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It’s showtime!

Napier, Hastings, Sanson, Ohakea, Flat Hills Café

sunny 28 °C
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After the Tongariro National Park and Taupo, the next logical destination on the standard tourist trail would have been Rotorua. And indeed, our original plan was to do exactly that and to head straight through the center of the North Island.
Well, plans do change. And usually for the better. Thanks to Emere who we met on the ferry, we had heard about the Te Matatini festival and that’s where we wanted to go. The drive towards the east coast led us through the enormous forest areas east of Taupo. All planted forests, all branches cut off on the lower five meters. Manmade forests – boring and straight rows. Even worse: those areas which had recently been felled. Hectares over hectares of deserted land looking like it had been bombed or diggers had dug up everything. Just dead and depressing.
But the scenery soon changed and we got to see rugged hills, a nice and deep valley and big vistas.
As we lost altitude, the sea came into sight and with it the town of Napier which is famous for its Art Deco architecture. The town had been almost completely destroyed during the devastating 1931 earthquake. It was then rebuilt following higher building standards in the then fashionable Art Deco style. We had a quick drive through town. But as neither Sam nor me (let’s not even start talking about Max here) one of us is a big fan of architecture or Art Deco, we rather headed on.
It still turned out that it was a great decision to pass through Napier instead of going directly to Hastings. Otherwise we might not have stayed at the Napier freedom camping park right along the beach.
The location was great, overlooking Hawke’s Bay and just a couple of steps from the water. And even better was the fact that it was just 300m away from a ‘BMX pump park for all ages’ – by far the best bike park we’ve seen on our journey so far. A bit further along the shore was also a bike traffic park, a skate park and a playground. Not even the best holiday parks can compete with such fabulous attractions.

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That evening it eventually started raining, but by the morning the rain had subsided and we were treated to a nice and bright sunrise over the east facing beach. It was so beautiful that we briefly started contemplating if we should have planned to spend more time on the east coast. But no matter how much time we have in a country: it is never enough to see all it has to offer and we’d always need to make choices.
And today our choice was easy: we had tickets for the Te Matatini festival, so that’s where we went. It was just a 15-min drive to Hastings where we easily found the event. We were very positively surprised about the perfectly organized traffic management and the luxury of having courtesy buses to drive people from the parking to the entrance. In retrospect, we would probably have been quicker at the gates if we had just walked over. But seeing how many families squeezed into the bus with us was an adventure in itself.
After a bit of waiting outside the entrance to the actual performance, we entered and found a good spot for our picnic blanket. We watched four different groups perform the kapa haka with 30 mins each. After a while we realized that each group followed a certain pattern in their performance, starting with an entrance, doing various types of songs, dances and eventually an exit performance.

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One thing that took us totally by surprise was the fact that there was no movement in the audience at all during the performances. People were allowed to enter and exit the arena only during the 7 min breaks. The ushers did an excellent job in making sure that this was the case. What a great sign of respect for the performers and also for the judges!

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It was fascinating to hear and see the dances and songs. The whole event was exclusively held in Maori language, so we were not able to understand what the teams were singing about. But that did not matter to us, as just the facial expressions and the emotions transmitted were strong enough to make us feel what it was about. And not surprisingly, Max was mainly fascinated by the tattooed faces and loved it when the performers were sticking their tongue out.

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After one of the performances, we were suddenly surprised to see a group of people in the front of the stage get up. They started singing a song to the team up on stage. Enquiring with Emere, we learned that this is how people would customary show their respect and gratitude for the performance that was delivered – maybe because the lyrics touched their hearts, maybe because they are supporters of the team being proud of a performance well delivered.
Even though the event was very big, we easily met Emere. We found her at the children’s play area, which was like a gigantic bounce park with over a dozen bouncing castles. We used the opportunity to thank her for telling us about the festival and to get some good suggestions on which foods to try. Otherwise we would probably not have tried creamed paua. While sitting over lunch, we could not resist to do some people watching. That's probably what we like most about local festivals like this!

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After a while, we noticed that there was a separate program going on in a big tent. What we heard, sounded somewhat familiar. And indeed: there was a group of native Americans from Canada performing dances just like we had seen them at the pow wow in Washington State. And once they were done, there was a dance troupe from Rarotonga. It is a small world and having seen so much on our travels so far, we’re starting to have more and more of these déjà vu moments.
Between the food stalls, the people watching, the exhibitions of Maori crafts (such as wood, bone and jade carving) and the shopping possibilities, we could have kept ourselves busy for hours. But we wanted to see some more groups performing live in the stadium. By then we had already learned to distinguish a bit what makes a great performance vs. a good one. And indeed, we learned later, the team Sam and I liked best on that afternoon was selected to perform in the finals round on Sunday. By then, Max had lost all interest in watching the show and preferred to play with Te Iti Kahurangi.

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Even though the festival was going on until after 8pm that evening, at 4pm we had seen enough. With so many impressions, we were at the point of risking information overflow. So we headed on. Driving South, we briefly celebrated that our camper made its 500,000th km and hoped that it would continue to do so for the next two weeks. After two hours we reached the small town of Sanson. Once again, a déjà vu – hadn’t we passed through there just three days earlier on our way from Wellington to Whanganui?
At the campground where we stayed, Sam was excited to see people running a flight simulator on a big screen. He watched until his attention was diverted to the airplanes overhead. A couple of F16s were doing their circles in the orange skies of the setting sun. A first glance of what we could expect to see tomorrow at the AirTatoo 2017 – an airshow celebrating the 75th anniversary of the RNZAF, the Royal New Zealand Air Force.
This gigantic event with several ten thousand spectators was extremely well organized. We drove to Bulls and got taken from there with a bus to the airfield.
We were there early enough before the air show started and had plenty of time to check out the static displays. We even entered some of them, such as the C130 from Singapore. Max got to hunt down some squadrons to get his kid’s activity sheet stamped and Sam used the opportunity to chat with some of the soldiers.

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Already before the official flying displays started, there were the first planes in the air and we got a first feeling of what was coming.

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Once the airshow started, we had an excellent spot right along the fence. The session started with a so called ‘thunder display’ with a Boeing 757, a C3 Orion and two C130s Hercules.

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Then we got to follow acrobatic maneuvers such as loopings and a bit of fomation flight. And there were parachutes, helicopters and displays featuring the tactical advantages of certain aircraft.

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The show was brilliantly organized and there was not a single minute without something happening. But eventually we had to get moving again, did get lunch at one of the many food stalls and checked out some more of the static displays including the new distributed A400M.

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And then it got loud: After lunch, it was time for an F16 to show their flying skills. Wow – it is fascinating to see how quickly and easily a plane like that maneuvers. Still, Sam and I could not resist to comment that while the display had been nice, it did not get close to the F16 USAF Thunderbird display we had seen some years back in Romania. We were quite lucky on that occasion as it seems: after all in 2017 and 2018 the Thunderbirds will only perform one single show outside of North America!

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After some helicopter displays with the NH90 that included unloading and loading various loads and people, it got even louder when the F18 Superhornet took the stage. By that time, Max had lost most of his interest in airplanes and was much more interested in getting some icecream.

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And eventually also Sam agreed that it was time to leave. Once more we were amazed about the excellent organization of the event with a row of probably more than 100 buses waiting to take spectators back to the towns where they had parked their car.
We drove north for almost an hour to the Flat Hills Café, where Max was delighted to jump in the bouncing castle and to feed the lamas and goats. Sam and I agreed that the shows had definitively been worth the many kilometers we had driven in the last two days. But at the same time, we were looking forward to a couple of more relaxed days for the remainder of our time in New Zealand.

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Posted by dreiumdiewelt 23:00 Archived in New Zealand Tagged festival plane maori tatoo helicopter f16 haka airshow f18 Comments (0)

More thermal activity

Taupo, Waikite, Rotorua

semi-overcast 25 °C
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Heading north towards Taupo, we once again passed along the Tongariro National Park. This time, we got to see the Eastern slopes of the volcanoes from the so called ‘Desert Road’. And while not necessarily desert like, there was not too much to be seen. And due to the fact that large areas are closed to the public and serve as a military training area, it is advisable to stay on the road and not to venture further out.

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A bit later we knew the roads already from our visit three days earlier. And it did not take Max long to realize that we were stopping again at the bike park where he had ridden his bike already. Once we had eaten and Max had biked some rounds, we ventured out to hike along the Waikato River – New Zealand’s longest. The hike was really nice and we even got to see from above the spot where we had camped a few days ago.

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After we had enough exercise, we turned back. This time all three of us took a dip in the River at the spot where the Otumuheke hot stream joins it. We found a spot with just the right temperature – not too far up the hot stream and not too far towards the cool Waikato. Sitting there and enjoying the soak in the sunshine, Sam once more felt a small tremor. After all, we are in a zone known for its volcanic and seismic activity!

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Still, we all agreed that there’s no need for a larger shake or eruption just now. We’d rather be far away in such an event. The world’s largest eruption of the last 5000 years took place in 186 AD in Taupo. In one of the visitor centers we had seen the comparison of the ash clouds of various outbreaks: Mt. St. Helens was a spec, Krakatau’s eruption sizable, but still half the height of Taupo’s ash clouds, which were allegedly 50km high. Thanks to the notes of Roman and Chinese historians, the date of the eruption can be dated. After all, at that stage there were no humans living in New Zealand yet with the Maoris only arriving almost 1000 years later.
Despite the soak in the hot stream, we had plans for even more soaking and left for Waikite Thermal Pools. We had reserved a spot for the night at the campground which belongs to the pools. Once we arrived, we had a quick dinner and then headed straight to the pools. We had six different pools to choose from at temperatures between 35 and 40 °C. It was a magical atmosphere – specifically as the sun set over the steaming valley with the pools. The next morning, we went to the pools once more to have a look at daylight.

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We did not spend too much time, as we were keen to be at the ‘Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland’ at 10am. This is when the daily eruption of the Lady Know Geyser is taking place – perfectly timed due to the help of a little soap that sets the eruption off. As we had seen our share of geysers in Yellowstone with the similarly predictable Old Faithful (even without soap or other helping agents!), we did not go to the geyser, but took the tour of the rest of the area. Thanks to the simultaneous geyser show, the parking lot was empty and there were hardly any people around. The strategy that our excellent guide book ‘NZ Frenzy’ had suggested, worked perfectly.

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Just like we had in Yellowstone, we enjoyed the multitude of thermal features enormously. The Champagne Pool was the predictable highlight of the area, but also the Artist’s Palette, Primrose Terraces and Sulfur Pool were absolutely impressive. By the time the other visitors came returned to the thermal area after seeing the geyser, we had seen already completed most of our sightseeing and were happy to leave.

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We headed straight into Rotorua. We were hungry and had a couple of errands to run – tasks that are easily completed in a small town like Rotorua.

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On the way back to our car, we took the scenic tour via the Government Gardens with its bowling lawns. A tournament with international participation was going on over four days and the enthusiasts were taking their sport seriously. We were fascinated by the accuracy of the bowls and also by the unusual attire these older men were wearing.

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Scattered throughout the gardens were fenced off steaming pools – proof that Rotorua is a town that is located on top of a huge caldera. And there was a not just a slight hint of sulfur in the air. At times, it got so strong that we started to understand why some of the campgrounds in suburbs far away from the center make a big point around the fact that there are no sulfur in their locations.

