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Visit Ethiopia – Gondar and the Simien Mountains

Ethiopia is a country that is blessed with many amazing places to visit, whether you are interested in wildlife, history, landscapes, or archaeology.

We enjoyed a two week tour of Northern Ethiopia, starting in Addis Ababa, then travelling to Barhidar, Gondar, the Simien Mountains, Lalibela, Axum and Gheralta. During this trip, we managed to visit no less than four UNESCO sites. The area around the city of Gondar alone had two.

Ethiopia Gondar

We had travelled to Gondar from Barhidar. We stayed at the Jantekel Hotel, a couple of kilometres from the main attractions. It’s a modern hotel with the most delightful staff.

Ethiopia Gondar City

The city of Gondar was Ethiopia’s capital between 1632 and 1855. Prior to this the country’s leaders had moved throughout the country. It was King Fasil – Fasilides – who decided to settle and he chose Gondar.

There are a couple of legends connected with the reason that Fasilides chose Gondar as his capital. According to one story, Fasilides was out hunting one day when divine intervention led him to encounter a buffalo which showed him the way to the site. Another cited a prophecy which foretold that that the capital of Ethiopia would be a location that began with the letter ‘G’. Whether these are true, Fasilides was content enough with Gondar to establish his government there.

Fasilides was emperor of Ethiopia from 1632 until 1667. He was of the Solomonic dynasty and claimed to have descended from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. (Fasilides was also responsible for the building of the Cathedral Church of St Mary of Zion at Axum, which is reputed to contain the Ark of the Covenant.) He built several castles, palaces and churches as well as a long wall, effectively turning it into a fortified city.

We explored many of the remarkable sites at Gondar. We suggest getting a guide who can show you the main sights and explain the history. It’s also worth considering finding transportation because the main sites are a few kilometres apart. We had arranged a guide who could pick us up from our hotel and take us to each location. We recommend a full day sightseeing – it was fascinating and hugely enjoyable.

The Fasil Ghebbi

The Fasil Ghebbi is the Royal Enclosure of the complex built by Fasilides.  It comprises a number of buildings that were constructed over the years, the most important of which include Fasilides’ castle, Iyasu I’s palace, Emperor Dawit’s Hall, Emperor Bakaffa’s castle and banqueting hall, Empress Mentewab’s castle, an archive, a library and a number of churches. The word ‘ghebbi’ means ‘enclosure’ so the site is surrounded by an extensive wall. It is possible to explore all these structures that have survived the centuries and there are no restrictions about entering the buildings.

What’s interesting about the construction of these castles is that they look very European, with some Arabic and Indian influences as well.

Fasilides Castle

Fasilides’ castle (which is sometimes referred to as the Egg Castle due to its domes) is the most impressive of all the structures. It has huge towers with crenelated walls which give it the appearance of a European mediaeval castle. High up in the castle was Fasilides’ prayer room. The view from the watchtower afforded views all around Gondar. It’s even possible to see Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s largest lake, on a clear day.

Ethiopia Gondar Fasilides’ castle
Fasilides Castle Gondar

The royal library was built by Emperor Yohannes, Fasilides’ successor.

Ethiopia Gondar royal library

Emperor Iyasu’s palace was apparently the most refined and sumptuous of the buildings with gilded decorations and plush furniture. Iyasu, who ruled from 1682 to 1706, was known as The Great and was the son of Emperor Yohannes I. Although Iyasu led a number of military campaigns he was also known as an emperor who wanted to reconcile religious differences amongst his people, holding councils to discuss and resolve ecumenical matters.

Gondar Iyasu’s Palace
Ethiopia Gondar Iyasu’s Palace

This gateway was accidentally bombed by the British. We were told that they didn’t mean to, they were helping Ethiopia defend itself from the second Italian invasion (1935-37).

The buildings are largely ruins – very few of the ceilings in the buildings remain, most are destroyed.

Ethiopia Gondar

Dawit’s Hall, named for the Emperor Dawit who ruled from 1716 to 1721, was also known as the House of Song, was a place for entertainment and feasting. Unfortunately the feasting came to an end when Dawit met his demise – he was poisoned.

Dawits Hall Gondar

His successor was the Emperor Bakaffa, Dawit’s half-brother, who ruled from 1721 to 1730 (and who married Mentewab, who became a highly influential empress) Bakaffa’s Castle had a huge banqueting hall.

