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A Chiang Rai Temple and A Country Retreat

Sometimes it’s possible to visit a place without actually going to the place itself. If that makes sense? This happened on our trip to northern Thailand. We had spent some time in Bangkok and Chiang Mai before heading towards the city of Chiang Rai. But somehow we didn’t quite manage to visit the city itself. Having driven up from Chiang Mai, our first stop was a famous Chiang Rai temple – The White Temple – followed by a lovely couple of days exploring the local countryside.

Chiang Rai temple - the White Temple

Chiang Rai Temple – The White Temple

It’s located about 13 kilometres south of Chiang Rai city and we can honestly say it’s one of the most bizarre buildings we have ever visited.

The temple itself was conceived and designed by Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat and built on an enormous scale, designed in the style of a Buddhist temple. Kositpipat also supervised the construction of this remarkable building. Although it bears a strong resemblance to ancient temples of the region, it is a modern structure which opened in 1997.

The building also has ornate naga serpents, supernatural creatures that are part human, part snake, which typically decorate Buddhist temples and are revered throughout the region.  

Chiang Rai temple - the White Temple

You cross the Bridge of the Cycle of Rebirth…

White Temple in Chiang Rai

…passing by the fearsome guardians…

Chiang Rai temple - the White Temple

…over the lake of the damned souls…

Chiang Rai temple - the White Temple

…in order to reach heaven.

Chiang Rai temple - the White Temple

It is possible to go inside the temple, known as the ubosot, but, sadly, you are not allowed to take photos in there. We absolutely respected this, but it’s a shame because it contains the most astonishing bright and colourful murals. They combine Buddhist imagery with all sorts of modern historical and cultural icons – everything from Spider-man to Doraemon and Hello Kitty! The theme that pervades the White Temple is the conflict between good and evil in the world. You could spend hours enjoying the details, spotting all sorts of characters.

Chiang Rai’s White Temple Grounds

The temple itself was designed to be white to represent purity; a conscious choice to contrast with the temples throughout Thailand which are typically decorated in gold. Kositpipat apparently considered gold to be a colour for people who coveted evil thoughts and deeds. So it is the bathrooms that are decorated in a gorgeous gleaming gold. Possibly the most ostentatious toilets in the world!

Chiang Rai temple - the White Temple

Even the traffic cones and trees are bizarrely decorated!

White Temple in Chiang Rai
White Temple in Chiang Rai

Kositpipat didn’t want money to be a consideration for visitors, so when we visited entrance was free. However, these days there is a nominal charge that is used towards maintaining the temple and gardens. Which is fair enough.

A Rural Retreat

Having visited the Chiang Rai temple we then headed out towards the hills.

Bamboo Nest Chiang Rai

We were staying at the delightful Bamboo Nest, a rural retreat in the countryside. When you hear the phrase ‘rural retreat’ it often recalls images of luxury spas in pristine grounds but this was the opposite – a retreat much more suited to our tastes.

We stayed in a simple bamboo hut with thatched roof, which had no electricity and a wonderful view.

Dining was in a communal area where we enjoyed freshly cooked local meals with other guests. There was electricity available via a generator in this area which enabled the charging of phones and cameras and it also powered a fridge which conveniently contained cold soft drinks and beer, which you could purchase on an honesty basis. It was incredibly quiet and peaceful and a complete contrast to the hubbub of Thailand’s cities.

The Bamboo Nest team arranged our transportation to this remote site and will organise pickups if needed. Just get in touch directly to make a booking. We met Nok outside the White Temple and climbed into her 4WD, a vehicle that was most definitely essential for the area which we discovered as the car climbed higher and higher up the mountainside. The final leg of the journey was incredibly steep, muddy and occasionally slippery – a challenge even for a sturdy 4WD.

A Hike to the Hill Tribes

The main purpose of our visit was to enjoy some hiking in the area and to meet the local hill tribes. The hosts at Bamboo Nest can arrange a variety of excursions, either on a guided or self-guided basis, and we enjoyed a lovely long walk with Noi. It was initially a little disconcerting when he picked up a machete just before we headed out, but the walk was to take us through the mountainside forest and at times we would need to cut our own path. The treks offered are truly off the beaten track.