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The campground where we stayed for the night, was located close to the airport. We were not bothered by the few airplanes making their descent into the airport and there were no wild sulfur smells either. Max was happy to have a trampoline and playground just next to our spot and we were happy about the excellent wifi.
The next day, we spent some more time in Rotorua. The Kuirau Gardens are much more than a normal city park. There were lots and lots of hot pools, steaming vents and mud pools. All of that, along with warning signs about staying on the paths. After all, as the area is subject to geothermal activity and due to its nature previously stable ground might become unstable. Together with some locals and other tourists, we took a footbath in the thermal water.

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At the skatepark, there were no other tourists around and actually no locals either. Max had the place for himself and enjoyed the solitude. A bit of shopping and back to the campground to enjoy the rest of this quiet day. And yes, after the many kilometers we had driven over the past days, we deserved a bit of rest.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 23:10 Archived in New Zealand Tagged park pool hot geyser thermal bowling Comments (1)

Beaches and Caves

Uretiti Beach, Waipu Caves, Whangarei

sunny 26 °C
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It was good that we had rested a bit, as we were off to a long drive the next morning. I had always planned to spend our last week in New Zealand in Northland. We passed through an area that looked very much like the ‘Shire’ of the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings movies, but did not make the detour to the see the actual film set. Our lunch break was at Papakura, a Southern suburb of Auckland. We did not see anything of the town itself, but had merely identified it as a place where a skatepark was located rather close to the state highway.

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Despite the multi-lane highways, it was heavy traffic through Auckland and we were happy to eventually leave its northern suburbs. After a while, the highway started sneaking along the many hills of Northland. Even though we had driven more kilometers that day than on any other day in New Zealand so far, thanks to the excellent roads, we arrived fairly early at our campground at Uretiti Beach.

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What was initially planned to be just a one-night stay as a base to explore the nearby Waipu Caves, turned out to be such a nice spot that we stayed for three nights. The beach was just a two-minute stroll from our camping spot – basically just behind the dunes. We had beautiful weather and it was great to be at the beach. Only then we realized that since we came to NZ, we had not really been at the beach. So, it was time to seriously hit the beach.

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All three nights were beautiful: the milky way and the Southern Cross were shining brightly above us. In a couple of photo sessions in which Sam tried to capture that part of the night sky that we never get to see in Europe.

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Looking up to the stars like that, we did get a bit philosophic. After all, it is a big question mark if and when we’ll see the Southern Cross again. Well, knowing us and how much we like traveling, the if is probably less of a question. It’s rather the when and where. Even though we pondered the question for quite a while in those three nights, we did not come up with a definitive answer. So, time will need to tell.
The days passed quickly. Between building sand castles, jumping in the waves, flying a kite, playing cards or dice, playing with Max, relaxing and reading, we did not get bored. And despite all of this relaxed activity, we did not forget to call our mothers for their birthdays – a perfect reason to have a chat with home.

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But the best time at the beach was sunset. What a great atmosphere…

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After the third night, we were determined to finally explore the Waipu Caves – the reason why we came to Uretiti Beach in the first place. It was a short drive up into the hills. Most of the road was gravel, but by now we trusted our van that it would easily get us there.
We were surprised about the number of cars at the parking lot of these non-commercialized unknown caves. It probably did not help that we went on a Saturday, on which in addition to the tourists also some locals went exploring. But our guidebook was spot on: most people did not venture far into the cave, but turned around before it got interesting. And those who did go in farther, often did not have a clue how to see the famous glowworms. Only once we told them to turn off their lights, let the eyes adjust to the darkness and to look up, they realized that they were all around them.
We simply loved the cave. The glowworms were like a giant milky way above us and created a very special and magic atmosphere. And contrary to any developed cave, we were on our own, could spend as much time as we wanted, could take as many pictures as we wanted and were not dependent on a tour guide to turn off the lights for a minute or two.

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As we neared the end of the cave we had to duck down quite a bit, walking through an underground river. I must admit that after a little waterfall, I did get slightly scared. Sam and Max did spot an eel in the water and knowing that I’d be walking right next to it, did make me feel uneasy. Luckily, the ceiling came closer and closer and to my relief we turned around without any closer encounters with the eel.

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What a great adventure at zero cost! We were very happy that we came to the caves.
From the caves, it was only a short drive to Whangarei. At the AH Reed Memorial Park, we hiked through the maturing kauri forest with its forest canopy walkway. Walking high up between the trees always makes me contemplate how a bird must feel flying through a forest. Seeing how big the young kauri trees were, we started wondering how big the old trees are getting.

Max and Sam took the hike through the park to Whangarei Falls while I got the car. Down at the falls we met again and enjoyed the nice view.

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By then we had seen and done enough for the day, so we just wanted to drive to our campground for the night. Well, there was one more attraction along the way that we did not want to miss: we anyhow had to pass through Kawakawa on our way north, the last home of the late Austrian eco architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser. Usually toilets do not make it into guidebooks, but these are certainly different. And indeed, they make an excellent stopover along the road – reminding us of the Hundertwasser roadhouses along Austrian highways. Which reminds us that to the day in three months from now we’ll be arriving in Austria. Hard to imagine!

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Posted by dreiumdiewelt 17:36 Archived in New Zealand Tagged sky sunset beach cave skyline toilet star eel glowworm Comments (0)

Saying good bye to Middle Earth

Paihia, Waipoua Kauri Forest, Orewa, Auckland

semi-overcast 24 °C
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We arrived just in time at the Bay of Islands to get a glimpse of its beauty at sunset. We were so keen to finally arrive at our campground that we did not even stop to take a picture. It had been a long day after all.
The campground was really nice, probably one of the best we had been to in New Zealand. Max was happy about the playground, we liked the setting just next to the bay and also appreciated having a reliable wifi connection for a change.
We quickly agreed to stay not just one, but two nights in that nice spot. The next morning, we headed out into the bay in a kayak. Our first destination was just the other side of the bay, where we discovered a small cave and even paddled under a small natural bridge. After that, we headed towards one of the many small islands dotting the bay. That was a perfect place for a break and we enjoyed the quiet place and marveled at the many holiday homes along the hills opposite of our small islands.

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The paddling back towards the campground was fun and hot. Even though the waters of the bay looked much more inviting in their turquoise colors, we were glad that the burning sun only came out then and not earlier.
The rest of the day passed very quickly between playing, exploring the bay at low tide, editing and uploading pictures and the blog. And we felt the ‘usual’ effect coming into play: already the last couple of times our activity level decreased significantly in the last couple of days before leaving a country / continent.
There was one more thing we definitively wanted to see before leaving Northland: the big kauri forests. Therefore, we did not take the direct route back south, but headed towards the west coast.
On our way, we stopped at a viewpoint. Not expecting too much, we were very pleasantly surprised about the stunning views of the Tasman Sea, the Hokianga Harbor and the massive sand dunes on the opposite side.

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From there it was just a very short (but windy) drive to Waipoua Forest, the home of Tane Mahuta, the largest living kauri tree in the world. It is estimated to be somewhere between 1250 and 2000 years old. Even though kauris don’t get very tall compared to other species of trees (Tane Mahuta is ‘only 51m high’), they grow very big in diameter.

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A bit further, we saw some more examples of big kauris, the ‘Four Sisters’ and the ‘Te Matua Ngahere’ which is not as high as Tane Mahuta, but with more than 5 meters diameter even thicker. We love big trees, so the detour to see these massive examples was definitively worth the effort.

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We had toyed with the thought to spend our last two nights at a beach on the west coast. In light of the bleak weather forecast which projected two very rainy days, we rather went for a place along the road into Auckland. Even though it was located along our way, that left quite a long drive to get to the northern outskirts of Auckland.
By the time we arrived, it was fairly late and consequently we slept until late the next morning. Luckily, the rain only started in the afternoon, such that Max and Sam were able to enjoy a nice morning at the beach. They were even able to find a buyer for Max’ bike. It’s always great to know there will be a happy next user.
I used the quiet time while they were gone to pack all of our stuff. Considering that we’d now be changing our style of traveling from road tripping in a van to backpacking Asia, there’s a lot of stuff we were able to discard. Given the closeness to Auckland, the campground featured a big ‘for free’ box for people to leave things they don’t need any more and for newcomers to take. And in fact, already by the time we left the next morning, some things like our picnic blanket seemingly had found new owners.
With everything packed up, we were ready to hit the road again. As our plane would be leaving only very late, we had a full day to spend. After running some errands (such as donating some of our not needed stuff at a local hospice shop), we spent some time in downtown Auckland. Given the wet weather, we did not explore too much, but rather spent our time in a nice an cosy café.

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While Max got to work off some energy at a playground, we got the van in shape and eventually returned it at the rental agency. We were quite happy that the van had survived the over 6000 km we drove without any incidents, accidents or breakdowns. But still, we could not resist to give the company a full list of defects on the vehicle. Even though the 50 NZD discount we received, seems like a very small token, it shows at least that our complaints were heard.
Their shuttle bus took us swiftly to the airport and before too long we were standing in line at the AirAsia counter to get our boarding passes. With those in our hands, we had a couple of hours to kill before our plane left. As we know Auckland Airport quite well thanks to Jetstar messing up our flights from Rarotonga to Sydney exactly 4 months earlier, we knew our way round very well. We spent our time in the café with the nice view and contemplated on how quickly time is passing.

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And then it was time to say good bye to New Zealand and to brace ourselves for the fun awaiting us in South East Asia. As much as we liked our travels so far, we had done enough road tripping. We were very much looking forward to a more adventurous style of traveling and exciting cultures and foods awaiting us.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 17:33 Archived in New Zealand Tagged sea rain beach tree bay kayak kauri Comments (1)

A full week in Phnom Penh? Why that?

From Auckland, NZ, to Phnom Penh, Cambodia

sunny 34 °C
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Getting from Auckland to South East Asia, is fairly easy and cheap. With AirAsia serving the region so well, we were able to get to Phnom Penh in Cambodia for less money than the one way flight from Sydney to Broome had cost us a couple of months earlier.
The only downside was the less than ideal connection. On the way to Kuala Lumpur, our plane had a short stopover in Australia’s Gold Coast. We had assumed that we’d be able to stay on the plane, but unfortunately had to get out, go through security checks and were only 30 min later admitted to board again. What an unnecessary effort – specifically with a sleeping child (which was eventually not sleeping anymore).
The other disadvantage of our flight was that we were not able to check our baggage through to Phnom Penh, but had to retrieve it in Kuala Lumpur and check it in again. I had bought two separate tickets to make sure we can show the New Zealand immigrations officials a ticket to a destination we do not need visa for. Both flights were AirAsia, but they refused to check our baggage through.
So upon arriving in Kuala Lumpur at 4:30 in the morning local time, we had to go through immigration, get our bags, check them in again and go once more through all security controls and to our gate. At least we got some exercise and luckily everything worked out fine. As a sided effect of this process, we have now official stamps in our passports that we have been to Malaysia. Despite this official proof that would probably count for any kind of record attempts, we do not feel that we’ve been to Malaysia. Getting to meet two bored (and unfriendly) immigration officials and one lethargic and tired check in employee as only representatives of their country would be a rather unfair picture of Malaysia. I’m sure we will eventually have the time and energy to get some more extensive contact with this country and its inhabitants.
But not now. We had briefly contemplated using the opportunity of this stopover in Kuala Lumpur to get to see the town a bit, but we were too anxious to get to Phnom Penh to afford some time elsewhere.
So what’s so special about Phnom Penh? Well, formerly it used to be called the ‘Pearl of Asia’, but even though our guidebook promised that it’s on the way back to the previous splendor, there’s still way to go. So, let’s be clear: we had another reason to go there.
When we were sitting in Australia around Christmas time and had finally worked out our plan on how to spend the last three months of our travels, we came to a great plot. Sam and I agreed that I would be a perfect ending for our trip to spend some time in Mongolia and to then go back home by train – the Transsibirian Railway to be exact.
What sounds like a great idea, is sometimes more easily said than done. Talking with a travel specialist, it soon turned out that the only way to get a visa for Russia, is to apply in the home country. That was very bad news. We had little interest to fly back to Germany just in order to get our visa.
As I’m not easily deterred when I have a good plan in mind, I did turn to my friend Google in search of a good idea. Soon it turned out that the Russian Embassy in Cambodia seems to have a much more relaxed view in respect to issuing Russian visa to non-residents. Seemingly other travelers had been successful in getting their Russian visa there, so that’s what we wanted to try as well.
So that’s why Phnom Penh made it on our list of destinations. And that’s why we arrived at the airport, marveled at the process of getting our visa (our passports went through the hands of probably 10 people in the process), got our stuff, took a taxi to the hotel, enjoyed a quick welcome drink, dropped our stuff there, gathered our paperwork (quite a stack) and took a tuk tuk directly to the Russian embassy.
Yes, we were tired and exhausted. We had had hardly any sleep on our night flight and had six hours of jetlag. Yes, we were stunned by the sudden exposure to Asian traffic rules again (anyone who has been to a South East Asian city will know that I’m not referring to right-hand traffic here). And yes, it was extremely hot and humid. The pool at the hotel was definitively much more tempting than the outlook of having to deal with authorities and bureaucracy. But we were in Phnom Penh on one single mission that we tried to tackle as soon as possible.

