Agra and the Taj Mahal

For our first taste of the Indian railways, the train to Agra in executive class was great, breakfast was served at our comfortable seats while we read the complimentary paper (but not for long because it was all doom and gloom and bad news).

Before long we had arrived in Agra and then onwards via yet another Tuk Tuk to our slightly grubby guesthouse. It’s really friendly though so it’s ok. From the roof we got our first view of the Taj Mahal about a mile away.

That afternoon we went to Agra Fort, which we much preferred to the one in Delhi. It was bigger and just generally more impressive, with views down the river to the waiting Taj Mahal.

Katy outside Agra Fort

Katy outside Agra Fort

Katy dancing around in the Fort

Katy dancing around in the Fort

Katy looking at the Taj from the Fort

Katy looking at the Taj from the Fort

Jason and his beard at the Fort

Jason and his beard at the Fort

From there we popped into the affectionately titled Baby Taj (the real name is Itimad-ud-Daulah). Believe it or not, the Baby Taj is a bit like the real Taj, but smaller. It was also more colourfully decorated on the inside and there were more monkeys in the grounds.

Jason doing, um, well I'm not sure what he's doing. But he is at the Baby Taj

Jason doing, um, well I’m not sure what he’s doing. But he is at the Baby Taj

People looking over the river from the Baby Taj

People looking over the river from the Baby Taj

Panorama of the Baby Taj

Panorama of the Baby Taj

Following that we headed to the bank on the opposite side of the river to the Taj to watch the sunset. It was a lovely view with the Taj being bathed in the golden light of the setting sun. To the right of the Taj, just along the river there were several funeral pyres burning with plumes of yellowy smoke twisting in front of the orange sunset. Complain all you like about the pollution in India, but it does make for stunning sunsets.

Sunset at the Taj over the river. Notice the funeral pyre smoke to the right

Sunset at the Taj over the river. Notice the funeral pyre smoke to the right

Katy spent some time painting the view (soon to be seen on the ‘Katy’s Sketchbook’ page) which attracted the attention of the police who later each looked through all the paintings in her book and said nice things.

The police enjoying Katy's art book

The police enjoying Katy’s art book

The following morning we were up at 5.30 (again) to see sunrise at the Taj Mahal. There was quite a queue to get in through the airport scanners and we had to go back out to put our head torches into a locker. Why on earth are torches banned?

Us at the Taj

Us at the Taj

Once inside we found the familiar postcard view of the Taj and proceeded to take far too many pictures. The low level mist made it look like the huge white Taj was floating on a carpet of cloud. The Taj is made of translucent white marble, and when you get close the detail is staggering. The carvings all over and the precious stones embedded into patterns make you realise why they claim this to be the world’s most beautiful building.

Katy in the early morning ticket queue

Katy in the early morning ticket queue

Taj through the mist

Taj through the mist

The Diana picture. The photographers didn't like us doing this, they wanted to take the picture and charge.

The Diana picture. The photographers didn’t like us doing this, they wanted to take the picture and charge.

"Katy....Katy.....KATY.....Oh never mind, I'll just take a picture of the back of your head".

“Katy….Katy…..KATY…..Oh never mind, I’ll just take a picture of the back of your head”.

You can see the detail better in high contrast monochrome

You can see the detail better in high contrast monochrome

It was built by an Emperor as a mausoleum for his favourite wife who died giving birth to their 14th child. We don’t know what is more interesting there -that it was his “favourite wife” or that it was her 14th child! Anyways, the Emperor was soon overthrown by his son who imprisoned him for the rest of his life in Agra Fort – which incidentally has a great view of the Taj Mahal.

Reflected in the water before the fountains came on

Reflected in the water before the fountains came on

Panorama in the mist

Panorama in the mist

Floating in the mist

Floating in the mist

As foreigners we were given shoe covers to walk around inside the building. The Indians had to go barefoot on the freezing marble floors – though entry tickets for foreigners are 30 times the price of a ticket for an Indian.

"A cliche you say?"

“A cliche you say?”

Katy having a sit down on the cold marble

Katy having a sit down on the cold marble

At one point we were pondering photo bombing a group photo taking place, then they asked us to be in the photo. For the next 10 minutes we posed for photos with the group, parts of the group and individuals. It turned out they were a college group travelling together, and in the end our faces hurt from smiling for so many pictures.

These guys asked us to be in their picture

These guys asked us to be in their picture

We kept being asked to pose for pictures

We kept being asked to pose for pictures

In fact, it all came to an end because we were told to move on by one of the guards. It was the third time this guy had told us off. First time it was because Katy got out her art book to paint the Taj. That’s not allowed apparently. He then checked her art book to make sure she hadn’t already done any illegal artwork – to be fair, he was very complimentary about the paintings (all can be seen on the “Katy’s sketchbook”).

Our second telling off wasn’t our fault at all. We had been chatting to an American guy and discussing the 5000 rupee fine for taking videos (photos are fine though). He took some sneaky videos of the scene (with our encouragement) and then handed us the camera to take a photo of him (video cameras nowadays take photos too don’t you know?). Of course as soon as Jason picked up the camera, our favourite guard popped up to try to drag our American friend off to see his Senior officer for a fine. We denied we had been taking video and instead took a picture for the American on our camera. He gave us his card to email him the picture – turns out he’s a CEO. He managed to sneak away and avoid the fine.

This would be impressive if it wasn't next to the Taj (picture taken from the Taj)

This would be impressive if it wasn’t next to the Taj (picture taken from the Taj)

One thing that rarely appears in pictures of the Taj Mahal is the huge buildings either side made of red sandstone. To the west is a huge mosque, one of the most important in India. The mirrored one to the east was just built for symmetry – but we did read that in the Lonely Planet so it’s probably a lie. That’s a bit harsh, the Lonely Planet guides have been useful, but the accommodation listed tends to be best avoided – being mentioned in the Lonely Planet pretty much guarantees guests will come, so the quality tends to nosedive. Recent online reviews provide much better information, it’s especially fun reading the negative reviews which can be really funny. Along with the reasonable gripes like ‘no hot water’, ‘bad wifi’ and ‘the owner stole my phone’ are the comedy ones like ‘I paid an extra $2 for a deluxe room and there was a bat in the room’ or ‘hotel was perfect but there were poor people who looked suspicious in the town’.

After exhausting ourselves looking around and taking photos for 3 hours we returned to the guesthouse for an Indian breakfast (stuffed paratha and masala tea) and a well earned nap. We spent the rest of the day at the guesthouse, what was the point in sightseeing other places the same day as the Taj? Jason had a go at fixing the failing wifi at the guesthouse and had some success but there is only so much you can do when the power keeps going off.

That evening the guesthouse owners lit a BBQ on the roof for us. We had BBQ chicken tikka which tasted great with Naan and Parathas which they showed us how to make in the small but less than spotless kitchen.

– Mix white flour and water into stretchy dough.

– Roll out about 4 inch circumference in lots of flour to stop it sticking

– Put either grated paneer or grated potato and onion into the middle and fold up the edges to make a parcel

– roll is out to about 8 inches across (again with lots of flour)

– coat both sides in more flour to stop it sticking

– for Naan – heat without oil on a pan, flipping it often until it inflates slightly

– for Paratha – as above but use oil to cook.

On our last day in Agra we decided to hit the local bazaars. As we climbed out of the Tuk Tuk the driver warned us firmly “Be very careful of your belongings, many pickpockets, many people. Not many tourist come here – local bazaar”. So we climbed out a bit sheepishly to start looking around. It was a sea of colour, smells and people. Katy bought a load of sarees and material after we had some fun haggling down the prices.

