A Travellerspoint blog

May 2012

Indonesia – Gili Air

A breath of fresh Air

sunny 33 °C

Take some sand, add a few trees, bit of coral, beachside accommodation, a good dose of fresh air all in an area no more than 3km squared and you have the ingredients for one hell of an Island. Replicate this three times just off the coast of Lombok and welcome to the Gili Islands.

Gili Trawangan, Gili Meno and Gili Air are some Indonesian gems and Gili Air was our chosen destination. We arrived into Dempasar Bali after the bus episode from Bromo and shared a taxi to our hostel with a couple of other guys from the bus. Jeff was waiting for us when we arrived and it was good to be reunited again for the 5th time on our year long jaunt after Jeff’s few days of luxury in Singapore and Hong Kong. We didn’t intend to stay in Bali as its somewhere that we can easily come back to from Perth at any time in the future, and there were less touristy places beckoning us to the East.

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Gili Trawangan, Meno and Air as seen from our plane ride later in the trip

We started off with a couple of hours back on a bus to get to the east coast of Bali for a fast ferry over to the Gilis. One thing we noticed in Bali was how much the tourist dollar (especially the dominating Aussie dollar) has pushed prices up in comparison to the rest of Indonesia. Accommodation, food and transport were all easily 2 to 3 times the price of what we were paying in Sumatra and Java. We opted for the fast ferry which although expensive got us to Gili Air in 90 minutes rather than the days travelling that the public ferry takes.

Getting to the island it was pretty clear that it was nice and basic. There was no landing at a big jetty or anything, it was straight off the boat into the water with your bags. Then on the dirt track that is called a road, the only forms of transport are these horse and cart arrangements that they have. All really simple and makes this place a paradise away from the big resorts.

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We headed on a search of a place to stay and after walking along the beach, in coconut plantations and up dirt tracks, we settled on a 3 person room in the backpacker part of one of the dive places which was nice and cheap, but without air-conditioning. The rest of the day was very relaxing as we pulled up a spot at one of the many wooden pergolas along the beach and watched the world slowly rotating.

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After a relaxing afternoon we headed off for a walk along the beach to see what we could find. As the island is so small though we were already half way around it before we realised so we figured that we may as well continue even though it was getting dark. We ended up seeing the red sky over Gili Meno and Trawangen as the sun set and then walked the last quarter of the island in darkness. As we were walking along the beach in the darkness I spotted something glowing in the water, then another and again. At first we thought it was fish or something but looking closer there were florescent green dots in the water that seemed to be leaving a fluorescent trail behind them before fading away. We thought maybe we were seeing coral spawning, what ever it was it was pretty awesome to see just as the 3 of us were walking along the deserted beach. It turns out that what we were seeing is algae
‘Bioluminescence an amazing natural phenomena that occurs when a type of planktonic algae (microscopic free-floating algae) has high densities of excess nutrients. The glow appears when the algae is disturbed by motion.’
We didn’t get any photos of this ourselves without a tripod being handy, so if you want to see what its like this website has a few damn good examples... http://philhart.com/content/bioluminescence-gippsland-lakes

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The next day we hired some snorkels and flippers and walking just a couple of meters off the beach were swimming amongst the coral and tropical fish.

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Considering the walk around the island the night before wasn’t too strenuous, we decided to see it in daylight hoping to find another good snorkelling spot but halfway around the island, there was a menacing looking storm cloud rolling our way. Just as we were completing the circuit of the island the heavens opened. Seeking refuge in the closest bar, we waited out the first rains before making our way back to the guesthouse, constantly stopping for another drink as the rain started up again.

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We finished off our final day on Gili Air by doing nothing but enjoying the forced relaxation. We messed around on the floating things that were outside one of the restaurants, read books, swam in the pool and ate good food.

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The taxi boat to Lombok left early the following day and we enjoyed the bus ride down the Lombok coast to the town of Senggigi where we spent a night before heading off on our boat ride to Komodo. We had a great seafood feast down on the beach for dinner whilst overlooking Bali as the sun set behind its volcanic peak and surfers caught the last waves of the day. A great end to some great days in Indonsesia.