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At 10:15am we were at the embassy. We were cordially invited to take a seat in the waiting area and joined a group of others waiting for their audience in the consulate.
As time passed by, we got talking with some of the others waiting with us. We made the acquaintance of Nicole and while talking about the many languages she spoke with various people at the embassy, found out that she’s in fact Romanian. Being brought up in a gypsy community as the daughter of one of the gypsy kings, she had so many stories to tell. I love meeting people like Nicoleta – that’s exactly what makes traveling so much fun.
The part about traveling that is definitively not so much fun is bureaucracy. Up to now, having been to rather ‘easy’ destinations, we did not have to deal with too much of it. This should sure change from now on. Our first glimpse of that came at noon. At that time we were waiting to be admitted any minute, as it was finally our turn. This is when the consulate officially closes. A rather unfriendly employee came to the waiting area and declared the consulate closed. Next week Monday at 8am, the consulate would be open again.
While most other people left, we tried our luck. And indeed, it turned out to be our lucky day after all. Five minutes after the guy had disappeared into the bowels of the consulate, a lady appeared. When explaining her our situation, that we had waited for so long and that we had all required documents for getting a visa ready at hand, she promised to have a chat with the consul. And he seemed to have a good day and admitted us at 12:15.
In fact, they quickly saw that we had all required documents. We did not even need to go for the urgent visa. For 210 USD, we'd get the visa next Thursday. We happily accepted. We’ve hardly ever been so relieved. Wow, we had made it! Our Russian visa were within reach and we’d be able to realize the perfect ending of our round the world trip by taking the legendary Transsiberian Railway! Delighted we returned to our hotel to celebrate.
And we even found the perfect companions for our celebrations. As we hit the pool after lunch, there were already four other people there. We soon found out that Andrey, Angelika, Tatiana and Mikhail were from Russia, enjoying their last day in Cambodia before heading towards home.
Initially it was Max who broke the ice by identifying them as perfect companions for playing in the pool. And indeed, they were playing endlessly.
Sam, Andrey and Misha tried their best in emptying the pool with a simultaneous dive-bomb. The wave they produced was gigantic and proved to be a good reason to celebrate.

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At 5pm we were ready for Happy Hour and ordered our drinks. After a first round, there was a second one, eventually a third and then the count becomes a bit more blurry and less reliable… What can be stated with certainty is the fact that at 5 to 8 a last order was placed to make use of Happy Hour. By then, all of us had eaten so many peanuts with lemon grass / ginger flavor and had drunk so much that the original plan of having dinner became less relevant.
Despite the 6 hours jet lag vs. New Zealand and a severe lack of sleep from the overnight flight, Max managed to stay up until 8 pm. I used the excuse to go to bed as well. Sam stayed up later.
Max and I were awake at 5am and were happy to get breakfast at 7am. That’s also where we met our Russian friends once more. They had to head out quickly to catch their ride to the airport. What a pity that they had to leave. Even though one should think that by now we’ve gotten used to saying good bye to new friends and acquaintances, it still makes us sad. Let’s see – we’re still hoping that we’ll be able to host some of the people we met on the road back home in Germany when we’ll be back.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 09:00 Archived in Cambodia Tagged pool tuktuk visa russia transsib gypsy embassy Comments (0)

Exploring Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh

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Our first full day in Phnom Penh started already as good as it gets. The hotel featured a fabulous breakfast buffet – a treat we’ve not experienced since the start of our journey almost one year ago.
Despite the excellent food at breakfast, it did not take long to get hungry again (thanks to still being internally tuned to New Zealand time) and we ventured out to explore. Even though we had been exposed to the Cambodian traffic already the day before, it took a bit of courage to walk along the street. The sidewalks were so busy with street vendors, parked cars, construction sites or other obstructions that we could use them only for very limited stretches. For most of the walk, we had to walk on the street, together with the mayhem of tuk tuks, scooters, cars and trucks. Being in a one-way street meant that more than 80% of traffic came from behind us. That made us turn around constantly to check what is coming our way. Still, for short distances tuk tuks, scooters and occasionally even cars don’t seem to mind going against the traffic flow.
In all of that chaos, our attention was regularly diverted to other things. There were sudden holes (big ones!) in the ground that we had to watch out for. There were thousands of unfamiliar smells around, many of them not necessarily very pleasant. And last but not least, every single tuk tuk driver who spotted us along the road was certain that we’d prefer using his services and made sure we understood that he’s available to take us anywhere we want.
After having survived the walk for about three blocks, we retreated to a small restaurant along the road and sat down for lunch. Even though the menu was also available in English, we did not really know what to expect. Our lucky orders were better than we had expected. While every dish tasted very different from what our taste buds are used to, the food was really good.
With some food in our stomachs, it was already easier to walk the last couple of blocks to the Central Market. The impressive art deco building housed a huge maze of different stalls and we strolled aimlessly around to get an impression. There was much to be seen and even though we did not need anything, we had fun just having a look.

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The section with the jewellery and cloths did not smell like anything specific - apart from the occasional whiff of incense to appease the gods that are responsible to send many shoppers to the stalls. Once we got into the detergents and beauty area, this changed already and we were exposed to multiple fragrances overlying each other. Well, the fruit and vegetable section took a bit more of getting used to and even though we barely saw the butchers’ area, we were able to distinguish its signature smell immediately.

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Eventually we had seen enough for our first day and headed home. The cool waters of the pool were simply too tempting – specifically in light of the warm and humid temperatures that we were simply not yet used too.
On the other hand, there also was a concept that we had gotten used to very quickly and we made sure not to miss out on the happy hour in our hotel.
The next day, we headed to a restaurant for lunch that we had spotted while driving by in a tuk tuk on our way back from the central market. What had looked nice while driving by, did turn out to be rather icky. Only once we were seated and had ordered our food, we realized the rather odd clientele consisting of elderly white men and young Cambodian ladies. We just did not like what we saw. It seemed like most people knew each other already. And it did not help the atmosphere, that some people had drunk a bit too much and lots of them were approaching Max, touching his face and asking all kinds of questions. He was not amused. And neither was Sam when a lady tried to rub his back. We had our lunch, paid and tried to get away from there. It was just not nice. And while it might be simply a part of real life in South East Asian towns, I prefer just knowing about it vs. seeing its protagonists interact.
We walked away from that place being sure not to return again, found a tuk tuk driver and asked him to take us to the Royal Palace, the key attraction of Phnom Penh. Incredibly enough, he had issues understanding where we wanted to go. Initially I had assumed that we were simply not having luck with our drivers: already the taxi driver who took us from the airport to our hotel had gotten lost. When going to the Russian embassy and back to the hotel, our tuk tuk drivers had to first confer with colleagues for a couple of minutes and to consult a map before heading off… But not knowing where a tourist wants to be taken when he says ‘Royal Palace, please’ that was beyond our understanding.
With the help of our navigation system on the mobile phone, we made it successfully to the Royal Palace. We found the ticket booth and were pleasantly surprised by the nice and quiet atmosphere inside – far away from the bustling streets just outside its walls. The architecture of the palace reminded us very much of Bangkok’s Royal Palace.

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But while the buildings were nice to see, the real attraction were the people: the tour groups following their tour leaders which were equipped with colorful umbrellas, the monk taking selfies of himself in front of one of the buildings, the uniformed guards idling and the locals who came to the temples to pray.

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From the Royal Palace, it was just a short stroll to the river. Seeing where the Tonle Sap River joins the mighty Mekong was nice as it was two completely different colors coming together. But it was even more fun to see the multitude of ferries and boats crossing the river.

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We took a short walk, but eventually headed home, as we had already a great plan for the evening. Sopharath, one of the kind employees working at the reception of our hotel, had offered to take Max to the playground together with her six-year old son Pong Pong. We were excited about the idea and enjoyed a great evening.
Equipped with a cup of sugarcane juice each, we headed off in a tuk tuk to the playground. There were lots of people there. Despite the crowd, it was fairly easy to spot Max. Seemingly he was the only blond kid around. It was a very nice atmosphere in town at night time.

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Eventually we treated ourselves to some food at a street stall – an interesting experience as we had never tried some of it before, e.g. bitter melong. To fill our stomachs, we then headed to a burger restaurant filed with locals before heading back home to the hotel.

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After these first days, we had gotten used to our surroundings already. Navigating in the dense chaotic traffic became normal and we stopped turning hectically around every couple of seconds. We went with the flow and enjoyed what we noticed while walking along.

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We had also found a couple of nice places in the vicinity: we were daily guests at the juice bar at the corner facing the tough decision which of the delicious smoothies or fresh fruit juices to choose from. In addition, there was an excellent Malay restaurant just a bit further down the road that we really liked. So we started feeling more at home.
Still, it felt like a big adventure getting some small chores done. When trying to get our laundry done locally, we were directed by the staff in our hotel, to a small alley across the street. We would have probably never ventured in there. In the maze of small alleys, we eventually found a small laundry to take our stuff. And in the process, we discovered a different world: there were tiny restaurants, many street stalls, youths playing at pool tables, kids playing marbles and many small businesses.

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Posted by dreiumdiewelt 11:06 Archived in Cambodia Tagged traffic food market palace pagoda tuktuk playground alley stall Comments (0)

Cambodian countryside

Phnom Penh and surroundings

sunny 33 °C
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Having seen a fair share of city life, we felt the urge to get out of town and to discover more of the countryside. So we booked a tour to check it out.
The first part of the tour brought us to the ‘killing fields’ genocide museum in Choeung Ek, one of the more than 300 Cambodian sites of mass murder during the reign of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. An audio guide provided us with much more background on the subject. It is already hard to imagine how the Khmer Rouge managed to kill roughly a quarter of the population in their five years of ruling – half actively the other half indirectly by letting the agriculture and food production go down. But it is much harder to understand that their leader Pol Pot got to live another 20 year in peace without being put in prison. Hearing that he was able to marry again and see his grandchildren grow up, was harder to believe than the fact that the Khmer Rouge continued to hold the official UN seat for Cambodia for years after having been overthrown.