We stumbled across a huge mosque surrounded by bazaars and were shown around by the elderly caretaker who of course asked for a donation to the mosque at the end, but the mosque was interesting. Probably nearly as big as Delhi’s Jama Masjid but it much worse condition and with very few people inside. There was a small Muslim school there though. The caretaker claimed they got no money because Muslims were marginalised by the government, but that clearly didn’t ring true as the Jama Masjid in Delhi was clearly well funded (they charged for entry in Delhi which could explain the funding disparity between the two).

After the bazaars and mosque we headed to Taj Ganj to sit in a rooftop cafe for a last look at the Taj Mahal. We didn’t choose the cafe that wisely because the view was a bit obstructed but it didn’t really matter. After eating more curry with masala tea we made our way back to the guest house.

We had to get up at 4am the next day to make an early train towards Jaipur…

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Delhi

Delhi. In our original plan, Delhi was going to be our first stop, but everyone we spoke to said that was a bad idea. They said we should get into the swing of travelling before taking on Delhi due to how busy and alien it would be. We had been a bit nervous about arriving, mostly due to horror stories we had heard and read. We collected our bags from the carousel, passed security… deep breath…

…and it wasn’t bad at all. Admittedly it was the domestic terminal of Delhi airport not the international one with the frightening reputation but we are quite good at getting rid of taxi touts now. Also we had arranged a pickup through the hotel, and he was actually there – phew.

On the drive into the city we got our first glimpse of what Delhi had in store for us. At each set of traffic lights there would be beggars approaching the van or people trying to sell things (mostly books, but also a random assortment of things like model aircraft). At one such junction a little girl who looked about 10 climbed onto the side of the van and tapped on the window repeatedly whilst signalling she wanted food or money. Her clothes were covered in filth and you could see the dirt built up on her face, she clearly lived under the tarpaulins at the roadside. This sort of thing happened to us all over Delhi, but we have kept the attitude that giving them anything just makes them target tourists even more, which eventually starts putting tourists off from coming, which in turn means that the tourist money flow dries up. The best way to help is to spend money here.

Once at the hotel (which was quite nice) we had a quick look around, it was dark by then so we didn’t get far. It was a bit chillier than we had expected and there was a thick low level mist everywhere. We soon realised that the mist wasn’t mist at all, it’s pollution. The dry air mixed with the emissions from all the cars and fires makes for a thick dry air that hangs in your mouth and nose. The locals had lit fires to keep warm and the burning of rubbish is fairly routine too, but the sheer volume of rubbish everywhere makes the scene by the side of any British railway line look like a pristine wilderness.

For dinner we had one of the best curries yet and certainly the best paneer masala we’ve had. We have been eating nearly exclusively vegetarian food to try and avoid Delhi belly. So far so good.

The next morning we got up late and after breakfast had another wander around. We got pretty lost, but it didn’t seem to matter. You see people’s lives playing out on every street here, from barbers giving haircuts with rusty scissors to cyclo drivers napping on their cyclos. We even saw a group of about 20 men walking and chanting animatedly as they carried a stretcher with a dead body under a green sheet. Crossing the road here is easy compared to Hanoi, and the drivers mostly stay off the pavement (unlike Hanoi). We had been thinking it could be as bad as Hanoi for getting around, but on foot, Delhi is miles easier, though the scale can make navigation an issue.

Katy outside Humayun's Tomb

Katy outside Humayun’s Tomb

Katy walking around the courtyard of Humayun's Tomb

Katy walking around the courtyard of Humayun’s Tomb

Soon we decided to hop in a Tuk Tuk to head towards Humayun’s Tomb. The fun really starts when trying to get a Tuk Tuk. They quote silly prices and sometimes won’t budge from them. We had to walk away from several before getting one at a reasonable cost. The traffic is really congested and slow moving in places as cows compete for space between lorries and bikes.

When we made it to Humayun’s Tomb we were impressed to find what is often described as the inspiration for the Taj Mahal – though it is red and a bit smaller than the Taj.

Katy at Humayun's Tomb

Katy at Humayun’s Tomb

Jason outside Humayun's Tomb

Jason outside Humayun’s Tomb

Next up we Tuk Tuk’d to the Lotus Temple. Thus time all the drivers would agree a fair price and then say “Ok, we go to my friend shop, then Lotus Temple. You no like, you no buy from shop”. Yeah right. We did get to the Lotus Temple in the end, without the forced shopping experience.

The Lotus Temple

The Lotus Temple

As it was a Sunday the queue for the temple was around 500m long, so we didn’t actually go in. Instead we had a look around the park next door and took photos through the fence. It’s a Bahaist temple, which means all religions are welcome. We were asking for trouble turning up on a Sunday then. The park was way more entertaining, with kids playing cricket everywhere and people coming up to us and asking to have photos taken with us. We must have looked funny.

Katy asked if she could have a photo with these ladies

Katy asked if she could have a photo with these ladies

Next up we headed north towards Old Delhi on the Metro. It’s very new and clean. It has some rules than London Underground could do with, like the advertised 4 year prison sentence for obstructing the closing doors.

Before long we had arrived in the heart of old Delhi. It was extremely dusty and dry with loads of people going about their days. We were looking for the Red Fort but somehow came to the Jama Masjid first and had a good look around. Katy had to wear a comedy gown because her conservative clothing wasn’t quite conservative enough. It was a spectacular mosque, the biggest in India.

Taken in HDR mode (3 photos taken at different exposures to even out lost detail in very dark of very light sections of the image). The moving pigeons are a result of the 3 images, but it looks cool because it captures the movement of the scene.

Taken in HDR mode (3 photos taken at different exposures to even out lost detail in very dark of very light sections of the image). The moving pigeons are a result of the 3 images, but it looks cool because it captures the movement of the scene.

Jason at the Jama Masjid

Jason at the Jama Masjid

We fought our way through the heaving market, dodging donkeys, goats and traders carrying stuff on their heads. On the other side we came to the famous Fort. The entrance was the most impressive bit with its vast fortified red walls. Inside was a host of smaller buildings and museums or varying degrees of interest. We liked just watching some of the many chipmunks bouncing around.

The huge entrance to Delhi Fort

The huge entrance to Delhi Fort

A guard with rifle watches over the ornate carvings inside the Fort

A guard with rifle watches over the ornate carvings inside the Fort

After the Fort we were heading towards the Metro and agreed we were a bit hungry. The street food looked about as hygienic as sewage (the grime having built up all over the cooking areas) when we bumped into an old friend. Ronald McDonald. We had heard that Indian McDonalds is different yet similar, so we have it a go with a Chicken Maharaja burger (the Big Mac substitute – no beef here) and a Spicy Paneer Wrap (Paneer is cheese which often pops up, a little like Haloumi without the squeakiness). Despite the different ingredients, it all tasted like McDonalds. But a little bit Indian. It was strange feeling like we recognised it.

Later on we drank more masala tea in a rooftop cafe before Skyping home.

Again we woke up late (Delhi was tiring) and found that the new Biffy Clyro album had been released so we set iTunes to work. No wonder HMV is in trouble when you don’t have to leave your hotel room to get the music you like.

