A Laos diary

Laos slow boatMonk in Luang PrabangIMG_0246_Snapseedmpkf1ksfff (1)Sunset on the MekongGirl in Kuang Si fallsKuang Si fallsIMG_0233_Snapseedgirl in Luang PrabangIMG_0318_SnapseedKuang Si fallsIMG_0253_SnapseedIMG_0218_SnapseedksfhIMG_0183_SnapseedIMG_0194_SnapseedIMG_0432IMG_0345_SnapseedIMG_0221_Snapseedlonfskuangd

We travelled to Laos from Chiang Rai on the slow boat. ‘Slow’ boat, in this case, is not figurative; the trip takes two days with a one night stopover in the tiny town of Pakbeng.

My expectation of the slow boat trip was of a romantic, languorous glide over the earthy waters of the Mekong river, reading the history of Indochina on cushioned seats and eating lunch with a floating view of timeless, wholesome villages. The reality very soon dawned in the queue to get on the boat (you have to buy the tickets beforehand of course), when I very quickly noticed the yawning discrepancy between the size of the boat and the colossal crowd of people waiting to embark. Suddenly everyone was Usain Bolt’s new-found competition, racing to the front to try to get a seat by the water. The runners-up managed a small, wooden bench facing the other passengers, and finally came the overwhelmed and the oblivious, the latter foolishly thinking they could linger over their breakfasts before the long two-day trip to Laos; they got the floor.

Fortunately, one of the best qualities about people – especially backpackers – is that most have a way of making the best of a sweaty, cramp-inducing situation. In the end there was a lot of laughter, a lot of drinking of over-priced, deliciously cold Beerlao, and some engine-deck smoking of the local produce. One French couple even managed to retain the romance like an oasis amongst the dunes of rowdy backpackers, with the boyfriend reading French novels to his serene and closed-eyed girlfriend for almost the entirety of the trip.

The views on the other hand were exactly as I imagined. Tangled jungles gave away suddenly to a village of thatched huts balanced precariously on wooden stilts and occasionally to the tip of an elaborate temple. On one side of the river women washed and children played on the banks, whilst on the other herds of wild water buffalo sleepily grazed while fishermen diligently untangled their nets.

We arrived in Pakbeng just as it was starting to get dark. It was in this tiny half-way town that we had our most memorable Laotian culinary experiences: Lao Lao and Laap salad. The former was voluntary torture, the latter a revelation. Lao Lao is a 45% Laotian ‘whiskey’, except the undertones are more moonshine antifreeze than smoky peat. If you can brave the taste, you can get yourself a bottle for one dollar and have yourself a pretty good time (no guarantees about the following day). Laap salad on the other hand is delicious – you can make it with almost any type of meat but we thought we’d try the local buffalo. Laap is made by simply browning minced meat in fish sauce and then tossing in loads of fresh herbs; usually mint, coriander, lemongrass, lime juice and spring onions.

Luang Prabang, especially if you’ve just come from Thailand, is like Asia in slow-motion. Hidden high amongst the mountains of Northern Laos, it feels like a land that time forgot. Perhaps because of its status as a UNESCO heritage site, Luang Prabang has avoided the kind of rapid modernisation seen by its neighbours, and, to a a degree, other cities in Laos. The hotels are boutique, often repurposed colonial buildings, and the restaurants likewise. The result lends Laos an otherworldly kind of nostalgia. We spent most of our two days there languidly strolling down hot, dusty streets flanked by French colonial-era buildings, visiting whatever glitteringly gilded temple we happened to come across. The French influence is still keenly felt here – so that you might find yourself eating a freshly-made croissant at a Parisian style cafe whilst watching novice monks playing in the Nam Khan river, taking a well-earned break from their daily Theravada studies.

WHAT TO DO:

Kuang-Si falls:

We went to Kuang-Si falls with the benefit of knowing absolutely nothing about it. Less than an hour’s tuk-tuk drive from Luang Prabang are the most glorious serious of plunge pools and waterfalls I’ve ever seen. They’re not huge, but the texture of the layered levels and unearthly colours make them uniquely beautiful. Topaz-coloured water tumbles from the forest cliff of one single waterfall, feeding a series of smaller falls and swimmable pools below. When we saw the first of these, the lower pools, we were stunned at the beauty – we thought that this was the whole site. Walking further up you’ll come across more plunge pools until you finally get to the surreally stunning main waterfall. This is made up of three tiers – the main fall at the bottom, a middle tier where there is a secret pool which you’ll likely have all to yourself, and the top tier in the jungle where the water originates.

We took a look at the secret pool when we hiked past but since I wasn’t wearing the right shoes, we decided to give it a miss. If you’re keen on braving it past the warning signs then Nomadic Matt has a great guide to finding it here. Past the middle tier, it’s a steep and slippery jungle hike to the top, but well worth it for the views and lack of tourists. Here you can get intimidatingly close to the edge on a bamboo bridge and swing over the surprisingly still water that feeds the rest of the falls.

There are plenty of blogs that cover how to get to Kuang si in detail. We took the tuk-tuk from in front of the post office in Luang Prabang. All the options allow you to take in the scenic rural countryside, but this one is cheap (it should be about 50,000 kip or $6 dollars if sharing), safer than a scooter, and allows you to stay at the falls for as long as you please, unlike the shared minivans.

Entrance fee: 20,000 kip (roughly $2.50)

Opening hours: 8am – 5:30 pm

Kuang-Si bear sanctuary:

The sanctuary is dedicated specifically to rescued Asian black bears, who are illegally poached for their paws and bile. You can watch them swing from their hammocks or play on their tires. 1pm is feeding time, when meat is hidden around the enclosures so that the bears can ‘hunt’ for their food.

Consider giving a donation or buying some merchandise as the fund doesn’t receive any money from ticket sales at the park.

Visit Wat Xieng Thong:

With it’s gracefully sloping rooftop and elaborate gold gilding, it’s easy to see why Wat Xieng Thong is the city’s most visited temple. At the back of the temple is a colourful glass mosaic of the tree of life, a Buddhist symbol of the interconnectedness of nature.

Entrance fee: 20,000 Kip (roughly $2.50)

Opening hours: 8am – 5pm

Hike Mount Phousi:

Whether you choose to go at sunrise, sunset, or in the middle of the day, you’ll get amazing 360 views of Luang Prabang – its temples, rivers and across the surrounding countryside to the mountains in the distance. You can even admire the view from Wat Chom, the beautifully simple temple that sits on top of Mount Phousi.

Entrance fee: 20,000 Kip (roughly $2.50)

Opening hours: 5:30 am – 6pm.

Attend the alms-giving ceremony:

In Luang Prabang, the alms-giving ceremony, or ‘Tak Bat’, is a ritual that has taken place for over 600 years. At sunrise, locals will take their place on the sidewalk with their bowls of sticky rice or fresh fruit, and wait for the procession of monks to silently pass. Watching hundreds of monks silently glide through the beautiful streets of Luang Prabang at sunrise has unsurprisingly received attention from tourists, but as countless blogs have pointed out, the tradition is a serious one. If attending, it’s advised to keep a respectful distance, turn off the flash, and avoid making noise.

Visit the Luang Prabang night market:

The night market in Luang Prabang is lively, has amazing street food, and unlike some other markets across Asia, offers some beautifully made, high quality goods. There are bars and restaurants in the area and generally makes for a fun evening.

The market is in Sisavangvong Road, behind the National Tourism Office.

Opening hours: 5pm – 10pm every evening. (Technically it closes at 11pm but most stalls will have packed up by then)

Cross the bamboo bridge to the other side of the Nam Khan:

Made entirely out of bamboo, the bridge is such a simple structure that it’s taken down every year before the wet season and put back up for the dry season. Cross to explore the other side of town (or get to Dyen Sabai bar and restaurant on the other side) or to visit the paper and weaving villages.

There is a small fee of 5,000 kip ($0.60) to cross.

 

WHERE TO EAT/DRINK:

Utopia:

Famous with the backpackers, this bar is built on stilts directly over the Nam Khan river, and has cushioned mats and pillows for seats. Admire the river views or join in the daily yoga sessions. We came here one night after too much Lao Lao and went bowling with a group we’d met on the slow boat. For some reason it’s a tradition for everyone to go to the nearby bowling alley after closing time.

Bamboo:

This little restaurant was on the way to our hotel and was our favourite place to eat while we were there. Just off the centre, it’s one of the cheapest places we saw, and while the food is basic it’s also deliciously cooked. Try the seafood Pad Thai and chicken in lemongrass.

Khaiphaen:

Amazing food at a good price and is also for a good cause. The menu is full of creative twists on the local food. Try the grilled beef salad with Szechuan peppers and crispy frangipani flowers.

WHERE TO STAY:

I can’t find the name of the place we stayed at. We hadn’t pre-booked anywhere for our trip to Luang Prabang so we just wandered around until we found a local guy that said he could offer us a room for $10 a night. Obviously we took it. The room had a shared bathroom on a separate floor and the only furniture was a bed, but I loved it. Made entirely of wooden slats, the sun would stream through at all hours of the day and the view was of the Nam Khan river. Cold River guesthouse was directly opposite and made a lovely breakfast at a ridiculous price.

