Posts Tagged With: cities

Tibet Days 4-5: The Road to Everest

Day 4

We didn’t have the best start to our fourth day in Tibet. Firstly, our driver Damdul showed up an hour late and hadn’t even filled up the van. Next, I had to pick up mine and Janey’s train tickets (for our onward journey from Lhasa to Xi’an) from Lhasa station. This was a truly horrendous experience. Witnessing the way the Chinese officials treated Kalsang left me in no doubt about which country we were really in. Therefore, I wasn’t feeling too positive by the time we finally left the city. Thankfully, the bewitching lunar landscape quickly improved my mood. After a short time the road started climbing and winding it’s way around mountain passes. Janey and Tyrone were both bemoaning the roadside barriers for getting in the way of their photos. Virginia and I, on the other hand, were very thankful that the barriers were there, especially as Damdul wasn’t exactly the most cautious driver in the world. Finally, we reached the top of the Gamba Pass, at the giddy height of 4998 metres.  The only thing more breathtaking than the altitude was the view of Yamdrok Lake and the snow-cappped mountains behind it.

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Surprisingly none of us suffered from altitude sickness at the top. Drifting off to sleep for a while was a big mistake though. I woke with a truly skull-cracking headache. It felt like my brain was expanding and pushing against the sides of my skill, which of course it was. I used a combination of drugs, breathing techniques and large quantities of chocolate to try to combat it. I was still feeling rubbish though by the time we reached the top of the Karola Pass, at an even higher altitude of 5020 metres. We saw a very negative side of Tibet there. As soon as the van stopped, vendors ran up to and started banging on the windows and waving prayer flags in our faces, in an attempt to get us to buy. I did feel sorry for them but there was no way I was purchasing anything under that sort of pressure. The good news was that in terms of altitude, this was the high point of the day. As we descended the pass, I finally started to feel human again.

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Our final stop of the day was one of the coolest places we visited in all of Tibet. The town of Gyantse was once a Silk Road trading post and you could feel the history there. The highlight was an incredible fortress on top of a hill that caused Virginia to remark “it’s like the opening credits from Game of Thrones.” At the Kumbum Stupa, we could climb to the top, look at views of the city walls and imagine the hardy silk road travellers several centuries ago.

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Night was falling as we embarked on the final leg of our journey for the day; a two hour drive to Shigatse; Tibet’s second city. We went to a Chinese restaurant with no English menu and completely put our trust in Damdul, who played a blinder. The result was a truly delicious meal.  For this reason, I decided to partially forgive him for using his phone whilst driving one-handed down the mountain passes.

Day 5

Day 5 began with the now obligatory skull-splitter. An excellent breakfast of corned beef, eggs and chips, coupled with several ibuprofen made me able to face the day. Our first stop was the Teshilungpo Monastery, former home to the Panchen Lama. It was mostly destroyed by the Chinese during the Cultural Revolution (a misnomer if ever there was one) but has since been partially rebuilt. It was an impressive building but it didn’t have anything that particularly distinguished it in the way that Drepung and Sera did in Lhasa.

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After lunch, we drove up the first high pass of the day, Tsola at a mere 4800 metres. At the top, prayer flags fluttered violently in the strong winds. We bought some paper prayer flags of our own and threw them to the wind. I’m not sure what spritual affect this had but it was quite a lot of fun. The next high pass, Gyatsda, was the highest so far, at 5200 metres. Thankfully, my body was finally starting to get accustomed to the altitude but it was the cold that got us up here. To use a meteorological term, it was cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey. We didn’t hang around for too long.

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On our way down from Gyatsda, we were treated to our first views of the sub-Himalayas. I had been waiting for a very long time for this moment and it didn’t disappoint. We had been driving for a few minutes after this when Virginia spotted some tall looking mountains and asked what they were. Kalsang casually declared “that tall pointy one is Everest.” Cue all four of us absolutely losing the plot. We hadn’t expected to see it until the next day. Kalsang knew all along and had kept quiet about it. He’d make a great poker player. Later, when we were taking photos at the viewpoint we asked him if he’d ever been on Everest. Just as nonchalantly as before, he told us that a few years ago he was a porter and had climbed to 7500 metres. On numerous occasions. With 30kg on his back and no bottled oxygen. It’s not hyperbolic to say he’s the toughest man I’ve ever met. Sadly, as he was a porter, rather than a Sherpa, he’d never been given permission to have a crack at the summit. It seemed desperately unjust. That night we checked into our hotel in New Tingri, which was so basic that we might as well have been camping in the -13 degree temperatures. It didn’t matter a bit. The next day we were going to Base Camp.

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Categories: Tibet | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Tibet Days 1-3: Lhasa

Day 1

Boxing Day 2015. My alarm clock rang at 3:30am. I was not feeling optimistic. It seemed like too many things had been conspiring against us since our arrival in China a few days before. We met our friends Tyrone and Virginia at Chengdu airport. Some months earlier, I had pitched the idea of coming to Tibet with us. They hadn’t needed much persuasion. I was now seriously worried that we weren’t going to get in though. What if the permit wasn’t right? What if the guy at immigration just took a disliking to us? Nervously we approached the desk and handed over the permit. A quick glance from the guard and we were waved through with absolutely no problems. We boarded the plane and all four of us broke out into peals of exultant laughter. We’d all secretly been nursing the same unspoken dread. I’d even gone as far as looking into the feasibility of going to Mongolia instead. The whole airport experience had been impossibly easy though. To add to my good mood, the views from the plane were some of the most spectacular I’ve ever seen, or probably will ever see in my life.

Upon arrival at the airport, we were met by Kalsang, our guide from Snow Lion Tours, who would be with us for the duration of our time in Tibet. The good news also kept on coming. My bag, which had gone missing in Beijing three days earlier, had finally been located and was due to be put on the next flight from Chengdu to Lhasa. When we reached the old part of the city, it was like stepping into a different world. The sky was dazzlingly blue and the air worryingly thin. We walked through a market, where hard faced men sat hacking at dried yak carcasses with machetes, to our hotel. The door was covered by a thick Himalayan rug, which we walked through to the most amazing hotel lobby. There was a roaring turf fire in the middle of the room and bunches of pilgrims and saffron clad monks sat around eating momos and drinking butter milk tea. It was everything that I had imagined Tibet to be and more. Later that afternoon, I had a mad dash across town to find my backpack, which had bizarrely been delivered to the Potala Palace bus station rather than our hotel. It made me think of the first time I went travelling when I was nineteen. A bunch of lads from my local pub asked me “Why don’t you just go to Benidorm?!” Times like this are why. I was exhausted and suffering from altitude sickness but utterly exhilarated by the adventure.

