Tag Archives: travel

Unlearning to Ski

After finding myself face down in the snow for the second time that morning, with my skis several metres behind me back up the slope, I began to realise I’d managed that rather impressive feat of actually unlearning to ski.

Wengen, Switzerland

Wengen from the mountain railway

It all started pretty well. I’ve been skiing a couple of times before, and while I’m clearly no expert I could get down most red runs without too much difficulty (if a little bit more slowly, and considerably less stylishly, than my friends) and had even tackled the odd black run on my previous trip in 2009. But I was acutely aware that my technique maybe left a something to be desired, so after a day of practising I decided to invest in a private lesson to sharpen my skills up a tad and hopefully move closer to my dream of one day being like the locals who effortlessly fly past you, looking elegant, entirely in control…and I would say cool, except for the fact that most of them still seem to be wearing hideous neon-coloured all-in-one ski suits left over from the 80s.

Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau

Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau


The lesson began OK – after showing off my skiing on a nice easy slope, my instructor told me I wasn’t bad, but thought there were a few pointers he could give me. Unfortunately after that it went downhill pretty quickly – to the point, after about half an hour, where he suddenly stopped and asked me if I’d ever had any lessons at all. I was obviously mortally offended but could perhaps concede he had a point, seeing as he’d managed to point out I was doing pretty much everything wrong.
Moonrise over the alps

Moonrise over the Männlichen ridge

But, like a patient teacher dealing with a particularly stupid child, he gradually managed to get me skiing at a level which he seemed to find satisfactory (although it was hard to tell towards the end, as he was getting increasingly bored with my stubborn inability to get it quite right, and spent more time chatting to friends than he did watching me. In fact most of the time he was chatting to me was spent pointing out how bad most of the other skiers were, which was probably fair enough, although I’d rather he’d have just focused on me). In fact, by the end of the lesson I was feeling increasingly confident I’d made the right move having the lesson, and even though I was going more slowly than before, I was doing it better – and speed would surely come in time.

Sadly, finishing the lesson was the high point of the week skiing wise for me. By the time I hit the slopes on the third morning, I swiftly realised that I was mostly very confused. My head was full of new ideas about the right way to do things. Unfortunately my legs had an entirely different idea and clearly resented the intrusion of my brain and decided to do their own thing. I attempted to reassert control of my own limbs with predictable results, and ended up with my skis crossed on a particularly icy patch on my very first run of the morning and went flying, landing rather painfully on my right shoulder. After picking myself and clipping my skis back on, I carried on only for the same thing to happen not five minutes later.

After that I pretty much lost my confidence entirely and found myself getting slower and slower over the rest of the week, as I attempted to effectively relearn to ski. It didn’t go entirely well, and by the third afternoon even the novice skier in our group was overtaking me with alarming regularity. It didn’t help that the resort had had no new snow for well over a week, a situation that was made worse by the glorious weather – there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and it was particularly warm, leading to some slopes turning slushy, patches of mud appearing – and worst of all big icy patches where the overnight cold had frozen the melting slush.

birds on a tipi with blue sky

Even the birds were enjoying the sunshine

It wasn’t all bad though: Wengen is a beautiful resort, consisting of a pretty little village (much nicer looking than the ugly purpose-built resorts in France that I’ve skied in before) and even better all of the main runs are dominated by a stunning view of the Eiger. Plenty of the runs twist and turn through the trees, and the glorious sunshine meant that lunchtime in the mountain restaurants was lovely.

There was plenty more too to enjoy in the area (more on which in my next posts) and I didn’t come away to disheartened – despite my falls I enjoy skiing too much to let it get me down too much, and I shall be back on the slopes next year. Probably with a fair bit more time in ski school though, I think.

You can see all the photos from my ski trip to Wengen here.

Gallery

Nicaragua in Pictures: Gorgeous Granada

A photo post about my backpacking trip to the beautiful colonial city of Granada, Nicaragua. Stunning churches, colourful buildings, crumbling ruins all overlooked by the dramatic silhouette of the Mombacho volcano. Continue reading

Little Corn Island

I may have been slightly disappointed by the volcano boarding on Cerro Negro, but as it turned out there’s a far better (and cheaper) way to get a huge adrenaline kick in Nicaragua – by visiting Little Corn Island, a tiny little island just off Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast.

