From the beach of El Quisco to the Atacama Desert

Having spent a few days in Valparaiso, and with a couple of weeks teaching for the English Opens Doors program approaching, we decided to get some much needed coastal time under our belts. Over the entirety of our travels, the surprising thing is that we haven’t seen more of the sea-so we headed to the Chilean coast and  El Quisco. Most famous for being home to another one of Pablo Neruda’s haunts, Isla Negra, El Quisco proved to be the perfect tonic to the concrete jungle that is Valpo, a few stunning sunsets perfect to massage the soul and move us forward to our next volunteer placement. Aimless meandering up and down the stunning coastline certainly didn’t disappoint, and we even managed to happen across a Pablo Neruda artistic reserve on the cliff tops-the kind of place that you would never find if you were actively looking for it!  Walking around this hidden gem you find a number of sculptures hidden amongst the foliage, most impressive were the eerie stone faces that look over the shores, listening to the waves crashing on the rocks far below-it’s easy to understand how an artist would use this place as a source of inspiration: 

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Stunning scenery, great seafood, a perfect little cabana just 5 minutes walk from the beach-you couldn’t really ask for much more-apart for time! Alas that wasn’t something that we could afford ourselves, and in the blink of an eye our lazy couple of days were over, and we were headed back to Santiago once again-over the following two weeks we would be teaching assistants for the English Opens Doors Summer Camps. Nothing too taxing, we would be working with Chilean teachers delivering a number of activities for students who had enrolled in a free summer English language program- they’re run over the whole of Chile, so deep down we were both kind of hoping to be sent to Patagonia, alas that was not to be. For my first week I was placed in Los Angeles (Chile, not California!), and Jo in Concepcion-then for the second week we were both back in Santiago. With little spare time to explore the respective cities there’s not a lot I can tell you about the districts; as for the camps themselves-we got to work with some great people in an extremely positive and enthusiastic summer camp environment-so more great teaching experiences under our belts. The only negative being that we had to comprise a lip dub to Justin Bieber’s Sorry, which still haunts my dreams now…If I never hear that song again it will be too soon!

Having loitered in the central region of Chile for long enough, we now had some time to be tourists for a while, and from the recommendations of many, we were headed North to San Pedro, before making our way into Peru. San Pedro is the gateway from which to explore the Atacama Desert, something that neither Jo or I had considered before our trip to South America-but it is thought to be the oldest desert on earth, the oldest continuously dry region on the planet, (it has experienced extreme hyper aridity for at least 3 million years!) and is the home of the other worldly terrain of the Chilean Valle de la Luna. Not surprisingly at one point NASA tested their Mars landing equipment there and looked for signs of life in the earth of the desert-finding none …..You could say that this place is barren!
First we had to get there though, and it turned out to be ‘one of those journeys’. I feel like I haven’t had a proper travel moan for ages, this trip certainly gave me fodder for a paddy of epic proportions. It was simple enough in theory-there was a direct bus from Santiago to San Pedro. It was a night bus so we would get some form of faux chair/bed, hop on, fall asleep, arrive in San Pedro-easy! Alas that wasn’t to be the case in this instance. The chain of events that followed can’t really be explained properly as no one explained anything to us during the whole journey! What I can tell you is that our simple one bus journey evolved into a mammoth four bus marathon! First up our bus just stopped at one station and was there for what seemed like an age, there appeared to be some problem with the door-so we had to wait until a mechanic could come and fix it. Fast forward an hour and a half and we were set to recommence our journey, off we go again all happy and relieved that things were sorted. At some point during my broken slumber we shuddered to a halt and informed that we would now be changing buses, on some random street at an ungodly hour in the morning. Ok, so a grumble and a little bit of a moan, but the other bus was there so we quickly changed and got ourselves comfortable again….For about ten minutes, when the new bus pulled into another bus station and kicked us off! We were simply told that we would need to catch another bus to San Pedro-as our bus was now out of service! With our extremely limited Spanish, and the help of a fellow traveller, it looked like we would have to wait at this bus station for three hours for the next bus to San Pedro, or take another two buses which would get us there sooner-so we opted for the latter, adding an unwelcome 4 hours onto the total journey time. Eventually we made it-30 hours later-but for sure my patience with people when I’m tired and travelling is limited, and it hasn’t gotten any better over the last year and a half!