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FINAL THOUGHTS
Jeff – escaping the hustle and bustle of Kuta for another bout of Koh Tao like paradise. Such a simple little island which can be walked around in a minute, it has not been overdeveloped and so was a very relaxing few days. Lots of pineapple juice, nasi goreng, cocktails and the odd bintang. Magic.

Tanya – Great stop again, just in case we hadn’t been recharging the batteries enough lately!

Daniel – After the Thai islands where it’s almost impossible to find some beach to enjoy by yourself (even on our favourite Koh Tao), you come to Indonesia and just a short boat trip from Bali there are islands like this. We will definitely come back here in the coming years, lets hope that the winds of change from tourism do not sweep through too heavily.

Posted by dbgomes 08:36 Archived in Indonesia Tagged indonesia round_the_world Comments (0)

Indonesia – Gunung Bromo

Destination Middle Earth

sunny 22 °C

Looking like you have just stepped onto some distant planet, Bromo has a distinct otherworldly feel to the place. An ancient supervolcano that has given birth to some smaller active volcanos is pretty interesting to see, and doing it as the sun rises completes the experience perfectly.

So we gave ourselves a good day of travelling again by taking a morning flight from Medan down to Surabaya where we got a bus up to the town of Probolinggo. It was already dark by the time we arrived there and we were expecting to have to stay the night before getting up to Bromo. A tour operator was at the bus station though and said that we could get a private transfer (with other people of course) up there that night for only 50,000rp each ($5) rather than the 25,000rp public bus. No brainer really!

It was almost 10pm by the time we rolled up the final hill into Bromo so we didn’t get any sneak views of the landscape which was all the better for the morning. The alarm rang at 4am and with head torches ablaze we set out for the hour walk up to the sunrise viewpoint. Personally, I hate getting up in the morning I’m just not a morning person, but it’s all worth it when you have rewards like this...

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We ended up spending about 90 minutes watching the landscape turn from darkness to the massive vista below us. Within the big outer rim, there were the smaller peaks with Bromo puffing out a few clouds of steam and then in the distance the big volcano of Semeru also puffing away. Looking to the east, down the valley back to the lowlands, there was misty clouds that completed the picture nicely.

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Google maps lets you appreciate the old and new volcanos

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The vista below us

We walked back into town enjoying the changing views. The town sits right on the rim of the old volcano and even from there you get some great views of the inner rim. We had some breakfast and then headed back out to walk to Bromo to peek into the active volcano.

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Our original plan for our time here was to take a Jeep tour which takes you for sunrise then takes you out to Bromo. Because we got in so late we couldn’t book on a tour, but in hindsight this was great as the walk up for the sunrise was not overly strenuous, and then walking out to Bromo was even easier. Certainly no need to spend money on a Jeep which doesn’t even take you all the way to the top of each lookout.

Walking out to Bromo, the landscape turns from the fertile tree lined rim to a desert landscape full of volcanic ash. The final walk up the stairs on the edge of Bromo then gave us the chance to stare into the gurgling guts of the planet. Down in the crater is a pool of steaming, hissing, bubbling water that lets out rumbles and clouds of steam just to let you know how insignificant you are in comparison!

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Having completed our two walks for the day we caught up on the lost sleep from the morning with an afternoon nap before relaxing for the evening. The following morning we got another mini bus down to Probolinggo and then a 13 hour bus/ferry/bus combination over to Dempasar Bali. The bus ride turned out to be an interesting trip as the bus broke down a couple of hours into the journey. After an hours wait on the side of the road we got picked up by another passing bus that was almost full before we got on. The result was that we had to sit in the aisle for the remaining 3 hours to the port... Not the most comfortable journey we have ever had!

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The local milk truck...

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Broken down, what could the problems be?

