My best travel tips

Now that we are five months into our journey I thought that I might just share a few travel tips I have learnt along the way. Some of this is from my own experience and some from other travellers.

When we left home neither of us were rookies. We had both travelled before and, indeed, Dave and I had done a 7 month trip a few years before with only carry-on luggage. I thought I had it down pat but of course time tells a different story.

I managed to pack 2 things that to this day I have not worn (taking up precious bag space) and a couple of really poor choice items. So my first little pearl of wisdom would be that anything that goes into a bag (especially a small one) should be comfortable, not so worn that it will fall apart with repeated hard washing and potentially big enough that a couple of gained kilos won’t make it too tight 😉 . If you are going to be travelling for a while try to bring clothes that you can happily throw away as you make new purchases that way your wardrobe can be a constantly evolving entity, as well as potentially providing clothes to charity or other travellers when you discard them.

Pretty much everyone when they travel sees things that they would love to own. Some call them souvenirs, I call them memories. Either way they take up space. So there are a couple of ways around this. One would be to work out postage on an item and then send it home. We have done this with a few things, the biggest being a 1.5m x .4m teak carving we bought in Thailand last time we were here. We paid $15 for it, then paid $30 for shipping with instructions that if it required any handling costs at the other end we would go as far as another $20 and anything above that was not worth it. We now have (in storage) a lovely teak elephant carving that cost us $45 instead of $100-200! Well worth it 🙂

Alternatively you can start with empty bags, sometimes one packed inside another works well, and fill the spare, or buy a new bag when you start shopping. Again, I must admit to doing this myself. Last big trip, after travelling 6 months with only carry-on luggage we hit Europe and Egypt and ended up with nearly 35kg of luggage and a new bag. I have heard of people bringing a spare bag that is collapsible inside their luggage and filling that one as an addition. If it is a soft bag though I would certainly only put clothing inside, luggage handlers are not always gentle.

That said, another tip regarding baggage handling (other than I hope the obvious that you NEVER put anything valuable or breakable into checked luggage, always take it carry-on) is that if you are one of those who hate hanging around the carousel waiting for your bags to turn up, and who doesn’t, apparently putting “fragile” stickers on it means that it is last into the hold and first out. I personally have not tried this but have heard that it does work.

Also, if you are travelling as a pair or group with people that you trust (eg: husband/wife combo) and are checking in your bags, make sure that you mix the contents. What I mean is that don’t just pack a bag for him and a bag for her, mix-up the clothes and toiletries. That way if one of the bags is lost you will have something in the bag for both people. The likelihood of both bags going missing at the same time is less than just one. That said, as a solo traveller, do put a spare change of clothes in your carry-on when practical. Could mean the difference between clean clothes the next day and not.

One of the things that I wish I had brought a lot more of are ziplock bags. These little beauties take up practically no room but are a godsend. I use them to keep documents dry, keep random spare money in when we have left a country, store sunscreen and insect repellent in my handbag to stop leakage, keep medicines dry… all sorts of things. I am so wishing I had a dozen all in different sizes. When we were in the mouldy room I would have loved to put our passport wallets in a ziplock. It would have meant that I didn’t have to wash the money with the mould on it – no money laundering 😉

As for money, well that is very much a personal preference. No one that I know of uses travellers cheques anymore. There are specific traveller debit cards that can be pre-purchased at home and have a set amount in it (like a bank account) and you can use them at atms. For us we just use our normal banking cards. We have visa debit card and a mastercard credit card. The fees are not too bad (although each bank is different and this would be worth checking before leaving) and the convenience is priceless. The reason for 2 cards is twofold. If a machine eats a card then we are not left with no access to money and some atms are very fussy about visa vs m/card. I have friends that travelled with a m/card and the whole city was visa only. They were in quite a bind until a hotel agreed to cash advance from their card. It is definitely something to consider. We also make sure that we have a stash of hidden money in US dollars. If all else fails and we are robbed of obvious money (wallets, credit cards etc) then we can still get by for a few days while we get things sorted.

And finally I will leave this here with one last practical tip when travelling to hot countries. If your budget doesn’t include air-conditioning (or there is none) getting to sleep at night in muggy conditions can be a bugger. A fan is great but it doesn’t always do the job. So, I take my specifically bought sarong, dip it in water, wring it out so that it is still damp but not really wet, and lay it across your feet. The water evaporates and cools you down enough that you should drop off and once asleep, just hope you stay that way 😉 (Thanks for the learning of that Mum 🙂 )   It is simple but it does work.

Below I have included a few other things that I have found useful when travelling:

  • Sarong – as mentioned above but also useful as a towel, sheet, makeshift bag, curtain
  • Pegs – a dozen stashed away for hanging clothes (or money after laundering), closing curtains, securing mosquito nets, closing half eaten chippie(crisps) bags
  • Kids library book bags – or any lightweight drawstring bag; keeps clothes separate eg: underwear, handy as a spare shopping bag, great for keeping all electrical cords in one place
  • Bright ribbons to identify your bag on the carousel, tie it round the handle to make it easy to spot
  • A decent padlock – a lot of rooms in Asian hotels have padlocked doors so to prevent someone else having a key we always swap their padlock for ours.

If you have any tips to add or want to know more let me know in the comments below. Cheers for now.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd this is Harry, the Tokay gecko. He is a nightly visitor to our light hoping to catch some big moths. And when I say big that is because Harry is huge. He is the second biggest gecko in the world and when fully grown will get to 40cm!! Our Harry is only a teenager at about 20cm but he is still one very impressive bloke 🙂

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Thongs and toilets

As we are now done for a little bit with the travelling I thought that I would take the time to tell you about a few things that hadn’t made it into blogs. You see, while we are on the move so much is happening and I try not to make the blogs too long so there are bits and pieces that are left out for the sake of economy. Well, now is the time to look back and write about a few of those things. So today I thought I’d share some traveller knowledge gleaned along the way and tell you about thongs (of the feet kind) and toilets.

