Norway – Sweden Trip (Feb 2019)

Abisko -> Kiruna [actually Jukkasjärvi] (21/02/2019)

We had a nice leisurely start to the day, with our porridge oats in a cup that we had found back in Tromsø pairing nicely with fresh blueberries and hot black currant cordial. We then went down to the lake to become Arctic explorers ourselves, traversing the expanse over to one of the islands. The stark loneliness as we walked across the ice and snow conjured images of Polar expeditions and it was freaking awesome. I felt so alive and the cold air hurt my lungs as I breathed in. The views were worth it and it felt like a mini adventure all in itself.

We left plenty of time to have a hot chocolate and some gingerbread biscuits before going to the station and getting the train. Those trains don’t hang about (no transport seems to hang about), with everyone frantic to get on board. The train pulled away from the station on time, while I was still waiting for a chance to put my bags on a rack. The journey was short and we watched the scenery speed past as I caught up on some blog writing and Katherine plied me with brown cheese and ham sandwiches.

Kiruna provides a free shuttle bus service from the temporary train station to the central bus station and we both rolled our eyes at the tourists unable and unwilling to carry their suitcases up the flight of steps to the bus. If you can’t carry it yourself, you shouldn’t have it! With time to kill for the #501 bus onwards we found a cafe up the hill (Katherine didn’t slip) to top up our hot chocolate quota for the day, pairing it with a fresh cream bun, with some marzipan goo inside for good measure. Expect to see this on a GBBO in the future.

We checked in to the IceHotel and were provided with boiler suits, space boots, little hats and giant mittens. Suitably dressed for a mission to the moon, we made it over in time for a tour of the hotel. We were given dozens of interesting facts and the sheer marvel of the construction was more prominent after the talk. We were then guided to the Ice365, a hotel section now open 365 days of the year, with snice (snow and ice mixture) compacted around a permanent structure and kept at -5* all year round by a massive array of solar panels.

We then went exploring the rooms by ourselves, with the designs just breathtaking. Some of the artists have never worked with ice before and have just proposed the ideas to the rooms, while some are clearly a dab hand at working with this raw material and showcase their talents in inconceivable fashions. Like, how on earth did someone think to create a staircase out of ice, and get it completed in the two week allotted time. Bonkers!

Cutting it tight on time again, we got back for the briefing on how to sleep in the cold rooms and frankly it was dragged out a bit. I think it was self explanatory that you wear your pyjamas, run to bed and get in to your sleeping bag. In the morning run back to the hotel. And pray that you don’t need the loo in the night.

With dinner we opted for the 3 course à la carte rather than the Ice Dinner Experience. So, with porcelain plates instead of ice, we had a meal that will make it in to our top 10, maybe top 5 ever. Sven, Katherine’s main dish of reindeer, was the star of the evening with food envy being evident across the table with my Artic Char.

We layered up a bit more to go out looking for the northern lights and we couldn’t get to a darker area quick enough to start photographing the display in all their brilliance. Setting up the main camera wrong (again), the iPhone with it’s £1.99 app seemed to be capturing images with the settings I wanted. It was spectacular. To see the Aurora borealis once was special, this was a treat.

We both lost feeling to our extremities, the temperature now at -26* (we shared a taxi to the airport with someone that said it finally dropped to -33*) and retreated to the fire in the main lobby to regain conscience and dexterity. We did one more jaunt outside and had a brief glimpse of the lights once more. Another respite in the lobby, this time bagging a spot by the fire, we were finally thawing out, camera lens defrosted and ready to call it a night when the receptionist shouted at everyone present to go outside as there was a massive display. Chasing her outside, the whole complex was abuzz with activity with people running to the river to get to a darker spot for photos. We were just crouching to the ground or huddling by the warm window panes and trying to get any shots of this incredible display. The dancing and flickering across the sky was incomprehensible and then the green hues, vibrant in their contrast to the black starry night, turned to pink and yellow and meandered across the sky with a rhythmic wave action until it faded back to green and disappeared. The show, for there is no other word for it, let us humbled and in awe of the natural phenomenon. We went to bed buzzing, which probably isn’t the best thing when you’re trying to sleep at -5*C.

Thursday, 21st February 2019

Preah Vihear & Koh Ker – day 359

An early start to the day to live the life of royalty – picked up in a private air conditioned taxi and driven around for the day! Heading down the road I had driven down on the motorbike was less painful and significantly quicker, especially as we both had a little nap as the green fields flew past. Woke up briefly to see the rain pounding down so hard that, even with the wind screen wipers going at full speed, I had trouble seeing the road properly… Clearly wasn’t an issue for our driver who continued driving and just beeped the horn occasionally. 
After about 2 and a half hours, we arrived at a random ticket office in the middle of nowhere. Prasat Preah Vihear is perched high atop an escarpment in the Dengkrek Mountains and is our 57th UNESCO World Heritage Site on our travels. Relieved of $10 each for the entrance fee, we paid another $5 each for the motorbike taxi to the top of the mountain. 
With the rain still falling, we climbed aboard our bikes and started making our way up the mountain. The first 5km of the access road was smooth and gradual enough, although it was extremely windy. Not sure if it was my imagination but it felt like the back wheel was slipping on the wet road around the corners. Didn’t fill me with confidence as my driver seemed convinced he should have been born a motor cross racer and insisted on leaning so far into every corner! The final 1.5 km was extremely steep – in fact, evil Kanivjl even asked me to sit closer to him as he charged up the hill as fast as he could in first gear… Think I would have preferred to have walked!!! Especially as the final section was over rocks and a mine field of potholes – think I might have dislodged some vital organs. Jayne, having arrived before me, clearly enjoyed the sight of my bits jiggering around and the look of pure terror on my face!
We walked up the hill to the crumbling Gopura V (entrance pavilion). As is was raining, the boulders were incredibly slippery – even Jayne in her hiking trainers was slipping, so me in my flip flops was like a baby deer attempting to walk for the first time – so much so, that I removed my shoes and spent the rest of the visit around the temple barefooted. 