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After that excursion into the brutal history of Cambodia, it was time to clear our minds. We headed out together with our guide Det into the countryside. Sam and I were riding on 330 Polaris ATVs and Max on a small kid’s ATV with the guide riding behind him.

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After a kilometer on tarmac, we headed off onto small dirt roads leading along the river Prek Thnot. We got to see little isolated villages, nice pagodas, mango and banana plantations and rice fields. Our first break was at a small store to quench our thirst. We were very happy about the dust masks we had been given. The roads were very dusty.

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Even though we were mostly riding along, we were able to get a good impression of village life. There were the youths playing soccer or volleyball on village squares, there were the kids taking a bath in murky waters of the canals leading to the rice fields, the huge and thin white cows dotting the fields, the huge containers next to the houses filled with rain water from the roof, the omnipresent signs advertising the merits of the Cambodian People’s Party, kids running up to us and waving, the setup of a wedding pavilion on the dirt road leading through a village and much more…

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Our second stop at a pagoda was very nice as well. We had a look around, and even got to see some monks.

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We were lucky to see all of this on a Sunday, being able to see people enjoying life. We had tremendous fun our tour. But it was a long trip and eventually we were happy to have the last stop for watching the sunset over the rice fields.

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We were exhausted by the time we arrived at the hotel. It had been a long and exciting day. We had dinner and fell asleep.
The next couple of days we took it very easy. We spent much of our time at the pool, enjoying life and planning for the days to come. One of those days, we realized that the pool really helped us to balance the exploring in the heat with relaxation. Realizing that the place we had booked in Bangkok did not have a pool, we cancelled that booking and found another place that did have a pool.
We read much, caught up on sleep and were happy just to be in one place without having to rush around to tick boxes in whatever sights should be ticked off by the avid tourist. While we’re often enough behaving like tourists in our travels, long term traveling is different.
So our key highlights of the next couple of days did not include the National Museum or one of the many temples. Instead, we went for another excursion with Sopha. After picking up her son Pong Pong at his school, we headed to the ferry and crossed to the other side of the Mekong.

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After another couple of kilometers passing along small markets, miniature stores, pagodas, family houses and animal paddocks, we reached the mango garden of Sopha’s brother. It was nice and peaceful there. The boys had a great picnic that Sopha had brought along, we picked some mango and had great conversations. There were many working cows passing by. It’s hard to believe that these cows are fit for doing heavy work in the rice fields – as they look so thin. From one of the nearby rice paddies we had a nice view of the sunset. What a great outing!

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On the way back, we passed a wedding ceremony in a decorated pavilion erected on the main road. Life in the dark was mellowing the scenery. The omnipresent garbage is not visible anymore, the atmosphere looks cozy, making even the poorest living conditions look romantic and homey.

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After our ferry ride back home, we concluded the evening with a typical Khmer BBQ. We were probably the only foreigners in the huge place. Sopha ordered for us a full set containing meat, various entrails (we suppose it was heart, liver, kidney, but also something else unidentifiable), shrimp and octopus. In addition, there was onion, bell pepper, mushroom, green tomato, cucumber, cabbage and water mimosa. What a feast! We were very full at the end of our meal and happy that we had to walk only two blocks back to our hotel.

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While we enjoyed life in Phnom Penh, there are also bad news that we heard from home. It’s strange being so far away and still affected by such far away decisions. While shocking indeed, the distance makes it probably more easily digestible. After all, we’ve been surviving many surprises lately and traveling certainly taught us that there’s a way out of every situation.
For lunch, we wanted to follow a recommendation of the Lonely Planet for a change. Unfortunately the nice restaurant with the view from the top floor of the Sorya Shopping Center was closed. We still enjoyed the view. Heading to the food court further down, was not a very smart decision. With all the building works in the shopping center, it was not very full and lacked through put. Luckily just Sam and I took a slight fit from the food and were happy to stay in and around the hotel for a day. It could have been worse. Other travelers had told us much worse stories.

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There was also good news that week: on Thursday, we headed to the Russian consulate right at 8am when it opens. There was no line and within a couple of minutes we held our passports with nice Russian visa in our hands.
The celebrations took place in the nearby Aeon Mall. Due to the early hour, we toasted with hot tea and hot chocolate. When the mall opened a bit later, we checked it out. Quite frankly, it could have been located anywhere in Europe just as well. Apart from a couple of stores exclusively appealing to the taste of locals (such as the store full with Korean smiling animated figures), big malls seem to get globalized and exchangeable. The only way to distinguish the location of a Starbucks or KFC is to check out the menu where in addition to English, the local language might give away where you are. But latest when exiting the mall, haggling with a tik tuk driver about the price of the journey and being back on the road, it becomes pretty obvious that we're still in South-East Asia and not Europe.

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Having received our Russian visa, our mission of the trip to Cambodia and specifically Phnom Penh had been successfully accomplished. Consequently, we were ready to head off. Anyhow, with our eight nights in the same (great!) hotel, we had spent much more time there than all other guests. Most people left after two or maximum three nights.
After a very personal good bye ceremony from hotel staff, we boarded our bus to Siem Reap. We were seated comfortably in the big bus, being able to enjoy the vistas of the Cambodian countryside passing by. Two stops and six hours later, we reached Siem Reap, the main tourist destination of Cambodia due to its proximity to the World Heritage listed temples of Angkor Wat.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 21:00 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cow river rice museum pool visa mall bbq ferry news quad Comments (0)

Temples in the jungle

Siem Reap, Angkor Wat

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Siem Reap greeted us with hot, humid weather. We had thought that we had acclimatized well in Phnom Penh, but soon realized that Siem Reap’s heat was much less bearable.
The solution was easy: once Mr. Tommy (our tuk tuk driver) had dropped us at our hotel, we quickly changed and headed down to the pool. Lucky us, that we had booked a place with a pool again!

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That evening, we took it easy and did not venture out for dinner – even though the hotel even offered a free shuttle service into the center of town. We tried the hotel’s restaurant and were soon after ready for bed.
The next morning, we were a bit disappointed about breakfast. Having been spoiled by a large buffet selection in Phnom Penh, both size and quality of our breakfast did not reach that standard by any means. So we headed off hoping that we’d be finding some better food during the day.
Mr. Tommy was waiting for us already. We were excited to have him as a companion for the next couple of days. Being used to the tuk tuk drivers we encountered in Phnom Penh, it was a pure delight to talk with someone in English, who knows his way around and who even offers suggestions of his own. All of that at a daily rate of 15 USD - just perfect!
Our first stop was at the ticket counter getting three day passes for the Angkor Wat Archeological Park. At 62 USD per adult, prices for US American or Canadian National Parks seemed very tame in comparison. But, we wanted to see the place without having to rush through in a single day.
Mr. Tommy suggested us to start our tour with a quick look around Srah Srang, a royal bathing pool dating back to the 10th century. Its gigantic size of 700m by 350m surrounded by stone steps gave us already a first impression of the incredible size of buildings that have been undertaken in the area.

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From there, Banteay Kdei was just across the road. We were amazed once more by the sheer size of this monastic complex, despite the fact that our guidebook described as much smaller than other temples surrounding them. It was fun exploring the temple and finding our way through the various enclosures. While partially restored, parts of the temple looked rather deteriorated – which added a certain charm to the building.

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Seemingly it had been built using poor sandstone and not the best construction methods. We did not mind. It was a perfect introduction to Angkor’s many temples. And it featured much shade which was important in the mid-day heat. After a feast of fresh coconut juice, mango and pineapple, we were ready for further explorations.

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Our goal was to see the Ta Phrom temple. This is one of the most photogenic temples as it has been only partially cleared of jungle overgrowth. While partially restored, it had been intentional to leave most of the massive trees that had grown in the temple, creating a jungle-like atmosphere. We were impressed and even though I had never seen the ’Lara Croft‘ movie with Angela Jolie, it seems that Ta Phrom served as backdrop for several scenes.

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We were fascinated by the place and impressed to see how the jungle is claiming back what man cleared centuries earlier. Unfortunately, we were not the only ones impressed by it. While we wandered around rather aimlessly, we ended up in the middle of large tour groups twice. In both cases, we found a quiet corner and waited. Once the chatting and constant selfie and picture taking of the Korean and Chinese groups had ended as quickly as it came, we headed off again – largely undisturbed and having the place for ourselves and a couple of other tourists again.

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As much as we liked the place, the sun won today’s battle easily and we asked Mr. Tommy to take us back into town for lunch. We went to the Butterfly Garden, which is not only known for good food in a pleasant garden-like setting, but also for supporting local communities.

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After lunch, we headed back to the hotel and were thrilled to have a pool. Admittedly, I rather spend a bit of extra money to stay in a nice place offering a bit of comfort and luxury. The thought of returning from a hit day just to a tiny hotel room without any possibility to be outside is not really appealing to me. So we fully took advantage of the pool and stayed there for most of the afternoon and evening.
The next day, we took a break from visiting temples. While Max and I stayed at the hotel, Sam went motorbiking for half a day. He got to ride some single trails through remaining jungles. But between the stretches of jungle, most areas have been deforested. And the continued development with more and more roads being paved, caused tracks to be graded, which just a mere two weeks ago were still some nice offroad terrain.

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But Sam also enjoyed having the opportunity to watch some village life and a jungle temple that is not on the usual tourist route. Despite the fact that the half day ride was laid out for 4 hours, Sam and his guide La were back already after a bit more than three hours. And La could not resist commenting that he had not done that tour so fast for quite a while.

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In the afternoon, we headed out together again into town. After an excellent lunch at the very comfortable Blue Pumpkin, we checked out the old market. It was easy to get lost between the stalls, even though everything was organized in sections. The fruit and vegetable section was not very busy and we even detected a couple of sellers sleeping on the tables surrounded by their wares.

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Then there was the textile section which eventually turned into the souvenir section. In an attempt to keep our baggage light, we declined all offers to buy bronze buddha statues, wooden elephant carvings and even the pretty muesli bowls made from coconut shells featuring colorful insides.

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The meat and fish section tempted us even less to do some shopping. The dirty floor and the smells did not help to create an atmosphere where I’d trust the quality of the wares. That might be wrong – after all eating in restaurants probably implies that our food might originate from a market like that. Even though we did not buy anything, the market was a nice place to take pictures.

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There’s something that strikes me about today’s markets. No matter how small the stalls are, no matter how little basic hygiene there seems to be in many areas, no matter how slippery the floor might be. Nowadays at least one out of two salespersons seems to hold a smartphone in his / her hands, briefly distracted by customers and eager to return back to whatever they were checking out on social networks.

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To a certain degree that is disappointing, as it clearly signals that time has not stopped here and that things might not be stopped in time like we would sometimes like to imagine in our romanticized view of less developed countries. But practically speaking, this adds a freedom to look around the market stalls without the otherwise tiring firework of ‘Mister, mister, good price. How much you pay?’.
Filled with lots of impressions from the market, we headed across the road to a nice icecream shop. It’s interior design was well thought through and would have fitted as well in a downtown of any major European city. Well, except that in Germany we’d probably have paid three times as much than here for our icecream – even though the store was way above local standards in terms of pricing.

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But not only the market was a good source of photo opportunities: just driving along in traffic was providing so many fun sights that we were only able to capture a fraction of the inventive and packed vehicles we saw on the road. And we loved the small gas stations along the roads!