Now the first thing to know is that these 2 things are incredibly closely linked – a lot closer than you might think.

When we left Aus I had my trusty thongs packed and ready to wear. As with all choices for a long trip, clothing and especially footwear have to be comfortable (I know through hard experience that trying to break in new shoes while travelling can be very painful). My thongs were well loved, comfortable and I knew could withstand the rigours of being worn day in and day out.

Because I knew we were heading into warm weather I only packed my thongs and a pair of hiking shoes as footwear. There was no plan or likelihood of us flouncing into a fancy restaurant where I might need “real” shoes so thongs were my daily go-to shoes.

I’m not sure how familiar you are with thongs (that being of the footwear variety 😉 ) but they come in 2 main types; pluggers and for the sake of a better name, non-pluggers. Pluggers are usually a thin rubber base with a rubber strap that runs between your toes, through the base of the thong and ends with a ‘plug’ to stop it from pulling through. The other non-plugger type of thong has the toe piece sewn into a thicker base and doesn’t involve a hole through the sole.

Now that hole is what is so important. And it is the joining point for thongs and toilets, as I’ll tell in a second. First though lets examine developing country’s toilets, yahoo I hear the crowd cry.

Every place we stayed had a normal western toilet. Depending on the country you may also have a basket/bin where you are expected to put your used toilet paper. Many places do not have the sewerage system to deal with toilet paper. It is not as bad as it sounds – you just use it and pop it in the bin and the cleaners come daily and take it away. Easy and sanitary.

Unfortunately though when you are out and about (restaurants/bars etc) they do not necessarily have the same standard. Well, in nicer places the odds go up but as budget travellers we were usually in local restaurants and bars so we seldom encountered what I would call a nice bathroom. Often there might be a western toilet but it may not have a seat (not that you would ever sit down on one anyway – trust me on that) and it might not flush. The giveaway for the no flush is the large bucket/tub of water with a dipper. Once you are done, fill the dipper and use the water to flush everything away. Again, sounds icky but it is pretty effective and a simple process.

Now if you are very unlucky it will not be a western toilet but a squat. That is a porcelain ‘hole in the floor’ with 2 footpads where you are expected to do exactly as the name implies – squat. These, while purportedly very good for both the back and the bowels (????) are completely unpleasant. The main reason being that in many places there is just one unisex toilet and I am here to tell you – blokes have rubbish aim. The walls and the floor are usually unfinished concrete and urine soaks right in and the smell at squat level can be appalling. I had forgotten how bad it can get until our first bar outing in Sri Lanka and I can tell you – it’s enough to make the eyes water.

So that’s thongs and toilets. But how do they connect. Simple – think about splashing water into a toilet to flush it, or worse still a unisex toilet in a bar with badly aiming blokes. The floor of these toilets can sometimes be nightmarish. Now add a pair of thongs that have a hole in the sole (pluggers) and you can see where I am going with this.

At the bar in Sri Lanka I literally borrowed Daves thongs (non-pluggers) to go to the toilet. The smell was bad enough but the thought of that ‘water’ gooshing up between my toes was too much for this shrinking violet. So, my advice… If you are going travelling in developing countries I would strongly recommend a pair of thongs that have no hole in the bottom and thick soles. Saves a lot of ick and also the hassle of trying to buy a comfortable new pair while on the road 🙂

Oh and even if you are not going to local restaurants and bars a lot of travellers will wear thongs in their hotel/hostel shower to avoid the chance of catching anything foot diseasey – I would still go for non-pluggers for that as well. Trust me – that feeling of liquid-between-toe seepage is not nice.

So on that note, having educated you on the thong-toilet connection, I will leave this delicate conversation and post up a few random piccys. If there is something you would like to ask about our adventures or experiences so far please ask in the comments below. I have plenty of time to share my ‘wisdom’.

Next blog will be about packing and travel in general. A few things I have learnt over the last few months 🙂

Asian toilet sceneDidn’t feel right posting a blog about toilets without at least one toilet photo. Admittedly this is a pretty clean example but it does show the whole idea of the concrete, the dipper and the rubbish bag. Definitely don’t want plugger thongs with that floor 😉

Waterfall Ko ChangSomething a little bit nicer 🙂

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA rusted out old pier in Kerala, India.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASunset swing here on Ko Chang.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThese kids were screaming with delight as the guy was using man-power to turn the “ferris wheel”. Delhi, India.

Klong Prao RiverThe view from our verandah at night in black and white (although this is the way it looks with the fluro path lighting).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd to finish – this is my idea of money laundering 🙂 The mould had gotten into our passport wallets and the left over money from previous countries had gotten mouldy so I washed it and hung it up to dry heheheh Never know when we might go back to either Nepal or Malaysia and need some rupees.

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Ko Chang in the monsoon

So, imagine a tropical paradise… an island that is small enough to drive the outside in a day, the centre a mountain range with dense impenetrable rainforest, ringed with an azure sea and fringed with tiny islands edged with coral reef, all topped off with pristine beaches lined with hotels, resorts, restaurants and bars. That is Ko Chang and that is where we are.

Well perhaps I should say that is Ko Chang in peak season however we are not in peak season, we are in the monsoon season. So, what difference does that make? Well, for us not a lot really. We are still on a gorgeous tropical island but azure seas don’t shine so much under thick cloud cover and you can’t have rainforests without rain. A lot of the bars, restaurants and hotels are either closed or all but deserted but all of those things work in our favour.

The “green season” as the tourism spin doctors like to call, it is fantastic. It generally only rains a little bit each day and the rain is not the cold miserable kind, it is more the laugh and run around getting wet kind. And unpeak means cheaper prices as well for accommodation. Less tourists mean less crowds and we are happy to have a bit of a break from people.