 

Ten ways to beat the crowds at Angkor Wat

Preah KhanBayon templeBayon TempleAngkor ThomAngkor Wat

GO IN THE OFF SEASON

In Cambodia, April to September is considered low/monsoon season and sees a huge drop in the number of tourists. Peak season is December to February. April and May are very hot and humid.

Just because it’s monsoon season doesn’t mean that it will rain every day, and when it does it’s usually heavy tropical rain, which can lend a different kind of romantic atmosphere to the temples. Visiting at this time means that the vegetation is at its lushest and greenest, which will look especially impressive at temples like Ta Prohm, Preah Khan, Beng Mealea and Koh Ker. Also, the lichens and mosses that cling to the temples come to life when damp, adding a characterful vibrancy to the stones. Of course if you’re in Cambodia not just to see the temples but also to hit the beaches at Koh Rong, it might not be the best time to go. Bear in mind also that it will be more humid in the wet season.

BUY YOUR TICKETS THE DAY BEFORE

This way you can be one of the first people in the complex while everyone else is in the long ticket queue. The office is open from 5 am to 5:30 pm and tickets can be valid for one, three or seven days.

ENTER ANGKOR WAT THROUGH THE EAST GATE

If you’re not particularly fussed about seeing the sunrise at Angkor Wat, or already have, then start the rest of your days by entering from the smaller east Gate instead of the main west gate. This side of the park sees markedly fewer tourists in the morning.

GET UP EARLY AND DO IT IN REVERSE

 

Getting up early won’t necessarily help you if you do the typical route, as everyone else has the same idea.

Where it will help is if you reverse the order of your route. The most heavily visited temples are, in this order, Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom (including Bayon), Ta Prohm, Ta Som and Banteay Srei. Most of the day tours visit these five temples only and this is where you’ll find the biggest crowds.

The logical order of visiting these areas is in the same order as above. You can outsmart the crowds by acting counter-intuitively and starting your tour from the bottom of the list.

You can combine other temples that are nearby when using this strategy. Ta Keo for example, is right by Ta Prohm and well worth a visit.

Another advantage of visiting the temples in reverse is that you get a build-up effect that ends with the most dramatic ones – Angkor Wat and Thom. This can help to avoid temple fatigue.

PICK YOUR TIMES

Even the most popular temples experience a lull in the crowds at certain times of the day.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat is a sea of tourists, especially at the weekends. However once sunrise is over, the crowds thin out as people head back to their hotels for breakfast. Some start to return at around 9am but dissipate again for lunch. By this time a lot of people are exploring other temples so you should find plenty of quiet areas to explore in peace, especially at the rear of the temple.

Conversely, going very early/at sunrise is a good rule for most of the other temples, as everyone is at Angkor Wat. The light at this time of day can be quite beautiful. If you’re intent on climbing up the central tower at Angkor Wat, it’s a good idea to get there early. Bear in mind that only 100 visitors are allowed each day, so make sure you’re in line while everyone is watching the sunrise, before 7.30. A lot of people using this strategy say they had the whole central tower to themselves.

Going to the temples at sunset or just before closing also generally works, as all the crowds flock to Phnom Bakheng to see the sunrise from the top of the hill.

So the general rule is – Go early (except for Angkor Wat and Ankor Thom) or late in the afternoon/sunset (except for Phnom Bakheng). Prioritize the temples you want to see and plan to see them in the earliest part of the day (6 am – 8 am) or the latest part of the day (4.30 – sunset) while combining your route with some of the lesser visited places in the middle.

FYI Banteay Srei seems to be an exception to this rule, as some of the tour buses start here, and being small and popular due to it’s pink sandstone colour, it never really seems to experience any significant lull.

Another tricky temple is Ta Som. Although it doesn’t have a particular time of day where it’s significantly less busy, it’s only a brief stop for the tour buses. This means that even if you show up and it’s crowded you can wait a short while and the crowds will thin between buses.

VISIT THE MORE MINOR TEMPLES

Trust me. While Angkor Thom and Wat are undoubtedly the most dramatic of the temples, the others all have their own unique beauty.

Angkor Thom outer walls: Right at the heart of the park are the the Angkor Thom walls, which generally remain pretty quiet. You can enter from any of the gates and simply walk along the wall to the next gate. From here you’ll have beautiful views over the area and be able to visit the small and generally empty Prasat Chrung temples at each corner. The North-West Prasat, overgrown with lush vegetation, is particularly beautiful at sunset.

Baksei Chamkrong: Again, this temple is just opposite the busy South gate, and yet they’re a world apart. Just opposite the major temples of Baphuon and the Terrace of the Elephants is perfectly preserved Baksei Chamkrong, which though quite important archeologically, is inexplicably devoid of people. From here you can walk along a forest path to blissfully quiet Prasat Bei.

Banteay Kdei: Another romantic temple of tumbling and overgrown courtyards and halls covered in pale green lichen. The rear of the site boasts one of the most stunning strangler figs in the park. You shouldn’t have trouble with any crowds here.

Preah Khan: If you want the romantic atmosphere and beautiful protruding tree roots of Ta Prohm but with fewer visitors, visit Preah Khan. To the north-east of Angkor Thom, Preah Khan is much larger than Ta Prohm and wasn’t used as a set in the Tomb Raider movie, so while it’s just as atmospheric, it suffers less from overcrowding.

Ta Keo: Just behind Ta Phrom is the unfinished but incredibly well preserved Ta Keo temple.

Ta nei: Right by Ta Keo temple is Ta Nei. If you’re absolutely adamant on avoiding the crowds then this is the temple for you – its location off a muddy dirt road ensures that no buses stop here at all. Enjoy the peace and the sound of cicadas.

GO LONG

Consider visiting some of the more remote temples in Cambodia.

Banteay Samre: Further out than the other temples but still within the Angkor complex is Banteay Samre temple. Restored in 1944, it’s in remarkably good condition. The sandsone is of a beautiful pinkish colour that is especially impressive at sunset.

Bakong: Bakong was one of the first mountain temples to be built at Angkor (9th century), and you can immediately see the difference in its unique architecture. One single tower protrudes from a pyramid of five tiered enclosures. It has not one but two moats.

Phnom Krom: Phnom Krom and Bok are the sister mountaintop temples to overcrowded Phnom Bakheng. Phnom Krom is the most southerly of the temples and has the unique feature of having sweeping views overlooking Tonle Sap lake. If you’re looking for tranquillity it’s a good alternative to Phnom Bakheng for sunset. It has the added bonus of being able to drive to the top.

Phnom Bok: Phnom Bok’s position on top of a mountain that requires a 20 minute climb ensures that it’s always pretty much deserted. While the temple is worth seeing, the real highlight is the view over Phnom Kulen to the north and the plains of Angkor to the south. If you want to watch the sunset from here rather than Bakheng to avoid the crowds, bear in mind that unless you leave straight after the sunset then you’ll be descending in the dark.

Koh Ker: An entirely separate temple complex in the jungles of Northern Cambodia, Koh Ker was the majestic capital of the Khmer empire before it was relocated to Angkor Wat and is absolutely worth visiting. Prasat Thom temple in particular is stunning. Much more reminiscent of a Mayan pyramid than a typical Angkorian temple, each of the seven tiers is now covered in dense, green vegetation, having long been claimed by the jungle. You can now climb to the top via a wooden staircase on the northwestern side. You’ll be rewarded with incredible sweeping views of the Dangrek Mountains bordering Thailand all the way down to Phnom Kulen.

You can combine Koh Ker with Beng Melea as it is relatively nearby (just less than an hour’s drive), but bear in mind that Beng Melea is on the tour bus route and is always quite crowded until about 4.30.

Banteay Chmar: Banteay Chmar is another huge temple complex to the northwest of Siem Reap. A three hour drive away, this is one of the most remote of all the accessible sites, and you will likely have this place almost entirely to yourselves. Left to the the elements and unfortunately suffering the effects of looting, these temples are also beautifully intertwined with jungle.

Preah Vihear: At the very border with Thailand, Preah Vihear is also very remote. Rather than foreigners, you’re more likely to encounter local tourists that visit Preah Vihear due to its political and cultural significance. This scenic mountaintop temple was recently won back by Cambodia after many years of fighting with Thailand. Before then visitors had to sign in at a nearby army base. Perched on a mountain 550m above ground, Preah Vihear has possibly the most dramatic positioning of any of the Angkorian temples, with 360 degree views over the Thai and Cambodian countrysides.

Kbal Spean: Kbal Spean is possibly the most unique of the sites mentioned so far. While there’s also a beautiful pink sandstone temple at the site, the highlight is its position on the river, and the intricate carvings etched into the riverbed almost 1000 years ago. The Hindu carvings are intended to bless the water as it splashes over them, and it’s incredible to think that they are still so clear and hardly eroded by the river at all. One of the largest carvings is directly under a clear, still pool, unbelievably still very visible after so many centuries of being underwater. You can cool off after the climb under a beautifully shady waterfall nearby.

Perhaps because of its uniqueness this site can occasionally get quite busy.  However it’s also a 2 km uphill jungle climb, so you may also find you have it entirely to yourself.