Having finally arrived during the dark of night, we managed to get a taxi (a random 4X4) to take us out to our ‘desert base’ and soon we settled into our tent excited about what San Pedro had to offer; yes, that’s right, we were going to be braving some camping in the desert. The Atacama is also home to the imaginatively named Very Large Telescope (VLT), for the very reason that there is nowhere better on the planet to look at the midnight skies. Unfortunately my camera isn’t up to the job of demonstrating the displays of stars that we were treated to each night, so you’ll have to take my word for it-it was spectacular, and as we were camping outside of the town where there is zero light pollution-we were treated to a wondrous show each night. 

When we actually managed to get into San Pedro the next day we discovered the town itself to be quite the tourist haven, with dusty ‘Mad Max’ type streets and adobe buildings-you really feel as if you are experiencing a time gone by-all be it truth be told I think that nowadays it purely exists as a tourist destination. That doesn’t take anything away from being there though, it really is a funky little town. 

Like everyone else arriving in San Pedro, you walk around a few tourist shops, have some food, and then set about organising your activities for the next couple of days-there are loads of tour agencies doing various excursions, from sand boarding and quad biking, to nightly stargazing walks. Our focus was on a visit to the unique Valle de la Luna, and to go and visit the nearby geysers. After exploring a few  options with the local travel companies you soon work out that they’re all very similar and you just need to negotiate yourself the best deal. Having gotten what we thought was a great deal, the next day we were on our way to explore the moon like landscape that the desert presents-quite simply it was absolutely gorgeous, a myriad of colours and surreal rock formations melting and pouring into each other-it was a little like being in a lava lamp: 

The entire day was breath-taking, the only downside being that our tour guide quite simply didn’t speak any English-it ended up being quite comical and forced us to try to use what little Spanish we had acquired to decipher the general gist of his tour. After a full day in the desert, the evening held nothing more than a beer or two and early to bed in the sweltering pod of heat that was our tent-but not for long, for at 4.00AM we would be getting picked up for the following days visit to the geysers. Now, for what happened next I blame on tiredness, although others may point to stupidity, I’ll leave it up to you to decide. As is the very nature of the Atacama, it’s hot….Really hot. So, 4 AM one morning getting ready to go and visit some geysers, where we have been told there are hot springs, Jo and I promptly dressed some nice lightweight shorts and t-shirts. It didn’t really occur to us that we would be going to 5,300m above sea level at the crack of dawn, and at that time, at that height, it may be just a little bit Chile (pun intended!!). It didn’t really sink in until we were surrounded by people on our minibus dressed for winter, looking at us as if we were crazy fools-and as such we arrived at the geysers to the amusement of many….Little freezing gringo couple-how funny! Anyway, aside from that the geysers were, again, spectacular, other worldly, wonderful….I run out of original superlatives so forgive me for repeating myself! The amusing thing is that unlike the UK there is  no real health and safety, merely the casual observation:

if you see a hole in the ground, try not to stand on it….

Arid desert, bubbling volcanic pools and hot springs, but still San Pedro wasn’t quite finished-to complete our stay we grabbed some mountain bikes to go and explore Pukara de Quitor, a pre-Columbian stone fortress overlooking the San Pedro river. With Machu Picchu looming in our futures it was a great introduction to the wonders that lay ahead. The ruins date back to the 12th century, and were built initially as a defence against internal threats from neighbouring villages and communities-upon the Spanish invasion they took on a more significant role in the defence from  these foreign invaders. It was to no avail though, as signified by two huge stone heads, carved into the rock in memory of the Pukará de Quitor leaders beheaded by the Spanish when they sacked the town in 1540. A few hours walk in the sweltering heat would stand us in good stead for future excursions, and obviously provided some more camera fodder!

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And so it was that we prepared to leave Chile for Peru,  with a feeling of a fair amount of unfinished business-as with Argentina, we have barely scratched the surface!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Beautiful, and a bit barmy-Bagan

“If you are a real Myanmar, you must have been to Bagan.”