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By the time, we got back to the hotel, Aurel had arrived with his parents Thomas and Petra. They had stayed at the same hotel with us in Phnom Penh and as the boys got along so well, they booked the same hotel as us. Max and Aurel were delighted to meet again. And their parents were delighted to have such a good entertainment for their respective kid.
Even though Max would have been entertained as well in the hotel, we headed out for some entertainment of a different kind: We wanted to see Phare, the Cambodian Circus. Standing in line to get into the tent, we met Nadja, Remo, Ben and Lenny again – who had stayed with us in Phnom Penh a couple of days earlier. Similar to Western Australia, also in South East Asia many tourists seem to walk along the same trodden paths, so meetings like that did not really surprise us much. It was nice to see them.
But even better was the circus itself. It recruits its talents exclusively from a school for disadvantaged kids in a nearby town. And with the proceeds from the circus, the school is being supported such that 1200 kids are getting a free school education and another 500 are getting vocational training.
We did not really know what to expect of the circus, but were pleasantly surprised how the protagonists combined music, artistic performances and dance. All artists were fairly young and were teeming with energy. In a way, the closest I can compare them with is Cirque du Soleil – just on a bit smaller scale. And as we love the Cirque du Soleil, this was great.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 19:19 Archived in Cambodia Tagged temple market tree jungle circus pool motorbike tuk_tuk Comments (1)

Impressive, but crowded temples

Siem Reap, Angkor Wat

semi-overcast 35 °C
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We had taken our lesson from the first day sightseeing not to start sightseeing too late in an attempt to avoid the midday heat. Consequently, we went for breakfast at 6:30am and headed out with Mr. Tommy already at 7am.
Today we planned to check out the Bayon, one of the most famous temples in the Angkor Wat Archeological Park. In fact, the Bayon is the central temple of the Angkor Thom royal buddhist city which dates back to the 12th century. It is supposed to have been home for 1.000.000 people.
Already the approach to Angkor Thom was very impressive. There was a 100m (!) wide moat, then an 8m high wall (of a total length of 12 km) with an enormous entrance gate. The bridge leading to the entrance gate was lined with Buddha statues on both sides.

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The Bayon temple marks the exact center of Angkor Thom and is famous for its gigantic sculptures. In total there are over 216 huge smiling faces looking down at the visitors of the temple. So no matter where in the temple you are, there is always a ‘big brother’ watching you.

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Well, and in addition we had at least another 250 people watching us – probably a third Chinese, another third Korean and the last third all others. Especially the last and highest level of the temple was more than crowded and we were happy to descend again towards the quieter levels further down.

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In addition to all the tourists, there were lots of monkeys around – probably a result of being fed by eager tour guides who want to enable their guests to get great shots of the monkeys. We rather kept our distance. Since I had a monkey jump on my shoulder in a Balinese temple over 20 years ago, I have become extremely cautious with these animals.

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From the Bayon it was only a short walk to the Baphuon, While the temple is impressively big, being in the shadow of its famous neighbor Bayon makes it look rather pale in comparison. Still, there's one story about it that we could hardly believe: according to archeological best practices at the time, all stones of the temple had been taken apart, cleaned and when needed repaired or replaced in order to assemble the restored temple again. What seems straight forward was only made significantly harder due to the fact that all works halted during the reign of the Red Khmer and by the time works were recommenced, none of the plans on how to reassemble the 300.000 pieces were to be found anymore. That's what I'd call puzzling!

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From there we headed towards the Terrace of the Leper King and the Terrace of Elephants. We explored a bit, but eventually were just too tired and hot to continue much longer.

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When we left the area via the Western gate, we found an area of solitude. No cars were allowed along that dirt road and there were just a few tuk tuks and scooters using it. The wide moat was not tended as well as at the fancy Southern Entrance that is mainly used by tourists and there were even some waterbuffalo around.

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Along the back roads, we got to see once more some interesting vehicles that we’ll never be able to see in Europe. Mr. Tommy took a couple of short cuts and suddenly we found ourselves in front of our hotel.

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We had done enough sightseeing for the day, and used the remainder of the day to relax: we relaxed in the pool, had lunch in town and decided to get a massage. At 4 USD for half an hour massage, it’s a luxury we’re enjoying without having to spend huge amounts of money. And even though the fish massage would have been an even cheaper treat, we preferred to decline – being afraid of the tickling fish.

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Back home, the pool was the destination of choice again and thanks to Max and Aurel entertaining themselves, we had some time to relax ourselves.
We had left the best for last: On our last day of sightseeing, it was time to explore the temple of Angkor Wat which Guinness lists as the world’s largest religious structure. It is made from several million sandstone blocks weighing up to 1.5 tons. In total, there were more stones used in Angkor Wat than in all Egyptian pyramids combined. And all of these stones had to be transported over a distance of over 40km from the quarries. And while this is already an impressive statement, we were even more in awe when we read that the temple was built by 300,000 people with the help of 6,000 working elephants.

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Originally it was built as a Hindu temple, but then gradually converted into a buddhist temple. But this seemed to have gone both ways depending on the respective ruler’s afflictions: at the Bayon temple there had been Buddha carvings that had been converted into Hindu symbols by later kings. Contrary to most other temples in the wider Angkor area, Angkor Wat has been preserved better. It was always more or less actively used and never overgrown by the jungle.
In an attempt to avoid the crowds, we had opted to enter the temple from the Eastern entrance. And indeed, there were hardly any people around and we could enjoy the quiet atmosphere and solitude approaching the temple.

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Admittedly, we did not walk along all of the 800m of bas reliefs depicting various scenes of Khmer history and culture. After a couple of meters, we got the idea and rather headed into the temple than around.

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Getting closer to the inner sanctum, we finally hit the crowds again who had entered the building from the western entrance. There was a 30min queue to climb the ‘Bakan’ - highest part of the temple. We kindly declined and tried to find a quieter corner again.

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Close to where a couple of monks were holding ceremonies for local worshipers, we had a huge area for ourselves. At least for 5 minutes that is which is when a couple of Asian tour groups chose exactly that spot for doing their selfies and fun pictures to prove that they have been there. When some of them tried to sit next to us to have us in their pictures, it was time to flee once more.

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We headed outside, tried to do a couple of classical reflection pictures (which proved to be very hard due to the wind) and headed out. A bit more people watching and we left.

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Once more we rewarded ourselves for a successful day of temple sightseeing with an excellent massage and a relaxed lunch at the Blue Pumpkin before heading back to the pool.
A short rain shower did not stop us from taking a dip in the pool – it was hot and we were anyhow planning to get wet. Soon enough, our friends Thomas, Petra and Aurel arrived. We were treated to a pleasant surprise - a round of cool ‘Angkor’ beer. Sure enough, a second round followed before too long and beer continued to be the beverage of choice over dinner.

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While food was the same as always, we had some unexpected entertainment when suddenly a frog jumped from the roof onto Petra’s head and from there into the grass. We had lots of things to laugh about and it was a fun filled evening. We decided that we had to make sure we met again once more in Bangkok.
We left the next morning in a heavily packed tuk tuk to the airport and soon enough found ourselves in another Air Asia plane. It was time to wave good bye to Cambodia and to prepare ourselves for Thailand.

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Posted by dreiumdiewelt 23:16 Archived in Cambodia Tagged temple monkey pool crowd tuk_tuk massage Comments (1)

Rooftop bars

Bangkok

sunny 35 °C
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Arriving at Bandkok’s old Don Muang airport, we were surprised how long it took us to get through immigration. After all, we did not need a visa, apart from not having to pay any money to be allowed to enter the country, the formalities seemed quite complex.
After our brief interlude in Cambodia, we were back to left hand traffic in Thailand. Despite the heavy traffic, we were able to move rather quickly – thanks to the many highways criss-crossing the city. And being high up above most buildings, we got to see that there’s much more construction in progress such that things should improve even further in the future.
Our hotel was nice and modern. But being situated along one of the tiny backroads of a rather old and shabby neighborhood of Chinatown, it seemed somewhat misplaced. Still, we were excited about it: We had an apartment with two rooms for ourselves with a view of some of Bangkok’s high rises. And there was a huge pool, a fitness studio and a rooftop bar at our disposal.

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We did not have many plans for the next nine days. After all, we had come to Bangkok first and foremost for Sam to get his visa for Mongolia (being German citizens, Max and I do not need one). Within minutes of having arrived in our hotel, Sam headed out to the Mongolian embassy. It took him almost an hour to get there in the dense afternoon traffic. If he would have known that he was able to successfully leave the embassy again after a mere seven minutes, he would have probably told the taxi driver to wait for him and to take him back immediately.
This way, he had to walk for ten minutes to even find an area where there were taxis around. And soon he realized that the first six taxi drivers he asked, did not want to take him, as they feared to be stuck in rush hour traffic. And not even the moto taxi drivers were interested in such a long drive. After all, he did find a taxi to take him, but realized before too long, that the driver was simply awful: he exclusively drove in first and second gear and did not seem to be too familiar with his vehicle. After over one and a half hours in the taxi, Sam eventually decided that instead of being stuck in traffic, he’d be quicker by walking the last four km.

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Other than Sam’s visa, we only planned to take it easy. After all, Sam and I had largely explored the key sites and some surrounding places like the old royal town of Ayutthaya already ten years ago. So there was no ‘must-do’ activity except the goal to enjoy ourselves.
The enjoyment started on our roof-top terrace. Sitting up there at dawn, having a nice dinner and seeing the lights fading while the lights of the skyscrapers were coming up was clearly a highlight. And considering how easy it was to take the elevator up one floor, we repeated the event multiple times.

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That’s also where we started our days: the breakfast buffet left no wishes open, even after nine days, breakfast did not get boring.
Our first plan was easily set: we agreed to meet Petra, Thomas and Aurel at their hotel. While the boys splashed around in the pool, we got to chat and make plans what to do. Eventually we headed out along one of Bangkok’s many klongs (canals) and even got to see a large goanna swimming in the murky water.

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A short stroll delivered us right into the middle of Bangkok’s tourist center, the Khao San Road. The place is crowded, funky and sometimes a bit strange. Not something I’d like to have around me at all times, but fun to enjoy for a limited time. We were easily able to avoid buying a roasted scorpion or other more ‘normal’ food. Sam declined all offers for getting a tailored suit and even though the ladies at the many massage saloons were keen to get blond Max into their places – at their dismay he was not interested at all.

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He rather ran along the street with his friend Aurel, all set to arrive at the Thai Boxing place where we wanted to observe the training. The kids were excited and had so much fun. They would have preferred to participate fully in the training themselves. The trainer noticed their interest and let them do a bit of hitting and kicking.

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We had excellent food from Northern Thailand at ‚Madame Musur’. After strolling along the busy street some more, seeing great food, lots of people and many fun sights, we eventually ended in a small bar. By the end of the day, we had sealed our plans on meeting again when we’ll be back in Germany.

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Going back home from the Khao San Road should be very easy in principle: there are lots of taxis, you take one and go home. Well, real life is different: taxi drivers are keen to earn more money on unsuspecting tourists. We had about five of them offering to take us to our hotel for a price of 200 baht (about 5-6€) before finally finding one who agreed to simply turn on his meter. At home the meter said 72 baht, we gave him 100 baht and everyone was happy.
Another thing that Bangkok is famous for is shopping. While we’re clearly not the typical tourists in that respect, we still headed to several of the main shopping malls. At the MBK Center we got all errands done easily: there was a bank, a camera repair place, countless stalls specialized on IT accessories and a toy store. And best of all: the gigantic food court offering all kinds of food from every corner of Asia.
At some stage, we got lost a bit between the many shops selling t-shirts that we turned in circles for a while until we finally found an elevator to get us out of the place. It was time to leave and as we did not want to get stuck in afternoon traffic, we walked home passing through the quiet grounds of one of the universities.

