Monday, 30 November 2009

Pap passes away

On Monday 30th November 2009 at 12:47GMT my (Anand) father passed away unexpectedly in the UK. He was 69 yrs old. He was full of life and in good health, but was taken from us all too early.

We have stopped our trip for a period, to be with my mum and family, and to deal with his affairs.

We will be restarting this trip in the New Year, as this is what he would have wanted us to do and I personally will be dedicating the rest of this trip, and each challenge I overcome to him.

He loved travelling himself, and spent a great deal of time visiting new places and trying to learn more about the world. In 1969 at the age of 29, my father came with my mother to study in the UK, before returning to India they embarked on a self guided tour of Europe. This was a tough ask for a young couple from, India to do this, but it was made even more interesting as they had my elder brother (1 at the time) in tow. For me, at that time this was the equivalent of a world trip now!

For now I apologise for the delay in updating the blog and pictures - my mind is truly elsewhere...

Monday, 23 November 2009

Trekking the Annapurna region – living there is much tougher than trekking there!

20091118_061630_DIG_NEP_RTW_9999_A350_Nepal Trek Marpha to Larjung

We have just completed the Jomsom/Muktinath trek and are now resting our tired limbs back in Pokhara. As we sit here, I thought back to the trek and what I had experienced. It was 11 days of tough but not impossible walking. And even on the days when the path was steep I think it is humbling to think about the locals who live out there in the mountains. Life is truly tough out there, not just because of the cold and the rugged nature of the terrain, but because their livelihood does not come easily. We as trekkers have a choice to be out there; we spend a long time ‘preparing’ physically and mentally for the trek; we take porters and guides and have endless amounts of equipment. Yet we still find it hard, and feel that we have achieved something by completing the Annapurna circuit or some other trek. But what of the people who have to live out there? They don’t have a choice...

The old shepherds who walk for hours to find grazing land – no choices
The school kids who walk for 1 or 2 hours to get to their classes – no choice
Lodges are basic but we spend more on a coke there than some people earn in a week – they don’t have that choice

We all should be honestly grateful and humbled that we walk around the most beautiful mountain range in the world, take in all its beauty and then return to our comfortable lives.

What I found funny was that we saw so many who had really amazing equipment and then gave it all to the porter to carry!!! Again they all had choice choice choice. I felt that was so ironic, people spending £100s to have the ‘most suitable’ and ‘best’ equipment, to only hand it all over to the porter, and trek with their small day packs!!! The porters then strap these huge bags every which way and carry them up the hill, in little more than shorts and flip flops.

I think that we are very fortunate to have choices in life the trick is to make the right ones, and more importantly to be thankful for this fact. I am growing more humble with this realisation each and every day.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Nepal Trekking how to navigate the options

Without doubt Nepal is one of the foremost trekking and adventure destinations in the world. So much so that I even heard 1 New Zealander saying that with a bit of infrastructure development Pokhara could be far better that Queenstown in NZ, as a adventure seekers paradise - with walking, mountaineering, Paragliding, Rafters, Kayaking etc etc all within a short distance from the town.

When it comes to treks you are totally spoilt for choice, and you have all the treks that attract real kudos points, such as the famous Everest Base camp or Annapurna circuit. You are also spoilt for choice in the options of how to go about organising your trekking. With all this choice there are some major questions that you have to consider if you are to make the most of trekking, these include:

1) How long you want to trek for? This can depend on your interest level, wider travel constraints and visas. We trekked for 11 days in total, but based on the intensity of our trek we could have gone on for 20 days. We were only trekking 5 hours a day max, and the terrain was pretty easy, therefore we could extend ourselves.

2) Do you want to trek with a guide/porter or a combination? This depends on where you are trekking. Quite honestly in the Annapurna region of Nepal, trekking with a guide/porter is a choice rather than a must. If you are by yourself it is good to have a porter or guide, for safety and company. However I would not say that the trekking in this region is technically challenging enough to need a guide, and with well equipped teahouses everywhere, you would not really need to carry so much equipment that would require you to have a porter.

The routes are really well marked and laid out, so there is a near 0% chance of getting lost. The guide does however give you knowledge that you may not get from other sources, and the language barrier is also no longer an issue.

