Cambodia in one week! 

Siem Reap (4 days) >> Phnom Penh (3 days)

One week is not nearly enough to cover Cambodia so we debated whether to go at all. However, we decided some time was better than nothing at all. Especially for the temples of Angkor Wat which we distinctly remember topping the ‘Ultimate Travelist’ by Lonely Planet. The temples of Angkor Wat are the largest religious monument in the world and date back to the 12th Century, that’s around 900 years ago.
We made our trip to Cambodia part of a shoestring loop from Bangkok, visiting Vietnam as well. It made for a nice 3-week tour around South East Asia before returning back to Thailand and heading south towards our final destination of Bali for our return flight home.

Our itinerary for Cambodia:

  • 29th May – Bangkok (Thailand) to Siem Reap via bus – booked tickets online via Thai Ticket Major
  • 4 days in (A) Siem Reap for Angkor Wat temple complex
  • 2nd June -Siem Reap to Phnom Penh via Cambodia post bus booked through Cambo Ticket
  • 3 days in (B) Phnom Penh
  • 5th June – Phnom Penh to (C) Ho Chi Minh (Vietnam) via Kumho Samco bus booked through Cambo Ticket

Our route from Bangkok, through Cambodia and onward into Vietnam.

A little bit of useful travel info:

  • Currency: Cambodia uses US dollars which makes it very easy to get currency in advance and exchange any leftover.
  • Transport: Buses were certainly the easiest way to travel through Cambodia and were very easy to book online. Cambo ticket in particular shows a comparison of buses so you can pick your preferred choice. All the buses we booked were very efficient including the border crossings.

The Cambodian border.

  • Visas: For UK citizens, you need a visa for Cambodia which costs $30 (bring dollars with you) and you can get this at the border. You need 2 x passport photos (worst case they can do them for you there for an additional cost). We had read lots of stories about scams operating at the border and even the bus we were on dropped us off at an unofficial visa place. The people here immediately started to ask for our passports and passport photos. To be fair they were very efficient. However, they charged 1400 BAHT (about $41) and we could not pay in dollars so we immediately realised it wasn’t the official visa office. We paid it anyway as many other travellers were doing so. Once all the forms were prepared, we had to walk to the border to get our passport stamped and receive a departure card. We were a little sceptical that we were about to be charged again but in the end our visas did actually get processed very quickly. Quicker, in fact, than the few tourists who realised in time to go to the actual border to sort their visa out. For Vietnam, UK citizens can currently stay for 15 days visa free which is why we could take the bus – this option only works if you already have a visa or like us, you don’t need one. It’s better to fly if you need to get one.

    Now for the good stuff, our actual experience…

    Siem Reap & The Temples of Angkor Wat

    We stayed at Villa Sweet Angkor Central, it was really cheap at £11 for both of us per night and our room even had two double beds! The hotel also had a small swimming pool which was great given we were nowhere near the sea.

    Room to spread out in our accommodation in Siem Reap for only £11 a night!

    Jonny doing his best seal impression in the pool.


    It was a bit of a walk to Pub Street (the street is actually called ‘Pub Street’) which is where all the bars and a lot of restaurants are. This street was really good fun and beers were as cheap as $0.25!!

    Pub Street in Siem Reap!


    The next day we took it easy and had a wander around the town. We found a great bakery called Bloom Cafe which had the nicest coffee and cakes! 

    Beautifully presented coffee and yummy treats at Bloom cafe in Siem Reap.


    For Angkor Wat, the temple complex is too big to walk around so you can either hire a tuk-tuk for the day, cycle or hire scooters/motorbikes. We found a place offering electric bikes which we thought might be fun (and more eco-friendly) costing $10 for 24-hours. The lady in the shop told us we could get tickets for Angkor Wat from 5pm the day before and see some temples that same evening. This worked out well as it made it easier for us to get to the temples for sunrise the next day which had been heavily recommended by everyone we met. As we rode to the ticket office, a monsoon from hell came down and we got absolutely soaked from head to toe. It was pretty hilarious walking up to the ticket counter leaving a puddle behind us. 

    The monstrous monsoon which came down whilst we were riding to the ticket office.


    You can either get 1, 3 or 5 day tickets for the Angkor Temple complex. We decided on 1 day tickets and although we did not see everything on the site we felt it was enough for us – you can get a bit ‘templed’ out in the heat if not careful. 

    After we’d got our tickets, we decided to check out one of the temples that was open until 7.30pm, Pre Rup temple.

    Testing the bikes out we went to see Pre Rup temple in the evening.

    The way back was funny as we had to ride the bikes no more than 14 kph or risk the bike running out of charge and having to use the most ridiculous looking pedals! We made it back eventually haha.

    After a quick shower, we went out for our first taste of Cambodian food at what became one of our favourite restaurants, Temple Design Bar, which was just a few streets back from Pub Street. We tried the Amok curry which was delicious.

    Delicious amok curry & rice at Temple Design Bar. Not to mention the $1 beer 😉

     Bright and early the next morning (a crazy 5.45am), we set off on our freshly charged bikes (we had to charge the batteries in our room overnight). We arrived at probably the most famous and well preserved temple, Angkor Wat, for sunrise. It was pretty spectacular, even if it was cloudy. 

    Angkor Wat bright and early.

    Inside Angkor Wat Temple.


    There was a monk giving prayers to tourists.

    Monk blessing me (I think!).


    We spent time looking around the temple and you could even go up one of the spire towers.

    Around Angkor Wat temple.


    Next we went to Bayon Temple which is known for the faces carved into the rock.

    The faces carved into the rock at Bayon Temple.


    Here, we witnessed the sun have a surreal ring around it which was really incredible.

