Category Archives: temples

back in Bangkok

 Kek Lok Si temple!Bron and I spent a day in Georgetown on the island of Penang before going our separate ways. I’m sure there were lots of interesting things to do and see but I’m pretty much at sightseeing saturation at the moment so we simply walked around the historic district, strolled through Little India, shopped and snacked. The day we left we did get a bus out to the Kek Lok Si temple, an attractive if overly elabroate Buddhist monastry that stands stop a hill outside the town. There is a beautiful pagoda reaching up from the hill that was sadly shrouded in scaffolding when we arrived so we entertained ourselves with walking around the huge prayer halls of massive gold buddhas, ornate tiling, and decorated courtyards. Further proof that they have no understanding of the word kitsch in South East Asia!

mmmmmmm!Ah, feels good to be back in Bangkok. It’s always nice coming back to a city when you have an idea of how things work, how much they cost and how to get around. I arrived in Bangkok on Wednesday evening and dumped my stuff before heading up to Kao San Road to have a reunion with Mary, Mika and Rob who all arrived yesterday. Typically the evening got very messy, there was a Thai acoustic guitar duo playing very good covers from the Killers to the Beatles, two Spanish guys making balloon animals, I definitely recall a lot of buckets, dancing on tables, stealing a guitar from a busker on the street so I could play ‘Proud Mary’ and eventually passing out in Rob and Mika’s hotel room. Kao San road, cheesy and cliched, but fun! “Take me home, Kao San Road, to the place I belong…”

the awe-inspiring architecture of the Angkorian Empire

There are very things in life that are worth waking up at 5am to see especially if you’re not a morning person which I’m most definitely not. It’s not my fault, all down to the genetics, my cell’s circadian rhythms are primed for the twilight hours and not the dawn. It was still very dark outside when my phone vibrated itself off the bed and we had to crawl up, get dressed and stumble down the guest house steps to meet our tuktuk driver for the day, Mr Bross, outside. Half an hour later we were walking along the causeway that leads up to the temples at Angkor Wat, the most iconic and famous of all the ruins.

A little history

Khmer ladies at Angkor WatQuick smattering of history before I get into any lyrical waxing. The great Khmer civilisation that built the temples around Angkor arose in the last 1st century and flourished for the next 600 years stretching at times from Burma to Vietnam. They built huge temples, irrigation systems, canals, hospitals and libraries and at the peak governed around one million people. Sadly their success was probably instrumental in their decline. Over population and deforestation led to the silting up of their farming and agricultural irrigation systems and the empire suffered from the extensive and hugely ambitious building projects. What I found most intriguing was the echoes of the temples at Hampi and Maharashtra in India in the buildings around Siem Reap. Indianisation had occurred in Cambodia prior to the Khmer empire at the turn of the 1st century via trading ports along the coast. It was strange to come across Ganesh, Shiva, Yama and Vishnu as well as statues of the Buddha and even engravings in Sanskrit on the walls of doorways.

Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat at sunriseThere were clouds gathered across the horizon so it was a while longer before a hazy yellow sun rose into view in the sky between two palms next to the towers of Angkor Wat. We were standing by the edge of a large lily pond inside the walls and caught the perfect early morning reflection of the whole structure. It is pretty damn cool! Angkor Wat is believed to be a funerary temple built for King Suryavarman I to honour Vishnu, it faces West, a direction usually associated with death. After the sun was up nearly everyone vanished to our surprise and the three of us were among only a handful of tourists that went inside to explore. There are long columned corridors, beautiful intricate carvings of stories and battles along the sides, engraved heavenly nymphs called Aspara and the mighty towers in the centre.

Angkor Thom, Bayon and Ta Prohm
Stone faces at BayonAfter Angkor Wat, and pancakes, Mr Bross drove us onto the large enclosure at Angkor Thom which was known as the great city. The central temple is called Bayon and it is not for the paranoid, each of the towers and entrances are adorned with over 200 huge stone faces with slightly cruel blank eyes and wide smiling lips gazing down on you. From here we visited a few other temples and a wide long terrace known as the terrace of elephants with huge stone trunks and tusks carved draped down the front and fighting elephants running along the sides. By now the wonderful coolness of the morning had begun to mature into the usual sweat-inducing humid Cambodian midday heat so we decamped to a stall for spicy sour Khmer soup and rice for an early lunch. Overgrown trees in Ta ProhmMy favourite temples of the day were those of the buddhist monastery at Ta Prohm, and not just because they were featured in Tomb Raider. The jungle had done a remarkable job of reclaiming back these Angkor temples and whilst they are being excavated the largest trees have been left to show how nature has run amok amongst the stones. Huge roots of Chann and Sprung trees have grown down, into and through the huge stone, splitting them apart in places and in others winding along and around the columns and walls like huge sandstone snakes. The walls and doorways seem to be buckling to withstand the pressure.