Day 2

I woke with my head feeling like it was splitting in half. It had been several years since I had slept at this kind of altitude and my body clearly didn’t like it. At 10:00, we gingerly left the hotel and headed for the Potala Palace, Tibet’s most iconic building. Even though I’d seen it on TV and in books many times before, nothing prepares you for actually seeing it up close for the first time. The building seems to just rise up out of the rocks. Janey had been yearning to see this for 25 years and was predictably ecstatic. After the obligatory photos outside, we started the walk up the steep path to the entrance. Kalsang explained the colour system on the building to us. White symbolises purity and the Land of Snows, yellow is the Sun’s rays spreading Buddhism throughout the world and red means energy.

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Inside, I liked looking at the room where the youthful Dalai Lama had entertained visiting foreign dignitaries, and particularly enjoyed Kalsang’s stories about the sixth Dalai Lama. As well as being a spiritual leader, apparently he was also a legendary drinker and womaniser. Who says those two things can’t go hand in hand?! The Palace is certainly interesting on the inside, but like many such places, in my opinion the true highlight are the views of it.

After a delicious lunch of yak curry and flatbreads, we made our way towards the Jokhang Temple, centre of the famous Barkhor pilgrim circuit. Tyrone aptly remarked “It’s like a scene from National Geographic.” Kalsang explained that whilst for foreign tourists the highlights of Tibet are Everest and the Potala Palace, for Tibetan pilgrims the Jokhang Temple is the most important place of all. The said pilgrims spend all day circumambulating the temple to cleanse themselves of their sins. Some of the really zealous ones prostrate themselves on the floor, recite an incantation, and then get up again and repeat the process, all the way around the circuit. Apparently, they do this up to 500 times. It must be like doing 500 burpees, the worst fitness class exercise of all. I decided that my soul was sufficiently pure for the day and headed back to the hotel for some yak stew and momos. I even treated myself to a solitary Lhasa Beer. It’s not going to win any brewing awards but it’s certainly the most obscure beer I’ve ever had.

Day 3

Day 3 started with me feeling even worse than the previous morning. I’d only had one beer. I couldn’t be that much of a lightweight could I?! Our first stop of the day was the Drepung (Pile of Rice) Monastery, which for me was the highlight of Lhasa. The 40 minute drive out of the city afforded us amazing views of the soaring mountains. I found out at this point that these weren’t actually the proper Himalayas and quickly chose to ignore it. I’d been waiting years to see the Himalaya and was not letting something as small as my own ignorance ruin that. There wasn’t much to see at the Monastery (other than a little annex for elderly monks, nuns and cute puppies where they were using old satellite dishes to create solar power) but it’s the location of Drepung that makes it so spectacular.

After posing for dozens of photos with inquisitive locals, we headed to Sera (Storm Monastery). It isn’t as enviably located as Drepung but it’s still incredibly beautiful. The highlight at Sera was watching an abbot deliver some sort of lecture to a group of seated monks, who then broke out into a low guttural chant that lasted for about twenty minutes.

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Thousands of miles away in the Tropical Spice Gardens in Penang, there’s an iron sculpture that you put your ear up to and “listen to the sound of the Earth.” This is exactly what the monks sounded like. It was an unforgettable experience. Amusingly though, during the chant some of the younger monks obviously got a bit bored and started throwing stones at each other. When they processed out one of the young reprobates gave me a complicit wink. That evening, I felt sufficiently strengthened to actually walk the Barkhor and double the number of Lhasa beers consumed. The next day we would leave Lhasa and our adventure would truly begin.

TRAVEL TIPS

  • We booked our tour with Snow Lion Tours. They are a Tibetan owned company. Wangden, the manager, speaks excellent English and was a pleasure to deal with, throughout the entire long and complicated booking process. http://snowliontours.com/

 

  • It’s unlikely that you’d be able to book your own accommodation in Lhasa but even if you don’t end up at the same hotel as us, I’d recommend going there for some home cooked authentic Tibetan cuisine. It’s called Rama Kharpo hotel and it’s located in the middle of the old town, not too far from the Barkhor circuit.
Categories: Days 1-3: Lhasa, Tibet | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ten things to do in Myanmar

Myanmar has an incredible amount to offer to travellers. Ancient cities, unspoilt countryside and some pristine beaches all combine to make it one of Asia’s most exciting destinations. However, it is also a fairly big country with very poor infrastructure. As most visitors only have around 2-3 weeks there, it’s unrealistic to think that you can see all of the country in that time. Personally, I would have loved to have seen Tsipaw, Ngapali Beach and the Mergui Archipelago but it wasn’t possible in my two week timeframe. Based on the experiences that I did have though, I ‘ve put together this list of ten things I think you should do in Myanmar.

10) Yangon Circular Train

The name is a bit of a giveaway for this one. There is a local commuter train that takes a circuitous three hour loop through Yangon’s suburbs and into the surrounding countryside. The attraction is that you see a real picture of daily life in the city, which obviously makes for some brilliant photo opportunities. However, I wouldn’t recommend doing the whole three hour loop, as we did. After a while it starts to get a bit monotonous and it certainly isn’t comfortable. Alternatively, get on the train, travel a few stops and take a few pictures, then get off and take a taxi back to central Yangon.

 

9) Red Mountain Winery

They make wine in Myanmar? Really?! Yes, that was my reaction as well when I first heard about it. It’s true though. Around ten to fifteen years ago, some French and German winemakers set up some vineyards near Inle Lake. Red Mountain, the French owned winery, is just a 40 minute bike ride from Nyaungshwe, on the shores of Inle Lake. What you can do is taste the wine (3000 Kyat will buy you tasters of five of the most popular wines) and enjoy a delicious meal in a stunning setting. We treated ourselves to three courses, a taster set and an extra glass each and it still only come to around 12,000 Kyat each! Don’t expect that much from the wine but it’s perfectly palatable and well worth the ride out of town.