After lunching on the main bazaar we headed south to Minar Qutab, the world’s tallest brick minaret. It was nicely set in gardens filled with other ruins, but we barely had a moment to ourselves as so many people wanted photos with us. Lots of comments about our sunglasses and even more about Jason’s beard. People always say he looks like he should live in Rajastan. We spent the rest of the day exploring on foot, through several parks.

Minar Qutab through some ruins

Minar Qutab through some ruins

"No Katy, that looks silly". Minar Qutab.

“No Katy, that looks silly”. Minar Qutab.

We had a 6am train booked to take us to Agra and we opted to walk the 10 mins to the station from the hotel leaving loads of time. The ‘mist’ was thicker than ever as we picked our way past the potholes and sleeping people along the quiet streets. In the station there was the usual airport style scanners. The Indians are seriously concerned about terrorism, all tourist sites, all metro stations and train stations have these scanners. Though nearly every time they beep and you get waved through anyway. As we approached the scanner someone asked to see our tickets. He then advised us that they needed validating at an office upstairs. “That’s bullshit” was Jason’s immediate reply (we could both smell a scam) and the scammer walked away. We assume it was a scam because our tickets worked just fine.

Delhi was a city of huge contrast from the outset. We would see beggars and street kids outside brand new office blocks, or open sewers next to sparkling new metro stations. On the roads Carts pulled by oxen jostle for position with the brand new AC public busses. The poverty is more obvious here than almost anywhere we’ve seen so far, but the biggest surprise of all was just how much we had enjoyed Delhi.

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India!

We said goodbye to Katy’s parents at Colombo airport, they flew into a snow covered London while we flew to Cochin, in the Kerala region of South India. We were a little apprehensive and didn’t really know what to expect of India. After a surprisingly quick passport control we got ourselves a taxi for the hour or so ride to Fort Cochin. The taxi driver had the most foul smelling breath and it was a relief to breathe some fresher air when we got out. For the entire length of the main dual carriageway that we were on, either one side or the other was closed for what looked like very slow resurfacing work; but the drive was far more peaceful than we had been expecting from India’s roads.

Our guesthouse in Fort Cochin was a cute little place, but the only person that came to the door was a confused Dutch or German lady in her 60’s. She wouldn’t let us in. It turned out that she was just a guest and was worried about security, now we might look a bit scruffy (Jason’s beard in particular) but we don’t look like criminals? Perhaps we do.

It was sort of our own fault that there was nobody to meet us. The owner had popped out because they weren’t expecting any more guests to arrive that day. But we had booked? A closer inspection showed that we had booked it for the 19th of February instead of January. This wasn’t our first date related error in the last few days, we must be losing track of time.

The guesthouse was fine except for the air conditioning unit – it was 36 degrees out so AC was a must. It had 3 settings (in order of power) “Quiet”, “Cool” and “Power Cool”. They perhaps should have had better descriptions of what they sounded like, “Quiet” should have been “Bus Engine”, “Cool” would be better as “Over-revving bus engine” and finally “Power Cool” should have been simply “Jet engine”. It did cool the air a bit too, but mostly it just made noise.

We wasted no time in heading into town to explore as dusk was fast approaching. The first thing that hit us was the smells. What sets India apart from everywhere we have been is the smells – the spice that hangs in the air or the odour of burning incense seems to lurk just around every corner. Granted there is the odd sewer smell, but so far it’s been mostly good smells. Before long we had sat in a restaurant and had our first masala tea (many more followed) in India along with a masala curry which was excellent.

This net was being hauled from the water

This net was being hauled from the water

We awoke to find that the field outside our guesthouse was packed out with kids playing cricket which felt very Indian, they seem to play on any patch of land. We wandered towards the towns famous Chinese fishing nets, huge contraptions operated by a team of four who lever a big net into and out of the water in the hope of catching fish. They didn’t seem to catch very much but it was fun to watch. Next we made our way to the Dutch Palace which was full of murals depicting all sorts of stories and from there we explored the Jewish area of town. Here there were the spice markets and tourist tat shops along with some art galleries.

And you wonder why there are so many power cuts

And you wonder why there are so many power cuts

We had noticed that the Indians were less smiley and less likely to wave when compared to their Sri Lankan neighbours, but that is not to say they are miserable. Take the Tuk Tuk driver than took us back to the hotel (for 75p for a 10 minute journey), he was angling for a tip, but he was entertainingly charismatic. He liked the look of Katy’s slightly garish sunglasses (she’s had this pair a few weeks and hasn’t broken them yet!) so he asked to wear them for a bit. He then drove around slowing down whenever he saw a friend to get them to have a look at his grinning face complete with Katy’s shades. We did give him a few extra pence for the entertainment value.

The waiter had an Irish girlfriend who had posted him Jenga but he didn't know how to play so we showed him and ended up in an epic Jenga battle. Katy won.

The waiter had an Irish girlfriend who had posted him Jenga but he didn’t know how to play so we showed him and ended up in an epic Jenga battle. Katy won.

The next day we moved inland to Periyar Wildlife reserve, a four hour taxi ride away, and mostly uphill which was almost too much for our taxi. We were in a 2009 Ambassador, a car model which has barely been modified since being copied from a Morris car from the UK in 1958. The 70 odd horsepower of this beast made sure we were in 1st gear for large stretches of the journey. It just didn’t like to rev. We did make it in time to head out for a great curry in Periyar.

The road to Periyar - pay attention to the signs, there were big drops

The road to Periyar – pay attention to the signs, there were big drops

Curry by candle light

Curry by candle light

We ventured into the wildlife park having read that there were nearly 4000 wild elephants and 40 odd tigers in the park, though we didn’t really expect to see either. We had booked to do a short trek the following day and self guided trekking is forbidden (there are plenty of rangers enforcing it too) so the first day we opted for a boat ride. The park is set around Periyar lake, where several times a day the boats go out laden with visitors to look for wildlife. Near the jetty we got our first taste of what appears so far to be the prevailing attitude of young India men towards animals. This guy went up to a thin tree where some monkeys were sitting high in the branches and began to shake it with all his might, much to the amusement of his friends. The monkeys were really angry and 5 or 6 of them ran at him which served him right. He wasn’t alone though, they all seemed to be teasing the monkeys with food or trying to scare them. Why come to a wildlife reserve just to be mean to the wildlife? It was little wonder then that a few minutes later a monkey was really aggressive towards a little kid who had wandered too far from her parents.

The boat trip in the park. The tree trunks are from where they flooded it to create the lake.

The boat trip in the park. The tree trunks are from where they flooded it to create the lake.

We had to wear life jackets, but the ear plugs were our choice

We had to wear life jackets, but the ear plugs were our choice

When the time came to get on the boat we found that it was really loud because that same group of young men were on our boat merrily shouting at each other. Any wildlife would have heard us coming half a mile away across the perfectly still water and disappeared but we were happy just to look at the beautiful scenery. Fortunately we found some earplugs in one of our bags which helped drown out the din – one of them even started drumming loudly on the metal side of the boat which made us laugh. Despite the noise, we did spot some wildlife, about 20 elephants having a drink from the lake – it is apparently rare to see so many at once in Periyar. Perhaps they don’t hear so well. We did enjoy the boat ride, especially spotting the elephants. We also saw deer, but no one cares about that – we saw wild elephants!

Elephants spotted from the boat

Elephants spotted from the boat

Two groups of elephants

Two groups of elephants

That evening we headed into the local town to try out a restaurant some people at the guesthouse had recommended. It was an excellent vegetarian curry house where we had a top notch chickpea and paneer tikka curries.