Bakaffa Castle Gondar

The amazing Zamani project has mapped out 3D models of the main buildings as well as a panoramic view of the site.

Fasilides Baths

A little way out of the city are the Fasilides Baths, a compound thought to be constructed around the same time as the Royal Enclosure. The baths comprise the pool itself, a central tower, and a bridge to the tower which is used when the baths are filled with water.

Ethiopia Gondar Fasilides Baths
Ethiopia Gondar Fasilides Baths

The walls of the baths have slowly been taken over by the local trees.

Ethiopia Gondar Fasilides Baths

Fasilides baths are considered sacred and are filled just once each year, on the 19th of January, when Ethiopians celebrate Epiphany in a festival known as Timkat. Timkat translates as ‘baptism’ and the festival represents Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist on the River Jordan. It is celebrated across Ethiopia.

Mentewab-Qwesqwam Palace

Mentewab was Empress of Ethiopia from 1722 to 1730. She married Emperor Bakaffa (a son of Iyasu I), becoming his second wife. The first wife died in mysterious circumstances on the day of the wedding banquet, which does seem somewhat suspicious.

After the Emperor’s death, Mentewab was crowned as co-ruler of Ethiopia while her son, Iyasu II, was still a child, and she continued her reign after his murder and when her grandson Iyoas I came to power. She had enormous political influence.

She commissioned several buildings within the Royal Enclosure as well as a church dedicated to St Mary at Qwesqwam, a few kilometres from Gondar. Mentewab also built herself a rather splendid palace next to it, and this became her primary residence and was used as a retreat, away from the Royal Enclosure.

Ethiopia Gondar Mentewab

It had an impressive banqueting hall. Mentewab took a lover after Bakaffa died (her husband’s nephew, known as Iyasu the Kept, who was also a grandson of Fasilides) and was exiled because of it. We were told of a legend whereby she invited nobles to visit her palace, then locked them in and wouldn’t allow them out, even to pee. They were eventually released when they correctly answered a riddle. She didn’t have to take any more flak from them after that.

Ethiopia Gondar Mentewab Banquet Hall

The church and castle were destroyed in a fire in 1888 by Sundanese Mahdists during the sacking of Gondar. Restoration of the church started in the mid-20th century by the Italian occupiers and was completed by Emperor Haile Selassie. The remains of Empress Mentewab, Iyasu II, and Iyoas I, were interred in a glass toppedglass-topped coffin inside the church.

Mentewab church

There is also a small treasury at the site where it’s possible to view a centuries-old bible.

Ethiopian Bible

Debre Berhan Selassie Church and Monastery

This is one of the most important of the Ethiopian Orthodox churches. It was built by in the 17th century and its name means ‘Trinity and Mountain of Light.’

Ethiopia Gondar Debre Berhan Selassie Church

Men and women are allowed to enter, albeit through different doors, and shoes must be removed. Women who are menstruating or have had sex the night before are asked not to enter the church. It’s also requested that conservative clothes and a headscarf are worn.

While the exterior of the church isn’t particularly dramatic or compelling its interior is covered with vivid frescoes depicting tales from the bible.

Debre Berhan Selassie Church
Debre Berhan Selassie Church

The remarkable ceiling is covered with row upon row of cherubs looking down upon visitors and worshippers. The figures are painted in a style typical of the Ethiopian churches – known as the Gondarine style.

Ethiopia Gondar Debre Berhan Selassie Church

The Simien Mountains

After exploring Gondar’s amazing castles and churches it was time to take a long, bumpy drive to the Simien Mountains. This area is a national park and another UNESCO world heritage site. We drove to The Simien Lodge, via the small town of Debark, situated at an altitude of 3260 meters. The Simien Lodge is the only lodge in the central area of the park. It offered comfortable accommodation in our own private huts.

Our only criticism of the place was that meals had to be taken as a buffet (there is no choice to eat anywhere else), which wasn’t a problem per se, but all the food was international – there were no Ethiopian options, which was disappointing. It was also quite pricey but that is understandable as the food has to be brought in from the nearest town.

The lodge also claims to have the highest bar in Africa, so we made sure to enjoy post-exploration beers in the evenings.