A few more temples including the dizzying vertigo inducing climb at Ta Keo and the lake stretching out from Sra Srang and we’d been temp-ling for almost eight hours. Our wonderfully stoic driver took us back to the guest house just as the clear day broke and the rain began to fall.

The long bike ride and the Roluos Group temples
Doorway in the Rolous templesIt may have been one of those days where Rob and Mika regretted me being in charge of the plan. I thought it would be a great idea to hire bicycles for the day (they don’t hire motorbikes to tourists in Siem Reap sadly) and ride out to a few temples around 13km from Siem Reap. The road was flat and smooth but the bikes were a little rusty, the brakes dubious and the day was a scorcher. The ride out was fine as we left just after 9am and huge trees once we got outside the town provided some welcome shade. We had to take the National Highway but the word Highway is really being used in the loosest possible way. In Cambodia that means it’s paved, relatively smooth reasonably straight. We got overtaken by shared taxis with people literally stuffed into the back, motorbikes carrying wicker cages of pink pigs, buses, trucks and tuktuks. All along the road were small wooden houses on stilts, more expensive cement multistory villas brightly painted, palm trees, skinny white cows and tiny roadside stalls selling cigarettes, drinks and fruit.

Bakong monastry ruinsWe arrived at the first temple just off the main road called Preah Ko, built in the late 9th century and dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. There were six elegant stone halls, now sprouting tufts of earth and grass from they steeped towers but having kept much of the beautiful engravings around and above the doorways and the extensive Sanskrit passages on the inside. In front of the three front halls a small Nandi (sacred oxen) sat squatting looking up to the doors, just like the ones I’d seen all over India. After drinking our own body weights in water we cycled a little further on to what turned out to be the impressive temple of Bakong. We had to cycle along a red dirt track around two sides of the outer wall that enclose a green moat, another inner set of walls and within those the large central temple of Bakong also built for Lord Shiva. Rob’s sandal had mutinied once we arrived and broken so we had a brief interlude of buying chewing gum, threading the thong bit back through and sticking it together with the chewed gum. A brilliant brain wave of Rob’s that lasted long enough to walk around the temple but sadly gave up the gum half way home. By the time we got back to Siem Reap this afternoon Rob was cycling in bare feet and Mika was very red in the face. I suggested popping in to see the local miniature replicas of the Angkor temples and got two very exasperated looks in return so I swung by on my own and let the other two got back to sleep off the sweat!

Banteay Srei and beyond
Rob and I in Banteay SreiFor our final day of temples we wisely left the rickety bikes and employed the services of Mr Bross again for the hour drive through small local roadside villages out to a beautiful temple called Banteay Srei. It’s small and has the most beautiful carvings around the doorways and archways, they look as if they are made from wood as it seems improbable that so much detail could be fashioned from stone. After lunch in the baking heat we also stopped by a temple called Banteay Samre of which we’d heard nothing but proved to be pretty cool. Delicate carvings in Banteay SreiInside the structure steps lead down from the main towers into what would have been an inner moat, now dry, surrounded by engraved windows. A really lovely spot and more importantly some very nice shade! We came back into the main fold of temples to visit ancient pools, more towers, vaulted walkways and gateways overgrown with tree trunks, battle through the never-ending supply of women, children and boys selling guide books, scarves, water and postcards. Eventually by 3pm we were well and truly templed out, there is only so much stunning ancient architectural masterpieces the brain and the eye can take. They are amazing but after three days of Angkor glory I can definitely leave Cambodia with my historical needs well and truly sated!

More temple photos here…

Farewell to Team Token
Claire RobMika
I am flying to Kuala Lumpar tomorrow while Mika and Rob head on up to Laos so finally the token black, the token boy and the token American are parting ways. Well I have left them with a full itinerary for Laos so I’m sure they’ll be fine without me…

where there’s a will there’s a Hue

Citadel, Hue I have no excuse for the blog title whatsoever, apart from the fact that it was too wonderfully cheesy to resist. James and I spent our day in Hue on a City Tour, all the obvious sights and sounds of the city in one hit and to be honest it was a pretty good day. We visited the Forbidden Purple City in the centre of the old citadel with its ornate ceilings, carvings and roof work. Citadel, HueIn typical Asian style if you an emperor of days past the done thing was to stock up on many royal concubines. Then build them a city that only you had access to and leave a substantial guard of eunuchs on guard to preserve their chastity and so you could be sure that your heirs were your own. Sadly for Emperor Tu Duc he was made sterile by small pox, so he concerned himself with ordering his tea to be made with the fresh morning dew instead! We also stopped by one of the traditional Madarin houses from the previous century. The Mandarins were the educated elite in Vietnam, those who held doctorates and were much involved with the politics and administration of the state. They were also not above, it seems, when they didn’t like a particular emperor or his heirs, bumping them off to improve the situation!

