BEIJING and the Great Wall

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WHAT TO DO IN BEIJING:

We pulled into Beijing after a 20-hour train journey from Zhangjiajie surprisingly refreshed, hopped in a taxi and made our way to the Doufuchi hutong where our guesthouse was. Hutongs are Beijing’s ancient and steadily vanishing residential areas, made up of narrow alleyways and traditional courtyard houses.

STROLL THROUGH THE HUTONGS

The hutongs have resiliently defied the lightning-fast growth seen in the rest of the country, offering a nostalgic window into the old China. Bikes and rickshaws weave precariously through the crowds, shopkeepers peddle their wares, and groups of elderly men gossip and play the ancient game of Mahjong – note the victor’s faces rippling into a sea of creases as they smile. All the while the sundry smells of street-cooking saturate the air – steamed Baozi, fried Youtiao and spicy Roujiamou are common fixtures.

But once you cross the alleyway and enter the courtyards of the traditional slate-grey residences (Siheyuan), the relentless bicycle bells disappear and a heavy silence reigns, a welcome respite from the chaos of the Beijing’s huge and trafficked streets.

When the Forbidden City was built by the Ming Dynasty in the 14th-Century as an imperial residence, the city was planned so that the palace would sit at the centre while the hutongs expanded outwards in concentric rings. The inner rings would house the luxurious aristocratic residences, becoming more and more basic as they neared the outskirts. The hutongs to the north of the Forbidden City, Qinhai and Gonjian, are some of the most popular to visit.

JINGSHAN PARK

Having heard how expensive it was and how ridiculous the queues were, we decided that instead of visiting the complex itself, we’d view the Forbidden City from Jingshan Park instead. Not only is there a sweeping birds-eye-view of the imperial palace from the hilltop pagoda, but public parks in general in China are a great way to get an insight into the culture.  Go early to catch locals practicing Tai-Chi as the sun rises, or later in the day to witness all kinds of social activities. You’ll see groups of men taking turns to sing traditional Chinese songs into portable karaoke kits, kite-flying, exercising, and even elderly couples ballroom dancing – with or without music.

THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA

To see one of humanity’s greatest ever feats of engineering for the first time was one of the most unforgettable moments of our Asia trip. Having heard so much about this legendary, quasi-mythical landmark growing up I was almost surprised to see that it looked exactly how I imagined.

Originating in Liaonang province, the wall hugs the peaks and troughs of the mountains, winding through Beijing and then across 13,000 miles of Chinese countryside before reaching the unforgiving Gobi desert, where only its crumbling, wind-blasted ruins remain. Contrary to what most people think, the wall is not a continuous entity. Built originally to protect against invading tribes from the North, vast sections of it are formed of natural barriers like rivers or precipitous mountains that didn’t need further defence. Construction occurred haphazardly over 2000 years, and the best preserved sections – built during the Ming dynasty – are easily accessible from central Beijing.

Having done our research on the best sections of the wall to visit (Thrifty Nomads have a great overview) we decided to go with Jinshanling, which seemed like a good compromise between accessibility from Beijing and being relatively uncrowded. It probably would have been a great choice, but we made one cardinal error – we unwittingly decided to go over a Chinese holiday. We also made another major error – we waited at the wrong bus stop…for ages.* By the time we got to Jinshanling and waited in the ridiculously long ticket line, our bus driver warned us that we didn’t have much time to explore before he returned to Beijing. We started off stressed and trying to rush, but when we paused to look around at where we were, at the the beauty of the ancient wall undulating over the hills and disappearing into the hazy distance, we decided to take our time, miss the bus, and figure out a way home somehow or other. We stopped rushing, admired the incredible views and tried our best not to roll headfirst down the steep, timeworn steps. In the end we shared a long cab journey back with some friends we’d made at the mistaken bus stop.

*If you get the bus to Jinshanling from Wanjing West station, make sure to cross the road into the bus depot instead of waiting alongside the road. You’ll know you have the right place as there are loads of buses departing to different destinations all the time.

WHERE TO EAT

Kou Rou Ji

Technically a halal restaurant that specialises in mutton dishes, KRJ has a huge menu with pretty much anything you could want – including the obligatory Peking duck. We ordered the duck, mutton skewers and cold cucumber and chilli salad and they were all incredible. Right on the Houhai lake and nearby the most extensive collection of hutong neighbourhoods in Beijing , it’s also perfectly located for an after-dinner stroll.

The Grandma’s

Located on the top floor of a modern shopping mall, this one seems like a dubious choice for a Beijing first-timer. But looks are deceptive – not only is the interior really cosy, but the food is genuinely some of the best we had in China. To top it off the portions are huge and the prices amazing considering how expensive a lot of Beijing restaurants are. For all these reasons it’s very popular, which is why you tick your food order off on a list while waiting in line to be called to your table. This is where the location comes in handy – order your food, take your number and go shopping while you wait.

WHERE TO STAY

Unlike the food, hotel prices in Beijing are pretty decent, even for some of the more luxury ones like the Four Seasons. But if you’re looking for something with a bit more character and still luxurious, the VUE hotel Hou Hai is in a traditional Siheyuan-style building and overlooks the Houhai lake. Yangfang alley and the surrounding area are fun and lively in the evenings, too.