We spent 3 days on a scooter checking out the various hotel and bungalow options before making our choice. Basically the tourist side of the island (the west) runs in sweeping beach coves with steep hills in between and each beach has its own personality. The first area we stayed in was “White Sands Beach” and has a lot of upmarket resorts with smaller places dotted between. It is only one street wide and while it was ok it wasn’t really what we wanted as a place to base ourselves for the next month or two.

The next beach is nice enough and certainly had some budget options but there wasn’t much in the way of shops or restaurants so we moved on. The middle beach of the lot is where we picked – Khlong Prao beach. It has plenty of food markets (fruit etc) as well as the typical 7-11 (Thailand has millions of them) plus a good range of restaurants catering not only to local Thai food but also a few western places, pizza etc. The beach itself is just off the main drag and has a collection of rustic bars to while away the sunset hours.

To round out the tour, there are another 3 beaches that stretch further down the island. Kai Bae is only a short hop away and has a lot more restaurants and bars than our little stretch so if we are looking for a more ‘fancy’ meal that is where we head. (Have only been once as the place I wanted to go to was closed for the wet season and the food in this neck of the woods was waaaay more expensive).

Lonely Beach is the backpacker scene and on the other side of a very scary downhill/uphill ride. Bars and restaurants crowd together over a 4 street area with cheap food and drinks and big rowdy beach parties. Not really conducive to relaxing and staying away from the party scene. Then there is Bai Lin beach which is more of the big resort, quiet family scene. Again, too pricey and not really our thing.

When we started our accommodation search we initially thought we would quite like a beachside bungalow and spent a good deal of time checking out the various options. They ranged from tiny cramped shacks to cool looking stilt bungalows but our sticking point was the lack of a fridge. We wanted a place we could bring store bought beer and relax in peace and solitude on our own deck. To do that we need a fridge. We also had decided that making our own breakfast and lunch was a better option and again, in the tropical climate of Ko Chang, we wanted a fridge. In our price range there was nothing that suited so we kept hunting.

And then we found a small slice of almost heaven. About 3 minutes scooter ride from the main drag of Khlong Prao ‘township’ we found a set of eclectic adobe rendered bungalows that front a stunning stream. We called up and yep – fridge provided, along with a kettle and yes he would negotiate a price for a whole month stay. So here we are at “The Artists Resort” paying the grand sum of $330 for a month of peace and quiet.

The great thing is that there is no one else here so we can come and go as and when we please. We can sit on our verandah at night, drinking our beer and playing our music and know that we are disturbing no one. Love it!!!

The only thing that makes it an almost is the mould factor. Unfortunately being a concrete rendered place with only a few small windows means that the constant rain brings damp and mould. We have launched an antimould attack (spraying with vinegar) and we seem to be having a win so overall we are both pretty happy.

Coming home each night has us carefully shining the torch at the path ahead of us as we have so far had 5 snake encounters (2 here and 3 on the road during the day while driving the island) and while only 1 was dangerous (a monocled cobra) we take no chances and it certainly adds to the excitement of living in such an exotic locale.

Below I have added a few piccys of the area, some waterfalls and a couple of the snakes we have met. The cobra shot was me using Daves phone as my camera was buried in the bag and that snake was not hanging around. It turns out that I am rubbish at using Daves phone so the piccy is not too good but hey – it is a cobra so I couldn’t leave it out 😉

White Snads Beach - Ko ChangWhite Sands Beach on a sunny afternoon.

Ko ChangThe eastern side of the island and the clouds that drenched us 🙂

Nang Yom waterfall - Ko ChangNang Yom Waterall.

Ko Chang - Khlong Prao beachSundowners are just awful, as you can imagine.

Ko ChangAnother empty restaurant. This one turned off the lights literally 10 seconds after this shot. There are just not enough tourists to go around at this time of year 🙁

The Artist ResortFunky little house (the stairs lead up to the roof where we go to exercise). Our house is the one next door but to photograph it I would have to be in the creek 😉 We don’t have a front path because 6 feet from our verandah is the bank of the creek.

The Artist ResortThe view from our verandah.

Wolf snake - Ko ChangWe have seen this guy, a wolf snake (non-venomous) about 3 times now. Only small but really cute.

Monocled Cobra - Ko ChangThis guy, thankfully, we have only seen once – a monocled cobra. SUPER venomous but happily this one wasn’t interested in us or the scooter. (Again sorry about the picture – it does show his hood flared though 😉 )

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To Thailand

Leaving Nepal was a sad goodbye but coming to Thailand was like a breath of fresh air. Both of us have visited Thailand a few times (Dave – more than a few) and we knew what to expect but even so, we were so happy to land in a ‘civilised’ country.

While India was certainly exotic (take that as you will) and Nepal was fantastic there is something quite modern and metropolitan about Thailand, especially Bangkok.

The rough plan was a few days in Bangkok before we headed to Ko Chang, an island paradise in the Gulf of Thailand about a days travel away from the capital to the east. Like most travellers we were partying a little too heartily and had decided we needed to stay put for a bit to try a bit of clean living and to stop spending so much money and we figured a tropical island sounded like just the right place to chill for a couple of months 🙂

After all the developing countries we had visited in the last few months Bangkok was such a relief. Anything you want you can find in that city, apparently there is even vegemite to be bought in the big supermarkets.

We based ourselves in Khao San Rd in central Bangkok. For those not familiar with Khao San Rd it is the place of all backpackers. The whole road and now the 2 adjoining it have been backpacker hangouts for years, and lined with guest houses ranging from the boutique to the tawdry and bars and restaurants galore it is a great spot to stay.

On the first day there we headed in to Chatuchak markets. Now I have been to many markets, indeed I would call myself a market lover but Chatuchak is something else. It is massive. Ok, make that even bigger than massive at a grand size of 27 acres!!!!! It is so big that they have maps to help you find which area of the market you might find your prospective bargain. And bargains they have. It is a huge building with mile after mile of stalls selling all manner of things at great prices.