Khai Dinh Tomb, HueAfter lunch, we went to visit a few of the old tombs built to house the remains of 19th century emperors of Hue. The Tomb of Tu Duc set amongst pine trees with a beautiful wooden poetry house built on the edge of a large pond. And the impressive hill top tomb of Khai Dinh guarded by rows of stone mandarins. We visited the beautiful Thien Pagoda, the first built in Hue and learnt how to distinguish the ‘small monks’ from the ‘young monks’ and the ‘real monks’ based on their hairstyles and then took a brightly painted dragon boat back down the perfume river to the city. Dragon Boats, HueIn fact the only downside to an otherwise pleasant day was James continuing to kick my ass at cribbage. I have now lost the Thailand cribathon, got trounced in Laos and suffered three straight skunkings in Vietnam. Clearly the gloves need to come off!

messing about on the Mekong

Flight of the Gibbon
Descending down between platforms, ThailandJames and I saw a slightly recovered, but still weak Mum off at Chiang Mai airport for her flight home and then went about planning our escape to Laos, but before leaving Thailand we found out about a zip-line tour through the forest canopy which both of us had previously done in Costa Rica but had never heard about being able to do in Thailand. The reason for this transpired to be the fact the activity only opened in January this year.

“We have had two months and no accidents or deaths!” Our grinning guides proudly announced.

Huge trees in the forest, ThailandWe started off visiting a nearby waterfall in the middle of some lush green forest with views out across the valley. It would have been a very peaceful morning had not the guy on our trip (a Hawaiian in Thailand with his wife for dental treatment!) said he’d seen James going further up to the top. So I waited for James to reappear and after a while as the others started walking back down became a little concerned so I went to check he was okay. I walked a good 20 minutes steeply up the steps, scrambling up over some slippery earth and so far up that I got turned back by a bloke with a large knife! And still no James. By now I’m convinced he’s fallen down unconscious somewhere. Of course I ran into him looking for me as I was going down, he’d been back at the start all along. Oh well, I was just glad to find him in one piece!

James incoming!After lunch we headed out to our starting platform, one of fifteen, for the zip-lining. For three hours the eight of us in the group got harnessed up to long lines from platforms suspended up in huge thick trees in the forest and went zooming along them or dropped down between platforms. Our guides were hugely entertaining, even when my bamboo stick ‘break’ that was tucked into my side strap nutted one of them in the crotch as I came into land! James spent most of the afternoon taking very amusing videos of himself zooming down the lines. It was huge amounts of fun especially flying over parts of the valley and seeing the canopy below you as you whiz along and finally stop, or in my case forget to use the break and half crash, into the guide waiting for you at the next platform. 

Chiang Mai Walking Market, ThailandWe got back to Chiang Mai with enough time to take a stroll through the walking night market, I gazed hungry eyed at all the stalls and crafts on sale but managed to restrain myself by just buying some fisherman pants and a banana waffle. Then we came back for a final farewell to the wonderful luxury of the Tri Yaan Na Ros and got picked up by minibus to take us to Chiang Kong and the Laos border.

Cows on the Mekong, LaosCrossing into Laos was one of those bizarre exercises in Asian chaotic organisation which seems, somehow, to work surprisingly well. We’d booked a kind of arranged trip to get us to Luang Prabang. Five hours to get to the Boom house Guest House on the border where instead of arriving for breakfast at 6am we arrived at 3am but got given a really cheap and fairly nice room so I managed to get a welcome four hours sleep. After breakfast we were taken down to the Thai immigration, got stamped out of the country, then across the river in a tiny boat to the somewhat chaotic immigration for Laos on the far shores. Despite the numbers of tourists milling around and filling in forms, changing currencies and crowding around the booths it was only about 35 minutes to get a visa and the entry passport stamped before a few of us were relaxing in a cafe up the road before the slow boat was due to leave.

Views down the Mekong, LaosThere are two ways to get from this border at Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, a speed boat or a slow boat and I am pretty glad we opted for the slow one. The speed boats zoom down the river dodging huge rocky outcrops and the occupants, beside getting sprayed, have to wear crash helmets, apparently when they do crash it tends to be the kind of head on collision with a rock or another speed boat where the survivors number 0, crash helmets or not! Our slow boat was a long brightly coloured wooden boat with bench seats, a well stocked bar at the back and it was carrying about 80 passengers, so fairly crowded, and pretty much all farang(tourists). The Mekong is a beautiful river, a wide flowing silty river that cut through scenery of forested limestone hills, high white sandy banks with jagged outcrops of rock protruding from the edges of the river banks. We saw the occasional herds of black and pink (!) buffalo grazing on the shores, fishermen drifting by in long thin wooden boats, their nets suspended from the rocks, and small groups of children playing in the water by the banks of tiny bamboo villages on stilts tucked away within the trees. We sat with bottles of very drinkable BeerLao and watched the scenery roll past.