    Amazing rainbow ring around the sun above Bayon Temple… does it mean something perhaps?!


    We had to stop to charge up the bikes, but used the time to have an early lunch. We tried Beef Lombok, another traditional Cambodian dish.

    Cambodian Beef Lombok. To be honest, we preferred the Amok and Khmer Cambodian curries but it was still good!


    Next we visited the main gates and a few more temples around the site. 

    The scale of the temple complex is difficult to comprehend until you are there! Even the butterfly in the photo needed a rest!

     Ta Prohm temple (below) is famous for being used in the film Tomb Raider.  It has trees literally growing through the temple walls.

    Ta Prohm temple, best known for featuring in Tomb Raider.


    Finally we watched Angkor Wat as the sun begin to set, before making our way back.

    Angkor Wat as the sun was setting.

    After a tiring day, we treated ourselves that evening to a BBQ plate on Pub Street and a few drinks after 🙂

    Enjoying a big BBQ plate and beer after a long day at the temples.


    For our final day in Siem Reap we decided to spend most of the day relaxing by the pool and having a bit of pampering. I got my nails done for $2 and we both had a fish foot massage with free beer!

    Chill out and pamper day- Jonny loved getting his nails done 😉 The fish spa came with a free beer- result!

     We had the best curries at Cambodia Tradional Chef – the fish Amok and beef Khmer curry were really good.

    Fantastic Fish Amok curry (front) and Khmer curry (behind) 😊

    Phnom Penh, S-21 & The Killing Fields (not the nicest title I’ll admit)

    The bus to Phnom Penh was again very simple. It was a small minibus which departed from the main post office. The bus stopped for a break on the 6 hour journey at a beautiful location. 

    We have no idea where this was as the bus stopped us here for a break on the way to Phnom Penh, but isn’t it beautiful?


     
    Sitting on the bus for so long enabled us to catch up with House of Cards on Netflix 😉 We also met fellow travellers Don and Adam on the bus, and decided to meet the next day to go to S-21 Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields. If you haven’t heard of the Khmer Rouge regime or the history around this, I urge you to read up on it. It’s likened to the Holocaust. We didn’t take many photos of these places as they were extremely harrowing. I’d certainly recommend a visit and the audio guide was well-done. 

    The terrifying rules as S-21 prison, a former school, used during the Khmer Rouge regime. One of the rules reads ‘Whilst getting lashes or electrification, you must not cry at all’.

    On the left is S-21 prison and on the right is the memorial for those that lost their lives at the Killing Fields.


    That afternoon, we needed something much lighter so we did what many Brits do and went to the pub. We were still with Don and Adam and enjoyed a few rounds of pool, some drinking games and a lot of beer together! 

    A bit of light relief after the horrific stories from Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields.


    Sensibly realising we needed to sober up, we decided a Khmer massage would be the best approach. The massage though, was actually really good and involved a lot of stretching (or the beer helped to mask the pain…).

    Our accommodation (Longlin House) was in an area equivalent of pub street in Siem Reap. It was great for restaurants but it was a little seedy with many prostitutes outside the bars. We did find one great restaurant called Kabbas Restaurant which had really good Cambodian curries.

    More Cambodian curry. Literally couldn’t get enough of this yummy stuff!


    Our final day in Phnom Penh was spent wandering around the Royal Palace (it was closed so we didn’t go inside), the river, central market and the National Museum of Cambodia (personally we didn’t feel the museum was worth the $5 entrance fee).

    A day in Phnom Penh.

    We had a late lunch at David’s Handmade Noodes restaurant but the handmade dumplings were even better!

    Handmade noodles and dumplings made right in front of us at David’s in Phnom Penh.


    Then it was on to Ho Chi Minh city or Saigon in Vietnam. We were pretty chuffed when the seats we’d booked had extra leg room! 

    Happy travellers leaving one great country to another!


    So there you have it; both breathtaking and unforgettable experiences, the tastiest food, good company and lots of fun. Safe to say we enjoyed our 1-week visit to Cambodia!

    Vietnam blog coming soon…

      India: The Golden Triangle and Rajasthan in 2 weeks

      Our route: Agra >> Jaipur >> Ranthambore >> Jodhpur >> Jaisalmer >> Delhi

      We arrived in Delhi on 7th May 2017. I guess because South India is closer to the equator, we expected the north of India to be less hot, if not the same. How foolish.

      This was taken at 10am!

       At midday, Delhi and the surrounding area got to between 40-46 degrees celsius. So our schedule had to fit around what we thought we could realistically manage in the heat. We prioritised the Taj Mahal (obviously), seeing a Benghal Tiger (we’d not managed to see one in Periyar National Park in Kerala) and the three Rajasthan cities of Jaipur, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer. The three places that make up the classic ‘Golden Triangle’ of India consist of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. Our itinerary looked like this:

      A) Agra (for Taj Mahal) – 1 night
      B) Jaipur – 3 nights
      C) Ranthambore (for the National Park) – 2 nights
      D) Jodhpur – 2 nights
      E) Jaisalmer – 4 nights
      F) Delhi – 2 nights

      Our route in North India using Google maps.
      When you zoom out, you can start to get the scale of India. We only covered a very small portion!

      This portion of our trip was characterised by beautiful forts, palaces and desert land.

      These nine photos capture some of the highlights of the 2 weeks!

      The best way to take long distances in this region is by train. Getting to Agra from Delhi would be much better if you purchased tickets in advance. We had tried using the website but the registration did not go through in time so if you plan to use the trains in India make sure you do this well in advance. This blog is amazing at spelling out the various train classes and how to book tickets.

