Posts Tagged With: temples

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: , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

How I learned to stop worrying and love Beijing

I don’t think I’ve ever gone to a country with as many mixed feelings as when I travelled to China in December 2015. On the one hand, I wanted to walk on the Great Wall, taste authentic Chinese food, and most of all, I wanted to see pandas. Conversely though, I was nervous about the pollution and I’d heard all the tales of people spitting on the street and supposedly having no manners. Furthermore, at the back of my mind, there was always the nagging dread that I wouldn’t be allowed into the country, as we’d arranged to go to Tibet, with a Tibetan tour agency. Therefore, on the day of our flight from Seoul, I was a bag of nerves. We were going to be in China for three weeks. What if all the horror stories were true? I needn’t have worried. Beijing turned out to be a fantastic city.

China doesn’t really do gentle introductions but our first couple of hours in Beijing were pretty full on. The first problem was at the airport. My passport seemed to set off some sort of check and the border guard and his supervisor spent around ten minutes looking at it and making phone calls. I had my Chinese tourist visa so all I could think of was that they’d realised I was going to Tibet and they’d decided not to let me in for that reason. After what seemed like an eternity though, I was eventually allowed in to the People’s Republic of China. We left the airport and got our first view of the dreaded haze. It was even worse than we had expected. Apparently, that week the pollution had been so bad, there had been a red alert, which is almost unprecedented even in Beijing. Next, we got completely and utterly lost, whilst trying to find our hostel. Eventually we did find a hostel, but it was the wrong one. This was when things started to turn for the better though. A guy who was working at the hostel we’d arrived at went completely out of his way to walk over a mile to the correct hostel with us. He even carried one of Janey’s many bags. When we got there, I offered to buy him a beer to say thank you. He wouldn’t hear of it. He had just wanted to help. It was an incredibly kind gesture and it made us think that the negative reputation that the Chinese have in many other Asian countries isn’t entirely accurate.

After buying dust masks, the next day we set out to explore the city. Our first port of call was the wonderfully named Temple of Heaven. This is located at the centre of a large municipal park. Walking through the park, we saw groups of old ladies doing Tai Chi and a bunch of middle aged people playing a game of keepy-uppies with what looked like a large shuttlecock. Some of them were extremely skilful and none of them seemed remotely bothered by the smog, it was just a fact of life in Beijing. The Temple itself was spectacular and certainly worth a visit.

Later, we visited another spectacular site. The Birds Nest Stadium and the Aquatics Cube were the venues for the athletics and swimming events at the 2008 Summer Olympics. We’d timed our visit to be there when it was dark, as at night both buildings are illuminated. The effect is mesmerising. Finally, we finished off our first full day by exploring some hutongs. These are a type of narrow street or alleyway, where you can find some excellent shops, cafes and restaurants. They were extremely cool and you could spend hours wandering around and getting happily lost in them.

Day three was the highlight of our time in Beijing. We booked a trip from the hostel to go to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China. Everyone has seen the Great Wall on television, and in books but nothing prepares you for actually being there. There are not enough superlatives in English, Chinese or any other language to describe just how awe-inspiring a sight it is. I’ve been to Macchu Picchu, the Taj Mahal and Angkor Wat and the Great Wall was the equal of all of them. We took a cable car to get us up to the wall and then went for a walk. Mutianyu is easily accessible from Beijing but is isn’t the most touristy section of the wall. That “honour” goes to Badaling. Because of this, and the fact that we were there in mid-December, there were surprisingly few other tourists on the wall. Overnight, there had been a light dusting of snow, which made the wall look even more stunning. The only downside was that the smog was still visible, more than 60 kilometres outside the city limits. We walked for around an hour tolerating some steep sections, slippery underfoot conditions and one extremely persistent salesman, until we reached the end of the walkable part of the Mutianyu section. Beyond this, the wall is in a ruined state and it wouldn’t have been safe to have gone any further. Interestingly, at this point a lot of people had tied little red bits of plastic in a tree, presumably as some sort of offering designed to bring good luck. It wasn’t the most environmentally sound offering but it still looked pretty cool. To put the seal on a truly memorable day, when we descended from the wall, we ate one of the best meals we would have in all our time in China.