James boarding our boat at Pak Beng, LaosWe spent the night in a little rustic stop over village, full of guest houses,  called Pak Beng and were thankful that our guide had got us to pre book a room back at the border crossing, as a small group of us were taken out of the throng of locals, farang and rucksacks and went up the hill to the Boun Mee Guest House which was basic but nice with a wide wooden terrace over looking the now darkening Mekong. Ben and Ronnie, an English couple we’d been chatting to on the boat came down and Ben’s usual blond afro was considerably larger than it had been during the day. In trying to get the lights to work in their room he’d flicked a breaker and been thrown across the room by an electric shock. Luckily he didn’t seem to worse for the wear and the owners found them a less deadly room for the night. Locals on the Mekong, LaosThe next day we continued for about 7 hours down the river, by now my bottom was getting a little sore, despite the cushions and I was hugely thankful when we finally arrived in Luang Prabang. I also realised that I am getting old. A small group of 21 year old Brits, Aussies and Americans were rowdily doing beer bongs at the back of the boat and having the most inane conversations I have ever heard. There is a limit to how often the word ‘like’ should be used in a sentence, certainly not as every other word! James’s all time favourite quote from one of the American guys to one of the British guys was:

“Didn’t you guys like just have a war with Argentina?”

Enough said! I am too old to be hanging out with 21 year old travelling piss heads anymore. James says I am turning into a travelling snob. Well with 46 countries, 4 months in India and having been away for 11 months I think I have earned the right to take the backpacking high ground. However, I think he maybe right!

Port sunset in Luang Prabang, LaosLuang Prabang is lovely, relaxed, picturesque, friendly and really laid back. The buildings are small and wooden with sloping roofs, potted plants and small balconies and the whole old part of the town is just ridiculously, charmingly cute. We wondered around a little last night after finding a cute guest house opposite the banks of the Mekong. We had a really cheap and really gorgeous dinner (I had Laos aubergine, chicken and bean noodle soup, James had a cheese burger!) along the main street of restaurants before having a few beers in a small bar and heading home to bed. This morning we’ve just been wondering around the streets, long the river side and visiting a beautiful old Buddhist temple called Wat Xieng Thong. There are brightly robed monks walking about everywhere, in fact they are even in the internet cafes checking their emails!

the Linneys at large

Reclining Buddha, BangkokWell the Linneys are out in force in Thailand, the brother, the mother and me. James arrived on Thursday, failed to notice I’d chopped off all my hair and then went and got his cut much shorter, honestly, he is always stealing my thunder. By all accounts he had a wicked time in South Africa, Nambia and Botswana! Then Mum arrived on Saturday, James and I went to meet her at the new swanky airport in Bangkok with balloons (well they were my idea, James was slowly drifting away from me in the arrivals hall)! On Sunday James went off to see tigers and the Bridge of the River Kwai and Mum and I went for a day’s sightseeing with Hester and Tuli, two girls from the guesthouse.

Mum getting friendly at Wat Po, BangkokWe went back to Jim Thompson house and had a gorgeous lunch in the restaurant, they have a huge pond there that randomly has a large ray inside…bizarre. Afterwards we caught one of the local taxi boats up the Klong, one of Bangkoks original canals and amde our way over to the Grand Palace. Sadly my anal organisation had failied to take into account that the palace shut at 3.30pm and it was 3pm. Oops. So we went across to Wat Po instead and saw the huge, and I mean huge reclining gold-guilded, reclining buddha. It is housed in this beautiful temple with red painted wood on the ceiling, intricate paintings of the buddha’s life around the outside and the back is dominated by his feet, huge soles of black stone decorated with inlaid mother of pearl. Back down the river and into the heart of shopping wonderland that is Siam, Mum and I did some credit card massaging in the department stores before heading back to Suk11. We sent Mum off for a foot and shoulder massage and James reappeared having had his photo taken with some huge (apparently tame?) tigers and went straight off to update his facebook profile picture, good to know I’m not the only geek in the family then!

Chiang Mai monksNow we are up in Chiang Mai and heading off on our three day trekking tour into the hill tribes of Northern Thailand…see you in three days!

making the cut

Buddas in Wat Arun, Bangkok Amazing how the time passes when you are doing nothing. I am thoroughly enjoying have a sabbatical from my sabbatical in Bangkok. The hostel I am staying in Suk11 is lovely, the kind of place where you only have to been there for about 2 days and every time you come downstairs for a beer, cup of coffee or breakfast there are people to chat to. There’s quite an interesting mix of people here as well, everyone from couples with young children from Korea and Japan, first time fresh faced 18 year olds enjoying their first trip abroad to long term residents, the old white bearded guys who randomly work their ways around Asia and I’ve met a French chef, a Canadian Liquid dancer and an English life painter!

