Category Archives: World Heritage Sites

The Top of Europe

You’ve got to love the Swiss. Only they would be crazy enough to build a railway tunnel through one of the highest mountains in Europe just to take you to a lovely view. But I love the fact that they did, because it makes a fantastic half-day out from Wengen if you happen to be there for the skiing (or walking, if you’re there in summer).

Trains at Kleine Scheidegg station on the Jungfraubahn switzerland

Kleine Scheidegg - start point of the Jungfraubahn

Based on my visit though, it would appear that the trip to the highest railway station in Europe is of little interest to skiers – as I was the only one on my train. Maybe they think they’re getting a good enough view from the slopes, maybe they’re enjoying the skiing too much to take the time out, whatever the reason, I think they’re mad, it was a trip I wouldn’t have missed for the world.

St Bernard dog on a railway platform

Aw, cute


Being the only skier didn’t mean I was the only tourist though – in fact the train was quite full with an entirely different group of tourists, who it appears to come to the area just to visit the Jungfraujoch – Chinese & Japanese tourists. I first encountered them at Kleine Scheidegg station (where you have to change trains if you’re coming up from Wengen). It was pretty early in the morning, as I wanted to have a full afternoon of skiing, and so there weren’t many skiers around – but the platform was full of these tourists, mostly being photographed clustered around a stereotypical St. Bernard dog (complete with mini barrel around his neck).
Jungfraubahn tunnel through the Eiger

The tunnel through the Eiger

The journey up to the Jungfraujoch – the saddle between the neighbouring Mönch & Jungfrau peaks – takes quite a while, as the rack railways climbs steeply, up past the highest ski lift at Eigergletscher before entering the tunnel through the Eiger and continuing its steady ascent, on the way pausing for a while at two stations. The first, Eigernordwand, gave me a chance to get out and wander out to three huge windows cut right into the legendary North Face of the Eiger. 64 climbers have died since 1935 attempting to climb it, and today the windows have a dual function – as well as allowing tourists like me to get a view across the valleys, it’s also the start point for missions attempting to rescue climbers in trouble. The next stop, Eismeer, has spectacular views out over the Lower Grindelwald Glacier – from where you used to be able to ski all the way down to the town of Grindelwald, until it retreated in recent years.

Lower Grindelwald Glacier, switzerland, from Eismeer station

Lower Grindelwald Glacier, from Eismeer station

Finally we arrived at Jungfraujoch station, which at 3,454m high is the highest in Europe (and cheekily named ‘the Top of Europe’ in their marketing materials, which it clearly isn’t). For such a remote and beautiful location, the complex itself is surprisingly tacky – there are several very touristy restaurants, and an ‘ice palace’ carved into the glacier, full of cheesy ice statues of polar bears and the like. These distractions didn’t detain me for long, for I was only really there for one thing – to get outside and see the view.

Corridor cut through Ice at the Ice Palace, Jungfraujoch

The least tacky bit of the Ice Palace


Jungfrau

The Jungfrau

It didn’t disappoint – with the Jungfrau and Mönch rising up on either side, and impressive views out towards Wengen and on towards Interlaken, and best of all, from the open platform at the top of the observatory you get a truly spectacular view over the start of Europe’s longest remaining glacier, the Great Aletsch.

Konkordiaplatz the start of the Aletsch Glacier

Konkordiaplatz - the start of the Aletsch Glacier

Right behind the Jungfraujoch, three small glaciers converge at the massive Konkordiaplatz, at which point the ice is estimated to be a full kilometre thick. The scale of it is ginormous – it covers a whopping 120 square kilometres, and bends away into the distance on its long, 23 kilometre descent towards the Rhone Valley. I’ve only seen tiny glaciers before elsewhere in the Alps & in the Andes, but this one is a monster, and it’s one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen.

Aletsch Glacier, by MrUllmi on Flickr

Further down the Aletsch Glacier (by MrUllmi, on Flickr)

I stayed far longer than planned, it was so breathtaking, and headed back down amazed that so few of the people visiting Wengen or Grindelwald for the skiing make the effort to go up, especially when you consider that the cheapest way to visit by far is if you’re already skiing. Non skiers have to pay €133 return from Interlaken, which must be one of the most expensive train fares in Europe. Skiers with a 6-day ski pass for the area pay a massively reduced rate – about €40, which is still pretty pricey considering the distance, but easily worth it.

You can see all of my photos from my visit to the Bernese Oberland here.

Getting away from the Split crowds

Split was undeniably stunning, but it was pretty crowded too, and after a couple of days of wandering around, I was ready for somewhere a bit quieter, and a quick flick through the guidebook revealed that it wasn’t the only World Heritage site in the area – just an hour up the road is the pretty little town of Trogir, which I hoped would be a little quieter.