The flight over from Managua takes just over an hour, but drops you on neighbouring Big Corn Island, meaning that to complete our journey we’d need to take a boat. Which is when the fun started – for it turns out that November is one of the windiest months of the year in the Corn Islands. The journey began pretty smoothly as we headed out of the harbour, but as soon as we hit the open water it became clear that we were going to be in for a hell of a bumpy ride. The waves were pretty huge and of course we were riding into them head on. The result was the most fun boat trip I’ve been on – it’s a pretty small boat, and the bow kept being lifted right up out of the water by the waves before smacking hard back into them, showering the inside of the boat with water every time. It was like being in the log flume at a theme park – but more dramatic and a hell of a lot more fun. All the locals had cleverly nabbed the few relatively dry spots in the middle, meaning that by the time we arrived in Little Corn half an hour later all the tourists were soaked to the skin. Definitely one of the surprise highlights of the trip (although I am very glad indeed our backpacks were safely locked away from the water inside the boat.

It turns out we were very lucky indeed to even get there though – apparently the previous few days the weather had been so bad the boat was unable to make the run, meaning we’d have been stuck on Big Corn, which wasn’t quite as appealing. The bad weather had a few further impacts on our visit – unfortunately the most interesting dive sites are on the windward side of the island, and the waves were so big we had to stick to the leeward side, which has less interesting dive sites. When I went out it was OK – a pretty standard coral and fish type site, but it felt more disappointing as I knew on the other side of the island there are some amazing shark-filled caves and underwater canyons you can swim through, as well as another side where you can see Hammerhead sharks, which would’ve been cool. Still, it was nice to be diving again, my first time since Bohol in the Philippines back in February last year.

At least my experience was nice and relaxing – whereas while I was out diving, Adrian went out fishing with Tyler & Cassidy, the American couple we’d met while hiking on Volcan Telica – and in his infinite wisdom the local fisherman took them out on the windy side of the island, with the result that most of the boat got pretty seasick. I’m quite glad I stuck to being under the water rather than on top of it.

Luckily the bad weather mostly just meant wind, waves and the odd cloud – and not the rain that we’d feared. So we had plenty of time to chill out – and Little Corn was the perfect place to do it.

Little Corn Island

The island is pretty tiny – it’s just over one square mile in size, and only has around 1,000 inhabitants, meaning it’s the perfect place to relax. Other than diving or fishing, there’s little to do but lounge around on the beautiful, empty beaches, which is what we did. We stayed in the lovely Casa Iguana – a collection of little wooden cabins right on the edge of the beach on the eastern side of the island. It was fantastic being able to get up in the morning and wander out onto the balcony with a view over the Caribbean. The other thing I loved about the place was the collection of dogs that lived there. The whole island is more or less their playground, and one dog in particular decided to adopt us – he slept outside our cabin, and then when we got up he’d follow us round the island, often sitting under the table when we stopped for a drink somewhere (and then barking if he wasn’t getting enough attention – he was quite a needy dog), before leading us home again in the dark.

Corn Island Dog

The island is definitely not the place to go if you’re inpatient – life moves at a glacially slow pace there, meaning you normally have to wait a loooong time for food to arrive in restaurants, but it’s all worth it if you’re trying the local speciality. Other than tourism, the main industry on the island is lobster fishing – and that means Lobster is ridiculously cheap. On our last night we ate at Miss Bridget’s, a tiny (and easily missed – it looks more like a house from the outside) restaurant that we’d been told was the best on the island, and for $8 I had an amazingly fresh Lobster (we saw the chef’s husband bringing in the lobster he’d just caught on our way into the restaurant) grilled with a fantastic garlic sauce. In retrospect we should have just eaten there every night, it was so good (and so cheap) I could have eaten it again and again.