3) Do you want to do one of the famous routes (which will be busy) or a lesser known route (which may not hold the total wow factor)? We trekked the Jomsom/Muktinath trek. This is essentially 2/5ths of the full Annapurna circuit. Both of these treks, along with a range of others that go through what is called the Annapurna sanctuary, are well known and well trodden. I am not sure that there is too much off the beaten track around this part of Nepal. You could however take on the upper Mustang region, which is closer to Tibet, more rugged and much less popular. This might be a good idea if you want to get away from the tourist crowd too. I must say though, part of the fun that we had on the trek was meeting the wide range of people we did. This would have been less likely if we had trekked an isolated route.

4) How tough you want the trek to be – relaxing trekking makes for a more pleasant experience, but you might have a lessened sense of achievement. To be honest I think this is a personal call. Some people trek hard and fast, in order to achieve something, others trek in order to see the world, and meet people. On the Annapurna circuit you meet both camps. The average circuit takes 16 days, but we met people who were completing this in 12 days and others who planned for 20+ days!! It just depends.

Other treks are physically tough because of altitude. I would suggest taking the altitude issue seriously and don’t trying and going too fast. How people cope at 4000m is not always down to their fitness levels. We were not doing the circuit trek, that goes up to 5000m but we have experienced this in Tibet, and it can be tough.

Once you are clear on these, you can go ahead and source your trek, or even plan an independent solution. I will be honest this is totally down to personal choice, but for some of the well trodden routes such as routes in the Annapurna conservation area, you can do your know thing. All you need is to pack your bag, get your permit, and make sure you have a good map, and guide book. The later are not really to assist if you get lost (seemingly it is tough to stray from the clear path) but rather, more to plot where you have been each night!!

Tours have their benefits; in particular if you are travelling alone, as they bring you together with a group, however we have found that they can be expensive. I think the most important question to ask, is how comfortable are you in being your guide, navigator, Porter and cultural attaché all in one? If you need other experts for these roles then book a tour, or source a guide or porter. We decided to go it alone and although we will have to carry everything will be staying in teahouses and there are reputed to be really great, let’s hope so!!!

For us the whole point of coming to Nepal was to trek, this is a common fact for most of the people who visit, somehow and somewhere in there trip most will ‘trek’. The problem/positive for people is making a choice between the endless number of locations and trekking combinations to choose from. Trekking in Nepal is a real experience and one not to miss. Make sure you look up, around and behind you, so as not to miss the breathtaking scenes and experiences of your trek.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Everest flight

20091108_060803_DIG_KTM_RTW_9999_A350_Kathmandu Everest Flight Everest

On taking the Jet Air flight from Bangkok to Bombay, I thought that the next flight we would take would be the long awaited business class flight on the airbus A380 to Sydney. However the most pleasant realisation struck when we recalled that we planned to take a mountain flight from Kathmandu.

At over $100 this flight falls firmly into the special activities to be done once, but trust me the moment you soar about Kathmandu with the sun gleaming in the east you know this is special.

We took a flight with Agni Air, however all the main Kathmandu based airlines (Yeti Air, Buddha Air, Guan Air and Sita Air) offer the same mountain flight. There are generally 2 flights a day, both in the early morning. We took the 06:30 flight.

We travelled through Kathmandu city at 0500 in the morning, when all was quiet, but the sun was peeking out of the east and warming things up. The airport in Kathmandu is actually pretty big looked well planned out, however the majority of the domestic flights, and the mountain flights leave from the old old terminal stuck on the side.

The terminal was mayhem, and packed out with travellers for the early flights to Lukla (the drop off for Everest base camp etc). Everyone looked so well kitted out as if they were all going up Everest that day, and made us look like total part timers!!

Agni runs jet stream planes, which are pretty comfortable and only have 18 people onboard (I think it is the closest I will ever get to the taking a VIP jet!!!) and thankfully as the whole point of the flight is the view everyone gets a window seat.