Getting there turned out to be slightly more of an ordeal than I’d hoped – no-one seemed to know where the right bus station was, and when I eventually found an address, my usually good map-reading skills failed me, and I soon found myself wandering round the rather less attractive back streets of Split’s old town in circles. On the verge of giving up I started to head back towards town, only to walk straight into it. Doh!

Sod’s law inevitably meant that the bus to Trogir was the only one in the station that was old and non-aircon. Which would have been fine if it hadn’t been for the fact that temperatures were soaring towards 30 degrees. Meaning that by the time we arrived, I was a dripping mess – in fact it was a hotter and more unpleasant bus experience than any I’d had in Latin America or South East Asia, thanks to the fact the windows didn’t even open!

Trogir from above

Trogir from above

Luckily for me I’d already discovered that in Croatia you are never further than a couple of metres from a Gelato stand, so I didn’t need much of an excuse to stuff myself full of frozen fruity loveliness (why can’t we make ice cream like that in England??) and I was soon cool enough to go for a wander.
Trogir Cathedral

Trogir Cathedral


The main square

The main square


It turns out that the old town of Trogir turns out to be like a tiny, less busy version of Split, with a stunning little old town sitting on a small island. Like Split, the town has a beautiful cathedral sat at its heart, in a lovely little square, with a series of narrow pedestrian alleys running off in all directions. As I wandered round the maze, I barely saw another person, and yet there were fantastically well-preserved buildings at every turn.
One of Trogir's little alleys

One of Trogir's little alleys

Another highlight is the wide promenade that runs along the eastern edge of the island, lined with restaurants (mostly serving rather lovely Italian food, something I was quickly learning was the norm in Dalmatia) and with the shell of a massive fortress at one end, which gave a great view across the (empty) town. Which was bizarre. Just an hour away from Split, just as beautiful, and without the crowds. I do find it strange how people all flock to the same place and ignore somewhere just as nice just down the road. Still, I wasn’t complaining, and I dragged out my afternoon in a cafe as long as I could while I waited for the day to cool down and I felt safe to brave the furnace-bus back to Split.
Trogir Fortress

Trogir Fortress

You can see all of my photos of Trogir here

Which country is this again?

Before this year, about the only things I knew about Split were that it once hosted the European Athletics Championships and that it was the home town of tennis player Goran Ivanišević. But flights at short notice to Dubrovnik or Sarajevo, where I’d really wanted to go, turned out to be stupidly expensive, and so I ended up on a plane to Split instead.

The holiday was a very last-minute decision – my focus since getting back from travelling was to find a job; once that was sorted and I’d signed a contract, I decided to say farewell to my travels with a final backpacking trip before re-entering the world of the grown-ups. I’ve fancied seeing the western Balkans for a while, and I wasn’t sure where to start – but booking the day before I flew made up my mind – Split was the only affordable choice and so I soon found myself in the unusual position of heading somewhere I knew very little about.

One of the main narrow alleyways in Split

One of the main narrow alleyways in Split

With little knowledge I wasn’t sure what to expect as I got off the airport bus – and was instantly amazed. The shortish walk from the terminal to my hostel took me through the ginormous city walls, past the cathedral, and through a maze of narrow alleyways, down one of which turned out to be my hostel. The city was stunning.
Split Cathedral

Split Cathedral

I’d arrived in the city pretty late at night, so rather than explore I settled down in the hostel to watch the opening of the world cup over a beer or two, before retiring to bed, eager to explore the following morning. My first impression was overwhelmingly how Italian it felt – firstly, on a physical basis, the old town is formed around the remains of Roman Emperor Diocletian’s palace, and is fantastically well-preserved, with huge stone walls, and dozens of tiny, winding alleys squeezing between beautiful stone-walled shops and houses which occasionally surprise by opening up into cute little squares, or opening into little courtyards. The sense of confusion is heightened by the food – pretty much every restaurant in town serves pasta and pizza, and little stalls selling amazing gelati appear around every corner. The final element is the huge number of Italian tourists, meaning I heard the language everywhere. The main difference though was that I was enjoying myself far more than I’ve ever managed to do in Italy so far!SplitThe only downside was the sheer volume of tourists crammed into the old town’s walls – and this was in June, before the height of the tourist season – although I soon discovered they were quite easy to avoid by deliberately setting out to get lost in the alleyways, where I soon found peace and quiet and the chance to chill out and read in one of the many lovely little cafes.
Getting away from the tourists

Getting away from the tourists

A more surprising place to get away from the crowds turned out to be the cathedral bell tower – bizarrely, and inexplicably, I was the only person up there when I went, despite the cathedral and square below being thronged. The view from the top, across the red roofs of the city to the mountains in one direction, and out across the harbour to the islands in the distance is beautiful and one not to be missed.
Split from above

Split from above

After a hot day wandering around the city, the best way to cool down was to head just out of town and along the coast to the city’s beaches. It turns out that most of Croatia’s coast is rocky – but one immediate benefit of this is that the water everywhere is absolutely crystal clear, and it felt great to cool down by jumping in. One of the best bits about being at the beach in Split is seeing pretty much everyone in the water playing the local sport of Picigin, a marvellously pointless and very athletic game which consists of a group of people trying to keep a little ball in the air. Wearing Speedos appears to be compulsory, and it all looked rather fun with people leaping about all over the place. It’s mostly played in Split, but there are clearly enough players around the world that they were advertising the forthcoming world championships while I was there!