We wandered the market for about 3 hours before the heat started to get to me. There is literally everything there from puppies to silk flowers, antiques to jeans, jewellery to wedding supplies. It is a treasure trove and worth a look if you ever get to Bangkok. I have been twice and it never ceases to impress.

Another day we headed into the main part of town where all the big shopping malls are. The 2 biggest are Siam Centre and Siam Paragon Mall, 2 side by side multistorey shopping meccas. Siam Centre is the ‘normal’ shops that we would see at home and in most shopping centres around the world. Lots of clothing, shoes, electrical etc. And a great food court where it seemed like everything was cooked fresh with ingredients you select yourself. It was fantastic.

But then we went next door to Siam Paragon Mall and oh, wow!!! This was like walking onto Rodeo Drive. Every shop was a Gucci, Prada, YSL, Hermes etc etc and some of the most exotic jewellery and watch shops I have ever seen. And the shoppers, another wow! I have never seen such beautiful and beautifully dressed people anywhere in the world. Shopping not for the unrich likes of us but certainly there seemed to be many who could afford such luxury 🙂

It felt as though everyone we saw had just stepped straight out of a fashion magazine – a far cry from what we had been seeing everyday for the last 4 months. It was fabulous.

Under the mall is a massive aquarium so we wiled away a few hours there looking at the amazing fish and aquatic creatures before heading upstairs to take in a movie. Now that all sounds really mundane but the idea of seeing a movie was fantastic. We had not been anywhere with accessible English speaking movies for months and indeed, even English speaking tv was as stretch in most places.

I think sometimes that it is only when you are unable (for whatever reason) to do such simple things that they become so much more pleasurable. I mean, going to the movies at home, while pleasurable, was no big deal but somehow it was just that much better in Bangkok 🙂

Another day of general organising (banking, postage that sort of stuff) and we figured we were ready to head out to Ko Chang. And then we discovered that the next night was State of Origin (for those that don’t know it is a grudge match football game held over 3 games each year and must watch tv for anyone from Queensland or New South Wales). So of course we delayed our departure, talked a bar into changing off the soccer highlights onto Australian football and settled in for an afternoon of beers and cheers. Sadly our team didn’t win but I would still say that it was a simple pleasure that reminded us of home.

Thus with no small hangover we hit the bus and headed to Ko Chang. But I’ll tell you about that next time 😉

Chatuchak markets
Crocodile bag – Chatuchak markets.

Chatuchak marketsLoved and wanted the antiques.

Chatuchak marketsDaves’ new girlfriend? Bit of a glamour although very quiet 😉

Siam centrePick your own bits and they make it into a soup or stir-fry. So fresh!!!

Siam centreSiam Ocean WorldOh yeah – I got a haircut as well 😉

Siam Ocean WorldSiam Ocean World.

Thai noodle soupMy favourite place to eat – and right outside our hotel. Chicken noodle soup, freshly made and delicious for about $1.20, available until the wee small hours 🙂

Thai noodle soupOh my!!!! Soooo tasty!

(This one wasn’t mine – I always forget the piccy and start to eat – and it isn’t chicken but you get the idea 😉 )

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Bodhnath temple, Kathmandu

On the outskirts of Kathmandu is one of the most revered temples in all of Nepal and certainly the largest stupa in Asia, Bodhnath.

Originally Boudha was a stopping point on the trade route from Lhasa (Tibet) and Kathmandu (Nepal). The Tibetan traders would stop here to pray for safe travel as they headed over the Himalayan passes with their laden yaks. In current times it is a special place in the lives of the many Tibetans living in Kathmandu and Nepal. After China invaded Tibet in 1959 many Tibetan people fled the country into neighbouring Nepal and Bodhnath temple and the surrounding town of Boudha is a place where they can practice their Tibetan brand of Buddhism without interference. I had read that on the night of the full moon the temple would be especially stunning as the devotees light thousands of yak oil lamps in prayers and it just so happened that we were there for a full moon so to Bodhnath we went.

From the street all we could see was the tip of the spire atop the stupa with flags reaching away but following the crowds took us through a large gateway into the central courtyard where the stupa holds pride of place. Actually it would be fairer to say that the stupa takes up pretty much all the room inside the courtyard. It is massive!!

It is a multi-tiered structure intended to represent all the important elements of Buddhism. The plinth base is the earth, the beautiful white kumbha dome is water, the square harmika tower with the all-seeing eyes of Buddha is fire and the spire is air with 13 tiers showing the steps to enlightenment and the top most umbrella representing the ether or the void that is space. All that said though it is a beautiful temple with prayer flags fluttering to all corners and a fresh clean look that feels so serene.

The serenity of the stupa is a strong counterpoint to the scene at the base. Literally thousands of people come daily to pay their respects. Butter lamps and prayer wheels are everywhere and everyone that enters the courtyard walks in the traditional Buddhist clockwise direction and all complete at least one circuit of the temple.

For us it was awesome. We wandered amongst the crowd, following the clockwise stream. The assortment of people was inspiring. There were maroon clad monks walking along fingering their prayer beads, average everyday Nepali folk chatting happily in family groups, robed Tibetan monks leading lines of faithful believers, the uber-devout who complete the circuit by prostrating themselves on the ground for each step and of course, the tourists. Every face seemed to be happy. And I am not kidding when I say that the feeling around the base of the stupa was one of comfort and peace. Sounds kitch but that is literally how it felt.

Everyone seemed to just cruise along with no jostling, no angst or rushing. It was a very calm and relaxed place, especially when I consider that there were hundreds of people all turning around the base of the stupa. This for me was a really cool place and one I would recommend anyone visiting Nepal go and see.

It is so easy to get ‘templed out’ in Asia. Sometimes it feels as though the only thing that a town has going for it is amazing temples, one after another, but Bodhnath was quite different. I think it was a combination of the visual spectacle that is the temple itself as well as the sheer volume and peaceful nature of those who came to visit. It was terrific.