There was one exception to the normally laid back pace of life: because Saturday night on the island is party night. After watching yet another incredible sunset from our table in Cafe Tranquilo, the social hub of the island, the energy picked up with a pub quiz (which we won – and were rewarded with a free bottle of Flor de Caña, the absolutely delicious Nicaraguan rum) and then headed into the interior of the island to the one nightclub on the island. I can’t remember the name of it, but it was packed with locals and tourists dancing away to reggae (the former obviously doing it much better than the latter, a point I was painfully reminded of when two of the local girls tried to dance with Adrian & me. It was rather embarrassing. But luckily not all tourists turned out to be that bad – Cassidy’s dance moves were more than enough to put the locals in their place). After all that dancing we headed outside, where we were surprised to all be given a free plate of noodles. Maybe they’re worried that after all that dancing you’ll have worked up quite an appetite. Whatever the reason it’s not something I’ve ever seen before (and I think it was more appreciated by the dog, who helped us finish off all the leftovers).

Little Corn Island Caribbean sunset

We were only there for three days but I really fell in love with the place, and I’d love to go back some time, not least to experience the diving I missed out on.

A New Year’s Resolution

Let’s face it, I’ve been a bit rubbish about keeping this blog updated since I got back from travelling – a lot of that has been because it’s been pretty knackering getting used to working again after 15 months of lovely unemployment – but now I’m settled in again, that’s a pretty lame excuse.

I must admit I’ve never found writing particularly easy, but it’s a good discipline to stick to, partly because I enjoy sharing my experiences of travelling with people, but also because it’s a nice record for myself, and keeping up with it is a way of capturing the memories of all the fantastic experiences I’ve had, and even just a year later, I really enjoy going back and reading about what I’ve been up to.

So in that spirit, and prompted by the folks at wordpress, I’m going to attempt to use their ‘post a week in 2011′ initiative to try and give me a reason to post more regularly. Last week I wrote about my four months of travelling through nine countries in 2010 and next up will be the first of my posts about my trip to Nicaragua in November. Wish me luck, and thanks for reading.

Where next? 50 Places I still want to visit

The problem with taking a year-long round the world trip is that while you think it will satiate your desire for travel in fact it does the opposite – the more I travelled, the more I loved to travel, and the more places that I’d never even considered that suddenly began to appeal. So now that I’m back in gainful employment, and armed with both a salary and a holiday allowance (and even better – six weeks a year, the best I’ve ever had) it’s time to start thinking about where to go next…

Here’s my first stab, arranged into some rather arbitrary categories just to give it some structure. Anyone who knows me and fancies a holiday next year – let me know if any of these appeal!

Countries

1. Nicaragua

Leon, Nicaragua

Everyone I met in Central America raved about this as one of their highlights – fantastic colonial cities, volcanoes, great beaches, friendly people. This is likely to be my first trip – this November for a couple of weeks.

2. Nepal

My time in the Andes was probably the highlight of my year. Now I want to see the Himalayas.

3. Pakistan

Probably a bit of a longer term objective this one, given the current state of the country, but I really want to go and visit the country of my father’s birth, I’ve heard some incredible things.

4, 5 & 6 Morocco, Mozambique & Mali

Africa is the one inhabited continent I haven’t been to – and I’m very keen to rectify that. These three, one from the north, one from the west, one from the south all appeal for different reasons.

7. Montenegro

Great beaches, lovely mountains, and one of the biggest canyons in the world.

8. Ecuador

One of the nicest people I met on my trip was an Ecuadorian girl, and she got *very* cross that I’d managed to spend four months in Andean countries and not made it there.

9. Syria

Fantastic ruins and the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. People I know who’ve been rave about it.

10. Tajikistan

Possibly another long term objective this one – partly because I need to learn to drive before I can tackle the Pamir Highway.

Islands

1. Socotra, Yemen

Dragon's Blood Tree

I’ve been fascinated by this place since I saw pictures of the Dragon’s Blood Tree that grows on the island. The more I read about it the more obsessed with visiting I become.

2. Cuba

I have a feeling the place will change a lot in the next decade. I’m keen to see it sooner rather than later.

3. Crete

My favourite travel book of all time made me fall in love with Crete from afar. Read it, you will too.

4. Hawaii

Partly because of the volcanoes, but more because of fellow travellers Rob & Vicky raving about their time there to me one night in Guatemala.

5. Madagascar

Home to some of the most bizarre landscapes I have ever seen, plus unique wildlife

6. Mindanao, The Philippines

I’m dying to go back to the Philippines and this is one that really appeals (although well away from the dangerous bit).