      Arriving at New Delhi train station was certainly an experience with lots of Indians sitting or sleeping on the floor, various different queues for the ticket office, beggars and lots and lots of touts. At the time I was too frazzled to take a photo but I found this blog which provides some pretty accurate photos!

      Unfortunately, we weren’t entirely sure where to buy our tickets. A friendly staff member told us the next train to Agra was in two hours and we had to go to another building to purchase tourist tickets. Being none the wiser to the scam being played on us, off we went to this other building to get train tickets only to be told there were no trains available. This was when we realised something phishy was going on and quickly made our way back to the train station. As we entered the station, a train Security Officer asked to see our tickets. Since we didn’t have any he said we could not enter the station and must walk down the street to the ‘tourist train reservation office’. He was quite authoritative, even showing us his ID, and began escorting us down the road. We were naturally skeptical from the last scam. Thankfully, a foreigner happened to be walking down the street and told us quietly the tourist office was inside the main train station on the 1st floor. We immediately turned on our heel and marched back to the station, ignoring everyone until we got into the station. Eventually we found the tourist office which was very busy. There was a ticketing system and after a further painful two hour wait we finally had all our train tickets.

      We had side beds for the ride to Agra in class ‘3A’.

       The train to Agra was pleasant enough, lasting about three and a half hours. We sat in the air-conditioned 3rd tier class (there are eight classes in total) and spoke to an Indian family along the way.

      Looking down the aisle of the train carriage. The guys face is brilliant.

       Our hotel, Sai Palace, was pretty impressive in terms of location and price for £11 per night! You could even see the silhouette of the famous Taj Mahal from the rooftop restaurant.

      Jonny took this cool zoomed in shot from the rooftop of our hotel, Sai Palace.

      Very early the next morning we walked to the Taj Mahal for sunrise to beat the crowds and the heat. It was truly spectacular.

      Even before we got to the Taj Mahal the walk was stunning with the sun glinting through the West gate and lighting up the red brick.
      The magnificent Taj Mahal.
      From every angle the Taj Mahal looks magnificent. We even got to go inside with shoe covers.
      For those that can peel their eyes away from the Taj Mahal, Jonny noticed there were lots of parrots flying around so I took a few snaps.

      We ate breakfast back at the hotel and also managed to check out Agra Fort before catching the train to Jaipur.

      The Red Fort in Agra. No brownie points for guessing why it is called the ‘Red’ Fort 😉

      This train ride was really comfortable in the air-conditioned chair class and we were even given food!

      Train food consisted of Dahl curry (lentils) and paneer curry with rice and chapatis. There was yoghurt and a syrup sponge sweet for desert.

       We arrived at our hotel Pandya Niwas about 10pm. The room was really modern and the staff friendly. The next morning I realised I had left my sunglasses in the hotel in Agra- oops. The hotel confirmed they had them but they would not post, only collect them in person. If these had been a cheap pair of sunglasses I would not have been bothered but Jonny had bought them for our honeymoon. So our first morning in Jaipur was spent booking train tickets back to Agra for the following day. We had a late breakfast and spent the rest of the day meandering through the streets. We saw Hawa Mahal at dusk, a high-walled palace built for the Royal women to watch the streetlife. We ate at a rooftop restaurant which overlooked Hawa Mahal.

      Hawa Mahal in Jaipur.

       The next day we caught the first train back to Agra. Fortunately, I retrieved my sunglasses and not wanting to waste the day, we took a look around the other sights of Agra including the Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daula often referred to as the ‘Baby Taj’, the Jama Mosque (built in the 1600s) and the Mehtab Bagh gardens with a view of the Taj Mahal from across the river.

      The actual Taj Mahal (top), Baby Taj (bottom-left) and the Jama Mosque (bottom-middle) which had a creepy room with ladies handprints (bottom-right).

      We also decided to spoil ourselves with a great Bon Barbecue lunch.

      Bon Barbeque- this was the starter: skewered pineapple and paneer for me, fish and mutton for Jonny.

      In the evening we travelled back to Jaipur. Jaipur is the capital of the Rajasthan state and is called the ‘pink city’ because the buildings were painted pink for a royal visit from Queen Victoria in 1876. The main sights are the City Palace, Jantar Mantar (an astronomical observation site built in the early 18th century) and Amer Fort. We managed to do all of these in one day.

      The City Palace in Jaipur.
      Jantar Mantar, a collection of astronomical instruments used in the 18th century.

      Amer Fort is located 11km from Jaipur whereas the City Palace and Jantat Mantar are centrally located. Amer Fort was certainly worth the visit and made for some impressive views.

      Amer Fort near Jaipur

      Talking food for a moment, we found a very authentic small street food vendor that many locals ate at. We were served a 50p meal consisting of chickpea curry and poori bread or rice – and if you weren’t full from your first plate they would keep on serving.

      A very small bustling authentic street vendor selling hot chickpea curry and freshly made poori bread or rice.

      Ganeshi, a small restaurant recommended in lonely planet I believe, had really friendly staff and you could watch them cook your meal. It’s quite hard to spot though as the entrance is in between shops. The food was yummy and very cheap.

      Ganeshi, an unassuming restaurant which had charming staff and freshly cooked curries, rice and bread at great prices!

      Another of our favourite restaurants in Jaipur was Natraj, the peshwari naan and potato bomb curry were the best! This time, I gobbled it all up without taking a photo.

      On our last day in Jaipur, we decided to do something a little different. We’d heard there were elephant sanctuaries in the area but were slightly sceptical of how well the elephants were treated. After some research we decided to visit Elephant Joy. When we arrived we were greeted with three elephants: Rangoli, Moti and Gori. It was a relief to see they were not in chains and free to wander. The owner explained how Rangoli was rescued from a circus and Gori was an orphan. We fed and washed the elephants which was really fun.