We’d been to the symbol of China. On Day four, we had to go the centre of the Chinese Universe; Tiananmen Square. For many Westerners, Tiananmen conjures up uncomfortable images of the massacre of innocent civilians in 1989. Not going there though would be like visiting Paris and not going to the Eiffel Tower though. We had to see it. From the moment we emerged from the subway, the high security presence was evident. We had to go through metal detectors to gain access to the square and then once on the square, there were large numbers of troops, ready to accost any potential troublemakers or dissenters. From one end of the square the smiling face of Chairman Mao looks down onto the people below from Tiananmen gate. I’m glad that we went there to see it, but it wasn’t always a comfortable experience. It was a reminder that after more than fifty years of Communism, China is still an extremely repressive place and there is little sign of that changing in the near future.

From Tiananmen, we went to the Forbidden City. For most tourists, this is one of the highlights of their visit to Beijing but I was disappointed. Perhaps, I was still feeling subdued after the police state feeling of Tiananmen but it didn’t really enthral me at all. Yes, the buildings are spectacular, but it was extremely overcrowded and we were often jostled out of the way by domestic tourists, who didn’t want to wait a few seconds longer to get the photo that they wanted. My mood was lifted back up by walking through some really trendy hutongs to get to the Drum Tower. There, we witnessed a powerful and visceral drumming performance. It was certainly one of the more impressive live music performances that I’ve seen on my travels, although an Indonesian Guns N Roses covers band may run it quite close.

After the Drum Show, we had to go back to the hostel and pack our bags for our internal flight to Chengdu. Just like that, our four days in Beijing were over. I was worried when we went there but I had certainly learned to love it. In fact, the highest compliment that I can pay it is that I preferred it to Tokyo or Seoul (not Hong Kong though, no big city in that region beats Hong Kong) and I’m amazed to say it; I’d love to go back again sometime.

TRAVEL TIPS

We stayed at Beijing Saga International Youth Hostel. I would recommend it very highly. The staff all worked incredibly long hours but were extremely friendly and had great customer service skills. They also spoke impeccable English. Furthermore, there’s a bar which is great for meeting other travellers and it has an English menu, with a mixture of Chinese and Western dishes.  http://www.sagayouthhostelbeijing.cn/

Categories: Beijing, China, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a 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

Bagan

It was 5:30 am, pitch black and freezing cold. We were on a small country road in Myanmar and the lights had just failed on Janey’s rented E-Bike. This wasn’t the start we were hoping for from our trip to Bagan.

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Bagan is Myanmar’s answer to Angkor Wat. Hundreds of temples and pagodas are scattered across a vast plain in the south-west of the Mandalay region. When Tony and Maureen Wheeler travelled around South East Asia in 1975 (the trip that spawned the first Lonely Planet book) they declared Bagan to be their highlight of the entire region. For years though it was neglected due to Myanmar’s self-imposed isolation and a devastating earthquake the year after the Wheeler’s visit. Now though the secret is well and truly out. Hordes of tourists are flocking into Myanmar and Bagan is the top destination on most of their lists.

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The most popular thing to do in Bagan is watch the sun rise over the plains, thus illuminating the temples and the hot air balloons that fly over them at dawn. This was how Janey and I found ourselves in our little spot of bother. It was our first full day in Bagan and we’d set the alarm for the ungodly hour of 4:45, to ensure that we’d find a good spot to watch the sunrise. As the temples are spread out over a very large area, you need some transport to get around. Unlike Siem Reap, there are no tuk-tuk drivers waiting around for a fare at 5am. You have to go it alone. Consequently, the most popular type of transport are E-Bikes; noiseless environmentally friendly electric scooters that work on dirt tracks as well as the main roads. Surprisingly for someone who has travelled so much, I’ve never actually ridden a motorbike. There was a misadventure involving a quadbike and a wall in Ecuador, which I’ve always maintained was down to the bike locking up, but may have involved the tiniest bit of driver error but that’s all. Therefore, it was with more than a little trepidation that I got on the bike and tested it out. It was then that I made my first major error of the day. I asked the guy if he had any helmets. The look he gave me was half horrified, half pitying. “What is this halfwit thinking?” he presumably muttered to himself in Burmese. “This is Asia, we don’t do helmets here.” I was crushed. He must have taken me for some sort of Asia freshie, not the gnarled veteran of many Asian campaigns that I like to think I am.

