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A Chiang Mai Tour in Northern Thailand

Chiang Mai is the largest city in northern Thailand and is a lovely place with a very laid back vibe. There are plenty of things to see and these aren’t just confined to the city itself. There are loads of activities to suit all interests – whether cultural or natural – both around town and into the wider countryside. It’s definitely worth spending time exploring this lovely city and surrounds, whether on an organised Chiang Mai tour or exploring independently. We spent five days in and around the region and combined our own exploration with some guided walks which were great for understanding the history of this delightful city.

An Old City With Walls and A Moat

Chiang Mai was founded by the Lanna King, Mangrai, in 1296. The Lanna people were from Northern Thailand and the name translates to ‘Kingdom of a Million Rice Fields.’ Mangrai had established the city of Chiang Rai in 1262 as the capital of his kingdom and later, following both friendship pacts and wars with other local kingdoms, he moved further south. Due to its location Chiang Mai was vulnerable to invasion from the Taungoo Dynasty of the Bamar People (from Myanmar) and the Mongol empire. As a result it was heavily fortified with both a moat and a high city wall, which remain to this day. The old city is surrounded by an extremely pretty walled canal with four gates.

Chiang Mai city wall and moat
Chiang Mai city wall and moat
Chiang Mai city wall gate

Old Town Chiang Mai Temples

Chiang Mai has well over a hundred temples and it is a pleasure just wandering through the city to discover the many gems that the city to offer.

Wat Chiang Man

Wat Chiang Man is the city’s oldest temple, located by the north east corner of the walled old city. It was constructed at the behest of King Mengrai.

Wat Chiang Man Chiang Mai tour

The wihan of a temple is the assembly hall and there are two at Wat Chiang Man. Both contain very old and highly revered Buddhas.

Wat Chiang Man Chiang Mai tour

The chedi, also known as a stupa, is traditionally the oldest part of a temple. Wat Chiang Man has an elephant chedi, called Chedi Chang Lom, where fifteen stone elephants support the golden relic chamber.

Chiang Mai Tour Chedi Chang Lom

Wat Phra Singh

Another important temple, Wat Phra Singh, was constructed in 1345 by King Phayu, the fifth Mangrai king, who wanted to build a chedi for his late father’s ashes. It was enjoying a face-lift when we visited, so we didn’t see it in its full glory.

Wat Phra Singh

Wat Phra Singh Wihan Lai Kham was constructed to house the precious Phra Buddha Singh statue.

Wat Phra Singh Wihan Lai Kham
Phra Buddha Singh

The interior also contains some fascinating murals.

Wat Phra Singh mural

A common – and striking – characteristic of many temples in Thailand are the naga – semi-divine creatures that are a cross between a human and serpent. These are the guardians of the temple – they may look dramatic and a scary but their purpose is generally thought to be protective. It wouldn’t be appropriate to have a holy place guarded by demons.

Wat Phra Singh Wihan Luang Chiang Mai

The roofs of many of the temple buildings are beautiful- highly decorative and elaborate.

Chiang Mai Tour

Chiang Mai Cultural Centre

Slightly out of town on the Prapoklao Road is the Chiang Mai Arts and Cultural Centre which used to be the royal hall. It runs evenings showcasing northern Thai food and culture. You can join in to enjoy a delicious meal followed by entertainment such as dancing, martial arts and traditional games.

This delicious Northern Thai dinner comprised a number of dishes including Hin-Lay curry (pork), minced pork in a chilli-tomato paste, crispy-fried pork skin, crispy noodles, fried chicken, stir-fried vegetables and fried banana and pumpkin.

Then the entertainment started with some dancing and martial arts…

Chiang Mai cultural evening
Chiang Mai cultural evening

…before we moved outside to see some fire-based martial arts and a cute lion dance.

It is a bit touristy but was a fun evening out and an introduction to the culture of the region.

Temples Further Afield

If you don’t get templed out in Chiang Mai itself, there are many more wats to visit in the area surrounding the city. If you don’t have a pre-arranged tour, it’s possible to reach them by taxi. These can easily be arranged with local hotels and hostels. It’s worth agreeing a price first and consider asking for a round trip where the taxi driver will wait for you to explore the temple before taking you back. Both Wat Inthrawat and Wiang Kum Kam, located a few kilometres from the city centre, were definitely worth exploring.

Wat Inthrawat

Wat Inthrawat is one of the best preserved wooden temples in the region. It’s located in the Hang Dong district around 10 km south of Chiang Mai, in the village of Ban Ton Kwen. Small, but perfectly formed, this temple is still in its original state.

Wat Inthrawat Chiang Mai

It has a wihan built in the Lanna style with typical nagas at the entrance steps.

Wat Inthrawat nagas

The roof has three tiers and also features some impressive and very decorative features at the tips of each tier. The quality of the craftsmanship is remarkable.

Wat Inthrawat Chiang Mai

Wiang Kum Kam

Around 5km southeast of Chiang Mai lies the archaeological site of Wiang Kum Kam. This former city was built by King Magram. It was originally the capital of the Lanna in the 13th century but Magram decided to relocate to Chiang Mai, situated at an altitude 12m higher, due to serious flooding at this site. Although the area remained inhabited for several centuries it was finally abandoned after a massive flood which deposited a huge amount of sediment over the buildings. Much of the city has now been excavated and it’s possible to explore the ruins. It’s an extensive area and you can ride around the site in a horse drawn cart or tram. It has a visitor centre, located on Rte 3029, which has loads of information about the site and that’s also the place where you can pick up transportation. It’s possible to visit several temple complexes.

Chiang Mai Tour Wiang Kum Kam
Wiang Kum Kam
Chiang Mai tour Wiang Kum Kam

Wat Chedi Liam is the highlight of the complex. At over 30m tall, and taking the form of a pyramid structure, it has five main tiers. Each of these contain twelve Buddhas, three on each side, located inside their own alcove. It remained relatively unaffected by the floods over the centuries and remains a working temple.

Wat Chedi Liam

Activities in Chiang Mai’s Wider Area

Although it’s possible to spend quite some time exploring the city there are also loads of trips to take in the surrounding area.

This orchid farm was a pretty distraction for short while on the way to Mae Sa.

Chiang Mai orchid farm

Mae Sa Waterfalls

Located in the Doi Suthep-Pui National Park, around 30km from Chiang Mai, Mae Sa offers a series of ten waterfalls spaced a few hundred metres apart. You can follow the pathway alongside the falls to enjoy a pleasant walk and swimming in the pools is allowed, if you desire. It’s not a challenging hike at all – just a pleasant stroll up a gentle incline. It gets quite crowded at the start of the trail but as you hike towards the upper falls the crowds melt away and you can enjoy the beauty of the surroundings. There are picnic spots along the way, so it’s possible to pack bathing suits and some tasty food to make a day trip if you fancy having a more relaxing time.

Mae Sae waterfalls
Mae Sae waterfalls
Mae Sae waterfalls

Elephant Sanctuary Visit

Visiting an elephant sanctuary is a very popular activity. There are loads in the area but do check which are responsible and ethical and make sure that they do not exploit the elephants. Many sanctuaries no longer allow elephant rides but focus on caring for and interacting with these remarkable creatures.

We visited a sanctuary a couple of hours away from Chiang Mai which is home to several elephants, all of whom have been rescued from the logging industry or from giving rides to tourists on iron chairs, a practice that really damages the elephants’ backs. When the sanctuary learns about elephants that are being mistreated they locate the creature and offer as much money as they can afford to convince the owners/abusers to sell their elephants. Each elephant has its own mahout (handler) who is responsible for its welfare. Set in 135 acres, the majority of the land is dedicated to growing food for the elephants. Tourists help provide much needed income to support the work of the sanctuary. Elephant riding (even bareback) is no longer allowed. We were able to meet the elephants and hand feed them – although some just helped themselves.

Chiang Mai elephant

Elephants are highly intelligent creatures. Their brains weigh about 5kg. They are also emotionally intelligent; they recognise and interact with other elephants and have likes and dislikes just as we do. In fact, elephants that really hate each other need to be kept separated at the sanctuary. They also make judgements about the humans they interact with and, if they decide they don’t like someone, will refuse to co-operate with that person. Also – those cliches about elephants are true. They really have terrific memories. Thai people believe that you can judge an elephant’s character by the shape and quantity of its tail hair. Indeed, tail hairs are considered a sign of good fortune (and are sometimes kept as a lucky charm).

Thai elephant sanctuary

We went for a walk with an elephant called Tom Parr, a large male with long tusks. Tom Parr was very calm and co-operative, but was apparently scared of chickens and cars. He adored going into the jungle – many elephants who have been rescued from the logging industry have been traumatised and refuse to go back into the forest; they are never forced to go where they do not wish to.

Tom Parr knew very well that we had some sugar cane on him.