You can see all of my photos of Split here.

Realising it’s time to go home

After nearly a year of travelling, I’d managed to visit some of the world’s most spectacular historic sights – Teotihuacan in Mexico, Copan in Honduras, the Lost City in Colombia, Machu Picchu in Peru, the Moai of Easter Island, Borobodur & Prambanan in Indonesia, and finally Bagan in Burma. But after all that there was still one major sight left to see. I’d deliberately planned my final couple of weeks to save the best to last – and so my final new country before heading home was to be Cambodia, and for one main reason: Angkor Wat.

The prospect of visiting Angkor is if anything even more daunting than Bagan in Burma – while Bagan has around 4,000 temples to Angkor’s 1,000, in Angkor they are spread out over 1,000 square kilometres (making Bagan’s 50 seem relatively compact). Factor in the two million plus annual visitors and trying to work out where to start to see the best bits and avoid the crowds was pretty daunting.

Angkor Thom Gate Cambodia

One of the gates to Angkor Thom

So I basically took the easy way out and let someone else decide for me. I hired a moped driver, met up with him bright and early, and soon found myself whizzing out of Siem Reap across the huge, flat, forested plain that makes up the site. I’d briefed my driver to avoid the highlights of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom (partly to save the best til last, but also because they’re the closest to Siem Reap, making it easier to visit by bicycle the following day).

So we started off at Banteay Srei, at 32km away from Siem Reap the furthest of the main temples. The temple is small but beautiful, particularly with its fine, intricate carving. However there was one thing that got in the way – I was instantly disappointed by the crowds. I knew it would be busy, but coming just 6 days after leaving Bagan behind, to be confronted with quite that many people all in one place was a real shock to the system.

Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei

I was worried that the rest of the day would follow a similar pattern, but was very pleasantly surprised – it seems that everyone starts out at Banteay Srei, but then heads off in different directions after that, meaning most places never felt too crowded.

I visited so many temples that first day it’s hard to pick out the highlights but I’ll have a go…

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm


Everyone has seen pictures of Ta Phrom (or at least seen it on film in Tomb Raider). It’s famous for the fact that it’s one of the few that hasn’t been completely restored, meaning that in several places trees are still growing out of the stonework. Despite having seen it in a million photos, it’s even cooler up close. Having said that though, it’s one of the busier temples, which is why I much preferred Ta Som.
Ta Som

Ta Som


Ta Som is a tiny little temple – but its eastern Gate has been entirely devoured by a tree, possibly even more impressively than at Ta Phrom. And with way fewer visitors.

Near to Ta Phrom is the massive Ta Keo – which is certainly worth skipping if you have a fear of heights, for the staircases are ridiculously steep. It’s all worth it though, for the views from the top are spectacular. Meanwhile Preah Khan was the final highlight of my first day, its enormous ruins are like a massive crumbling maze I wandered around getting lost for ages.

After a long day on the motorbike I arrived back in Siem Reap amazed at the wonders I’d seen and even more excited about the following day. And that of course, was when it started to go wrong. I really should have learnt from my mistakes in Bagan, and spent day two with a driver. But oh no, with nice paved roads meaning no danger of punctures, I headed out bright and early on my bicycle for another day of exploring.

Yet again of course, this would turn out to be a mistake. First of all, I’d underestimated the distances involved (funnily enough the kilometres fly by when you’re on a moped…but no so quick under your own steam). The area is flat enough, but I’d completely failed to factor in the fact I’d be cycling long distances in a steamy, humid, tropical climate. I was soon soaked to the skin in sweat, and getting through water at a ridiculous rate of knots.

Being on my own, without a local moped driver, also exposed to me to another danger I’d entirely missed the day before – the millions of hawkers who patrol every single temple. As soon as I’d stopped my bike and started to lock up, I’d find myself surrounded by kids trying to sell me drinks, postcards and nick-nacks. Alongside them would be yet another group intent on dragging me off in different directions to get me to eat at their restaurant. With me being on my own, and a bit hot and bothered, there was no escape, no laughing it off with a mate, and instead it soon became deeply annoying.