The local town at dusk

The local town at dusk

The next morning we got up really early (5.30) to do the trek we had booked. Once we had found our guide we were told to put on some provided gaiter stockings to stop leeches latching onto us and then we set off. Very close to the start point we had to balance on a bamboo raft as it was pulled across the water. The raft was literally a few big bits of bamboo held together with twine, the sort of thing you would build to escape a desert island. It was fun though, and we didn’t fall in, though the guide admitted that people often do. The lake was still covered in early morning mist, so it felt like a real adventure heading off across it into the unknown.

Us trekking in the park - the gaitors were to stop leeches

Us trekking in the park – the gaitors were to stop leeches

Once on the other side we headed off into the forest reserve in the hope of seeing some animals. Our guide clearly didn’t like mornings and was quite grumpy with us, but in a way that made it good for us because we could rationalise not tipping him at the end. We did find fresh elephant poo fairly early on – regular readers will remember that we learned all about elephant poo in Thailand, and we can report that the elephant poo we inspected was indeed from a healthy elephant. We didn’t see any elephants that day and our guide told us it was a good thing because they charge at people as they don’t like humans (more likely they just didn’t like him in particular because he was grumpy).

Jason searching to horizon for wildlife...

Jason searching to horizon for wildlife…

We did see a plethora of different bird species which we found so interesting that we have forgotten the names of all of them (some of them were quite impressive). Towards the end we spotted a herd of bison, and it was great fun sneaking closer to them to get a better look. We also saw a tiger footprint, but no tiger. On the way back we were taken past the spot were an elephant had died 3 years before (after losing a fight with another elephant). The bones had been scattered, mainly by the packs of wild dogs but some were still around and of particular interest was one half of the jaw bone with the tooth intact. The single tooth was massive, no wonder they can chew through sugar cane at speed.

The following day it was time to leave for Alleppey, so we had booked another taxi. The taxi driver wasn’t a particular favourite of ours and his constant belching filled the car with a less than pleasant smell which we had to endure for 3 hours while he drove like a madman. We had 4 very near misses, it was like he hadn’t driven before, though we resisted the temptation to ask whether it was his first time driving.

The next morning we headed to the town jetty to look at the houseboats, one of which we were to select to rent for the next 24 hours. It was getting really hot and by the time we had looked at a few we were starting to feel it. One salesperson told Jason he was very cheeky for asking whether the price offered was his best price and that the prices are fixed. Two minutes later, the same guy was dropping the price to try to get us on board – so no, he was not offering his best price at the start. Cheeky. In the end we settled on the most luxurious boat we found, which was also the most expensive, though we did get the price down by about 25% to 9500 rupees (£110).

Katy and our houseboat

Katy and our houseboat

We were relieved to get on the boat and out of the heat. The houseboats are all based on traditional rice barges used to transport rice around the backwaters for distribution from the coastal towns. This backwaters cruise is one of the most highly rated things to do in India, and we are really please we opted for the fancy boat. It had an upper deck with a sun area complete with deck chairs.

Our houseboat had a great upper deck

Our houseboat had a great upper deck

Jason hiding from the sun on the houseboat

Jason hiding from the sun on the houseboat

It was lovely and relaxing to float along through the backwaters past people washing clothes in the water or kids walking along the banks on their way home from school. The food which was served was excellent, all sorts of curries which the crew of three had prepared freshly – we felt a little bit ostentatious having three crew members just looking after us.

A houseboat (in the style of rice barges)

A houseboat (in the style of rice barges)

At 5.30 sharp all the boats have to moor for the night (something to do with fishing rules), so we were moored near a brightly coloured water tower somewhere in the backwaters. Dinner was more dishes of great curry and after a while we decided to retreat to the cabin to avoid the many, many mosquitoes.

Keralan backwaters - houseboat and a water tower

Keralan backwaters – houseboat and a water tower

We were up early to make to most of the morning calm and watch the sunrise, again with the low level mist on the water, but at about 10 it was already time to leave our houseboat behind. It was a great experience and one that we would strongly recommend to anyone.

The sunrise from our houseboat

The sunrise from our houseboat

Katy on the houseboat - we got up at dawn in the mist

Katy on the houseboat – we got up at dawn in the mist

When we got back to our guesthouse in Alleppey, we checked in and decided that we needed to get some bookings done for North India. There was no internet connection at the guesthouse (it was installed the day after we left – cheers then) so we decided we would charge the recently depleted laptop battery a bit and head off to find wifi in town. Moments after we plugged in, the power went. Power cuts have been fairly regular in India so far, there were a few in Sri Lanka too, but many more in India. In fact, it turns out that in Alleppey whenever there hasn’t been much rain (it is mostly hydro power), they have two daily power outages as the electricity board implements rolling power cuts. We really do take electricity for granted in the UK; though the UK does need to get building power stations otherwise a similar scheme of rolling power cuts could happen at home too as the old power stations aren’t being replaced (or so Jason has read in the book he is reading).

This power cut was not the scheduled one though, it lasted all day. We did manage to find power in a grotty bar in town which also had the wifi we needed to book some hotels in the North. We also made a trip to the beach where they were doing camel rides (we didn’t have a go), but it was nice to see loads of Indians playing in the sea.

Loads of Indians in the sea at Alleppey

Loads of Indians in the sea at Alleppey

Still without power at the guesthouse that evening, we joined all the other guests in heading to a nearby cafe which had a generator. Of the people we met, the most memorable were two retired English sisters. They had spent the whole day telling the poor guy running the guesthouse (Michael) what to do to improve the place. To his credit, he had been listening to them and done most of what they had told him to – and it had made the place nicer. They were amusing in their no nonsense attitude towards telling him what was what.

The power came back on in the hotel late in the evening, and it was a relief to get the AC on, it had been a very hot day. Early the next morning it was time to leave the heat of the South behind and head to the chilly North.

To Delhi, the one we’ve been nervous about…

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Beachy Sri Lanka

So we arrived in Negombo for the first part of our week in beachy Sri Lanka on the 11th of January. An organisational hiccup on our part meant that we had arrived a day earlier than necessary as Katy’s parents weren’t due until the following day. Oops.

We checked into the hotel and were pleased to find a pool on the roof, so we spent the rest of the day lounging around and making some arrangements for the looming giant of the trip which was to follow – India.

Katy eating Sri Lankan Hoppers in Negombo

Katy eating Sri Lankan Hoppers in Negombo

The next day (the day Katy’s parents were actually due) we Tuk Tuk’d to the airport to meet them with flower garlands to welcome them. For the rest of that day and the next we spent our time eating curry, drinking beer, drinking ginger beer, lounging around and exploring our surroundings. Ginger beer became a common theme for us, with EGB (Elephant Ginger Beer) being the top brand – though its gingery kick did vary from bottle to bottle.

"But where are all the fish?"

“But where are all the fish?”

We explored Negombo fort (from the outside as it is now a prison) and a huge vegetable and produce market that attached to the morning fish market which we didn’t get up early for. The market was full of colourful vegetables all spread out on the floor, vendors sitting nearby and canvas shelters strung out, flapping in the breeze and at just the right height to whip off our hats! Katy had to hold her nose as we passed the dried fish section. Katy was also keen to avoid the snake charmer with his dancing cobra.