Chiang Mai elephant

All the elephants are bathed at the sanctuary at least once a day. Tom Parr was very much looking forward to his bath and eagerly walked into the water and sat himself down. We joined him in the pool, which is fed by a local river, to give him a well-deserved wash. We showered him with water and scrubbed his skin and tusks. He was so happy. If he had been a cat, he would have been purring.

Throughout the experience we had been wondering whether we would need to ‘muck out’ the elephants at any time, something we had been quite prepared to do. However, the sanctuary had made arrangements such that the tourists’ exposure to poo was minimised. In fact, they even had a pooper-scooper chap on hand at the pond, ready to scoop any errant dung that the elephants generated into a bag and prevent the tourists getting too filthy. The sanctuary offers showers so you can wash down afterwards and change into your own clothes. The dung is often used to make paper.

A Chiang Mai Tour – Street Food and Markets

Back in the city, you’ll find that there are a number of bustling markets to explore, notably the night market which is a short walk away from the old city. On some nights of the week certain streets are closed to traffic and stalls pop up. These are really popular so expect crowds.

Of course, markets wouldn’t be markets without food stalls and Thai street food is amazing. The markets often have plastic tables and chairs nearby – they are not necessarily associated with any particular stall – so you can order your food and then take it to any table to enjoy at leisure.

Chiang Mai street food

One of the best street food dishes is som tam – green papaya salad. Green papaya is shredded into a large wooden bowl and then pounded with beans, carrots and tomatoes. Sometimes little shrimp are added although you can ask for them to be excluded if you are vegetarian. Chillies, lime juice, palm sugar and fish sauce are added to the mix and pounded to release the flavours giving that characteristic Thai combination of sweet, sour, salt and spice. Be warned though, those teeny Thai chillies are hot! The dish is then adorned with crushed toasted peanuts for added crunch. On a warm, humid evening, it’s the perfect dish for a refreshing snack, preferably accompanied with a nice cold beer.

Som Tam

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Noodle Review: President Fuku Beef

BRAND: President
FLAVOUR: Fuku Beef
TYPE: Normal (bowl)
No. OF SACHETS: Three – soupbase, flavour oil/paste and dried veg
WEIGHT: 85g
COUNTRY: Thailand

President Fuku Beef with a plastic fork noodles

Under license from Hong Kong the handily packaged Beef flavour certainly aims to please. There’s a reasonable portion and there’s even a fork provided which proves robust but I eventually ditched in favour of ‘old faithful’. Naturally cooking is never a problem with the all in ones but what of the all important taste considerations? Well there’s a nice spicy tang to the dish and a solid beefy flavour, crunchy veg and good noodles. But what’s that? Do I spot the dreaded noodle bowl downfall, the TVP chunks? No! They may look like TVP but they are bits of steak with just the right chew and lashings of flavour. Add that little pinch of Bonito powder to the proceedings and you have a great lunch, marred only by the slightest of plastic aftertastes. Take a good sniff though and the aftertaste disappears. Take one camping to be the envy of your friends.

https://www.verytastyworld.com/category/posts-about-food-from-all-over-the-world/instant-gratification/noodle-news-with-instant-reviews/

A Winter Iceland Itinerary

Iceland is a perfect destination for a fly-drive holiday even in the middle of winter. Despite its chilly moniker Iceland isn’t as freezing as you might expect, thanks to the effects of the warm Gulf Stream from the Atlantic. We weren’t blessed with the greatest of weather on our visit, although it was largely dry, it was quite cloudy a lot of the time. But the winter landscapes were still absolutely beautiful. After flying into Keflavik, near Reykjavik, we drove a great big ‘smile’ along the rounded southern coastline from the west of Iceland to the east, stopping and staying at several locations along the way. Here’s our week-long winter Iceland itinerary:

Living in the UK, like most Brits, we are absolutely hopeless at dealing with even the slightest dusting of snow on the roads in winter. It’s because we don’t have seriously wintery weather very often and we’re just not used to driving on snow or, worse, ice. Our Icelandic hire car was a large estate with studded tyres.

Driving on ice? Surprisingly easy.  The roads were clear and there were many stopping points along the way offering the opportunity to get out of the car and go walking. All the attractions were well signposted and easy to find. Our flight arrived quite late in Keflavik so we picked up the car and headed to Reykjavik where we stayed overnight.

Day 1 Reykjavik to Hveragerdi – Breaking the Golden Circle

Together, the sites of Thingvellir, Geysir and Gullfoss are known as the Golden Circle as they are all located near to Reykjavik and can easily be visited in a day – handy if you only have a short time in the country. But if you have more time, each site is worth exploring in more depth. Our itinerary was to take us back to Reykjavik so we decided to skip Thingvellir on the way out and visit on the way back. This meant we had more time to see Gullfoss and Geysir.

The word geyser is derived from the geyser, Geysir, located in one of the many geothermal areas that can be found all over the country. The original geyser, which looks a little forlorn, is no longer active…

…but its companion, Strokkur, gushes reliably every few minutes –  up to a height of about 30 metres – and is a spectacular sight.

Winter iceland itinerary strokkur

Gorgeous Gullfoss is a two tier waterfall that plunges dramatically into a gorge.

Winter Iceland Itinerary

We spent the night at Hveragerdi, which is located just off Iceland’s ring road, Route 1, perfect for getting on the road the following morning. Because the area is so geothermically active, it’s known as a centre for horticulture and has a number of greenhouses heated by hot springs. In fact, many of the buildings in the area are heated using the hot water. And our hotel just happened to have a very nice hot spring bathing pool.

Day 2 Hveragerdi – Kirkjubaejarklaustur

Travelling along the south coast there are plenty of places to stop off, including the impressive waterfalls of Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss.

Winter Iceland Itinerary

On arriving at Kirkjubaejarklaustur it was possible to do some walking in the area. There’s a pretty church and we could walk to see the ‘bear rock’.

Winter iceland itinerary

Day 3 Kirkjubaejarklaustur – Skaftafell

Stopping for a brief glimpse of the delightful turf-roofed chirch at Nupsstadur…

Winter iceland itinerary Nupsstadur

…we then drove across the outwash plains of Vatnajökull, the largest icecap in Iceland. Outwash plains are known as sandurs and develop when glacial rivers wash ash and ice towards the coast. They can be very large and we crossed this one via a long bridge. One thing worth noting is that during the winter the wind can whip up ash and sand and this can damage the paintwork on a car. Be aware of any warnings on the road about windy conditions and also talk with your hire car company about possible extra insurance to cover for this eventuality, if needed.

Winter iceland outwash plains of Vatnajokull

Skaftafell National Park was merged with other areas in the region in 2008 to become part of the Vatnajökull National Park. We discovered that is a delightful area to go walking in.

Winter iceland itinerary Skaftafell waterfall

There’s a good hike to the waterfall of Skaftafell which is surrounded by black basalt columns. The walking was relatively easy but, due to the snow melting on the day, was a little slippery in places.

Winter iceland itinerary
Winter iceland itinerary Svartifoss

About 1km from the crossroads of road 1 and road 998 is a small track which leads to a glacier.

It is the Svinafellsjokull glacier and it’s possible to park up and walk to its snout. Bringing all those geography lessons on glaciation at school to life, it was absolutely wonderful to be able to get so close to a glacier. It was also amazing how to discover that they are actually just like sheep – very picturesque from a distance but really filthy close up!

Winter iceland itinerary

Day 4 Around Skaftafell – Jokulsarlon

The amazing iceberg lagoon at Jokulsarlon was unmissable and was one of the highlights of our trip. It lies very close to the coast at the edge of the glacier Vatnajökull which feeds the lake with melted glacial water and icebergs that calve off and float on the lake.

Jokulsarlon Winter iceland itinerary

If the scenery looks familiar you may have seen this lake in the James Bond films Die Another Day and View to a Kill, as well as Tomb Raider. If you visit in the summertime it is possible to do a boat trip on the lagoon. This wasn’t operational when we visited but we were able to take a long walk along the stunning shoreline.

Because it was winter we had the place to ourselves, except for a few local seals.

Jokulsarlon

Over time the icebergs melt, serenely crossing the lake towards the shoreline before slowly heading out to sea.

Lobsters in Hofn

Later in the afternoon we headed towards Iceland’s Hofn, which is famous for its lobsters. It’s a quiet town with a natural harbour where you can see the fishing boats come into shore.

Winter iceland itinerary

We found a restaurant which offered delicious local lobsters (actually langoustines). Iceland is an expensive country to visit and restaurant meals are no exception. Hofn is one of the best places to eat good value lobster.

Day 5 Retracing Our Route

It was time to retrace that ‘smiley’ route and head back towards Reykjavik. We had skirted the stunning black beaches of Vik, the southernmost town of the country on our way through, so we made a point of stopping at this tiny town. It was a dark and moody day that showed off the amazing basalt sea stacks located just off the shore.