      Feeding and washing the elephants.

      We were also able to ride Moti bareback (because the wooden boxes hurt the elephants). The owner was also keen to ensure we weren’t too heavy for the elephant . To be honest although the ride was an experience, we both felt bad riding it. I know people ride horses and camels but an elephant just felt wrong somehow.

      Riding Moti, one of the elephants. It felt different to riding a horse or camel and although care was taken for the elephants, it didn’t feel right riding one.

      On the plus side, the elephants seemed to be treated really well and had vet care every month. They certainly seemed to enjoy being fed and washed! Overall, we had a really fun experience and it was amazing to be so intimate with these huge creatures.

      Giving Moti a treat after the ride was really fun and she certainly seemed to like her treat! Normally it would be sugar cane but they had run out so she got a few slices of bread instead.

      Our next stop was Ranthambore for the Tiger Reserve. We really wanted to spot a wild Bengal tiger. We took the first train and arrived by lunchtime. In the afternoon, we managed to secure a safari after a lot of waiting and patience. The ticket office was home to a lot of touts and a long line. Someone said to Jonny “if you wait they will not come to you, you have to shout to be seen!“. By 3pm, we were in a jeep racing towards Ranthambore National Park. When I say racing, this was no word of a lie – the driver did not slow down for anything: herds of goats, pot-holes, bumps, bends and even the wildlife (which was the point of the Safari). We were bouncing around all over the place in the back of the jeep, it may as well have been a bouncy castle! It was also ridiculously hot with no shade so we bought emergency rags at the side of the road.

      In the back of the jeep, with the emergency rags to try and stop our heads from frying in the heat!

      Amazingly, we did actually spot two tigers up close! Other wildlife we spotted were birds including kingfishers and peacocks, samba deer and monkeys. I just about managed to take photos whilst the driver raced on.

      Some photos of the wildlife spotted in Ranthambore National Park.

      After a restful second day in Ranthambore town, we caught two trains to Jodhpur. We had a 2 hour wait in Jaipur so took a taxi to the Peacock rooftop cafe for breakfast. This place was really nice and relaxing.

      Breakfast at the Peacock restaurant in Jaipur (in-between trains).
      Time to kill on the train to Jodhpur.

      The train ride took up the whole day and we arrived late to our homestay Suraj Haveli. We were welcomed by a lovely family. The Mum made us Thali which we ate with beer on the rooftop with an impressive view of Mehrangarh Fort.

      You can just about make out us eating dinner with a view of the fort.
      The Mum rustled up a great homemade Thali for us.

      The next morning, the family prepared a special breakfast with sweets because it was Jonny’s birthday. He even got a garland and a tikka on his forehead!

      Jonny’s birthday morning. The family we stayed with cooked us a special breakfast and offered Jonny a garland and a tikka to wish him happy birthday.

      The Mehrangarh Fort was very impressive, followed by a visit to the Clock Tower in the middle of Sardar Market.

      Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur.

      Cafe Royal was a little gem tucked into the little shops surrounding the market with a great view of the clock tower. The owners were really sweet and lent Jonny their guitar for a bit.

      Sadar Market around the clock tower. We sat watching market life at Cafe Royale and Jonny played guitar.

      Around 5 o’clock in the afternoon, a friend of the homestay took us on a walking tour of Jodhpur. It was a very personal tour as he showed us his school and home, as well as a step well and some temples. Jodhpur is known as the blue city and it’s easy to see why.

      The walking tour around Jodphur, the blue city. The step well was a particular highlight.

      Dinner was at On the Rocks- a restaurant complex with lots of choice and an actual bar (this was the first bar we’d come across in India with alcohol advertised).

      Birthday dinner with lots of curries, rice and breads at On the Rocks restaurant in Jodphur.

      On the way back there was a sandstorm from hell and we had to remain in the fetal position in the tuk-tuk!

      To get to Jaisalmer we had to get up at 4am and arrived by train around midday.

      A cow casually walks past the train window.

      The hotel we stayed in was the best yet- it was actually part of the Lal Garh fort wall. The balcony was awesome and we easily lost a good few hours sitting out watching the world go by.

      Our balcony at Hotel Victoria in Jaisalmer. It was actually in the fort wall.

       The breakfasts were great too – banana and honey pancakes with chai tea on a rooftop with a view!

      Not the best photo, but we loved our honey and banana pancakes each morning at Hotel Victoria in Jaisalmer.

      Jaisalmer is not too far from the Pakistan border and located very close to the Thar desert. The average temperature was 44-47 degrees celsius which limited the amount we could do in the day. The sights of Jaisalmer include a lake, the fort palace and the desert.

      The lake and Fort palace in Jaisalmer.

       To get a break from curry, we found a fun cafe called ‘Cafe +’ which served western food and had lots of space to chill out.

      We went to Cafe + twice during our stay. It was a great escape from the heat.

      We took a overnight trip into the desert which involved visiting a deserted village, an hour camel ride and sleeping out under the stars.

      An abandoned village in the Thar desert. Supposedly the villagers fled from an Emperor. There was an Indian family visiting all crammed into a tuk-tuk.

      It was low season in Jaisalmer – there aren’t many tourists silly enough to come here in the heat. It worked in our favour though as we got really good deals on accommodation and for the desert tour it was just the two of us plus our guide so felt very much like a private tour.

      Camel ride in the Thar desert 🌵

      After the camel ride, our guide cooked us dinner on an open fire.

      Camp fire and meal. The food was actually pretty tasty and even in the middle of the desert they made fresh chapatis.