Monkey Magic

On our first day we enjoyed hiking in the area. The landscapes are spectacularly beautiful. Walking through fields scented with wild thyme we encountered groups of gelada monkeys, which are also known as gelada baboons, bleeding-heart baboons, or lion monkeys. They are found only in the Ethiopian highlands. They look like baboons but are monkeys and are characterised by their long, shaggy golden coats, which look like lions’ manes, and a heart-shaped patch of pink bare skin on their chests.

Ethiopia gelada monkeys

The gelada spend much of their time foraging for grass or herbs in the grasslands but sleep on the ledges of nearby cliffs at night, in order to avoid predators such as servals and leopards as well as domestic dogs.

Ethiopia simien mountain gelada

They have a complex society and the different groups move together as troupe through the day.

We met researchers who were monitoring the monkeys andobserving their behaviour. They had spent some time recording the social dynamics between the groups as well as monitoring diseases.

Unlike baboons, the gelada have a very gentle nature (at least with human visitors – we did see some play-fighting and chasing each other!). They are quite relaxed about people walking among them. Obviously we had to treat them with respect and keep a reasonable distance, but it was an absolute joy to be able to get so close to these wonderful creatures.

Ethiopia gelada monkey

The baby monkeys were having such a fun time in the trees!

Ethiopia Simien mountains

Viewing Spectacular Views

The following day we visited Chenek to see the Kurbet Metaya viewpoint, a wonderful vista overlooking the mountains. The viewpoint is actually a gap in the cliffs revealing views of the mountain faces and a beautiful valley.

Ethiopia Simien Mountains

We continued to explore more of the area. As ever, it’s always worth looking out for other travellers pointing at something in the distance. In this case it was a rare and endangered Walia Ibex, found only in these mountains. It was actually quite some distance away at the foot of a cliff – this was the camera’s best possible zoom picture!

Walia Ibex

Then we returned to Gondar for one more night at the Jantekel hotel before we caught our flight to Lalibela. The hotel served traditional Ethiopian meals in enormous portions! This is injera, a bread made from teff flour, filled with doro wat, a spicy chicken stew. Injera doesn’t look particularly appetising but it tastes great. It’s fermented and has a lovely sour flavour.

Ethiopian Traditional Bread Injera

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Costa Rica Wildlife Sanctuary – Caño Negro

Beautiful Costa Rica is well known for its amazing wildlife. This relatively small country in Central America has twenty-three national parks, three of which are UNESCO sites. We took a trip from the east coast to the west, visiting many wildlife parks. The tourism infrastructure is really well developed with easy transportation between locations and many tour operators that can offer trips to various attractions. Having enjoyed Tortuguero, where we had been lucky to see a greenback turtle nesting, we moved onto La Fortuna de San Carlos, close the Arenal volcano, in the middle of the country. It is an ideal location to use as a base to explore this region and there are loads of exciting activities to undertake in the area, from caving to wildlife viewing.

Arenal area

One of the trips we enjoyed was to the Caño Negro wildlife sanctuary. As with most tours in Costa Rica, there are companies in La Fortuna that can arrange the trip and will pick you up from your hotel or guest house. It’ll take a couple of hours to get there from La Fortuna. Our guide was a naturalist who was not only knowledgeable about the local wildlife but was also really keen to tell us all about the fruit that grows in the region as well.

The Caño Negro, close to the Nicaraguan border, is a Costa Rica wildlife sanctuary which has the status of a national park, a Ramsar wetland of international importance, and one of the most biologically diverse areas in the country.

Costa Rica wildlife sanctuary Cano Negro

Boat Trip on the Río Frío

Once at the Caño Negro you can board a boat and enjoy a fascinating cruise up and down the Río Frío.

Costa Rica wildlife sanctuary Cano Negro

Wildlife viewings are pretty much guaranteed. Good guides will be able to spot plenty of birds, reptiles and mammals and, importantly, be able to point them out so that you can take pictures. Of course, you may not get to see the more elusive residents: the cougars, jaguars and ocelots, but there were plenty of monkeys, iguana, caiman, beautiful birds and, of course, sloths to see.

Howler monkeys are the loudest monkeys in the area. Their calls can travel 5km! They use the vocalisation to communicate with each other and establish territory.

Costa Rica wildlife

White faced monkeys, also known as capuchin monkeys, look adorable but are very naughty. They are regarded as the most intelligent of the monkeys in the region but can be quite vicious, fighting over the fruit in the trees and stealing from each other.