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Maybe the tree growing out the engine bay might have something to do with it

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The next 3 hours

FINAL THOUGHTS
Daniel – Well Bromo was pretty spectacular, and i think it was even better that we arrived when it was dark and got our first views with the rising sun. Getting there and away relied on a bunch of long bus rides but it was worth every minute of the bus rides.

Tanya – This is a must see. I missed out on hiking around the volcanoes at Beristagi in Sumatra, but this well and truly made up for it. Walking across the surface of an extinct volcano somewhat resembling the Sahara and then pushing on up some steps (yes steps) to find yourself literally a step away from a bubbling cauldron is something else. We had the volcano to ourselves which was great, it was best not to be here at sunrise (id be too scared of falling in).

Posted by dbgomes 20:18 Archived in Indonesia Tagged indonesia round_the_world Comments (1)

Indonesia – Sumatra

Getting close to our ginger cousins

all seasons in one day 30 °C

Orang-utans share 96.48% of our DNA, and staring into their eyes makes that seem more believable. Like there is some long lost connection there between us. To be able to share the jungle with these primates was an amazing experience that almost became our last experience of our trip... but more on that later.

We subjected our self to a torturous night by getting an evening flight from Phuket to Jakarta. This meant we landed around 11pm and then had our flight from Jakarta to Medan leaving at 4.40am the following morning. It was hardly worth the effort of going into the city just to sleep for a couple of hours and then head back out to the airport. We found a nice little cafe that was closed up which had long sofa’s to sleep on. I had just dozed off when a security guard came along and told us that we had to move outside as the airport was being locked up! What!!! What kind of airport is this? So we headed outside to where the experienced Jakarta airport passengers had already secured their seats for sleeping on. We managed to find some seats and ended up with a broken couple of hours sleep before getting back up to check in for the early morning flight. At least it was really warm outside and this is all part of the backpacker experience. Right?

When we landed in Medan it was straight onto a taxi to get us to the bus station where we had to negotiate for a minivan to take us out to Bukit Lawang. That ended up being a gruelling few hours on a cramped van with 4 people to a seat which should only really house two peoples butts! We were really lucky though as one of the young guys that hopped onto the minivan lived in Bukit Lawang (BL) and his cousin was the owner of the hostel that we wanted to stay at. We spoke with him for a while and it turned out that he was one of the guides at BL. The final transport of the day ended up being a scooter with sidecar attachment that took us two, our bags, our newly acquired guide and the driver into the small little town of BL.

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Thanks to finding Asain on the bus, we were shown the way to the guesthouse and after checking in agreed to go out on a jungle trek the following day with him. To pass the rest of the afternoon though we went out to a feeding platform that is set up in the jungle. Orang-utans are highly endangered and are only found in two places in the wild - Sumatra and Borneo. There are a number that get rescued from poachers, illegal animal dealers and other unscrupulous individuals as well as orphaned youngsters. The best thing to do with these guys, is to rehabilitate them and release them back into the wild. As there is a decent sized wild population around BL, there is a sanctuary set up in the national park where these semi wild orang-utans are nurtured and then integrated back into the wild. The feeding platform acts as a half way house for these released individuals, providing them with basic food and water needs but keeping this simply to bananas and water so that the Orang-utans have the desire to search out more tasty treats in the jungle and become less and less reliant on the platform.

Its a short walk and river crossing to get to the sanctuary where we watched a video on the rules about being in the presence of the primates before following the handlers up the mountain to the platform. We passed some other monkeys just sat in the trees watching the people pass by. There were a few Indonesian tourists in the group of us up at the platform as well as a handful of other western tourists and as soon as we arrived, swinging through the upper branches of the trees a mother and baby orang-utan appeared.