DON’T GO DURING CHINESE, VIETNAMESE OR THAI HOLIDAYS

Many of the bus tours that visit Angkor are weekend getaways for the growing Thai and Vietnamese middle classes. Usually, these trips leave Friday afternoon from Bangkok or Saigon/Hanoi and travel overnight to reach Angkor by Saturday. This means that the weekends see exponentially more crowds. If you can, try to avoid the major sites at the weekends or use that time to visit some of the more remote temples.

Similarly, Chinese holidays can see markedly bigger crowds. The main Chinese holidays are Chinese New year; which in 2018 is from February 16 – 21 (People normally take about 16 days off), Labour day; April 30th and May 1st and National day; October 1 – 5.

 

SWITCH IT UP – GO TO PHNOM BAKHENG AT SUNRISE AND ANGKOR WAT AT SUNSET

Though it’s famous for it’s sunrise, Angkor Wat is actually set in a westerly facing direction, so the best time to visit according to a lot of people is at sunset, when the burnt orange light streams moodily through the elaborate window columns and reflects off the lotus-covered lake.

With sweeping views of the whole area Phnom Bakheng is mistily beautiful at sunrise, and has none of the crowds you’ll find at sunset. Bring a torch for the short hike.

This Angkor Sunset Finder has suggestions of alternative places to enjoy the sunset.

CONSIDER GETTING A KNOWLEDGEABLE GUIDE

If you have the budget, consider getting yourself a tour guide that knows the area like the back of their hand. They’ll know which temples are busy at which time. Mr. Tong Hann is one veteran tour guide that’s often highly recommended.

Again, if money is no issue, Anantara has a Discovery Tour Package that includes an English speaking guide and organises a private breakfast, high tea or ‘Dining by Design’ at the lesser-visited Banteay Thom temple.

 

 

 

 

A guide to the temples at angkor wat

girl at Angkor WatTuk tuk in front of templePreah KhanAngkor Wat windowgirl at Angkor WatTa Prohmmonk at Bayon templeAngkor WatAngkor Wat windowsawg3girl at angkor watmonkey at angkor watBayon TempleTa Prohm TempleIMG_9770_Snapseedaw4Angkor Wat bas-reliefsAngkor Wat central towergirl at ta prohmAngkor Wat sunriseAngkor Wat sunrise

Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom

Angkor Wat is not only the largest religious complex in the world, but also one of the largest archeological sites in existence. The main temple is so sprawling that notwithstanding the crowds, you’ll often find yourself wandering alone down a long, empty corridor, or admiring the intricate carvings in a low-lit, echoing corner. The perfect symmetry of the structures creates a play of light and shadows that is mathematically perfect, purposefully designed to evoke a mystical, awe-inspiring atmosphere. Each architectural element is studied; the bas-reliefs of the temple were designed to be viewed in an anticlockwise direction, a practice that has precedents in ancient Hindu funerary rites. This, along with Angkor Wat’s westerly facing direction (most of the other temples face East), led many scholars to believe that Angkor Wat must have existed primarily as a tomb, since the western direction is a traditional symbol of death. Accordingly, the best time to admire Angkor Wat is at sunset, when the burnt orange light streams moodily through the elaborate window columns and reflects off the lotus-covered lake.

The main monument was originally built in the 12th century by the Khmer Empire as a dedication to the Hindu God Vishnu. The layout is intended as an earthly representation of Mt Meru – the five-peaked sacred mountain of Hindu and Buddhist cosmic mythology. The central, lotus-shaped tower is Mt Meru, with its surrounding smaller peaks, bounded in turn by continents (the lower courtyards) and the oceans (the moat). When you wander through the temple to the main tower, you’re essentially travelling back to the first age of the creation of the universe.

Angkor was once home to approximately 750,000 people, making it the largest urban complex of the pre-modern world. But by the time the Portuguese came across the site in the 1500’s, it was essentially deserted. Why this is is still uncertain. Angkor remains a magnificent enigma shrouded in mystery. Just in 2015 new underground towers were discovered along with a huge, mysterious underground spiral. Massive cities between 900 and 1,400 years old have been found beneath the tropical forest floor, some of which rival the size of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. Every year it seems, Angkor Wat throws up more cryptic questions than it answers.

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm is a tropical fairytale. Claimed long ago by the jungle, the sprawling, sinewed roots of the aptly-named strangler fig continue to slowly choke the temple walls. It’s one of the few temples to have been left largely as it was when it was found, and it’s easy to imagine yourself as an explorer (or tomb raider) discovering it for the first time. While Angkor Wat is awe-inspiring in it’s symmetrical perfection, Ta Prohm is a dappled, crumbling daydream. Dislodged, delicately carved rocks pour into forgotten courtyards, blocking off obscure corridors and diverting visitors into an unintentional labyrinth. The dappled light filters through the leaves of the silk-cotton trees onto the ancient, lichen-covered rocks, cloaking the entire temple in a surreal, greenish shadow.

Visit first thing in the morning when everyone is watching the sunrise at Angkor Wat. Since this is one of the smaller temples, it gets crowded much faster. I may be biased because it’s my favourite but as the most romantic temple I think benefits most from being viewed when it’s quiet.

Preah Khan

If you want the romantic atmosphere and beautiful protruding tree roots of Ta Prohm but with fewer visitors, visit Preah Khan. To the north-east of Angkor Thom, Preah Khan is much larger than Ta Prohm and wasn’t used as a set in the Tomb Raider movie, so it suffers less from overcrowding.

Bayon

Just north of Angkor Wat is the Angkor Thom temple complex, with Bayon at it’s exact centre. The Buddhist temple is built over three levels and originally boasted 54 towers (now 49) carved with the 13-foot faces of Lokiteshvara – the Bodhissattva of compassion. The columns are carved on all four sides and are staggered on different levels, so that the faces, all 216 of them, loom down on you from all angles. More than imposing, the serene smiles and closed eyes of Lokiteshvara feel comforting, and lend the whole temple a uniquely peaceful, and slightly mysterious, atmosphere.

Bayon looks best just after sunrise or at sunset.

Baphuon

Also in Angkor Thom is the Hindu temple Baphuon, dedicated to Shiva. Built over three tiers that gradually narrow towards the top, it looks the most like a traditional pyramid, if a very intricate one. Climb to the top for wonderful views of the forest that surround it. It’s somewhat camouflaged so be sure not to miss the enormous reclining Buddha painstakingly pieced back together by archeologists.

Baphuon is quite large and not as crowded as some of the other temples, so any time of day is good to visit.

Banteay Srei

Distinctive for it’s unique pink-hued sandstone, Beanteay Srei, once again dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva, is most noteworthy for the amazing condition of its extroardinarily intricate carvings and bas-reliefs.

For a much more in-depth guide to all the more minor and remote temples in Angkor Wat and around Cambodia, check out my post Ten Ways To Beat The Crowds At Angkor Wat.

 

Chiang Mai elephant sanctuary

Aside from the obligatory temple-viewing, our main reason for stopping in Chiang Mai was to tick off one of the things at the very top of my bucket list – visiting an elephant sanctuary. We spent ages doing our research on the most ethical ones, making sure there was no riding or tying up, and we eventually went with Lanna Kingdom sanctuary.   We were so glad we did as it was amazing – the elephants seemed so happy. As you can see from the video it’s not hard to see why – they’re fed, bathed and cuddled all day! The best thing about the Lanna sanctuary was that the camp mahouts seemed to genuinely love their elephants.

Watch the video and meet baby Lanna, King Keaw and Ojai! If you want to read more about the elephants at Lanna check out my last blog post A diary of Northern Thailand.

A diary of Northern Thailand

Thailand longtail boatGirl with elephantThai foodwhite templeBangkok buildingThai jazz musicianChiang Rai barJosh on RickshawDim SumKhao Sok CaveKhao Sok floating hutsWat Pho TempleGirl kayaking in ThailandGirl with coconut on longtailKhao Sok LakeKhao Sok lakeThai foodgirl on bike in thailandthai40man eating noodles in thailandgirl with baby elephantWat Phogirl with elephantChiang Mai temple

Khao Sok National Park

The intention was originally to stay in Ao Nang for a few days to explore Railey beach and the nearby islands, but when we saw the teeming crowds and bloated souvenir shops and tourist traps, we wasted no time and high-tailed it out of there. As a result our trip to nearby national park Khao Sok was totally impromptu, and, as it so often happens, ended up being one of the highlights of our Thailand trip. The parks’ main attraction is the Cheow Lan Lake, which features more of the beautiful limestone karsts synonymous with Thailand. The lake itself is actually man-made, having been filled up slowly over three years to create the Ratchaprapha dam. The fact that it’s artificial gives the lake a surreal feel; the water is unbelievably still when gliding through on a long-tail, and the absence of erosion on the rocks from lack of time and waves gives the sense that the rocks are simply the tips of a jungly iceberg leading to some hidden underwater rainforest – which essentially they are!

