so did he and he swam with us as well. He was our companion dog during our time in Tad Lo and a very good guide to have.

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We had such a magical time in Tad Lo Village. We are leaving to visit the capital city, Vientiane. To get here we need to catch an overnight bus (yuck) which has us arriving at 6.30am.

Posted by Evalikat 22:06 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

4000 Island Paradise: Don Khone & Don Det

semi-overcast 34 °C
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Our first stop in Laos was 4000 islands, an area that is made of many small islands in the Mekong River. There are two main islands that are set up for tourists, Don Khone and Don Det which are connected by a bridge. We decided to stay on Don Khone, which is a less touristy island and has the majority of the natural attractions such as waterfalls and riding tracks. The other island, Don Det is also very nice but has more accommodation and is the more popular choice for visitors.

It is a very peaceful, serene area. The islands are quite small and easily explored by bike. During out time there we visited waterfalls and rode our bikes through rice fields, seeing farmers and lots of animals along the way. It is like being transported to another place. The sunsets were amazing and we stayed in al little hut right on the river so our view was very good indeed.

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Here are some pictures of our accommodation including the view from our little balcony and some of the sunset pictures.

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One of the big highlights of this area is visiting the almost extinct freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins. To see them it is best to visit in the dry season and right now it is very much the wet season so we were warned that it was not guaranteed that we would spot any. We decided to try anyway and hired a boat to see them. The driver told us that we had to go to Cambodia to see them which is just across the river. On our way across we were treated to several viewings, two of them very close to our boat. It was a really beautiful experience to see these amazing creatures in such a beautiful place. We were just floating on the water without the engine going and it was so quiet, there was no-one else out on the river. When we crossed to Cambodia we stood on the banks of the river and spotted more dolphins in the distance so we were very lucky indeed. I It was a really amazing experience considering how rare they are.

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It was such a beautiful spot to visit and this is the third time this trip we have stayed on the Mekong River, once in Vietnam, Cambodia and now Laos so that gives you an idea of how big this river is. Each place has been different but they all have one thing in common - the river is their life blood, supplying water for farming, growing rice, fishing and providing water for their crops. It is a very important source of income for most of the farmers that live and work there.

While we were there it was peaceful and a lot of the time there was real silence apart from the distant sound of animals. We found ourselves alone in our explorations and that was nice to be away from all the other tourists. The pace of life is very slow and people there seem to relax a lot but when they do work, the work hard in the heat and in bad conditions like huge muddy areas due to the wet season. There is a big emphasis on family and the place we stayed at was an example of this with the family running the whole operation working side by side and then in the evening playing in the river, with their dogs, riding bikes or relaxing all together.

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Laos seems like a really beautiful place and reading up about it most of the activities are based around the natural environment. There are things like trekking to do as well as lots of bike riding, swimming and waterfalls to visit. We are starting in the very South and making our way up towards the North. Next stop is Pakse, roughly 3 hours drive away. Here we will plan our visit to the Bolaven Plateau where we will stay in Tat Lo, a place where you can hike to minority villages and visit waterfalls. Sounds lovely.

Posted by Evalikat 01:10 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Crossing the border from Cambodia to Laos

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The border crossing from Cambodia to Laos was a crazy affair. Like when we crossed from Vietnam to Cambodia we expected to pay more than the price that is stated on the embassy website. It is a well known fact that corruption money needs to be paid and there is nothing you can do about it. This is usually around $5 or so. Also to cross you have the option of getting a bus there that can drop you at the gate and you process your own visa paperwork or the other option is that you pay someone to accompany you on the bus and they complete all the paperwork for you so that you are not delayed. We did it this way when we crossed from Vietnam to Cambodia and the fee was around $1.

Kratie is realistically roughly about 5 hours from the border and then our trip was another hour bus ride and hour boat ride. After being on another small minivan for more than three hours we were dropped in the middle of nowhere in a cafe and told to wait. Eventually a guy showed up who offered to do all our paperwork for us. He told us that it costs $42 to do this including the visa. We had done our research though and we knew a visa was $30 and with the corruption fee of $5 and processing fee of $1 this did not add up. He said we could process our own visas but would have to wait an additional two hours (we had already been waiting for two hours) for the next bus as this first bus, the one we had a ticket for, would not wait for us to go through the visa checkpoint. This again didn't make sense. It felt like he was trying to trap us into agreeing to pay much more than the expected fee. However after waiting an additional hour the bus finally showed up and being exhausted we agreed to pay.

Luckily for us the bus was filled with other tourists and amongst us all we refused to pay the extra money or hand over paperwork to him. This meant that we were not using his services and there was nothing he could do about it. He ranted and raved and said that we were cheating him out of his income and why were we being so difficult etc eventually jumping off the bus in a fit of rage.