7. Vanuatu

Again to a travel book, this is the Pacific country I’d like to see most.

8. Cape Verde

Portuguese heritage, fantastic music, great beaches, nice hiking.

9. Sicily

Italy & I haven’t really agreed with each other so far. Time to give it another go, and the food, ruins, cities and volcano hear all sound great.

10. Sulawesi

Best diving in the world, or so I keep hearing.

Hikes

1. GR20 – Along the mountain spine of Corsica, allegedly the toughest in Europe. I quite fancy this in the summer of 2011.
2. GR10/11 – Two paths running the length of the Pyrenees, one on the French and one on the spanish.
3. Sierra Norte, Oaxaca, Mexico – pioneering eco-tourism project run by a co-operative of indigenous villages
4. Tiger Leaping Gorge, China – not least because of the name.
5. Milford Track, New Zealand
6. Mt. Kinabalu, Borneo
7. Mt. Kilimanjiro, Tanzania
8. Everest Base Camp
9. Torres del Paine, Chile
10. Southwest USA – So many amazing hikes I’m not sure I’d know where to start – includes some of the most amazing national parks of the country, including Arches, Monument Valley and Bryce Canyon

Other outdoorsy stuff…

1. Kruger national park, south africa – seeing Orang Utans in Indonesia ignited a desire to see more wildlife that I never knew I had
2. Iguazu Falls, Argentina / Brazil
3. Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina – loads of my mates have been here and it looks incredible
4. Outback Australia – I’ve seen all the big cities. Now I’d love to spend more time exploring the vast empty bits of the country, so many amazing things to see, and even the emptiness itself is intriguing.
5. The Galapagos Islands – obviously
6. Kinigi National Park, Rwanda – home of the Mountain Gorilla
7. The Amazon jungle – gutted I missed this while in Bolivia
8. Sahara Desert
9. Antarctica
10. Angel Falls, Venezuela

Cities

1. Buenos Aires
2. Montreal
3. New Orleans
4. Beijing
5. Bilbao
6. Beirut
7. Prague
8. Naples (Pizza, mmmm)
9. Stockholm
10. Morelia, Mexico

That list could easily be twice as long…but that’s plenty to be getting on with for now. And like I said, if you know me and fancy any of these let me know!

Around the world in numbers

Doesn’t time fly? I’ve been back over four months already and I still haven’t got round to doing the final round-up posts I planned, let alone told you all what I’ve been up to since. Bad blogger. Anyway, here’s the first of those posts, a quick round-up of my year away in the form of some nice geeky numbers.

I was away for 364 nights, and in that time I visited 19 countries on 4 continents. I spent 310 nights in the tropics and 54 nights outside them. I was north of the equator for 206 nights, and south for 158, I was east of the Greenwich meridian for 199 nights and west for 165. I crossed the tropic of cancer 4 times, the tropic of capricorn twice, the equator once and the international date line once.

I visited 15 capital cities (including both of Bolivia’s) – incidentally the 5 I missed were Guatemala City, Washington DC, Buenos Aires Canberra and Wellington.

I slept in 116 beds, and spent 134 nights in dorms, 77 in single rooms, 76 in double rooms, 17 in triple rooms and 13 in apartment. I slept 6 nights in hammocks, 17 on buses, 2 on planes, 4 on a boat, 16 in tents, and 1 in a buddhist monastery.

Where I slept over the year

I took 176 buses (including collectivos, minivans, chicken buses, jeepneys and so on), 136 taxis, 25 flights, 51 boats, 21 cars, 21 tuk-tuks (and similar), 2 cable cars, 5 jeeps, 6 funiculars, 10 trams, 2 trains, 30 metros and 2 horse & carts.

I visited 34 world heritage sites, 17 pyramids and other pre-hispanic ruins, 44 temples, 34 churches & cathedrals, 5 wineries and 29 museums. I also watched 5 wrestling matches.

I climbed 13 volcanoes and visited 21 national parks, 3 deserts, 4 canyons, 9 hot springs, 41 islands, 44 beaches, saw 1 geyser and 5 salt flats and went caving once. I spent 45 days over 3,000 metres altitude, of which 24 were over 4,000 metres, and 3 over 5,000m (and the biggest regret of my trip is that I didn’t take the opportunity to hike to 6,000m in Bolivia while I was well acclimatised and had the chance).