We took one of the 2 day, one night Khao Sok tours that we booked at our hotel – Morning Mist. It began with a longtail trip through the karsts and tips of ancient rainforest that create islands on the surface of the deep, emerald water. Some of the limestone cliffs and their vertical jungles are so massive that they have their own weather patterns with low, misty clouds that cling to the top. Our first pit-stop was on one of these islands, where we took a short hike through scenic forest to meet our traditional bamboo raft for the trip to Coral cave. I’m not normally one for caves, preferring to be outside than in a dingy, insect-ridden rocky dungeon. But this was nothing like that. The stalactites and dripstones were incredible in their weird and beautiful detailing and the 10,000 year-old rock formations glittered brightly under the torchlights.

Our next stop was lunch at the floating restaurant. I’ve no idea how they do it in such a remote place miles away from anything, but the food was some of the best we had in Thailand. A whole fried fish and vegetable Thai green curry were two of about ten courses served. After lunch we took out a kayak and explored the nearby karsts and islands, some of which are so big they have their own native monkey populations. We swam about in the lake and after another amazing meal headed back with some beers to the balcony of our little floating bungalow. Spending the night under the stars on the lapping water and waking up to the view of the misty cliffs on the lake was indescribable.

Bangkok

Our journey from Khao Sok to Bangkok involved a rickshaw ride to a bus stop, a three-hour, hair-raising bus journey to Surat Thani with no seats, and then an overnight train into the capital. Being used to UK trains with inevitable delays, narrow seats, and non-existent storage, I was somewhat dreading the 12-hour journey, but it ended up being the best train I’ve ever been on. The carriages are immaculately clean and air-conditioned, and the comfy seats turn into bunk beds when it hits evening. The attendant comes by with clean sheets and pillows, adeptly throws the seats up and after about 30 seconds of dexterous jostling the seats promptly turn into beds. You even get a curtain for privacy.  Me and J shared a bunk and listened to music and watched the moon until we fell asleep.

After breakfast and coffee on the train we pulled into the manic, deafening chaos that is Bangkok. We stayed at Kama bed and breakfast, a hipster hotel with beautiful rooms and a roof terrace with views of the Bangkok skyline. It doubles as a hostel and has some of the fanciest looking dorms I’ve ever seen. It’s not the most central hotel in the city, but it has the definitive competitive advantage of being right by ‘the food street’ (Soi Charoen Krung 85). This is exactly what the name suggests – a kilometre long, heavenly smelling street lined on each side with a dizzying variety of street food stalls – you’ll find anything from kaphrao mu (spicy minced pork fried with basil), and pladuk phat phet (catfish fried with red curry paste), and my favourite, Sai oua, a pork sausage flavoured with a variety of herbs and spices, including lemongrass, galangal, and kaffir lime leaves. We went to nearby Tuang Dim Sum which specialises, unsurprisingly, in dumplings. The owner and former chef, Mr Yip, previously worked for a series of five star hotels in Bangkok including the Shangri-La, and it shows in the deliciousness of the food in this unassuming little eatery.

After a couple of drinks on the roof terrace, me and J had a miscellaneous dinner of shameful amounts of different street foods, bought some Chang beers at the 7eleven and hailed a rickshaw to see the view of Bangkok from the Hangover bar before heading to Patpong. If you’re having a night out in Bangkok, the ladyboy bars are a must. The girls/guys/?? are so beautiful and convincing that they have to be seen to be believed. In fact they’re so convincing that the entire night I was sure I was being duped. It’s a weird, confusing and really fun night out.

Chiang Mai

From Bangkok we took the 9-hour train to Chiang Mai, where I woke up on the morning of my birthday to the sun rising over the paddy fields. We watched the view while the train chugged along and we were brought breakfast and coffee we’d ordered the night before. Since it was my birthday we broke the budget a bit and stayed at the beautiful Thannatee hotel, with it’s all-over dark wood panelling and ridiculously over-sized jacuzzi.

Aside from the obligatory temple-viewing, our main reason for stopping in Chiang Mai was to tick off one of the things at the very top of my bucket list – visiting an elephant sanctuary. We went with the Lanna Kingdom elephant sanctuary and it was amazing. After being picked up at our hotel, we were driven over to meet rescue elephants King Keaw, Ojai and the naughtiest of the group, baby Lanna. They’re incredibly beautiful, strange-looking creatures and upon meeting them you get an immediate sense of how smart they are. There’s also something weirdly calming about being in their giant presence. Well, maybe not so much around baby Lanna, who loved to run around and cause mischief.

We spent the day feeding the elephants (a lot), making their daily treat and vitamin ball (made of crushed tamarind, banana and sugar cane), and later bathing them. The highlight had to be the latter, if only because you could see how much they loved it. When I say bathe I don’t mean petting them with a damp brush at arms-length, I mean getting into the slimy mud pool up to your shoulders and getting sprayed with trunk-loads of murky water. Ya Ya was enjoying rolling around in the cool mud so much that she refused to leave the pool, and the camp Mahouts let her keep playing until she got bored and scampered back to us. After our vegetarian Pad Thai lunch it was time to hug and say goodbye to our new friends. Be warned that if you do go to an elephant sanctuary in Thailand, leaving them at the end of the day will break your heart!

Our last pit-stop in Thailand before slow-boating into Laos was Chiang Rai. Here we explored the endless beautiful temples and rented bikes out to the countryside to visit the famous White Temple. One of my favourite moments was pulling our bikes up to a remote countryside grocery store and farm which doubled up as a mini restaurant. The owner didn’t speak a word of English but we somehow managed to order some fish noodles which we ate with a view of the endless green paddy fields. The family evidently spent their lives on this remote and peaceful farm, waiting for the occasional customer to stop by and chat. I still remember how quiet it was.

ITINERARY

Bangkok

Where to Eat:

  • On the street – anywhere. The street food is all amazing. Our favourite Street was Soi Chareung as it just had so many options but it was delicious all over Bangkok.
  • Tuang Dim Sum – Specialises in dumplings. The owner and former chef, Mr Yip, previously worked for a series of five star hotels in Bangkok including the Shangri-La, and it shows in the deliciousness of the food in this unassuming little eatery. We also went to Chinatown for Chinese food in Bangkok but we didn’t really rate it. It was overpriced and the Thai food was generally much better. Worth going to for sightseeing though.

What to do:

  • Visit Wat Pho and the other temples.
  • Ride the cheap and scenic river boats to explore the city from the water.
  • Roam around and eat.
  • Go to the Hangover bar for a view of the Bangkok skyline and share a drink as it’s ridiculously expensive. Having said that we were in backpacker mode and while it’s pricy for Bangkok the drinks are probably standard for Western prices.
  • Go to Patpong and check out the ladyboy/ping pong bars.
  • Visit Chinatown at night. It’s like a Bangkok version of Times Square.
  • If you have time, go to the nearby floating markets.

Chiang Mai

Where to stay:

  • Thannatee Boutique Hotel. Beautiful, all-over dark wood panelling and decorated and furnished in the ‘Lanna’ style. It sort of felt like being in a luxurious old ship cabin. The bathrooms have the most ridiculous sized jacuzzis you’ve ever seen.

Where to eat:

  • Lert Ros. Lert Ros all the way.  I’m not ashamed to say that we came here four times in the space of three days. Of our entire Asia trip this was probably our favourite restaurant – which is saying a lot! Their specialty is grilled Tilapia, which may not sound overly exciting but it was the best I’ve ever tasted. The freshly caught fish is stuffed with lemongrass and cooked traditionally over hot coals on a low heat; the owner stands proudly over them until he decides that they’re cooked perfectly and then serves it with a spicy, citrusy dipping sauce.  The pork options are also amazing.
  • The Service 1921 Restaurant: We came here for my birthday and so it was our ‘treat’ restaurant of the trip. The restaurant was originally opened in 1921 as the British Consulate of Chiang Mai, and they’ve kept the British secret service theme with the colonial decor and quirky touches – there’s a spy peep-hole at the entrance, the waiters wear 40’s-style outfits and the menus come in a Top Secret brown envelope. The main attraction here was the atmosphere – think dim lighting, dark wood, and a beautiful open air veranda. The food was very good too and had some quite unique options yet I wouldn’t say it was any better than your standard Thai restaurants or street food.

Things to do:

  • Visit an elephant sanctuary – the elephants seemed very happy at Lanna Kingdom Elephant Sanctuary and of course there’s no riding.
  • Explore the temples
  • Go to the Night Bazaar to shop for anything you can think of. I you’re a good haggler (I hate it) you’ll get some amazing deals.
  • Eat everything in sight
  • Listen to jazz at the Boy Blues bar at the Kalare night bazaar. Boy is incredible and has the friendliest smile you’ve ever seen.

Chiang Rai

Where to stay:

  • We stayed in a very functional, nondescript hotel – so much so that I can’t even find it on the internet.

Where to eat:

  • ร้านนครปฐม (I can’t find an English name): A lot of locals came here – always a good sign – and it seemed especially popular with workers on their lunch break. You get a little form where you tick off the options you want and then your food is served on plastic, pastel-coloured plates. Fresh and totally delicious. The duck was served with a whole bowl of fresh spring onions on ice and it was amazing.
  • Cat ‘n’ a Cup Cafe: Good Thai milk tea and very cute cats.