      Camping consisted of sleeping on a bed exposed to the elements. It’s difficult to put into words how surreal this was – we were in the middle of the desert, no signs of civilisation for miles, no toilet, no huts – just us, a campfire and some beds! The stars did look incredible though.

      Sleeping out in the middle of the desert!

        We were right next to a giant sand dune which was hilariously hard to walk on, particularly in the dark. You’d fall about everywhere and sand filled up your shoes instantly.

      Jonny demonstrating how to tackle the sand dune 😂

        The next morning we had breakfast and then messed around with some fun ninja moves on the sand dunes.

      Ninja moves in the Thar Desert.

      On the way back I rode the camel myself which was both terrifying and satisfying. I survived nevertheless.

      Riding a camel by myself. Jonny was too frightened so kept tethered to our guide which made me more nervous! My camel Papaya was very good though, just a little slow 😝

      When we got back to Jaisalmer, feeling brave we thought we’d try something else pretty random – driving a tuk tuk! A friendly driver taught us how to operate the gears, clutch etc and then let us have a go! It was brilliant. We couldn’t stop laughing!


      The next day we had an 18-hour train ride back to Delhi. We decided to fork out the extra money and get first class (which essentially means you pay for space). It was worth it because we actually got a decent night’s sleep.

      The 18 hour train from Jaisalmer to Delhi. First class was a four-berth cabin with a door. You were given a towel and bed sheets for the journey.
      The train food wasn’t free even in First Class, but curry bread and rice cost about £2.

       In Delhi we stayed near the train station which had a good atmosphere and there were lots of restaurants. We saw the Jama Masjid, one of the largest mosques in India, but we didn’t stay too long as before we knew it we had a queue of Indians wanting selfies with us.

      Jama Masjid in Delhi, one of the biggest mosques in India.
      We attracted a lot of attention in India with our pale skin and got asked for so many selfies. At the Mosque it was even more crazy so we took a few of our own 🙈

      The Red Fort nearby was closed so we wandered back through the streets full of people on the streets selling food, clothes or drinks. Some of the streets were pretty run down with lots cables dangling between buildings.

      The busy city of Delhi. Some streets looked quite run down, but they were always very interesting and gave you a good sense of local life.

      For our last night in India, we decided to stay somewhere nice and booked the Marriott in Gurugram, 30-minutes from the airport. The hotel had a pool and gym so we spent some time there and in the evening they had a drinks reception and food in the Executive Lounge (something I had access to with all my travel with IBM). My first glass of wine in a month! We went to bed feeling very satisfied.

      For our last evening in India we decided to treat ourselves at a nice hotel near the airport.

      Annoyingly, at 4am I woke up feeling completely shit. I threw up all morning. We’d done quite well to not get a serious dose of Delhi belly throughout our trip so getting so sick right at the end of our trip and at a nice hotel was a shame. In fact, I was so poorly we missed our flight to Bangkok but the Marriott were good and let us stay an extra night for free.

      Needless to say, our time in India had its ups and downs- it is busy and chaotic, sometimes things don’t make sense and you can’t miss poverty.  Yet on the other hand, there is such beautiful scenery, wonders of the world, fantastic forts and palaces and amazing wildlife. Overall, we’re really glad we went!

      Next stop Bangkok followed by a trip to Cambodia and Vietnam 😊

      You can read our other posts about travel in India here:

      The Good, The Bad and The Useful of Travelling in India

      Kerala, South India: Our 2-week itinerary

      Thrissur Pooram – An Outsider’s Perspective

      Thrissur – A city in the coconut-loving state of Kerela, southern India

      Pooram  – A Hindu temple festival; fiery processions, mesmerising music, adorned elephants, huge numbers of excited devotees

      I think we may have covered every base on the emotional spectrum during the 36 hour festival. On the Asian stint of our sabbatical trip, the Pooram festival in India was pretty much the only event we’d reserved on our calendar. We wanted to get an experience of a local festival, one not particularly geared up for extracting tourist ruppees. I can report that an experience is what we got!

      Thrissur Pooram, “the mother of all Poorams” is described as “a grand assembly of Gods and Godesses… 36-hours non-stop with no loss of energy” Elephants-a-plenty, and 4 hours of fireworks in the early hours of the morning. Sounded great to us – To Thrissur!

      Elephantastic?
      We booked an AirBnB well in advance anticipating the majority of beds to be taken up. Accommodation was a complete pain in the arse. (More in “Advice” at the end)

      We arrived the day before to acclimatise. Within minutes, we saw an elephant being ridden on the road amongst the honking rickshaws, motorbikes and taxis. I hadn’t applied much thought before arriving in India about the condition of the elephants, but shit do I feel awful for them. The problem with tradition I guess, elephant welfare was probably even more of an afterthought 200+ years ago.

      Safe Space
      The main festival area is on the inside of a ring road housing a large temple. Taking in the sights and lights at night-time was a fairly pleasant way to spend time. Even better from the Friday morning when the road closes. Being fairly fresh in India, exposed to madly packed up roads with every single bike and rickshaw blaring their horns is enough to make you stop where you’re standing and immediately assume the fetal position. I’m about used to it now though, but I’m still suprised traffic seems to flow without making the roads look like a scene from Final Destination.

      Early doors of the festival – people were climbing wherever possible for a good view.. lots of opportunities later for close encounters with the elephants and performers
      Braving the risk of electrocution for a good view 😐

      Trance Inducing Horn 😎
      With the festival underway, you can expect to see huge gatherings of devotees around the temples, with adorened elephants parked outside. Performers in traditional wear stand atop the poor bastards, spinning colourful umbrellas, whilst musicians play trance inducing horn and percussion instruments. The music is quite good, in that the group change up the beats and rhythm quite frequently, and in-time. There was one performance around 5:30 on the Friday outside the main temple where the crowd would cheer ferociously and lose their minds each time the group changed the beat. People were partying and waving around colourful balloons, this was probably the highlight of the whole festival actually.