Fishing boats in Negombo harbour

Fishing boats in Negombo harbour

Another day, another stunning Sri Lankan train journey. This time from Negombo through Colombo and down to Unawatuna on the South Coast. The first leg to Colombo was 3rd class only so was hot, standing room only and full of beggars who often had grotesque looking ailments on display. The onward ride from Colombo would have been similar had we not utilised the services of a man raising money for charity by helping tourists get on the right part of the train for 2nd class seating and helping them scramble through the scrum to secure seats. He was raising money for a deaf school (or so he claimed) but without him we would have been standing for 3 hours.

The train track to the South follows the picturesque coastline nearly all the way and there was some lovely scenery along the way. The line had only recently reopened following the 2004 Tsunami (opened April 2012 we think). Sri Lanka lost around 50,000 people to the tsunami and the word tsunami still reverberates around Sri Lanka like last night’s nightmares. Even this doesn’t seem to dampen the average Sri Lankan’s mood and the perma-smiles attached to people’s faces.

Once in Unawatuna we made our way to the hotel that Katy’s Dad had booked for us. It was amazing. Situated yards from the deserted and postcard perfect beach, with luxurious rooms too. Each evening we could sit in the hotel bar and watch giant sea turtles poke their heads above the linen white surf to snap up tasty treats (bugs) – bringing a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘turtle heading’.

The beach at sunset

The beach at sunset

The following morning we walked along the sand to a sea lagoon which was perfect for swimming and slightly sheltered from the breaking waves by a reef. We enjoyed snorkeling around in the warm, clear water spotting all sorts of fish.

Katy and her Mum in front of the sheltered lagoon - you can see the waves in the background breaking on the reef before the lagoon.

Katy and her Mum in front of the sheltered lagoon – you can see the waves in the background breaking on the reef before the lagoon.

It turned out that our hotel had survived the tsunami thanks to the reef and rocks sheltering it, but everything for miles either way had been devastated. The staff told us how there were 400 people squeezed into the grounds of the 8 room hotel and how they had cooked rice on a fire to feed everyone.

Katy painting on the beach

Katy painting on the beach

Katy and her Mum walking down the beach

Katy and her Mum walking down the beach

That evening we Tuk Tuk’d into Unawatuna town for dinner. It was narrow streets lined with rustic looking bars and restaurants which somehow gave the area a music festival feel. We chose our spot for a drink by the sea with views of the bay and then moved next door for rice and curry. The front part of the restaurant had been reclaimed by the sea and the section we were sat in looked as though it would soon follow. There was a 6 inch wide crack in the wall where the sea had undermined the structure by washing the sand out from underneath each high tide. Luckily for us, it stayed firm while we were there and we had another great rice, curry and ginger beer.

Mike on the beers

Mike on the beers

After a day on the beach, we decided to visit Galle town, not far along the coast. We spent most of the time there looking around the old fort which was impressive, especially walking on top of the walls and looking out to sea past the rocky pools that sat beneath the towering walls.

The view from the top of the Galle Fort walls complete with swimming kids

The view from the top of the Galle Fort walls complete with swimming kids

Next up we found our way into a posh old colonial hotel for drinks. It felt so colonial in fact, that we felt every bit like the sweaty English people portrayed in Hollywood movies about the colonial era. Katy’s patents thought it was the same place they had been for drinks 30 years ago when they first came to Sri Lanka.

We decided to head back to the beach that afternoon while Katy’s parents had a trip down memory lane to visit the town of Matara an hours train ride away. I think we made the right call because they didn’t seem to have fallen in love with Matara, but we had a lovely swim and a sunbathe. We went back to Unawatuna for dinner later on.

Beach front restaurant - notice the wall dips in the right hand side of the picture - it was crumbling into the sea.

Beach front restaurant – notice the wall dips in the right hand side of the picture – it was crumbling into the sea.

The next day we managed to get a bit sunburned while snorkeling  but it didn’t stop our enjoyment of the fantastic beach and swimming opportunities. All too soon it was time to get back on the train to head back to Colombo, the stay at the beach had been a luxurious treat.

Katy and her parents on the beach

Katy and her parents on the beach

Us on the beach at sunset

Us on the beach at sunset

Once back in Colombo we got a Tuk Tuk into the centre to find it surprisingly quiet (it was just after dark) and a large security presence near where we thought there were things to go and see – it turned out to be the president’s residency. We did manage to find a highly rated local eatery, though we think it was more of a lunchtime place. We had dinner and then headed to the Galle Face hotel which is an old Colonial hotel which was quite posh. We sat and drank cocktails containing Arrack (local liquor) and ginger beer (of course) while we took in the surroundings by the sea while some locals were celebrating a wedding in a room nearby – many wearing brightly coloured Sarees.

In the morning we boarded the train from Colombo to Negombo and arrived in Negombo in time for a swim and a laze around by the pool before a lovely walk along the beach at sunset.

Mike (Katy’s Dad) had booked dinner at a really fancy seafood restaurant which had a cricket theme. It was run by a very camp Brit who enthusiastically told us that we were eating in the newly opened part of the restaurant – the Umpires Lounge. Once we had worked out the complicated menu we ordered some fantastic food. The fish we would be eating were stored (live) in tanks at the side of the restaurant and we were there to watch the chef scoop them out with a net. The guilt of condemning them soon subsided once they arrived on our plates because they tasted so good. We also had a huge plate of shellfish, including Oysters. The meal was a great way to end our time in Sri Lanka and was yet another example of how generous Katy’s parents had been for the whole week. Thank you very much, it was an excellent week of luxury!
We were expecting something very different from India which was up next…

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Hilly Sri Lanka

NOTE – Sorry this is a bit overdue! We’re actually in India now, but we haven’t posted about the two weeks we just spent in Sri Lanka yet, the first week is below.

Also, don’t forget you can click on the photo’s to enlarge them.

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We arrived via Skytrain to Bangkok airport to find our flight had been delayed by 5 hours, it would now get to Colombo at 3am. We passed the time by sneaking into the 1st class lounge to steal the wifi password and sitting nearby using the Internet. The airline did pay for dinner though.

When we eventually did get to our hotel in Colombo of was 5am. At 9am it was time to check out to get the train to Kandy. We had decided that we didn’t have time to explore Colombo and would focus on the highlands and ancient towns this week.

While in Colombo we booked all our train tickets we needed for the next week. Mostly we got 1st class in ‘observation cars’ for £3.50 each, but for our first journey, there was only unreserved 2nd class – otherwise known as bundle class. It was fun though, especially when all the kids screamed through each tunnel.

Monkeys and rusted out car - the view from our hotel room in Kandy

Monkeys and rusted out car – the view from our hotel room in Kandy

Once we had arrived in Kandy we set off to explore. The town is based around a lake and most of the touristy stuff is nearby. We spent some time watching a performance of traditional Kandyan dancing which included scary masks and fire walking.

The dance performers in Kandy

The dance performers in Kandy

The next day we got the bus North to Sigiriya which is a huge magma plug left behind by a long since eroded away volcano. It is essentially a massive rock which used to have a royal residence on the top. We arrived in torrential rain which made us decide to climb the rich on the following morning. It was a good call because the sun came out in the morning – though it did make the 2 hour climb a bit of a sweaty one.

Sri Lanka - Sigiriya rock

Sri Lanka – Sigiriya rock

The climb up Sigiriya

The climb up Sigiriya

The route up took us past cave paintings and a pair of massive lion’s feet between which the steps pass. There used to be an entire lion but all that remained was his feet. The views from the top were impressive, and you could see why the king had his seat of power here.

Of course there stray dogs half way up the rock, why wouldn't there be?

Of course there stray dogs half way up the rock, why wouldn’t there be?