Built by a succession of seven Khmer monarchs, beginning with Yasovarman I (r 889-910) and ending with Suryavarman II (r 1112-1152), the builder of Angkor Wat. Like other temple-mountains from this period, it was designed to represent Mt Meru and was dedicated to the Hindu deity Shiva. 

Looking around the Gopura, we saw the sandstone monumental stairway that leads down to the Thai border. There’s a long history of conflict between the two nations about who the temple belongs too. After years of fighting and planting of land mines from both sides, the temple belongs to Cambodia and the monumental stairway belongs to Thailand (although it is an emphatic statement that Cambodia disagrees with!). The view from Gopura V was stunning, although it did feel slightly like it was dropping off into the abyss. 

Walking south up the slope, the next pavilion we reached was Gopura IV. On the pediment about the southern door is an early rendition of the Churning of the Ocean Milk. 

The galleries around Gopura I, with their inward-looking windows, are in a remarkably good state of repair, but the Central Sanctuary is just a pile of rubble. I went into the temple since I was barefooted already whilst Jayne sheltered from the rain in one of the doorways. Nearby, the cliff had stupendous views of Cambodia’s northern plains although the people taking jumping photos on the cliff top made us both feel a bit uneasy, especially since the stones were still so slippery. Wandering back through the 800m-long temple, we slipped back over the stones towards the car park to get our motorbike taxis back down the mountain. Slightly strange moment as mine admitted that he had been sick for the last 20 minutes (great!) and then proceeded to just release the breaks and let gravity do its job! Fortunately, we both arrived at the bottom in one piece but it was certainly one of the most horrific motorbike journeys we’ve had in a while!

Back in the car, we drove for about an hour and a half to our next temple complex, munching on Oreo biscuits as we drove along, chatting to the driver. Abandoned for centuries to the forests of the north, Koh Ker was the capital of the Angkorian empire from AD928 to AD944. Had to borrow $20 off the driver since we had been told that our Angkor Wat temple passes would get us into both temple complexes, which is not true! Fortunately, he didn’t mind – I have a feeling we aren’t the first tourists that have come out with money for lunch and not much else…

We started at Prasat Krahom (red temple) which is the second largest structure at Koh Ker, named for the red bricks from which it was constructed. Stone archways and galleries lean hither and thither and impressive stone carvings grace lintels and doorposts. Followed round by a young man who had clearly got a new phone and selfie stick for his birthday, he was trying to take photos of the two of us from a distance (and not very subtly). Laughing, we called him over and posed properly for him so he could have a non blurry photo and then made him take a selfie on his phone of all three of us. He was delighted and had the biggest smile on his face!

Wandering through the ruins, we ended up at the principle monument at Koh Ker, which is Prasat Thom – a 55m-wide, 40m-high sandstone faced pyramid with seven tiers. This striking structure looks like it could almost be a Mayan site somewhere on the Yucatán Peninsula. 

Climbing to the top of this massive pyramid via a wooden stairway with super high steps was worth it as we got views as far as the eye could see and the carvings at the top were spectacular. A couple of requests for photos with tourists and locals and we were making our way back down towards the car. The final temple of the day was Prasat Bram. It consists of a collection of brick towers with two of them completely smothered by voracious strangler figs; the probing roots cut through the brickwork like liquid mercury. Possibly one of the nicest temples we have been to mainly because it was completely deserted. Back in the car, we made our way back to Siem Reap, stopping via an ATM so we could pay back the taxi driver. Got dropped off into the centre of town to buy our bus tickets for Phnom Penh for Monday and to have an early dinner. We choose the restaurant we went to on our first day here but the food wasn’t as good as it was back then (or maybe we have had better food in Cambodia since then?!?). Walking back to the hotel, we watched some TV before going to bed. 

Friday 30th September 2016

Angkor Wat – day 357

Every for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction force – Newtons Third Law of Physics. So, I believe I can go ahead and blame Mr. Newton for this… you eat too much the night before and you have to roll out of bed; if you go to bed late, then getting up early is painful. I have used physics law to complain about how everything about the early alarm clock at 04:00 was just wrong. But, we did manage to get on the road and with the lights on the phone showing where to walk, we entered the Angkor Wat temple complex in pitch darkness. Taking up position by the pool by the North library we had arrived with almost a full hour to watch the sunrise. The Asian tour groups arrived and a small group of ladies gradually walked in front of us, blocking our view of the temple and the reflection in the pool. It wasn’t the end of the world, they weren’t a noisy group and we were able to see above them and take some photos. We didn’t get the iconic photo, but I wouldn’t have blamed them. A number of tourists were creeping further and further around the pool, so I’m sure there are now thousands of photos with a gentleman in a bright green top, a woman in a skimpy white top, ruining the view for hundreds of photographers. The German girl ‘looking for her friends’ right in front of us, taking photos and not searching for anyone, needed a few sharp words (and we have them to her!!). The sunrise was nice, but I don’t think it was worth the hassle. We had some crackers on the steps of the library. The kids of the jungle had a better breakfast than us, begging from everyone with a hotel breakfast pack. A group of youths were sitting on the balustrade (right next to the signs that said not to sit on them). I wonder how many of them understood the sculptures at the end of the rails or what they represented. I feel a bit more organisation and security could be taken from other sites to be used in Angkor Wat during sunrise. We entered the temple early and with the season affording us quieter crowds we were able to explore the empty corridors and ascend to the top sanctums without any queueing. With more than 3,000 apsaras (heavenly nymphs) and 37 different hairstyles, the wall carvings are remarkable. Many of these exquisite carvings were damaged in the 80s by using harsh cleaning chemicals. A German team are now in charge of the restoration and their impact is kept to a minimum, as this building has been in constant use (almost) since it was built. 