Wat Arun moasaics, BangkokI have done some very light sight-seeing though. Wat Arun Bangkok I went to visit Jim Thompsons house, an American born in 1906 who came to Thailand at the end of the war and is responsible for bringing Thai silk to the international design stage. He built this beautiful traditional style house on the banks of Bangkok’s canals and you have a cute half hour guided tour before going to drool over silk scarves in the shop afterwards. Then yesterday before picking my brother up from the airport I got a boat up the river to Wat Arun, the dawn temple which looks unimpressive from a distance but is fascinating close up.Every inch is covered in ceramic mosaics of all colours shapes and sizes. A little like someone has smashed up their mother’s china sets and used them to decorate a Buddist stupa! Having seenBuddist temples in Sri Lanka, Nepal and India it’s interesting to see the differences in the Thai architecture. There is more detail, and a lot more curves and points sticking out everywhere. The monks are also back in orange (as in Sri Lanka) rather than the deep maroons and reds of Nepal and India.

New hair in Suk11On Wednesday I went to pick up my Vietnam visa, the easiest visa I have ever had to get. Virtually no queue and very efficient, after the Indian Embassy debacle I am permanently visa paranoid! I came out of the embassy and walked past a hairdressers, stopped and stood contemplating an idea for a good five minutes in the middle of the pavement before turning around, walking through the door and asking them to cut off all my hair! My hair has been driving me mad for ages, ten months without a hairdresser and no heat styling within range is not a good combination. I think the stylist found the whole experience fairly traumatic, the average Asian head of hair is definitely a world away from my psuedo afro mop! It is now pretty much as short as when I was 18, although curly and once the initial shock wore off I’ve decided kind of like it, plus it’s so much easier to deal with. I went to the market to buy some hair bands, and decided I don’t look too much like a boy! Anyway, in a month or so it’ll be longer and then the fro will finally be back in force!

before sunrise

The Magic of the Taj Mahal
Taj Mahal before sunsetI feel as if I’ve had India overload in the past three days, both in terms of the good, the bad and the ugly, but definitely more of the good. Emily, Melissa and I had a winding overnight bus ride down from the cold hills of McLeod Ganj down to Delhi where we arrived somewhere in the middle of North Delhi at about 7.30am and had to get a very overpriced taxi down to the station in the south. Here we squeezed into a crowded second class carriage for the three hour journey down to Agra where I was finally going to see the jewel in the Indian tourism scene, the Taj Mahal. Agra is definitely not the dump that people make it out to be, really it isn’t that bad. By 1pm we were sitting pretty in a rooftop cafe voraciously eating lunch with the Taj Mahal peaking up in the background. That evening while a still poorly Melissa was taking a nap, Emily and I caught a rickshaw around to the far side of the river where there was a wonderful panoramic view of the Taj and her flanking red sandstone mosques reflected in the low lying river. The sun was setting further upstream and there was just us,a few other people and the buffalo strolling along. Really beautiful.
Taj Mahal before sunsetThe next morning the three of us were up in the cold quiet before dawn and by 7am were entering the East gate of the site. I really expected to be slightly disappointed by the Taj Mahal, you see so many photos, pictures, statues of it in India, it is so hyped and there is also a 750 rupee entrance fee which is a bit of a stinger. Neither Melissa or I were brave enough to try and pretend to be Indian to avoid that one. Taj just after dawnI needn’t have worried, the building is incredible, especially at sunrise where, reflected in the watercourse running through the gardens it has an ethereal fairytale like quality with the misty sky behind and the white-grey marble looking almost unreal against the backdrop. You enter through an impressive set of huge red sandstone gates and there is a mosque and mirror image dark red building on either side of the Taj to complete the monument. The Taj herself was built in the 17th century as a monument of love for the wife of the emperor’s wife who died in childbirth. It took 20,000 people 15 years to build and the result is incredible. Even the flanking buildings with their Arabic engravings, towering archways and white domes are spectacular buildings in their own right. Wandering around the base as a huge red sTaj Mahal engravingsun began to rise over the horizon the white marble began to change colour from a milky grey, to cream, shades of pink and then white against a pale blue sky. Walking up onto the platform the mausoleum towers above you, the arches decorated with flowers and tendrils set with semi precious stones, swirling lines of Arabic script run around the entrances in black and the four minarets strain slightly outwards into the sky. Inside are the tombs of the queen and her husband, buried slightly to one side behind a delicate marble lattice running around the interior. We spent over two hours walking around before heading back through the gardens taking one last look and the marble domes between the trees before finally going to have breakfast!