Chiang Rai countryside

Thailand is hot and humid and occasionally rainy, so we had some slippery moments, particularly descending some of the steeper hills. It’s worth making sure you have good shoes and waterproofs as well as a change of clothing, just in case it rains and gets muddy.

The Chiang Rai area is home to a number of hill tribes, including the Akha and Lahu peoples. Hill tribes are ethnic minority groups who have settled in the region, living in a plethora of villages that are scattered across the mountains. The communities can be quite large or may comprise just a few families living together. Some of the villages are set up to receive tourists but Noi and Nok know the local people well, so we were able to visit a non-tourist village which gave us a much more personal and insightful experience.

After a couple of hours hiking we arrived at one of the villages of the Lahu tribe. The homes are constructed on stilts and have adjacent buildings where the farm animals reside.

We were invited into a house to join a family where we helped prepare lunch.

The houses have an open fire inside the main living area. River fish was ponassed onto sticks and cooked directly over the fire.

Bamboo stalks are segmented and hollow, so another part of meal was actually cooked inside these: Add sticky rice and water to a bamboo stalk, place it over a fire for a few minutes and… yummy sticky rice!

Pour some water into a stem, add a teabag, place over the fire and a few minutes later… a ‘pot’ of tea! Best of all was the egg – crack a couple of eggs, add some herbs, pour the mixture into the bamboo stalk, shake a bit, place over a fire (you guessed it) and a few minutes later… delicious cylindrical omelette.

We then enjoyed a longboat ride along the Mae Kok river to visit the hot springs.

Mae Kok river Chiang Rai

Some of the land in the area has been given over to commercial agriculture so it was also possible to walk to visit the local plantations. We could see bananas…

Pineapples…

And tea.

There were also some lovely waterfalls in the area.

Each night a bonfire would be lit at Bamboo Nest and we could chat with the other guests and watch the glow of the fireflies flitting through the forest.

From the ostentation of the Chiang Rai temple to the simplicity of the remote hills of the Mae Bok basin, we couldn’t have had a more contrasting experience in this region of northern Thailand.

We just didn’t have time to visit Chiang Rai itself!

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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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1 Day Gorilla Trekking Uganda

Although it has its fair share of excellent safari locations where you can see the so-called Big Five game animals, Uganda is also well known as a top destination to see primates. We had the opportunity to track chimpanzees in Kibale and mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable in the south-west region of the country. 1 day gorilla trekking in Uganda is one of the country’s top attractions.

Gorillas in the Mist… And Pouring Rain

Bwindi Gorilla Trekking

The mountain gorillas are critically endangered – there are only about 900 left in the wild and they can be found in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Uganda and Rwanda offer a limited number of gorilla tracking permits each day. We chose to travel in the low season when it is more likely to be rainy, because the cost of the permits is reduced significantly during certain months of the year. It’s worth booking the permits in advance. They are really expensive, even out of season, but the money goes directly towards the conservation of these marvellous creatures. And it is really a once in a lifetime experience.

The Ugandan conservation programme has ensured that half of the gorilla population has been habituated – wild, but comfortable in the presence of humans – and the other half remain completely wild. This is a good strategy. The conservationists’ greatest fear is that the gorillas, which share about 98% DNA with humans, could catch a human disease for which they have no immunity. You are requested not to track the gorillas if you have a cold. Following the start of the pandemic, the area was closed off for a while, Covid presenting risks both from the disease but also an increase in illegal poaching activities, but it has now opened up with extra precautions in place that trekkers need to adhere to in order to protect these magnificent creatures.

Bwindi Gorilla Trekking – The Briefing

The trip starts with a briefing at headquarters. Then you are allocated to a gorilla group – a maximum of eight people join each trek. It can take any time between 30 minutes and 6 hours to reach the gorillas – some parties have returned after nightfall in the past. Additionally, we were tracking at altitude, around 2300m above sea level, which enough to knock the breath out of you going up some of the steeper slopes! We were assigned the Bitakura group in the Ruhija area. One member of our party had mobility issues and was carried on a sedan by a team of four porters (who rotated shift with an additional four porters at regular intervals) who did an amazing job and ensured that she had full access to the gorillas. Our guide called it “the helicopter”. This system can be used if any trekker becomes unwell during their hike.