We noticed ourselves that the bas reliefs along the lower levels were better viewed in an anti-clockwise fashion. But, as is our fashion when visiting a temple, we oft stroll around before reading about the site. The layout of Angkor Wat is orientated to the west. A long spiel which I won’t bore even myself with, the temple, the heart and soul of Cambodia, is most likely to have served as both as a temple and as a mausoleum for Suryavarman II. An unusual layout didn’t take away from the size, scale and symmetry of the place, believed to be the world’s largest religious building. The views from the Bakan afforded an appreciation of the 1.5×1.3km layout with the spatial representation of the universe. We could hear some people flabbergast by the temple and while we enjoyed it immensely, I think we both still preferred Bayon. But, it was definitely worth visiting and leaving loads of time to explore it. 

High on the hit list for every tourist, popular by Angelina Jolie as Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft… we were off to none other than Ta Prohm. A well sign posted layout of the temple was probably the most pointless of all the notice boards we came across in the Angkor region, as there was a natural one-way flow to the tourists at the temple. Set in the jungle (no surprise there), the guide book has described it beautifully: ‘there is a poetic cycle to this venerable ruin, with humanity first conquering nature to rapidly create, and nature once again conquering humanity to slowly destroy’. The behemoth trees cling to the rocks like a toddler with a toy or a dog with a bone. Their muscular embrace is slowly squeezing life from their chiselled victims. Efforts from the India Archaeological Survey is repairing the site, but upsetting many people at this site by destroying the trees in the process. A compromise solution, from one not experienced in the field would be to preserve or conserve other areas first and only begin work on these small pockets later on. We enjoyed some incredible scenery, both natural and man made and even queued to take photos at one spot inside the temple. The place is a must see before the trees and atmosphere are gone. 

Heading in to town, I vetoed any further plans of temples for a bowl of Pho. There is no way that we can enjoy every single temple in equal appreciation and having been up for over 6 hours already and just eating a few crackers, we needed something substantial before fatigue and heat cut us down to size. 
After a brief nap (ahem) we kinda run out of time to do anything else. Oops! So, we drove in to town, picked up a takeaway. Brought it home and enjoyed a lazy evening with loads and loads of to programs. It was fabulous. Wednesday 28th September 2016

Kbal Spean, Banteay Srei – day 356

The motorbike was delivered on time. We however, were running a bit late and jumped on the bikes slightly later than planned. But, we had the suncream on, helmets fastened tightly and motored down the road, finding the right turn off on the roundabout. We must have been only half way there when the bums started to go numb. MapsMe said the journey was just a 46km trip. The road markers would suggest we did 53. Either way, the last 20km was slow going as neither of us wanted to pause and ease the muscles and the traffic coming round the roundabout in the wrong direction suggested that we needed to stay alert. 

Arriving at the car park for Kbal Spean, we looked a bit like Jeff Daniels and Jim Carey getting off the scooter in Dumb&Dumber. We looked like a set of upside-down letter ‘Y’s’, as we gradually loosened up on the 2km trail uphill. We overtook several other tourists and a tour group of Indians. It only took us 25mins to reach the ‘Bridgehead’. This is the actual meaning of Kbal Spean, but many only refer to as ‘The River of a Thousand Lingas’. A spectacularly carved riverbed, set deep in the jungle, it was ‘discovered’ in 1969 by an ethnologist, shown the area by a local hermit. We didn’t need any hermits to direct us along the jungle paths, clearly marked every 100m with a countdown to the top of the trail. I was admiring the cascading water and trying to capture a photo of the water movement, while Katherine was taking photos of rocks. I had to snap out of it and realise that the entire rock surface was carved in to beautiful figures and mini lingas. It was not at all what I was expecting. We walked a bit upriver finding the impressive boulder of Vishnu in the shallows. Downstream of the bridge head there were further series of carvings with carvings of deities, animals and scripture chiselled in to the rock. The entire riverbed was designed in a beautiful mosaic of lingas with several large sculptures carved in to wide sections of the river. We spent some time at the base of the waterfall. The amount of water was spectacular – of course we had been caught out in several of the downpours that contributed to the flow of the fall. Local families were having picnics, splashing about in the riverbed and introducing their young ones to the water (much to the displeasure of some). We passed some of the same Indians on the way back down and were worried about their progress. In the hour we had passed them, they had progressed a total of 400m. With no water with them and no sign of their guide, I’m not sure they were going to make it to the waterfall, let alone to riverbed of lingas. We did try and discourage them going any further, but we were probably back at the car park before they made a decision. 