      This was dead good

      By the evening, we agreed the music to foreign ears is incredibly repetitive. I still have the beat of the piercing cymbals in my head now. I don’t think it will ever leave, I’m a changed man now.

      The moment of realisation – “Damn, the music IS pretty repetitive”

      Indian Summer
      One thing to note is that it is freaking hot. I’m talking 40 degrees celcius hot. It’s properly dangerous to be exposed to the sunlight for any extended period of time, which is an easy mistake to make when you’re an excited Westerner and the festival is a novelty. The daytime is taken up by the game “Hunt shade, or literally die”

      Local companies hand out fans and hats. Clever marketing.. If you don’t die, you’re more likely to spend money with them

      Bhang for buck
      One interesting point Mrs Mansell made was that the festival experience was slightly odd to us without alcohol.. I’m pretty sure that would sound crazy to a local, but we hit up many music festivals in Europe and getting boozed is commonplace. Alcohol is the second most consumed fluid after air. That said, “bhang” (edibal cannibis) is legal from government controlled shops, maybe that’s how the younger crowd found the repetitive music so mesmerising for so long..

      These guys are probably bhanged up. Speaking of Selfies..

      Travelling before the age of front-facing camera equipped smartphones must’ve been bliss
      “Selfie?” “Selfie?” As a Westerner, this is the most common interaction you’ll have with the locals. The frequency increases somewhat if you have blonde hair, or if you’re 6’4″. Top tip, take it in your stride and do it. If you don’t, a photo of your mush will end up on their phone anyway! The best selfies are when someone tries to stealthily get a picture with you without you noticing. If you notice, pull a stupid face. Another good tactic is to dodge them or run away (In a joking manner, don’t actually run for your life) the guys I did this to found it hilarious.
      We had a bit of a downer when late into the main evening we found ourselves “Selfie-ing” (Yeah sure, why not) when a separate boystrous group of guys got involved too. I hadn’t realised at the time but lady Mansell was subjected to over-excited, touchy-feely hands belonging to this second group of young men. This was a real shame as I had read comments online before the festival about this sort of issue. Up until that point, we hadn’t had a problem, and this blog post would’ve wholly encouraged you to dismiss those comments. The way women are treated and regarded in India in general could be the topic of a separate blog post, and then some.. Anyway, we agreed the best step forward would be if I covered the rear in all future Selfies!

      My face may suggest otherwise, but thankfully these guys were not touching me inappropriately
      This guy is your favourite, right?

      4 hours of fireworks*
      The fireworks were a big draw for us. The appeal was the 4 hour duration, the odd timing from 2AM on the Saturday plus the general reputation online. The fireworks did not start at 2AM, we heard different times from all sorts of people. In fact this situation was a common occurance throughout the festival. We heard and partially saw a massive display from our nearby hotel room at around 3AM. This lasted about 3 minutes. After this a firework was set off every couple of minutes, probably for about 4 hours. There is a lesson here about managing expectations! In truth, the short display was impresive with an incredible noise. It sounded like a warzone, with the night being lit up to look as if the sun was shining. From memory there were two displays of this magnitude which both lasted about 3 minutes… So 6 minutes of the 240 minutes originally advertised were quality!

      I don’t have a photo of the fireworks, so, here is your favourite man instead

      The humbling tale of Mr Loiterer
      A vivid memory of mine.. we were speaking for quite some time to a local chap from Kerela whilst the processions ran into the night. He was well travelled, firmly middle class and genuinely a pleasant, interesting guy. Roughly halfway through our 45 minute chat, I began to notice a very old looking man lingering around. We’d gotten used to people staring at us intently, but this guy was loitering whilst we were deep in conversation. Once we parted ways with the friendly Kerela based chap, I could see in the corner of my eye the old boy was still hanging around. Mrs Mansell and I managed to lose each other (photo opportunities, large crowds…) As I was looking around for the top of her head, I spotted Mr Loiterer, who kindly pointed me in the direction of Mrs Mansell towards the elephants. Still he hung around, and it became clear that he wanted nothing, other than to just be around us. The most memorable point was when I offered him some of our water, he made a noise that I would liken to a young boy getting the exact gift they wanted on their birthday. I have a degree in Engineering, and therefore have no emotional intelligence, but if I did function like a normal human being I’m sure it would’ve pulled on my heart strings.

      Whoops

      Thirssur Pooram 2018?
      The 2017 edition of Thrissur Pooram didn’t encourage me enough to consider visiting again in 2018.. But if you find yourself in the south of India at the right time, I would recommend the festival for the experience. I think your stories from Thrissur Pooram will be more interesting than your stories about sunbathing on the beaches of Goa!

      A Naieve Westerner’s Summary
      The Good
      A very “local” experience – I can recall seeing perhaps 10 – 20 other obvious Westerners.

      Eye opening – I’d never been to a festival like this, I don’t know too many others that have. Everything was new.. that’s good right?!

      Performance – The processions and performances are mesmorising, colourful and awe-inspiring.

      Fireworks – Although brief, the displays made night look like day and sounded like a scene from an action film in a cinema with a world class sound system.. In fact, that multiplied by 10.

      Price – Hey the festival is free too!

      The Bad
      Elephant welfare – I can imagine this being a huge turn off for many people.

      The Temperature – The date of the festival is dictated by a celestial event, which happens to be around April or May when it is frickin’ hot. Manageable by limiting sun exposure and making the most of the post sunset processions.