Volcan Nevado del Ruiz, Colombia

The highest point of my trip: Volcan Nevado del Ruiz in Colombia

I did 25 dives, went kayaking twice, tubing once, went running twice (and both in the first month, after which I got lazy) and hired bikes 6 times.

I did laundry 42 time, sent 24 postcards, made 37 phone calls and took cash out 106 times.

I walked through one window, visited 3 hospitals, had 38 stitches, and have 5 impressive scars.

I learnt at least a few words in 17 languages (Spanish, Quiche Maya, Quechua, Aymara, Rapanui, Maori, Bahasa Indonesia, Balinese, Bahasa Sasak, Bahasa Ende, Tetum, Portuguese, Filipino, Malaysian, Thai, Burmese, and Khmer). I have now forgotten virtually all of the above except for the Spanish.

I met and had conversations with people from 60 countries, including 192 people from the UK, 109 American (who says they don’t travel?), 79 Australians, 53 Germans, 41 Canadians, 34 French, 33 Swedes (almost all in Indonesia), 30 Filipinos, 27 Israelis (all in Latin America), 27 Dutch, 26 Dutch, 26 Swiss, 25 Irish, 23 Mexicans, 15 Guatemaltecos, 14 Chileans, 14 Danes, 13 Spanish, 13 Indonesians, 12 Argentinians, 11 Kiwis, 11 Burmese, 9 Belgians, 6 Brazilians, 6 Peruvians, 5 Austrians, 5 Finns, 5 East Timorese, 4 Italians, 4 Czechs, 3 Bolivian, 3 Malaysians, 3 Hong Kongers, 3 Chinese, 3 Singaporean, 3 Cambodian, 2 South African, 2 Norwegian, 2 Ecuadorian, 2 Thai, 2 Venezuelan, 2 Colombian, 2 Uruguayan, 2 Poles, 2 Portuguese, 2 South Korean, and 1 each from the Isle of Man, Guernsey, French Guiana, Romania, Ukraine, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, Hungary, Russia, Slovenia, Congo-Brazzaville, Cameroon, Japan & Estonia.
Here’s a map showing all the countries that I met people from:

And finally….this blog has had over 115,000 hits, and 1,265 comments and my photos have been viewed just over 120,000 times. Thanks for reading!

On being back home

It’s taken me more than three months of being back to get round to writing this. I’m not quite sure why. It’s partly because I’ve been quite busy catching up with friends and trying to find a job, but I think it’s more the fact that writing about home seems quite dull after all the exciting things I was up to while away.

But, I do want to carry on with the blog (and plenty of my friends have encouraged me to since I’ve been back – which was nice confirmation that people were actually reading!), and it was reading this post about settling back home that made me realise that I really should get on with it soon or else I’d never get round to it. So here goes…

Lovely as it was to be met by my parents at the airport, suddenly coming face to face with English weather after a year away really made my heart sink. I’d planned carefully to avoid bad weather for most of the year, and so to arrive back in London at half six in the morning to be faced with freezing temperatures, grey skies and pouring rain was a real shock to the system that made me desperate to be back on the beach in Cambodia.

The misery soon subsided though, as pretty soon I barely had time to notice the weather as I threw myself into the task of catching up with friends and family. One of the joys of being away was meeting so many wonderful people everywhere, making new friends almost every day – but being back home I suddenly really realised quite how much I’d missed everybody, and how emails, the odd phone call, and facebook status updates really are no match for catching up face to face.

I soon realised that my travels were clearly not half as interesting to other people as they were to me – perhaps people had seen all they needed to see from photos, or reading the blog, or perhaps hearing about other people’s travels just isn’t that interesting (although it is to me) – either way, in most instances I found the subject was changed pretty quickly after first meeting up with people, often after just one question (which incidentally was normally ‘what was your favourite country?’ – I’ll answer that one in a later post). It also felt strange chatting to many of my friends who said the year had flown past and that little had changed in their lives – whereas I’ve done and seen so much. The thought that my next year might end up being repetitive and samey was one of the first things to worry me.