Winter Iceland itinerary
Vik Iceland
Vik Iceland

The Myrdalsjokull glacier is located close by and it is possible to go snowmobiling on it. This is highly recommended as it’s great fun. It was another grey day and as soon as we were on the ice, the weather closed in. We were with a reputable company who were navigating via GPS so even though we were snowmobiling in a white-out, we were safe at all times. It was a very strange experience – not being able to see anything in any direction. But we still enjoyed the thrill of speeding across the ice on the snowmobile, following the tail-lights of the vehicle in front.

We spent another night in Hveragerdi.

Day 6 Return to Reykjavik and Thingvellir National Park

On our journey back to Reykjavik we had a day to explore Thingvellir National Park. It is Iceland’s only mainland UNESCO heritage site and is hugely important both geologically and culturally. Unsurprisingly it one of Iceland’s most visited sites. An advantage to travelling in winter is that the area has fewer visitors at this time of year. (N.B. Thingvellir will be signposted ‘Þingvellir’ – the ‘Þ’ is a ‘th’ sound in Icelandic.)

Winter Iceland itinerary

The Mid-Atlantic ridge is a volcanic belt that goes straight through Iceland, running from the Arctic Ocean southwards along the entire Atlantic. Thingvellir lies on the boundary between two tectonic plates – the Eurasion and the North American. This means you can walk between two continents.

Winter Iceland itinerary

The plates are moving – very slowly – apart. You can see lots of canyons and fissures across the site. Almannagjá is the most notable and quite dramatic.

Thingvellir crevasse

This area is also the place where the Icelandic parliament, Alþingi, was established over 1000 years ago. The name Thingvellir means ‘Assembly Plains’, a fitting title. The Icelandic Commonwealth started in 930CE and ran up until 1262. The Law Speaker, who memorised all aspects of the law, presided over the Lögrétta, the Law Council, meetings. The Lögberg, or Law Rock, was the central point for the legislative assembly, and anyone could speak and discuss issues from this place. The parliament continued to assemble until 1798.

Winter Iceland itinerary

There is a visitor’s centre and plenty of hiking to enjoy. It’s a beautiful area, located on the shore of Iceland’s largest lake Thinvallvatn. The river Oxara runs through the park.

Thingvellir view
Winter Iceland itinerary

Day 7 Reykjavik and A Quick Bathe Before the Flight Home

We spent the night in Reykjavik and had some time in the morning to walk around.

Winter iceland itinerary

One of the city’s most iconic monuments is Gunnar Arnason’s Sun Voyager. It is often thought to be a viking ship. But its intention was as a dream boat – a voyager to places undiscovered and a tribute to the sun.

We also visited the Perlan – a fantastic space that features all sorts of exhibitions about natural Iceland. It even has an ice cave!

The Obligatory Trip to the Blue Lagoon

The Blue Lagoon is located very close to Keflavik airport and, as we had a flight leaving in the late afternoon, it gave us the perfect opportunity to bathe before heading home. If we’re completely honest, we weren’t that taken with the Blue Lagoon. Sure, it looks stunning and it is nice to bathe in lovely warm water (even in winter) but the prices are really expensive and it was surprisingly crowded when we visited. There are all sorts of packages with spa style treatments available but – again – they will be expensive. Like the Dead Sea in Jordan the mud is supposed to do wonders for your skin.

There are lots geothermal pools in the area so we were able to take photos of these to show the beauty of the blue water which is undeniably gorgeous.

Winter iceland itinerary blue lagoon

What to Pack for Winter in Iceland

Even though temperatures are milder than you would expect, winter in Iceland can still be fairly cold. We recommend packing layers so that you can add or discard depending on how warm it is. Merino wool is a fabulous fabric – it offers good insulation but also has great wicking properties. You can wear the same item of clothing several days running and it won’t smell.

Waterproofs are essential. We took waterproof thermal jackets which provided warmth as well. (Although we were often wrapping them around our waists on a long hike as we warmed up.)

Sturdy shoes/Walking boots. We did a lot of hiking along paths that were icy or muddy, so needed waterproof shoes. We recommend wearing your walking shoes on the plane and packing any other shoes – it keeps the weight of your luggage down and means you won’t lose the important shoes if your luggage gets lost.

Don’t forget your swimsuit gear and towel, especially if you plan to visit the Blue Lagoon. A number of our hotels also had thermal swimming pools which, while not as pretty as the Blue Lagoon, offered lovely bathing. It was particularly nice to swim in a warm pool in the cold night air.

Did We See the Northern Lights?

Another reason to travel to Iceland in winter is for the possibility of seeing the Northern Lights. It has long been an ambition of ours to see the Aurora Borealis but, as you can surmise from our photos, the weather was pretty cloudy during our visit. We didn’t see the lights, which was a shame, although it didn’t stop us from having amazing time.

One tip that might be of use: If you are flying to Iceland at night (and it gets dark early at this time of year), get a seat on the side of the plane that faces north. (If you are travelling from the UK/Europe it would be on the right side, if travelling from the US, it would be on the left). On our outward trip the pilot announced that the northern lights could be seen and loads of people rushed to have a look but, well, you can guess which side of the plane we were seated. Hey ho. Can’t win ’em all..

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A Ronda Day Trip from Seville?

Ronda in Andalusia is a charming place to visit. It is most famous for being a town split in two – located on either side of a deep chasm, El Tajo, through which the Guadalevín River flows. It is a magnet for daytrippers – at just 60km from Marbella and 100km from Malaga, both on the Costa del Sol, and around 128km from the wonderful city of Seville. Many people take a Ronda day trip from Seville (where there are plenty of tour operators in the city who can offer this as an excursion) but is this the best way to visit?

Ronda Day Trip From Seville

History of Ronda

Ronda is one of the oldest towns in Spain with settlements known to have dated from the Neolithic period. Celtic people arrived in the 6th Century BCE, naming the town Arunda. It was invaded by the Romans and became an important city in the region but fell into decline following the fall of the Roman Empire.

When the Moors, led by Prince Musa Ben Nusayr, conquered Spain in 711 the invaders recognised the strategic importance of its location; Ronda flourished as a city once more and became the capital of one of the five districts in Andalusia. The Moorish influence on the buildings remains to this day. Eventually Ronda became a focal point of Christian armies trying to recapture Southern Spain in the early 13th Century and the conquest of Ronda resulted in Christian knights establishing themselves in the city and replacing mosques with churches. By 1570 the city had become a completely Christian town.

It wasn’t until the 17th century that the major bridges were constructed across the town’s mighty gorge. The Old Bridge – Puente Viejo – was built in 1616. And the Puente Nuevo was completed in 1793, part of a series of buildings constructed in the town, including the famous bullring.

The city was occupied by the French in the 19th Century which resulted in hardship for many of the citizens. It is thought that legends of the guerrilla fighters, known as bandaleros, originated during this era. (There is a museum dedicated to bandits in the town.) Similarly, in the 20th Century the city also suffered significantly during the Spanish Civil War. Apparently the chamber above the arch on the main bridge was used as a prison and torture chamber by both sides, some unfortunate prisoners being thrown to the rocks in the gorge.

These days the town is thriving and is a hugely popular with tourists.

Jardines de Cuenca

The Puente Nuevo Bridge is the town’s most popular attraction and it’s easy to see why. It’s possible to walk down to the hillside to the Jardines de Cuenca, a serene set of gardens that you can wander through and get a spectacular view of Puente Nuevo and the gorge. But don’t forget to turn around and get some shots of the lovely countryside. We were lucky to visit in early spring, when the blossom was just coming out.

If you want to stay in a hotel or eat at a restaurant with a view of the gorge and bridge, the prices are likely to be higher than in other parts of Ronda. Although the dramatic bridge Puente Nuevo is the main attraction of the town, there are two other bridges in Ronda and both of them are lovely. They are located further down the gorge.

Puente Arabe (also known as the Roman bridge) – is the smallest bridge. Its foundations are Roman but it was rebuilt by the Moors. It is located close to the Arab baths.

Ronda Day Trip From Seville

Puente Viejo is the “old bridge”, a single arch bridge constructed in the 16th Century.

Ronda Day Trip From Seville

Puente Nuevo is the “new bridge”, even though it was completed over 200 years ago. The interior above the main arch used to be a prison (you can imagine it being very secure!), was briefly a bar and is now a museum dedicated to the history of the bridge.

ronda bridge

The city walls can easily be reached from the Roman Bridge and it is possible to walk along them to see fantastic views.

ronda city walls

The Arabian Baths

The Arabian Baths are well worth visiting. They are located at the original entrance to Ronda, close to the Roman Bridge. They were built in the 13th Century by the Moors, who were Muslim, and hence placed a very great importance on cleanliness. But they weren’t just for cleaning, they also offered a social space where people would meet as well as bathe.

The baths are located next to the river to ensure a constant water supply, and were constructed partially underground in order to control temperatures. There are many similarities with the design of Roman baths.

The baths here are remarkably well preserved (in fact they are considered to be the best in Spain) and it is possible to visit the cold, warm and hot bathing rooms as well as some of the sanitary facilities. There is a central room with vaulted ceilings and wonderful star shaped skylights.