What to do:

  • Again, visit the temples. You might be getting temple fatigue at this point so if you are go on Tripadvisor and pick out the ones you might prefer. My favourites were the wooden temples, namely Wat Phan Tao. Wat Srisuphan  was also very beautiful but I was annoyed that women weren’t allowed in the main temple. I wasn’t so much for the faux-gold, plastic-gemstoned dragon temples.
  • Hire bikes/scooters and take a trip out to the White Temple. By modern Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, this temple is new (in fact it’s not finished yet) and very unique. Be prepared for crowds.
  • Visit the Singha Park on the way to the White Temple. This one’s more for the randomness factor. It was on the way to the White Temple so we thought we’d check it out. There were some very pretty parts such as the lavender fields and then out of nowhere there’d be a faux Western-style ‘town’ and a roaming giraffe. There were also a lot of strange rules. You can’t take your bike up this hill, and you can’t park it there, and you can’t take this route. All for seemingly no reason whatsoever as the park was totally empty.
  • Go to the Cat ‘n’ a cup Cafe. This was my first cat cafe and the first time I tried Thai milk tea. The tea was delicious and the cats seemed happy.
  • Go to the Night Bazaar

 

Koh Yao Noi – How to beat the crowds in Thailand

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Your probable vision when planning your dream trip to Thailand: Endless white sand beaches with hammocks and palm trees blowing in the breeze, bright turquoise and crystal clear waters broken only by colourful longtail boats and stunning rock formations. The gentle sound of lapping waves. The briny scent of sea salt.

Your Probable Reality: A sweaty elbow in the face as your crowded tour boat spills out into the sea in a manic rush to get a crowd-free selfie before everybody else. Pumping music. A faint smell of sewage. I exaggerate…sort of. I did personally witness the boat scene, and unfortunately it’s true that a sewage system struggling to keep up with rocketing tourism means that some places like the coast of Ao Nang did smell faintly rotten at times. But while they’re becoming more and more difficult to come by, there are still plenty of places to find peace and seclusion in Thailand if that’s what you’re after. One of these magical places is Koh Yao Noi.

Koh Yao Noi is part of an island chain to the East of Phuket, about half-way to Krabi, and  it’s remained remarkably tourist-free. Since the population is predominantly Muslim, alcohol isn’t served in most establishments, which keeps the revelling backpackers at bay. So if you’re looking to party, this probably isn’t the place for you.  Personally, my ideal itinerary would start with a few days of downtime in Koh Yao Noi before taking the short ferry trip to Krabi in time for the full moon.

On the ferry over from Phuket I took hundreds of frantic photos of the rock formations in the distance, much to the amusement of my fellow passengers who obviously knew how much more beautiful they were from the island. On the East side of Koh Yao Noi, the limestone karsts of Phang Na Bay jut majestically out of the sea, seemingly mutating shape and colour according to the changing daylight. They’re particularly spectacular at sunrise – when both the karsts and the sky turn various hues of incandescent pink and lilac.

We watched the incredible sunrise on the beach outside our bungalow at Suntisook resort, which is owned by the wonderful Mr. E and his wife, who is a ridiculously good cook. If you want to book excursions and trips, Mr E. is the man to speak to. The highlight from our time here was taking a typical Thai longtail boat out to the rocks in Phang na Bay, including the famous beach at Ko Hong. There are no official boat tours or companies, so Mr E hooked us up with a local fisherman who owned a longtail boat. I asked if he could meet us a couple of hours before the usual time so we could beat the crowds and the plan worked like a charm. Every island we stopped at, we were always one step ahead of the other boats, meaning that for a blissful half hour we had the paradisiacal beaches of this incredible part of the world entirely to ourselves. This is why I really recommend Koh Yao Noi to those who are after a more intimate Thailand experience. Not only is the island very slightly closer to the rock formations than the tours that leave from the Krabi coast, but the fact that the boats are local and private means you can have a more tailored, personal experience.  I honestly will never forget floating past the overhanging rocks that graze the crystal-clear, turquoise waters, jumping off the boat into secret, hidden lagoons and being the only two people to rock up on Ko Hong, the most magnificent beach I’ve ever seen in my life.

If you want to do a shorter trip and remain on the boat, it’s an amazing experience nonethelesss. The longtails are not just beautiful to look at; lined with colourful cushions and pillows, they’re also wonderfully cosy. As well as the beautiful rocks and beaches, our fisherman took us to monkey island where we got to feed mango to the cute residents, and also brought us fresh local fruit to enjoy while we floated along.

For such a quiet island, there’s quite a lot to do. The day after the boat trip, we took a kayak out to some of the nearer karsts and islands (Kudu Yai is a must-see), stopping at secluded beach bars on the way to rest on the hammocks. Again, we were some of the only people there.

On the last day we rented out a scooter to explore Koh Yao Noi’s interior. We zipped past tiny towns, fields of bison and gum tree plantations, ending our day at the pier on the west side of the island to watch the sunset.

How to get there:

  • From Phuket – From Phukhet airport, it’s about 25 minutes by taxi to Bang Rong Pier. From here, you take the hour-long ferry to Koh Yao Noi at roughly 50 Baht. Currently, departures are at 9.30, 12 noon and 17.30. The ferry will stop at Koh Yao Yai first.
  • From Krabi – Ferries (traditional long-tail boat) depart from Ao Thalane pier on the hour between 9 am to 5pm. See the schedule here. The trip is about one hour by ferry but you can also get a speedboat which takes about 20 minutes.

Where to stay:

  • Suntisook Resort – It has a beautiful location across from the beach and the owners are great. It’s also well located to rent out longtails and kayaks in the little ‘town’ down the road. You can rent bikes and scooters directly from the resort.
  • Six senses – If you have a more generous budget, this is the most luxurious option on island. As well as offering an array of activities from cooking to Thai boxing to canoeing, they also provide unique touches such as free ice-cream all day and nightly movies on the beach with popcorn. The highlight is without doubt the view of the Phang Nga rocks from the infinity pool.

Where to eat: Honestly, there are just so many good places, but here is a short selection –

  • Suntisook – You won’t find it as a restaurant on Tripadvisor, but I reckon has some of the best food on island. The raw prawns with lemongrass and chilli are amazing. The breakfast buffets are huge and delicious and have local as well as western options. J loved the sticky rice in the little banana leaf parcels.
  • Kaya – Great, inexpensive local food. The Massaman curry is delicious.
  • Hill tribe restaurant – Slightly more upscale, it specialises in seafood dishes. Order the seafood hotplate – the food comes out still hot and sizzling and is cooked off with a cool fireball.

What to do:

  • Hire a Longtail boat to Phang Na Bay. Unfortunately I don’t remember how much we paid but I do remember being surprised at how little it was for such an amazing experience. It’ll work out as very inexpensive if you’re in a group.
  • Take a kayak out along the coast. Koh Nok, one of the islands reachable by kayak, has a hill that you can hike up for stunning views. If you have the stamina, you can kayak to the north side of the island one day and then south the next.
  • Rent a scooter or bicycle to explore the island (about 200 baht for half a day)
  • Take cooking classes. Mina’s cooking classes has great reviews.
  • Do yoga at sunrise while watching the karsts morph into various hues of pinky purple. Or take yoga classes.
  • Have a traditional Thai massage.
  • Take a trip to the beautiful and even the sleepier neighbouring island of Koh Yao Yai. 

If you’re really keen to beat the crowds, check out my next post where I talk about Khao Sok National Park.

 

 

 

 

 

Bali in the rain

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The first experience we had of Bali was of its sounds. We arrived late at night and got to the house in a taxi so the next morning we had no real idea where we were. Glimpsing nothing in the blue pre-dawn light but the outline of a heavy mosquito net,  I could hear the dense, tropical raindrops, relentless as static, broken by the distant, almost imperceptible chanting of the call to prayer. I listened for a while as the light just began to creep through the delicate latticework of the windows. I hadn’t yet seen anything of Bali, and I was already seduced.

Taking advantage of a break in the clouds we stumbled out with the cocks still crowing, jetlagged and hungry and looking for breakfast. Just outside the house on the street I saw my first Balinese offering (Canang Sari), a skilfully folded palm leaf filled with brightly-coloured petals, sticks of incense, a beautiful pearl-coloured frangipani and topped off with something resembling a cream cracker. I took about twenty pictures from all angles until I saw more petals strewn along the street leading to another offering, and then another. Canang Sari’s are everywhere in Bali – on front porches, cars, garbage dumps, so that at all hours of the day you’re hit by wonderful, unexpected wafts of sandalwood and patchouli. The offerings aren’t just there to look pretty; the preparation of these little baskets is a constant ritual that makes up a large part of a traditional Balinese woman’s daily life. In fact, Ca Nang derives from the Kawi language Ca – meaning beautiful, and Nang – meaning purpose. They are offerings to the Hindu God Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa, as a form of thanks for the peace given to the world.