On takeoff you are presented with an amazing view of Kathmandu, which is pretty much as I expected – totally sprawling and almost medieval. The mountains are surprisingly close by and soon we were right alongside the most amazing sight of the Himalayan foothills, and the famous peaks behind them. We were on a west to east route and as we were seated on the right hand side, we spent the first half of the flight looking down to south Nepal, but half way through, the fun really started.

Everyone gets to visit the cockpit (despite 9/11!) and checkout the amazing view they have, but then the plane makes a turn to the left, swings round and all of us on the right meet Everest and her friends. I don’t think there is any point in trying to describe what we saw or how it made us feel, but is fair to say that being within touching distance (5 miles away) from Everest, and being at an altitude just below the summit, puts you in total awe of this most beautiful of natural wonders.

This is the highest point on this earth, and we have been fortunate enough to touch it through the windows of this special flight. I am not sure what else we will see, do or experience in the following 12 months, but this ranks up there for me as one of the experiences of the trip. 1 hour - just you and 17 others and the tallest mountains in the world. Unbelievable.

We spent the rest of the trip gazing at all the mountains that touched the heavens and dreamed of just how special they were.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Kathmandu – drops down the most enjoyed city rankings

20091108_061044_DIG_KTM_RTW_9999_A350_Kathmandu Boudnath Temple

After our short family break in India we got back onto the backpacking route and arrived into Nepal. I guess Nepal conjures up a range of thoughts and emotions from the pull of the Himalayas to the abject poverty, from the smiling Nepalese people, to the bravery of the Gorkha people. It was going to be a great way to get back into the swing of things.

The India/Nepal border at Kakarvitta is a funny place, situated right next to Darjeeling it was only a few hours down the hill Border crossing, we got to the Indian side with no problems and duly crossed over, however once we went to the Immigration post in Nepal to get our visas we were reminded that we hadn’t got our exit stamp from India! Indians are free to travel to Nepal without any checking, so when we walked across the border no one raised any concerns! It was the shortest time I have spent in any country, all of 10 mins!!! Exit stamp in hand, we got our visa and took the horrendous night bus from Kakarvitta to Kathmandu. I am sure that we could have totally not bothered with getting a Nepali visa, but to be honest; with these things it is better to get the visa, rather than have any funny business on the borders.

Kathmandu (KTM) has had a reputation as a real travellers collecting point, with people converging there, before they head out to Everest or other mountain regions. In the past during the age of the Hippy, KTM was right on the trail from Europe through south Asia to Thailand and beyond. I can imagine the wonder that people would have felt at that time, when arriving for the first time, but honestly today, it simply felt worn down and dusty. It surely still remains a traveller and tourist meeting place, but now the streets are littered with tourist junket shops, Tibetan ‘artefacts’ and rows upon rows of pashmina wool shops.

KTM is most people’s start and ending point for short or long trekking holidays to the Himalayas and the tourist area of Thamel is stuffed full of ‘trekking’ shops that will sell you endless varieties of clothing, footwear, bags and equipment. 99% of the goods are fake versions of the expensive western brands such as North face, and it is surprising how blatantly this kind of copying goes on, it is just as bad as the many street vendors who were trying to sell me Windows 7!

In many ways KTM is more a blend of many cities – from one angle it looks like any medium to large South Asian city, with dusty streets, horns hooting all the time and music piping out of most shop fronts, From another angle you can see the old world charm oozing from the almost medieval streets full of old houses and older people, yet another angle and the mountains and spirituality of the temples and Buddhist stupas take over, giving me a strong feeling of being back in Tibet. However all in the entire city underwhelmed me. The crowd there is full of people moving in and moving out, and these results in a total transient feeling. It is tough to settle into KTM, and although I might be over critical I don’t think I would really want to settle into the city.

I know this is totally judgemental of me, but I am worried that Nepal will be a little bit anticlimactic. We have planned it as one of the highlights of the whole trip, along with Tibet. Tibet lived up to expectations, but so far Nepal has made a faltering start.

The only other comment I would make is not related to Kathmandu, but rather the feeling of starting back in the travelling mode again. Since arriving in India, I have felt that our world trip has been paused and on hold, since arriving in Nepal I was hoping for a feeling that the play button had been pressed again. I have to say it took some time. You develop a momentum and routine while travelling for this length of time and once this is broken it does take time to get back again. I was worried at how quickly the world trip routine was forgotten and I think this was glimpse of how ending the trip finally will feel. So long in planning, so long in duration, so quickly back into the day to day routine – this is a risk for me.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Travelling around the world with people from around the world!!