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We were allowed to spend up to an hour at the platform and were mesmerised just watching the orang-utans. There were 3 orang-utans, 2 of which were carrying babies, and the way the handlers dealt with them it was clear to see that they really had a good connection with them. The handlers would get a good look at the children to make sure everything was alright with them while the mothers were feeding and drinking from the buckets. They would grab a bunch of bananas and then take them high into the trees to eat them. There were some little monkeys around which were quick to snap up the discarded banana peels to look for any traces of banana that the orang-utans missed. After the orang-utans had eaten enough they just wondered off back into the jungle as secretly as they had arrived

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It was really amazing to be up close and personal with the orang-utans and the playful young children that they had. The expressions on their faces at times are so human like that it’s easy to see our evolutionary connection with them.

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We got back to the guesthouse and immediately crashed from tiredness after the limited sleep and long travelling. I didn’t even bring myself to get up for some dinner, preferring the extra time in bed.

We were up the following morning for our jungle trek with Asain. There were also two Slovakian guys that had been up at the feeding platform the prior day in our group. We set off into some hot and humid jungle walking in search for some wildlife. Asain was really good and knowledgeable about the jungle telling us about different plants and the medicines that can be made from them. Unfortunately we only managed to find a couple of true wild orang-utans deep in the jungle and then we could only see them up in the canopy above us. At one point we ended up walking past the feeding platform and there were 2 individuals hanging around there which we watched for a little while before heading back out into the jungle.

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The little town of Bukit Lawang

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Rubber trees outside the national park

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Kids playing around

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We stopped by a stream and waterfall for a swim and lunch stop. The swim was so refreshing after sweating our way around the jungle for a few hours. And for lunch Asain pulled out 6 parcels of palm leaf from his pack and revealed some Nasi Goreng with fried egg. When he gave it to us, he said that we can eat it Indonesian style... with our hands. It was still warm, tasted great and way better than we were expecting. After the lunch stop the rest of the trekking wasn’t too eventful just a lot more sweating and walking.

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The final part to the trip was a bit more eventful however. We knew that we were going to be tubing back down the river to the town and we had seen a number of people floating by when we were walking the prior day. Asain said that we would instead raft down by tying our tubes together. Fine sounds safer I guess. About 30 mins before we finished our trekking the heavens opened and we were saturated within seconds. This probably contributed to the river looking a lot more menacing than it had before. We put our backpacks and shoes in a big plastic bag and secured them to the raft before hopping in ourselves. There were 4 tubes, the driver (with his long straight stick for paddling) and backpacks in the first one, Tanya and I took the second one, the two Slovakian guys in the third and Asain and the assistant guide in the rear.

The ride started off fine enough, although we should point out that there were no life jackets or helmets. After a few turns the water looked to be getting a bit more interesting and we went down a rapid heading straight for an exposed tree stump. The driver tried to push us away from it, but the stick just slid off the slippery surface. Before we knew it, one of the Slovakian guys had been flung from the ring and the rear tube was next to Tanya and I on the other side of the log.

The guy managed to swim to the bank not too far down stream while the 3 guides tried to wrestle the tubes free. All the while Tanya and I were being submerged by the strong rapid, so we jumped ship and swam over to the bank. It took a good ten minutes for the guides (and a random passerby) to free the tubes as they were fighting in the current. The rest of the ride went without a hitch and we got a story to tell from our river rafting adventure.

The following morning we were up bright and early for a mini bus to take us over to Lake Toba. 9 hours later we crested a hill and had views of the massive lake and island in front of us. Thanks to a large ancient volcano the caldera filled up with water leaving an island in the middle the size of Singapore. From the ferry port the island just looks like the opposite side of the lake it is so big.

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We only had one day on the island so we hired a flash new scooter in the morning to go for a ride. We stopped at a tribal gathering place on the way out of the main town of Tuk Tuk and then knocked up 100kms riding to the north and back. It was good not having any specific goal, just cruising around and taking in the views.

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We caught another minibus back to the main city of Medan where we spent a relaxing night. We went to a little cafe/bar which had this young band playing live music. We gave them some applause when they played some good cover songs and when they took their break, they came over to speak to us and say thanks. There wouldn’t be too many westerners staying in Medan, so they seemed to enjoy talking with us. They were really friendly, much like all the Indonesians that we have met so far!