We ate at a local warung and had nasi campur with fish sate lilit.  Balinese cuisine is incredible in its taste and dizzying variety. Nasi campur means a dish which has a little bit of everything on offer, and Sate lilit is something of a sweet and savoury popsicle – a satay made from minced pork, fish, beef, or chicken, which is then mixed with grated coconut, shallots and lemon juice and wrapped around lemongrass sticks to grill. We loved the food at the warungs (and its price), and even though I did get Bali belly I’m convinced that it was from the tap water rather than the food. J was fine and we always share our dishes, whereas I ALWAYS forget to not rinse my toothbrush with tap water – Every. Time.

The next day the friend whose house we were staying in invited us to a healing festival she’d organised. Keen to see this other side of Bali we agreed and made our way towards Ubud. This was when we met our driver, Apel, who we used for the rest of our time on the island. Meeting and talking to Apel was one of the highlights of the trip. It’s a good thing too when you’re fond of your driver in Bali as the increasingly heavy traffic means you end up spending a lot of time with them. Apel told us more about the history of the island as well as that of his own family. He explained that his real name was actually Ketut, which means ‘fourth son’. In Bali, the first son in a Hindu family is called ‘Wayung’, the second ‘Made’ and by the time the fifth son comes around the name becomes ‘Wayan Balik’ – meaning ‘Wayan again’!

Apel also explained a bit about the Balinese philosophy of Rwa Bhineda – the philosophy of balance and origin of the concept of Yin and Yang. The most I knew about yin and yang was of the ubiquitous black and white symbol plastered on kitschy spiritual paraphernalia in vaguely alternative places like Camden Town market. But Apel and his family lived by the concept; he never said that anything was ‘bad’, and if he did he checked himself and sought out the good that may have come of that thing’s existence. Similarly, he said that you cannot know what pleasure is if you haven’t experienced the lack of that pleasure. While it’s easy to realise this, it was the first time I ever saw someone actually living by the idea. You’ll see that a lot of spiritual symbols in Bali are decorated with Black and white chequered cloth – like the famous Yin/Yang symbol. The black stands for evil and the white for good. For the rest of the trip, any time we said anything negative Apel lightheartedly told us off and encouraged us to see what good may have come of it. Difficult at first, it became easier each time.

By the time we got to the New Earth healing festival I could already see why so many people are attracted to the Balinese ‘philosophy’, and it was interesting to see how people personally interpreted it. The festival offered various options to achieve healing; via movement – Tai Chi and Yoga; via nutrition – all the food was vegan and organic; via ‘Mind, body and Spirit – aromatherapy and sound and crystal therapy. There was also a strict no electronics policy (ie no mobile phones – which I was fine with although from what I could see nobody else was) and an absolutely no drugs policy, including no alcohol at the ‘awakening’ music festival later. Me and J almost ran for the hills. I’m kidding of course – if I could do veganism, no electronics and no drugs anywhere in this world it would be Bali. After one breakfast bowl of raw chocolate, dragon fruit and coconut yogurt I was ready to convert. Also, they made an exception for coffee, understandably, because no-one wants violence at a healing festival.

The next day, reluctant to leave the stunning villa where New Earth was held, we headed to Ubud town and the sacred Monkey Forest. Whilst the main attraction here is obviously the wildlife, the location itself is beautiful, featuring a rocky stream that flows through a steep ravine in the middle of the rainforest. Dense, tangled vines and tropical vegetation cover the various Hindu statues. We were warned upon entering not to look at the monkeys directly in the eye, and to be very careful with our possessions; apparently, they are very adept at snatching your stuff and then holding it for ransom in return for food. Thinking I could out-wile them, I managed to sneak in a few shots on my cameraphone, before I was spotted and had to frantically stuff it back into my rucksack before being attacked. They look deceptively cute in those pictures though.

It’s easy to see why Ubud has become Bali’s artisanal and cultural capital; every few metres, the treelined, cobbled streets are dotted by stunning Hindu temples and their hidden, rambling family gardens. Our hotel room was in the middle of one of these secret gardens, and in the morning we’d wake up to the smell of rain, coffee and incense from the Ganesha statue by our balcony.  We happened to be there for Tumpek Landep – a holy day that celebrates objects made of metal. All over Bali, motorbikes and cars are bedecked with beautiful baskets of flowers. The ceremony also celebrates other useful everyday objects containing metals – including laptops, phones and fax machines!

Our last few days were spent visiting rice terraces and temples. While we did go to the Tegallang rice terraces, I’d say they’re a bit of a tourist trap. I’m pretty sure no rice has been harvested there for quite a while. I’d recommend a less busy and equally beautiful terrace like Jatiluwuh instead. Much more remote, here you can really enjoy the peace of the still water of the paddies and impossibly green steps of the terraces.

While all the temples we visited were stunning, my favourite was actually the smaller, less dramatic temple of water – Tirta Empul. Discovered in AD 962 and believed to have magical healing powers, the springs bubble up into a beautifully clear pool within the temple and stream out through spouts into a separate bathing pool. Here, people perform a cleansing ritual to wash away their sins. You can feed the thousands of Koi fish in yet another of the temple pools. Make sure you don’t kiss or cuddle your partner in the temple – our driver told us off.

On our last day we visited the stunningly dramatic sea temple at Tanah Lot. Perched on a rock in the middle of the ocean, Pura Tanah Lot is an incredible sight. The steep cliff walk to the west of the temple grounds offers the most spectacular views. It also offers some very impudent monkeys. Knowing full well how photogenic they look along the cliff wall, they pose and wait for innocent passersby that stop to snap a photo so that they can snatch their stuff. One poor tourist had his eyeglasses stolen and chewed and mangled in front of him. He tried to bribe the monkey with food, which of course it took and then proceeded to return the favour by chucking the glasses over the cliff. I guess that’s one good example of Yin and Yang. The stealing of the glasses, that was bad – but the hilarious Schadenfreude it caused the crowd, that was definitely good.

 

 

East Coast Australia

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HOW’S THE SERENITY?

We spent two weeks living with my step-dad’s family near Coff’s Harbour up the coast. Corindi – the tiny suburban town where they live, hasn’t changed in the slightest since I visited when I was ten. There’s still only one shop, duly called ‘The Shop’, which sells the same meat pies and potato scallops with chicken salt, one post office and of course the nerve centre of the town – the local pub. No doubt one of the highlights of our trip was winning the ‘Amble Inn’ (for ten years I thought it was the Ann Boleyn) breakfast meat raffle.

Our days took on a standard routine pretty quickly – wake early to the most chaotic and deafening dawn chorus I’ve ever heard, drive up the headland to check the surf, back to the house for breakfast, and then amble down the wide streets with their low wooden houses and immaculate lawns (hosting frequent Kangaroo visitors) to the beach – our home until lunch. Contrary to some misleading pictures, going to the beach in Northern Australia is not a sexy affair – it feels like going into battle. Walking down in our pasty factor 60+, comedy-size hats, long-sleeved shirts and multiple sun-blocking accessories felt more Mr. Bean than Baywatch.

The beach here is interactive – nobody just lays back and tans – it’s a way of life. Everyone born here is expected to learn to surf or at least try, and for most, the thrill of riding along the limits of the ocean is one they seek forever. In few other sports is the goal so dependent on and shared with nature – a brief tussle for control to secure that hard-won victory of total weightlessness. And here I’m told – the waves are perfect…The official shark copter keeps an eye out overhead, and if there’s anything suspicious it will fly in a circle as a warning. One day as we were floating in the shallows the helicopter did exactly that, and of course not a single surfer left the water. Ahh it’s only a shark mate, no worries.

When we weren’t hiding under the beach umbrella from the relentless sun we played in the rock pools with the girls, overturning rocks to discover strange, slithering life-forms and squishing the ‘Gungy Boy’ anemones. We made wigs with spotty seaweed that looked like it belonged in an aboriginal painting.

Afternoons were hot and lazy – a sleepy, anxious interim between lunch and the first cold beer of the day before the mandatory BBQ prep. Even the unbelievably coloured lorikeets joined in, becoming increasingly raucous as they got drunk on fermenting fruit. We nursed our hangovers together.

BYRON BAY (CAVVANBAH)

We reluctantly left Corindi on the Greyhound from Coff’s Harbour and started making our way up the coast. First stop – the inevitable Byron Bay and shining beacon of (formerly hippy) hipster heaven. The vibe is creative professional, which to us suggested that we must start chilling out first thing in the morning, with a jog and a coffee at one of the many, many coffee-shops. We did the famed lighthouse loop – starting along the beach at dawn, as the sand and clouds turned varying shades of pinky lilac, and then the Lighthouse Road up to the pristine and still functional Cape Byron Lighthouse. From here, the Easternmost point of Australia, the view of the surf-battered cliffs and unbroken ocean is spectacular. Walking back down via the coastal route (Cape Byron walking track) we saw two dolphins playing in the distance and at Wategos beach we spotted a White-breasted Sea Eagle. Watch out for trees full of sleeping flying foxes – we thought that it was some sort of gigantic fruit before we noticed furry squirming! We finished at the Pass, a perfect white-sand beach and watched the surfers enjoy the famed right-hand point-break.

WHERE TO EAT: 

 

Cheeky Monkeys – We were on a budget and had a discount with our YHA stay so we went here for dinner. It’s got mostly terribles on Tripadvisor and is apparently for ‘immature travellers’ according to one review. I’m not sure what that means but we had cheap drinks, fun with the table Jenga and an average meal. It has lots of party events.