While spending time in travelling, it dawned on me that while travelling around the world we have spent good times with so many people from all over the world. There are some regular groups that we meet, namely Dutch travellers, but we have met people from a whole range of countries.

To date these have included (in no particular order!):

New Zealand
Hong Kong

I am sure we will add to this list as we hit the Americas but I think it is kind of nice to see this list!!

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Darjeeling – general update

We spent a few days in Darjeeling, sipping tea, taking in the chilled mountain air and getting our first sight of the monumental Himalayas. Darjeeling’s main draw are probably the laid back literally chilled atmosphere, the toy train that takes 7 hours to climb the mountain, and the tea; but for me the most magical part of this town are the endless views of the eastern Himalayas and in particular the mouth watering sights of Kanchenjunga the highest mountain in India and the 3rd Highest in the world. It is an impressive sight that is made unbelievable when you get up for the 5am sunrise and witness the flood of the first light of the day over the mountain.

It is views like this that really make me feel lucky to be here and so fortunate to be able to lock these vistas into my memory, and thoughts.

From Darjeeling we skip out of India to Nepal for a month of eating dal bhat, sitting in the lap of the Himalayas and trekking alongside the greatest mountains of the world. Look out for our pics from Annapurna!

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Calcutta (Kolkata) – the way India used to be and still is

20091028_060093_DIG_CAL_RTW_9999_A350_Calcutta Victoria Memorial

On leaving the family stops of Raipur and Bombay we made our way to Calcutta. Now named Kolkata, Calcutta is one of the 5 main metropolitan centres of India. It has a really important spot in India’s recent imperial history, as the sight of the headquarters of the East India Company (the trading company set up by the British, which preceded the full occupation of India by the British raj and the establishment of British India) and also the first official capital of British India. Calcutta is littered with old buildings from the time of the Raj, and has a real sense of the history throughout the main city CBD.

However due to the recent politics of the region (a big communist political contingent) development has been severely constraint. As a result the whole city is like a time capsule of India from about 60 years ago. Buildings are all low lying and old, and despite being functionally out of date, they maintain a massive sense of character. The average man’s life is tough and much like the traditional city life of India around the time of independence. There is a buzz everywhere you go, of people fighting to survive.

I got a real sense the Calcutta is an example of how India used to be, but also Calcutta represents how India still is for the for the majority of people in the country. Granted things are all bright and shiny in places like Bombay, but taken in the whole India is still struggling to provide the basic quality of life that should be expected, to the majority of its people. Calcutta is busy, crowded, and full of people working working and working, but not earning earning earning. Just a visit to the main market is an eye opener to the labour intensive struggle of the majority. The differences between the have and have not’s are as stark as the distance between Bombay and Calcutta – they are poles apart.

I enjoyed Calcutta for the purity of the experience and the lack of gloss of some of the other cities. However it is also easy to see how some may find Calcutta unacceptable and tough to manage – in my opinion it is far more of a culture shock than Bombay or Delhi, and lacks the pressure releasing western touches that these other cities have and you can’t dive into endless western styled coffee shops and malls, when the real India gets too much.

To get a feel for the real India one has to visit Calcutta, but make sure you are ready, and mentally strong!!

Sunday, 25 October 2009

A little bit of fame (but noo fortune!)

Our trip to India was primarily about spending time with family and having a break from the world trip after 6 months of travelling. However on arrival, due to the amazing interest people had taken, we were transformed into mini celebrities! and by the end of the family portion of the trip we had done 3 newspaper and 2 TV interviews, and hosted 2 family Q and A sessions for over 200 people. It was an amazing experience and put a new perspective on our trip.

20091016_059723_DIG_BOM_RTW_9999_A350_World Trip Function

The first thing that became apparent is just how big a deal this trip is perceived to be amongst our family in India, and also just how impossible it would be for people to undertake such a venture. I think it was really interesting talking to people about how we went about planning the trip, how we saved for it, and more about our experiences on the trip – what we enjoyed and where we struggled etc. However more important than that was explaining why we were taking on this challenge and travelling round the world. I was glad for this opportunity to distil what we were trying to achieve.