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What an unbearable heat! On the way home, we stopped the local juice bar for smoothies and then deserved a bath in the pool. We were more than happy about the fact that we had cancelled our original booking for Bangkok and went for a place with a pool instead.
One other day we headed out to an Italian restaurant that was highly praised in our guidebook and just a 10 min walk away. We soon realized that things change more quickly than guidebooks are able to keep up with. The place seemed to have closed down. But at least we found some pizza anyway just a couple of blocks further. And anyhow: there was enough to be seen along the streets to justify the trip. Pictures of the late king Bhumibol can be seen everywhere around the city along with black and white ribbons.

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From there it was only a short taxi drive to the pier where we took the express boat. Just like the locals we opted for the orange flag boat which costs 15b (around 0.5€) per person vs. the blue flag tourist boat which would have cost us 150 baht. The river is the same, the view as well and we did not mind mingling with the locals.

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More or less by accident we got off at Wat Arun. Being there, we figured that we might have a look around as well and visited the well-known temple.

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From there we took the ferry shuttle to the other side of the river where we originally had wanted to go. Wat Pho, another temple, is well known for its school of traditional Thai massage – sometimes even dubbed Thailand’s oldest university. The 1h herbal massage was very pleasant and the massage therapists were well qualified in what they were doing.

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From there it was only a two-minute walk to the Amorosa rooftop bar overlooking the river. It was great to see the sun set behind Wat Arun. The atmosphere was really nice. And it could have been even nicer if it wasn’t for the nervous couples at the prime spots who continued to take selfies over more than half an hour making sure that they did not miss a single angle of the sunset. Admittedly, we did take pictures ourselves as well – but after a couple of shots, we rather sat there and enjoyed life.

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Posted by dreiumdiewelt 07:30 Archived in Thailand Tagged traffic taxi sunset temple shopping boxing bar mall rooftop Comments (1)

Feeling at home

Bangkok

sunny 35 °C
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After a couple of days in Bangkok, we even cut down further on our activities. We would be busy again before too long and had no intention of stressing ourselves with too much sightseeing.
At the pool, we did overhear others who had visited the Royal Palace in the morning, did a river cruise in a longtail boat, spent lunchtime in Chinatown and were discussing in their quick pool break which night market they should visit before retreating to a rooftop bar. Well – that’s not us. There were days which we spent exclusively at the pool – maybe interrupted by a quick to our favorite juice bar to get our fix of smoothies for the day.
And whenever we did venture out, one major activity usually was enough. On Sunday, our target was Lumphini Park. The original plan of walking there, was quickly dismissed when we passed a metro station along the way. The elevator down into the pleasantly airconditioned clean world of Bangkok’s excellently organized public transport was just too tempting.
Two stations further, we emerged again into the heat and strolled around the park. We had fun on our outing in a swan boat, passed the local version of Muscle Beach (which presumably is much more crowded when it gets cooler in the evenings) and realized that the canals were full of goanas and turtles.

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But it did not take long for us to call it a day. We headed home by metro again and retreated to the pool.
Another day was reserved for Sam to get his Mongolian visa from the embassy. Given the experience from his first visit, he had the taxi wait for him for the two minutes it took him to pick up his passport. He swiftly got back to the hotel with a new and shiny visa.
It was time to celebrate having all documents in place to complete the plans for our remaining journey. We went for Hanaya, a Japanese Restaurant just 15 minutes away on foot. We sat at the typical Japanese low tables and enjoyed excellent food. We had eaten so much Khmer and Thai food lately that we were excited to have something very different for a change.
The food was excellent and probably typical. We were not able to tell, but that’s what we concluded - considering that all patrons seemed to be Japanese. Despite some ‘interesting’ menu options such as shark fin or whale bacon, the most adventurous in our order were the roasted gingko nuts. The Bento Sushi Box and the Tempura Set were excellent.
Our city tour the next day cost a fraction of what we spent at Hanaya. We walked to Siphraya Pier and took the express boat on the river. It was nice seeing the river live. Once we left the touristy areas, the river got much less crowded and the vistas of stilt houses decorated with flowers took over. Every other stop seemed to be at a temple of some sort.

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Eventually we headed back all the way to the last station where we connected to the Skytrain which directly delivered us to the shopping district at Siam Square. Our plan for lunch was neither adventurous, nor very exciting. But MBK’s food court provided us with good quick food options. Just what we needed.
Compared to MBK, Pantip Plaza seemed out of this world. The shopping center that sells everything around IT and computers was fascinating. The neon lights all over the place grabbed Max’ full attention while Sam kept admiring the gaming PC’s. There were computers and mobiles everywhere, but not a single place to get an overview of where to find what. Eventually we were directed into the right area. After all, we had come to get our laptop fixed. Since the time when it fell into the sand and Sam was only able to get rid of the sand by taking some of the keys out, the backspace key had an issue. And not being perfect in typing, I really need that key probably more often than all the others.
We kindly declined the first offer to replace the keyboard for 1500 baht. A couple of stalls further someone was able to help: using some pincers, he pried the key and its mechanics apart. After fixing its attachments, everything was just like new. All of that for free. I am so thankful to have this fixed!
So while Sam and Max headed off to check out the gaming PCs, I retreated to the McDonalds to enjoy typing with my fixed keyboard. Strolling around in a mall like that might be heaven for Sam and Max, but gets close to the worst nightmare for me.
Getting a taxi to take us back home was a bit of a nightmare as well. We simply refused their offers to take us for 200 baht – knowing that we had paid a third of that price coming here. Eventually, a tuk tuk driver offered to take us back for 100 baht and we accepted. And it was an excellent deal, as he skipped many traffic jams by driving the back roads. The only downside to the much quicker journey was to sit directly in traffic with its unpleasant exhaust fumes. Bangkok traffic is only pleasant wherever there is public traffic available.
Sam also tried the other quick transport option: using a moto taxi was very quick indeed. Still, despite the luxury of having his own helmet on the ride, Sam did not recommend using this way of transport for the family.
At Max’ request we did one more trip to Khao San Road. He wanted to see some more Thai Boxing. And this time the trainer had even brought along his son. It was fascinating to see how well he was doing – much better than any of the other people training at the center despite him being not older than 10 years. Max knew already where he wanted to have dinner and anyhow felt quite at home.

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Well, needless to say that we spent even more time at the pool. Sam enjoyed having the fitness studio at his disposal. And with the exception of a quick shopping tour to get a birthday present for Max and a tripod for Sam (he had been regretting not having brought his since the beginning of the trip), there was not much more we did.
But despite having had lots of time to relax, the nine days in Bangkok had passed too quickly after all. And on March 31, the alarm clock woke us up at 6:15am and it was time to head to the airport. We spent our last baht on breakfast and made sure that Max got a maximum of exercise before boarding the plane. This time we flew on Thai Airways. In other words: there was an entertainment system and the four-hour flight was over before we knew it. Unfortunately, there were so many clouds and haze that we did not get to see any mountains as we descended into Kathmandu. Let’s hope we’ll get a better view in the coming weeks.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 16:26 Archived in Thailand Tagged taxi boat river pool visa mall tuk_tuk Comments (1)

Namaste

Bhaktapur

sunny 24 °C
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We have seen a lot of airports already in the last year. But out of the 23 airports, Kathmandu easily wins the price for being most chaotic. There were long queues to pay for the visa – 40 USD pp. While Sam stood in line, I tried to complete the online process for the visa application. Only once I was done for me and Max, I was told that I did not have to do this, as I had already completed the paperwork in the plane.
At immigration, there were long queues once more. Suddenly realizing that the very left counter was not only to be used by crew members and seniors, but also by children, we were hopeful to skip the queues. Unfortunately, that counter was able to only process Max’ free visa. Sam and I had to go through the regular counters where the lines were.
Even though it seemed that we had spent over an hour getting to the baggage claim area, our belt had not even been announced yet. It was unbelievable hot, crowded and noisy. Eventually, the baggage from our flight arrived. The car seat arrived last – probably 15 minutes after everything else had arrived.

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Everything was labelled ‘KTM’. While most people simply interpret that as Kathmandu, Sam and Max felt like they had arrived in KTM heaven. They were reminded of KTM motorbikes, their favorite brand.
We were relieved to be able to finally leave the building and despite the many people waving signs, we quickly identified the logo ‚Weltweitwandern‘ and headed there.
When planning for the Nepal bit of our travels we knew that we wanted to do some trekking. And we did not want to go on our own, but have the support of a guide and porters. When researching the options, I quickly decided to get a full package with Weltweitwandern. Sam and I had been hiking with them through the Moroccan desert almost ten years ago. We like their concept, combining hiking with cultural experiences while leaving a positive footprint in the respective communities.
Our guide Prakash greeted us with necklaces of marigold and then we headed to Bhaktapur, the smallest of the three former royal cities of the Kathmandu Valley. By the time, we reached our hotel, we were starving. After spending just enough time in our room to drop our bags, we headed up to the rooftop terrace to get some food. Once we were well fed, we had the leisure to fully take in the beautiful view. We were just a two-minute walk from the main Durbar Square and could not only see parts of the royal palace from above, but also many of the temples raising above the other buildings.

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Back in our room, we started realizing that there was a very strange stench. A bit of exploration revealed a couple of mothballs in the closet. From that moment on, the closet was not opened again and we figured that we could easily live out of our suitcases for the time we’d be staying there.
We used the afternoon to relax and play. Even though it was tempting, exploring could wait for the next couple of days.
That evening we were treated to a big typical Nepali welcome dinner. After several starters (pakoda, Tibetan mo-mos, spicy potatoes and bamboo soup), we were served dal bhat – a lentil soup with steamed rice. It is the Nepali standard meal that is eaten by locals twice a day. We liked it a lot and are sure to have more of it in the coming days.

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We started our next day on the roof top terrace with breakfast, constantly observed by about 10 dun crows which hoped to get whatever was left over.

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Then it was time to explore the town with Asook giving us lots of background information about the main sights. All of Bhaktapur's old town is considered a World Heritage Site and there are significant efforts going on to preserve and restore the historic buildings. We started at the Durbar Square, just next door to our hotel. Our first stop was the royal palace with its famous courtyards. We liked the architecture and the features very much.

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But it was even more fun to observe the locals. With their colorful dresses and mesmerizing faces, we could not help being amazed at the whole new world we had suddenly entered.

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We also learned that Bhaktapur is famous for its arts and crafts, mainly in regards to pottery. While we marveled at the incredible amounts of piggy banks in the form of vases drying in the square, Max had a go with doing a bit of pottery of his own.

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It was obvious that the earthquake two years ago had destroyed many buildings and temples. Reconstruction works were going on all over the place with various stages of completeness. There had been a devastating earthquake already in 1934 which caused many buildings to collapse.

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Knowing that Nepal is a very poor country – among the bottom 10%, damages like that take time to be repaired. Specifically, for the not so fortunate inhabitants of town, it will take long to fully recover. Building materials are transported in large baskets supported by a sling around the forehead. Surprisingly, most this back breaking work is performed by colorfully dressed women. And in general, most construction work is done absolutely manually without the use of any machinery.

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The owner of the pottery workshop, Sirjan, told us that he and his family had their house destroyed by the earthquake and moved in with their grandmother. And until their house will eventually be rebuilt (timing unknown), he and his brother will continue using their workshop as their bedroom. Still, he is putting aside all money earned with pottery classes to build a bigger studio.
Our next stop was the Nyatapola temple, a five-story pagoda that has such deep foundations such that neither the 1934 nor the 2015 earthquake damaged it.