Back down the road, we visited Banteay Srei. Included in the Angkor ticket pass we were visiting the jewel in the crown of Angkorian artisanship. This Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva is cut from a stone of pinkish hues and includes some of the finest stone carving seen anywhere in Earth. Banteay Srei means ‘Citadel of the Women’ and it is said that it must have been built by a woman, as the elaborate carvings are supposedly too fine for the hand of a man. We wouldn’t dare comment on who built the city or carved the designs, but the stones in a lovely mixture of pinks, yellows and greys, with intricate and several varied scenes of craftsmanship, meant the temple was incredible. The site was the first major temple restoration undertaken by the EFEO in 1930 using the anastylosis method. The success of the project, very evident in situ, soon led to the restoration of Bayon (our favourite). Originally thought to be from the 13th or 14th century, it was later dated to 967AD from inscriptions found at the site. The manicured lawns around the moat, the buildings almost fully restored to former glory and the landmine victims playing music in the distance, the atmosphere gave the feeling of being back in time. We bypassed the kids (with their prepared speeches) trying to sell postcards and beg candies, managed to find a street side restaurant down in the town and chowed down on some exquisite food. The whole side trip to Banteay Srei, not a million miles from Siem Reap, was memorable and enjoyable. Only a small jaunt down the road (bums still not forgiving us for earlier journeys) we visited the landmine museum. We initially felt cheated by the $10 price tag, but once you visited the place and learned what they did with the money we were content with the cost. We convinced the lady at thedesk to let us have an audio guide in exchange for leaving a credit card – normally wanting a photo ID card. The recent, up-to-date audio commentary was informative, with short bursts of info and letting you enjoy the displays while listening. A well put together museum, the story of Aki Ra – kidnapped child, turned soldier, deserter of the Khmer Rouge, etc and now dismantling land mines that he had placed there himself – was portrayed along with info on global progress to de-mining, costs, manufacturers, how to trigger a mine, its mechanisms and effectiveness and so forth. I would highly  recommend anyone, even if not interested or clued up to the conflicts in history of SE Asia to visit this establishment. It is a short history lesson, without the chalk dust and bells. 

Being able to easily get into town with the bike we went to the Korean BBQ. Even more importantly with our easy ride back home, we were able to stuff ourselves silly with extras of nearly everything. The food probably did’t help with my poorly tummy, but did I care… not an ounce. I was just about able to prop myself up enough to watch some Dexter before bed.  Tuesday 27th September 2016

Angkor Thom – day 354

We didn’t get up at the crack of dawn, nor did we rush about the place like headless chickens when we did get up. As a result we were leaving the hotel at 11:00, much to our own surprise. The free bikes from the hotel were painful. Katherine’s saddle was so low as to have her knees hitting her chin and my bike was stuck on a high gear with a flat front tyre. But, we carried on. Should we have turned back to rent better bikes somewhere? Perhaps! Katherine managed to adjust the saddle to an acceptable height while I gave directions to three Chinese tourists whom had gone a) completely up the wrong road in search of the ticket office or b) were taking this quiet road in an attempt to sneak in. We enjoyed the shade from the trees en route but collapsed once we got to Bayon inside the Angkor Thom complex. We bartered with the Golden Monkey snack trailer that if they looked after our bikes, we would buy a drink. A honey & coconut and honey & lime slushie later, we were cooled down enough to explore the area. We decided to do a clockwise loop of the more prominent sites, finishing back at the megalithic icon that is Bayon. 

Starting at the worlds largest jigsaw puzzle, Baphuon was infamous in its heyday as well as recent times. The temple was taken apart as part of restoration works, but the civil war erupted. The records kept to piece it back together were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge, leaving 300,000 stones to put back into place… without the instructions. This pyramidal representation of the mythical Mt. Meru is almost fully restored. The walk to the temple is across a raised walkway surrounded by pools with a few pink waterlilies. The staircase up to the top is steep and the views were quite stunning. The western side of the temple was later fashioned into a reclining Buddha, but had it not been for the guidebook and information boards one might have walked right past it. The structure has fallen apart with neglect but the shape is distinguishable and the head still noticeable. A walk through the 700-year-old jungle, we stopped to admire the Phimeanakas temple and royal enclosures before exiting through a gate in the walls to visit Preah Palilay. The former ‘Celestial Palace’ was apparently once topped with a golden spire and the latter housed a Buddha, long since vanished. The charm of both has been lost somewhat with the manicured trees cut back from the base and cut down if too high. I’m not too sure how I feel about the whole situation – on one hand you are trying to preserve archaeological sites and restore them to former glory, but on the other hand, these sites have been neglected or abandoned and nature is slowing reclaiming the area. Travelling eastbound past Tep Pranam, across Northern Avenue and through the throng of hawkers we casually walked around the ruins of Preah Pithu and the Northern Kleang. They didn’t scream ‘explore me’ so we admired the different angles through the massive trees before heading back through the nightmare market and across the street to Terrace of the Leper King. We didn’t notice the nude statue on top of the 7m-high platform (maybe it has been removed), but we sure as hell found the way down to the secret passage easy enough. The front retaining walls of the terrace are decorated with at least five tiers of meticulously executed carvings of seated apsaras with other figures of kings, courtiers and princesses. The terrace is beautiful as you drive past it, but you don’t really notice the detail unless up close as we were inside the retaining wall. Four tiers of apsaras, including nagas, look as fresh as if they had been carved yesterday. There were no other tourists in the walkway and we helped one of the kids cheat at hide & go seek by standing at the corners and rushing the pursuers quickly past, down round a bend and allowing her to hide once again. The 350m-long Terrace of Elephants was used as a giant viewing stand for public ceremonies and served as a base for the king’s grand audience hall. It is possible to imagine the processions coming up the avenue, with infantry, cavalry and elephants. Perhaps they too were able to appreciate the terrace with its five piers extending towards the central square. They wouldn’t have seen the life-size garudas and lions carved behind the retaining wall of the middle section, but they would have seen the elaborate carvings of elephants and guardians along be terrace with exquisitely carved elephants and their Khmer mahouts at either end. Returning to Bayon the guide book does not do it any justice. I’m sorry Lonely Planet, but you are wrong. ‘Rather like a pile of rubble from a distance. It’s only when you enter the temple and make your way up to the third level that its magic becomes apparent.’ B*****ks! 