You wouldn’t have known it was the rainy season for most of our trip – virtually every day was bright and sunny and it had rained for a maximum of 15 minutes on just a couple of the days throughout our trip. Of course, on the day we really wanted it to stay dry the rain absolutely chucked it down.  That’s why we packed good walking boots and raincoats.

We were advised to borrow walking sticks and also to employ porters to accompany us on the trek. This was a really good idea. Not only do they carry your backpack (you are advised to take three litres of water and a box lunch because you just don’t know how long it will take to reach the gorillas and you will need the energy) they will also hold your hand to steady you if things get slippery and push/pull you over obstacles if necessary. Importantly, they are local people who can earn a decent living from tourists, so hiring a porter also contributes directly to the community. The porters are available at the starting location and will be allocated if you ask for one.

1 Day Gorilla Trekking Uganda – The Trek

The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA – apparently pronounced Oo-er!) have an excellent system in place which ensures that you have practically 100% chance of seeing the gorillas: each morning two trackers head out into the forest to find the troop based on their location the previous day. They then radio to the guide, who will lead the tourists via the best route to see the gorillas. The trackers do an amazing job – they spend all day with the gorillas, even after the tourists have left, so that they know where to trace them to on the following day. We were advised that they would appreciate a personal tip as most tourists don’t recognise the brilliant job they do and we were delighted to do this.

There’s a reason the region is named “Bwindi Impenetrable”. We trekked along a main path – up and down some very steep, muddy and slippery slopes, for a couple of hours. Then our guide indicated that he was close to the trackers. The rangers/trackers cut through the forest with machetes and we followed a newly made path, through dense forest to where the gorillas were located.

1 day Gorilla Trekking uganda

We were soaked through to the skin, muddied, shattered and utterly bedraggled. But nothing beats the sight of wild gorillas just a few metres away from you. 

We saw one of the group’s silverbacks…

…some younger males…

…and a mother and child.

It’s difficult to find the words to describe how magical it was just being in their presence. The rules say that you are allowed one hour with these amazing creatures. It flew by. Then there was the slippery, steep trek back to base. It was a tough climb but we made it without difficulty. Gorilla trekking in Uganda was one of the most amazing things we have done. We were exhausted but elated.

The gorillas were feeling a bit sleepy too.

At the Elizabeth National Park we managed to purchase some Gorilla Coffee. Made from arabica beans it is grown, processed and roasted in Uganda, and is delicious. It has a lovely aroma – it smells of sweet, buttery caramel and has a smooth taste with just a touch of distinctive coffee bitterness. Even better, some of the profits from its sales go towards conservation efforts to help the marvellous mountain gorillas.

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Exploring The Tambopata National Reserve in Peru

Welcome to the Jungle

While Peru may be more famous for the remarkable Machu Picchu, cosmopolitan Lima, the enigmatic Nazca lines and the serenely beautiful Lake Titicaca, a significant part of the country lies within the Amazon basin and hence it is possible to visit the rainforest. The Rio Tambopata is a tributary of the Madre de Dios which flows into the Mamore River, becomes the Madeira River and eventually meets the Amazon. You can fly into Puerto Maldonado, catch a boat upriver and visit a number of lodges, all located within the Tambopata National Reserve. There are loads of excursions available – all in pristine rainforest and the wildlife viewing opportunities are plentiful. The jungle is hot, sticky, humid and full of mosquitoes and other creatures that can give you a really nasty bite. But it is also wild, exciting, loud, beautiful and utterly fascinating.

The trip also triggered an interest in plants as food and medicine that continues to this day. We stayed at a lodge located in primary forest, a three hour journey up the Tambopata river.

Tambopata National Reserve

At the lodge, our room had 3 internal walls and no external wall, so it looked out at the rainforest. It was amazing to be able to lie in bed listening to the incessant cacophony of sounds, primarily from the birds and insects.