We stayed in a traditional courtyard house in Doufuchi hutong which cost us about $15 dollars a night. I can’t for the life of me remember the name but there are hundreds of these rooms about. Download the Trip app (previously Ctrip) and go through the myriad options. This app will be your lifesaver in China. Since a lot of Western sites are banned in the country, Ctrip has a lot more options for both transport and accommodation, and they do everything for you (provide schedules, rates, availability, bookings etc) so you don’t have to go through the terrifying experience of attempting to speak mandarin over the phone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

ZHANGJIAJIE

IMG_1921_SnapseedIMG_1905_SnapseedIMG_1827_SnapseedIMG_1888_SnapseedIMG_1880_SnapseedIMG_1781_SnapseedIMG_1883_SnapseedIMG_1876_SnapseedIMG_1870_SnapseedIMG_1862_SnapseedIMG_1851_SnapseedIMG_1826_SnapseedIMG_1806_SnapseedIMG_1798_SnapseedIMG_1898_SnapseedIMG_1774_SnapseedIMG_1773_SnapseedIMG_1766_SnapseedIMG_1762_SnapseedIMG_1743_SnapseedIMG_1740_SnapseedI’m tempted to just let the pictures speak for themselves. It’s difficult to describe this place in words. The most succinct thing I can say is that the views I saw from Zhangjiajie National Park in China were not just the best of our Asia trip, but the most spectacular natural views I’ve seen anywhere in the world.

Thousands of towering sandstone karsts jut precipitously from the park floor towards the sky, where the evergreen forests that cling to the karst-tops merge ethereally with the clouds. You have to wonder about the wildlife on these tiny forests in the sky – do they know that they live on top of the world?

Armed with our beautifully hand-drawn map of the park, we entered Zhiangjiajie on our first day from the main Southern gate at the Loguta ticket station, and started on the Golden Whip Stream trekking trail. The trail starts out as a gentle riverside walk through the forest, following a crystal clear stream framed by the magnificent stone pillars on either side. Just after the Zicoatan peaks, we turned onto a steep, scenic staircase that 2,000 steps later had us eye-level with the tip of the karsts. This is where we came across two of the most popular sights in the park (and accordingly the crowds). The first, Lianxinqiao bridge, looks across to what is probably the tallest and most impressive karst in the park – Hallelujah mountain. At a dizzying 3,500 feet above ground, you just have to see it to believe it’s possible. If you’re scared of heights you might have trouble here as the bridge is made of a metal grid which lets you see all the immense way to the bottom. Hallelujah mountain is often referred to as the ‘Avatar filming site’ but I’m pretty sure this isn’t true.

Just after Hallelujah mountain is Tanxia Diyi Quiai (the bridge across the sky) – an incredible gravity-defying bridge that you can cross over to visit a small temple. At 1,230ft above the ground, it may be the highest bridge in the world.

From here we took the free bus to what is essentially the centre of Zhangjiajie park – Mcdonalds. (Yes, a huge Mcdonalds, slap-bang in the centre at Tianzishan) By this time it was getting late and the buses had stopped running. We weren’t keen on getting the ridiculously expensive elevator back down so we approached some shopkeepers and in some heavily app-assisted Mandarin managed to ask if there were any available rooms they knew of in the park. As it happened the owner of the shop owned some guest-rooms near his home, which he assured us were very comfortable. By comfortable, they had a bed, a hole in the bathroom for the toilet, and no heating. Since we were in the middle of nowhere and our breath was condensing in the arctic cold of the room, we snuggled in the single bed, popped some sleeping pills and listened to music until we fell asleep.

The next day we woke up to find there was a trail that started right from our guesthouse. If you’re keen to avoid the crowds then this is the route for you – we must have have seen about three people the whole time. The cliff-hugging trail meanders through beautiful dripping wet forest with small detours that lead to viewing points on the tips of some of the karsts. The most memorable was Yibu Nanxing – One Dangerous Step – so named because to get to it you have to walk on a metal grate across a void between two pinnacles. We continued past small waterfalls and streams with rocky stepping stones until the path got too crumbly and dangerous to follow and we had to turn back. We figured this explained the lack of people.

But we hadn’t yet had enough of Zhangjiajie for the day, so we took the shuttle back to Tianzishan and started the long hiking route to the east of Wolongling that would eventually lead us down to one of the park exits (Sansuo fire station). The map describes the surrounding area as ‘three miles of enchanting nature’, and it’s not wrong. We walked down what must have been thousands of stone steps through dense, verdant forest, past waterfall bridges and natural gravity-defying archways. We hardly saw a single other person except for a group of hikers at about half-way who, to my amazement, were making their way up. My legs were in agony from walking down the incredibly long, steep stepways so I can only imagine what they were feeling. I wonder if they ever made it all the way up.

The third day was the mistiest. We took the trail that started right from Loguta ticket station to the Huangshizai scenic area (you can also get a cable car). Not seeing any people on our way up and looking relatively underwhelming from the map, we were wondering what to expect, but the views from here ended up being the most breathtaking in the park by far. An easy walking route once at the top, the walkway leads you past various different lookouts, each one more spectacular than the last. The views reminded me of ancient Chinese drawings I’d seen in museums and galleries, where the dark, decisive outlines of the mountains in the foreground gradually fade into the faint, delicate outlines of the distant peaks, until they  eventually disappear altogether into the mist. With only the tip of some karsts visible through the clouds, I could see why people think Zhangjiajie is the inspiration behind Avatar’s floating mountains.

Oh, and be sure to take the cablecar either up or down, it’s terrifyingly stunning.

 

 

A Laos diary

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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

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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.

 

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