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat (plus scaffolding)

Further disappointments were in store – I pulled up outside the star attraction, Angkor Wat….only to find the main face covered in scaffolding for a refurb. Marvellous. It was also, of course, the most crowded I’d seen so far. The day wasn’t all bad – the temple of Bayon, crowned with dozens of faces carved into its towers, was probably my favourite of all – but overall, the combination of heat, hawkers, and crowds meant my patience was beginning to wear thin.

Bayon

The massive stone faces of Bayon

The final straw was seeing sunset from Phnom Bakheng. I’d been warned that the premier sunset viewing spot would be crowded – but nothing could have quite compared me for the entire tourist population of Siem Reap converging simultaneously at the top of a temple. There was barely room to move, and to cap it all, the sunset really wasn’t all that spectacular (especially as the position of this temple doesn’t let you see temples framed against the setting sun).

Waiting for the sunset

Waiting for the sunset

In the end I headed back down before the sun had even slipped below the horizon, to get away from the crowds, and I began to reflect that the real problem was that I was simply templed out. A year of sightseeing had been amazing, but I realised that I was starting to get blase about it. The more spectacular historic sights, beautiful sunsets and amazing landscapes you see, the more everyday they become and the fussier you get. After months of thinking I’d never be ready to go home, the slight feeling of disappointment I got on my second day at Angkor finally made me realise it was time to go home. Strangely enough, knowing there was no more sightseeing to be done almost felt like a weight off my shoulders. All that was left now was a week on the beach topping up my tan, a weekend of partying in Bangkok, and then home.

You can see all of my photos of Cambodia here

Cock Fights & Naughty Monkeys

Relaxing as it is to spend time diving, snorkelling and island hopping, even that gets a little strenous after a while (it’s a hard life), so it was time to leave El Nido for somewhere even more relaxing.

Picture of Port Barton beach in Palawan Philippines

Port Barton beach

Port Barton lies on the coast of Palawan, about half way between the tourist centres of El Nido & Puerto Princessa, and as soon as I arrived I fell in love with the place. While the beach was lovely, the sea inviting and the hotel pretty comfortable, none was the best I’ve seen so far – and yet there was something indefineable about the place that had me feeling at home as soon as I arrived. It’s a bit harder to get to than other spots in Palawan, which serves to keep it considerably quieter – and that suited me fine. I practically had the beach to myself that first afternoon, and I the sleepy atmosphere of the place soon had me feeling as relaxed as I have anywhere on my trip so far.

If that had been that this could have ended up as quite a dull post – but the repeated sound of cocks crowing quickly roused me from my slumber. A short walk into town revealed what I’d suspected – a cock fight (which is pretty much the national sport). It wasn’t just any old cock fight either – I’d stumbled into the town on the final day of their annual fiesta, and they were celebrating in part with a massive all day event.

Cock fight in Port Barton Palawan Philippines

3 cock derby

I really don’t approve of animals fighting for sport – but despite that I was drawn in, and in turned out to be every bit as barbaric as I’d feared. The arena was a small, square patch of dirt, surrounded by benches packed with most of the village’s male population, frantically shouting and signalling across at each other as odds were altered and money quickly and confusingly changed hands around the ring. Soon, after a period of taunting and winding up by other birds brought on especially for this purpose, the bookies and the trainers left the ring, with just the referee there to set the cocks at each other.

Pretty soon it was all a blur, as the cocks flew round each other, biting away, and slashing away with the sharp blades strapped to one of their hind legs. That first bout was all over pretty quickly as one of the cocks was slit right open across its chest. It doesn’t even end in a quick, painless death as I’d thought – fighting cocks are pretty valuable, so unless they’re killed outright, a vet is on hand round the back to stuff the organs back in, sew them up, and send them on their way to recover, ready to fight again some months down the line. I didn’t stick around after that. Not my cup of tea.

Elsewhere in town I got to have a more entertaining animal interaction. The best (and friendliest) place to eat in town is Judy’s, so I headed down there for dinner with my friends, which turned out to be a fair bit harder than anticipated, thanks to the resident baby monkey (named ‘Small Monkey’). Apparently she’d been recently rescued after hunters killed her mother, and now hangs out in the restaurant, harassing customers (but getting away with it by being so small and cute). It’s pretty tough trying to eat when at any moment you risk having something stolen off your plate (which Small Monkey will then proceed to eat whilst sitting on your shoulder. Half of it normally ends up in your mouth, and the rest scattered through your hair and down your back). It was all pretty entertaining, but I do hope that they end up taking Small Monkey to a rehabilitation centre soon – she may be cute now, but she’ll turn into a real handful as she gets older (and anyway, entertaining as she is, it’s really not best for her to grow up around humans).