Jason at the top of Sigiriya

Jason at the top of Sigiriya

Later on we got on the return bus to Kandy. This time the bus had the loudest, most high pitched horn which made it feel like your whole head was resonating every 5 seconds whenever it was used by the horn happy, and surely completely deaf bus driver. We arrived in Kandy with cracking headaches, but a rice and curry with ginger beer soon sorted that out. Rice and curry is only normally served at lunch and it is quite a treat. It consists of more rice than you could possibly hope to eat and usually 4 or 5 small curry dishes which normally includes a dahl (lentil curry) and sambol (grated coconut and chilli). Sometimes it’s a bit too spicy but mostly they have been just about right.

That evening at the hotel we had another curry, this time the chef cooked it in front of us and talked us through what he was doing – so, to make a Sri Lankan chicken curry –

1) Put a big glug of oil into a hot saucepan, add onion, garlic and curry leaves.

2) Stir it up and add curry powder (12 spices), chilli and a spoonful of soy sauce.

3) Add the chicken and cover with water to boil the chicken.

4) Once the chicken has cooked and most of the water boiled off, add coconut milk.

5) Enjoy (though you still need to cook the rice, sambol, dahl and other dishes – but for us they just appeared from the kitchen. We did have to send it back to cook the chicken properly, but once it was fully done, the curry was lovely.

In the morning we were due to catch a train South to Nanu Oya station to stay in Nuwara Eliya town. The train was due to leave at about 9 but we realised on the way to the station that we had bought tickets for January the 8th. Today was the 9th. Oops.

The 9am train was fully booked, but luckily we got a spot in the observation carriage on the midday train. So now we had 3 hours to kill. The station we were at is 4km outside Kandy town at Perendiya Junction, we decided to hang around nearby to save the Tuk Tuk fare back to Kandy.

In the end we stumbled across a guesthouse on the hill nearby which was just opening and being renovated. The owner had been working in a big Colombo hotel and had just managed to buy his own place. They offered us cake, then realised they had none, so someone was sent to the next town to buy it! We chatted about how he could get westerners to start coming to stay while we ate the cake. We told them about how they had to have an online presence, particularly on the trip advisor site in order to get customers from the west. Hopefully they’ll do it and be successful because they were really nice people who were working really hard.

We returned for midday to find the train was a further 2 hours late. We spent longer waiting for that train than we spent at the hotel in Colombo on the first night.

It was worth the wait though. The observation carriage was right at the back of the train and we sat in rickety armchair like seats facing backwards towards the full height window at the back but also with wide opening side windows. This was billed as one of the world’s best looking train journeys, and it lived up to its billing – especially for £3.50 each. The three hour ride started by passing through the town where there were half built or badly built two storey buildings just yards from the train but always with smiling waving Sri Lankans. There were plenty of abandoned railway carriages and even steam trains left on long since abandoned rails which had become rusted and overgrown with greenery spouting from them.

The train from Kandy to Nanu Oya - tea factory in the distance

The train from Kandy to Nanu Oya – tea factory in the distance

The town soon gave way to the rolling hills covered with the green stripes of tea plantations and tall trees that looked like they belonged in the African savannah or a Disney cartoon. As the train wove its way higher into the hills and into the clouds, a light mist was enthused around the tea plantations and the tea pickers could be seen carrying bags of freshly plucked tea leaves.

Wherever the train stopped, these guys would appear on the track selling stuff.

Wherever the train stopped, these guys would appear on the track selling stuff.

Often there would be people waiting to cross the tracks on hillside paths, waving happily, especially the children. The Sri Lankans often use the rails as footpaths and just move whenever they hear a train. This became especially apparent while we passed through tunnels. We would see torch lights huddled in coves in the tunnel walls to avoid the train, or silhouettes of people following us into the dark – often schoolchildren. Another spooky experience was the bats that would be woken from their slumber by the rumble of the lumbering locomotive through the tunnel. They would fly straight at the carriage only to swoop up at the last moment out of sight.

The start of the sunset

The start of the sunset

As the mist thickened as we neared our destination we were given a final and spectacular reward – our delayed departure meant we saw an amazing sunset as the sun pierced through the mystical mist laden tea plantation valleys making it look like something out of Lord of the Rings. After the sun had ducked behind the hills all that was left was a much thickened mist which revealed only the occasional nearby tree like a ghost next to the track.

Sunset from the train

Sunset from the train

The sun disappeared behind a hill

The sun disappeared behind a hill

The last of the light through the mist

The last of the light through the mist

We alighted the train at Nanu Oya and avoided the rip off taxi touts who were adamantly claiming that there were no buses to town and we had to get a ludicrously expensive taxi instead. We got the bus that they claimed didn’t exist for 20p all the way to Nuwara Eliya town where we had a hotel booked.

Yet more touts greeted us. One claimed to be the owner of our hotel despite producing a tattered business card from a different hotel. We ignored him and made our way to the hotel ourselves where the tout was waiting. The hotel staff advised us not to speak to him but for some reason didn’t kick him out. Luckily he soon tired of trying to get us to book overpriced tours – we pretty much ignored him. We had arrived 6 hours later than expected and it was now well into the evening so we ordered food at the hotel. We were served the biggest and one of the best rice and curry dishes we had in Sri Lanka.

In the morning it was pelting it down with rain so we opted not to bother with our planned hike to ‘the worlds end (an 800m high rock platform with a sheer drop) as we figured that all we would see of the supposedly spectacular view would be the white clouds of swirling mist.

The train back to Kandy was meant to be at midday. We were told once we got to the station that it was 3 hours late due to the heavy rain.

Katy in the rainy tea plantation

Katy in the rainy tea plantation

We decided to go for a tea plantation walk in the rain and we were joined by a friendly dog that we named Rango. He would trot a few yards ahead of us through the plantation and sometimes shelter under the tea bushes to wait for us. We passed several groups of tea pickers carrying their morning work on their way to lunch, all smiles and waves.

Sri Lanka - tea plantations at Nanu Oya with Rango our dog for the day leading the way

Sri Lanka – tea plantations at Nanu Oya with Rango our dog for the day leading the way

When the rain intensified Rango decided we should head back to shelter and started back towards the station, but always stopping to wait for us. As we passed the porch of the abandoned building near the station where he had first joined us, he gave us a nod and sat back in his sheltered porch spot.

In the end, we think our train was cancelled but we did manage to board a different one a few hours after where they accepted our tickets. We bailed on first class because the windows didn’t open (due to AC) and sat in 2nd class with a charming Sri Lankan family. Dad was an ambulance driver from Colombo and Mum worked in the hospital. The three boys, 14, 8 and 2 were a constant source of entertainment, particularly the younger ones who loved it when we made paper airplanes for them. We were given food by them too and it really made the journey fun having people to talk to and kids to play with. We took their address and vowed to send a postcard from London.

Back at our Kandy hotel, again much later than planned, we settled down for one last night in hilly Sri Lanka. At 5am we got the early train back to Colombo and onwards to Negombo on the coast to wait for Katy’s parents who were due to join us for the second week of our Sri Lankan adventure…

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Bangkok has us now

The road to Bangkok…
The tale that follows is the true story of how a routine 8 or 9 hour bus journey turned into a 16 hour epic of endurance, patience, mental fortitude, frustration and boredom. The events took place on New Year’s day 2013.