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Nervously, we edged the bikes out onto the road, trying not to think of what my mother would say if she could see me riding without a helmet. In the middle of the night. In a country with notoriously bad roads. Everything went reasonably well at first; we got confident enough to push the speed up to a dizzying 30 kph. Then things started to unravel. We couldn’t find the temple we were looking for and then Janey’s bike light failed. As so often happens in situations like this though, a guardian angel appeared. His name was Lin Lin and he was just cruising around on his motorbike at 5am. We explained our predicament to him and instead of guiding us to the place that we had intended to go to, he took us to a much smaller pyramid. We had it all to ourselves and arrived in time to witness a truly mesmerising sunrise. Afterwards, it turned out that Lin Lin wasn’t just an altruist. He did have some paintings to sell. They were of such good quality though and he had been so kind that we bought two of them. They now hang proudly in the living room of our flat. Thanks Lin Lin!

Over the next three days, we took the E-Bikes all over Bagan and saw as many temples as possible. So now, there’s some advice I’d like to impart to anyone who is thinking of visiting Bagan. Firstly, don’t go chasing particular temples. Bagan isn’t very well signposted and if you do this you’ll just end up getting frustrated as you’ll spend a long time trying to find what you’re looking for. You may even end up with the E-Bikes stuck in thick sand as you’ve gone off track to “find a shortcut.” It’s far better just to ride around and stop whenever you see something that you like, which will be frequently. Secondly, it’s asking a lot of yourself to see sunrise and sunset in one day. Try to spread it out so you see one of each on different days. However, if your time is limited and you really have to choose, go for sunrise. The colours are better and the balloons over the temples are wonderfully photogenic.

Earlier, I said that Bagan was Myanmar’s answer to Angkor Wat. So, how does it compare to South East Asia’s most visited tourist attraction? Thee honest response is it’s great but it isn’t as good as Angkor. Part of this is due to the fact that it seems less authentic. A lot of the temples were crudely rebuilt after the earthquake, meaning that it doesn’t have the same feeling of antiquity. Furthermore, as more and more tourists flood into Myanmar, the local authorities will need to start signposting things better and providing maps that are actually accurate! However, taken on its own merits, Bagan is a highly photogenic and pretty unique place. It’s certainly worthy of its top billing in Myanmar. I’d highly recommend it.

TRAVEL TIPS

You have to pay $20 US to enter the Bagan Archaeological Zone. Once you’ve bought this, you’re free to travel around as much or as little as you like.

Categories: Asia, Bagan, Myanmar, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | 1 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

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 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

Exploring Angkor

It’s taken me a long time to get round to writing this blog. It’s over two months since I visited Angkor. Part of that is down to the fact that I’ve been doing A LOT of travelling. More importantly though, when somewhere is as stunning and world-renowned as Angkor Wat, how can one person encapsulate in words what makes it so special? It is such an awe-inspiring place though that I feel obliged to try. Firstly, let’s dispel a common misnomer. Angkor Wat is the name for only one of the temples. There are actually more than fifty ancient ruins scattered outside the town of Siem Reap. The area is so large, and the temples so multitudinous that to see them properly really requires three days. Fortunately though, a three day pass is excellent value at just $40 US. Our hostel was able to organise a tuk-tuk driver to drive us to and from the temples.  This was a good decision as it was really cheap and many of the sites are quite far apart, which makes going there independently challenging, except by bicycle, which we weren’t feeling energetic enough for unfortunately.