White faced monkey Costa Rica
White faced monkey
White faced monkey

This beautiful kingfisher got lucky catching a fishy snack.

Costa Rica wildlife sanctuary Cano Negro

And this egret was having a good wade searching for food.

egret cano negro costa rica wildlife sanctuary

And there were plentiful iguana hanging around in trees and on the surrounding fields.

iguana in tree cano negro
Costa Rica iguana in tree

The anhinga is also known as the snake bird because when it swims in the water you can only see its elongated neck, which has the appearance of a snake gliding through the river.

Costa Rica wildlife sanctuary Cano Negro
Snake bird cano negro

The Jesus lizard, or to give it its correct name, basilisk lizard, derives its moniker from being able to run across the water on its rear legs. It is possible for the species to do this because they have little scales on their back toes which form webs that trap water and air bubbles underneath them. If they run quickly enough the bubbles underneath these webs prevent them from sinking into the water. The lizards are able to swim if they go too slow.  

Jesus lizard Cano Negro

We sailed past a nonchalant caiman.

caiman on cano negro

Sloths are probably the creature that most visitors to Costa Rica definitely want to see. On this excursion we saw a Two-Toed sloth, hanging around in the tree, which is what sloths do best.

Costa Rica Two Toed Sloth

There are two species of sloth in Costa Rica: Two-Toed and Three-Toed. (We did see the Three-Toed Sloth, but on the Pacific coast, not on this river trip.) They are absolutely fascinating creatures – they appear to be incredibly lazy but this is largely because they have a very slow metabolism and most of their time is spent in the tree canopies. They have a multi-chambered stomach that is capable of digesting tough leaves but the digestion process takes a very long time. Once they are up a tree they will stay there for several days, only coming down for a poo, which happens once week. Pretty much everything else happens in the trees – eating, sleeping, mating, even giving birth.

Costa Rica Two Toed Sloth

They are often covered in green algae, with which they have a symbiotic relationship, the algae providing them with some nutrition. In turn, the sloth’s fur, which retains water well, is an idea environment for the algae to thrive. It also helps provide camouflage – the sloth’s natural predators include ocelot and jaguar.

The species have been around for 65 million years, so there’s probably something to be said for taking things easy in life!

A Downpour

The river trip was hugely enjoyable but as we were travelling in the mid-season in June/July (it is rainy but not hurricane weather) we did experience something of a downpour. When it rains in Costa Rica, it rains! (Some areas we visited receive around 5000mm annually.) The showers at this time of year are extremely heavy but usually short-lived, lasting no more than twenty minutes to half an hour. The boat had a roof and our captain kindly rescued some kayakers who were enjoying their gentle paddle on the river until they got a complete soaking! They were hugely relieved when we picked them up and they stepped aboard looking somewhat bedraggled. We always recommend bringing wet weather gear if travelling at this time of year.

Cano negro downpour

Feeling Fruity

After the boat trip through the wildlife sanctuary, lunch was provided. It was quite common at the end of most excursions we enjoyed in the country. We were treated to a fruit feast.

Costa rica fruit platter

One of the wonderful things about Costa Rica is the utter deliciousness of the fruit. Around the Arenal Volcano area the soil is incredibly fertile and on our way to Caño Negro we saw vast plantations growing all sorts of fruit. In fact, the tour guide stopped the minibus a couple of times to buy some fruit from local sellers, so that he could offer us a taste. He also provided a running commentary throughout the journey telling us about the fruit industry in Costa Rica.

The pineapples were a revelation. Even the freshest pineapples we’ve ever eaten in the UK (often from Costa Rica!) were nothing compared to the organic local fruit. Most pineapples that are grown for export are treated chemically where they are stored (they can last up to a year) and ripened after they have arrived at their destination. It is such a shame that so many pineapples are grown this way – it isn’t good for the environment and the fruit’s flavour isn’t as good as it could be. Compare that to an organic pineapple and the taste is completely different. The local fruit had a really rich vibrant flavour, both sweet and tart.

The pineapple is actually a flowering plant. Only one flower grows each year per plant and it is only possible to gain a pineapple in three successive years. The first year’s is the biggest and these are the ones that are usually exported overseas. The second year’s pineapple is smaller and would generally be used for the local market or taken to a processing factory where it would likely end up in a tin. The third year’s fruit will be very small and will become juice.