The other thing I soon realised I’d missed was London. I’ve been to some amazing cities in the last year, but I have to say none of them quite match up to my home town. London is rightly famous for its museums and galleries, and I’d really missed the incredible nightlife, but I’d forgotten quite how beautiful it is in places, how green it is with all its parks. I arrived home after a year of being a tourist, and I’ve made a real effort since getting home to keep it up. So I’ve tried to make the most of my free time to explore the city as much as possible, checking out parts of the city I’d never been to before (like the wonderful parkland walk along a disused railway line and through ancient woodland from Finsbury Park to Alexandra Palace, and the Greenway with it fantastic view over the new Olympic stadium). Three months in and I’m still not bored of it.

It’s not all been great though. Applying for jobs is a slow and boring process. My head knows I need to return to work but my heart would still rather be out there still, on the road. I feel like I’ve forgotten so much while being away – and that was confirmed in my first job interview where the feedback was that I ‘lacked gravitas’. Whoops. I quickly realised it was time to grow up and realise that this was something I had to take seriously.

After a while boredom began to settle in – with all my friends working 9-5 jobs, I had five days a week to fill. I spent plenty of time out sightseeing, but doing it all alone started to get boring, and I soon began to feel less motivated. I found myself getting out of bed later and later, and eventually I found the lack of structure beginning to get me down a bit. That was fine when I was moving on every few days, but after three months in one place it got much harder.

The frustrations of being on my own all day and not having a job were balanced out in other ways though – for it’s taken being back for me to realise quite how much I feel I’ve changed a person since being away. The biggest change is how much more confident I am as a person. I never used to be comfortable meeting new people, or in large social situations – but being away has changed that, I think simply by the fact travelling alone has forced me into being in that sort of situation every day, and realising there’s nothing to be scared of. Aside from that, I do feel like I’m no more adventurous than ever, I’m more relaxed too. Best of all though I genuinely feel happier than I ever have done. Even if I hadn’t had quite so many amazing experiences while away, the trip would have been worth it for that alone.

This phase of my life is now drawing to a close. After a year of travelling, and three months of settling back in, and job-hunting, I’ve now found one, and I start work on Monday. Half of me is delighted – I’ll have some structure back to my life, and crucially I’ll have a salary again (very handy for paying for future holidays). The other half of me is frankly terrified. I’m worried I’ve forgotten everything I know. I’m worried that I’m so used to doing nothing that the discipline of working will be beyond me. The idea of getting up every morning and having to deal with commuting scares me. Fingers crossed it all works out.

So what next for the blog? Well in the short term I have a few round-up and ‘best of’ posts to come, just for completeness sake. Plus I have a report on my recent trip to Croatia (which I treated myself too after getting the job). After that – well I plan to continue to write about life in London, as well as all my future travels – of which hopefully there will be lots!

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

Impressions of Burma

It’s funny think that if I hadn’t walked through a glass door and ended up in hospital I might never have made it to Burma. But doing just that put paid to my plans to spend some time diving on the Andaman Coast, and finally made my mind up to book a flight to Yangon.

Yangon by night

Yangon by night

It’s probably worth saying straight off that for a long time I had been a supporter of the tourism boycott (that interestingly seems to have a far higher profile in the UK than in many other countries), but in the last year I’ve had numerous conversations with other travellers that had started me questioning my stance – and finally this year a friend of mine from back home who knows far more about Burma than anyone else I know talked me into it.

Ultimately the thing that swayed me was the argument that the boycott is damaging the people far more than it is the government (who don’t suffer that much at all thanks to being propped up with cash from lots of Asian governments like China). Sanctions mean that Burma gets way less development aid (about a quarter of the amount per capita) than near neighbours such as Bangladesh, Laos & Cambodia. Visiting as an independent tourist offers a way to give money directly to people running private businesses (incidentally the Lonely Planet is pretty helpful at advising you on how to minimise the amount of cash you spend that goes to the government), and we made a real effort to spread our cash around rather than spend it all in the same place. Furthermore, it was interesting to see quite how much people were willing to open up when talking one to one, about their views of the government – and it seems that the vast majority want tourists to come and see for themselves how the junta keeps the people poor and repressed.

