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The sacred island

Raiatea

sunny 28 °C
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It had just been a 15 min flight from Bora Bora to Raiatea and before we realized it, we were landing again. Our baggage arrived promptly – an advantage of tiny airports. Andrew, the owner of the Manava Lodge, picked us up at the airport. He kindly offered to make a stop at the local supermarket to stock up our supplies for the next couple of days. We had booked a bungalow with outdoor kitchen and nice private terrace surrounded by a tropical garden – an excellent choice. We immediately felt at home.

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The next morning, we had an early start. Andrew’s wife Roselyne took Max and me to the airport where at 8:20 the flight from Maupiti was scheduled to arrive. And soon enough we had again the bag that we had lost in Maupiti which had contained almost all of Max' toys. Lucky us!
We decided to take it easy and just did a short excursion to the Vairua pearl farm at the adjacent beach. The owner patiently explained to us how the two-year-old oysters are opened and a small piece of mantle tissue from another oyster together with a spherical bead (which is called a 'graft') are inserted in the pearl and then kept at eight to ten meters’ depth for around 18 months, when they will be collected. By then about 80% of the oysters will have grown a pearl inside. Very interesting. But with the antibiotics and surgical instruments used in the process, we were reminded a bit of a dentist.

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The rest of the day, we spent at our terrace and at the pool. While Max played football with the local kids, Sam prepared the fresh tuna we had bought in the morning in the typical Tahitian way, i.e. raw with coconut milk. And as a desert we had a fresh coconut that just fell down from one of the trees around our bungalow. Excellent!

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It is nice to enjoy now, what was still just theory back in February, when I had been sitting in front of the chimney in cold Germany, plotting out on which islands there were nice and affordable accommodations, checked availability, matched that to available flights and booked it all. That was my way of insuring that we get the best value for money while staying in rather expensive destinations. Due to that pre-work, we’re currently having the luxury of knowing where to stay each night until November 7. The downside is that after once we’ll reach Australia that day we have nothing at all so far except a very rough idea of what we’d like to do. And so we spent a bit of time that evening, plotting out the ideas and sending the first inquiries about transportation options which will then be the base for arranging everything else around it.
We woke up the next morning with the plan to have breakfast and a hike to the nearby three cascades. While Sam stuck to the plan, I stayed home with Max such that he could enjoy playing with Abel again. After all, he had not had the chance to intensively play with other kids since we left Canmore four weeks earlier. And Max and Abel had so much fun!

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Sam enjoyed his hike very much. With the help of locals, he found the narrow pathway up along a small river, passed through dense jungle like forest and got rewarded with a nice waterfall at the end.

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With Max being busy and not requiring hardly any attention and Sam hiking, I used the opportunity to take care of the blog. As Sam had supplied me with lots of pictures in the last couple of days, I published the sixth blog post within ten days. While this is a new record, it is also a sign that we had been quite behind. We still are behind, but nearly as much anymore.
The remainder of the day, we spent once more at the pool before heading back to our bungalow to have dinner. That evening Sam’s tripod came into action again: first he tried to take pictures of the many crabs in the garden around us, of the geckos above our terrace and then headed to the sea to take pictures of the full moon raising above the island of Huahine in the East.

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And then it was time to explore the island. We rented a car for the day and did the tour of the island. Our first stop was at a temple, called Marae Taputapuatea. It is one of the most important temples in Polynesia, marking the center point between New Zealand, the Easter Islands and Hawaii. Only the stone structures remain to this date, but previously there would have been all kinds of wooden structures as well, ceremonial houses, living quarters and huts to store the war canoes.

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We were easily able to resist the temptation to bathe in a river together with the famous and sacred blue-eyed eels and opted instead for snorkeling in the lagoon. As it was Sunday, there were also quite a couple of locals around and we were able to do some people watching.

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The remainder of the drive around the island was nice as well. We enjoyed alternating vistas of the lagoon and the mountains covered in lush and dense tropical forest.

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Once we were back home, all of us were more than keen to jump into the pool to cool off a bit. Max played with Abel again and the two had lots of fun together.
After that much excitement and lots of sun, we had a quiet and relaxing evening. We simply enjoyed sitting on our nice and comfortable terrace.
On our last day in Raiatea we wanted to do some hiking and climb mount Tapioi above the island’s main town of Uturoa. Along the way we got to see a lot of the local fauna in their natural habitat and we even passed a vanilla plantation.

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From the viewpoint up there, we had an excellent view of all of the Leeward Islands we’d be visiting: Maupiti, Bora Bora, Raiatea and Huahine. In addition, we saw Raiatea’s sister island Taha'a which is well known for its vanilla production, but which we skipped on our journey.