Monkeys on the roof, OrchhaMinor Transport Traumas
After a frustrating half hour in the world’s slowest moving queues and being told there were no reserved seats left to Jhansi we managed to get 2nd class tickets and catch a midday train south. Physically unable to fit into the 2nd class carriage which was literally overflowing we decided to camp in the inter-carriage area of the sleeper compartments sitting on our rucksacks by the door which actually proved to be fairly comfortable. An hour later the conductor came through and upon seeing our tickets demanded rather crossly that we moved. I pointed out that it wasn’t possible to fit into the other carriage so we were staying here and suggested we pay the increase to a sleeper ticket and stay where we were. “No, move, move!” He yelled crossly and stomped off. We stayed put and when he returned he completely ignored us so that was that. Fifteen mintues before we arrived another conductor appeared and I put on my most English school teacher accent to inform him that due to the overcrowded status of the train we were having to sit here instead of in the correct carriage and how much further was it to Jhansi? “15 minutes” he mumbled and then left! We got to Jhansi and somehow managed to squeeze three of us and all our luggage into a tiny rickshaw to travel across town to the bus station. The girls were heading five hours onto Khajuraho and myself half an hour to Orchha. There were no more buses to their town so they went off in search of money and a plan so I said goodbye and went off to find a bus.

The entire bus station of Jhansi decided to conspire against me. Street food stall in OrchhaI found the bus only to be told I couldn’t get on, despite the fact there was clearly space and it drove off without me. Fuming I stomped off to find another and was directed back and forth around the bus station until, seeing I was about to explode, a kind man came to my assistance. We found the bus saying Orchha but the driver denied her was going there saying I had to take a rickshaw. So my companion managed to find me a shared tempo (a large rickshaw) instead for 20 rupees. Now this isn’t a huge vehicle and I am not joking when I say we managed to fit inside, the driver, my rucksack, two large bags of rice and twelve other people. To say the hour journey was a little squashed is an understatement but it did finally get me to Orchha where I found a guetshouse, was too tired to even haggle the price and collapsed in front of the TV and went to sleep.

Orchha CenotaphsOrchha, the “Hiden Place”
Today, however, has been wonderful. Orchha is a lovely little laid back town squeezed inbetween a number of beautiful and imposing palaces, temples and cenotaphs from the rule of the Bundelas in the 16th and 17th centuries. I had some gorgeous wheat porridge and chai in a roadside cafe before spending the day wandering around the labyrinth like passageways and staircases of the palaces. Each archway and window gives spectacular views out across the green countryside with spires breaking the horizon in every direction. Orchha viewsDown by the river a series of huge incredible cenotaphs, built for the dead kings, lined up along the river bank, noisy green parrots were flying around the spires and I spotted a large weasel running furtively through the undergrowth. As I walked along the banks of the cleanest river in India, the Betwa, a family of huge vultures was watching me from the tops of the spires. I had fried potato patties with chilli and chickpea curry by the roadside for lunch and the owner of this internet cafe has just brought me a glass of chai. It’s days like this, that it is impossible not to love this country and the nearer my departure date gets, the more and more sorry I am to be leaving.

the unexpected charms of Delhi

Hinglish in its absurdityI strongly suspect that my reasons for rather liking Delhi are probably due to the fact that four months in the country has made me immune to a certain amount of tourist hassle and the somewhat darker side of India. My stomach has become hardened to pretty much anything that I stick inside it including slum water, street food and dodgy lassis (touch wood) and my lovely friend Shuchika has been taking me sightseeing for the past few days with her driver. So, rather than hating this place as everybody else I’ve met in India and Nepal did, I’ve found the city is definitely not without its charms. It is however freezing. 18 degrees maximum (now either I have totally adjusted my heat tolerance to local standards or they are measuring this temp next to a Tandoori oven) and a minimum of 3 degrees which I can more than believe. On the way to the rickshaw stand on Sunday I had to stop in the market to buy a highly attractive pair of toe socks to wear with my flip flops. My feet may not be sexy but at least they are warm!

Lotus templeOn the weekend I began my Delhi adventure by attending a religious singing lunch at Shuchika’s house with her Mum’s friends, musicians, song books and a huge lunch afterwards. Then Shuchika and I went to visit the fantastic Bahai temple built in the shape of a lotus flower by the people of the Baha’i faith. Honestly I’d never even heard of the faith before, they have temples in such different locations as Western Samoa, Israel, Uganda and Germany and of course this one in Delhi. It’s made of white marble and surrounded by clear pale blue pools of water, very relaxing and picturesque. Pigeons in Connaught PlaceOn Sunday after porridge and coffee in, what else, but a German bakery next to my hotel room in the slightly seedy tourist town of the Paharganj, I caught a cycle rickshaw to Connaught Place and sat taking photos of pigeons in the fountain gardens in the centre in the peace of Sunday morning. Later we went to visit Qutb Minar, sight of the first cities built in Delhi in 1193, a huge tower, the first mosque in India and an Iron pillar that continues to baffle scientists with its inability to rust in 1000 years. Qutb Minar and meMost amusingly a mother had decided that, despite the ruins being a World Heritage Site, she was going to ignore the toilet facilities and get her two young daughters to piss against the side of the ancient walls in full view of where we were siting. The youngest girl proceeded to wee all over her knickers and jeans much to the dismay of her mother. Now that is rapid karma in action!