      Timetable – Every experience was a chance encounter for us, which wasn’t really a bad thing.. Others may like to have a schedule. Information was available online but it’s really difficult to digest, probably because of my lack of knowledge of the history and Hinduism.

      Touchy-feely-Selfie-hands – Every 3 seconds, someone is affected by Touchy-feely-Selfie-hands. That’s another one. And another. Whoops sorry that’s not useful. Ok, I reckon different people handle this risk differently. You could refuse all Selfies, run away or position ladies tactfully if you’re in a group. And another.

       And another..

      Advice
      Location – Try to stay somewhere close to the main ring road for easy access/escape.

      Accommodation – Book your bed early, and get in touch with your host or hotel in advance. If you really want, do as many Indian nationals do and sleep rough for the night (That wasn’t for us, we stumped up a relatively large sum for a room) From our accommodation experience, long story short, avoid the AirBnb host below, and prepare to be ripped off and/or shouted at by your friendly hosts at Raj Mahal Lodge.

      🖕😑🖕

      Sunshine – Manage your time in direct sunlight, and carry a hat, sunscreen and water (easy to buy bottled)

      Food – There were some decent restaurants on the south side main roads connecting to the main ring road. The breakfast buffet we had on Sunday at Pooram International Hotel made me a happy Westerner. I expected more street food vendors.. most were selling sweets.

      Respite – Need a break from the noise, crowds and heat? Just do it.. find shade or an AC hotel restaurant and relax. There will still be processions, elephants and music when you’re finished, trust me!

      Maps – Probably not needed so much, but download the Thrissur area on offline Google Maps.

      Locals – Talk to people! The majority of people we spoke to were jubilant, happy to be there and curious as to why you’re there. You never know who you’ll meet.

      Most importantly – Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think, enjoy yourself, etc etc etc 😁

      You can read our other blog posts about India here:

      The Good, The Bad and The Useful of Travelling in India

      Kerala, South India: Our 2-week itinerary

      India: The Golden Triangle and Rajasthan in 2 weeks

      15 Things To Know About Sri Lanka

      After spending three weeks in Sri Lanka, here are 15 interesting facts and things we learnt about Sri Lanka:

      1. Sri Lanka is often referred to as the ‘tear drop’ of India due to its shape and position located just south of India. The island itself is smaller than Ireland but is home to almost 21 million people (whereas Ireland has a population of around 4.7 million).

      Photo taken from Google maps.

      2. Sri Lanka used to be known as ‘Ceylon’. The new name of Sri Lanka was issued in 1972 following independence from the British Empire in 1948. You may recognise Ceylon tea though, and this is one of the main exports of Sri Lanka. The British had complete rule over Sri Lanka from 1817 and introduced tea plants to the island in 1824. By 1965, Sri Lanka became the world’s largest tea exporter and to this day remains one of the top 5 tea exporters in the world. Check some of the English well-loved brands such as Yorkshire tea, Tetley and Twinnings English breakfast teas and you’ll find it is part made from tea plantations in Sri Lanka!

      A cup of Ceylon tea with a box of ‘tea-time’ biscuits.

       3. Tea is not the only British thing we oberserved, we saw traditional red postboxes, railway stations built by the British, British colonial hotels and architecture and ‘tea-time’ biscuits in every shop.

      A photo of one of the vintage trains still in use today. We took the very scenic route between Ella and Kandy and it was like a step back in time!


      4. Sri Lanka is situated near the equator so typically has a hot climate between 29-34 degrees Celsius all year. However, unlike other countries it is affected by two monsoons: the Yala monsoon in the south & west of the country from May to August and the Maha monsoon in the north & east from October to January. This is perhaps why you see such green and lush vegetation in the hill country and a large array of wildlife in Sri Lanka from parrots and buffalo to elephants and leopards. 

      Some of the wildlife we saw in Udawalawe National Park in Sri Lanka.

       5. The south coast has a stunning coastline of white sandy beaches and huge waves so it’s perfect for surfing. We stayed in Hikkaduwa which had a lot of surfers. We also saw a lot of dogs on the beach. The dogs were all well natured but tended to all be strays that the locals would occasionally look after. We never saw a dog go into a home though.

      A dog relaxing on Hikkaduwa beach.

       6. The main language in Sri Lanka is Sinhalese though we found the majority of Homestay and Guesthouse owners spoke some English. In general, we found the Sri Lankan people to be very friendly. Many would go out of their way to help you find your way. As tourists, we were always popular with the kids who wanted to say ‘hello’ to us in English.

      7. Sri Lanka is one of the oldest Buddhist countries in the world and played a key part in the history of Buddhism. You can climb Adam’s peak to see what is believed to be Buddha’s own footprint, visit the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy to see the casket containing the tooth of Buddha and cave temples in Dumbulla over 2000 years old.

      The Buddha statues we saw in the ancient Dambulla Cave Temple.

      8. The currency in Sri Lanka is Sri Lankan rupees (LKR). The exchange rate from LKR to GBP is roughly 195 rupees to £1. Most of the Sri Lankan rupees are in notes rather than coins. We found the cost of living in Sri Lanka to be a lot cheaper than the UK- our average daily spend was £45 (or £22.50 each) for a double room with a fan and private bathroom, plus 3 meals a day and travel/daily activities. We used our credit card to withdraw money from the ATM and found Commercial bank to be most accepting of MasterCard. The Bank of Ceylon did not seem to ever accept our credit cards.

      9. We found Booking.com to be wonderful for booking accommodation in Sri Lanka. It had a huge range of accommodation including guesthouses, home stays, hotels and hostels. Most of the time we would just book our next stay the night before with no problem. We tried to do a lot of home stays and found these to be the most rewarding since you could begin to understand the local customs, meet local people and ask questions about Sri Lanka and the area you were staying in.