Emerging more and more from the trees as you approach, and slowly revealing the grandeur of the site, the towers are adorned with faces on each side. The sheer number of carvings at such a height is impressive and it must be good when we have silently entered the first level and barely said a word to each other. Different angles, exposures, settings and orientations from several windows, door frames, archways and tunnels. The mid afternoon sun was putting half of the towers in bright sunshine, the others in shade. The mixture of the two, with lichens growing over the rock surface and weathering giving a misshapen trait to some, the whole area was a goldmine for photography. There were those that complained about how they had taken 500 photos of rock. We were guilty of possibly taking 500 photos of the same rock. The history of Bayon temple was irrelevant to us as we wondered at this feat of engineering. The tunnels of the middle section and the bas-reliefs on the lower level were but fleeting glances as we descended from the temple heights to cross the moat back to our bikes. Of course, there was the free drink from earlier to reclaim and we bought another to thank the team for keeping a watch on the bikes. 

The painful cycle back in to town was exasperated by the front wheel completely locking about 1km away from the hotel. I dragged, carried and cursed the bike past the hospital, annoying tuktuk drivers and in to reception. She tried to see if she could fix it and I think I might have broken down crying if it was something obvious that I missed – thankfully not. I loathe bicycles, almost as much as tuktuks. But, we got one in to town and grabbed a Pho, walked to Blue Pumpkin for cake and chilled out in the room with some tv.  Sunday 25th September 2016

Angkor (Big Circuit) – day 352

Having had a lazy day recuperating yesterday, we decided that (despite some sniffles) we were going to head out to the Angkor Wat temple complex and complete the 26km big circuit. Having booked a motorbike through the hotel last night, it was a little bit frustrating to find that it hadn’t been delivered at 9am and we had to wait for over half an hour for it to arrive – with no petrol! Topping up with petrol we headed down the road, had our tickets stamped and were off to our first temple of the day – Pre Rup. The temple consisted of a pyramid shaped temple mountain with the uppermost of the three tiers carrying five lotus towers. The brick sanctuaries were also once decorated with a plaster coating, fragments of which still remain on one of the towers; there are some amazing detailed lintel carvings here. Several of the outermost towers are perilously close to collapse and are propped up by an army of dodgy wooden supports. It is suggested that the temple may have served as an early Royal crematorium as Pre Rup means ‘Turning the Body’. Avoiding the crowds of ladies trying to sell us anything from their vast collection of t-shirts, trousers, souvenirs and cold beverages, we were back on the dodgy bike (I could only start it if Jayne wasn’t sitting on it) and headed down the road to Eastern Mebon. The Hindu temple is a smaller version of Pre Rup. The temple mountain form is topped off by a quintet of towers. The elaborate brick shrines are dotted with neatly arranged holes, which attached the original plasterwork. The base of the temple is guarded at its corners by perfectly carved stone figures of elephants, many of which are still in a very good state of preservation. The earthen ramps that flank the side of the temple are a clue that this temple was never finished and show how the temples were constructed. Slightly further down the road was Ta Som, a late 12th century Buddhist temple. The most impressive feature at Ta Som is the huge tree completely overwhelming the eastern gopura (entrance pavilion in traditional Hindu architecture). Back on the bike, we drove to Preah Neak Pean, another late 12th century Buddhist temple. It’s a large square pool surrounded by four smaller square pools. In the middle of the central pool is a circular ‘island’ encircled by the two nagas (mythical serpent, often multi headed) whose intertwined tails give the temple its name (Temple of the Intertwined Nagas). The temple is restricted to only the edge of the complex and is accessed by a wooden causeway. The central pool used to have four statues but only one now remains. Water once flowed from the central pool into the four peripheral pools via ornamental spouts in the form of an elephant’s head, a horse’s head, a lion’s head and a human’s head. The pool was used for ritual purification rites. The next temple we visited was Preah Khan (meaning Sacred Sword). One of the largest of the complexes at Angkor – it is a maze of vaulted corridors, fine carvings and lichen-clad stonework. Probably served as the Royal residence while Angkor Thom was being built, this temple was immense! Phreah Khan covers a large area and it took us over 90 minutes to explore it (and I’m sure we probably missed some things!). The temple itself is within a rectangular enclosing wall of around 700m by 800m. Four processional walkways approach the gates of the temple, and these are bordered by a stunning depiction of the Churning of the Ocean Milk, although most of the heads have disappeared. From the central sanctuary, four long, vaulted galleries extend in cardinal directions. Many of the interior walls of Preah Khan were once coated in plaster that was held in place by holes in the stone. Today, many delicate reliefs remain including rishi (Hindu wise man) and apsara (heavenly nymph) carvings. Passing through and stopping at the North gate for a couple of photos of the absolutely stunning gateway we continued to Phnom Bakheng, the popular sunset point. Visitor numbers have been been restricted to just 300 people at any one time which meant we had to arrive pretty early (4pm for a 5.55pm sunset). Climbing the hill up to the temple was a bit tough after spending all day in the heat and humidity but we made it to the top and were one of the last people to be allowed in. The temple mountain has five tiers, with seven levels (including the base and the summit). At the base are – or were – 44 towers. Each if the five tiers had 12 towers. The summit of the temple has four towers at the cardinal points of the compass as well as a central sanctuary. All of these numbers are of symbolic significance. The seven levels, for example, represent the seven Hindu heavens, while the total number of towers, excluding the central sanctuary, is 108, a particularly auspicious number and one that correlates to the lunar calendar. Unfortunately, there were too many clouds in the sky to experience the ‘proper’ sunset experience however the colours in the clouds over the Western Baray was beautiful and well worth the wait. Back on the bike, we made our way in the dark back to our hotel, dodging the insects that were attracted to the headlights. Dropping off our cameras and bags, we took the bike into the centre of town to get some dinner. Knowing that we needed to return the bike by 9pm, we weren’t too worried when the heavens opened at 8.10… Even when it was still raining hard at 8.30… However, at 8.45 we started to get a bit worried, had to bite the bullet and drive home in the pouring rain. It wouldn’t have been too bad except all the streets were flooded and I am truly surprised that the motorbike got us home at all, especially as in some sections we were mid calf deep in water!! 