In essence the most important message I wanted to get across to people at home was the value of setting oneself a new and different challenge and working towards achieving it. People of our age in India are very focussed on progressing down a specific line of travel, towards a job/entry into the family business; marriage and kids. However people are totally unable to divert from this thinking and push to achieve other things. I know that our trip is not possible for most in India, but what was important was to use this as an example of doing something different.

We need to be innovative in thinking and test our comfort zones.

The other main topic that came through this taste of fame was just how we could capture the memories and experiences of the trip for the future. Somehow it feels to me that collecting photos and producing a blog would not do the expedition full justice and that something a bit more meaningful is in order. So right now we are thinking of producing a coffee table book that would document our journey through the best of our photos. The aim would be to really showcase the best of our pics, and more importantly enable people, who are not as fortunate as us to travel the world, to see the wonderful places we have. Keep a look out to see how our plans are progressing!

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Prince and Princess – Part 1 (A final jolly in Bangkok)

As a final part of my birthday celebrations and as a real early part of our anniversary trip Urvi and I decided to live it up in Bangkok. It’s an awesome city to enjoy the best things in life, with great hotels and food options. Also there is a real sense of east fun here.

20091012_059669_DIG_BKK_RTW_9999_A350_Lebua Hotel Luxury Stay_!

Urvi found the best hotel in Bangkok to stay at – Lebua at the state tower. The hotel is on the 51-64 floor of an amazing building right next to the river. We checked in there for 2 days and a night. The hotel is all suites, so we had an amazing studio, with living space and balcony, just amazing. The most important thing about the hotel was the customer service. From the time we arrived at the front door to the point that we were dropped off by our Limo, we must have been greeted over 100 times. Everything was perfect, the room service, was so good that when the guys came round for the turn down service, they rearranged the slippers for us so our feet won’t get cold!! There was some problem with our original room booking, so even without asking they booked us a limo for the airport and some vouchers for dinner!

All this aside the real wow factor comes when you take a trip to the 64 floor where you are greeted by a swathe of staff, welcoming you to the Sky Lounge, the rooftop restaurant, which is the highest open air restaurant in the world. It is just amazing! We went up there at night and the whole town lay below us glittering with a star show that takes your breath away. I felt literally on top of the world just seeing the sight that lay below and all around us.

I had booked a table at the mandarin oriental for dinner and we took the S Class Merc limo to sweep us in to the hotel, it was magical. We had a lovely table right on the river and the dinner was awesome too!! Totally stuffed we decided to ditch the limo and walk back to our hotel, which was probably the best thing to do!!

The second day we spent at the swimming pool club, having a sumptuous lunch and chilling out at the pool. When it was time to leave we went down to the reception to pick up a car to go to the airport. I was expecting their basic car, only to be greeted by another Mercedes!! And that too black, my favourite colour.

All in all, this was the most perfect way to spend our last days in Bangkok, Thailand and indeed South East Asia. It made us both feel so special and really just made me see just how lucky I am in my life. Sometimes we never appreciate things and special days just set things into context. I will remember all our days from this world trip, but somehow these days are even more golden and sparkly. It is not the fanciness of them or the limos; it is how special we make each other feel.

We are now enroute to India, for the Sub continent stage of our trip. India and Nepal wait...

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Bye Bye South East Asia...

As we sit in the centre of busy bustling Bangkok, it is time to reflect on the end of a most memorable stage of our trip and our lives. SE Asia has been just the most amazing place for us. There has not been a place or experience that I can say we have not enjoyed and there have been many places which have just won a place in our affections. We have been going for 3 months here and it has felt like a lifetime in so many ways. Vietnam was fun and a real mix of interesting experiences we met lots of great friends there and hope that we keep the friendships going!

Saigon was one of the blackest days of my life...

Cambodia was a challenge to us both. It challenged what we think about humanity and really shocked us to the core. I would say it was one of the personally most important places I have been to and probably will visit on this trip.