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Back in town, we stocked up our water and cash supplies before hitchhiking back to our pension. Already the first driver stopped and was kind enough to take us all the way there even though this meant a detour on his way home. Wow!
As we were home earlier than expected, we had the whole afternoon to spend in and around the pool until Roselyne took us to the airport for our flight to Huahine.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 06:39 Archived in French Polynesia Tagged temple mountain car island waterfall farm tour snorkeling pearl viewpoint Comments (1)

Kia Orana / Hello Cook Islands

Tupapa, Rarotonga

sunny 26 °C
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Even though we had left French Polynesia, we had another two and a half hours to enjoy Air Tahiti’s service – together with about thirty other passengers of which at least 50% seemed to be German speaking.

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Contrary to previous flights with Air Tahiti of which the longest had been just 35min, this time Sam was lucky: he asked if he could go to the cockpit during the flight and the pilot gave his ok. Once Sam had gotten all his questions about the planes, pilot education and risky situations answered, he left and Max and I were allowed in the cockpit to have a peek as well. Really nice!

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We had already seen a couple of other islands of the southern group of the Cook Islands before finally descending into the main island of Rarotonga. At the airport, we were greeted by nice ukulele music. Immigration was fairly easy and customs clearance more straight forward than expected.

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To get to our accommodation, we had planned to just take the clockwise island bus. As we mentally prepared ourselves for a 40min wait, suddenly a lady stopped next to us and asked us if we needed any help. We explained that we waited for the bus and where we wanted to go and miraculously she offered to give us a lift. Once we were in the car with Angela, we realized that she lived west of the airport and we had to go about 7km east. Out of pure kindness she took such a detour. We were amazed – what a lovely welcome to the Cook Islands. And we were thrilled: being in the Commonwealth, English would be sufficient again to get around easily.

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Kylie, the manager of the ‘Ariana Bungalows’ welcomed us, showed us our new home for the next five nights, the pool and the games room. And she had lots of advice for us on what to do and plan for the next days.

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Max was quite tired, so Sam headed off on his own to go shopping and soon enough returned stocked with typical NZ / Australian food and beer. It is fun seeing how easily the connection to the mother country can be detected, not only via the food. Just like in New Zealand, traffic on the Cook Islands is on the left side of the road. And already when we arrived in our bungalow, we had noticed one more thing that is hard to find outside of Commonwealth countries, the typical English faucets: one for hot and one for cold water. To wash your face with warm water, you need to fill the sink with the provided plug.
The next day we took it easy and spent the day on the terrace of our bungalow and in the tropical garden with its pool.

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Kylie’s husband Marshall husked a couple of green coconuts for us and we enjoyed the light coconut water and their soft flesh. For tea time, we had banana bread to go with our black tea / hot chocolate. A good start into our stay at the Cook Islands.

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The next day we took the bus into Avarua to visit the Saturday market. It was a fabulous place for people watching, for eating at the various food stalls, and for shopping of souvenirs as well as fresh produce.

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We even got treated to a typical Polynesian drum and dance performance. It was fun seeing the girls perform their dances so proudly. And the sound of the drums was the perfect way to get accustomed to the local music.

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As we were in town already, we used the opportunity to get a couple of other things done before taking the clockwise bus back home. Given the nice weather and bright sunshine, the pool was the perfect place to be for the remainder of the day. The only interruption was for tea time and eventually for getting the ‘barbie’ / BBQ ready for dinner.

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The next day, we took a hike to one of the most important marae / temples on the island. From there we continued a hike up the ‘Ikurangi mountain. It had been clear from the start that we would not make the 4-5 hour round trip up to the top, so we did not feel bad about turning around eventually and heading home and taking a plunge in the pool.

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Sam did make a serious attempt to hike the ‘Ikurangi alone the following day. This time he was fully equipped with proper hiking gear. Even though, the route proved to be extremely tough and though thickets of fern and other plants. It did not seem that lots of people are hiking there. While he was able to find the way up, eventually he decided to turn around anyhow: it just seemed a bit too risky to balance along a slippery ledge with significant drops on both sides and no one around to get help in case needed. Still, he liked the hike, the jungle feeling along the way and the beautiful views from the mountain.

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The other nice thing about our hikes were the insights in local life. Seeing the houses along the way, very often with attached decorated grave houses (which seem to be preferred over regular graveyards), the chicken, pigs and dogs and the local fruit trees.

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While we spent the last couple of days a bit of time with writing blog entries and editing photos, we don’t have internet, so we cannot upload anything. That left us with lots of time to read (‘Flight of the intruder’ for Sam and ‘The King’s speech’ for me) and to play Monopoly in the NZ version we found in the game room. Island life as it should be!