Totally drenched, we stripped off our clothes, had a warm shower and relaxed with some ‘Modern Family’ on the iPad before going to sleep. 
Friday 23rd September 2016

Siem Reap – day 350

The sound of the air con unit was muffled by the sound of the rain outside. We had no choice but to get up at early o’clock. So with a bit of tea, bread and jam we waited patiently under the tree at the main gate with the miserable weather for the bus to arrive. 20mins later than planned we were relieved that it turned up at all… how long does one wait for a tour bus, when they weren’t sure of the address when making the booking? Needn’t have worried, eeek! 3km down the road we pulled in to an elaborate building to buy our Angkor tickets. A well organised system we queued up in the line for 7-day passes. They took photos, printed our passes and we jumped back in the mini-van. 
The outside of the ticket is rimmed with numbers 1 to 31. Much like an old-fashioned Irish parking ticket where you punch in the date and time, the officers at the check point punched a hole through number 21. We were allowed to enter the historical area. But, we skimmed through the jungle, past sandstone walls topped with decorative stonework and occasionally drove past a gateway with amazing work atop the archway. A quick stop at the bathroom and we were then at the Flight of the Gibbon. 
We all had the usual paperwork to fill out and we were given a bandana to wear. As well as being a souvenir, it’s for hygiene under the helmets. A clever idea, but they weren’t very comfortable or fashionable. Who cares, harnesses on, safety demo in the woods and we plodded up the stairs to our first platform. 
We traversed 21 stations, crossing bridges, zipping across 10 lines and rappelling down to the jungle floor. We went up into trees almost 500 years old, getting a birds eye view of the landscape from 40m up. The Kulen mountains in the distance is the where all the stone came from for the various structures hidden in the jungle below. It, apparently, arrived by elephants on zip lines. Hahaha! The whole experience ended so quickly and was both a rush of adrenaline and completely serene and beautiful. Although near Ta Nei temple, we never saw it. We saw some of the same structures on the way to Srah Srang pool for a bit of lunch. A really nice set lunch included in the price of our zip-lining, the price should have included at least one drink, as they were an extortionate price. We shared loads of stories among the group and parted ways when we were the first to be dropped off. 
Back at the hotel we had a nap. Quite a long nap. Not sure if the amount of exercise, heat and humidity warranted it, but meh, who cared. We finally woke up and walked in to town. With no time constraints or deadlines we wandered for a time in the night market stalls. Katherine found a nice new set of trousers for a bargain – although having to haggle again is a right pain in the ass. Back at the hotel we watched some Modern Family and chilled out for the remainder of the evening. 