Laos was a gem, a country where we only visited 3 places but totally fell in love with them.

Thailand was fun fun fun. We have now been to Bangkok 3 times and each time I have enjoyed it more. I love the big city feel, the aspirations of the people, and the grittiness of the residents. The papaya salad and Pad Thai is awesome too!!!!!

Before we arrived in SE Asia I was worried that it was going to be overrun by gap year 18year olds, complete with standard issue backpacks and Beerlao t-shirts. Sure it was exactly like that in parts, but that was part of the fun. However I could also see that I am 31 yrs old now and feel that I want something different from the travelling experience. SE Asia has it all – the fun, the culture, the history, the classy stuff, the vista and most importantly the more amazing people you could ever meet. We only travelled to the mainland SE Asian countries and now want to visit further in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines – there is so much more to do!

More generally I feel that we have really hit our stride now on this trip. We have been going for over 6 months, and on our current plane we have just about exactly 1 year left. Over the last few days I have been feeling that we are in the real enjoyable part of the trip, in terms of timing. We are well experienced and well versed I the ways of the backpacker, but we are still not jaded or feel so over confident that we lose sight of the amazing things that we are seeing each day.

Having a year left to go is a great feeling, because right now it just doesn’t seem that this trip will ever end! There is so much we have done and seen, but yet there are bundles of things still to come! Once again I am humbled and proud at the same time that we are able to do this trip.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

The tale of the boomerang shoes

One of the big things to do while in Luang Prabang is to go trekking. The hills, rivers and villages that totally surround the town are just beautiful and make for some really rewarding walking. We booked ourselves on to a 3 day trek that took us high into the hills and to some hill tribe villages. For most of the first day all was great. We had a great group of fellow trekkers and the weather was perfect. The route took us through a number of small rivers and streams that just meant that you had to get you feet dirty!! No problem for me, I had my super duper trekking boots that I was ever so proud of (you can see where this is going right?!!)

After a tough first days trek, we arrived at the village where we were to do a home stay. I couldn’t wait to get my shoes off and let my feet dry out, so off they came and I put them to one side next to the hut. It’s safe to say that the next morning when we were to get moving for day 2, the wet socks were still there, but no shoes!

Our guide did a whole search of the village and got the village leader to set up a meeting of all the men in the village. They seemed to think they might have known what happened, but the chief suspect was from another village some way away, and therefore they could follow up the lead there and then. We even discussed a potential bounty for the returned shoes of 200,000kip. This sounds pretty spectacular but was £15!

We needed to move on, so I ended up doing the whole of the second day in Flip Flops, which actually where not too bad. However each step I was thinking of my boots and how someone was striding around in them right at that moment, I was really not happy.

Anyway, to move the story on, while spending days trying to explain to the tour company about needing a report for the insurance claim, we heard the village had chased (literally I guess) the lead they had and one night the boots mysteriously reappeared at the village. They were in perfect condition and had even by dried out!!

I did have to pay the ransom money, but to be honest I was over the moon that they were back. It just shows that we were so right to spend more days in Luang Prabang; otherwise if we had left we would have missed them.

So thankfully new boots are off my shopping list! And despite being £15 lighter, I have my chunky shoes nestled at the bottom of my bag again...

Friday, 2 October 2009

Anand Birthday blog

Lucky for me my birthday landed in the middle of when we were in Luang Prabang, so we were able to celebrate with a really special day. Urvi once again worked wonders and we spent half a day elephant trekking. This was the first time I had ever been this close to an elephant and I tell you, it is the most amazing experience! Despite being so large that they could swish even me with their little toe they are soo nimble and delicate. The terrain was not hilly or anything but still there were some parts where if I was walking I would take extra care, and the elephants were getting through it as if there were steps, it was a sight to behold.

20091002_059449_DIG_LAO_RTW_9999_A350_Luang Prabang Anand Birthday

When you take an elephant trek, there is a real silence that is more than any other trek I have been on; with horses the clop clop of the hooves is noticeable, with elephants all you hear is the swishing of branches as this amazing animal sets through the jungle. It was a most wonderful birthday experience.