Puerto Princessa Subterranean River UNESCO World Heritage Site Palawan Philippines

Entering the Subterranean River

Final stop in my trip through Palawan was Puerto Princessa and the nearby Subterranean River. Before I went to Palawan, this is the one thing I’d heard about the island, and it appears to be pretty agressively marketed as an attraction by the local and national government. It certainly deserves its fame – as the world’s longest currently navigable underground river it’s a very unusual attraction – but I must admit the boat road down the river was a little disappointing. Don’t get me wrong, it has some pretty spectacular formations inside, but ultimately it was just like being in a big cave, except with water underfoot rather than rock. I actually found the caving experience in Sagada much more fun (because it was more active, rather than passively sitting on a boat being rowed). I wouldn’t miss it if I was in the area and had time – but for me, the best bits of Palawan were quite definitely further north.

Puerto Princessa Underground River UNESCO World Heritage Site Sabang Palawan Philippines

...and coming back out again

You can see my Port Barton photos here and my Puerto Princessa ones here.

Next stop: Tracking down the world’s smallest primate in Bohol.

The stunning rice terraces of Batad

It’s never a nice surprise to arrive in a new town, bleary-eyed after a restless night on a bus, to find it pouring with rain.

“Isn’t it supposed to be the dry season in January?”

“Dry season? Ha ha. No. That doesn’t start here til March”

Serves me right for trusting the Lonely Planet when it comes to planning for the weather. For it turns out that yes, while the dry season starts in January in most of the Philippines, high up in the Cordillera Mountains of North Luzon it’s a different matter. Which was a bit of a problem. We’d made the epic journey up north for one main reason: to see the spectacular 2,000 year old rice terraces of the Ifugao people – and looking out of the hotel balcony, we couldn’t see a thing, as the entire valley was shrouded in cloud.

On arriving in Banaue I’d met up with an English / Ecuadorean couple (Matt & Carolina) and a German (Dominic) and we quickly abandoned our plans to go up to the viewing point over the town. The view would be even worse there. So instead we donned our raincoats and headed out for a wander around the valley in the hope we might actually get to see something. After a while the cloud lifted a little bit, but unfortunately the rain just got heavier and heavier (which is no fun at all when you’re walking along a very muddy unpaved road) so we had to admit defeat and turn back before we’d seen anything but a few smaller terraces.

Rice Terraces close-up

We’d only planned to stay two nights in the area before heading on to Sagada, so despite the weather we optimistically booked ourselves on to a trek for the following day.

The following morning only offered a slight improvement – the clouds were a smidgen higher, but the light drizzle continued. It was our only chance to see the terraces, so we jumped into the Jeepney for the bumpy one hour ride down the road praying for miracles. The weather continued in the same vein throughout the first section of the walk, down very steep, slippery steps and along yet another muddy path as we headed to our ultimate destination – the village of Batad.

We weren’t all that hopeful about our prospects of a good view, but as soon as we came round the corner and saw the village’s rice terraces in all their glory, suddenly the weather didn’t matter any more. For even with grey skies and persistent rain, the sight was spectacular. The guidebook describes them as looking like an amphitheater surrounding the village, and that’s pretty accurate – they rise high up the hillsides in a semicircle all the way round the village, and continue down the valley below as well. As we were there just before the new planting season, every terrace was full fo water – and as they completely surround the village, from our viewpoint above it made Batad look like an island.

The Batad amphitheatre

Trying not to fall in

An island in the mountains

The hike then took us out onto the terraces themselves, walking right along the narrow dividing walls The sight alone is impressive and beautiful enough – but it’s also quite incredible to think that they were carved straight out of the steep mountainsides, at over 2,000 metres, such a long time ago – and not just in Batad, but over a huge area (apparently laid out end to end they’re stretch the whole way round the world several times).

Rainbow over the rice terraces

It’s one of the most beautiful sights I’ve seen on my trip so far – and pretty unexpected too. If I knew anything about the Philippines, it’s as a destination for beaches and diving. I really wasn’t expecting such stunning mountain scenery. Just four days into my stay in the country and I was already falling in love with the place.

You can see all of my photos of the rice terraces here

I wanna hold your (furry) hand

Lake Toba was a pretty lovely place to spend a couple of days chilling out, but I was really only in Sumatra for one reason: Orang Utans.

A couple of hours north of sprawling (and not particularly exciting) Medan is the tiny little village of Bukit Lawang. It’s a charming little place, but it’s not the village everyone comes to see. Sumatra is one of only two places in the world (the other being Borneo) where Orang Utans still live in the wild. Just outside the village is a national park that protects both the rainforest and the animals that live there; on the edge of it is an Orang Utan rehabilitation centre that has been so succesful that the park can take no more of the animals, with the result that a second centre has been opened up elsewhere.

With that many Orang Utans living so close to the village, it’s no surprise that a steady stream of tourists head to Bukit Lawang to trek into the jungle to see them up close (although with this being Indonesia, that stream of tourists is more like a trickle compared to the flood that would visit if it were in most other South East Asian countries).