Costa rica fruit pineapple

There’s a perception in many western countries that oranges should actually be orange. But many oranges aren’t as luridly orange as those classic fruit from Seville. The oranges in Costa Rica might not look the part but taste just fine. Bananas are another fruity staple of Costa Rica and plantations can be seen all over the country.

Many of the fruits grown in the country are familiar as they are exported around the world. However, there are some more unusual offerings which we were delighted to discover. Rambutan, also known as Mamon Chino, which apparently translates to Chinese Sucker, is a bizarre looking tropical fruit. You have to peel the pretty and colourful soft spikes to reveal the clear coloured flesh. They look similar to grapes or lychees and have a comparable texture although the flavour is very different, sweet and slightly sour, and nowhere near as perfumed as a lychee. There’s a seed inside that you need to be aware of – don’t bite too hard!

Costa rica fruit rambutan
Costa rica fruit rambutan

Noni is smelly and tastes bitter but apparently has health benefits. It’s not a fruit you would eat for pleasure. Some people mix it with other fruits in smoothies to disguise its flavour.

Costa rica fruit noni

In Costa Rica you are guaranteed to enjoy at least ten of your ‘five a day’.

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Recipe: How To Make Japanese Simmered Pork Belly – Buta no Kakuni

Japanese simmered pork belly is a rich, indulgent dish that is sweet, savoury, sticky and utterly sumptuous. Pork belly is a really fatty cut of meat but fat means flavour and the process of cooking the pork for a long time ensures that a lot of the fat will melt away. Any fat that remains is soft and juicy.

Japanese simmered pork belly recipe

In Japanese, buta means pork and kakuni derives from two longer words: kaku- to cut into cubes and ni – simmer.

It is traditional to serve kakuni with a drop of Japanese mustard called karashi (辛子 or からし). Karashi is a bit darker yellow than most other mustard. It does not really have much acidity in it (unlike other mustards) and very hot. It is perhaps closest to hot English mustard, which is a good substitute.

How to Make Japanese Simmered Pork Belly (Serves 2)

Ingredients

Portion of pork belly per person (allow around 150-200g per person depending on how hungry you are)

Water

Stock cube – dashi stock if possible or you can make your own

2 spring onions, sliced into 2-3cm chunks plus another for garnish

2 inches of ginger, peeled and cut into strips

16 tbs (1 cup) of water

4 tbs (1/4 cup) soy sauce

4 tbs (1/4 cup) cooking sake (if you can’t get sake, white wine will be a good substitute)

4 tbs (1/4 cup) caster sugar

4 tbs (1/4 cup) mirin (if you can’t get mirin, add a little more sake and sugar)

Generous splash of rice vinegar (we like this to counterbalance some of the sweetness of the dish)

simmered pork belly flavourings
glaze ingredients

Method

Place the pork belly in a frying pan and sear on both sides for a couple of minutes.

pork belly sealing

Place the pork belly in a pot and cover with water. Add the stock cube, spring onion and ginger. Turn on the heat and bring the water up to a simmer. Simmer the pork for 2 hours or until nice and tender. Alternatively, you can do as we do and use a pressure cooker. Just prepare the pork as above and cook at pressure for 40 minutes.

Japanese simmered pork belly recipe

When the pork comes out it should be wonderfully soft and close to falling apart (but not actually falling apart). Cut the pork into chunks – about 2cm length. We also decided to cut off the rind at this stage.

Japanese simmered pork belly recipe

Don’t forget to keep the stock – it will make a wonderful base for ramen noodles or soup. You can pop it into the freezer if you’re not going to use it immediately.

Japanese simmered pork belly recipe

Put the water, soy sauce, sake (or wine), mirin and sugar into a pan and bring to the boil.

perparing the glaze
preparing the glaze

Carefully place the pork chunks into the pan and press down so that the sauce completely covers them.

creating the glaze

(In retrospect we should have put the pork into a deeper pan – a casserole dish – because the sauce did splutter a lot and because there was sugar in it, it stuck to our hob which made clearing up a bit of a nightmare!)

pork belly glaze

Reduce the sauce until it has almost become a paste – it will have coated the pork and caramelised on the underside. It will look glossy and luscious.

Japanese simmered pork belly

Serve atop plain white rice garnished with chopped spring onion. It is often accompanied with a splodge of karashi. We like adding some pickled ginger as well.

Japanese simmered pork belly recipe

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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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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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