FINAL THOUGHTS
Daniel – Seeing the Orang-utans was a memorable experience. Just sitting there looking into their eyes was something special. Their facial expressions are so emotive and the little children orang-utans look so funny with their frizzy ginger hair. Lake Toba was also a worthwhile excursion just to have a relaxing day exploring the island.

Tanya – Sumatra has been a great introduction to Indonesia. It wasn’t the easiest to get around initially but we soon got to know how the bus system worked. Unfortunately our limited time here meant that we could only make 2 stops although there was so much more to see. The orang-utans and other monkeys were very amusing!

Posted by dbgomes 10:28 Archived in Indonesia Tagged indonesia round_the_world Comments (0)

Thailand – Koh Phi Phi

Poo Poo'd in Phi Phi

semi-overcast 30 °C

Koh Phi Phi is one of the top destinations in Thailand thanks to its great weather & beaches. The most famous of these beaches is Maya Bay which stared alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie ‘The Beach’. This beach is located on the deserted smaller island of Phi Phi Leh while all the action goes on at the bigger island of Phi Phi Don

The first thing we noticed sailing into the port was the difference between these west coast islands compared to the east coast islands. KPP is much more dramatic with large sheer cliff faces rising out of the sea. There are no roads on KPP so when we arrived to the island we walked through the town to find the hotel we were looking to stay at. We found it alright but the town was looking a bit more touristy than the other islands we had been to. We instead headed off to the bay on one side of the town while the sun set behind the hills

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We wanted to head out to Maya bay the following morning and looked around at different places to try and find somewhere that left early and would hopefully get us out to the bay before it fills up with other tourists. We settled on a dive shop which ran a snorkelling trip starting at 7.30am the following morning so had an early night after some food. Just as we were all in bed, the girl from the dive shop knocked on the door and said that the trip for the following day was over booked, could we do the day after. We didn’t really mind either way so took the following day option.

This turned out as a blessing in disguise for Jeffro as a bout of food poisoning or something hit him during the night and was in no state to leave the room the following day. Tan and I left him to see it through and went for a walk up the hill to the North to get a view over the town and bays. KPP has two mountainous parts to the North and South and these are linked by a sandy strip where the main town and resorts are built. Unfortunately this is a maximum of 2m above sea level. So when the Tsunami of 2004 came through with 6m waves, the town pretty much got wiped away as waves hit from both sides and destroyed about 70% of the buildings!! It was interesting to look down on the town (which doesn’t really show many signs of the disaster now) and imagine what it would have been like seeing the waves approaching back in 2004.

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Looking over to Phi Phi Leh

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After checking back in with Jeff, Tan and I headed back out this time walking over to Long Beach which looks out over the water to Phi Phi Leh. The walk was hot and sweaty as the track to the beach was a little up and down over muddy sandy tracks. The beach was probably one of the better ones on Phi Phi Don however so worth the walk.

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Jeff was starting to come around that evening and was managed to pull himself out of bed in the morning to head out for some snorkelling. The boat took us out to a few spots over by Phi Phi Leh and it was pretty good. We saw plenty of the usual colourful tropical fish but also a lion fish, sea snake and turtle just to top it all off.

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Lion Fish

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We found Nemo

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Due to rough seas, we couldn’t land our longtail boat at Maya Bay, so instead we swam to shore on the other side of the island and walked over to the bay. Supposedly the movie studio did an average job of returning the island back to its original state and copped it with a law suit. We also heard that the tsunami has actually helped to clear up the island better than the movie studio had done.

Getting onto the beach was a bit of a letdown due to the amount of people there. The whole bay was lined up with speed boats that had come from Phuket and Phi Phi Don. I’m sure we would have liked it a bit more if we had got out there earlier and avoided the crowds.

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Another early morning ferry took us over to Phuket where Jeff got his flight to a friends wedding in Hong Kong while Tanya and I passed a day with a quick surf on Ka Ta beach before getting our flight the following day.