8) Experience a festival

This shouldn’t be too difficult in Myanmar. They seem to happen all the time! The day after we arrived in Yangon it was a full moon festival. In Kalaw, we saw a fire festival. At Inle 3000 monks and nuns were heading to a temple on the lake for an almsgiving ceremony. In Popa, we saw young girls and boys all finely dressed up in preparation for entry into the novitiate. If you do see one of these festivals, you probably won’t have a clue what’s going on. Don’t worry about that though. Just sit back and enjoy the craziness.

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7) Sunset at U Bein Bridge

U Bein is a teak wood bridge that stretches across the Ayerwady River, near the town of Annapura, about 20 kilometres outside of Mandalay. The picture of local people walking across at sunset is one of Myanmar’s most iconic images, right up there with the balloons over Bagan. For 12,000 Kyat you can pay a local boatman to take you out into the middle of the river, from where you can get the best photos. Yes it’s clichéd. Yes it’s crowded, but the classics are the classics for a reason. The photos are amazing.

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6) Innwa

Myanmar seems to have had an incredible number of capital cities in its tumultuous history. The one that served as the capital for the longest though was Innwa, until it was devastated by a massive earthquake in 1839. Today, you can visit the ruins of the city, which are situated on a bend in the Ayerwady River, not too far from Mandalay. It’s actually possible to combine Innwa, U Bein and Sagaing into a single day trip. The ruins are probably small enough to walk around if you can endure the heat. The thing to do in Innwa though is to hire a horse drawn cart to take you around the ruins, for 10,000 Kyat. It takes about an hour and a half in total and you can stop and take as many photos as you like. Be prepared for some extremely persistent salespeople though. One lady actually jumped on her bicycle and followed our cart until we eventually felt so guilty that we had to buy something from her!

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5) Mandalay to Bagan ferry

Travel in Myanmar isn’t easy. It’s still an incredibly poor country and the roads are not in great shape. Overnight trains are supposed to be unspeakably horrific and domestic airlines have rather dubious safety records. So just once, why not treat yourself and travel in a more luxurious way? That’s what we did when we took the ferry from Mandalay to Bagan. It was $42 as opposed to $18 on the bus. I can assure you that it was worth every cent of those extra $24 though. You get two meals and you can order beer, tea or coffee on board. If you like, you can sit up on deck and take in the views. You could snooze the journey away. Or you could do what I did and read pretty much all of George Orwell’s “Burmese Days” in the country where it was set. Truly idyllic.

4) Bagan

I wrote about Bagan in more detail here so this is the concise version. There are hundreds of temples and pagodas spread out over a massive plain. They are all pretty impressive in their own right but throw in the spectacular sunrises and the balloon rides (presuming you’re as rich as a Russian oligarch) and you can see what makes Bagan so special.

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3) Inle Lake

Bagan’s main rival for the most popular tourist destination in Myanmar is Inle Lake. Located in Shan State, Inle can justifiably claim to be one of the most beautiful and unique places in South East Asia. The way the locals live their lives on the lake is fascinating. From the standing rowers, to the floating gardens and the stilt houses, the views are constantly captivating. It’s also a great place to just go and relax for a few days. I spent my birthday there. I certainly wasn’t disappointed.

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2) Kalaw trekking

What could be even better than Inle Lake? Trekking there from Kalaw of course. For me, this was the highlight of my time in Myanmar. The countryside is incredibly picturesque, the trek isn’t too challenging and you get to witness a way of life that is seemingly the same as it has always been. I’ve done quite a few treks in South East Asia. This was my favourite one. Read more about it here.

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1) Shwedagon Pagoda

If any one place could be called the cultural and spiritual centre of Myanmar, it’s Shwedagon. This enormous golden pagoda is located in the heart of Yangon and attracts pilgrims and visitors from all over the country. The best time to visit is late afternoon for two reasons. Firstly, you have to go barefooted. If you do this in the middle of the day, you will burn your feet pretty badly. Secondly, at dusk (around 6:20 on the day we went there) the lights are switched on and the pagoda appears to change colour. The effect is absolutely spectacular. It’s one of the most impressive religious buildings I’ve ever been to.

 

 

Categories: 10 things to do in Myanmar, Asia, Myanmar, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The top 5 places to visit in Kyoto

It isn’t easy planning a trip to Japan. The land of the rising sun has an incredible range of options for tourists. You could go skiing in Hokkaido, shopping in Tokyo or scuba diving in Okinawa. Pretty much every city has a wealth of cultural options, outstanding local cuisine and lots of opportunities to party hard. With this much to choose from, how do you decide where to go? One city features on nearly every tourist’s itinerary though; the truly outstanding Kyoto.

Kyoto was the capital of Japan until it was usurped by Tokyo in 1868. In many ways though, Kyoto is still the cultural capital. Whereas the vast concrete jungle of Tokyo can sometimes feel a bit soulless, Kyoto is everything you imagine Japan to be before you go there. From the geisha district of Gion, to smoky little izikaya bars, to the many temples and shrines that are dotted around the city, Kyoto has something to offer everyone. The fact that the city is absolutely beautiful doesn’t hurt either! We weren’t too bothered about spotting Geishas, so for us the main attractions were the temples and shrines and we certainly weren’t disappointed. Here are what I think are the top 5 best places to visit in Kyoto.

5) Sanjusangen-do (the one with the 1001 Buddha statues)

Sanjusangen-do is a long wooden temple, located in the East of the city. It’s not that spectacular from the outside. The inside though is an incredible spectacle. 1001 Buddha statues stand to attention, guarded by some truly bad-ass looking warriors. It’s a really incredible sight and well worth the entrance fee, even though you’re not allowed to take photos inside.

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4) Kiyomizu-dera (the one that hangs over a valley)

Kiyomizu-dera is one of Kyoto’s most famous and popular attractions. The temple itself juts out over a valley, meaning that the best photos are actually taken from the hill opposite the temple. From the bus stop on the main road, you have to walk up a very steep hill, which is lined with shops and restaurants selling all kinds of snacks and souvenirs. Be warned though, we went on a Sunday afternoon and it was absolute bedlam! I’ve rarely seen so many tourists trying to crowd into one place. For this reason, Kiyomizu-dera is probably best visited early in the morning.