Wednesday 21st September 2016

Sukhothai – day 346

Sukhothai is typically regarded as the first capital of Siam, although this is not entirely accurate. (The kingdom of Chiang Saen had already been established 500 years earlier). The area was previously the site of a Khmer empire until 1138, when two Thai rulers decided to unite and form a new Thai kingdom. Sukhothai’s dynasty lasted 200 years and spanned nine kings. The most famous was King Ramkhamhaeng, who reigned from c. 1275 to 1317 (Lonely Planet say 1275-1317, UNESCO say 1280- 1318) and is credited with developing the first Thai script – his inscriptions are also considered the first Thai literature. Ramkhamhaeng was one of the most important Thai sovereigns, as he brought Sukhothai extensive territory through his military victories. He invented the Siamese alphabet (Khmer script), as mentioned already, imposed strict observance of the Buddhist religion and instituted a military and social organization copied from his vanquished neighbours, the Khmers. But, before we saw the bronze statue of this legendary King we did the usual morning routine and grabbed a bus to the historical parks. 
The ‘night’ market was busier this morning than it had ever been and they were selling bags full of chillies and trucks full of pumpkins. An assortment of green veg, that would have made for an incredible jigsaw puzzle photo, was piled up a few stalls down from some slivers of very smelly fish. The patrons waiting for the doctor joined in the prayers led by the monks already inside the surgery and we took shelter in our little bus station until the joining others for the trip down the main road. Some jumped off at random places, but the monk, in his crisp saffron robes, and the three girls all got out at the big supermarket. We went all the way with a lady that must have been from France based on the text on her guide book. All three of us rented a bicycle to zip us around the grounds and between the various significant sites. Starting at the main temple of the central historical park, Wat Mahathat, we were starting our day at UNESCO World Heritage Site #55. We were looking for the atypical characteristics of the area with classic lotus-bud chedi, featuring a conical spire topping a square-sided structure on a three-tiered base. Obviously! Of course, I for one didn’t notice any of this. It was hot. At almost 28*C before 10:00 and the humidity to kill, we just wandered casually. This temple, completed in the 13th century, is surrounded by brick walls (206m long and 200m wide) (clearly the architect didn’t have OCD!) and a moat that is believed to represent the outer wall of the universe and the cosmic ocean. The original Buddha figures still sit among the the ruined columns of the old wí•hâhn (sanctuary) and the base of the main chedi is decorated with the relief-stuccoes of 168 Buddhist disciples. Just south of this impressive complex is Wat Si Sawai, dating from the 12th and 13th century, this ancient temple still retains it three Khmer-style towers and a picturesque moat. It was originally built as a Hindu temple but the sign describing all the evidence of it being such, with lingas, carved lintel depicting Vishnu and other designs were not obvious or no longer present. They were very nice and worth a visit before heading over to Wat Traphang Ngoen. Not mentioned in the guidebook, but recommended on our free map from the kind bike shop lady, the sign on the road describes its uniqueness as one without a boundary wall, with a main chedi, assembly hall (vihãra) and ordination hall (Ubosatha) in the middle of a reservoir. Continuing our culture tour of the park, we visited Wat Sa Si. The prevalence (and finally very obvious) Sri-Lankan style bell-style stupa – sometimes referred to as a chedi as well – is evidence of Sinhalese Buddhism in the area. The temple had a road going through it until 1978 and we sat away from the tree with dozens of smelly herons, looking at the new road next to the reservoir, as we had a break in the shade. We then carried on a bit and walked around the bronze statue of the King before thinking about lunch. A small distance from the main gate was the ever reliable 7-Eleven. A new big bottle of water, an isotonic drink and two ice lollies were in order to help cool down. The heat had probably reached it’s zenith of 33*C and we were feeling it. We cycled towards the North Historical park and got distracted by the Wat Sorasan/Sorasak (it’s hard to get reliable info these days). The main bell-shaped chedi sits on a base of elelephant structures. This concept is based on a belief that the elephant is regarded as a beast of burden for the emperor, and is a suitable animal to firmly uphold Buddhism through a period of 5,000 years. We took shade under a tree at Wat Mae Chon and took a breather and lunch. It can’t be said it was enjoyable as it can’t be said what it was we ate. We bought little tuna snack packs, but I don’t think there was any fish in it and the ingredients list was only for the crackers and a chilli mayo sauce. With limited time left to us before we turned into puddles we visited Wat Si Chum. An impressive mon•dòp with a 15m, brick-and-stucco seated Buddha. This Buddha’s elegant tapered fingers are coated with gold leaf from visitors and the effect was quite beautiful. No longer able to visit the tunnels of the structure to see the jataka inscriptions we made our way to Wat Phra Phai Luang. This 12th century temple is quite isolated to other sites in the area. It didn’t stop the Thai lady charging us an additional small fee to enter with our bikes. The Khmer-style towers are much bigger than Wat Si Sawai, but here only one of them looked to be in a good condition. It is thought to be the centre of Sukhothai when it was ruled by the Khmers of Angkor prior to the 13th century. The large site was the last we visited before throwing the towel in. Back we went!Dropping off the bikes we managed to get a bus immediately and the half hour in to town seemed much quicker than that morning. We probably should have rested inside and cooled down with several showers. Even though we weren’t burned we knew we had been in the sun far too long. We went to the pool to splash about. The idea was sound, except retrospectively it probably drained and dehydrated us more – we should have been drinking more and lying down. So it was that Katherine lay down with a headache and paracetamol and I stayed awake to keep track of time. Waking sleeping beauty we bought more isotonic drinks, collected our washing and had an early dinner/feast. Back to the guesthouse to pack we finally rested with some tv series on the iPad and sleep. 

Saturday 17th September 2016

Hobart – day 330

Deciding to avoid the squeeze in the kitchen for the final time, we opted to grab all our cereal, milk, foldable bowls and our sporks to eat breakfast al fresco at the summit of Mount Wellington. The drive through the streets towards the 1270m high mountain was pretty straight forward although, with no petrol stations en route refreshing our memories, we had got half way up to the summit when the petrol gauge light came one… Driving straight past one of the view points on our way up, the glimpsing view was spectacular and made us even more excited about the view from the top! However, after about 5 more minutes of winding up the road through thick temperate forest, we clearly started going through the cloud line… The lunar rockscapes were surrounded in mist and we couldn’t see more than 10 metres in front of us. Deciding that there was no way that the cloud was going to magically disappear by the time we reached the summit, we decided to cut our loses and head back to the view point we had driven past to park up for breakfast. Would have worked out quite well too had the fog not descended at the same speed as us and we got about 2 minutes of view before we ate our breakfast looking at a stone wall and some fog!Undeterred by the start of our morning, we headed back down the mountain, stopping at the closest petrol station we could find, happy to pay the extra cost for petrol in exchange for not breaking down in the middle of nowhere on the day we were due to fly back to Melbourne. Managed to weave our way through the back streets to the Cascades Female Factory, another UNESCO site but part of the 11 convict sites in Australia so we can’t count it. The Cascades Female Factory is Australia’s most significant historic site associated with female convicts and certainly one of the more interesting convict sites we have visited, despite not having much left. The original yard was built as a gin distillery but the other four yards were purpose built, creating a self-contained institution intended to reform female convicts who had been transported from England under the pretence of being criminals but basically being sent to reproduce with the male convicts to populate the British colony. 

Thousands of women and children were imprisoned here, and many never left, due to high rates of illness and infant mortality. ​​​​Using our YHA membership cards again, we got a concession rate on entry and a guided introduction to the site and its stories. During the guided tour of the site, the guide gave us insights into the regimented system of punishment and reform that operated within these walls. Made us question whether these women were more sinned against than sinning?​ The only building still standing is the Matrons house that was, until recently, still occupied by a local family before being resold to the historical society (I guess it must have been frustrating having tourists pressed up against your lounge window every day). We finished our visit to the site by looking at the book of names for children who had died at the site… The list went on and on – very sad, especially when the cause of death for most of them was due to poor sanitation and drinking dirty water. Getting back in the car, we headed out of town and, with a few hours to kill, headed to Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary. The Sanctuary houses wombats, koalas, birds, quolls and many amazing natives including the Tasmanian devils. They also have over 80 free-roaming kangaroos which we got to hand-feed with complimentary kangaroo food. They were so much bigger than the kangaroos we fed on Kangaroo Island – it was slightly intimidating. We managed to squeeze in the 2pm guided tour where we got to hear some little-known facts about the wildlife (such as a wombat can outrun Usain Bolt) and stories of orphaned animals in care at the sanctuary. The tour included seeing the devils devour a snack (it looked like the carcass of a hedgehog) and pats and take close-up photos of the wombat and koalas – it was surprisingly good for a small place. 