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Heading on through the windy streets, we passed a wedding party on the way to the bride’s home – day one of several days of celebrations.

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By the time we reached Dattatreya Temple, we had already gotten so much background information on the various temples and buildings from Asook that we started getting everything mixed up. So we did not mind that our city tour concluded with seeing the famous peacock window – the most famous of all the exquisite carvings in Bhaktapur.

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On the balcony of the nearby Peacock Café, we enjoyed a great lunch. But even better than the food was the view of the square underneath. What a setting: The old men sitting in the shade of a temple, the goats fighting for food, groups of people walking by animatedly, scooters carrying families of four… We could have sat there for ages to observe, take pictures and just enjoy being where we are.

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Max had different perspectives: he wanted to go do pottery again. So that’s where we went. On our way, we passed a festival where the locals came to a tiny temple hidden in a side street. They offered all kinds of food to the gods while others were just looking on.

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This is what is so fascinating about Asia: the culture is just so different to our own that there's so much to be discovered. And with people looking distinctly different towards what we're used to, it is just so much more interesting. Sam was very happy to have his telephoto lens to take close up shots of people without them being offended by being photographed.

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Once we reached the pottery shop, Srijan was very patient once more. He was finding just the right balance between letting Max try out on his own while teaching him how make some basic forms. Eventually the fun was stopped by a typical event: the power was suddenly gone.
Back at the hotel we also faced some power outages. At least they did not come as a complete surprise this time: there were severe thunderstorms going on and we seemed to be just surrounded by lightning and thunder. Sam used the opportunity trying to take some pictures of lightning using his new tripod until it was time to have dinner.

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That evening Sam realized that he had taken over 250 photos in a single day - without even counting the many pictures of trying to catch lightning. Nepal is definitively a very special and fun place, so we'll be looking forward to the coming days!

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 20:23 Archived in Nepal Tagged temple power carving earthquake thunder pottery hindu Comments (3)

Nepali culture

Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, Changu Narayan

sunny 24 °C
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After our tour of Bhaktapur the day before, today we had to get some shopping done. After all, we’d need sleeping bags for the rest of our trip. We took a taxi into Thamel, the tourist district of Kathmandu.
We had not thought that after our experience with Cambodian traffic that we’d be easily shocked. But Nepali traffic was even wilder and more chaotic than anything we had seen so far. Seemingly, most drivers fully trusted the attention of the other people on the road. Most people seem to just turn from a side street into a busy road without even a brief look. Or they fully trust their Hindu beliefs that the soul is immortal and will be reborn after death. That makes for an interesting traffic (and general safety) experience. Not even the times when we were simply stuck and not moving ourselves were a relief: just watching how motorbikes tried to squeeze through traffic were making my stomach twitch.

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After more than an hour we had successfully arrived in Thamel. Our first stop was at a ‘North Face’ store which turned out to be full of fake products. Well, either that or we were shown magic -10 °C sleeping bags with low weight, minimum pack dimensions and a reasonable price.
We preferred to head to Shona’s Alpine, a store that I had found recommended on the internet. They are producing their products in Nepal using imported Australian down at a great price. We were positively surprised about their sleeping bags and soon left the store as the proud owners of three of them.
After a great lunch at Gaia, we quickly headed back towards Bhaktapur and were happy to be back at the hotel. In the lobby, we found an article in a newspaper. A boy that is considered untouchable had been asked by his friend who belongs to a higher caste to fetch something from the kitchen. He did as he was told, only to be beaten up with a stick by his friend’s older brother – after all an untouchable is not allowed to touch anything. The good news is that since 2011 there is a law that forbids discrimination of lower castes. The newspaper reported that enforcement of this relatively new law still needs to be improved.

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Nepal is a very different world for us indeed!
On the next day, we explored Bhaktapur. On the main Durbar square, we had a closer look at the temples there. They were decorated with lots of wood carvings. The gods and goddesses had up to ten arms. The temples are not only home for the 330 million hindu gods and godesses (which are all incarnations of the three main gods), but also of many birds.

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While this was fun to see, we also laughed about the many representations of various sexual positions. A 16th century king wanted to promote married life vs. monastic life and thought it was a good idea to give his people some good ideas about the benefits of having a partner. Coming from a Catholic background ourselves, it seems just out of this world to go to a temple and to contemplate about pictures like that. How about a religion that helps couples being some variety into their love life?

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At one of the temples, we observed a group of girls taking hundreds of selfies of each other. Sam couldn’t resist to take a couple of pictures as well – which led to much laughter on both sides.

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We also loved the shopping options of Bhaktapur. There was a wild mix of regular stores with well-organized displays of the wares on offer. But even more fun were the many sellers along the sides of the road.

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Max was adamant to spend some more time at the pottery workshop. While he worked with lots of enthusiasm, Sam and I had time to just observe life in the square. Some of the houses around us had artistic facades of latticed windows – which looked even better when someone was looking through the window.

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We had lots of fun with a couple of kids. Despite being much smaller than Max, we learned that they are five and six years old and what their names were.

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What a great day this had been once more! We continued to be overwhelmed by the amount of sights and smells we experienced in the last couple of days.
But there was more to come. The next day we headed to Changu Narayan, one of the temple complexes part of the Kathmandu Valley UNESCO World Heritage listing. Along the way, we passed some of the many brick-works in the region who seem to make the business of their lifetime in the aftermath of the earthquake.
As we headed up towards the hilltop, we got to see the Kathmandu Valley from above. With the climate getting hotter in April, it was extremely hazy. Even though we had read in our guidebook that only between October and March there’s a good view, we doubted even that. Having seen the sheer amount of brick works and private households using wood fires, we assumed that much of the haze was also man made and present all around the year.

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Even though Changu Narayan is the oldest Hindu temple complex of Nepal, we must admit that we were not very impressed. Unfortunately, much of the temple had been damaged in the earthquake and there was a distinct feeling of being in the middle of a big construction site. And admittedly, we did not make a big effort to locate famous inscriptions from the fifth century AD.

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On our way down to the minibus, we had to pass through the many market stalls offering souvenirs and eventually got tired of repeating our mantra of ‘No, thank you. We’re not interested in T-shirts / singing bowls / paintings / food / carvings / pottery / etc’. The insights in village life were much more interesting than anything we could have bought for money.

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Later that day, we did invest in a souvenir. While Max got to try doing some painting on his own, we did buy a mandala. While we do not care too much about its philosophical meaning in religious interpretation, we liked the geometric forms and thought that it will be a nice memory that we can put up back at home.

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We had lunch with a nice view of the place in front of Nyatapola temple. Being up at a balcony, we benefited once more of being able to observe what was going on the square and taking pictures of the many interesting scenes we observed.

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Lunch was great. We really like Nepali food and especially the big choice of vegetarian options on the menus - once again a consequence of the respect of Hindus towards all higher life forms.
In preparation of the upcoming Nepali New Year festivities, a big chariot had been constructed and was being decorated. The local kids (and Max) used it as a climbing frame and substitute for a playground.

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We also headed up the big steps of the Nyatapola temple. We had a great view from up there. But Max loathed the fact that he was a popular photo motive for the locals and wanted to leave quickly again.

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Still trying to get our head around everything we had seen in the last days, we opted for a distinct contrast that afternoon: we went to an extremely comfortable café, had tea and cakes. While we were in a clear tourist establishment with not a single local stopping by, we did not mind having a well-known culture around us for an hour. While life floated by outside the big windows, we knew that by the end of the hour, we’d be in the middle of Nepali life again – excited about what to see next in this fascinating country!

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 21:40 Archived in Nepal Tagged traffic temple painting god sex dust hindu Comments (1)

Adventurous roads in the mountains

Namobuddha, Dhulikhel, Bhaktapur, Pokhara

sunny 25 °C
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Our drive to the Buddhist monastery of Namobuddha turned out to be much more adventurous than what we had imagined. We had not realized that the traffic and condition of Nepali roads can easily turn an outing to a place 25km away into four hours of driving.
While we had obviously known about the mountainous nature of Nepali topology, it turned out that the highway we used is the only major connection of Kathmandu towards the Eastern part of the country and towards Tibet.
A fascinating thought: continuing on the highway for not even 100 km and finding ourselves in Tibet… Unfortunately, this is wishful thinking only. For one thing, we don’t have visa for China or the Autonomous region of Tibet. And even if we had visa, we’d not be able to go there: since the earthquake of 2015, the road has been severely damaged and has still not reopened.
The road did not make the slightest impression of a highway – by German standards, it would have been rather a county road in terms of width and curves. We’ll skip the safety standards – which were mostly damaged or simply not existing. And the state of the pavement left much room for improvement. While there were some stretches without potholes, those with potholes clearly were in the majority. But even worse were those parts of the road which completely lacked pavement and had been worn out so badly that it took our driver Dhil lots of creativity to find a path that did not make our long Hiace bus scratch the ground.
Along the road we got to see some rice paddies and a gigantic statue of Shiva which even holds the title of being the largest of its kind in the world. It reminded us of a similar statue we had seen some years back in Mauritius (but which is only holding the third place in terms of size).

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Eventually we arrived at the monastery of Namobuddha, located on the top of a hill with a view of the surrounding valleys. On a less hazy day, the view would probably be spectacular. But being here in April, we did not see too far into the distance and unfortunately none of the higher peaks of the Himalaya. The monastery is pretty much in the middle of nowhere. The last 5km of the road were unpaved and probably better suited to be driven in an offroad vehicle vs. our Hiace.
We explored the grounds of the monastery with its prayer wheels, balconies, Buddha statues and pagodas. It was a quiet and peaceful atmosphere.

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But there was one thing that fascinated us: on a nearby hill we saw hundreds of prayer flags attached to a pole. I’m not sure why prayer flags are so attractive, but they definitively are.

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From the monastery, we got to hike a bit and it felt great to be moving again. It had been a while since we had gotten some exercise and we realized that we had missed it. And hiking pace had the obvious advantage of being able to observe more details of village life than by just driving by.

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Lunch was in a nice hotel in Dhulikhel which featured more flowers than what we had seen for a long time. The view of the Himalaya range from there is supposed to be spectacular – specifically at sunset. Hmmmmm - not for us. Hazy as it was, we got to see the hills surrounding us, but that was about it. A picture on the wall, explained which mountains we would have been able to see on a good day, but that was more depressing than anything else. We started wondering if we’d see any big mountains at all in our vacation or if we’d need to come back again to Nepal some other time.

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Maybe that glum outlook explained my rather bad mood at dinner. For once I did not have any energy to see the positive side of getting our desert of banana pancakes served simultaneously with the soups. While Sam just put it down as me having a bad day, I started wondering if it’s not eventually time to return back home. After all, it’s not the first time that blunders like that happen. It’s just that after so many times, I am eventually at the end of my patience with putting up with things like that.
The next day, we had more Nepali roads and traffic on our agenda: the drive from Bhaktapur to Pokhara led us through Kathmandu, over mountain passes and along some deep cut rivers.
Even though we were already accustomed to Nepali traffic, it still felt awful by far too often. When there was again one of those crazy trucks, busses, cars of motorcycles coming straight at us on our side of the road (mostly blowing the horn and / or flashing the headlights), I sometimes simply closed my eyes with the resolve of not opening them anymore until we’d get to Pokhara. As the landscape was very nice and there was much to be seen along the road, I did not follow through on that resolve though.