We soon found out that we were right to refuse his services as we saved ourselves at least $7 each so I didn’t feel bad about that at all.

After crossing the border we were taken to a dock and we all hopped on a small wooden boat that took us across to the beautiful Don Khone (an island that is on the Mekong River and part of an area known as 4000 islands). Just another crazy travel day in South East Asia.

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Posted by Evalikat 01:07 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Kratie - our last stop in Cambodia

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After being held up in Siem Reap a little longer than anticipated we were left with only a few days before our Visas were due to expire. Although there are many transport options to duck straight into our next stop, Laos, we were reluctant to cut our time in Cambodia short and wanted to spend every last day here. We chose to stop over in a little town called Kratie on the way to the border.

Firstly, our journey there was absolutely mental. In typical Cambodia (or South East Asia) fashion, we found ourselves in some pretty compromising situations during our journey. We were settled on a big bus originally and were comfortable for the first part until we stopped at a service station in the middle of nowhere and were ushered off the bus towards some locals. We were piled into a minivan with at least six people to every three seats. As you can imagine, this was extremely uncomfortable and made the journey almost unbearable. We stopped many times along them way so that the driver could drop off all manner of things, from giant bags of rice to boxes. It was a slow and extremely bumpy journey and the whole time we hoped we were on the right bus because nobody could speak English and we were grunted at when we asked. However we breathed a sigh of relief when the van dropped us right in the heart of Kratie, only a 10 minute walk to our accommodation.

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Kratie is a town located along the Mekong River and is most well known as a place where the rare Irrawaddy Dolphin can be spotted in the waters of the Mekong. It is for this reason that most people visit Kratie. We were headed to Si Phan Don (4000 Islands) in Laos from here where you are also able to see the dolphins and this being such a short stop over we opted for a day of exploration. We hired some bikes and visited the nearby Koh Trong, a small island which can be accessed by ferry.

The 'ferry' was actually a small wooden boat, hardly large enough to carry 20 people but somehow managed to charter many more than that as well as several large boxes and bags of food, bikes (ours included) and a collection of miscellaneous baskets. The ferry goes back and fourth between the island and the dock at Kratie.

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When we arrived at Koh Trong we found ourselves in a beautiful tropical place full of banana trees, coconut trees and mango trees. You can explore the island by riding along a path that circles the whole island. In the centre there is farmland and you can see many animals such as chickens, cows, horses and dogs. Life is very simple here and a lot of the farmers use primitive methods for their daily jobs such as cow drawn carts and ancient looking structures for their haystacks. It is very peaceful riding around the island and the silence is only broken by little voices yelling 'Hello' as children greet us when we ride past their homes.

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After completing a loop of the island we were back on the ferry, heading for Kratie. We rode along the Mekong and only a few kilometres out of town there are lots of shack style homes and more farming. There are small business here that sell petrol, food and drinks. The people in this region have some of the best views of the river that I have ever seen. It feels very relaxed here, especially when the majority of people are lazing in hammocks or eating with family. This is a place where everyone says hello and greets you with a smile. No mention of money or discussions about what we can buy from them occurs here, people are content to just be. It makes me think that maybe these people have it all figured out.

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Posted by Evalikat 22:47 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

The grand finale - Angkor Wat & Angkor Thom

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We visited Angkor Wat at sunrise. Arriving at the site just after 5am, we hoped to see a nice sunrise over the glorious Angkor Wat. Unfortunatley due to the cloud cover there was no real sunrise, the sky was dark and then it wasn't. Still, we saw the changes the light made on the stones and the structure changed from a silhouette, slowly revealing more detail until we could see the intricacies of the stones. It is quite a relaxing area and despite the crowds we were able to find parts in and around the temple that were relatively deserted. It is one of the few temples at the archaeological park that after all this time still is mostly intact.

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We also visited Angkor Thom where we saw several temples - Bayon, Baphuon, Royal Palace and the Elephants Terrace.

Bayon was really impressive because the towers around the complex are multileveled and at the top of each are four heads facing each direction. As you climb higher through the levels, you come face to face with some of the heads and the effect looking out over the temple and seeing the same face repeated is really amazing.

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Baphuon is known as a large jigsaw puzzle because when discovered almost all of the temple had crumbled and the restoration process involved pulling the rest down and starting all over again. The result is awesome. It is a pyramid shape and to access the top you climb up a really steep set of stairs. Children under the age of 12 cannot access this because of the danger. The view from the top was really beautiful and at the back of the temple is a mossy over grown forrest that was so nice to walk through.

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Royal Palace and Elephants Terrace make up part of an area that was used for formalities during the time the temples were in use. As you stand on the terrace you can see the roads leading up to the area and imagine that it was a great view point for people to watch the procession of elephants and royalty as they approached the area.

Once again, lots of pictures but it is so awesome its difficult to stop!

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Posted by Evalikat 02:42 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

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