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 21:19 Archived in Cook Islands Tagged temple bus mountain market pool hike chicken coconut bungalow Comments (2)

Temples in the jungle

Siem Reap, Angkor Wat

sunny 34 °C
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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)

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)

Last impressions of Nepal

Kathmandu

sunny 25 °C
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We were positively surprised when we realized that Kathmandu’s domestic terminal is much better organized vs. the international terminal. Within no time, we were in the good hands of Prakash and our driver Dhil to take us to our hotel in Kathmandu’s tourist enclave Thamel. The next positive surprise awaited us when we realized that the luxurious Moonlight Hotel had allocated their suite to us and we had a huge room for ourselves.
Too lazy and hungry to find an appealing restaurant on our own, we used TripAdvisor and were indeed very positive about the ‘Western Kitchen‘. Despite the name of the place, they also offered Nepali food and it tasted really well.
We spent the rest of New Year’s Day in our hotel. It had been a shock to see how much baggage we had acquired lately. The addition of the three new sleeping bags and sleeping pads made our pile of stuff look even more intimidating than ever before. And I was seriously worried that we’d not be able to stuff everything into our bags.
So it was time to sort out. And we had the perfect opportunity coming up: tomorrow we’d be visiting an orphanage and they might be able to use our stuff. By the end of the evening we had a big bag together containing not only a soccer ball, lots of toys and clothes. And we’d also be giving them Max’ car seat that he had been using since the start of our journey in the US. From now on, we will not need a seat anymore even though it had been very valuable up to now.
Before heading to the orphanage, we visited the Pashupatinath temple. It is a large temple complex dedicated to the Hindu deity Shiva and the oldest Hindu temple in Kathmandu.

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Already the approach of the temple was fascinating: we passed a wedding, saw the colorful powders on sale in a shop and then arrived directly at the river where still today cremations take place. The dead bodies are put onto big stacks of wood and once the stack has burned down, the ashes are spread in the river.

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We were not the only tourists standing there fascinated by the scenes across the river. That might be the reason why exactly there so many sadhus were seated in photogenic poses. And indeed, many tourists were tempted for a small donation to take their picture or to pose together with them.

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The Nepali and Indian pilgrims to the temple head to the inner sanctum of the temple which is reserved for Hindus. We found enough other things to do. On the hill opposite of the main temple precinct, we had a nice view. We just had to make sure to keep our distance to the many monkeys around. Up there was a temple for Shiva’s first wife and a much quieter atmosphere than down in the main temple area.

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While we did catch a couple of pictures of sadhus and the salesmen along the road, there were other scenes we rather did not capture. The beggars along the street featuring prominently their leprosy were some of them. It was heart-breaking to see that people continue to suffer from illnesses that are curable and treatment is even provided by the WHO free of charge. So is it the social stigma that prevents people from seeking help, do they not know about available treatment options or is it too lucrative to earn money begging vs. otherwise not knowing how to earn any money? We did not find out the answers, but were shocked anyhow.

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It was great that after these sights, we headed directly to an orphanage where orphans and very poor children who cannot be supported by their parents are being taken care of. Weltweitwandern is one of the key sponsors of the project and offers anyone interested to go and have a look.
We were warmly welcomed by the leader of the orphanage Mary and by Sudama who is the head of Weltweitwandern’s local partner agency and president of the NGO supporting the orphanage. He personally checks how things are going every Saturday.

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When we were there, only very few kids were around. During the New Year’s vacation, most of them were home with either their families or visiting other families in villages. The orphanage makes a big effort to enable these visits such that the kids learn about ‘normal’ life outside the orphanage such that they get a chance to get socialized. Still, Max had lots of fun with the kids there playing soccer.

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We were excited to learn about the project and really liked the approach. As part of the tour of the facilities, we even learned that the Herrmann-Lietz-Stiftung is one of the key sponsors of the project, sending students of the Schloß Bieberstein boarding school there every year to help. Even though Bieberstein is not far from where we live and we even know some people working there, we had not known about that engagement. Once more we were pleasantly surprised to see how small the world is. And let’s see: maybe we’ll manage to host Sudama at our place on one of his next visits to the Fulda area. Or maybe we’ll start supporting one of the children of the facility once we’ll be back home.

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We stayed the whole afternoon and when we had to leave, it was a very warm good bye from Mary, Keshav and the kids. We waved back for a long time while walking through the fields back to our car.

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On the way back to the hotel, we once again got to ‘admire’ Nepali traffic and the awful condition of the roads. So many roads have been dug up as a result of a big drinking water project and have not been re-sealed for a couple of months. That results not only in offroad conditions on main roads, but also leads to dust all over the place. No wonder that many people are wearing a dust mask in Nepal. I clearly know that I’d never ever want to work for the Nepali traffic police. Only in retrospect, we realized how well organized and clean Phnom Penh had been in comparison.