Having brought ourselves up to temperature in Yangon, we were set to explore the most symbolic of landscapes that Myanmar has to offer-the pagoda saturated plains of Bagan.
Bagan is an ancient city located in the Mandalay Region, from the 9th to 13th centuries it was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan, and between the 11th and 13th centuries, over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were constructed here. I would wager that when most people think of Myanmar (or Burma), then the vista of temples stretching out over Bagan’s plains would be the image that comes to the fore of their mind.
Today there are over 2000 temples remaining in the area, and not surprisingly is the main tourist hotspot for all those visiting Myanmar.

Having done a little research, we opted for the night train from Yangon to Bagan, the words of the Man in Seat 61 providing some comfort about the journey ahead:

Burma’s British-built railways are less developed than others in Southeast Asia, but you’ll find the trains are a wonderful way to get around and experience the country at ground level, avoiding unnecessary domestic flights and cramped buses. The journeys are as much an adventure as the country itself.

Now I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that anyone who would like to travel to Bagan from Yangon, take a bus! For sure the train was an experience of sorts, but not the type of experience you expect outside of a roller-coaster at a theme park! The reassurance that we got from it being British built, was quickly dispelled when we realised that since the British built the railways, there has been next to no maintenance on the tracks. I kid you not when I say that the train felt like it was actually airborne at some points, and fellow travellers even experienced one of the carriages disconnecting during their journey. We had even opted for 1st class sleeper-but there was no chance of getting any sleep on this journey. While it was a giggle, and while the light lasted we were treated to some gorgeous countryside-it was also hard work, and so I would approach the journey with some caution!

Remnants of the past, graffiti as we leave Yangon

Remnants of the past, graffiti as we leave Yangon

One of the few shots which I managed to catch out of the train window!

One of the few shots which I managed to catch out of the train window!

Railway side footy

Railway side footy

Notice the ladders on the palm trees, they fix these when the trees are young so as to make accessing their harvest easier when the tree has reached maturity!

Notice the ladders on the palm trees, they fix these when the trees are young so as to make accessing their harvest easier when the tree has reached maturity!

Shaken, rattled and rolled with the all too familiar bleary eyes, we thanked the travel gods upon our safe arrival at Bagan and looked forward to what should be another epic experience. The usual kerfuffle greeted us at the station, with the locals fully capitalising on your confusion and charging premium rates for your transportation. In addition to the taxi fee, you also get hit with a tourist tax on entry to the area, but there can be little complaint about paying to see such a magnificent spectacle.
The first thing that struck us as we ventured towards the town of Nyaung Oo was that the area was a lot more desolate than we had expected-with memories of the images of Bagan bringing up lush green pastures dotted with temples; the reality is that the trees are few and far between-especially noticeable with the temperatures once again hitting 46 degrees. It is worth noting that we arrived at the peak of the dry season though, and so perhaps the desert plains are transformed once the rainy season arrives.
On arrival we wasted little time and immediately hired one of the many electric motorbikes to get on with exploring. The heat was intense, the breeze on the bike offering little respite as it was more akin to being blasted in the face by a hairdryer! Still, we were in one of the most evocative landscapes in Asia-and so we had little cause for complaint.
There’s not really much that I can say about the plains of Bagan that cannot be communicated through the photos of the area, we spent 3 days bombing round these plains and exploring-quite superb!

Pretty comfortable on scooters nowadays!!

Pretty comfortable on scooters nowadays!!

Pretty much every direction had another picture perfect shot

Pretty much every direction had another picture perfect shot

Symmetry!

Symmetry!

Making the most of a shady spot!

Making the most of a shady spot!

Big Buddha....

Big Buddha….

Little Buddha

Little Buddha

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The intense heat definitely had its impact, we would be up and out of the hotel at 8.30AM, only to return for 11AM to hide from the sun before setting out once again to find various sunset spots. Even with our attempts at avoiding the high noon heat, the temperatures faced were still above 40 degrees each day, and with the fact that you need to remove your shoes at each temple-the soles of our feet were starting to show the impact of the blistering heat. After a while you settle into a certain style of ‘scuttle’ walk, much like someone walking over hot coals-I imagine that you could make quite a funny silent film watching people and their ungainly walks around the temples of Bagan!
After our three days of exploring it was time to move on to our next adventure, as with the experiences at Angkor and Ayutthaya, you definitely reach a certain saturation point when you see temple after temple after temple. Not that it stopped me from taking a whole load more photos….If you have the stomach for it, read on-otherwise I’ll hopefully see you again in my next post-The Road to Mandalay!