I’ve been shopping around markets, government emporiums, had gelato ice cream in Delhi’s newest mall, visited the shops of India’s best known designers and drooled over some of the most beautiful clothes. I saw India Gate and Parliament, evidence that the English did leave some good legacies behind them. Everything is unfortunately cornered off for the upcoming Republic Day and the Red Fort was closed as the entire city is on red alert due to the terrorist risks. Probably just as well I’m leaving tomorrow morning.

Not exactly slumming it!My final day I took a ride on Delhi’s brand spanking new metro (perfect in every way except the crush when everyone battled to get into the carriage, makes the northern line in commuter hours look positively tame!) and went to see the Jama Masjid mosque and then go happily lost around the bazaars in Old Delhi which are a world away from the modern shopping malls. Tiny streets with networks of maze like electricity wires criss-crossing overhead, goldsmiths, fabric shops, ribbon shops, rickshaws, mopeds and people bustling around everywhere. And, as the markets are wholesale, they are not really for tourists, so you can walk around to your heart’s content and everybody ignores you. After a while I stopped for curry and stuffed parathas in a tiny street stall before heading south for a change of scene to Khan market. Khan market is a diplomats haven in the south of Delhi. You can buy magazines, books and food from all over the western world. They even had hobnobs for sale. I didn’t buy them, I went for the chocolate covered digestives instead! I brought Ganesh headed stationary, cheap DVDs and magazines before Shuchika and I went to a Chocolate cafe for Earl Grey tea, cake and waffles. I was then invited back to hers for dinner with her family which was lovely but I am now completely stuffed to bursting!

Old Delhi bazaarsSo Delhi has felt like a mini holiday from my backpacking lifestyle which has been really nice and I’m glad I got to see more of the city with a friend than I would have done otherwise. It seems such a shame that so many tourists complain what a terrible and horrible city this is. True if you arrive in the Paharganj as your first taste of India it would be slightly overwhelming. The truth is Delhi has fantastic shopping, a huge array of temples and tombs, interesting architecture, contrasts from the crazy old world feel of Chandi Chowk to gleaming new malls and hotels. There are tourist markets, food markets, diplomat markets, craft markets and a surprising amount of green space for a large city. The rickshaw drivers, although prone to thinking you have ATM on your forehead, can be persuaded to take you on the meter and, compared to Pune and Ahmedabad, make barely any effort to provide near death experiences on the roads. So, in summary, a really interesting city to visit, and as for everyone else’s opinion…well they’re just wrong.

Mr India’s balls and other camel stories

The biggest reason for many people to come to Jaisalmer other than the beautiful Jain temples, Havelis, and sandstone town surrounding a fort cut into the rock rising above the rooftops glowing in the setting sun, is to go on a camel safari and I was no exception.

Me and SheruI went on the safari for three days, beginning with a jeep trip 30km out from the town. The desert is not all sand dunes, it’s a mixture of rocky and sandy scrub land full of sprawling multi-fronged cacti, low bushes, short prickly trees, herds of goats and cows from tiny mud-wall villages dotted around, wild camels, and areas of isolated sand dunes rising up out of the vegetation. I had a lovely and (apart from a few bottom biting incidents) relatively well behaved camel called Sheru. It’s mating season at the moment, and our camels, being boys, kept making these bizarre rumbling throaty sounds (like a Desert kidshelicopter whirring under water) and then they’d pucker their lips blowing their tongues, pink and gooey, out of the sides of their mouths in a sort of gobby fart. This apparently is the camel mating call. How the females find that attractive is beyond me, but each species to their own!

We got to drive our own camels, which consisted of basically holding the reigns while they did and went exactly as they pleased at pretty much whatever speed they chose but giving you the wonderful illusion of control. Ocaisionally I started feeling smug that my prodding and clicking noises had finally got Sheru to manage a slow run or to hurry up, when I would see Dhurgan, my 12 year old camel wallah, running along side nudging him with a stick!

We visited the villages, spent the heat of the day resting under trees eating lunch and lounging around on mats chatting, and in the evening made a camp on the dunes, had dinner around a glowing fire with the camel wallahs singing traditional songs and beating out rhythms on the empty water bottles. We slept on thin mattresses under blankets with the unadulterated nights sky above us showing a brilliant array of stars, the odd shooting one briefly flashing by. Canadians in the sand dunesIt was cold, but very cool. The first night we were a big group of Canadians, French, Americans, Spanish, Turkish, Colombians and Brazilian backpackers, giving me a chance to practice my ailing languages a little although Fatim, the Turkish girl was horrified at all the Turkish swear words I knew!