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It took us over two hours for the first 50km of our 220km journey – not a pleasant outlook. But given the conditions, there was no way to do that part faster.
Traffic was heavy with one truck after the next. The trucks were a sight in itself. The Indian brands of Tata, Mahindra or Eicher were not very familiar to us, but they dominated the scene. Most of them were brightly colored and featured some message on their back. They said things like 'road king', ‘see you’, ‘love star’, ‘blow horn’, ‘slow drive, long life’ or ‘speed control’. Some others were rather frightening such as ‘my life - my rules’. We were happy to have a very reasonable and defensive driver who tried to keep a good distance of all crazy drivers around us.

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Still, at times I recalled the words of my sister to go rating on the stretch between Kathmandu and Pokhara. And considering the atrocious traffic, it seemed like a heavenly alternative to move along on the rivers underneath us.

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Lunch break was a very welcome relaxation from our drive. But the bad news was that we still had some more distance to cover. At least traffic seemed to ease a bit and we were able to enjoy the sights of terraced rice fields along the road. Every once in a while we saw a wedding pavilion. Seemingly it was an auspicious day to have a wedding. And eventually we had made it: we reached Pokhara and about an hour later we had made it through town to the lake side where our hotel was located.

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For dinner we went to a nice restaurant with a view of the lake before retreating to our hotel room. We had to get ready for our trekking trip which would start the next day. We were really excited and looking forward to that – after all, that’s why we had come to Nepal for.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 12:37 Archived in Nepal Tagged traffic mountain rice road pass trucks crazy Comments (0)

Trekking in the Himalayas

Phedi, Dhampus, Landruk, Ghandruk, Naya Pul

semi-overcast 23 °C
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Max’s birthday marked our first day of trekking. After singing him ‘Happy birthday’, he got to open his present and wear his birthday crown with a big ‘5’ on it for breakfast.
And then it was time to head into the mountains. We were excited. As we left Pokhara, we got to see the outlines of some snowy mountains. They were a bit hard to distinguish from the clouds, but here they were, the peaks of the Himalaya that we had been waiting to see for so long! Not sure if we’d ever see more than that, we took some pictures from the moving van.

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As we reached Phedi, it was time to shoulder our daypacks and to head up the mountain towards the town of Dhampus. We were a group of six: In addition to our guide Prakash, Hom and Bir joined us as porters.
It was 9:20 am when we headed off. We were off for a tough start: the trail consisted of steps that led us up along the steep hillside. And the blazing sun did not help to cool us down. I was relieved when after half an hour we reached a first settlement and got to see down into the valley where we came from. We had already covered quite some distance and altitude.

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Next was an easy bit: we got to hike through some terraced rice plantations dotted with small little houses. People were working in and around their houses or in the fields with their buffaloes. Compared to the start, it felt like we were able to stroll through level terrain – even though we consistently headed upwards.

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The steep steps started soon enough again and before we knew it, we had climbed the 600 m of altitude to reach Dhampus (1770m) where we’d be spending the night. From the saddle, we had to still head along the hillside to the other end of the settlement, where our Eco-Lodge was located.

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Max had walked everything on his own – supported by Sam who kept telling him stories and kept him motivated. At 11:40am, we made it – way quicker than what we had assumed given that we had been planning on three hours walking time.
We sat in the sun, enjoyed the view down into the valley below us, used the wifi to receive some birthday messages for Max and eventually had lunch.
We only realized when a heavy thunderstorm started how lucky we had been that we arrived so early at our lodge. The clouds were thick, there was constant lightening and thunder all around us and lots of rain. On the corrugated sheet roof, the rain was really loud. I mean really loud. The rain also marked the end of the internet connection and unfortunately also the end of the warm water supply. Prakash had been smart enough to shower right away while there was still enough solar water available. We learned a lesson and promised to ourselves not to make the mistake of waiting too long anymore.

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At dinner time, there was a big surprise: Max got a birthday cake decorated with a 5, ‘happy birthday Max’ and two sparklers. He was thrilled and we were happy that he seemingly enjoyed his birthday. And best of all: contrary to many cakes we’ve eaten abroad, this one tasted excellent!
We had an excellent night’s sleep. The rain had cleared the air, there were no dogs around and the exercise probably helped as well. As I had gone to bed quite early, all of the above helped that I woke up before sunrise and could not resist to wake also Sam to be part of the spectacle.
It was a fabulous sunrise! With the air crisp and clear, we were treated to a panorama that is hard to be matched: with Machapuchare (also called Fishtail Mountain) dominating the scene, flanked at both sides by various peaks of the Annapurna Range. At 6,993m it has never been climbed, as it is considered sacred by the local population.

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As the sun came up, the hues of red and pink emphasized peak by peak as the sun came up high enough to illuminate them. While there was no wind where we were, it obviously blew mightily further above and created snow banners which were really nice to look at.

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We had a typical breakfast in Gurung style – the Gurung being the major ethnic group in the region. And then it was time to head out into this marvellous landscape around us. What a pity that yesterday we had not even realized how beautiful it was.
The path was very nicely laid out. We hiked through a small settlement and once more we heard a welcoming ‘Namaste!’ from all sides.

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As we headed in the shade towards a small stream, I was startled by one of our porters: I had a leech wandering on my left hiking shoe. He quickly helped me to get rid of it before it could start sucking my blood and I was very alert from there on. In the next couple of minutes, I got rid of another three little fellows who found their way onto my shoe. Luckily enough, the spell was over then and we did not see a single leech for the remainder of our trip.
But there was also bad news: seemingly we had managed to wander off the path that we were supposed to take. Prakash decided to head on and after inquiring with some local farmers we started heading straight up the hill. I was devastated. For one thing, I would clearly prefer a slight incline vs. a straight line up the hill. And the other thing I need to have is a regular pace – which does not work when your guide and porters don’t know the way themselves and have to ask around here and there.
After what felt like 200m of altitude on narrow paths up the hill, we finally reached the official trail again, which was wide, laid out with stones and was ascending only slightly. What a relief. Five minutes later, we reached the settlement of Pothana, where an official checked our trekking permits.
The view from there was stunning and with it my mood was right back where it should be. All along the next stretch we got to see alternating views of Machapuchare, Hiuchuli (7441m) and Annapurna South (7219m).

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After some nice up and down we reached the highest point of our trekking round at the little village of Deurali (2150m).

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As the view suddenly expanded to the West, we got to see one of the top 10 mountains in the world: Dhaulagiri at 8167m is the seventh highest mountain. So far in the distance, it did not seem nearly as tall and without knowing, I would have never guessed that I’m looking up at a peak that is more than 6000m of altitude above us.

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We also got to look back towards Dhampus where we had stayed last night and Pokhara with Phewa Lake in the background. Just that morning with the sunrise above Dhampus and this view from Deurali was worth all the effort of coming to Nepal and hiking all the way up here.
From there on we headed down a steep descent towards Tolka where we had a great and relaxing lunch. By then we had walked already more than 7km and had 4km more ahead of us. But at least most of the 670m ascent and 790m descent we had done already and the rest was an undulating path along the steep hillside.

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By the time we reach the Tibet Guesthouse in Landruk (1640m) in the early afternoon Max was really tired, but he continued to refuse being carried by one of our porters. We were proud and celebrated our great day and achievement with a warm shower and a beer. And then it was time to play Uno – an easy card game that we also introduced our porters to.

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The guest house was beautifully located with a view straight up towards Annapurna South – well in theory that is. Soon after we left our great outlook in Deurali, clouds had started forming around the highest peaks and by the time we reached Landruk, we could only guess that there were high peaks surrounding us. The downside to the guest house was that it was not really clean. It seems that the floors had been swept, but fresh linen seemed to be an overrated luxury. I was delighted to be able to sleep in my cozy sleeping bag and just tried to avoid touching anything. Still, the beauty of the location and the nice outside areas of the guest house with its many butterflies were just superb. And it is absolutely surprising what delicious meals can be prepared on a simple wood fire!

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By the next morning, the clouds had vanished again and we got to see Annapurna South in its full beauty. On the other side of the valley, Ghandruk – our destination for today - was already lit by the first rays of sunshine. If it would not have been for the steep descent into the valley before being able to start the climb into Ghandruk, the walk would have been almost too easy.

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This morning we took it easy and had a leisurely breakfast. We left at 8:40 am, hiking through Landruk and down the steep steps towards the river. Only 40 minutes later we reached the lowest part of today’s journey, the river Modi Khola (1320m) and had 730m of ascent laying ahead of us.

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Making our way slowly upward, we were passed by many porters loaded with the bags of trekkers or with all kinds of wares. At that stage, we realized that there was no need to feel bad about the loads our own porters were carrying. With one of them carrying our 20kg backpack and the other one a bag in addition to their own packs, they must have felt like in heaven compared with their usual job. And given that Max had up to now blatantly refused being carried, we could have done the trek with a single porter up to now. Still, it was great to know that they were there.

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Two hours later we had made it all the way up. We passed a donkey / mule caravan that had brought supplies either to Ghandruk or potentially as far back as the Annapurna Base Camp. The animals seemed delighted to head down without any loads and their bells were jingling cheerfully.

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Once we reached the Annapurna Guest House, we had the whole rest of the day for ourselves. Sam used the opportunity to recover some sleep, while Max and I played extensive rounds of Uno with Prakash, Hom and Bir.

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Time has passed so quickly and we had a hard time to believe that this evening was already the last one of our trekking tour. We celebrated extensively and not only played Uno, but even introduced our team to Farkle. Like all other good acquaintances (well, except those where we forgot about it) we met on our journey, they got to write into our traveling guest book which proved to be a bit of a challenge but was successfully completed with the help of Prakash.
That night we were kept awake for long: the six dogs we had seen already all afternoon around the guest house did not believe in the advantages of night time sleep and made an effort to enforce that believe also with the hikers.
The hike down from Ghandruk was beautiful, but crowded. Contrary to the last couple of days, today we found ourselves in the middle of big groups of people. The stretch from Ghandruk to Naya Pul is not only the final stretch for the round we had done, but is also done by all people who either target the ABC (Annapurna Base Camp), the Poon Hill Trek or who are doing the Annapurna Circuit – one of the most popular treks in Nepal.
It was a long and nice hike down the hill to the settlement of Birethanti. We saw another couple of caravans, passed though many small settlements, mostly on stone-paved steps.

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After more than 10 km, Max finally gave in and allowed our porter Bir to carry him for the last remaining kilometer. Still, it had been a brave achievement that he had made it so far without using any help.

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We had lunch at the fishtail restaurant which probably boasts an excellent view of the mountain of the same name. But after our four days of experience in the mountains, we were not surprised that by noon time it was hiding in the clouds. We had a last lunch together with our porters Bir and Hom. After lunch, we had to walk only another 20 minutes until we reached Naya Pul, which marked the end of our hike.

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There our taxi waited for us. We were not pleased at all with our taxi driver. He drove like a maniac, was constantly distracted by his mobile phone despite the heavy traffic on a narrow road (which was deteriorated to the point that it seemed more like a one-way road than a two-way major highway). After five anxious minutes of observing what was going on, we asked our driver to stop talking on his phone while driving. Two minutes later we had to specify that that rule included writing text messages. He was less than amused when he realized he had to stop while talking on the phone. But that did not stop him from accepting more than ten calls and having to see how others were passing him in the meantime.
While we headed down in to the valley of Phedi, we got to see the full path we had taken on day one of our trek. It had been a really nice hike – probably one of the highlights of our journey.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 19:17 Archived in Nepal Tagged mountains rain view trekking river sunrise clouds valley hill hike birthday lightning Comments (0)

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