I’m so glad I did make the decision to go, as the country was one of the highlights of the whole year of travelling. It was certainly the most intense experience of the whole year, with some amazing highs interspersed with some of the more challenging bits of the whole trip – most notably the rather terrible bus journeys and food that was often even worse (and had us leaping for joy at the sight of this restaurant in Nyaungshwe, by Inle Lake):

Inle Pancake Kingdom

The best pancakes in Burma

There were times too when the poverty became hard to bear – between the five of us, we tried to spread our money round as much as possible to help as many people as possible – but you have to acknowledge you can’t help everyone – which led to a sadly farcical situation in Inwa, where we decided we’d rather sight-see on foot, and spent the afternoon being followed around by a horse and cart driver desperately trying to persuade us to use his services (and being told repeatedly no). We ended up trying to escape him by taking short cuts across fields, but every time we thought we’d got away he’d turn up again.

No escape

No escape

Luckily though the highs easily outweighed the lows. I’ve already written about how Yangon is one of my favourite cities in Asia, on how Bagan really deserves to rival Angkor Wat in terms of global fame, and on the wonders of trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake.

Bridge over Inle Lake

Bridge over Inle Lake

But there were plenty of other highlights too. Inle Lake itself is absolutely stunning. It’s edges dissolve into a series of floating vegetable gardens and houses on stilts, so it’s hard to see where land ends and lake begins. Even better is taking a boat out early in the morning to explore the area – at that time of day on a clear day even the sky and the lake seem to blur into one.

Inle Lake fisherman Burma

The unique rowing style of the Inle Lake fishermen

Meanwhile around Mandalay it’s easy to spend a day stopping off at the former capitals of Inwa (with its rather amazing leaning tower), Sagaing (and its many temples on a hill overlooking the mighty River Irrawaddy) & Amarapura (with the rather incredible U Bein’s Bridge, at 1.2km long, the longest teak bridge in the world).

The leaning tower of Inwa

The leaning tower of Inwa

In terms of natural beauty and historic interest, the places I visited in Burma rival anything else I saw in Asia, and all with way fewer tourists than in most neighbouring countries (and all still pretty cheap too). Even better is the fact that in many ways its traditional culture is better preserved than many countries in the region. For a start, it’s the only Asian country I’ve been to where people still stick to traditional dress, with the clear majority of men & women preferring the skirt-like longyi over trousers. Equally distinctive is the use of thanaka, a creamy paste derived from a sandalwood-like tree, and which most women and children use on their faces and arms as a natural sunblock.

Sunset over U Bein's bridge

Sunset over the beautiful U Bein's bridge

Best of all though, yet again were the people. From the moment we arrived at Yangon airport to the moment we left, we were overwhelmed by the friendliness of the people we met everywhere. Everyone says mingala ba (hello) in the street, people regularly stop just to have a chat, and people go out of their way to be helpful, and even when times got a little bit stressful people were always there to help cheer us up. People constantly surprised us with their reactions, like the woman from Inle Pancake kingdom who chased us down the road to try to return the money we’d left as a tip (she thought we’d accidentally overpaid). It’s a great tribute to the people that they manage to remain so friendly and upbeat despite the best efforts of the government, and I hope one day soon that they get to escape from military rule.

You can see all of my photos of Buma here.

Next (and final) stop: Cambodia

Bagan: Nearly as many punctures as temples

With over 4,400 temples in a space the size of Manhattan, the biggest problem you face is deciding where to start. Especially when you’re still recovering from a dreadful bus journey.Bagan Temple

Our bus from Inle Lake was ‘only’ supposed to take 12 hours, but it started to go wrong from the start. Our taxi dropped us off at the road junction at 4am, only for us to sit there shivering for an hour by the side of the road while we waited for the bus to turn up. If it wasn’t for the nearby hot donut stand I think I may have cried. Eventually, though, it turned up, and we began the long, slow winding journey down through the mountains. Progress was glacially slow, as we seemed to stop EVERYWHERE to pick people up – and this on a bus so small that each seat only sat one and a half people, meaning we had to take in turns to be the one with one bum cheek balancing on the seat and the other hanging off into the aisle. Although at least this was balanced out by the ability to stretch one leg out – for the leg room was minute, and not helped by the fact that the area under the seats was stuffed with luggage.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, we then ended up stranded in Kalaw for about three hours with a damaged axle. It all got a bit much for Sam who decided to run down the road to try to by a plane ticket to Bagan instead. I was on the verge of cracking as well, when eventually they fixed it and we were back on our way. And in the end we were only 5 hours late – that’s 17 hours stuck on a bus, and without doubt the worst journey in over 11 months of travelling.Bagan Temple