On saying good bye to the elephants we headed back to town and had a lovely sandwich lunch with awesome coffee in Joma. Joma is a great bistro coffee shop in Luang Prabang and was our haven where we would retreat from the sun, the rain or a place just to read the paper and play cards!

I then continued my wonder day with a 3 hour session of Lao massage. Now I am not really one to go for these kinds of things but trust me, even I was convinced by the end of it. It is soooo relaxing and pretty good for you. The Laos massage is similar to the more famous Thai massage. It is really nice and I came away from the afternoons inactivity totally chilled out and relaxed.

The day’s theme seemed to be Elephants, as we then rounded the day of with dinner in one of Luang Prabang's most upmarket eateries - L’Elephant. It was a really special meal, and the service was outstanding. Despite most of the servers and waiters being school/college age, they were really very professional and a credit to the restaurant. It was like being in a Michelin starred restaurant in Laos!!!

31 years old, so many things to think about and improve on, but a perfect day to forget everything and enjoy, and look forward to celebrating 32!

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Luang Prabang – lose yourself in noodle soup or coffee

20091003_059499_DIG_LAO_RTW_9999_A350_Luang Prabang Photo Teaching

We are now in the northern half of Laos and the jewel of South East Asia for me – Luang Prabang. I kind of think of it as a mix between Hoi An and Don Det. It is so cultured and beautiful that it makes you feel like you have gone back in time to a small French colonial getaway – just like Hoi An. On the other hand it is sleepy and welcoming and takes you slowly by the hand just like Don Det. In truth Luang Prabang is unique and not like anywhere else.

If you arrive by bus here, it is a windy adventure through the mountains that leads to this misty lost outpost. Once you are here, you can’t feel alone, there are so many travellers and also main stream tourists that there is always someone to talk to and share travelling stories with. Although there are none of the big 5 star hotel here yet (thank goodness), there are plenty of boutique hotels to cater for the sneaker wearing high spending American Chinos. Thankfully there are also many wonderful small guesthouses that cost no more that $5 per night for a room. There are plenty of things to do around the town also (trekking, kayaking, caving elephant tours etc), but when you walk around it, and lose count of the days you have been here, you know that Luang Prabang has got you.

It is times and places like these that I truly feel the freedom of a trip like ours. No 3 week deadline and no need to get back to work. We can sit back and sip coffee all day until the sun disappears, and then do it all again tomorrow! That pretty much what we did some days and totally loved it.

Luang Prabang is a world heritage city, and totally justifiably. Once again, it’s the people that make it even more special. Each night the main road, that runs through the heart of the main town is overtaken by the most wonderful night market. Sure there are lots of tourist souvenirs to be had, but there was none of the strong arm tactics of the Chinese or Vietnamese sellers. The ladies were so nice, and the young girls who were learning the trade were so adorable. You can tell that people in this market were not selling for grim survival. Sure people were not rich, but this was their trade and not a last ditch attempt at staying afloat. For me this was much more relaxed and made for a far nicer window shopping experience. We walked round there so many times, it was a bit of a routine, and made for a lovely end to a busy day of doing not very much!!

During one of our walks around the town we came across this amazing charitable programme called @ my library. Set up by an American who came to visit and stayed for 8 years(!) the library was set up to help young adults learn and improve their English. They loan out books, have computers and a host of learning aids and games to help the guys and gals out. They also have cameras and printing facilities, and support kids to learn photography.

I was really impressed with some of the work they had displayed - it was amazing. It showed me that photography is not just about big lens and expensive kit. It is fundamentally an art of using your eyes and mind to capture what you see around you. I was so motivated by the place and the work of the kids that I volunteered to take some guys out and help them with their photography. I did this for a day and it was the most nerve racking thing I have ever done. Don’t really know why, but I guess I was teaching someone something that I am still learning. I had to condense my thinking on photography into something that would be useful for the guys and I wanted it to be fun. This was all in one session and when we had never met each other before. The guys i went out with were great, one – Sek, did not know English at all, but was so keen and interested to take pictures, it was a real inspiration to me. It was a great day, and I think I probably learnt more from it than they did!! I hope that we can do some more ‘work’ like this through the trip. I want to contribute to others lives not just enjoy what their country has to offer me, let’s see how that goes...