We left the room at 7am to wait for the pick up from the guesthouse in Siem Reap. After a quick lap of town in a minibus we were put onto an old but comfortable bus to go to the Thai border at Poipet. Around 3 hours later we stopped a few miles short of the border for lunch. The noodles we ate seemed ok, but we were paying for them for the next 4 days – if you get what I mean. At the same lunch stop Jason was stood still long enough for one of the giant cockroaches to run up his leg. It got as far as his knee before being thrown off. Nasty, but the day was still going relatively well. What happened next was the rubbish bit.

We got to the border and left the bus behind to walk across the border. A 45 minute queue to clear Cambodian passport control had to be the worst of it right?

No. We then had to queue over 3 hours, largely in the hot sun, to get to Thai border control. At one of the busiest border crossings into Thailand, they had 3 staff on duty. An eternity later we had to wait for the onward connection which showed no signs of arriving for well over an hour. We were then put into a minibus which pelted us towards Bangkok at what must have been near the speed of sound. Normally we wouldn’t have minded this, but all the other traffic on the road was moving slowly, or was in a traffic jam in some places. That meant we were going near the speed of sound on the wrong side of the road into oncoming traffic which was often forced into the gutter to avoid us. A particular lowlight was zooming around a corner on the wrong side of the road while the Captain had a chat on his mobile. We have to hope that the reason they refer to bus drivers as ‘bus Captains’ is because they had piloting lessons from Captain Kirk.
We somehow made it to Bangkok in one piece – bad driving is fairly normal in Asia, but this guy was a cut below. Other people we met had very similar experiences, there is not much we could have done to avoid it. After being dropped off the cab ride to our hotel took a while because our hotel was the other side of town from the drop off and the local pronunciation of our hotel name was very different to ours. If you ever stay in the ‘Nasa Vegas Hotel’ in Bangkok (great name right?) it is pronounced ‘Nar-SAAAHHH Vey-GAAAHH’.

And so we come to the end of this tale. It was by far the worst border crossing we have done and total transit time of 16 hours was a bit silly. But then again, it did only cost $10.

Anyway….Bangkok –

Our preconceptions of Bangkok were strongly influenced by the movie ‘The Hangover 2’. A group of 4 friends lose the bride to be’s little brother in Bangkok the night before the wedding. They are constantly told by others when they ask about their missing friend that ‘Bangkok has him now’.

At breakfast on the first day we spied a rotund man with short hair and a beard wearing a loud Hawaiian shirt – just like one of the characters in the film – he looked quite a lot like him. We assumed our little joke would end there, but then he went and sat down with 3 others. One was slightly geeky and nervous looking, one a looked at bit sensible and the other was clearly the leader. If you’ve seen The Hangover part 2 you will have realised that this group dynamic is a mirror image of the film. Unbelievable. We did some eavesdropping and found out they were German. We even considered following them for the day to see what they got up to, but unfortunately the noodles from the day before kept us at the hotel for the rest of the morning.

Katy on one of the narrow stall lined streets

Katy on one of the narrow stall lined streets

Later in the day we did manage a trip to the Kho San Road area via the new Skytrain. The Skytrain gave good views of the city and was really quick. The only drawback was the whistle happy platform controllers who must have been paid per whistle sound to keep us passengers in order. We even got whistled at for straying to within 5 metres of the platform edge – naughty us.

The Kho San Road area is perhaps Asia’s most famous backpacker ghetto, but we were surprised to find it less busy than the area we stayed in Ho Chi Minh City. It was still as expected, with stalls selling everything from offensive t-shirts to fake degree certificates. We bought some stuff we didn’t need and headed for home.

Back at the hotel we made friends with a friendly fish that we named “Bwains”.

Bwains the fish would meet us out of the lift each time. I bet you can't guess why we called him Bwains?

Bwains the fish would meet us out of the lift each time. I bet you can’t guess why we called him Bwains?

The next day we were feeling only slightly more energetic but managed a good wander around town, culminating at sunset with drinks at ‘the Dome’ sky bar which is used for a scene near the end of The Hangover 2. The sunset was stunning with a warm brown mist blurring the horizon line.

Bangkok - sunset at the skybar

Bangkok – sunset at the skybar

The following day we started early to explore the Royal Palace area which is crammed with huge and colourful temples. Also lots of huge and colourful tourists – those wearing shorts were forced to hire brightly coloured baggy trousers – luckily for us we had dressed appropriately.
Every corner we turned we were wowed by towers, temples and statues of brilliant white, dazzling metallic mirrors, pastel rainbow ceramics, floral designs and pure sunshine gold.

Bangkok - the main temple area

Bangkok – the main temple area

If you look closely, you can see that it's actually Jason in the middle, not a third demon.

If you look closely, you can see that it’s actually Jason in the middle, not a third demon.

Just across the road was another temple zone with the largest reclining Buddha in Thailand. It was enormous, too big to catch in a single picture because it was within a pagoda. Along the pagoda wall just behind the Buddha were a long line of metal pots where people threw coins. The whole pagoda echoed with the chiming sound of coins hitting metal like distant church bells.

Katy has been breaking sunglasses a lot. This was pair number 4.

Katy has been breaking sunglasses a lot. This was pair number 4.

We then got a Tuk Tuk to Chinatown where we struck market gold. The wholesale market stretched along several roads and we bought more things we didn’t need, but this time at a fifth of the price they are sold on the Kho San Road and the tourist markets. Katy bought 6 pairs of comedy sunglasses – for use at work in the hospital. Still no glow in the dark Buddha figures though – we are starting to think they don’t exist.

Our last stop was the Asia Hotel to see “The Playhouse” cabaret show. Not your average cabaret show. This was performed mainly by Ladyboys (Thailand’s third sex). They mimed to lots of hit songs wearing a variety of sequin covered sparkly dresses. It was a funny experience, and on the way out they grabbed people and ordered a photo be taken, then demanded a tip before unhanding their shell shocked victims. Experience Ladyboy aggression in Bangkok – tick.

This aggressive Ladyboy demanded we take a picture, and then demanded a tip. Look at the grip she has on Katy's shoulder!!

This aggressive Ladyboy demanded we take a picture, and then demanded a tip. Look at the grip she has on Katy’s shoulder!!

That’s about it for Bangkok, and Thailand, in fact that’s about it for South East Asia – for now at least.

The next evening we flew to Sri Lanka.

END OF PART 1.

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Angkor Wat

On Boxing Day we boarded yet another bus, this time from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap (still Cambodia). The drive took us over long sections of bumpy dirt tracks through little villages of thatched roof huts on stilts with children and dogs playing outside while the family water buffaloes cooled off in the bright green algae pond next to the huts. After the bumpy ride we were dropped off seemingly in the middle of nowhere. The waiting Tuk Tuk drivers torches where the only lights and they picked up all the dust in the air from the dry dirt road. The dust gave the appearance of thick mist which made it feel like we were in an Indiana Jones film.

The next day we had our first chance to see what we had come to Siem Reap for – Angkor Wat. Siem Reap is just the town near Angkor Wat (as you cannot stay within Angkor Wat). Angkor Wat is a vast city of massive and ornately decorated temples built from about 800AD to 1200AD. The site was then abandoned and reclaimed by the jungle only to be rediscovered by the French in 1860. The biggest temple – Angkor Wat itself (Wat just means temple) is the world’s largest religious structure. Technically, Angkor Wat is just one of the temples, but it lends its name to the whole complex. Some of the temples are only partially cleared of jungle so there are trees growing through walls to give the real ancient ruin experience!