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Enter mystical Myanmar – Yangon

Having had a few days in the modern wonder that is Singapore, we landed in Yangon looking forward to exploring the mysteries of Myanmar.
Yangon is the former capital of Myanmar, and remains the largest city with a population in excess of 5 million. It was originally a small fishing village called Dagon centred about the Shwedagon Pagoda. In 1755 King Alaungpaya conquered the village and renamed it Yangon, since then settlements formed around the central Dagon area eventually forming the sprawling city of today. When you visit the city now, you will notice that it is now made up of a multitude of ‘townships’, a reminder of how the city developed from it’s humble beginnings. The British seized Yangon in the Anglo-Burmese War of 1852, and subsequently transformed Yangon into the commercial and political hub of British Burma-lining the streets with colonial buildings and British influence.

We arrived at our hotel in downtown and hit the streets to do some exploring-the par for course upon arriving anywhere on our travels. Stepping out onto the street and we were met with the most intense heat that I think I have ever experienced….The street temperature was 46 degrees! We ducked, dodged and weaved our way into every spot of shade possible as we ventured towards our first tourist spot-the 2,500 year old Sule Pagoda in central downtown. Not quite what you would expect from an ancient pagoda, nowadays it serves a dual purpose, the other being that of a rather busy roundabout. Supposedly enshrined in the temple is a hair of Buddha, given to two Burmese merchant brothers by Buddha himself. More recently, during the 1988 and 2007 protests, the Sule Pagoda was a meeting point for anti-government and pro-democracy protesters.
We negotiated the Yangon traffic to enter the temple and were soon hotfooting it around the pagoda-literally! At all religious sites in Myanmar you have to remove your shoes and socks and, bearing in mind the temperatures, it felt like we were walking on the surface of the sun! This feeling was amplified by the suns’ reflection off the quite wonderful golden stupa located in the middle of the temple-and soon we found ourselves a shady spot to simply sit, and absorb.

The Sule Roudabout....I mean the Sule Pagoda!

The Sule Roudabout….I mean the Sule Pagoda!

Ready to brave the heat once again, we set off to explore the colonial architecture of the Yangon streets. It was really tough, there’s no comfort of an air conditioned MRT like you have in Bangkok & Singapore-you just have to tackle the heat and traffic, and take it slow! Soon you realise that Yangon has a three dimensional street structure. I know that sounds like a strange statement, but it’s the best way that I can describe the fact that to find offices, shops and businesses you look all around on street level, as well as up. For example, our hotel was on the seventh and eighth floor of a building, with just a little doorway and a lift giving you access to all businesses in the building.

The colonial streets of Yangon

The colonial streets of Yangon

Not only street level, you can see the many businesses in the upper levels on the left

Not only street level, you can see the many businesses in the upper levels on the left

Walking around the streets we encountered street food like no other. Sure in Bangkok and Siem Reap you have street stalls selling bugs, but in Yangon the street vendors offer something quite different, but equally as difficult for us to comprehend. The best way that I can describe it is to call it ‘entrails fondue’, basically you have a street vendor with a large vat of hot oil, and a selection of unidentifiable ‘animal parts’. Locals just take a seat around vat, pick a nugget of choice, and then cook it themselves in the oil. I have to say that the thought of actually trying this cuisine didn’t even come close to crossing my mind. There have been a number of formally questionable culinary experiences over the last seven months, but this proved to be a step too far!
We did end up discovering some local fare, albeit not as risky as the ‘fondue’-and it was done so quite by accident. Settling down for the first bottle of Myanmar Beer and a street vendor comes around serving what I thought were salted peanuts, I managed to order some of what he was selling and we were given a container of sweetcorn and beans, accompanied with an unidentified paste. Not what we were expecting, but it was absolutely delicious, we still don’t know what the paste was (we were afraid to ask!) and haven’t seen this titbit anywhere else-so if you’re in Yangon, keep your eyes pealed. Frequenting the street café located under our hotel, we sampled eating as the locals do-a few beers and a number of little side dishes. Meat balls with chilli sauce, vegetable noodles, spiced sausage and more sweetcorn and beans-spot on!