Luang Prabang has been an experience for me in so many ways. Both Urvi and I have had time to slow down, and really talk and think about many things. Also purely from a travelling perspective, I have enjoyed being in now place for some time. Somewhere new and unfamiliar that we could make our own and make familiar for US. So much so that we had our own range of local eats that we would visit and Urvi’s favourite was thee noodle soup lady – we ate at the same noodle soup stall so many times, that she knew our veggie order, and even before we made it to the stand she would be starting to make it. It was a really warming feeling...

All the guidebooks say that Luang Prabang will hold you and not let you go. I totally see that. We loved it and would love to spend more and more time here. However as will all good things they must come to an end, and India is calling......!

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

150 Not Out

Hi All!!

We made 150 days, seems like only yesterday when we left, but trust me SOOOOO much has changed in us, its a new lifetime....

loved it all, wouldnt change anything.

Monday, 28 September 2009

SE Asian food - thank you France!!

We have been travelling in SE Asia for around 3 months now and to be honest the food has been no problem. This I put down to Urvi’s originality in finding places – like the veggie Thai restaurant in Bangkok which was truly awesome or the Tofu hotpot in Hoi An – so cheap but soooo good! However it’s also down to the origins of a lot of the food here being French influenced. The countries of SE Asia were ruled over by the French and they have left a legacy of their food. This is noticeable in Laos even more than in other places. The food here is awesome! You get amazing noodle soups and rice and veggies, but the coffee, bread, pastry shops, shakes and other treats just adds to the wonderment.

If I compare to India, the British left us an amazing railway system, the rule of law, education and a whole bunch more, but they didn’t leave any food behind!! When you travel through India I would say there is no evidence of colonisation, however in SE there sure is. The hot favourite places for food have to be the French cafes of Hoi An, the pancakes in Thailand and the coffee in Vietnam and Laos. Also top of my list would be the sticky rice of Laos not really a French invention, but the sticky rice here is a wonder and makes eating your lunch so much fun!!!

Saturday, 19 September 2009

4000 Islands - wonderful time in Paradise

20090917_059101_DIG_LAO_RTW_9999_A350_Don Dett Island

From Angkor and Cambodia we moved on into Laos, the last of the 4 countries we planned to visit in SE Asia. This journey took 3 days and saw us take a bus from Siem Reap back to Phnom Penh. From there we took another bus to Stung Treng in east Cambodia. We stayed overnight there and then moved on by minibus to Laos and the aptly named 4000 islands. Apt because during the dry season, when the water level drops there are thousands (4000 I guess!) small and large islands that emerge from the Mekong. Most of them are small sand banks that are barley large enough to set up a tent. But the main islands are permanent settlements to the most chilled out and welcoming people I have ever met.

We stayed on the small island of Don Det. Not much more than a 1km in length Don Det houses a community of farmer/fishermen. Each has also built up a small number of really really basic bungalows that perch over the Mekong River and give you the best place to kick back and swing in your hammock all day. There is hardly anything to do and it is just bliss to lose yourself in a book or in a discussion about the meaning of life or such like!

I must say that for us we could not stay for more than 5 days, and we were getting a bit stir crazy after that. But this says more about us than it does about Don Det. Why is it that after 1 or 2 days of doing nothing people need to be distracted in some way? I think this is a major failing of mine – strangely in our normal lives we crave the peace and tranquillity and then when we are presented with it in the heavenly setting of Laos we want distraction and ‘fun’.

The overriding memories of Don Det for me are the sounds. The strange lack of noise and the abundance of sounds. There were no cars so no horns, no planes and no modernity to clutter the atmosphere. All there were were sounds. The deafening croaking of frogs and crickets in the night. The continuous swish of the river past our bungalow, the mooing of the buffalo and the alarm call of the roosters in the morning (although our rooster at the farm seemed to have a sore throat and was a bit lame!) as you walked around all you heard from every corner were people calling out ‘Sabadee!’ this is hello in Laos. It wasn’t quiet at all but somehow the whole thing just fitted together perfectly and nothing was out of place.

A wonderful few days in paradise.

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