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After so much exploration, we enjoyed a quiet evening at home and were happy that the next day, we’d only be starting our sightseeing in the afternoon. Today, Asook was our guide through Kathmandu’s old town. He was an amazing source of information about everything we saw, but also about general information such as people, customs and culture.
There’s one thing we might have noticed also without him mentioning it: as of today, it was forbidden to use the horn in Kathmandu. And indeed, it was much calmer in town and traffic noise was significantly down. Who would have thought that Nepali traffic would even work without people being able to use their horns?
Unfortunately, the Kathmandu Durbar Square has been significantly damaged in the 2015 earthquake and much of the damage is still visible to this day.

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Our first stop was at the temple of Kumari. Contrary to most other temples, this one is dedicated to a living goddess – a girl that is currently 7 years old. Once a ‘Kumari’ reaches puberty, a new Kumari will be selected. The 4-6-year old girl that twitches least when watching the ceremonial slaughtering of various animals will be selected to serve as Kumari. She will live in the temple under the supervision of a caretaker who will also serve as her teacher and her parents will only be allowed to visit during the day on weekends. Once more we concluded that Hinduism is a very strange concept to grasp for Westerners like us.
The temple of Hanuman, Asook provided lots of background in regards to the architecture, history and protagonists of the temple. Once again, we got to admire lots of wood carvings. And similarly to those we had seen earlier in Bhaktapur, some of these were once again very explicit. Even the statue of the monkey god Hanuman is covered with a red cloth to avoid him being offended by the carvings around him.

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As we passed some stalls with souvenirs, we got to a square full of pigeons. We also learned that the air moved by flying pigeons is able to cure arthritis which provides the sellers of corn on the respective square a very profitable selling argument. Not being bothered by that illness ourselves, we refrained from feeding the birds. Anyhow, we were a bit surprised to see how the birds are allowed to live in the old temples and consequently destroying some of it by their droppings.

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And as so often, the small scenes along the way were at least as impressive as the big sights.

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After our tour of the old town of Kathmandu, it was time to explore another one of the World Heritage Sites in the Kathmandu Valley: the Boudhanath Buddhist pagoda – the largest of its kind in Nepal. It is located in the Tibetan quarter of town – a result of many Tibetans fleeing their home country in the 50ties when China took over.
There were lots of people at the stupa and like them we walked around the stupa clockwise. Contrary to the many Hindu temples we had visited, once again we were struck by the quiet atmosphere which seemed much more pleasant and less hectic.

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We headed to the higher level and surrounded the stupa also there, before visiting an adjacent Buddhist monastery. We were impressed by the gigantic prayer wheels and the huge butter lamps. Alternatively to paying for butter lamps to be lit, some people preferred burning juniper incense.

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As a perfect ending for a great day of sightseeing, we had a Tibetan dinner at the Buddah Guest House. The food was great and we especially enjoyed the soup that was served in a heated soup tureen.

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The view of the stupa at sunset / night time from the restaurant was excellent. But also from down at the bottom, the atmosphere was great. With the stupa illuminated and literally thousands of butter lamps being lit underneath it, we were amazed. What a nice place to be and what a great end of our journey to Nepal.

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By the time we got home, it was quite late. And even though we had truly enjoyed the last two days of sightseeing, we were looking forward to two more days without any program.
After a very lazy day without doing too much of anything, I headed to breakfast with a very bad stomach feeling. After breakfast, I’d have to manage to pack all of our remaining stuff. And even though we had left significant amounts of stuff at the orphanage, it still felt like way too much.
I would not have needed to worry so much if I would have known that Davina (another Austrian guest of Weltweitwandern) would offer us the perfect solution. She’d be going to the airport with us that afternoon – destination Vienna. And as she was flying via Qatar, she was allowed to take 30kg of baggage. Thanks to her gracious offer, I was absolutely relieved. Davina took most of our unnecessary stuff, a total of 7kg. And I’m sure that in the next weeks we’ll not need any souvenirs, swimming gear, a fifth light sleeping bag and surplus clothes.
As a small sign of thanks, we invited Davina for lunch at ‘Fire and Ice’, a Kathmandu institution famous for its great pizza.
At the airport, we were quickly convinced that our initial assessment was wrong: the check in was organized very well and also the security controls and immigration were absolutely comparable to other airports we had been at. And in respect to gender equality we were surprised that Nepal seems to be much further developed than most countries: all form sheets offered three options for gender: male, female, other.
Our flight was on time and as Davina still had to wait for one more hour, it was time to say good bye to her – with a clear outlook of meeting again in a couple of weeks back in Austria.
But before that, we’ll be exploring another three countries and were looking forward to which adventures would be awaiting us in the last couple of weeks of our journey.

Posted by dreiumdiewelt 12:07 Archived in Nepal Tagged monkeys football temple orphanage stupa baggage Comments (0)

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