Ronda Day Trip From Seville
Ronda Day Trip From Seville

Outside the main baths is the water pump tower, known as a saqiya. A donkey would have turned a wheel to pump water from the river, which would flow along an aqueduct towards the boiler room, which heated the water for the baths.

The Water Mine and Garden Palacio del Rey Moro y La Mina

We found this to be disappointing and not very good value for money. The main attraction of interest was the water mine – a staircase that leads from the top of the gorge down 231 steps that have been carved into the rock to reach the river below. The history is interesting: the mine was the only source of water for the city. In Moorish times, Christian slaves, chained to the steps, were used to carry the water in bags up to the top. When a Christian army invaded the city in 1485 the mine was blockaded and the inhabitants of the city lost their water supply. It is possible to enter the mine and walk down the steps.

Beware, though, the steps are well maintained at the start but soon get slippery. It would have been helpful if the warnings about steep, slippery steps had been given outside the entrance, before we paid up, and entered the site. And, what goes down must come up, so be prepared for a long climb back.

The garden of the Moorish King’s palace is pretty but not extensive. Also, it was built in the 18th Century, long after the Moors had gone, and the garden was designed in 1912, which feels like a bit of a cheat.

The Bullring

Ronda is considered the place where modern bullfighting began. At the Plaza de Toros, Ronda has a large bullring, built in 1785, which is one of the oldest in Spain. There is a museum which gives a history Bullfighting is a part of Spanish culture and history but it wasn’t something that we wanted to see. If you are in need of visitor information, the tourist office is located close to the bullring.

Next to the Plaza de Toros is a small park with two unusual statues by sculptor Seville Parra. Film director Orson Welles and author Ernest Hemingway both fell in love with Ronda and Spain. Hemingway wrote about Spain in his novels Death in the Afternoon and For Whom the Bell Tolls.  Welles was so taken with Ronda that his ashes are buried close by, in a well on the estate of his friend, bullfighter Antonio Ordóñez. The park itself offers some nice views of the surrounding area.

It’s lovely just wandering through the town. The oranges were already ripening on the trees.

Ronda Day Trip From Seville
Ronda Day Trip From Seville

Eating in Ronda

In terms of eating, like much of Spain, Ronda has its fair share of restaurants that offer a menu del dia at lunchtime – a fixed price set menu which is usually good value. Bear in mind that the restaurants are likely to be busy at lunchtime because of the day trippers. Prices in the evening are likely to be more expensive. Sadly some of the restaurants we wanted to visit were closed, so we contented ourselves with tapas followed by churros.

Meats and cheeses in Andalusia are fantastic – with a wide choice available and all delicious.

Churros are cylindrical fried dough delights. They can vary in shape and length – some thicker, thinner, longer or shorter, but they usually have a ridge along the length due to the dough being piped into the sizzling oil using an implement called a churrera, which is a bit like a syringe with a star-shaped nozzle. They may also be coated in sugar. Churros are traditionally dipped into hot chocolate, which is rich, thick and deeply chocolatey.

Churros are usually eaten at breakfast but there were restaurants all over Ronda offering them as daytime snacks. They are popular so some cafes may run out later in the afternoon. They are so sweet! We got such a sugar rush we felt like we could have run up and down the gorge several times after eating them.

While many people do a Ronda day trip from Seville, and other locations in Andalusia, we would actually recommend an overnight stay if possible. One of the reasons for wanting to stay overnight was that we could see the bridge lit up at night. The daytripper crowds will have melted away by this time.

Ronda Day Trip From Seville

We paid a bit extra for a room with a view of the bridge. It wasn’t quite what we expected – it did include a bit of the bridge but the hotel’s claim that we had a ‘bridge view’ didn’t really meet our expectations. Hey ho.

Ronda Day Trip From Seville

Much better was eating a traditional Andalusian breakfast in their restaurant…

Andalusian breakfast

…overlooking the gorge on a beautiful misty morning.

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Visit Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia

The Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia is one of the most breathtaking places to visit in the region. It is wild, windswept and utterly wonderful and we thoroughly enjoyed spending a couple of days exploring.

visit Torres del Paine

We had flown to Patagonia from Chile’s capital Santiago, where we had spent a couple of days enjoying great seafood at the Mercardo Central and visiting wine country in the Maipo Valley. The flight allowed us to enjoy spectacular views of the Andes and Chilean Lake District as we flew into Punta Arenas.

From there we caught a bus to Puerto Natales which is the gateway to Torres del Paine.

Puerto Natales

It’s a small town with a pretty lake area and we spent the night there before heading out to Torres del Paine.

Puerto Natales

There were plenty of restaurants in town offering great seafood. With its incredibly long coastline, Chile can offer some of the best seafood on the planet. We enjoyed lots of fresh seafood platters in Patagonia, all of which were utterly delicious.

Seafood plate Puerto Natales
crab Puerto Natales

And an intriguing dish called king crab pie. We weren’t sure what it was, so we had to order. It was a gratinated dish – delicious crab meat in a cheesy sauce.

Visiting Torres del Paine – Practicalities

We hired a car for just a couple of days to take us to the National Park – the driving was very easy on clear roads. It is possible to pick up a car at Puerto Natales – the hiring process was all very straightforward and all we needed was a standard driving licence and an international driving permit. We definitely recommend driving if possible – the park is very large with amazing scenery and a car is the best way to visit the various locations at your own pace. However, buses are available from Puerto Natales and run on a regular schedule. It is also possible to join a tour – there will be agencies in Puerto Natales or Punta Arenas which offer coach tours.

When you visit Torres del Paine you have a choice of multiple entrances to the park – the tourist information centre in Puerto Natales gave us a free map of the area. It’s a maximum of 132 km from the town on well-made roads that are clear of traffic.

visit Torres del Paine

It wasn’t long before we spotted Torres del Paine’s cuernos – ‘horns’ – the famous granite peaks that rise upwards of 2000m and define the area. The cuernos have brilliantly descriptive names: Aleta de Tiburón (Shark’s Fin), Fortaleza (Fortress), La Espada (The Sword), La Hoja (The Blade), La Máscara (The Mask), Cuerno Norte (North Horn), and Cuerno Principal (Main Horn).

visit Torres del Paine

You need a ticket to enter the park – follow this link for entrance fees and ticketing information.

You also need to register at the park entrance – just show your tickets at the checkpoint.

Once inside the park the roads are more ‘natural’ – narrower, even single track in places, and many were of a gravel construction. This didn’t make the driving much more difficult – we just had to take a bit more care when encountering cars or coaches coming in the other direction.

The region is stark, wild and windswept and every inch of the journey offered us fantastic views.

visit Torres del Paine

A Tour of the Park

The park is stunningly beautiful and joyful to drive through. There are plenty of places to stop and admire the views of the mountains and lakes. If you are serious about hiking, there are a number of routes through the region, some of which can take several days to complete. We were more limited on time so enjoyed a leisurely combination of driving to the many scenic places and taking lots of walks in those areas.

We passed by Lake Nordenskjöld with its turquoise water…

Lake Nordenskjöld

… and towards Salto Grande Waterfall is on the Paine River, fed by Lake Nordenskjöld. The falls drop around 15m into Lago Pehoé.

Salto Grande Waterfall

Lago Grey

Grey Lake’s name suits it perfectly. It is a fed by Grey Glacier which is part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. The glacier is around is thirty metres high at its highest point and approximately six kilometres wide. There is a visitor centre for Lago Grey close to the road which offers parking and refreshments/toilet facilities. It is possible to walk a 6km trail onto a desolate but strangely beautiful beach to view the lake and the icebergs that float serenely across it.

Lago grey
visit Torres del Paine
visit Torres del Paine

It is also just about possible to see the glacier way across the lake.

Base de Torres

We then drove up to the Base de Torres towards our hotel for the night. We stayed at Hosteria Los Torres, which was the posh accommodation option and a bit of a splurge for us.

visit Torres del Paine

There are cheaper accommodation options, including shelters and campsites.

Base torres walk

The following day we enjoyed some hiking along the Base de Torres path. We didn’t have time to do the full trek (the round trip takes around 7 hours) as we wanted to spend time exploring other areas of the park, and also needed to return the hire car, but we enjoyed a lovely, long walk on a gorgeous day. We visited in October, which was just at the start of spring and we were expecting the weather to be cold. It wasn’t – the temperature reached an unseasonably warm 20 deg C but the breeze was strong which made for perfect walking weather.

Torres del Paine lake
visit Torres del Paine

Laguna Azul 

Before leaving the park we took a detour to view Laguna Azul. The road to the lake offered some fantastic views of the Torres Peaks along the way.

visit Torres del Paine

And the lake itself is very pretty.

Laguna azul

Wildlife in Torres del Paine

There is plenty of wildlife in the area although, as with all wildlife, the clue is in the name: it is wild and therefore sightings cannot be guaranteed. We were unbelievably lucky during our visit. One tip that we learned many years ago: if you see people stop, look in a particular direction and point, go over to them and find out what they are pointing at. It’s usually something interesting.