Of course in the end Dave and I took refuge in a 3rd storey bar to watch the world below us turning and to wait for the full moon to rise. Unfortunately we should have gone one floor higher for the moonrise (I went up to check on it and voila – there it was – moon beside stupa – mad scramble to get the camera etc etc heheh). I didn’t get any decent piccys of the moon because I had chosen the wrong spot but either way we certainly had a great afternoon.

And it was a lovely way to end our trip through a country that has proven to be visually spectacular both in the mountains and the cities and towns with some of the most welcoming people we have met anywhere and traveller hospitality that was utterly fabulous. We loved Nepal so much that we had planned to spend a couple more months but the monsoon season up against the Himalayas is just a bit too much to contemplate when simple things like electricity supply and internet are an issue. So to Thailand we go bidding a sad farewell to Nepal with promises to be back. Loved it and want to do it again (but in Oct/Nov/Dec when the weather and the views are said to be spectacular 🙂 ).

BodhnathEntering the temple precinct through a corridor of 3 storey buildings and shops.

Bodhnath

BodhnathThis little old lady was giving blessings in return for a small payment. When she got up to leave she had a wad of notes that was inches thick. Her blessings must have been well regarded.

BodhnathAll around the stupa were people in silent meditation and prayer.

Bodhnath

Bodhnath

BodhnathA slow shutter view of the people all moving in one direction.

Bodhnath

BodhnathAs dusk falls they close the access to the stupa and the whole thing is lit up with fairy lights. It was a truly beautiful sight.

BodhnathSome of the thousand yak oil lamps lit for prayer. I lit some myself and gave thanks for all of my blessings.

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Kathmandu – a city of contrasts

Kathmandu is the capital city of Nepal and like many large cities it is a mix of peoples, styles and cultures. It is a sprawling metropolis of over a million people, Nepali and displaced Tibetans living side by side in apparent harmony.

My first impressions of Kathmandu were definitely positive. After the hectic pace of India it was like a breath of fresh air to be amongst people who live a calmer, more peaceful way of life. Even the drive from the airport was calmer – no racing in and out of traffic, no loud obnoxious horns blowing at every second. I don’t mean that people stay in their lanes and drive calmly but compared to what we had just left it was a step closer.

We stayed in the old part of town known as Thamel. It is a maze of streets lined with shops of all kinds, restaurants and bars aplenty, and in random spaces would be a shrine or temple for daily offerings. In some ways Kathmandu reminded me of Rome. I was lucky enough to go there a few years ago and the thing I remember most was the feeling of awe when you turn the corner of some random street and there is a remnant of ancient times, melded into the modern city. Kathmandu felt the same.

We would wander past some shops of comparatively modern age, only to find them nestled up against a building that was built in the day of ornate balconies and glassless windows. A small doorway off the street may lead into a house or it may take you through to a courtyard with shrine and statues for people to thank their God. And often it was not just one God. There could be Buddha and Ganesh (the elephant God of Hindu beliefs) sitting side by side in one space.

Wandering around we came to Durbar square. It is a large space that holds over a dozen temples and sacred buildings and is one of the most amazing spectacles. In 1934 a massive earthquake all but demolished much of Kathmandu and certainly most of the buildings in Durbar square but the people recovered the broken pieces and rebuilt the temples, paying homage to the craftsmanship of the original builders of the 14 and 1500’s and celebrating their reverence of their Gods.

One of the buildings is home to a living Goddess that we were fortunate (?) enough to see. A young girl is chosen and lives her life until puberty as the real life incarnation of the Goddess Kumari cloistered in a small temple where she pops her golden head through a window several times a day to greet her adoring public. I would have to say that the spectacle for me brought forth very mixed feelings. It seemed quite a sad thing to lock a young woman away for 10 years then expect her to return to “normal” life. I would have to say that I am glad I am not in line to be a living Goddess, not my cup of tea.

We hired a scooter and took to the streets to see what the rest of Kathmandu was like. I would have to say that it is such a city of contrasts. The streets are relatively clean and the people are certainly some of the friendliest you would ever meet but the living conditions and infrastructure are mind bending at times. The river that flows through the heart of the city is unlike any other I have seen before. The water is literally black. It seems that the best place to use as a city dump is the river. I guess that the theory is that the rubbish will be washed away every year by the monsoon flooding but Oh My Goodness, in the interim it is the most filthy polluted piece of water I have ever seen.

The buildings on the whole are in pretty good condition and there was a lot of construction going on but the traffic is chaotic and the pollution on a whole new scale. After a few hours of riding we both had faces covered in black from the exhaust of trucks and cars. Unlike India with dust and dirt Nepal’s air is just filthy with brick factory kiln smoke, diesel fumes from generators used to combat the daily 12 hour power shortages and vehicle pollution. It struck me as a wonder that the people are so healthy (looking).

And then just when your heart is sinking a bit we would come across something amazing. One ride took us up into the mountains just outside of the city and we were in dense rainforest listening to the deafening calls of cicadas. Another day we discovered the Garden of Dreams, an oasis in the middle of the city where a man had built a special place for himself and his family. Now open to the public it is a place of calm and beauty, manicured gardens and beautiful fountains and pools. It felt like nirvana on a hot and tiring day to pop in for an hour of quietude.

So, what of Kathmandu? I liked it. It is a mess undoubtedly but the spirit of the people, the beauty of the temples and the unexpected little surprises when teamed up with the convenience and accessibility makes it a winner in my book. We had planned to stay for a while but the monsoons are coming so we are reviewing the plans – again. Before we leave Nepal though there is another treasure I want to share. I’ll save that for the next blog though 😉

The last few blogs have been a bit light on photos but this one I think goes the other way. I tried to cull these shots thinking there were too many but in the end I liked each of the pictures enough that you get them all 🙂 Hope they don’t bore you 😉

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe streets of Thamel, crowded with people and scooters with the occasional taxi squeezing through.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPlopped down in the intersection of a couple of streets a large temple.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADurbar Square. (We weren’t allowed to photograph the Goddess so nothing to show for her I’m sorry 😉 )

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis cat just cruised a long the lintel of a temple and thought that the window was a perfect vantage point.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPotter making jars.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWeaving.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe rubbish dump!!!!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Garden of Dreams.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA typical scene.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAKathmandu!