Jungle lodge bedroom

When you gaze out at the jungle, the jungle gazes back at you. It can also invade your room and cause jolly mayhem when you find frogs in the shower, possums on the bed and giant insects that fly in while you’re sitting on the loo. There was no electricity in the rooms so we relied on candles and kerosene lamps and the showers were cold water only (not a problem when it’s hot and humid). The guides and staff were excellent, the food was great and there were cocktails in the evening – which was most refined.

Guided Excursions In The Tambopata National Reserve

There are lots of guided excursions on offer, walking in wellies along muddy trails or canoeing across an oxbow lake (which was apparently full of piranha and anaconda – eep!).

The birds and animals were fascinating and indeed we saw capybara, peccary (wild pigs), caiman (alligators), beautiful macaw, piranha, giant guinea pigs, taira, stinky birds and caught just a glimpse of a shy tarantula that wouldn’t come out to play. We avoided fire ants and hairy caterpillars. And fell over in the mud.

One of the foods eaten by locals is termites. You can find their nests in trees. They’ll come out quickly enough if you disturb the nest. You can let them run onto your finger and just eat them. They taste minty. Obviously make sure you know what a termite looks like; the ants in the jungle bite and their bite is painful.

The plants in the Tambopata National Reserve were particularly fascinating. The trees were amazing – so huge that their roots alone were taller than we were, a strangler fig that we could walk inside.

Our guide showed us how the plants are used by the local people. There were leaves that produced a purple dye when you squeezed them, leaves with an underside so rough it could be used as sandpaper, vines that can be woven, vines that are strong enough to swing on (Tarzan style) and quinine bark.

This is a walking tree. It grows straight up but in a jungle where the canopy is so dense that the forest floor is very dark, it needs to ‘move’ to find the light. It does this by growing roots from the stem in a particular direction. Old roots on the other side just die off. In this way the tree can slowly shift across the jungle and grow towards the light. You can see the new root here is a light brown colour – the tree is ‘moving’ to the right.

Medicinal Uses For The Rainforest Plants In The Tambopata National Reserve

We were also given a tour of the medicinal uses for the plants by a shaman. He talked about our perception of plants as ‘alternative medicine’ commenting that these are really natural remedies that have been used for centuries. We ate leaves that made our tongues numb – a natural anaesthetic. He used a variety of plants to cure various ailments, from a natural viagra to a concoction that will dissolve rotting teeth painlessly. There are trees that exude a resin which hardens and can be used as a natural plaster cast to set bones. And the sap from a blood tree will cure simple cuts, bruises and mosquito bites.

The symbiosis in the jungle was amazing: the bullet ant has venom similar to that of a cobra and they say that if you get bitten by one, it feels like being shot. Apparently the pain is excruciating for 24 hours. The best relief for the pain can be found in the shape of a vine that grows on the tree under which the bullet ants nest. This particular vine is pollenated only by bullet ants – the cure located right next to the source.

Tambopata National Reserve

The plants of the rainforest have, unsurprisingly, been used by pharmaceutical companies, many of which extract the active ingredient from the plants, patent them and sell them back to the Peruvians at hyper-inflated prices. Sigh.

The lodge is run in a sustainable way that benefits the local people and environment. 60% of the profits from tourism go back to the local community. These have helped build a secondary school and some of the pupils have been educated there, studied English in Lima and have returned to the jungle to become guides. Local farmers can’t get enough money at the market for their fruit to cover transportation costs, so the lodge buys fruit directly from the farm across the river. We visited the farm and tasted fresh bananas, star fruit (much more tangy than the ones that have travelled halfway across the world), sugar cane, lemongrass, pineapple and more.

We also followed a brazil nut trail and had a bash at opening the hard pods (which contain about 18 nuts) with a machete. We still have all our fingers.

Brazil nut in the Tambopata

Exploring the jungle was exhausting and elating – a truly fascinating place. And at the end of each day we could relax, watching the sun set over the Tampobata before going to bed. And then we would see whether the possum had beaten us to it.

Tambopata National Reserve sunset
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