FINAL THOUGHTS
Daniel – I think if we come back here again, Maya Beach needs to be done with the camping trip so that you can wake up in the morning with the place to yourself. Even on a cloudy day during low season, it was a bit of an anti climax when you see it with a small army of other tourists on it. The snorkelling made up for it though with great sightings on the swims

Tanya – Im not quite sure what all the hype is about. Long beach was great for a swim but the 2 bays each side of the town aren’t much. The snorkelling trip was great aside from the sea lice!

Jeff – I was a little jaded with Koh Phi Phi, allegedly the primo of Thai islands but I felt it was just too busy and overdeveloped. Again, we were spoilt by Koh Tao I think. Although truth be told spending two days in bed with a serious bout of gastro will never warm me to a travel destination....at least I managed to drag myself out of bed for the snorkelling trip, which was a definite highlight.

Posted by dbgomes 00:06 Archived in Thailand Tagged thailand round_the_world Comments (0)

Thailand – Khao Sok National Park

Leeching off the Jungle

storm 30 °C

Deciding to take a short break away from the beaches we headed back to the mainland and to the National Park that is Khao Sok. This area of jungle and limestone has been given a bonus lake thanks to a dam that has been put in to the region.

We took an early morning ferry with a few busses before arriving by the side of the main road. It was a couple of kilometres from there to the small town so we were met by a number of people offering their accommodation to us. One bloke offered to take us to the info centre for 60 bhat so we figured that was best to then decide where we wanted to stay from there. On the way he showed us the powerful bass in his truck stereo system and said he also had accommodation that he would take us to first to have a look at... sneaky sneaky! The place wasn’t that great but it wasn’t dire, so we put our bags in the room and then went for a walk down to the park entrance. On the way we passed another hotel that advertised its pool which was very tempting given the hot and humid jungle conditions. We had a look around the place and were happy to pay a little extra to come here, so after collecting our bags from the other place and paying for the ride into town we relocated instantly making use of the pool.

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We organised for a day tour of the lake and jungle. This started off with a bus ride then a long tail boat ride on the lake. The area reminded us a lot of the Yangshuo area in China, with big limestone karsts all around.

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We stopped at some floating bamboo huts and had some lunch before taking to the jungle. While we were eating lunch the afternoon rain started to fall with a thunderstorm coming through. This creates two problems for us. Firstly, our planned walk through the nearby cave would be revised to just a quick step inside for safety reasons. Secondly the rain brings out the leeches in epic proportions!

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The walk the jungle took about an hour and true to what we had been told everyone was being attacked by the leeches. The guide said that they can live for 4 months between eating, so with 10 of us walking through it was a smorgasbord for them. Any time that we stopped for a minute or so to regroup, there would be a few working their way up your shoes and socks in search of exposed skin.

On the way we passed the following sign... Good given that it was belting down at the time!

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We eventually got to the cave exit which would be our entrance for the day. Normally you get to walk through the cave but the flood risk with the rain meant we would just have a peak inside. There were heaps of frogs in the cave and they even played dead when they are picked up. We waded and swam up into the cave for a bit before turning around and making our way back to the camp.

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We slept well that night before another early morning bus to head back to the beaches for a few more days.

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FINAL THOUGHTS
Daniel – Leeches are pretty disgusting actually, and they seem to really get off on my blood too.

Jeff – Nothing quite like walking past a sign that says “danger, no entry when raining” during a tropical downpour and exploring caves with rivers in them that can occasionally flood. At least there were no leeches in the caves....

Tanya – I was pretty glad these leeches couldn’t swm, and seeing as my shoes were soaked already I walked in the water at every opportunity. Being a bit of a ninny, i was the only one wearing long pants fashionably tucked into my socks. I was probably the only one who didn’t get my blood extracted although you should have seen the way they could cartwheel up my pants in search of fresh skin! Aside from the leeches it was a great jungle experience in a beautiful area.