On day 1 we hired a Tuk Tuk for the day to do the ‘small circuit’ which is the main tourist lap which includes most of the big hitting temples, the bigger loop is the ‘grand circuit’ which goes to the more remote spots. First up we headed for Angkor Thom, which used to be a city in itself, supposedly with a million inhabitants. Stone buildings were only for the gods, so the wooden dwellings that would have surrounded have long since disappeared. The biggest temple within the giant walls of Angkor Thom was the Bayon, which contained 36 towers, each with a face on all 4 sides cut into the grey rocks.

Angkor Wat - one of the faces at Bayon Temple

Angkor Wat – one of the faces at Bayon Temple

Below the towers were a series of spooky corridors and partially restored walls. We then explored more of the temples, terraces and other structures within Angkor Thom. We had already become accustomed to the constant pestering by stall owners if you strayed too close which is sometimes unavoidable.

“Hey Sir / Laydeee – you wan cold wataaaah? One dollaaaaah.”

“10 postcards, one dollaaaah”

They all pronounced it exactly the same as one another, even the little kids who would follow you for a while trying to sell you stuff like wooden recorders, fans or postcards. We found it quite funny after a while. After Angkor Thom we went to several temples of various ages, sizes and state of repair. Most have been at least partially restored. Our final stop of the day was Angkor Wat itself. The complex sits within a square of walls, each side over a kilometre long and the walls are surrounded by a 190m wide moat. We crossed the mote on the stone walkway leading through the gatehouse and into the grounds of Angkor Wat. The temple itself is really impressive, with 5 spires towering with the tallest middle one reaching 65m. Inside it was covered in intricately carved pictures. That concluded day 1, it had been silly hot (35ish) so we were exhausted. The temples had been as impressive as the seemingly romanticised guide books say so.

Angkor Wat at sunrise

Angkor Wat at sunrise

The next morning our Tuk Tuk driver picked us up at 4.30am to take us to see sunrise over Angkor Wat. We got there in pitch darkness and secured a spot right on the edge of a pool of water that separated us from the temple. By 6am there must have been 2000 people there to see the view, so we felt quite smug that we had arrived early enough to get the best view at the front (as our Tuk Tuk driver had insisted was necessary). And what a view it was. Even though it was cloudy, the sunrise over Angkor Wat was spectacular with the reflection in the water only disturbed by huge pink lotus flowers and the occasional tiny frog jumping out. The spirituality of it was stifled somewhat by the size of the crowd and the Chinese lady stood near us who was watching the latest episode of her favourite soap opera out loud on her iPod (Katy asked her politely to turn the sound off and the woman looked shocked to be asked. Seriously though, why get up at 5am to watch sunset but then actually watch TV instead?).

Us at Angkor Wat temple just after sunrise

Us at Angkor Wat temple just after sunrise

After the sunrise the crowds disappeared back to hotels so we took the chance to go into the Angkor Thom temples again, this time minus the crowds, which made it a far more pleasing experience. Somehow, the quieter a temple is, the better it is to explore. Luckily, the tour groups tend to just plough through a temple visiting the main parts, so in the bigger places it is always possible to find a secluded bit of ancient ruin.

Angkor Wat - Katy painting at Phimeanakas Temple

Angkor Wat – Katy painting at Phimeanakas Temple

Angkor Wat - Katy at Baphuon Temple

Angkor Wat – Katy at Baphuon Temple

Angkor Wat - the Bayon Temple

Angkor Wat – the Bayon Temple

We realised that early mornings were a far more rewarding way to see this place. So for the next few days we had some early starts and by doing that managed to avoid the crowds and the worst of the heat. The temples are spread around quite a large area, all joined by dusty roads, with mostly just jungle or the occasional hut village in between. The scale of this place really hit us when we were on bikes. We cycled around 12km from the guest house to ‘Ta Prohm’, also known as Tomb Raider Temple after it was used as a set in the Tomb Raider movie with Angelina Jolie. This one was only partially recovered from the jungle, so there are loads of huge tree roots snaking their way through the walls and parrots swirling through the tress overhead.

Jason at Ta Prohm Temple (Tomb Raider Temple) - early morning before the crowds.

Jason at Ta Prohm Temple (Tomb Raider Temple) – early morning before the crowds.

We also meandered through a local village towards one of the smaller ruins which is more out of the way. We were the only people there, even the path to it was overgrown, but all that really remained was a few piles of rock. The village was far more interesting. There were cattle pulling carts around, kids trying to fly homemade kites while the men tinkered with fences or engines. As we passed through on the way back to the road, the ice cream man arrived. He had a cool box attached to the front of his bicycle and he rung a bell as he moved along. Watching all the little kids faces light up and run towards the ice cream was really funny. We had to head back to the guesthouse soon after as it was just getting too hot, but we covered about 30km, mostly in temperatures of 30+.

We opted for the grand circuit on day 4, with another early start to see sunrise at Sra Srang which is a huge rectangular pool. It was another impressive view but we didn’t stay long because we were keen to visit the Tomb Raider temple again early in the day so it would be quiet. It worked, and in the half light of the early morning the place had a magical feel to it. Katy took the time to do some paintings while Jason did some wandering around a deserted part of the temple which was more collapsed and reclaimed by the jungle than the rest of it. After clambering up a crumbling slope of a wall to take a photo I (Jason) heard a movement behind me, I spun around to see what I thought at first was just another lizard. But then I realised it didn’t have any legs and was slithering. It was bright green and a bit over a foot long. Unfortunately for me, the only way out was to climb back down past where the snake was lurking. At the time I didn’t think much of it, so I just climbed back down assuming that the snake was long gone. We later looked up the snake online to find it was one of two types – both highly poisonous. Phew.

Angkor Wat - Both of us Pre Rup Temple

Angkor Wat – Both of us Pre Rup Temple

The view from the top of Pre Rup

The view from the top of Pre Rup

For the remainder of the day we rode our Tuk Tuk around the grand circuit and explored many temples, including the one we eventually decided was our favourite. It was called Pre Rup and it is described by the guide book they hand out as an “Architecturally and artistically superior temple-mountain”. Couldn’t have put it better ourselves.

Angkor Wat - Jason at Pre Rup

Angkor Wat – Jason at Pre Rup

It was a steep climb up to the top and the views of the surrounding jungle were excellent, so good in fact that we returned next morning for sunrise. It was the best sunrise we saw, with the fewest other people. At one point we had the whole massive place to ourselves.

Angkor Wat - Pre Rup Temple at Sunrise

Angkor Wat – Pre Rup Temple at Sunrise

That evening (the 30th) the guesthouse held a big party for New Years a day early (so they did not have to compete with the big parties in town the following night). It was really good fun, they had cooked loads of Khmer foods and had big ice boxes full of refreshing Angkor Beer. They also had an Apsara dance performance (traditional Khmer dancing) with live music which was a nice surprise – It’s a bit like Thai dancing but requires better balance.

Siem Reap - Apsara Dancing

Siem Reap – Apsara Dancing

Our final visit to the temples was the following morning to see the aforementioned sunrise at Pre Rup. The temples of the Angkor Wat complex were everything we had hoped for. The extra effort to avoid the heat and crowds really paid off and we feel that we stayed long enough to really explore and enjoy it. Our last night there was New Years Eve, so we headed into town to join in the party on ‘Pub Street’ which had turned into one big street party. Next up was a 9 hour bus ride to Bangkok on New Year’s day. Well, it was meant to be 9 hours, but that’s another story…

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