Bay Leaf Cafe – We  had a much more typical Byron Bay brunch the next day at the Bay Leaf Cafe.  Poached eggs, avocado and sourdough toast. The food and coffee was delicious. We didn’t get the banana bread but I got a waft of some freshly baked stuff and my God it smelled good. The juices and smoothies looked good too.

WHERE TO STAY:

 

 

Byron Bay YHA – We stayed pretty much only at YHA’s for our Australia trip and they were great. The rooms are predictably basic but the facilities are good. This one’s pretty chilled out and has a pool and snooker table. The only bummer is that they charge for luggage storage and don’t have wifi in the rooms.

 

FRASER ISLAND (K’GARI)

Before hopping onto the 12h Greyhound to our next stop Hervey Bay we stocked up on some supermarket liquor – because 12 hours, and because nobody should ever have to drink Goon. “Produced with the aid of milk, egg, nut, and fish products and traces may remain. Sugar added.” We walked past a girl who remarked of her Goon cocktail; ‘but why does it smell like feet?’. Yes alcohol is stupid expensive in Australia, but it’s worth the extra 2 dollars for almost the same alcohol content in a bottle of rum.

12 hours and a crazy bus driver later, we were in Hervey Bay – main launchpad for Fraser Island. There’s not much going on in Hervey Bay, but we did have a nice walk to the pier in searing middle-of-the-day heat where we saw two enormous Manta Rays, and at our YHA we spotted a beautiful, shy possum and had resident, not-so-shy peacocks.

Our main reason for staying here was to rent our Land Rover and have our safety briefing for Fraser Island – the main message of this being ‘please for the love of God put the hand-brake on when you park on the barge’ and ‘don’t drive onto the beach when the sand is wet, you will get stuck, and the car will be destroyed’. Apparently two different groups ignored the handy tips, and the rest you can imagine.

Fraser island is the largest sand island in the world. There are no paved roads. When the tide is out, there is a window of time in which you can drive on the beach and it’s smoother than concrete. Fraser island is the wildest, most unspoilt place I have ever seen on my travels, and was without doubt the highlight of our Australia trip. With a crackling radio struggling to pick up any signal, the massive 4×4 skipped over tree-trunks as if they were toothpicks while we drove past bizarre, Jurassic Park-style scenery. Our biggest threat was succumbing to soft sand. After seeing barely a person all day, we pitched up our tent at one of the wild-camping spots along the 75-mile beach. We must have inadvertently set up our tent on a horsefly nest as 5 minutes later we were attacked by a manic swarm, forcing us to cook dinner on the beach as we watched an oncoming storm.

THINGS TO DO IN FRASER ISLAND:

Lake Mckenzie (Boorangoora) – Lake Mckenzie is made up solely of crystal-clean rainwater, tinged Caribbean turquoise around the edges. The sand is entirely white silica and the water is so pure it’s said that only a few species of fish can survive in it. It’s too clean for life. Allow at least a few hours for all manner of selfies.

 

Sandblows – Sandblows are enormous sand dunes that blow across the island according to the wind and the tides. Burying forests as they move, the dateless tree-tops emerge post-apocalyptically from the wind-blasted sands. The lack of wildlife and eerie quiet makes these mobile deserts even more otherworldly. Lake Wabby off Hammberblow is slowly being engulfed, which is bad news for its little catfish inhabitants.

 

Eli creek – Each day, Eli creek spills out 80 million litres of beautifully clear rainwater into the Pacific ocean. You can float along the stream amongst the tangled vegetation down onto the beach, where you’ll see small aircraft land on the sand by the shore.

Maheno Shipwreck – Maheno was a New Zealand Naval ship that was washed ashore by a cyclone in 1935. 82 years later, its rusty skeleton remains, battered daily by the surf along 75-mile beach.

WHERE TO EAT:

Tent/beach/forest/car. Watch out for dingoes. We had one coyly come up to us on the beach – understandably tempted by our lunch of canned fish and beans.

WHERE TO SLEEP:

Tent/beach/forest/car. There is a main campground with showers in the middle of the island.

 

WHITSUNDAY ISLANDS:

Another long Greyhound night bus and we were at Airlie beach to set off on our 2-day boat tour of the Whitsundays with Silent Night. J hurt his back badly on the morning of our trip, and since it was too late to cancel or go to the doctor’s, we headed to the booze shop instead. We stocked up on a bottle of whiskey and two bottles of rum. Note: This is definitely not recommended self-medication for slipped discs under normal circumstances. When I saw the sleeping arrangements – a minuscule corner berth by the engine – I was grateful for our choice of impromptu meds.

We met the group and then started our sail towards our first snorkelling trip and mooring spot for the evening. This is where I have an embarrassing admission to make. Having heard so many nightmarish stories about lethal jellyfish in Northern Australia, I never actually went in the water on this trip, not even with the tempting offer of the full-length wetsuits. This made me the ONLY wimp in our boat group to not go underwater. I charged J with the Gopro and sipped my cocktail on the gently rocking sailboat with a strange mix of regret and utter peace. My excuse is that I’d already been snorkelling in the Whitsundays when I was ten and fearless. I’m sticking to it.

In any case I was told that the snorkelling was good – but not great. The best spots are widely regarded as being further up the coast towards Cairns. The ultimate way to see the reef if you’ve got the cash is by airplane, watching the the ancient coral below curl like tendrils around myriad hues of brilliant cyan.

The next morning after breakfast on board we started our sail to inimitable Whitehaven beach. A short walk through forest brings you to Hill Inlet viewing point, where you’ll see the famously white Silica sands bleed into the turquoise waters of the inlet. From here we walked onto the beach where we spent a few hours walking through the glittering, squeaky sand (walking on it has somewhat of a nails down a blackboard effect) and admiring the sheer blue of the ocean blues. Round a hidden bay behind some rocks we found two lemon sharks exploring the shallows. The rest of the day I spent not snorkelling in another beautiful location.

While the crew was really attentive and great fun, it was all things considered quite an expensive trip for scenery and activities that you can get elsewhere for cheaper. I don’t mean this boat tour in particular but rather the Whitsundays in general. If I were to revisit the Whitsundays again however I’d do a bigger, cheaper party boat.  If what you want is a more relaxed trip with with great crew and fewer people however, then Silent Night is the tour for you.

Sydney (On a budget)

Australia day at Sydney Harbour bridgeSwimming pool on Bondi beachBondi Beach surfer girlGirls jumping in tamaramaGirl doing Bondi to Coogee walkPeople walking dogs on Bondi coastal walkPeople doing yoga by Bondi PoolsWaterfall at Blue mountainsGirl walking dog on TamaramaBrunch in Bondi with avocado and salmonBondi by nightGirl under waterfall at blue mountainsBodybuilder on Bondi beachBondi coffeeSydney Opera House close-upSydney Harbour bridge on Australia DayGirl with parrots in SydneyCrowded Bondi beach

Our 6 month trip through Australia and Asia started in Bondi, Sydney. I’d lived in Bondi for almost a year back when I was ten, but this was a different place – unfailingly charming and friendly as ever, but more self-conscious, and achingly hipster.

Does anyone know of anyone on the wholesale end of avocado/sourdough/big lightbulb retail in Oz because it’s got to be lucrative? I could do with a job. I could be a professional avocado smasher for hire, it sounds therapeutic and I’ve got references.

Bondi was always health and fitness conscious. I remember as a London kid in the nineties wondering why everything here wasn’t slathered in layers of I-can’t-believe-I’m-eating-this margarine, but this current trend seems more about identity than aesthetics. We were asked, in utter seriousness, whether we wanted our coffee in ‘paper or ceramic?’ My embarrassment and confusion must have been as plain as the marble decor – ‘to have in or take away?’ ‘Ceramic please, I want to make the most of my $4.50.’ Ten minutes later we had our Ethiopian-bean coffees, brewed in a contraption that looked like it had come off the set of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It turns out Ethiopian bean tastes quite bitter; ‘could I get some sugar, please?’.’We don’t serve sugar in this establishment’. The Oompa-Loompas would be horrified.

The food is delicious and so are a lot of the people that make it; I’ve never seen so many good-looking people in such a short space of time. I’m assuming this fact and the sunshine puts everyone in good mood as the friendliness is relentless. I wanted breakfast with some artisanal component but also I was poor – people actually have a good wage and standard of living in Australia so stuff is expensive. I was that annoying person at the front of queue trying to figure out how to cheat the menu and get everything for nothing. Just I was just getting ready to scowl passive-aggressively at the non-existent tut-tutters behind me I was rewarded with a free breakfast and a dazzling, knowing smile. I realised then I wasn’t in London anymore.

Top FREE things to do in Sydney

Bondi Beach

Sydney is a subtropical city where urban life and nature merge into something really quite beautiful and unique. There aren’t many cities I can think of where you can walk straight onto the sand and into the ocean. Bondi is the most famous and busy of the Sydney beaches but there are countless others (see below). If you want to people-watch however then this is the beach to go to. Ubiquitous sun-kissed surfers, body-builders (I recommend the outdoor pull-up bars), all manner of beautifully tanned beach bums, yogis, picnicking Aussie families – you’ll find them all here. And when you can’t sleep due to jetlag, check Bondi out at sunrise.