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3) Kinkakuji (the golden temple)

If Kiyomizu-dera is one of the most famous attractions in Kyoto, then Kinkakuji is one of the most famous in all of Japan. This is the mythical sounding golden temple. Even if you’ve never even thought of going to Japan, there’s a good chance you’ll have seen a picture of this place. The temple sits on the edge of a lake, and on a clear day the image of the temple is reflected in the water. It looks spectacular and is well worthy of its exalted reputation. On a slightly unrelated note, it also had one of the best badly written English signs I’ve ever seen!

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2) Fushimi-Inari (the one with all the orange pillars)

Unlike the other places on the list, Fushimi-Inari is a shrine rather than a temple. The reason for its fame and popularity is the four kilometre path, which leads to the shrine at the top of the hill. More than 10,000 “tori” gates line the pathways, giving the impression of being inside a tunnel. It’s really atmospheric and totally unique. The four kilometres up and then down are also great exercise and a good way of working off all the previous night’s excess sake and yakitori chicken consumption.

1) Ginkakuji (the silver temple)

It’s rare that silver is better than gold, but in Kyoto it is. Ginkakuji was built in the same style as its more famous relation. The builders didn’t just succeed in paying homage to Kinkakuji though. They went and made somewhere even better, and it’s undoubtedly my favourite place in to visit in Kyoto. The temple is approached by walking along the evocatively named “Philosophers Path,” which follows the side of a canal that skirts the hills on the eastern fringe of the city. The path is beautiful in its own right, but what lies at the end of it is absolutely stunning. The temple is surrounded by a perfectly maintained Zen garden. A circuitous path takes visitors all around the garden, and offers views of the temple from a variety of different angles. What’s great about Ginkakuji is it’s not nearly as crowded as any of the other temples, meaning that you can experience moments of pure solitude and tranquility. Believe me, that is extremely difficult to manage in Japan! I’ve lived in Asia for nearly two years. I also have a fiancée that could never get tired of visiting temples so I’ve visited an incredible number of them over that time. Ginkakuji was right up there with the very best.

TRAVEL TIPS

With the exception of Fushimi-Inari, you could fit all of these places into one long day if you wanted. To do so, you’ll need a one day bus pass which offers you unlimited travel on all city buses, and is excellent value at just 500 Yen. That’s about £2:60 or $4 USD.

Categories: Asia, Japan, Kyoto | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Córdoba

What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of the South of Spain? The Costa Del Sol? Resorts like Marbella and Torremolinos? Not for me. In my opinion, the best three things about the Costa Del Sol are Malaga Airport, Malaga Train station, and the Autovía Del Sur, as long as it’s heading in a northbound direction. If you really want to experience southern Spain then you have to head inland. It’s there that you’ll find flamenco culture, an Arabic legacy, spectacular cities and gastronomic excellence. All of these things are present in abundance in Córdoba, the city that I called home for eighteen months. It’s not as big and stylish as Sevilla. Nor is it as enviably located as Granada. What it is though is one of the most beautiful cities in all of Spain, if not Europe.

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Where to go

Córdoba has been a significant city since Roman times. It’s therefore no surprise that most of its principal attractions are historical ones. First and foremost on most tourists list is the magnificent Mezquita-catedral. This stunning structure was built as a Mosque in the 8th century in the heyday of the Arabic kingdom of Al-Andalus. When Córdoba was re-conquered by King Ferdinand III of Castile in 1236, the building was adopted as a Catholic cathedral, which it is still used as today. Muslim style archways dominate the majority of the interior, whereas the Cathedral sits in the very centre, complete with an extremely elaborate altar. It’s an amazing juxtaposition and one that must be fairly unique in the world. As stunning as the interior of La Mezquita is, the building is at its best when viewed from outside. The views from the other side of the very dubiously named “Puente Romano” (Roman Bridge) are particularly spectacular.

The narrow winding streets around La Mezquita are known as La Juderia; a reference to a time when there was also a significant Jewish community in Cordoba. The streets of La Judería are home to plenty of tourist shops and some excellent restaurants. On the edge of these streets, about two hundred metres from La Mezquita, you’ll find Córdoba’s other main tourist attraction, El Alcazar. An Alcazar is a type of fortress and you will find one in most Spanish cities. Indeed, Sevilla’s Alcazar is currently being used as the Dornish Water Gardens on “Game of Thrones.” At Córdoba’s Alcazar the building itself isn’t that spectacular. What does take the breath away though is the gardens. If there’s a more spectacular set of gardens in Europe, then I’m yet to find them. I may be biased but I think that they even beat The Water Gardens! At the centre of the gardens, another hint of Córdoba’s auspicious past can be found; a statue of Christopher Columbus petitioning Los Reyes Cristianos (The Christian Monarchs) Ferdinand and Isabelle. It was from this building that he planned his voyage to Asia, when he accidentally “discovered” America and claimed it for the glory of Spain.

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Other than these two main attractions, the best thing to do in Córdoba is just to wander the streets for a while. It’s such a photogenic city that glorious photo opportunities pop up around most corners. One rainy day option worthy of mention though is the Archaeological Museum. This provides an interesting insight to Córdoba’s many historical places of interest.

Where to eat

Córdoba is packed full of fabulous little tavernas that serve the local favourites of salmorejo (a chilled tomato soup) and rabo de toro (stewed oxtail). There’s so many of these that to recommend just one or two would be futile. However, there is one place that every tourist in Cordoba should go to eat or drink. That place is the fabulous Plaza de la Corredera, which was recently voted as Spain’s favourite plaza. It’s easy to see why. On spring and autumn afternoons, and summer evenings it feels like the whole city is out on the Plaza. Many of my fondest memories of my time in Córdoba involve La Corredera, an ice cold beer and a few tapas. Simple yet wonderful. There’s a reason why people rave about the quality of life in Spain.