Posted by dbgomes 23:47 Archived in Thailand Tagged thailand round_the_world Comments (0)

Thailand – Thai Gulf Islands

Bucket loads of Paradise

sunny 33 °C

The Gulf of Thailand has sheltered water, constantly heated to a warm 31degrees by the equatorial sun meaning that there are fewer places in the world which can offer the quality of diving that you get here. The only sensible thing to do is go back to school and get our PADI dive certificate to enjoy this paradise.

Koh Tao
The starting point was the amazing little island of Koh Tao. When we arrived after the ferry crossing from the mainland, we were immediately in love with the island. It is super chilled with very little development of big resorts or anything. Most of the bungalows are right off the beach and have simple amenities but you don’t need anything more.

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Leaving the mainland

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Jeff and I got sorted for our 3 day dive course. Tanya couldn’t do the dive course thanks to her asthma, but she was more than happy to enjoy the beach while we were in a classroom and out diving.

We went with a nice little dive school called New Way which we picked from the hundreds of establishments because they said that they leave early in the morning to be the first out to the dive spots. Classes started on the first afternoon we were on the island so we checked out the beach and the town while we had some time before the classes.

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Over the next few days Jeff and I woke up early, got some breakfast, headed to the dive shop, watched some DVD’s and then headed out to get into the water. Usually you do your first few hours in a pool for what they call the confined water lessons. This is where you do all emergency things, like changing to your buddy’s air supply if yours runs out. However the cool thing about New Way, was that they said there are lots of great shallow water beaches to do this stuff, you don’t need a pool. And it was so much more interesting being in the sea rather than a pool for 3 hours. New Way only have 4 person groups too, so while one of us was doing the particular activity, the other three would just be sat on the bottom of the sea with tons of fish swimming around us.

Meanwhile Tanya quite happily reading books under the shade of palm trees interspersed with a dip in the warm water until the sun set on the day.

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After a couple of deep water dives up to 18m, we had passed our PADI with flying colours and were blown away by how awesome the diving was around here. We got 4 dives in on our course including the final two which were on the early morning dive. It’s definitely worth the 5.30am wakeup as our boat was the first out of port, and we had an empty dive spot when we got out there. By the time our tanks were running low and we were coming to the surface, the dive factories were arriving with their boat loads of people and we were happy to be getting out of there.

After our final dive we had the afternoon free so the three of us headed over to the three little islands just off the north of Koh Tao. They are owned by a Japanese business man and is actually a private resort, but you can pay a 200 bhat fee when you land at the island to swim and walk around them.

We started off walking around the larger of the 3 islands which had a pretty sketchy looking boardwalk.

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There is a cool lookout from the top of the island and its crazy to see these 3 small islands all connected by a sand bar! Definitely a paradise setting that will be hard to beat.

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To round out the day we finished with a snorkel in the bay (same bay that we did our confined water dives) seeing so many fish who really don’t seem bothered by us swimming around with them.

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To celebrate not having an early wake up the following morning we watched another amazing sunset and then went pretty hard on the buckets of cocktails at one of the local bars. The sunset, well this place really is paradise, nothing more to say about it! The buckets on the other hand, potent and a sure fire way to some serious hangover territory (along with countless unpublishable photos).

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Before things turned ugly

We had grand plans for our final day on Koh Tao – hire scooters to get around the island and use our hired snorkel gear to find plenty of marine life. Courtesy of the boozy night, we instead spend the whole day passed out and recovering. Oh well, gives us a reason to return to this island paradise anyway! We did manage some redemption with a morning fun dive as ‘experienced divers’ before getting the afternoon ferry.