Back at Hobart airport, we returned the car (having clocked up over 900km in four days) and waited for our plane back to Melbourne. A quick flight, an easy transfer on the SkyBus to the city centre and we were checked in at the YHA. Decided to treat ourselves to ‘dinner’ out, we went to the kebab shop we had spotted all those weeks ago when we had come to Melbourne for the weekend. Ordered a ‘snack-pack’ that was so enormous, we had to share it! Watched a little bit of TV in the television room before heading up to bed. Thursday 1st September 2016

Mount Field National Park – day 329

Another early start as we did our usual morning routine and headed out to our 54th UNESCO site, Mount Field National Park, part of the Tasmania Wilderness and, fortunately, an easy drive from Hobart. Mount Field National Park was founded in 1916, making it, along with Freycinet National Park, Tasmania’s oldest national park. The drive out of town was easy and we got to see the changing scenery as we zoomed past in the car, as well as passing (what looked like) a cherry farm. Shame there was no fruit growing on the trees as the ones within arms reach may have been stripped bare! There was also several vivid rainbows.Purchased our permit pass from the visitors centre and, wanting to avoid the crowds that usually turn up on day coach trips from the capital, headed straight for the popular Russell Falls walk. Considered one of Tasmania’s best knew scenic attractions, the 10 minute level ground walk dropped us right in front of the magnificent waterfall. Green and graceful ferns lined the track edges while giant eucalypts towered overhead. The tiered-cascade waterfall itself was absolutely stunning and gushing with water. So much so, it was hard to take a photo as our camera lenses kept getting wet and we needed to wipe them with a tissue after every shot to remove the water droplets. Walking up the slope and some incredibly slippery steps, we arrived at the top of Russell Falls where you could appreciate the rush of sound that came from the amount of water passing through it every second. About 100 metres further upstream we arrived at another tiered-cascade waterfall, Horseshoe Falls. Not as big as Russell Falls but equally as captivating, Jayne managed to play around with some of the shutter speeds on her camera to get some nice shots of the waterfall.Continuing on with our walk in the National Park, we entered into the Tall Trees walk which took us through a forest that features the world’s tallest flowering plants and one of the tallest trees in the world, second to the coast redwood – the magnificent swamp gums. A straight-trunked tree with smooth grey bark and a stocking of rough brown bark to 5–20 metres above the ground, it regularly grows to 85 metres, with the tallest living specimen, the Centurion, standing 99.6 metres tall in Tasmania. The trail took us about 30 minutes during which time we saw a pink breasted robin and a pademelon (a marsupial endemic to Tasmania). We then completed the circuit with a visit to Lady Barron falls. Another tiered-cascade waterfall named in honour of Lady Clara Barron, the wife of Sir Henry Barron, who was the Governor of Tasmania from 1909 to 1913, and Governor of Western Australia from 1913 to 1917.

Back at the visitor centre car park we decided to drive up road to Lake Dobson. The lady at the desk had assured us that the road was suitable for a 2-wheel drive car but once it started raining, the drive got a little scarier. I was able to distract myself slightly as the tyres slid about on the mud by the diversity in vegetation, ranging from tall swamp gum forests and massive tree ferns at the base of the mountain, through rainforest along the road, to alpine vegetation at the top – this park really did have it all!Finally arriving at the top of the road, we headed into the hut to eat our lunch. Colder inside than it was outside, at least we had some shelter from the rain whilst we ate. Deciding to put on our rain jackets and brace ourselves against the wind, snow and rain we headed out to walk around the lake. Jayne found enough snow on the ground to make a snowman (Tommy the Tasmanian Snowman) although my hands were too cold to even consider removing them from my coat pocket!The walk around the lake is called the Pandani Grove walk and it is named after the remarkable Pandani, which is just one of many subalpine plants found in Tasmania and nowhere else on Earth. Along the walk we encountered numerous alpine plants and, it seemed like, there was a greater diversity of plants at the top of the mountain than at the base. At the end of the lake, we entered into a stunning patch of forest dominated by a mixture of pandanis and pencil pines. Pencil pines are one of a number of ancient conifers that are endemic to Tasmania. Got chatting to a local lady who was also walking around the lake and chatted about her heritage being from UK and how she came up to this region every winter with her kids to take them skiing. Continued walking around the lake, keeping an eye out for the elusive platypus that can occasionally be spotted in the lake, especially around dawn and dusk. It must have been our lucky day because the afore-mentioned lady came charging back down the path telling us there was a platypus near the waters edge. Cue, the three of us standing in the cold rain looking into the deeps of the dark lake trying to spot him again – we must have been quite a sight! Fortunately, our patience (and soaking wet feet) paid off and we got to watch him for about thirty minutes, scavenging for food along the fallen branches in the water. When he started swimming across to the other side of the lake, we said goodbye to the lady and returned to the car to blast hot air onto our soaking wet and freezing cold feet. An easier drive back down the mountain and into Hobart. Stopped by the Botanical Gardens to have a quick look around but they closed slightly early than we had realised as it is winter! Managed to get a quick peek just past the gate but didn’t want to venture too far for fear of being looked in for the night. Drove back to the YHA where we had the usual battle to find some space in the kitchen to prepare dinner before jumping into bed to watch half of ‘Miss Congeniality’ – I was too tired to finish it and Jayne was frustrated that I had chosen the film and couldn’t even finish it… Oops! 

Wednesday 31st August 2016