We were initially quite confused by guanacos – when we first saw them we knew they weren’t llamas or alpaca, but weren’t quite sure what they were. Fortunately local people were around to tell us about them. They were to be found all over the park.

visit Torres del Paine
visit Torres del Paine

Because it was early spring when we visited Torres del Paine, the rutting season was beginning. The males compete with each other to impress the lady guanacos. They had a very funny rutting technique. (The background noise is the wind – Torres del Paine is very windy!)

We also spotted hares and lots of birds

ruddy headed goose Torres del Paine

There are apparently around 200 puma living in the area, which is one of the highest concentrations in the world. They are generally quite shy and, although it is quite common to see evidence of their kills along pathways, we didn’t have high expectations of actually encountering one. You obviously have to be cautious – while they are unlikely to attack, they are big, wild cats so it is important to keep a distance. Also, never run away from a big cat – it would definitely want to chase!

We were lucky enough to see this magnificent puma on our Base de Torres walk. It was casually striding through the long grass. We got chatting to another walker as we climbed further up the route. He had been searching for a puma all day and was very envious of our sighting. We pointed him in the direction of where it had been heading but it was probably long gone.

puma

Having been lucky enough to have seen so much of the local wildlife, just as we started the drive back to Puerto Natales, we commented to each other that it would have been perfect if we had been able to see a rhea. And what should appear?

Rhea Torres del Paine

A rhea is a large, flightless bird which is similar to an ostrich. This one was enjoying a strut through the scrub.

And then, on our return to Puerto Natales, we spent one more night enjoying more seafood before heading for the bus stop the following morning, in order to make our way across the border into Argentina. Our aim was to visit Los Glaciares National Park at El Calafate and to hike in El Chalten. Torres del Paine was one of the highlights of our trip to Patagonia – wild, desolate and utterly magical.

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Things To Do In Oban, Scotland

Oban is a town in Argyll and Bute located around a pretty bay on the west coast of Scotland. It’s a popular place to visit and also has a ferry port from which it’s possible to travel to some of the western islands and as such is often considered the gateway to the Hebridean islands. But there are plenty of things to do in Oban itself and the surrounding area.

A Towering Folly

McCaig’s Tower is the town’s most prominent landmark, set on a hill looking over the bay. It was funded by John Stuart McCaig in 1897, a local banker who wanted to ensure employment for local builders and stonemasons as well as to leave a monument dedicated to his family. But he died before his plans fully came to fruition and, although he left a legacy for its completion, his family contested this and work stopped.

Things to do in Oban

McCaig had apparently wanted a grand design based on the Colosseum in Rome, which would have been impressive, but it was not to be. It is a folly, but is nice to climb the hill and walk around the tower to have a look at the design and also to get a panoramic view of Oban below.

Things to do in Oban
Oban view

Visit Oban Distillery

Oban has one of the smaller whisky distilleries in Scotland. In fact the town developed around the distillery which was established in 1794. Hence it’s very conveniently located right in the centre of Oban. Because of its location the distillery didn’t really have the opportunity to expand so it remains small but perfectly formed. Also, because it’s town-based, there are no issues with someone having to drive to the distillery if you want to indulge in a tasting and are staying locally.

Things to do in Oban Distillery

Of course they offer tasting tours. It’s definitely worth making a booking. At the time we visited it wasn’t possible to tour the distillery itself (although you can make a booking through their website) due to Covid but a tutored tasting was possible. On arrival you are shown to a table and presented with some samples in little glasses and a tasting card.

Things to do in Oban

It was really useful to have some guidance as to how to taste whisky. The advice was to sip and don’t sniff the whisky on the first taste. Definitely don’t quaff the shot or you will just get a burn at the back of the throat. Sipping again, your mouth is now used to the whisky, so let the whisky lie on your tongue for 15-20 secs to let the saliva glands release saliva and savour the flavour. You don’t expect to get a peaty whisky in Oban, the water is sourced from a local loch, about three miles away.

When whisky is first distilled it is a clear liquid. Its colour and flavour derives from the barrels it is stored in and the length of time the whisky is aged. There are some interesting techniques – the whisky can be aged in bourbon or sherry barrels but the casks can only be used a certain number of times (around five). Some barrels are charred inside, then the burned timber is scraped away to expose new timber and this offers a new flavour. Some whiskies are tripled matured in three casks. We tried the 14 year old whisky, which had a light, citrusy flavour; the 14 year old (charred barrel); the Distiller’s Edition which had been aged in a bourbon and then a sherry cask, which had a sweeter, more caramel roundness; and the triple matured Little Bay, which had a great complexity of flavour.

Of course, there are lots of bottles of whisky available to buy. We were quite taken with their Game of Thrones special edition.

Things to Do Around Oban – Day Trips

We recommend using a car to get around Scotland if you can – the driving is generally easy, the routes are guaranteed to look beautiful and it gave us flexibility to explore the wider area. However, there are public transport options if that is preferable.

Easdale Slate Island

Easdale is a tiny island located around 25 km from Oban. It’s easy to reach but first you have to cross the Bridge Over The Atlantic – possibly the cutest bridge in Scotland. Clachan Bridge joins Seil Island to the Scottish mainland so it really does cross the Atlantic – sort of! It’s a darling humpbacked bridge, built in 1792. It’s on a single track road, so take care when crossing.

Bridge over the Atlantic

From there head to Ellenabeich, which has a large car park and the ferry port for the three minute journey across the sea to the island. It costs just a few pounds to make the crossing.

On arrival at Easdale you discover that there are no cars but it is the most delightful place to go walking. There is a café/reastaurant and a folk museum.

Easdale was once the focal point of the Scottish slate industry. As such it has a number of slate quarries, many of which are now flooded. Despite the industry, the island is really beautiful. Skimming Quarry holds a national stone skipping competition every September.

Easdale Slate island
Easdale Slate island
Easdale Slate island

It’s very easy to walk all the way around the island and sometimes you get lucky with perfect weather.

Kilmarten Glen and the Standing Stones

Driving further south towards Kilmarten it’s possible to explore some of Scotland’s prehistoric monuments, including cairns and standing stones.

Stopping in Kilmarten itself there is a museum which gives a history of the area, and the church next door, which has a collection of early grave slabs.

Further down the road there is a car park and, after crossing the road into the field, it’s possible to see Nether Largie Stones. The stones, believed to have been erected 3200 years ago, align with the midwinter sunrise and the autumn and winter equinoxes.

Things to Do Oban Scotland

Temple Wood is a stone circle which has a cairn in its centre. It was originally a wood circle, dating from about 5000 years ago but the wood was later replaced with stones. Cremated remains, dating from around 3300 years ago, were found inside the centre of the circle.

Another short walk just down the lane takes you to the Nether Largie South cairn, a Neolithic chamber tomb. It is thought that it was constructed around 5600-5500 years ago. It’s believed that it was used for burials in the early Bronze Age as well.

Seafood and Eat It!

On our return to Oban we discovered plentiful restaurants, many of which offer seafood. Blessed with a long and beautiful coastline, Scotland’s seafood is fantastic! If you want the very best, which is also incredibly good value for money, there is only one place to go: Oban Seafood Shack, also known as The Green Shack, located by the harbour on the railway pier.

Things to Do Oban Scotland

It’s so good, there will almost certainly be a long queue, but it’s emphatically worth the wait as you can order a huge variety of fresh seafood. It is literally a shack – a tiny hut – where you place your order. There’s not much seating, just a small covered area next to the shack and some tables for standing. It’s not the place for an intimate dinner but who cares when the food is this good? We ordered the seafood platter which was just divine: lobster, crab claw, langoustine, mussels, prawns, scallop in butter sauce, hot smoked salmon, pickled herring, crab sticks, squid rings. It was served with simple bread and butter, Marie Rose and sweet chilli sauce.

seafood shack seafood platter

There was so much we needed a platter for the debris. We ate standing up, using our fingers (they have a wash station), although forks were provided to pick crab and lobster meat.

Things to Do Oban ScotlandThings to do in Oban

The seafood shack offered food as it should be – fresh ingredients, perfectly cooked, friendly service, no pretension whatsoever. Perfect. (It’s worth noting that at the time of our visit they only accepted cash as payment.)

The following day we skipped breakfast at the hotel in favour popping down to the shack to pick up some prawn and crab sandwiches. Absolutely delish! It set us up for the day to continue our journey through Scotland and onto the Isle of Skye.

Other Attractions in the Area

If you like castles, there are a couple close by: Dunollie Castle is located about 1.5km north of Oban. You can visit the castle, a museum and the grounds. There’s also Dunstaffnage Castle & Chapel, one of the oldest stone castles in Scotland which stands on an enormous rock overlooking the Firth of Lorn.