Having explored the streets and Sule Pagoda, next on the list for Yangon were the central market and the famous Shewadagon Pagoda. The market is a welcome respite from the heat of the day, and so we headed there before heading up to the temple for sunset. Yangon market has to rate as once of the best ‘gift’ markets that we have been to, a cavern of jade, jewels, clothing and art. Interesting, bustling and colourful-and, of course, out of the heat of the midday sun.

The main hall of the market, the high roof helping keep the heat of the day away

The main hall of the market, the high roof helping keep the heat of the day away

Take your pick of interesting alleyways with a myriad of trinkets

Take your pick of interesting alleyways with a myriad of trinkets

With no tuk-tuks or identifiable form of alternative transport, we grabbed a taxi and headed for Shwedagon Pagoda. Here we encountered our first ‘tourist tax’ when hit with an unexpected $8 fee for entry to the pagoda-at the time it seemed quite expensive, as Myanmar is in comparison to the rest of South East Asia, but it would prove to be worth every penny.

The imposing sight of the golden Shwedagon Pagoda

The imposing sight of the golden Shwedagon Pagoda

Golden Buddha under the Bodhi Tree, signifying the moment he reached enlightenment

Golden Buddha under the Bodhi Tree, signifying the moment he reached enlightenment

It's a pagoda!!!

It’s a pagoda!!!

Shwedagon Pagoda was constructed more than 2,600 years ago, making it the oldest Buddhist stupa in the world. It is situated on Singuttara Hill and towers above you at a height of 99 metres, overlooking the sprawling Yangon city below. It is the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar, as it is believed to contain relics of the four previous Buddhas. The staff of Kakusandha, the water filter of Koṇāgamana, a piece of the robe of Kassapa, and eight strands of hair from the head of Gautama.
It was here that we would encounter something that we found quite funny, all of a sudden we found ourselves being the subjects of surreptitious photography. Locals would be walking by and engineering opportunities to get us in their photos, ‘check out the tourists’! It’s easy to forget that until 2012, Myanmar has been a difficult place for people to travel, and so tourists are still something of a novelty. Being a subject of so much intrigue in a heaving and populous city just seemed quite odd.
Our inflating ego’s aside, Shwedagon Pagoda proved to be absolutely breath-taking. A large complex of temples and pagodas centred on Shwedagon itself, as the sun set, the darkness drew in and the candles were lit-we both had to take a moment to come to terms with our surroundings-it really was quite overwhelming.

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Having been blown away by Shwedagon, our time in Yangon had drawn to the end and we readied ourselves for a night train to possibly the most famous of Myanmar images-the pagodas of Bagan. Our research had informed us that the train journey was a little bumpy, but well worth it for the views. Little did we know how ‘bumpy’ it would be….

Hoi An….ya like it!

If you asked a group of travellers what they miss most when they’re on the road, I would guess that the majority would say, unsurprisingly, friends and family. Certainly that is true for us, as is evident as we clamour for bandwidth to Skype home whenever we get a good internet connection! So it came as quite the welcome surprise when I logged on to Facebook to get a message from a couple of our friends from Leicester asking for tips on things to do in Laos-as they were currently in Vietnam and heading over there in a few weeks. I had no idea that they were in Asia at all, and as supreme luck would have it, we were on a collision course. With some excitement we left Hue and made our way to Hoi An for a catch up with some familiar faces!
As is the common theme with my posts, I have to allude to the journey once again. What makes this reference different is that there is no hint of a mention of discomfort, terror or confusion! For the first time in over a month, we were going to be basking in the wonder of train travel once again, and boy what a luxury it was. The Reunification express stretches all the way from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh, right down the coast of Vietnam. The views are spectacular, and the trains are clean, spacious and generally lovely. We were like excited children, overjoyed at the prospect of leaving white knuckle bus journeys in the dim and distant past…..Well, until we return to Cambodia at least!
From Hue to Da Nang took just 5 hours, and then a 30 minute taxi to Hoi An-simple. We were fortunate enough to bump into a South African couple who were heading in the same direction, and so managed to get a good deal on the fare, and as it turns out-make some friends that we would bump into at various points throughout our time in Vietnam.