Bondi to Coogee coastal walk

A well-trod and stunningly picturesque coastal route that winds past dramatic cliff-faces, rockpools, countless beaches and the beautiful houses of Sydney’s suburbs. Even the historic cemetery (Waverley) with its sweeping ocean views is incredible. The start of the walk goes past the legendary Instagram mother of all swimming pools – the Bondi Baths, then upwards to Marks Park, where you’ll find Aboriginal rock carvings and is one of the prime whale-watching spots from May-November. The first major beach is Tamarama (small but stunningly framed by cliffs either side), nicknamed Glamourama because of the trendsetters and wannabe trendsetters that hang out here. Be careful of riptides. Further along is much larger Bronte beach and then tiny, peaceful Clovelly, which is perfect for swimming. Stop half-way at Bronte to have lunch in one of the many cafes and say hello to the most glamorous residents, Mango and Crush – two enormous blue Macaws that sit by the railing near the beach and watch the world go by. They’re very friendly and love to hang out with passers-by.

Sydney Opera House and The Rocks

You’ve seen it in pictures a thousand times, and it certainly doesn’t disappoint when you see it upfront. You can check out the Opera House lobby for free and don’t miss the view of it from the Harbour Bridge. The Rocks is Sydney’s oldest neighbourhood, where European settlers first arrived in the late 1700s. Wander down cobbled paths and narrow alleyways of colonial-era pubs and gothic sandstone churches. The area sits directly underneath the imposing Harbour bridge and is in surreally stark contrast to the modern buildings that surround it. It’s definitely one of my favourite areas of Sydney.

Check out the Australian hotel – knocked down during the plague outbreak in 1900, it was rebuilt during the Edwardian era and retains a lot of the original features. The sloping bathrooms look like they haven’t been changed since. Sit at the window and people-watch as the sun streams through (you might actually have to pay for a drink to do this unless you’re feeling brave). The ‘I’m Free’ Walking tours leave from this area and they’re great. They’ll show you places you might otherwise have missed and are really informative. They’re technically free but you’re encouraged to give what you think the tour was worth at the end.

Manly and Northern Beaches on a Sunday

Use your Opal card (capped at $2.50 on a Sunday) to get the Manly ferry from Sydney Harbour to the golden-sand beaches North of Sydney. It’s also an excellent way to see the harbour cheaply.

Blue Mountains

Just 2.5 hours North of Sydney by NSW train and you’re at the quirky Blue mountains launchpad town of Katoomba. The vibe here is more chicken-salt scallop and formica diner than smashed avocado and reclaimed wood, or maybe that’s just where we ate. Check out Greco’s for cheap burgers served by bored and friendly teenagers. A free shuttle bus goes from here to the most famous landmark – the Three Sisters at Echo Point – a stunning and unusual sandstone rock formation formed by wind erosion over millennia. Catch them at sunset or under evening floodlight, but be warned – the crowds will be massive.

The blue mountains are so called because of the blue haze that hangs silkily over them, formed due to oil droplets evaporating from hundreds of thousands of eucalyptus trees. From Echo point there are a number of possible hikes – we took the steep and narrow Giant Stairway trail past Katoomba falls and the Scenic Railway. Whichever path you choose you’ll see stunning views of the Jamison valley and the sheer, sandstone rock faces that frame it. We went during a rainstorm and the tropical smell of wet soil and eucalyptus was beautiful. Listen out for hundreds of echoing tropical bird calls. Once at the bottom you have the option of taking the scenic railway to the top or walking the Furber steps back up to Echo point. The railway looks fun but is quite expensive. We chose to take the Furber steps which are amazingly secluded and take you past some magnificent waterfalls. If you happen to be there in the late afternoon you’ll be rewarded with some incredible views where the orange light intermingles with the dark blue hues of the valley.

WHERE TO STAY:

The Beach Road Hotel – If you’ve had enough of (but really just can’t afford) the boring pleasantness of boutique hotels try the sticky floors and genuine stale-beer scent of the Beach road Hotel in Bondi. It’s basic and cheap..for Sydney, and they do free gigs on Wednesdays and Thursdays. It’s also perfectly located just off the main drag and the staff is great.

WHERE TO EAT:

Bonditony’s Burger Joint – Great, big greasy burgers named after rock bands accompanied by some awesome tunes.

Emperor Garden BBQ and noodles – Chinatown in any city is normally our go-to when we want something delicious and inexpensive. Turns out chinatown in Sydney isn’t exactly cheap but it was delicious. The hand-made noodles with duck were thick and chewy and amazing.

Le Paris-Go Cafe’ – Our inevitable hipster breakfast was probably one of our best meals of the trip. We shared The smoked salmon/scrambled eggs and avocado on toast/poached eggs and it was fantastic. Simple menu and ingredients and perfectly made. Also has a really nice family and locals-what-brunch atmosphere.

The Anti-Backpacking wishlist

I’ve just returned from the most incredible travel experience of my life. After backpacking across Asia for eight months, I’ve seen two of the seven wonders, played in the mud with rescue elephants, driven a car almost twice my height along a twenty mile beach and woken up on a night train to the sunrise over Chiang Mai. I feel elated, enlightened… exhausted.

After all the amazing things I’ve seen and already can’t wait to visit again, there are some things on my travels that I’ll be happy to see the back of forever: my back/soul-destroying rucksack; my crusty, mud-caked trainers; and my monster-sized thermal fleece that sexy forgot — aka my 24-hour uniform for 8 months straight. I feel a certain uneasy guilt just admitting this – all these items have served me faithfully through months of physical abuse. But for the meantime, I’m done with functional. I don’t want to see any more neon polyester straps/zips/locks and ultra-breathable materials with intelligent-sounding names that keep you perfectly cool while trekking the surface of the sun. I just want something pretty, to wear somewhere nice.

It’s not that I want to relax at home for a while – it’ll never come to that – but right now I’m fantasising about vacations rather than travels. I love the sound of a city break to Seville, or a country outing to the Cotswolds, where perhaps I can wear a dress with a discernible shape, or a handbag the contents of which don’t primarily consist of stolen toilet paper and sporks. Obviously, I’m totally broke after eight months of backpacking, so I’ve drawn up a wishlist of beautiful things I can’t currently afford and booked a low-cost flight to Lisbon, where luckily my Dad is living right now.

My Anti-Backpacking Wishlist:

1. Fleur du Mal lacing bullet one-piece.

I can’t get enough of their swim collection this year. Delicate lace is mixed with edgy designs and they seem to be continuing the ‘swimtimates’ trend with their corset one-pieces. I honestly wouldn’t know which swimsuit I’d choose.

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2. Lisbon Wallpaper city-guide.

I love the Wallpaper guide’s urban vibe. They primarily focus on a city’s contemporary design and architecture and include stylish, minimalist pictures. Plus I love how the colourful collection looks on the bookshelf!

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3. MAHI Leather Bag.

I’ve had my eye on this one for a while, and it may be one that I can actually afford. MAHI’s beautiful made-to-order travel bags are made from 100% soft full-grain brown leather and brass. Their classic duffle – my favourite although I also love their Armada duffle – is only £96.50 and looks stunning. To truly satisfy any luxury-on-a-budget cravings, they can also imprint your initials for just £10 extra. With every purchase, MAHI also donate $1.50 to Frank Water Charity in recognition of their name-sake: the Mahi river in India.

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4. Fujifilm xf-100.

My mum has this camera and it’s amazing for street photography. It’s really user-friendly and has lots of features which makes it great for front-end editing and taking quick snaps on the move. I still haven’t figured out most of the features but I love that you can add filters before taking a shot. And, of course, its retro design means that it’s photo-worthy itself.

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5. Phoebe slip by Paris Georgia Basics.

I’d absolutely love this simple black slip-dress for Lisbon but this one is a definite “wish” on the wishlist. Off to find something similar on ASOS…

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6. ‘As I walked out one midsummer morning’ by Laurie Lee.

Strangely, I’m not usually one for travel books but I flicked through a friend’s copy of this once and Lee’s descriptions of Spain are so sensuous yet simple that I fell in love. Not set in Portugal I know, but it’s close -perhaps a road-trip to Seville wouldn’t be out of the question…

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7. Loeffler Randall Jasper loafers.

Their Agnes Laceless Oxfords are gorgeous patent black loafers that go with everything and can look smart as well as casual. They’d be perfect for travelling light on a short city-break.

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8. Truffle Clarity Clutch.

These clarity clutches seem to be doing the rounds on social media lately. Being TSA-approved they’re great for travelling but they’re also quite sleek for makeup and accessories in general.

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9. Cafe-press towel.

I love this fun, Andy Warhol-inspired beach towel from online store Cafe-Press.

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10.BOSE headphones.

The kings of sound quality. I’ve never tried BOSE headphones but if they’re anything like their speakers then they’re pretty damn good. The reviews are great anyway. The Custom QuietComfort 35 wireless set are customisable in a variety of different colours and finishes.

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