Oban is also gateway to some of Scotland’s marvellous Hebridean islands via the ferry port. It is possible to enjoy trips to Mull, Lismore, Coll, Kerrera and Barra, some either as day trips or to continue your journey through Scotland. Check the Calmac website for information and timetables.

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RECIPE: How to Make Umeboshi

A typical Japanese breakfast will comprise of a bowl of rice, some grilled fish and pickles accompanied by a bowl of miso soup. What a lovely way to start the day. And at the Japanese breakfast table you will often come across a bowl of pink, wrinkly fruit, roughly the size of an apricot.

How to make umeboshi

These are umeboshi, incredibly sour and salty ume fruit, which are like small plums or apricots, and are absolutely guaranteed to wake you up. They are also reputed to be a hangover cure, especially good if you are a salaryman who has had a late night out in the city. Or tourists who have had a late night in the city which involved chatting with all sorts of very interesting people in random bars and drinking quite a lot of booze.

Beware the stone, especially if you have a hangover.

Umeboshi are tsukemono, literally “pickled things” which  brined and therefore fermented, so they will last for ages. Some will even last decades. If they turn black, they should be chucked. We always bring some back from our trips to Japan and rationed them so had some in our fridge for about 5 years – they were still pink and wrinkly and utterly delicious. Most Japanese meals have tsukemono as an accompaniment but umeboshi are most often eaten at breakfast. They are also used in onigiri (rice balls) as a flavouring and can be converted into a paste to add plentiful salty/fruity flavour to a variety of dishes.

Some Japanese households make their own umeboshi. If you are lucky enough to be offered these, don’t be polite. Well, do be polite because that would be the right thing to do, but don’t hesitate to take your host up on their offer. Home-made umeboshi are absolutely delicious. The pink colour derives from red shiso – also known as perilla – which is a herb added during the pickling process. Shiso is a very common herb used a lot in Japanese cuisine. Green shiso is often the herb that garnishes a sushi platter.

It is possible to make sort-of-umeboshi in western countries. The ume fruit is not usually available, but you can have a bash using plums and salt.

We treated ourselves to a Japanese pickle press a while ago but it should be possible to make umeboshi using a wide-mouthed jar, just as long as you have something heavy that will fit inside the jar to weigh the plums down and a utensil that can extract them (tongs should be fine) as you will need to take them in and out of the jar after the fermentation.

Japanese pickle press
How to make umeboshi

We use plums from our allotment. They have the delightful name Warwickshire Droopers. The great thing is that we can assess how ripe our plums are and pick them. This year the plum tree has been very generous. If you don’t have a plum tree your local market or greengrocer may well have a variety of plums for you to choose from.

Warwickshire Drooper plums

You want the plums to be ripe but not over-ripe, they need to have a degree of firmness.

How to make umeboshi

How to Make Umeboshi

Ingredients

Plums – enough to fill your container but leaving enough space to add a weight. If using a press, make sure the press can close and provide enough pressure.

Salt – 8% of the weight of the plums. Try not to use table salt, as this contains anti-caking agents. We prefer Himalayan pink salt but any pure salt will be fine.

2 red shiso leaves (optional)


Method

Wash your plums and pat them dry. Weigh the plums.

Measure out your salt – the total should be around 8% of the plum weight. This is a lot of salt but most of it will leach into the juice during the pressing process.

Massage the salt into the plums

salting plums

Place in the press. Add the shiso/perilla leaves if you are using them.

Attach the lid and screw the pressure plate down as far as it will go. If you are using a jar, put a clean weight (you can put a weight inside a plastic bag) that puts pressure on the plums.

How to make umeboshi

This ferment doesn’t use a brine. The pressure of the weight will release juice from the plums.

How to make umeboshi

Leave in a cool, dark place for 2-3 weeks. Check the plums occasionally. You will start to see juice appearing in the bottom of the press.

(As with all ferments, if you ever see any mould on the fruit you should throw it away as the spores could cause illness if you consume the plums. It is unlikely that mould will develop with an 8% salt mix as that is lot of salt.)

The next step requires a bit of luck with the weather. Ideally you want a warm, sunny day. In fact, you need three warm, sunny days.

On your sunny day, remove all the plums and place them on a mat, or some kitchen paper, in the sunshine to dry. Place them back in the juicy brine at the end of the day.

How to make umeboshi

Repeat for a further two days. They don’t need to be consecutive days but it would be helpful if you can dry the plums over the course of a week.

How to make umeboshi

After the third day, you can place the plums in a jar or a plastic container, or even a plastic bag. They will last for months and months. That’s if you don’t scoff them…or have too many hangovers to cure!

Save the Brine!

We hate food waste so we have devised a way to re-use the salty plum juice brine.

We use it to pickle ginger.

Peel the ginger and cut into matchsticks.

Place them in a jar and cover them with the brine. After a couple of weeks they will be deliciously sour and salty. We use them to add some zing to rice and noodle dishes or as a garnish.

Actually, we have been known to open the jar and sneak a matchstick or two for a quick snack.

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Visit Angkor Wat, Cambodia

The remarkable temples of Angkor Wat are undoubtedly the main draw for visitors to Cambodia. Although there are many other places to visit in this wonderful country and its neighbours in South East Asia, the temples from the Khmer empire, lost to the jungle for centuries, are astonishing in their scale and construction. If you visit Angkor Wat we recommend spending at least three days in the region.

 

The nearest town to the main temple complex is Siem Reap, which is around 5.5 km from Angkor Wat and caters to the tourists that come to visit. There is a variety of accommodation from budget to luxury and there are loads of shops and restaurants, notably on ‘Pub Street’ where you can sample the local food. Our hotel was about 2km from the centre of Siem Reap and, while we walked back and forth most of the time, there were plentiful tuk-tuk drivers to transport us if we needed.

History of Angkor Wat

Angkor means ‘city’ and Wat means ‘temple’ – so Angkor Wat literally means ‘City Temple’. The temple complex is believed to be the world’s largest religious building.

Angkor was the central city for the Khmer kings between the 9th and 13th centuries. The Khmer Empire was vast and one of the most sophisticated kingdoms in South East Asia. Many buildings and temples were constructed by the Khmers over the centuries. At the height of their civilisation, Angkor Wat was the biggest construction, built in the early 12th century at the behest of Suryavaram II as a dedication to the Hindu God Vishnu. The temple complex is said to represent Mount Meru, the home of the gods, with the surrounding walls and moats symbolising mountains and oceans. The walls are covered with bas-reliefs, stretching for almost one kilometre they tell of tales from Hindu mythology and of the glories of the Khmer empire.

Angkor was sacked in 1177 and Jayavarman VII decided to build a new capital a short distance away, at Angkor Thom. This was, again, a religious complex, but this time a Buddhist temple. Angkor was sacked by the Thai people and then abandoned in the 15th Century, becoming a ‘lost’ city, a city of legends, to be ‘rediscovered’ by French explorer Henri Mouhot in 1860. In 1908 restoration of the complex began. It ground to a halt during the 1970s during the political unrest during the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge and when work resumed in the 1980s extensive repairs were required. Angkor Wat became a UNESCO site in 1992 and restoration work has continued to this day.

Visiting Angkor Wat – Practicalities

You need to have a ticket in order to visit Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples. While it is possible to visit the main temple and Angkor Thom in a day, as both are located quite close to each other, we chose the 3 day ticket so that we could explore some of the other temples in the region. It is also worth finding a guide and transportation as many of the temples are located several kilometres apart. There are various options for getting a guide. We had one lined up prior to arriving in the nearby town of Siem Reap but you should be able to find a reputable, certified guide via your hotel. There will also be many guides around Siem Reap who will offer their services, which may or may not be reliable. And, of course, you can find online tours, which will usually have reviews, so you can check those out. The best guides will know when to visit the attractions in order to avoid the worst of the crowds, will be able to show you the ideal photo spots and, most importantly, will also have loads of information about the history of the sites.

If you don’t wish to have a guide you will still need transportation especially if you plan to visit some of the temples that are further away. Tuk-tuks are easy to find in Siem Reap and are a great way of getting around. You can negotiate a price with the driver.

You cannot get into Angkor or the surrounding temples without a ticket which you buy at the official ticketing centre. The tickets are non-transferable and will have your photo printed onto them. Click here for the latest info and prices.

You can get 1 day, 3 day or 7 day passes. They don’t have to be used on consecutive days. The 3 day pass can be used over the course of a week and the 7 day pass can be used over a month. We had a 3 day pass which enabled us to visit a number of the temples.

There is also a code of conduct for visitors, which are basically a matter of common courtesy:

Wear appropriate clothing (i.e. be respectful, very short shorts and sleeveless shirts are not suitable).

Do not touch the monuments.

Refrain from talking loudly.

Do not enter prohibited areas. These are clearly marked and are usually there for safety reasons.

No smoking.

Do not buy souvenirs from children – they should be in school.

Do not take photos of monks, unless you ask their permission. Also, do not touch monks. (But, honestly, why would you?)