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When to go

If I said that Córdoba is a good year round destination, I’d be lying. Based on summer time temperatures alone, Córdoba is Europe’s hottest city. The mercury has been known to tip over fifty degrees on occasion. For this reason, many of the local population decamp to the beaches in July and August. This is not the time to visit! The best time of year to visit Córdoba, by a considerable distance is the month of May. It’s hot but not too hot. It’s also the time of the year when the city is in party mood. May starts with Las Cruces Mayo, a truly bizarre event when ornately decorated crosses spring up all over the city for three days. It’s officially a religious event, but for most people it just seems like an excuse to get pissed in the street. Next to all the crosses are bars selling beers and rebujitos, a cocktail made of sherry style fortified wine and sprite. Naturally.

As May continues, the Patios competition commences. Many houses take part in this competition to see who can have the most ornately decorated courtyard. Again, it sounds bizarre but it’s a beautiful spectacle, and tourists flock from all over Spain to see it.

Both of these events though are just the undercard. The main event of May is La Feria. This is when the Cordobés really let their hair down and party HARD for ten solid days. On a large patch of wasteland near the football stadium a fairground is erected. Alongside this, there are dozens of casetas, marquee style tents which serve food and booze and play flamenco or sevillanas. It can be a bit mind boggling at first and some casetas are more receptive to foreigners than others. However, unlike Sevilla’s feria, you don’t need an invitation to enter the casetas. Once you suss out which are the best ones, it’s impossible not to have a great time. One of the best things about Feria is people watching. The majority of the women, of all ages, wear ostentatious flamenco dresses. Some of the guys even dress up gaucho style and arrive on horseback. Truly this is Andalucía.

Córdoba is a pretty compact city. If you aren’t visiting at Feria time, you only really need a couple of days to see the main sights. This is a city that rewards a more leisurely pace though, so why not stay a little longer? Wander the streets. Find a little hidden plaza. Eat some tapas. Drink some red wine. You might just fall in love with the place. I know I did. Cordoba te echo de menos.

TRAVEL TIPS

For many more ideas of things to do and places to visit in Cordoba, including the sierra that surrounds the city go to http://english.turismodecordoba.org/que-visitar.cfm

Categories: Córdoba, Europe, Spain | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Operation Snow Monkey

Japan; the land of the rising sun. Home to sushi, sumo and samurai. It’s one of the most evocative and distinct destinations on earth. Prior to last December, I’d wanted to go there for years. Our three week Christmas holiday gave me the perfect opportunity. Janey, my better half, was somewhat sceptical though. Understandably, she was concerned about the financial impact of three weeks in one of Asia’s most expensive countries. I had to do something to persuade her. Thus, Operation Snow Monkey was born.

During my research about Japan, I’d found out about a group of Japanese long-tailed monkeys who live near Kambayashi onsen in Nagano prefecture. Their claim to fame is that they escape the bitter winter cold by bathing in the onsen, a natural volcanic hot spring. They’re also exceptionally cute. And Janey has a big weakness for cute fluffy things. Part one of Operation Snow Monkey involved “accidentally” leaving my phone lying around or my laptop screen open, with pictures of cute snow monkeys on them. “Who are they?” Janey asked. “They’re called snow monkeys, they live in Japan” I casually declared. The seed was planted. After a few days of this, the build up was over and I went for the winning shot. “You know if we went to Japan at Christmas, you could see the snow monkeys…………..” SUCCESS!! We were going to Japan!

The day after our flight arrived in Nagoya, we stepped off a train in Nagano, right into some of the foulest winter weather imaginable. It was cold, wet sleet. By the time we had walked the short distance to our hostel we were freezing, miserable and soaked to the skin. Had it all been a big mistake coming to Japan in the winter? The next day assuaged our doubts spectacularly.

After a morning spent visiting Nagano’s stunning Zenko-ji temple, we boarded a bus to take us to the monkey park. Throughout the journey the snow was coming down really hard and the bus even had to stop to put snow chains on the wheels. Then, all of a sudden, we were deposited by the side of the road in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. From the road, a track meandered up through snow covered pine forest towards the monkey park. Our guidebook understated the length of the walk (it took us forty minutes rather than twenty) but overstated the difficulty level. It’s actually an easy stroll, as long as you have strong footwear.

During the walk a full scale blizzard started. At one point it was blowing horizontally into our faces. We were going to have to work to see these monkeys. It was well worth it in the end though. The onsen, despite being a bit of a tourist trap, was a truly unique place. Some of the mother monkeys clutched their tiny offspring to their bosoms for warmth, while others sat in the water, enjoying the searing heat. Occasionally, a fight would break out but for the most part, the monkeys seemed gloriously content in their little oasis from the cold. All the while the blizzard raged around us, making the visit even more memorable.

On our walk back to the road, night was beginning to fall, giving the forest an almost ethereal nature. At times it felt like we were walking through Narnia! A cup of hot sake, in the café at the bottom, warmed our bones and put the seal on a truly unforgettable experience.

Over the next three weeks, Japan completely exceeded our expectations. The visit to the monkey park remained one of the very best days though. Operation Snow Monkey was a complete success!

TRAVEL TIPS

We took a bus from Nagano station to the monkey park. It took us about one hour and cost 1300 Yen. These leave pretty frequently throughout the day. Be careful not to miss the last bus back from the monkey park though! This departed at 5:30pm.

Categories: Asia, Japan, Snow Monkeys | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

A week in Morocco

There aren’t many countries that can truly say that they offer everything to the tourist. Morocco though, most definitely can. From the soaring peaks of the high Atlas mountains, to windswept sandy beaches, and rolling sand dunes in the Sahara, the landscapes are stunning and varied. Throw in ancient cities, a distinct and delectable cuisine, and the fact that it’s a shopper’s paradise, you can see why it holds such an appeal for so many travellers. Morocco had captured my imagination for a long time before I went there. I sensed my chance to finally go when I got a job in southern Spain in 2011. As soon as I arrived in Andalusia, I was dreaming of what lay across the straits of Gibraltar. The opportunity arose when we had a week off work for Semana Santa, Spain’s Easter week holidays.