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Just had to laugh – Delhi airport

Some transit days are easy. You get up, pack, hit the road and everything just goes according to plan. And then there are the other days… 😉

Having sold the bike we decided to head back to Nepal for a little bit before leaving the subcontinent. I had the whole thing mapped out. Pack, catch the metro to the airport at about 10.30/11ish (30 minute trip on the metro), hop on the plane to Kathmandu at 1.35pm, 1.5 to 2 hours of lead time. Now how hard could that be (heheh)

The packing thing went remarkably well. Since we started we have both bought clothes while we had the bike and the extra space of the panniers, but now with the bike gone everything has to go back into the smaller backpacks which looked like a bit of a mission. I ended up leaving a couple of things that I decided I didn’t need and in 30 minutes of pushing and shoving on my bag we were all packed and ready to go, with time to spare.

Not wanting to have too many rupees left over we had run our money right down the night before (read went out and had a heap of beers to use up the spare cash heheheh). We paid our hotel bill and had a comfortable 300 rupees to get us to the airport. The metro is such a great and cheap travel system. Most trips were costing us about 20-30 rupees for both of us so no problem there.

We left the hotel with time aplenty and headed to the station. What we had both forgotten is that the only way to get a metro token is to line up and of course this time the lines were really long and seriously slow. Still, no problems. 18 rupees and we were off to the central Delhi station where we would buy the tokens for the airport line. All good.

Get to central and eventually find the special airport counter only to discover that the ticket to the airport is priced completely differently. No little cheapie here – the price was R300 (not that much – $6) but …. We only had 280 rupee and no, there is no atm in the train station L Oh boy – starting to look a bit stressed now. If we try to go out and find an atm we will be well behind schedule for getting to the airport (it would have taken probably close to 30 minutes to get out and back). Thankfully a lovely young Indian gentleman heard our exchange with the ticket man, came up and asked how much were we short and gave us the extra 20 rupees. The kindness of that simple act literally saved us from missing our plane and I will never be able to say thank you to him enough.

So, problem solved (and lesson learnt – check ticket pricing online the night before, don’t assume) and we are on the metro running perfectly to time. Arrive at the Delhi airport dead on 12. Perfect. That gives us 1.5 hours to check in and go through immigration. Easy!

Nope – not so much. The check in line was insanely long and suuuuuper slow. In the end they called our flight forward so no worries there. I knew that was the way this part worked so was not even vaguely stressed. Then immigration; an absolute breeze. Stamped and done. And then security…

And that’s where it all went to hell. Women can only be checked by a woman and while they have the walk through beepy things they don’t use them. They wand and pat down everyone. So I am now in a line with 20 other women in front of me while seemingly the lady that does the checking is off somewhere else (as in we were not moving). I’m thinking, ok well, I’m sure that once they start it will go quickly. After all, we are in an airport where people have planes to catch right? Wrong!!! So slow! I was tearing my hair out by the time I got through the other side. We had gone from having plenty of time to now being T minus 30 for departure. Cutting it a bit fine for my liking.

But it wasn’t finished yet. Security were having biggggg problems with our bags. They had electronic things in them – like cables and cords – such lethal items to be carrying!! So we fished all the cables out and they rescanned the bags. Then Dave had a small battery operated nose hair trimmer (don’t ask 😉 ) and they seemed to effectively feel that this was almost a bomb in the making. Another 5 minutes gone! And then calamity of all calamities – our bags did not have baggage tags on them for the security guys to stamp. Now we are in search of 3 tags. It got to the point where one guy suggested I go back out to checkin. I did explain that that was impossible as I had already gone through immigration!!!!! Stress levels are now starting to peak. With no checked luggage we are very easy to offload as “missed the plane” passengers.

Eventually 3 tags were found and we were released to go and find our plane. At T minus 18minutes!!!!! And it turns out the airport is HUGE and our gate at the far end. So Dave and I are hotfooting it all the way to the gate, with people yelling “Are you Kathmandu? Hurry, hurry!” Man, I could not have hurried any more if I tried. By the time we got to the gate they were calling our name, which having worked in an airline is the last step before they offload you from the manifest. Both of us were blowing like race horses and dripping with sweat. And the little man at the gate just kept saying, “calm, calm”. Yeah right!!! Anything but calm.

In the end we made the flight, miraculously found space for our bags in the overheads and settled in to our seats thankful to have made it.

I can honestly say that in all of the travel I have done, in countless airports around the world I have never seen anything like the absolute rubbish and time wasting that went on around that security clearance station. It took us over 40 minutes to get through. Incredible.

Some days, travel is easy, some days it is not. But that’s just travel. And now, safely delivered to Nepal I can truly sit back, shake my head and laugh and think with great gratitude on the generosity of strangers and the frustration of airports.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Himalayas from the plane window. They are truly spectacular! I would have taken more but we were on the wrong side of the plane and this was the only shot I got where the guy was not looking out the window so that I could shoot across the aisle 😉

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATo finish India I thought I would just throw in a random rural scene. It was up in the mountains but could have been pretty much anywhere in India.

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Goodbye both India and the Enfield

Before leaving Nainital Dave took the bike to a mechanic to get a quick check up on a random clunk (which was nothing to be worried about) and while he was there got chatting to a local fellow who upon finding out that we were headed down back onto the plains was kind (?) enough to offer a route that would be both beautiful and a fun (?) ride.

Now you may be wondering about the question marks in there. That is because in hindsight from my point of view I am not sure it was a kindness and as for fun – oh hell NO!