With such a nightmare behind us, it was an easy decision to spend the next day on a tour rather than under our own steam, so we hired a couple of horse & carts, and spent the day being driven around the major temples.

As we drove down the main road from Nyaung U towards Old Bagan, it soon began to become apparent quite how many temples there are in the area – they are literally everywhere. The site is on a wide, flat plan in the bend of a river. It’s a very dry region, so it has an almost desert like feel, with smaller bushes and trees rather than being thickly forested – and one of the benefits of this is that its easy to appreciate quite how big the site is and quite how many temples there are stretching away as far as the eye can see in every direction.

They were built over a period of hundreds of years, with each successive ruler wanting to leave his mark in a different way, meaning that the temples are in a variety of styles, shapes, and sizes, from tiny to gobsmackingly large. Some of the them have fantastic beautifully painted interiors. Others have huge stone buddhas in varying positions. Many have massively thick walls and are dark and mysterious inside. Others allow streams of natural light pouring in from different doorways. Here and there you come across ones that are still being repaired after a devastating earthquake in 1975. Bagan Temple

Best of all are the ones that allow you up onto the roof, from where you can really appreciate the scale of Bagan. Our cart driver clearly knew what he was doing though – for he saved the best til last. Just before taking us home, he took us to a small temple just outside the city walls. From there we climbed to the roof – and were rewarded with the best view we’d had to date, with all the biggest temples lined up around us. I’ve been lucky enough to see some of the biggest and best ruins in the world in the past – Teotihuacan, Machu Picchu, Borobodur, Tikal, Ephesus – and none of them even come close to matching the scale of Bagan. Utterly breathtaking.Bagan Temples

Feeling refreshed after an easy day being driven around, and a good night’s sleep, we decided that for the next day we’d take a more strenuous option, and hire some bikes to get a bit more off the beaten track.

This turned out to be the worst decision of the trip so far (yes, even worse than eating in bus station in Yangon). For getting off the beaten track meant getting off the roads, to see the temples of the central plain. It started to go wrong almost immediately as we soon found ourselves cycling into thick sand that made peddling impossible, so our progress was slowed as we kept having to stop, then push the bikes for a bit, then get back on, and then off again….Bagan Temple

As if that wasn’t bad enough, things soon started to get worse. One by one, we all succumbed to punctures. First one wheel, then the other, until all five of us had two flat tires. The culprit? The whole area was growing with thorny bushes, leaving vicious, 2cm long thorns everywhere. The combination of flat tyres and thick sand made riding impossible, so we were forced to push on, getting more and more dehydrated. Things soon got even worse, when am cycled over a branch and had some thorns whipped across his leg – producing quite a lot of blood. Consulting the map we realised we were still quite some distance from roads in every direction, and with steadily dipping morale we pressed on, abandoning plans to see certain temples in favour of the most direct route back.

Just as we were about to collapse, we turned a corner…and found the first people we’d come across all day, at a remote temple in the middle of nowhere. We were delighted to find they had a little shack selling cold drinks. And even more so to find they could actually repair our punctures – it turned out that each bike had dozens, and in the end it took five of them a good hour to fix, while we cooled off.

Refreshed and revived, with working bikes again, we were delighted to find from there on in, that the dirt road was wide, smooth, and clear of thorns – and the rest of the day passed by like a dream, stopping every hundred metres or so for yet another stunning temple. There really is nowhere quite like it in the world.

Bagan Temple Gang

The Burma Gang: Sam, Frankie, Andrew & Tony

Two days was enough however – as after that we were truly templed out, and I was beginning to worry whether or not visiting Angkor at in a week’s time would really be a good idea….

You can see all my photos of Bagan here.