Our journey started in our home city of Cordoba. From there we took the train to Algeciras, and then a local bus to Tarifa, where we boarded our ferry to Tangier. There was something gloriously exciting and old-fashioned about travelling between continents by ship. Upon arrival, we checked in at the Hotel Continental, which overlooked the port. The hotel had an air of faded grandeur, which added to the feeling of old-fashioned travel. It was probably THE place to stay in Tangier in a bygone era. After a while, we braved the labyrinthine streets of Tangier’s medina and our senses were assaulted in every way. This was our first taste of North Africa, and the Arab world, and it probably showed. An old man who was dressed like Yoda approached us. Upon hearing that we were from Manchester, he proceeded to tell us that he was a personal friend of Bobby Charlton and had guided him round Tangier in the 1960s. It was almost certainly nonsense but it was highly amusing. After he had finished regaling us with his tales, and quibbling about the tip we gave him, he took us to a local restaurant, which in fairness to Yoda was absolutely outstanding. The subtly spiced Moroccan cuisine would continue to work its magic on us for the entire week.

The next day we left Tangier and headed to Chefchaouen, the blue city in the Rif Mountains. There we stayed at a hostel called Rif for anyone, or Dar Scotlandee to the locals, in reference to the Scottish couple that owned the place. Terry and Suzanne, and their son Liam, were superbly hospitable and had what could be best described as a relaxed and libertarian approach to life. Other than exploring the blue painted medina, the thing to do in Chefchaouen is hike. There are a number of superb trails in the Rif Mountains. Unfortunately for us, bad weather (which was to follow us round for our entire trip) scuppered these plans so three days in Chefchaouen was probably one too many.

Our next destination was Fez. I’ve done a lot of travelling and consequently taken a lot of bus journeys. This was up there with the very worst of them. Admittedly, I’ve never driven a bus. However, for my money, the best way to approach tight winding mountain roads that are covered in potholes, is to take it slowly and carefully. Our bus driver clearly didn’t agree. His approach was to drive like an absolute madman, tearing round each corner at terrifying speeds. All round the bus people were being sick. It was one of the longest five hours of my life!

Fez, when we finally arrived there, was worth all the tortures inflicted on the journey. Going into the medina was like stepping back in time several hundred years. While we were exploring, we were approached by a young man named Hassan, who offered his cousin’s services for a trip to Volubilis. Against every traveller’s instinct we said yes. It turned out to be the best decision we made in our time there. The day trip was the undoubted highlight of our holiday. Volubilis is a remarkably well preserved set of Roman ruins, located about 100 kilometres from Fez. Due to Janey’s archaeological background this was one of the things that she was most looking forward to in Morocco. It certainly didn’t disappoint. The weather conspired against us again though. When we arrived at the ruins, the skies were blue. Within a few minutes, they had turned to black and a thunderous downpour ensued. At times it felt more like we were in North Wales than North Africa! The other two destinations that we visited on our day trip provided an interesting contrast. The small town of Moulay Idriss is auspicious for Muslims. However, it didn’t feel very welcoming to tourists and we were glad to be back in the car after a few minutes. Meknes on the other hand was a delight. The buildings were charming and we ate some spectacular street food for an obscenely low price. Said, Hassan’s cousin, also proved to be an excellent driver and guide.

After the tour, we were left with one more day in Fez. Janey, who had been holding back until now, went in search of souvenirs. I normally hate shopping with a passion but in Fez it was awesome! In Morocco haggling is obligatory and I loved it. Every transaction gave me the chance to test my skills against a true expert of the art. Overall, I think I did quite well. My haggling skills probably saved us a total of about fifty euros which is not a bad result when battling with the best!

Before we arrived back in Spain, there was time for one more challenge. We needed to get an overnight train from Fez to Tangier, so as to get the morning ferry back to Tarifa. This was made particularly tricky by our Riad’s refusal to organise a taxi for us. Therefore, we had to venture out into the Fez night to find one for ourselves. Thankfully after a few minutes we were successful, and all I had to do was stay awake until we had to change trains at Sidi Kacem. Eighteen hours after leaving the Riad we arrived back at our flat in Cordoda. This journey seemed to encapsulate our entire trip to Morocco. It was hard work, absolutely exhausting but utterly exhilarating.

TRAVEL TIPS

In Fez we stayed at a Riad called Riad Lalla Fatima. Upon first glance it looked beautiful. However, it turned out to be a dreadful place to stay. Firstly, at no other hotel or hostel in the world have the staff told me that they can’t organise a taxi, no matter what time I was leaving. Furthermore, on our final night we ordered a home cooked meal. Janey has been vegetarian for nearly twenty years. She was therefore highly distressed, and violently sick, when she discovered that her vegetarian couscous had chicken in it. Instead of apologising for the mistake, the staff had the gall to deny the visibly obvious. If I gave this place a 1 out of 10 rating it would be generous. Don’t stay there.

Categories: A week in Morocco, Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Palawan

I’d never really thought of going to the Philippines until earlier this year. In January we had a week off work for Chinese New Year, and the Philippines was the cheapest place to fly to from Malaysia, so we took our chance to experience a country that doesn’t feature on nearly as many backpacker itineraries as the mainland south east Asian countries, or even Indonesia. This is unfortunate as it has an incredible amount to offer, including seven thousand islands and a Latino culture that is completely unique in the region. One of the main challenges for any visitor to the Philippines is choosing which islands to go to. It is the world’s second largest archipelago and to see even a small percentage of it could take months. As we only had a week it was important that we chose well. We didn’t really want to spend any time in Manila so this ruled out Luzon, the largest island. The central Visayas range was still recovering from the devastating effects of Typhoon Haiyan, and the large southern island of Mindanao, home to the great Manny Pacquiao, was unadvisable due to problems with an insurgency. All of this limited our options somewhat. Helpfully, a colleague suggested Palawan, the long thin island just to the north east of Borneo. Despite knowing absolutely nothing about it we decided we would give it a try. It felt like we might actually be getting off the beaten track for once, something that’s nearly impossible in south east Asia these days.

When our flight touched down at Puerto Princesa airport it certainly felt like we’d achieved our objective. It looked far more like an airfield than an international airport. Some promotional literature referred to Palawan as “the last frontier.” This seemed to be quite an apt description as Puerto Princesa definitely felt like a frontier town, a place that’s only real use is as a departure point for other more beautiful or interesting destinations. For most tourists in Palawan, that destination is El Nido; a six hour journey from Puerto Princesa and reputedly one of the highlights of the Philippines. However, we were short on time so we decided to head to the sleepy sounding village of Port Barton instead. We could have paid an extortionate price to take a private jeep from the airport but that’s definitely not how I roll. It was the cheap, cramped minibus all the way! Throughout the journey I was struck by just how sparsely populated the island was, and by how little infrastructure existed. Twenty kilometres before we reached Port Barton we turned off the main road and onto a dirt track. In parts the road was under construction, in other parts it just disappeared completely. Now we certainly were off the beaten track, the track didn’t even exist!