It was a 2 day ride down through undoubtedly spectacular vistas. The first day I have to admit I enjoyed quite a lot. We started up in thick pine forests with the ground thickly covered in rust coloured needles. Unfortunately when you know that there are at least 5 hours of riding ahead stopping to try and create photographic magic wasn’t on the radar but take my word for it – winding through these trees was really lovely. Then we opened out onto wide sweeping valleys dotted with tiny villages and terraces as far as the eye could see. The road conditions were generally pretty good and the traffic comparatively light so the riding was pretty darned good.

Then we swept down to meet the baby Ganges River. It starts up high in the Himalayas and is gradually fattened with other rivers feeding into it until it hits the plains and becomes the mighty Ganga. We stopped for the night in a random roadside hotel with a balcony that overlooked the river. It was a delight to sit and watch the eddies swirl in the rich soil brown waters as people across the river ended their day and brought their animals home for the night. Peace and tranquillity at its best.

The next day dawned as a hot one but considering the success of the previous days riding I was feeling quite confident that all would be well. Sooooooo wrong!

The road followed the river pretty much all the way to our planned stop and we figured that it would be quite a pleasurable day of watching the river race past as we wound along with it. What rot! We first of all climbed up and up and up, which as a non-heights person was getting a little tough to take. Then the road went from goodish bitumen to wreckage of bitumen. The monsoons bring so much water down the sheer sided mountains that it literally washes the road out, well those bits of the road that it doesn’t cover with massive landslides. So by now my heart rate is rising along with the panic levels. We are literally driving along a dodgy Indian road that has effectively been bulldozed into the side of a mountain, with cliffs above us (sometimes overhanging the road – yay!) and a sheer drop of about 1000m to a roaring river below with no guard rails and nothing to stop us diving over the edge (well, that is except Daves riding skills).

By now I am no longer looking out and enjoying the view. My eyes are literally glued to the inside wall and I am silently panicking like a madwoman. Even not looking I could feel the gaping nothingness extending out from our side with my peripheral vision and each time I thought I had myself back under control we would round a corner and there would be the big nothing. Horrific! But it got worse.

Not only is this road in poor repair and scary high but it is as busy as anything. Buses, cars, motorbikes, trucks – you name it they are all using it and being a constant twist of blind corners means that every turn could bring a fresh kind of middle of the road driving hell. You see Indians don’t believe that a blind corner is any reason not to overtake. Anywhere with enough room to squeeze past will do and they are sure that the person in the other lane will just work it out. And please don’t think I am only talking motorbikes zipping through – I am talking cars and buses overtaking slower trucks. The only warning is the honking of a horn as you near a blind corner. As we were on the downward cliff side of the road this freaked me out even more. There is nowhere to go to avoid these road idiots. But then a fresh hell unfolded. You see not only is there the traffic but the buses are packed to capacity and stop for nothing so there were a couple of times when we had to swerve to avoid the projectile vomit from car-sick passengers as they hurled out the windows.

Yep, in case you haven’t worked it out, that was the most mind-blowingly terrifying experience ever on the Enfield. I had spent the better part of 2 hours silently crying in abject fear. Each time I thought I had it back together there would be some new obstacle to swerve around and a new wave of panic to ride. At one stage we stopped for a break and I had managed to get it vaguely together right up until the point that Dave asked me was I ok (maybe it was the red rimmed eyes, the sniffle or just the glazed look in my eyes that gave it away). When I dissolved into fresh tears he was so sad for me. He had been looking out enjoying the thrill of the ride and the amazing views that were unfolding around us not realising that I was trying to figure out which was worse – flying into Jomsom or the ride I was currently trapped in. It is a sad fact that fear is such a fun thief. He was loving it while I was so scared I didn’t know which way was up. But that’s life, and unfortunately this was one roller coaster I couldn’t get off. So it was just a case of suck it up and hang on tight. After 2 hours of hell when we had finally made it out of the mountains and back to flat ground I was done.

The plan for India was now moot. There would be no exciting trip over the Himalayas up to the true high ground of far northern India. There would be no amazing monasteries, no windswept snowy landscapes. I was done!!!

So after only 2 months of having our trusty steed she went back to Delhi. No more Enfield.

I have to admit that while I definitely had a love/hate relationship with that bike, I will miss her. The freedom to come and go as you like, to pick where to stop and for how long, the mad and crazy experiences we have had with that bike made it quite sad to say goodbye. But hello no more pain from spending hours in one position, no more peering around Daves helmet to try and see the view, no more messing about with accommodation because the bike has to be safe.

Would I recommend India on an Enfield? As a general statement I would say no. But that is my view. Dave on the other hand loved it. For him it was almost a test of will and skill driving through India and those final days in the mountains for him were a joy. So in the end I would have to say to each their own but either way that bike certainly only added to our adventure.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAView from the first day of riding. The terraces were spectacular with small villages nestled in amongst them.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe terraces seemed to cover every surface.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI cannot even begin to imagine how much this bunch of animal fodder weighed but she was grateful to ‘take a load off’ and be paid for a couple of piccys.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANow I would love to say that this was a classic example of the kind of roads we travelled but the mere fact of this photo shows that it was mega mild. For the really bad stuff there was no way I could take a photo. My hands were full of holding on for dear life 🙂

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The town for local tourists – Nainital

The north-western areas of India (Uttarakand province and north) share the Himalayas with Nepal so the countryside is vastly different and so are the temperatures. Having spent a month in 35degC+ temps we decided to ‘head for the hills’ to try and find some resite form the pre-monsoon heat.

Nainital is a small town nestled in the mountains at about 2000m above sea level and instead of heat it has gorgeous cool days (mid 20’s). Instead of baked dry dusty plains it has a gorgeous lake in the bottom of the valley and instead of hoards of western tourists it is a favourite of Indians escaping the heat of the lower regions. In the 6 days we spent there we literally saw 4 other Europeans, and that my friends is unheard of for a tourist town.