      Our home stay at ‘Ruwanpura’ and the host family in Udawalawa.


      10. It is custom to remove your shoes before entering someone’s home or a place of worship. In general, women tend not to bare their shoulders or knees opting for a t-shirt style dress or t-shirt & skirt. 

      11. Traditional Sri Lankan food is curry & rice. We were always presented with a big plate of rice and then 3-4 smaller dishes which normally consisted of Dahl (lentil curry), 1-2 vegetable dishes often with aubergine (eggplant) or okra, perhaps a chicken or fish curry and sambal (which is made from coconut), plus poppadoms if you were lucky. We also tried egg and string hoppers and milk rice. If you order food in a restaurant, we learnt that Sri Lankan’s like to take their time (I read somewhere that they like to socialise before eating) so waiting around 30 minutes for food after ordering is not uncommon.

      One of the many Sri Lankan curries we had. This one had an aubergine (eggplant) dish called Wambatu Moju which we loved!

      12. Public transport in Sri Lanka is pretty good and very very cheap, particularly the buses. We used the local buses mostly and found a 1 hour journey would cost less than a bottle of water! The buses can get a little crowded and many do not have air-conditioning. There is a conductor on every bus so you do not buy tickets in advance- just hop on and wait for the conductor to come to you! If you’re not on a tight budget you can also hire a driver for the day for around 60 USD.  Tuk-tuks or rickshaws are everywhere- on average expect to spend about 50 LKR per kilometre and slightly more in touristy areas. The benefit of tuk-tuk is that they can reach places cars/buses cannot like down trails or long driveways. We found it was all male drivers in Sri Lanka and be prepared to hear serious amounts of ‘honking’!! They use their horns more than the brakes! It can feel a bit unsettling for foreign travellers at first.

      Jonny on one of the local buses in Sri Lanka.

      13. Haggling or negotiating is part of everyday life in Sri Lanka, particularly for tuk-tuks or at market stalls. In a supermarket, prices are printed directly on each individual item so you can quickly build up an idea of how much you should be paying for a bunch of bananas or bottle of water for example. One thing to note is that you can only buy alcohol in a dedicated store which may be a side store to a large supermarket or even in the basement. It only seems to be men who purchase alcohol at these stores so it can be a little intimidating for a woman since you’re likely to get some disapproving looks.

      14. Between 13th-15th April, the Sri Lankan people celebrate their New Year. It is a National holiday and a time for family gathering so many businesses, buses and restaurants will close over this period. Small fireworks can be heard across the country and sweets are prepared in every home such as Kokis and oil cake which we were fortunate to try. On New Year’s day it is tradition to wear a new piece of clothing.

      A photo of food we received for breakfast on New Year’s Day including milk rice, oil cake often referred to as Kevum and Kokis in the shape of butterflies.

      15. Lots of tourists carry the Lonely Planet guidebook which means more remote areas mentioned in the book have started to become more touristy. If you are looking for a really remote location, the locals have great knowledge or another option would be to take a bus and explore other areas. One more note for travellers is the plug socket – it is a cross between a UK plug socket with three prongs and a European one with rounded prongs. We brought a world travel adapter with us for our trip but found it would not fit. In the end we bought a plug adapter from the local supermarket.

      A plug adaptor we purchased in Sri Lanka – you can see here the socket and pins.

      HELLO!

      Three weeks into our 4.5 month trip around Asia and we decided to start a blog! There is so much we have discovered about Sri Lanka already and we have realised that photos, whilst they are great, do not always capture the stories and experiences behind them. So hopefully you’ll enjoy reading this blog! We hope to:

      a) allow family & friends to follow us on our journey

      b) inform other travellers about areas we have visited

      c) inspire others to travel

      Firstly, I should provide some background to our journey so far. We are a married couple living in the UK, who decided to take a 6-month sabbatical or career break from our jobs to do some travelling! To make this sound slightly less glamorous, this didn’t happen without months of planning including saving for 18 months, deciding what to do with our rented flat and all our furniture, car (in the end we decided to end the lease and sell our furniture and car) booking the travel, budgeting, getting vaccinations and so on. Perhaps one day we’ll write a separate blog entry on the planning side alone as there would certainly be enough to fill it!

      But for now, let’s focus on the travelling part because that’s definitely the most exciting…

      We made the choice to do two trips; the first one in Asia and the second in South America. Our trip started on 5th April 2017 and our itinerary is three weeks in Sri Lanka, one month in India and then three months getting from Bangkok to Bali with a few days in Hong Kong on our way back to the UK in mid-August.

      Our budget allowed for a typical back-packing style trip and that suited us because it gave us more flexibility to travel around. We booked all our main flights with STA travel as they offered a round-the-world ticket at a decent price and the option to move flights easily with their multi-flex pass. As for accommodation we just booked our first few nights via Booking.com and opted to leave the rest of the trip open.

      img_0469

      Photo: Us about to depart at Heathrow airport for our 4.5 month trip around Asia with probably far too many bags!

      So that’s us! And now we have almost finished our 3-weeks in Sri Lanka which have been amazing! We really challenged ourselves by moving to a new destination in Sri Lanka every 2-3 days but that in itself has been a great experience to speak to lots of different people, stay in lots of different places and really get a sense of different regions in Sri Lanka. I think we’re both still in holiday mode and it hasn’t really sunk in that we’re out here until 22nd August so we know we may not be able to keep up that pace!

      We’ll now write a separate blog entry on our time so far in Sri Lanka…

      Much lovings,

      Sara & Jonny