Ahhh, the luxury of Vietnamese trains!!

Ahhh, the luxury of Vietnamese trains!!

Appropriately Hoi An actually translates as ‘peaceful meeting place’, and the ancient town is yet another UNESCO World heritage site to add to the ever growing list on our travels. Checked in and freshened up, we headed into the centre to explore what was promised to be a well-preserved example of a South-East Asian trading port dating from the 15th century. It used to be the largest harbour in south East Asia, and as such retains architectural influences from many of the Japanese, Dutch and Chinese spice and ceramic merchants that once resided there. As you can imagine, this used to be an area of incredible wealth and upon discovering the old town, it still holds the grandeur and charm of an extremely affluent area…Although now you’re more likely to find tailors and restaurants than spice and ceramic merchants. The town and harbour have remained pretty much unchanged for the last 200 years, and they certainly don’t disappoint. It is absolutely picture perfect, along with a number of temples, communal houses, merchant houses and other historical points of interest to explore. Even more spectacular is the way that the town comes alive in the evenings, with lanterns lighting the streets and people sending candles to sail on boats in the harbour…It’s a very enchanting place!

The harbour in all its glory!

The harbour in all its glory!

The 'typical' style architecture found throughout the town

The ‘typical’ style architecture found throughout the town

The old Chinese Bridge which actually contains a temple half way across

The old Chinese Bridge which actually contains a temple half way across

Vietnamese street vendors here love to have a photo...But then you have to buy something!!

Vietnamese street vendors here love to have a photo…But then you have to buy something!!

Vietnamese woman in traditional dress walking down one of the main streets

Vietnamese woman in traditional dress walking down one of the main streets

And once the darkness hits, the lanterns light the way!

And once the darkness hits, the lanterns light the way!

Suitably dazzled by the surroundings, we then had the fortune to just bump into Josh and Aimee on our first evenings’ exploration, before we got the chance to actually plan meeting up-and so headed out for drinks and dinner and a good old chinwag. One of the things that is great about meeting up with people you already know is that you don’t engage in the standard ‘opening patter’ that is inevitable when meeting fellow travellers for the first time. Not that it isn’t great to share stories with those that you meet, just that sometimes it’s nice not to have to give people your back story! By the end of the evening, and a fair few ‘Fresh Beers’ (local beer that is brewed that day)-we decided to book ourselves onto a cooking class, and also a lantern making class….Hoi An was most certainly rubbing off on us quick time!

The following day was an absolute blast, it started in the right manner when we bumped into a guy in some form of ceremonial dress in the street-Josh and Aimee being experts in fancy dress barely struggled to contain themselves! Pictures snapped and it was onto the lantern making which turned out to much more fun than I expected, however now we find ourselves carrying round a couple of these lanterns on our travels-real useful I tell thee!
Moving on to something a little more practical, at the cookery course we learned to cook spring rolls, a crispy noodle dish, banana leaf curry and a hotpot-all of which were fantastic, sure to be attempted once we grace our homelands again. Rather more useful than lanterns to impress friends and family back home…”Oh this dish, I learned this when I was travelling in South East Asia don’t you know” (read with appropriate smug voice)

It was fantastic to get to explore the town with Josh and Aimee, a real giggle. Props to Josh for introducing us to the most incredible Vietnamese sandwich (Banh Mi) shop. It may sound like an odd thing to rave about, when you think about Vietnamese food, baguettes aren’t necessarily the first thing that pop into your head, however Banh Mi are very much a Vietnamese speciality (albeit initially influenced by the French). At it’s most basic they are baguettes filled with pate, pork, pickles, chilli, salad and other unknown entities to the uneducated Westerner (by that I refer to myself)…Delicious!