On our first day we visited the Roluos group of temples. These are the furthest away from Siem Reap and are notable for predating most of the more well-known temples. They are also much less crowded, making it a gentle introduction to the ruins. Later that day we took a boat trip, to see a floating village, on the Tonle Sap lake. This took 2 hours and was interesting for about 2 minutes. It was also extremely overpriced at $20. If you find yourself in the area don’t waste your time or money!

Our second day was the classic sunrise to sunset day that most visitors to Angkor will enjoy during their visit. We left our hostel at 5am. The purpose of this was to be able to get to Angkor Wat for sunrise. As the main facade of the temple faces west, the sun rises from behind, making for some truly spectacular photo opportunities.  Every other tourist in Siem Reap has the same idea though so if you want a good view be prepared to get there very early. Once the sun had risen, we ventured inside the temple which is truly humungous. It’s a strange thing to admit but my first thought was that it reminded me of the old temple where King Louis lives in the Jungle Book. An encounter with some particularly aggressive simians did little to dispel that opinion! In all seriousness though, Angkor Wat is as stunning on the inside as it is on the outside.  It is well worth its exalted reputation.

Our next stops after Angkor Wat, were the temples of Banteay Kdei and Ta Prohm. When Angkor was rediscovered by French explorers in the 19th century they made the decision to leave Ta Prohm in exactly the condition that they found it, rather than try to clear the vegetation and the huge trees that have stretched their twisted, gnarled roots over the temple walls. This makes it extremely atmospheric. Ta Prohm also owes its fame to being used for the Tomb Raider film. However, not being a fan of rubbish movies that are based on computer games (have you seen Streetfighter?!) this didn’t really make much difference to me.

The final temple we visited before lunch was Ta Keo. This is a massive 50m high pyramid shaped structure, which towers over the rest of the temples. It is also surprisingly reminiscent of Mayan and Aztec ruins. After a tough scramble up the vertiginous steps we were rewarded with some breathtaking views when we reached the top. I was also imagining, probably erroneously the brutal sacrifices which may or may not have taken place up there. Which is perfectly normal of course.

After a delicious lunch of Amok (similar to a Thai green curry but less spicy) and rice we continued our visit to Angkor Thom. This was actually a vast city in its own right, and is in my opinion, even more spectacular than it’s more well-known sibling. It is home to some evocatively named places such as the terrace of the leper King and the elephant parade. The centrepiece though is a temple called the Bayon, the veneer of which is adorned with 37 giant head statues, which even now manage to retain an air of intimidation.  Going to Angkor Thom in the afternoon was also a very good idea as there were much fewer people, and some areas were also almost deserted. This made it the highlight of the day for me.

Our epic day culminated with a hike through the jungle to Phnom Bakheng temple to watch the sunset from an elevated position. Upon reflection, it wasn’t worth expending the energy. Overly officious security guards, and the predictable scrum for photos, made it an anti-climactic end to an otherwise fantastic day. The  best thing about Phnom Bakheng was that as soon as the sun descended below the clouds, a gust of wind whistled through the temple, there was a loud crack of thunder and a spectacular rainstorm ensued, which made the tuk-tuk ride back to town a rather memorable experience, although somewhat traumatic for our poor driver Kaka!

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The sunrise to sunset day is pretty gruelling. Walking around for twelve hours in very hot heat means it’s not for everyone. Those that want to visit but don’t feel like they have the requisite energy could either miss out sunset or just space it out more over the three days.  Whilst drinking an extremely well earned beer in Siem Reap that night, I reflected on the exhausting but exhilarating day. I’ve been lucky enough to travel a lot and visit some awe-inspiring places. Angkor was up there with the very best of them, such as Machu Picchu and the Taj Mahal. I would encourage anybody to go there and experience it for themselves.

TRAVEL TIPS

We stayed in the excellent Tropical Breeze guest house. This is just a short walk to the town centre, and had extremely helpful staff.

Categories: Angkor, Asia, Cambodia | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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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