Dhurgan and the camelsThe others were all heading back for the second day leaving Eric (Denver) , Pierre (California) and myself riding Simon the camel, Sheru and Mr India. Mr India, the biggest camel, had the largest balls of all the camels, so large that they swang out from under his tail from side to side as he walked. Following behind him for a few hours I became quite hypnotised by those swinging balls! We had a really peaceful day, swaying along on the top of our steeds, taking in the scenery, low hills, scrub-land and streaks of white cloud radiating out across the horizon. We came back to the dunes that night and were joined by two Taiwanese guys and a couple from Korea. That night we had desert folk songs, Korean children’s songs and Taiwanese music whilst Eric, Pierre and I contributed ‘American Pie’ and ‘She’ll be coming round the Mountain!’The boys, the camel and I

img_8135.JPG By the time we got back to the jeep on the final afternoon it had been great but my bottom and inner thighs had begun to protest, although according to the boys it was far worse for them having had their nuts squashed for the past three days. We got back to Jaisalmer to hot showers and soft beds and I went out for dinner with the boys to have pizza and wine to celebrate being back in civilisation.

Desert skyToday after visiting the network of Jain temples in the fort, Pierre and I set out on a very innocent trip to buy train tickets from the station outside town. Somehow we ended up meeting a group of very entertaining guys staying in the station’s retiring rooms. They invited us in for food and shots of Old Monk, my favourite Indian whisky. After helping them to drink the best part of a bottle Pierre and I decided it was definitely time to leave, getting pissed in the early afternoon is definitely not a good habit. I do have a pretty bad cold at the moment though, so for me the rum is purely medicinal! This is the bizarre and best thing about India, it is so wonderfully unpredictable. One minute you are being poisoned by carbon monoxide fumes in a huge city, the next learning to fly kites on Rajasthani rooftops or sleeping under the stars in the sand dunes; being surrounded by business-hungry touts one second who view you as a walking cash machine and then being welcomed into the poorest family’s home to share their dinner.

brahma blessings from the shiva man

Morning GranolaBreakfast is by far the most important meal of the day. With a good breakfast inside you can go on into the day to achieve anything; scale unreachable heights, conquer unconquerable deeds, well, you get the picture. My friends in Bundi had told me that a morning meal of home-made muesli was a must in the Rainbow Restaurant on the lake in Pushkar. So yesterday, at the rather slovenly hour of 11am, I went in search of the granola holy grail. I was not disappointed, all other muesli pales into paltry comparison to this. Home-made, sun-baked, wonderfully raisin-light, and mixed in with fresh banana, pineapple, papaya, apple and covered in pomegranate seeds, thick curd and a dash of coconut sprinklings. Mmmmmmmmmmmm!

SHiva ManAs I have said many times before, it is often easier to go with the flow in this country rather than try and fight against the current. Thus it was that I got nabbed on my way up to the Brahma temple (one of the few that exist, the godly Brahma apparently angered his first wife who decreed that he would not have any temples built in his name, even in the realms of the omniverse it pays to keep your spouse happy!) This was a supposed “Brahmin priest” although I’m not sure how spiritual the aviator sunglasses were. Anyway I suffered to be lead around the temple, collect lotus flowers and sweets for the offering and then up to the balcony where there was a lot of chanting involved and various blessings. They we went down to sit on a long mat in front of the ghats and washed our hands in the river, threw in the petals and sweets, more chanting and the tieing of red and yellow thread around my wrist (I was trying very hard not to laugh at this point especially as my guide, Shiva, was taking things very seriously!) Then we Morning at the ghatsnegotiated a donation to the temple of 100 rupees for the safe guarding of my immediate family members, this I gave to the man at a desk and was dutifully written a  receipt. Shiva seemed a little disappointed that the well being of my nearest and dearest wasn’t worth a little more money, but I explained in great length the necessities of budgeting for a long trip and he seemed satisfied. I did feel slightly guilty when an hour later I spent four times the amount on an Indian painting. My karma is in for some serious buffeting!

In the afternoon I got deliberatly lost around the charming, and tourist free backstreets of the town, dodging the cows and getting plagued by small boys after the five brightly coloured brand spanking new kites I was carrying. Sadly, it turns out I do not have a  natural apptitude for kite flying. Enlisting the help of the guys in the guest house to get my kites airbourne, I managed to break one kite, lose one over the roof, another to a rival kite and one in the spiky tree. It is so much fun to try though and incredibly skilful. You need to tug the line at the point the nose is facing the way you want to travel, fast tugs gain you altitude inbetween feeding out more line and fast sideways moves allow you to go in for the kill on somebody elses kite! At 3 rupees each I can afford a little more practising!