Upon arrival in Port Barton, we were required to register at the tourist office before walking along the beach to our accommodation. There are probably more stunning beaches in the Philippines but I doubt there are many that are as relaxing. Summer Homes, our accommodation, was one of the best places I have stayed in South East Asia. It had a stunning garden setting, excellent food and extremely friendly and attentive staff. Just for good measure the sunsets were absolutely stunning. This was a place to relax hard. The only time the tranquility was broken was by monkeys playing on the corrugated iron roof of our bungalow.

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The highlight of our time in Port Barton was an island hopping trip. Our guide Dong-dong (yes that really was his name) wore the demeanour of a man who had never been stressed in his life. With his job though, what would there be to stress about? When he turned off the engine, so we could stop to snorkel, the silence was breathtaking. We are so used to noise pollution in our everyday lives that to have pure uninterrupted silence in such a glorious setting was something truly memorable. The snorkelling was also far better than the diving we had done in Krabi, a month beforehand. After viewing a stunning array of fish and coral we got back on the boat and continued to pass by islands that looked so deserted that Robinson Crusoe would probably approve. We stopped on one such pristine island where Dong-dong cooked a fabulous lunch of barbecued fish. The rest of the day was spent snorkelling, lying on the beach and meeting baby turtles. Tough life.

Far too soon our time in paradise had to come to an end. There was just the small matter of the local bus, complete with chickens inside, about thirty people on the roof, and all of Port Barton’s rubbish strapped to the rear, back to Puerto Princesa. Sometimes the journey itself is the experience!

Sitting at the airport the next day, I reflected on one travel brochure’s claim that Palawan was the island that inspired Alex Garland to write “The Beach.” This may or may not be true, but the Philippines were indeed Garland’s favourite country. If Palawan was this unspoilt now, what must it have been like when he visited in the late 1980s? I would say visit now, before it becomes more frequented, but I just got the impression that this place will never get spoilt.

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TRAVEL TIPS

As previously stated, I cannot recommend Summer Homes highly enough. Some of the cheaper rooms don’t have hot water but if you’re a hardcore traveller this shouldn’t bother you! Find info about them at www.portbarton.info/summerhomes.

Categories: Asia, Palawan, Philippines | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A week in Laos

As a traveller, there are certain countries that just get under your skin. It’s hard to pinpoint a reason why, it’s just like a kind of love at first sight. For me this was definitely the case with Laos. It’s not as vibrant and exciting as it’s larger neighbours Thailand and Vietnam, and it doesn’t have one defining tourist attraction as Cambodia does, but what it does is leave most visitors to the country gloriously contented and yearning to return.

Our visit to Laos started in Vientiane, which is certainly the quietest and most laidback capital city I have ever visited. Other than the national monument and a few significant wats, there’s not much to interest tourists in Vientiane. The highlight of our single day there was drinking a cold Beerlao in a rooftop bar whilst watching the sunset over the Mekong. As the sun set, the riverside burst into life and colour, as Laotian ladies all appeared from nowhere to take part in the bizarre aerobics and Tai Chi demonstrations that seem to be obligatory in all Indochinese cities.

The next day our visit to Laos really began as we caught a bus from Vientiane to the backpacker mecca of Vang Vieng. Once a sleepy little town 160km north of the capital, Vang Vieng is now an essential stop on the south east Asian backpacker trail. The reason for this surge in popularity is down to one thing; Tubing. For around 10-15 years now young tourists have been floating down the Namg Son river on inner tubes, propelled by cheap booze bought from the riverside bars. These have significantly reduced in numbers in recent years due to a worrying numbers of accidents and even some fatalities occurring on the river. This is clearly a contentious subject. For some this reckless hedonism is unnecessary and has completely changed the character of the once laid back town. However, I prefer to take the viewpoint that this burgeoning industry has created steady and prosperous employment for huge numbers of local people. It should also be the responsibility of the individual to not get so hammered as to endanger their own safety. Our personal tubing experience involved tubing in some water caves in the morning and then heading downriver in the afternoon. Whilst many just tube as far as the final bar and then take a tuk-tuk back to town, we decided to be hardcore and float all the way back to town, with a couple of Beerlao for the journey of course. It really is hard to sum up just how gloriously relaxing this was.

There’s many more exciting activities to experience around Vang Vieng but time constraints unfortunately meant that we had to continue north to Luang Prabang. If ever anybody writes a book about some of the world’s worst bus journeys, then this would certainly be a live contender. For six hours we sat in a cramped minivan with about ten other backpackers, bumping over badly maintained winding mountain roads trying (unsuccessfully in my case) not to be reacquainted with lunch. By the time we arrived at our destination, I felt like I’d gone ten rounds with Mike Tyson. Despite the travails of the journey, Luang Prabang turned out to be an absolute delight. During our time there the city was revelling in a carnival atmosphere, as a golden Buddha that had previously been housed in Vientiane was being brought home to the city. The resultant carnivals, processions and cultural performances were a joy to behold. Outside of the city the Kuang Si waterfalls make an excellent day trip. Swimming in the pools under the falls was extremely refreshing, although I stopped short of throwing myself head first off the top as some fearless local teenagers were doing. Near the falls the Tat Kuang Si bear rescue centre was also a great experience. The bears that live in the centre have all been rescued from captivity and mistreatment and are now extremely well cared for. Seeing these magnificent beasts so close up was a real highlight of the trip.