To our delight, just before the lantern making class. this guy popped out of the door opposite...yeah-really! Very 'Big Trouble in Little China'

To our delight, just before the lantern making class. this guy popped out of the door opposite…yeah-really! Very ‘Big Trouble in Little China’

With dexterity, poise and enviable attention to detail, josh led the way

With dexterity, poise and enviable attention to detail, josh led the way

It all became quite serious, and a remarkable amount of pride was being poured into our work!

It all became quite serious, and a remarkable amount of pride was being poured into our work!

Four very satisfied lantern makers

Four very satisfied lantern makers

Watch your fingers son!

Watch your fingers son!

First happy customers!

First happy customers!

Vietnamese cooking is quite brilliant for its use of just one pot and stove!!

Vietnamese cooking is quite brilliant for its use of just one pot and stove!!

Dish 1 of the cooking class, our new found staple of spring rolls

Dish 1 of the cooking class, our new found staple of spring rolls

Curry in a banana leaf-oh yeah!

Curry in a banana leaf-oh yeah!

The daily fresh beer...And yes, that is a rather flimsy plastic bottle!

The daily fresh beer…And yes, that is a rather flimsy plastic bottle!

The next morning Josh and Aimee set off to continue their travels, we were left with a day to do a little more exploring of the old town, and try to avoid spending too much money in the shops here. If it weren’t for the fact that we have a long time travelling ahead of us, for sure we would have bought an extra backpack and had a whole load of clothes and shoes made-as well as kitting ourselves out in some ‘North Face’ gear! As it is, that just isn’t practical and so our bank account survived without any significant damage. We did buy a ‘North Face’ bag (after much research on the internet), not for extra space-but to replace our other battered backpack. Top tip here is to note that you are not buying genuine ‘North Face’ products, but you are buying a cheap, high quality imitation. The standard does vary, so just try to forget about the brand, shop around, and find something that will work for you.

These are what the streets look like OUTSIDE of the Ancient Town!

These are what the streets look like OUTSIDE of the Ancient Town!

One of the many international 'Assembly halls'

One of the many international ‘Assembly halls’

Into the depths of Hoi An market

Into the depths of Hoi An market

Courtyard of one of the old communal homes that are dotted around the town

Courtyard of one of the old communal homes that are dotted around the town

Ornate decoration in Tan Ky House, an old Chinese merchant's house

Ornate decoration in Tan Ky House, an old Chinese merchant’s house

The architecture of the house is a fusion of Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese influences

The architecture of the house is a fusion of Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese influences

Where the streets have no name!

Where the streets have no name!

Don’t come here expecting to have the place to yourself though, it is a fairy tale picture perfect town and as such it is extremely popular with tourists. It definitely isn’t a hidden gem, but it’s absolutely worth the effort.

First stop proper, Siem Reap-Cambodia

After a bit of three day blur in Bangkok, our journey began at 4.55am (!!) on Tuesday 24th October. That’s right, we had to get up and out of our apartment to catch the train from Bangkok Central to Aranyaprathet, then to negotiate the reported touts and scams at the border town of Poipet, before heading to our current location Siam Reap-the city that now serves the ancient city of Angkor.

To be honest, I was quite apprehensive about our first foray into overland travel and crossing borders, especially when you consider that a lot of what I have read in preparation seems to focus on what can go wrong, rather than how you can just get it right. Perhaps things have changed, but for sure the journey proved to be much easier than I expected. First up was the 255km, 5 hour, third class only train-for just 48 baht (just under £1). Ok it took 6 hours, and my arse was a little numb at the end of it-but I’ve had much less pleasant experiences on British Rail and been charged a kings ransom for the privilege!

Why not take the opportunity to catch up on some sleep-we have 6 hours!!

Why not take the opportunity to catch up on some sleep-we have 6 hours!!

Quite easy to pass the time when this is outside your window

Quite easy to pass the time when this is outside your window

Our trusty steed!!

Our trusty steed!!