First monkey of the day

So at eight thirty in the morning, I met up with our guide, Alex, and the group of seven others I’d be trekking with – unusually for Indonesia, they were all English. It took us just a few minutes from the hotel to make it into the jungle, and in no time at all we came across our first close contact with some apes – a troop of Thomas Leaf Monkeys. They weren’t shy at all, and the adult male of the group came down from the trees to have a good look at us (and pose for photos), whilst the kids crashed around the trees above, chasing each other round, swinging from vine to vine and performing rather impressive leaps from tree to tree. Being a young monkey looks like a lot of fun.

It was a nice way to start the day, but we all knew we were there for one reason only, and so we soon moved on to try and find some Orang-Utans. Soon we came across another group standing at the bottom of a tree in silence staring straight up – and we quickly realised what the spectacle was. Perched right at the top of a tree was an adult female Orang Utan in her nest, while her child swung around the tree-tops above her. Exciting as it was to see one, she was so high up, with the sun directly behind her, that it was pretty hard to get a good view.

Getting close to Mina

The day continued in a similar vein, with regular glimpses high up in trees, often obscured by branches, and moving away as soon as we approached. Trying to spot wild animals is always going to be tricky, but it was pretty frustrating all the same. Our luck was about to turn though: as we sat down to have lunch, another group came running past us, as they were trying to get away from the notorious Mina. We’d heard all about her – before she was in the rehabilitation centre, she had lived with humans and had no fear of them. In fact, we had more to fear from her, as she knows humans normally carry food, and she can be quite aggressive in her pursuit of it. So we quickly finished our meals and headed in the direction she was supposed to be, and soon found her. She made a beeline for our guide, who managed to placate her by feeding her bananas one at a time, but as soon as they ran out she started heading straight for us, forcing us to make a quick exit down a steep hill to escape. While they may be shorter in height than humans, they are heavier, and much, much stronger, so it’s really not a good idea to get on the wrong side of one.

With all the excitement over, we headed back down the hill, down some waterfalls, to our camp by the river, with all of us on a real high from getting to see an Orang Utan so close up. We had no idea the best was yet to come.

Jackie

Soon after we made camp, we were all sitting around drinking tea, when Alex pointed out that another semi-wild female, Jackie, was heading down the waterfall and in our direction. She soon made it over to us, and perched on a short little tree just a metre away from where we were sitting, with her adorable little baby (with a cool little Mohican) hanging off her side.

She sat there for a good half hour checking us out, before coming down from the tree and holding the hands of the two nearest people from our group, Helen & Sheri. I really hadn’t expected to get quite so close to an Orang-Utan, and for the next twenty minutes or so, she sat in the middle of us, at one point even giving Sheri a great big hug (which sounds great, but with her huge size and vicelike grip I think Sheri was quite glad to be released again).

Making her way down from the trees

Hugging Sheri

Getting close

It soon became clear that Jackie is quite a bit smarter than Mina – rather than using aggression to get her way, Jackie lulled us into a false sense of security with her affection, and once our guard was down she made a beeline towards the kitchen tent. The guides managed to stop her just in time, and I ended up holding her hand and walking her back across the rover and away from the camp while one of the guides tempted her with some bananas.

Getting ready to walk her away from the camp

She knew she was on to a good thing with us, because as we woke up the next morning she was back in the tree above camp, and soon came down again to get close to us. This time chaos ensued. A troupe of long-tailed macaques had decided to take advantage of our distraction by sneaking round the kitchen tent from the back to try and get at the food, and as soon as we realised what they were up to we stopped watching Jackie for a second and she was off – straight into another tent where she had clearly sniffed out our fruit supplies. In no time at all she’d nabbed all our bananas, oranges and lychees (as well as Helen’s breakfast) and was back up in a tree just out of our reach munching away at her prize.

A Macaque takes advantage of the chaos to steal some toast

We were all pretty speechless. I’d come along on the trek hoping to see the Orang Utans, but I had no idea I’d be able to get so close to one as to be able to hold her hand. They are such beautiful creatures, so human-looking in some of their actions and facial expressions, and clearly very intelligent too. Bukit Lawang had never been on my original itinerary, but I am so glad I made it now. It was my last day in Indonesia after two months, and what a way to go out, as it’s without a doubt one of the best memories of the entire trip to date for me.