The drive up into the mountains was gorgeous, with scenes that made me think of Europe. Lots of pine wooded hillsides and lovely winding roads. Of course it comes with a heap of rubbish and Indian crazy driving so it was not all Edelweiss and ‘The Sound of Music’ but hey – this is India.

As we made our way through the crazy bus depot part of town we crested a hill and there it was. A perfect teardrop lake with mountains climbing on all sides, pretty mulitcoloured buildings and temples dotting the landscape. We looked at this and went – yep, heaven on a stick. We had planned to stop for a bit to get some work done and this looked like just the spot.

We found ourselves a lovely little hotel (prices here were much higher than we expected – lake views stretching to $50+) that was in budget and settled in for a good stretch.

And then reality hits 😉 Of course with an Indian tourist town the only food you can get is …. Indian! I am not sure what I had expected but some variety wouldl have been good. Most touristy places can throw together some pasta or a pizza to tempt the western eaters but these guys didn’t have to – they have practically no western eaters. Now don’t get me wrong – we like Indian food a lot, but not every night, a little choice is a good thing.

Then there was the beer thing. No restaurants sell alcohol at all. In the whole town we found one bar and it was literally about 2.5km walk from us through thronging masses of people and traffic, downhill outbound and massively uphill on the homeward run. Bottleshops numbered 2, one of which was closer to us but still with the down/uphill problem. By the time we bought beers and struggled up the steep hill to our hotel both ourselves and the beers were all hot and sweaty. That said – not an insurmountable problem.

And then Dave got sick. 2 days spent trapped in the room, definitely not fun. Even more so as buying toilet paper turned out to be more difficult than buying beer. Indians don’t use it and as it is an Indian tourist town there was none to be found. I eventually found a packet of soft serviettes so they did double duty and got us through.

In the end though, by the time he was well enough to go out and we had pretty much decided that while Nainital is undoubtedly gorgeous and sensationally temperatured, that perhaps it was not a place for us to stay for a month. So on we go. Back down the mountains and back to the heat of the plains.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA beautiful 100+ year old mosque sits at the base of the lake, right near a huge Hindu temple complex. Religions seemingly getting along.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACrowded late afternoon shoppers compete with cars, motorbikes and jeeps.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe only thing missing from the photo is the noise. It is an endless aural barrage of tooting horns from every vehicle that moves through the streets. At times it feels like you just want to scream for the noise to stop!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA gent selling his fruit out the front of his shop.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATypical Indian ‘corner store’. Everything from shampoo sachets to packets of chippes and all things in between.

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Border crossings

Our Nepali visa was coming close to expiry so we made a run to the western border of Nepal heading in to India. The border towns that we have been to (Sunali on the southern border to India and Mahendranagar on the west) are both very similar.

There is something about border towns. They are dusty dirty places with people rushing everywhere. The towns themselves tend to be large with a string of often ordinary hotels where people hole up in preparation for the crossing. For us we found a hotel that didn’t seem too bad and settled in for the night. The main drag that ran through town just outside our hotel was hot and dusty and the sound is mind bending. It is a constant cacophony of tooting horns from vehicles of all shapes and sizes.

It did seem though that not many western tourists stopped in Mahendranagar for the night as our appearance on the street certainly turned heads, something we are quite used to as independent travellers. I guess most tourists don’t have their own transport and the timings of the buses from Kathmandu and Pokhara are set to get people to the border for early morning crossings, not have them while away a few hours in dusty town. For Indians and Nepali people the border is an open crossing so I suspect that most of the hotel customers were of a more local variety.

So what’s it like to cross the border? Surprisingly it was quite fuss free. All of our paperwork was in order with our Indian visa still current and allowing for a re-entry so it is a simple matter of finding the right office on the Nepali side of the border, they take your passports and stamp you out, you then make your way (for us on the bike, for others on rickshaws) across about 50m of no-mans-land then hand over the documents to the immigration officials of India and voila – you’re in.

Coming in to Nepal was not quite so simple for us though. The Sunali border crossing was a far bigger mess with trucks banked up on the Indian side for a few km. Thankfully with the bike we could weave our way through until we spotted something that hinted at immigration and a border line (in this case a big archway marking the entry to Nepal). The outgoing Indian paperwork was simple but coming into Nepal with an Indian Enfield motorbike was quite another story.

We did the personal immigration process at one office then had to take the bike to the customs office where we had to pay a surcharge for each day of the visa (not much, only $1/day) but we had no Nepali money so Dave had to run and find an ATM that took visa (can be a hassle with the visa/mastercard thing). Then with all the appropriate copies of everything in triplicate the paperchase begins. The papers are basically passed through 6 sets of hands until it is all stamped and paid then we were allowed to go. Not really too much drama but it took the better part of 2 hours in the dust and heat. Still, better that then they had knocked us back – I have no idea what we would have done then. But then we do tend to just make it up as we go along so I’m sure we’d have worked it out.

So there you have it – border crossing at its finest. The most fun was when we had made it out of Nepal and into India we had to cross a bridge where the ends were gated and there was a narrow space to walk through. Unfortunately the panniers on the Enfield were too wide (nothing like finding that out by jamming the bike into the opening while being pressured from front and back by other people trying to get through). Took a bit of shoving but we eventually backed it up and of course in the end we managed to find the man with the gate key but it certainly made for a bit of a giggle.

So my advice for border crossings and visas, make sure all your paperwork/internet application is in order, always have a few copies and plenty of spare passport photos, arrive with plenty of time and always be super polite to the immigration people 🙂 All goes so much smoother that way. Oh and US dollars are king at any border crossing (would have saved us a trip to find the ATM 😉 ).

Mahendranagar, Nepal

After the rush of the afternoon, the evening settles into heat and dust. Mahendranagar, Nepali border town.

Nepali fruit salesmanFruit salesman. All through India and Nepal men and women set up small stalls selling their selection of fruit.

Mahendranagar, NepalNepali vegetable sellerAnd so it is goodbye from Nepal, next blog from India 🙂

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