For the final leg of our Laotian trip, we boarded a slow boat up the Mekong from Luang Prabang to the Thai border at Huay Xai, with an overnight stop at Pak Beng. When researching things to do in Laos I had thought this would also be a highlight. In theory it sounds great, cruising up the mighty Mekong in glorious sunshine, drinking a cold beer or two and maybe even exchanging stories with some other intrepid explorers. Sadly, the reality could not have been further removed from the expectation. The boat was cramped, uncomfortable and seriously cold. Furthermore, the whole thing was dreadfully organised. Despite assurances to the contrary, there was no food available to purchase either at the pier or on the boat, meaning that many travellers spent the day very hungry and rather irked. It’s also pretty boring after a while. Yes the scenery is beautiful but you don’t really need two full days to appreciate it. Full credit must go to the big Indian guy who alleviated the boredom by getting pretty spectacularly drunk day on day one.  That night, we arrived in our final destination of Pak Beng well after dark, a situation which was made quite worrying when one of the crew members came down the boat asking if any of the passengers had a flashlight so they could see where they were going! The second day passed more quickly and less stressfully than the first, mainly down to fuller stomachs and more clement weather conditions. The Indian guy restricted himself to only a couple of beers this time, as he was presumably feeling the effects of the previous day’s magnificent effort. It seems churlish to complain about low quality transport in a country as poor as Laos. However, the frustration is that with just a little investment and organisation, that boat trip could be done so much better.

The morning after we arrived in Huay Xai, we crossed the bridge over the river into Thailand and our Laotian odyssey was at an end. On reflection, it’s not an easy place to travel. The poor transport and topography prohibits that, and one week was probably not enough time to fully appreciate the beauty of the country. However, the majesty of Laos lies in just how relaxed and contented all the people seem to be, despite the obvious difficulties of life there. I defy anybody to go there and not fall in love with it.

TRAVEL TIPS

  • In Vang Vieng we stayed at the excellent Phongsavanh resort. A double room was great value at just $20 per night. Neil, the manager was also extremely helpful and hospitable. I highly recommend it.
  • Details of the Tat Kuang Si bear rescue centre can be found at http://www.freethebears.org.au/web/Projects/Laos/
Categories: A week in Laos, Asia, Laos | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Phnom Penh – An underrated gem

If there’s one thing that I have learned on my travels, perhaps above all others, it’s to make my own opinions about places. Even if the vast majority of opinion about a place is overwhelmingly negative I like to make my own mind up. Thus, I have found that I didn’t get hassled every moment I walked down the street in Morocco, the nightlife in Buenos Aires was better than that in  Rio De Janeiro, and Belfast is one of the friendliest cities I have visited in the UK. It was with this maxim in mind that I approached our recent trip to Cambodia. So much of what I had heard from fellow travellers of Phnom Penh, the capital city, was derogatory.  All wise opinion seemed to suggest spending as little time as possible there before heading north to Siem Reap and the wonders of Angkor. One friend even stated that she “wouldn’t even spend an hour there.” I’m not going to state that these other travellers were wrong in their opinions, only that my experiences of this bustling and vibrant city, left me with an entirely different impression.

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At first glance, it’s easy to see why so many people dislike Phnom Penh. It’s noisy, chaotic, polluted, and you do see some extreme poverty. However, this is the case in many other Asian capital cities, including some with much less maligned reputations, such as Bangkok. It is my preference to judge a city on it’s atmosphere, and Phnom Penh has this in abundance. Upon leaving the airport, our senses were immediately assaulted with a cacophony of noise and riot of colour. Staring open-mouthed from the taxi we wondered just how many people could fit on one motorbike. The most we ever saw was six, although three seems to be about standard.

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Another thing that struck me instantly, is how much of daily life takes place by the side of a road.  Pavements do exist in Phnom Penh but they are most definitely not for walking on. Open shopfronts spill out onto the street, jostling for space with workshops, cafes, and anybody else that is trying to scratch some sort of living. Pedestrians just have to walk in the road and try to dodge the multitude of tuk-tuks and dangerously overladen cargo vehicles. Just walking down the road can be a truly hair-raising experience. As for  trying to cross, you are pretty much taking your life in your hands every time you attempt it!

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After settling into our hostel we ventured out into the chaos. Our first port of call was the riverfront area. where a long promenade overlooks the broad Tonle Sap river. As we arrived on a Saturday night, the whole area was alive with street artists, and strangely a bunch of middle aged ladies performing some sort of aerobics display, watched on by engrossed youngsters from their mopeds. Sadly my camera decided to be temperamental at this point, so unfortunately I have no pictorial evidence of this truly bizarre spectacle. The area is also home to pretty much all the best restaurants in the city.

The next morning after some much needed rest, we headed to Wat Phnom, the spiritual centre of the city, and the place that it takes it’s name from. Situated on a small hill, a beautiful Buddhist temple nestles between the trees. Climbing up, it feels like an oasis of tranquility away from the madness of below. Despite it’s significance it was also remarkably free of tourists.

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Similar to Wat Phnom, but certainly mot free of tourists, is the Royal Palace complex. This is a complex of ornate pagodas which still serves as the official residence of the King of Cambodia. Therefore, not all of it is open to tourists but the parts that are are truly spectacular.

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The highlight for many visitors is a trip to the silver pagoda which contains a statue of an emerald Buddha. However, my habit of making my own opinions of a place, also applies to not getting overly excited by places that are overhyped. In my opinion this was certainly one of them. There are far more beautiful buildings elsewhere in the palace complex.

Alongside it’s architectural gems, Phnom Penh is also a shoppers paradise. With this in mind Janey excitedly explored the various different markets in the city in search of bargains. She was definitely not disappointed. Clothes, fresh fruit, fake jewellery and a plethora of other products can all be found. Be prepared to haggle and haggle well though!

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Finally, at the end of our one full day in Cambodia’s capital (we were indeed in a hurry to get to Angkor), we visited a fantastic organisation that is helping to empower disabled people in the city. Seeing hands massage is staffed entirely by blind people, all of whom probably wouldn’t be able to work if it weren’t for the initiative of the charity. For just $7, you can get an hour long massage from wonderfully skilled masseuses. At the end not only do you feel incredibly relaxed, but you have just helped a person in need as well. What’s not to like?

The next day, whilst sitting on the Mekong Express to Siem Reap, I reflected back on Phnom Penh. Yes it was a lot of the things that it’s detractors stated it to be. But it was also magnificent. I loved it.

TRAVEL TIPS

Seeing Hands massage is located at #34Eo, St 108, in front of Phsar Chass Park. Pay them a visit if you’re in Phnom Penh. It’s well worth it.

Categories: Asia, Cambodia, Phnom Penh | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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