Angkor Wat – The Main Attraction

Seeing Angkor Wat at sunrise is an essential activity. Unfortunately this is an essential activity for all visitors so it does get really crowded. There are two tips to make the sunrise visit easier.

The night before your visit, ask your hotel or hostel to prepare a packed breakfast for you or stock up on some food from any of the many stores in Siem Reap. Then set your alarm and get an early night. Try to get to the site as early as possible. The site will be open from 5am. (N.B. Most other sites are open from 7:30am so Angkor Wat is an exception.) If you are with a guide, they will often know the best spots from which to view the sunrise. It’s worth the wait as the darkness fades and anticipation mounts as the sun begins to appear.

Visit Angkor Wat sunrise

Once the sun has risen and the assembled throng have sighed their admiration, most people will go back to their hotels for breakfast. If you have your breakfast with you, you can enjoy it whilst admiring the view before the temple itself opens and then be first – or at least amongst the first – in the queue to explore the complex properly. It made a huge difference to us – exploring the temple with only a few other people around.

As time goes by, it’s a possibility that increasing numbers of visitors will cotton on to this tactic so it’s always worth checking with the guides or your hotel to find out when is the best time to visit. And, having enjoyed a peaceful exploration of Angkor Wat, when we went into Angkor Thom the Bayon was swarming with visitors.

The Angkor Wat complex is surrounded by a large moat.

The temple itself is located on a raised terrace with three galleries, each increasing in height, surrounding a central tower.

Visit Angkor Wat

Each corner of the temple has a tower.

Visit Angkor Wat

The temple façade is covered with beautiful and intricate bas-relief carvings, showing gods and figures from Buddhist and Hindu scriptures, even depicting scenes from the Hindu texts the Mahabarata and the Ramayana. The carvings were created with the intention of viewing them in an anti-clockwise direction.

Visit Angkor Wat bas relief

It is possible to enter the central tower. We were quite surprised to find images of Budhha inside, particularly as Angkor Wat was constructed as a Hindu temple.

Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom was our next stop. Located a couple of kilometres away from Angkor Wat, it was the final capital city of the Khmer Empire. Established in the late 12th century by King Jayavarman VII, it covers an area of 9km² and was the most enduring of all the sites. Jayavarman was a Buddhist so the temples at Angkor Thom were dedicated to Buddhism. Indeed, during the king’s reign the Khmer people converted from Hinduism to Buddhism.

Angkor Thom includes sights such as the South Gate, a wonderful way to enter the complex, with its grand – and quite grotesque – guardians of the bridge as you cross the moat.

Angkor Thom south gate

The Bayon is a remarkable structure. It is covered with the stone heads of Bodhisattva Avilokiteshvara, smiling serenely and was the last great temple built at Angkor.

Visit Angkor Wat Angkor Thom bayon

Moving into the Royal Enclosure, …the Terrace of Elephants was originally an extension of the palace of Phimeanakas and was the place from which Jayavarman VII could view his armies as they returned victorious.

Angkor Thom terrace of elephants

The Terrace of the Leper King was built by Jayavarman VII but the name has an unusual derivation.

A sculpture found at the site was believed to have been created in the 15th century, had deteriorated and was covered in moss which gave the appearance of leprosy. There is also a link to the legend of King Yasovarman I who was believed to have suffered from leprosy.

Visiting Angkor Wat – Other Temples to Explore

While Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom are the main attractions in the area there are so many other temples and buildings to visit.

Ta Prohm

A particular favourite of ours was Ta Prohm, just down the road from Angkor Thom.

It was another temple constructed at the behest of Jayavarman VII (the creator of Angkor Thom) in the late 12th century and was originally called Rajavcihara. Apparently designed for the king’s mother it was a lavish temple, once covered in pearls, precious stones and gold, and home to over 12,000 people. However it was abandoned after the fall of the Khmer empire and lost to the jungle for centuries.

Visit Angkor Wat Ta Prohm

The design of the temple is typically Khmer, with a concentric design of square or rectangular temples  – the enclosing walls encasing an inner sanctum. But, unlike many of the other temples in the region, this hasn’t been cleared and restored and the trees of the jungle have remained, forming a beautiful symbiosis with the buildings.

visit Angkor Wat Ta Prohm
Visit Angkor Wat Ta Prohm

Banteay Srei

The Khmer Temple of Shiva at Banteay Srei, dating back to the 11th century, is the Citadel of Women. It has some remarkable sandstone decorations, friezes and lintels which are some of the best preserved in the region.

Banteay Srei
visit Angkor Wat
Visit Angkor Wat Banteay Srei

Kbal Spean

Kbal Spean is a Hindu Pilgrimage site set deep in the jungle to the North East of Angkor. It actually pre-dates the Angkor Temples by around 200 years and is the oldest site in the region.

After hiking for around a kilometre through the jungle you reach the River of a Thousand Lingas, amazing sculptures that are actually located in the river bed.

visit Angkor Wat kbal spean
visit Angkor Wat

The Roulos Group

And finally, the other temples we visited were the Roulos group which are older and date from the 9th and 10th centuries. They are located around 15km south-east of Siem Reap in the former city of Hariharalaya. King Jayavarman II founded the Khmer empire in 802 CE. His successor was his nephew, Indravarman I, who initiated the construction of the temples here.

Preah Ko was the first. The name means ‘sacred bull.’

Visit Angkor Wat Roulos Preah Ko
visit Angkor Wat

Bakong was next and is considered to be the first Khmer temple mountain. It is the most impressive of the structures in this group. This was King Indravarman’s official temple. The pyramid has five levels and is surrounded by two towers on each of its sides.

Visit Angkor Wat Roulos Bakong
visit Angkor Wat

The Lolei temples are grouped together. These are of a brick construction and represented King Yasovarman’s  parents and grandparents. The taller towers are for his grandparents and the front towers are for the males in the family.

Après Sightseeing – Siem Reap

After all the sightseeing we would wander into Siem Reap. Pub Street is the place to find restaurants and bars in the evening – perfect for relaxing after a long day’s sightseeing. It is possible to visit markets, enjoy cookery courses and, of course, eat traditional Cambodian cuisine. This platter included spring roll, mango salad, fish amok (a fragrant curry), green curry, cha tu kuong (stir-fried water spinach) and steamed rice.

Other Excursions

Although our primary purpose of the trip was to visit Angkor Wat, there are other activities in the area. Siem Reap is located close to Lake Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia. It’s a fascinating lake because it is part of the Mekong river system. The Mekong and surrounding catchment feeds it during the wet season and the lake’s water level will rise to around 11m. But during the dry season the lake feeds the Mekong and water levels can get as low as 1m before the rains arrive. It’s a lake where local people live and work and it’s possible to take a boat trip and visit some of the floating villages.

Tonle Sap lake

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Visit Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

The Plitvice Lakes are probably one of Croatia’s best known national parks. We had long wanted to travel to this area and see these stunningly beautiful lakes and waterfalls and managed to weave it into our recent itinerary to Bosnia Herzegovina and Croatia. The route wasn’t really optimal – it was quite a long way out of our way – but we were so keen to visit Plitvice, we felt it was worth the extra driving. Driving through the countryside in the region is straightforward and very beautiful, but not particularly speedy. We did have high expectations for Plitvice… and we weren’t disappointed. The Plitvice National park is located by the Zagreb–Split D1 national highway which runs between Slunj and Korenica. It is also close to the Bosnia Herzegovina border – it’s about a half hour drive to the lake region from the Bosnia-Croatia border. We had driven in from Jacje in Bosnia via Bihac to visit Plitvice Lakes.

Visit Plitvice Lakes

Geography of Plitvice Lakes

The lakes are located across Lika-Senj and Karlovac counties and the area comprises sixteen lakes which are interconnected, cascading into each other via waterfalls within a karst topography, which is mainly limestone or dolomite. The highest lake is Prošćansko (639m above sea level) and the lowest is Novakovića Brod (503m above sea level). The region was designated a National Park and an area of outstanding natural beauty in 1949 and 30 years later became a UNESCO site. The lakes are fed by the Medica river which fills the Proscansko Lake and cascades through the lake system all the way down to the Korana river.

Cross Section Diagram of Plitvice Lakes, Croatia
Image from Plitvice-lakes.info

Staying in the Area

The area around Plitvice is largely dedicated to tourism so there are loads of hotels and guesthouses lining the main roads into the area. Some of these feel a little isolated, there aren’t really any significant towns nearby – there are a lot of villages – but there are lots of restaurants and mini-markets. There are also a bunch of companies that offer a number of different activities in the area – you will see the adverts from the roadside.

Plitvice Lakes National Park – Practicalities for the Visitor

You need a ticket to enter the park. It’s possible to buy these in advance and is definitely recommended if you are visiting in the high season in order to avoid the queues. Entrances are timed, you can arrive any time within the hour stated on your ticket.

The official website has all sorts of practical information for a visit to Plitvice Lakes.