You can see all of my photos of the trek here

Here be dragons

As the boat approached Komodo, we were all busy trying to convince ourselves that it really didn’t matter if we didn’t see any dragons, you know, as the snorkelling had been so good and my what beautiful sunsets and weren’t the flying foxes amazing and how it’s all about the journey rather than the arrival and other such nonsense – but of course getting to see Komodo dragons had been the whole point of the exercise for all of us and we all knew deep down we’d be gutted if we didn’t get to see at least one.Keep silent

For those who don’t know, Komodo Dragons are the world’s biggest lizards – monitor lizards to be precise – and they are pretty deadly too, as just one bite from an adult is enough to kill a human through blood poisoning within just a few days. It was not exactly comforting to be told on arriving that they had no stock of the required antibiotics on the island, and that any bite would require evacuation to Bali, which is not exactly close. The sense of unease was heightened further as we set out on the path to be told about the Swiss tourist who had died after being bitten when he was separated from his group (although to be honest it was his own fault for lingering behind to get more photos), and about the park ranger who was recently bitten by a young dragon – although luckily thanks to its young age, he survived and was back at work within a few months.

As it turned out, we didn’t have to wait long before catching our first glimpse. We soon reached the first waterhole, to find a single dragon stalking a group of deer. As soon as he caught sight of us (we were quite a big group, after all) he ran off deeper into the bush. Even with that brief glimpse, he was quite a menacing sight. Nearly three metres long from nose to tail, they really are massive beasts. Their big, wide bodies are propped up on short, powerful legs, and when they walk the whole body and tail move from side to side, like a giant snake on legs.

Hiding in a bush

Hiding in a bush

The ranger soon managed to track him down to his hiding place under a bush, giving us the opportunity to get closer. The whole time we took photos we could see him staring intently at us, and the moment we stopped paying attention to him to listen to the ranger talk, he took advantage of our distraction and fled at high-speed once more.

The rest of the walk round Komodo was a bit of a disappointment in dragon-spotting terms, but we weren’t too worried, as our next stop would be the nearby island of Rinca, which is much smaller than Komodo but with a similar dragon population – which in theory should make seeing them much easier. Luckily that theory turned out to be true, as within seconds of getting off the boat we came across a young dragon slinking his way along the path in front of us. From then on we saw loads along the way, mostly adult females basking in the sun. Even though we knew they’d probably be wary of a group our size, having seen them on the move we approached each one with great respect, stepping slowly around them keeping our eyes on them the whole time, as none of us really fancied being taken by surprise.

Not sure I'd want to stay in this guest house

The final group of dragons we saw were some big, lazy ones sleeping under the rangers’ kitchen hut (eating scraps is far easier than hunting buffalo after all), and seeing a big group of them together was rather scary – especially when one of them showed the pointlessness of building huts on stilts by climbing up the stairs and into the office, soon to be chased straight back out by a group of stick-wealding rangers.

Adult female by the rangers' hut

With its wild, hilly, unspoilt landscape filled with primeval looking plants and dragons, Rinca does a pretty passable impression of Jurassic Park – but all the more impressive for the fact that this one is real.

Rinca landscape

Sailing off in search of dragons

I was faced with three options when it came to getting to Komodo. Would it be the expensive flight on a dodgy Indonesian airline? Or maybe the uncomfortable 31 hour bus-boat-bus-boat overland option? Or perhaps the four-day all-inclusive boat trip island-hopping all the way from Lombok to Flores, taking in Komodo along the way?

The boat's route

It was a pretty tough choice as you can imagine, but in the end the boat won out and early on a saturday afternoon we set off from Lombok. We’d been promised many delights along the way, and the first of which turned up just a few hours in. We were all stood on the deck watching yet another gorgeous Indonesian sunset, and just as the sun went down, the sky began to fill with a huge flock of birds rising up from the mangrove trees on a small offshore island and heading back to the mainland to sleep. Except as we got closer, we soon realised they weren’t birds at all, but thousands of huge flying foxes. I’ve only ever seen tiny bats before, and these ones were a whole different kettle of fish. It was quite a sight watching them silhouetted against the red sky, and the spectacle continued for a good five or so minutes, as more and more made their way out of the trees and joined the migration.

The beginning of the nightly Flying Fox migration

Dinner (Nasi Goreng, of course) gave us an opportunity to get to know each other better, and I was once again lucky to be with a great little group. Alongside myself and Victor, the Swede I’d spent the week with in the Gili Islands, there were three more Swedes (you’re never very far from one in Indonesia), two Belgians, two Swiss, and one each from Germany, Holland & Quebec. It’s probably a good thing we all got on so well, as of course it being a budget boat (there are a few other options, but a bit too pricey for most backpackers) it turned out to be a big floating dorm, as the upper deck was completely filled with twelve mattresses with no gaps in between.

Tight squeeze on deck

It’s funny the things that travel agents miss out when they’re describing a tour to you – like the fact that the boat would be travelling all night on the first two nights. And of course the boat’s engine was the loudest imaginable, and was conveniently located right underneath the dorm. If the waves weren’t enough to keep us sleeping lightly, we all soon realised the engine would be. Predictably enough day two began by most of us being up and about on the lower deck soon after sunrise, everyone looking rather frazzled.