So, having managed the early start and the lengthy train journey-the part of the day that I was most concerned about-crossing the border!! The border town that we were crossing at is called Poipet, and from all reports  that I have read I was expecting to enter a lawless wild west of sorts. We hadn’t pre arranged our Visa’s and so it looked like we were destined to be scammed, pick pocketed, overcharged and spat out into Cambodia. Now admittedly the border is a very strange place, but I fancy that was somewhat magnified by my prior research and associated nerves. Truth is that it was very straight forward-you get stamped out of Thailand and enter a kind of wilderness where there are, quite bizarrely, three or four massive casinos!! Seriously, like a mini Vegas-apparently this is the place to come if you’re Thai and you want to gamble in a legal capacity! Then you go and get your Cambodian Visa in the official office, get yourself stamped through and hey presto-we made it! Now just for a three and a half shared taxi ride to the wonders of Siem Reap.


Finally, we’ve arrived-our adventure Tuk Tuk awaits

Fed, showered and rested, our Tuk Tuk arrives to take us on our first day of exploring. First stop-the floating villages of Tonle Sap and something that, if I’m to be honest, is a little bit of a weird experience. 6000, mostly Vietnamese and Khymer, people live in floating fishing villages on Cambodia’s largest lake. These people are beyond poor, and rely on catching catfish from the lake to make some income for their existence. Even more shocking than the conditions that they live in, is the fact that in recent years a typhoon absolutely devastated the community, and claimed the lives of many who lived and fished on the lake-evident in the presence of a sizable floating orphanage. It becomes apparent that the tours that you are taken on are a means to raise monies and donations for the village-not directly from the tickets, that goes to the government-moreso with supplementary expenditure with boat rides through the mangrove forests, and the option to purchase food for the orphanage-it’s nigh on impossible not to do something to help.

The typical dwellings of the people of the floating villages of Tonle Sap Lake

The typical dwellings of the people of the floating villages of Tonle Sap Lake

Still, even in adversity you can find beauty

Still, even in adversity you can find beauty

Onto the temples! An hours’ Tuk Tuk from the floating village and we are treated to our first encounter with Angkor Wat-the worlds largest religious monument-built in the 12th century, it’s absolutely breath-taking. It truly is epic in proportions, and really does need to be seen to be believed! As you arrive you are greeted with what has to be the worlds most impressive gatehouse on the shores of the moat that surrounds the temple, and then you have a long walkway into the depths of this gargantuan masterpiece. Just as impressive is the heat, as I struggle not to melt into the ground around me! Angkor Wat is just the start, we truly are at the beginning of exploring a lost civilisation, and formally the worlds greatest city…Some feel that the next temple you encounter, Angkor Thom, is actually more impressive because of the detail, and following that we moved onto the temple made famous by Lara Croft in Tomb Raider. I think that most people, with a view of Cambodian temples in their mind, would think of the famous image of a temple being consumed by the jungle-well that image is of Ta Prohm.

So that just covers off day one, come day two and we were a little more adventurous and decided to negotiate the perils of the unfathomable driving etiquette on mountain bikes-tackling the Angkor Grand Circuit with it’s many amazing temples and monuments. All in all we covered over 50km on our bikes on day two, exploring every temple that we could find-and rather than continue this lengthy post with more of my words-I’m just going to share some of the photos from a selection of the temples that we have visited, and I’ll be sure to keep on updating my Flickr account with more and more as we go along-I have hundreds!!! Food and coconut smoothies are calling, and I’m pretty sure if you’ve read this far you’re probably in need of a break as well!

The entrance to the gatehouse of Angkor Wat

The entrance to the gatehouse of Angkor Wat

The mighty Angkor Wat!

The mighty Angkor Wat!

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Originally a Hindu temple, Angkor Wat is now Buddhist  and is home to many shrines

Originally a Hindu temple, Angkor Wat is now Buddhist and is home to many shrines

View from the top of Angor Wat

View from the top of Angor Wat

First view of Angkor Thom

First view of Angkor Thom

Just one example off some of the stunning carvings found throughout the temples

Just one example off some of the stunning carvings found throughout the temples

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Angkor Thom in all its Glory!

Angkor Thom in all its Glory!

Tomb Raider Hicks!

Tomb Raider Hicks!

The jungle takes over-Ta Prohm

The jungle takes over-Ta Prohm