There are options for visiting the park depending on how much time you have. Some people explore the area over a couple of days, visiting the lower lakes on one day and the upper lakes on the next. Others might visit the whole site in a day. We were short on time so decided to spend a full day in the park.

Our hotel was located around 4km from the park and we were driving a hire car, so we had a lot of flexibility, but there are busses that come in from all over Croatia, notably the cities – Split, Zagreb, Sibenik and Zadar amongst others. There are bus stops with ticket booths located on the road close to each entrance – they look like log cabins.

We chose to arrive for the 9:00am slot, at entrance number 1. The car parks are well marked from the road and are also ticketed – you pick up a ticket on arrival at the barrier then pay for the hours you use just before you exit. You have around 15 minutes to leave after you have paid. The car parks are located around a five minute walk from the park entrances. There’s a wooden bridge across the road.

Inevitably, as with many popular attractions, trails are crowded at the start of the route – even at 9am and in springtime. In retrospect we should have arrived earlier. Entrance 1 is located closest to the lower lakes and you generally follow the crowds along the paths.

There are a number of routes around the park which are clearly marked, depending on where you start and how energetic you are feeling. We recommend wearing comfortable shoes and making sure you have protection from the sun and possibly wet weather gear if the forecast suggests it might rain. Also, make sure you take water if you are planning on a long walk. There are facilities at both entrances as well as the P3 boat docking point. It’s fine to take a picnic with you but, of course, take all rubbish away with you. We did spot a number of park litter pickers along our walk – the site is absolutely pristine so it’s important to keep it that way.

Finally, you are not allowed to swim in any of the lakes, despite how utterly inviting they look on a warm spring day.

Visit Plitvice Lakes – The Lower Lakes

Entrance 1 follows a path that leads to the four lower lakes. The view from the top offered a taste for the day to come.

Visit Plitvice Lakes

The boardwalk gets a bit congested as there are plentiful visitors and the route isn’t very wide. However, this was the only place we really had to queue, apart from waiting for a boat.

We saw a snake swimming through Kaluđerovo jezero, the second lowest lake.

The lowest lake is Novakovića Brod and at the end of the system you can see the Sastavci waterfall, an 87m drop.

Visit Plitvice Lakes

There’s a little bit of doubling back to reach the upper lower lakes, Gavanovac and then Milanovac.

Visit Plitvice Lakes
Visit Plitvice Lakes cascade
Visit Plitvice Lakes
Gavanovac Lake 
Visit Plitvice Lakes
Milanovac Lake

A Long Walk

Having explored the lower lakes we walked to Jezero Kozjak lake, which is actually the lowest of Upper Lakes and both the largest and deepest of all the lakes in the area. It has an area of 82 hectares and a depth of 47 meters at its deepest point. It also features the little island Stefanijin otok. When we arrived here, where we faced some choices. This is the lake which offers boat rides to the upper lake area. When we arrived there was already a queue forming. At the time it seemed as though there was only one boat every half hour and it looked like a pretty long wait. So we reviewed the trail maps and opted for Route K – to walk the entire perimeter of the park. It’s around 18km in total but, for us, it was the perfect choice.

We started off on the trail and the crowds soon melted away so that we could walk beside these stunningly beautiful lakes, virtually alone, save for a few others who had also decided to take a long walk. The trail skirted the edge of Kozjak lake and then took us into the woods on a climb to the upper lake area. The walking was generally easy, the trails well marked and the upward slopes weren’t challenging. It was also a glorious day.

Visit Plitvice Lakes Jezero Kozjak
Jezero Kozjak

Visit Plitvice Lakes – The Upper Lakes

The walk took us through a quiet, shady forest where we met a slow-worm sunning itself…

..and after an enjoyable walk through the trees we emerged back into the sunlight to get a spectacular view of the upper lakes.

Visit Plitvice Lakes

The is the waterfall flowing into Lake Okrugljak from Lake Ciginovac.

Visit Plitvice Lakes

The upper lakes are just as beautiful as the lower – crystal clear and with a gorgeous turquoise hue.

Just follow the boardwalk…

Visit Plitvice Lakes

The route takes you very close to the waterfalls and cascades…

Veliki Prštavac Waterfall
Veliki Prštavac Waterfall
Galovački Buk
Galovački Buk waterfall

We also spotted some noisy frogs in the reeds.

Plitvice frog

The upper lakes weren’t as crowded as the lower lakes but there were a few bottlenecks at particularly pretty lakes or falls, when people blocked the boardwalk as they tried to take their perfect instagram shot.

An Unexpected Boat Ride

Initially we didn’t realise that, despite our intention for walking the entire circumference of the park, the trails don’t quite follow the perimeter of all the lakes. If following the K route there will be a need for a short – 5 minute – boat trip. Boats shuttle back and forth regularly and are included in the price of the ticket – just queue for the boat (hoping the queue isn’t too long) and hop on. The dock is very close to Entrance 2. (If you are parking at Entrance 2 this would be the perfect place to start/end the walk in the opposite – i.e. clockwise – direction.) We continued our walk along by the waterside of Jezero Kozjak towards our starting point at Entrance 1.

Other Places To Visit – The Caves of Barac

Due to the limestone geology of the area, Croatia has thousands of cave systems. The Caves of Barac, located about 20km drive from Plitvice are also worth visiting. You can have an hour-long guided tour of the upper cave. It’s a show cave which includes some impressive stalactites and stalagmites but also some has some interesting features on display.

Barac Caves

The photo below shows the skeleton of a young bear that fell into a crevice during the Pleistocene era . The bones are the same size as you would expect of an adult bear but bears were enormous back then – an adult would have been 3m long and could have weighed up to 1000kg. They were also vegetarian apparently. This bear would likely have entered the cave to hibernate but sadly never emerged into the sunshine. (The helmet is an artefact from the species greater carelessius touristicus and dates from 2022!)

Similarly artefacts showing evidence of human habitation can be seen.

When inside the cave system our guide turned out the lights and we experienced total blackout. The caves are incredibly dark, even just tens of metres from the entrance, so it is very easy to understand how a bear or human could have wandered in, got lost and ended up falling into a canyon and not finding their way out.

There are around 100 bats living in the cave. We visited in the late afternoon, just as they were waking up. We caught a glimpse of one fluttering sleepily around the cavern before heading our to taste some delicious insects.

The caves are delightfully cool inside, a welcome relief from the heat of the day, but if you are likely to feel the cold, bring a jumper or jacket. The ticket salesman knew we were British the moment he suggested that we wear a coat inside and we thanked him but told him we didn’t need one!

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RECIPE: Shopska Salad

One of the dishes that was pretty much ubiquitous when we visited Bulgaria, and could be found pretty much every meal we had, was shopska salad. It is Bulgaria’s national salad, apparently created as part of tourism campaign in the 1950s, its colours of red, green and white match those of the Bulgarian flag.

The dish is popular throughout the Balkans – we also enjoyed it in Bosnia and Herzegovina and it made a regular appearance on menus in Croatia as well. There are all sorts of variations. Fruit and vegetables in Eastern Europe are usually more delicious than those we get at home. They make look uglier but they taste so much better. Because the salad uses very finely grated cheese you get a lovely hit of salty cheese with every forkful as opposed to, say, a Greek salad which uses cubes of cheese. It’s a really easy recipe that tastes absolutely great. This version is the one that we ate in Bulgaria.

shopska salad recipe

Shopska is traditionally made using Bulgarian sirene cheese which is difficult to get in the UK. Feta cheese is more easily available and is a really good substitute. Here’s our recipe for shopska salad.

SHOPSKA SALAD INGREDIENTS

shopska salad

1 cucumber

4 tomatoes

1 cup of feta cheese (we like the barrel aged variety as it has a lovely rich, salty flavour)

1 tbs red wine vinegar (white wine or cider vinegar can also be used)

2 tbs sunflower oil (sunflower is more traditional but it is fine to use olive oil if you prefer)

Pinch of salt (go easy) and pepper (as much as you like)

METHOD

Many recipes recommend removing the seeds from the tomatoes and cucumber but we hate food waste so we tend to leave them in.

Wash the cucumber and chop into cubes

Wash the tomatoes, cut out the stem and cut into small cubes.

Make the dressing: combine the oil, vinegar, salt and pepper – we recommend minimal salt as the cheese is salty; often we omit the salt altogether. Mix together and then pour over the cucumber and tomatoes. Let them marinate for a few hours if you wish.

Finely grate the cheese. If you have an ordinary grater that’s absolutely fine but if you can, use a grater with a really fine setting. Feta is quite soft, so isn’t the easiest cheese to grate but it is worth persevering to get a lovely fine mass of cheese.

Place the marinated vegetables in a bowl. Sprinkle over the grated cheese. Devour.

shopska salad recipe

Variations. It is perfectly fine to add in other vegetables: finely chopped red onion, chopped celery, red or green bell peppers etc. If you want to add some herbs such as parsley or basil, that’s okay too.

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