Perfectly calm sea near Sumbawa

Still, everyone was in good spirits, for as soon after breakfast we sailed up to a thickly forested, national park island, with its beautiful, white sandy beach, and inviting turquoise water. This was to be our first snorkelling stop, and it turned out to be fantastic. The coral here was far healthier than in the part of the Gilis I’d done it in, and the variety of corals and fish was huge. Best of all, I got to see my first ever sea snake, a huge black and white one slithering through the water looking remarkably similar to the way they move on land. That was followed by a quick trek through the jungle to a big waterfall with a huge pool for swimming in (and giant vines hanging over it that allowed all the boys to practice our best Tarzan impersonations as we swung into the water).

One of the things I’ve really began to appreciate on this trip is the miraculous healing power of salt water. No matter how tired (or indeed hung over) I am, all it takes is a quick dip in the sea and I feel completely restored. Getting back on the boat everyone had woken up, and we soon settled into a wonderful routine of sailing from island to island, occasionally hopping out for a quick snorkel or to laze on yet another perfect beach. It amazes me the effort people make to find the ideal, undiscovered beach in Thailand, when there are literally thousands in Indonesia, many of them on completely uninhabited islands – although other than doing a trip like the one we were on, getting there might be a bit of an issue.

Our own private beach

We realised we were nearing our destination when the boat hit the hugely powerful currents of the Komodo Strait – so powerful that you could see them on the surface of the water like rivers running through the sea, creating huge whirlpools whenever they hit an islet or some submerged rock. At one point we crossed into one and the whole boat lurched as if it had been hit by an object. Nature can be quite a powerful beast sometimes – something we were hoping to see in action again as we sailed into Komodo harbour. The big question was…after all the effort to get there, would we actually get to see any dragons?

How to see temples without the crowds: Borobudur & Prambanan

If you asked most people to name a historic temple in South East Asia, you can bet that the vast majority would name Angkor Wat. In fact I’m sure most people would struggle to name many more. I know that was the case for me before I came to Asia, and on reading up on what there was to do in Indonesia, I was surprised to find out that the world’s biggest Buddhist temple is in the country.

Borobudur

Before Islam swept through the archipelago in the 15th century, Indonesia had been dominated by Hindu & Buddhist kingdoms, two of which have left behind massive temple complexes just outside Yogyakarta, both of which are World Heritage Sites.

Stupas on the upper levels of Borobudur

First up was a sunrise visit to Borobudur, a huge Buddhist stupa constructed in the 9th century. It takes the form of a stepped pyramid, with each layer being decorated by hundreds of intricately carved panels showing scenes from the life of Buddha, and overlooked by 432 statues of Buddha. The upper terraces are circular, and hold beautiful lattice-work stupas, each containing another statue.

It’s a stunning construction, but as was already becoming the norm in Indonesia, I was amazed to find that yet again there were virtually no tourists – maybe no more than twenty on the day we were there. Aside from the handful of tourists, the other main presence was the groups of roaming Indonesian English students, who’d been sent down to the area to stop tourists so that they can practice their English. So at various intervals on the way round we’d stop and chat for five minutes or so with a group, asking us lots of questions about what we were doing and where we came from, and telling us more about themselves. We even got a little demonstration of traditional dancing from one group, and then (slightly bizarrely) one of the girls sang us an Avril Lavigne song. It’s definitely one of the things I love about Indonesia – it’s so incredibly easy to meet locals as they have no hesitation in just walking straight up to you and striking up conversations.

English students at Borobudur

Next up was a short transfer to nearby Prambanan, a huge Hindu temple complex that was constructed around the same time as Borobudur, consisting of around 50 different sites. Largest and most impressive of all is the 47 metre high Shiva temple, flanked on either side by temples dedicated to Vishnu & Brahma. Sadly, the whole areas was badly damaged by an earthquake in 2006, so many of the temples were still closed off with repair work continuing. But despite that, it’s an undeniably beautiful sight.

Prambanan

Around the main temples are some smaller ones, and a museum, and it was as we wandered around we came across a group of locals practising playing Gamelan (probably the best know form of Indonesian music, played by orchestras with a variety of different percussion instruments). They invited us to sit down with them and learn to play a tune. We were each sat down with a Xylophone (with each bar being helpfully numbered) and given a sheet showing how to play a tune. It was a very simple number, but with the rest of the orchestra playing along with us the sound was beautiful, and we ended up playing for about fifteen minutes, with a load of Indonesian tourists staring at us all the whole way through.

Playing Gamelan

The only downside to the whole day was that it was completely overcast the whole time, creating that kind of dispersed light that makes taking decent pictures almost impossible. So apologies if these ones aren’t up to my usual standard (especially as I really don’t think they convey quite how beautiful both places are).