Koh Pha Ngan

A short ferry ride and we were at the bigger island of Koh Pha Ngan, famous for its massive full moon parties. As we were here between moon cycles, we happily had reduced accommodation prices and a much quieter island for a few days. We also made a good choice in booking into a cheap resort right on the beach with a pool and everything we needed for a few days relaxing watching the thunder storms passing in the distance

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To make up for our wasted day on Koh Tao, we decided to hire some scooters from our resort to head round the island to some of the nicer beaches. Armed with some beasty scooters (which had done 40 odd thousand kms each) we hit the road in search of fuel. Fuel comes in three ways on a tropical island. Out of a plastic coke bottle, dodgy homemade roadside pump or one of the couple of larger garages. To avoid any quality control issues with the fuel supply, we opted for the larger operator.

We found a good few beaches with more clear warm water on the north coast before setting out to find the lookout that was shown on our very rough maps that we had. Our search turned off road, and in the end had deteriorated into steep, rain gulley tracks that got beyond the possibilities of our scooters. We walked the final 200 meters to the lookout and replaced the bucket load of sweat we lost with an ice cold water before heading back down for the bikes

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The eventual viewpoint

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Jeffro – hard as nails on a scooter

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We finished off the day at the sunrise beach where the Full Moon parties end up at for a quick swim before hitting the road before it got dark. It ended up being a good move as shortly after getting back to the resort, a massive thunder storm came through. Swimming in the pool was a much better way to see it through than driving though it on the scooters.

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The view over to Koh Samui

We had an early morning ferry the following day which took us back to the mainland for some jungle time.

FINAL THOUGHTS
Daniel – Koh Tao, well I think we spoilt ourselves going there first, everywhere else has just been more resorts, built up and just not as relaxed. It was a super cheap place to do the PADI when comparing it to the other islands too. I was really surprised at just how easy the PADI was, I did have thoughts before doing it that it was going to be a lot to think about, but once you get underwater it actually feels incredibly normal and second nature. The scootering on Koh Phangan was pretty awesome, I don’t think there is a better way to see these islands than on a scooter searching out a secluded little beach.

Jeff – Absolutely loved Koh Tao. The chilled out atmosphere, abundance of beach bars and excellent diving or snorkelling make this place as close to paradise as you can get. Koh Tao will always be remembered as the first island where I discovered the glorious coconut milkshake. It was great to tick off the dive certification off my long list of “to do´s” and it was nice to be in a small group of four as opposed to some of the larger dive schools who roll in groups of ten. Loved the diving and can´t wait for next dive holiday!

Tanya – Possibly the first time in 8 months that I’ve felt like I’m on a traditional holiday. It was hard work lazing about on the beach, reading multiple novels, eating yummy food. Just before I started to get tired of total relaxation we were off exploring on scooters. Batteries fully recharged!

Posted by dbgomes 09:09 Archived in Thailand Tagged thailand round_the_world Comments (1)

Thailand – Bangkok

Buddhalicious

sunny 40 °C

This is what the lonely planet says about Bangkok,

Because Bangkok is a revolving door for travel in the region, you’ll be confused and challenged when you first arrive, relieved and pampered when you return, and slightly sentimental when you depart for the last time

Being our first visit, it was definitely bizarre, but after leaving, we can see what they mean.

Two things we noticed immediately at the airport. The massive amount of western tourists (that’s what 3 weeks in China does to you I guess) and the heat, oh the heat! Guaranteed to be dripping with sweat in 1 minute flat! We had been looking forward to getting to Bangkok as Jeff was meeting up with us again for some more travel fun. It’s now the fourth time that we have met up with Jeff on the holiday, we can always rely on him to be keen for another adventure and it means that we don’t go crazy from spending every day just as the two of us.

Our flights arrived within 5 minutes of each other, so by the time we collected our bags the three musketeers were ready for whatever Bangkok had to throw at us. The airport taxi took us into the city and our nicely air conditioned hostel. At this time of the year, Bangkok is a sweltering hotpot so the aircon room paid for itself immediately. One thing we only realised after booking the hostel is that its located right by the red light streets where all the go-go bars and ping pong shows are. We went for a walk to get some dinner (which was amazing – Thai food has to be one of the best dishes the world over!) and had a few touts offering entry to some of the places.

With a couple of days to see some of the sights of Bangkok we decided to get our train down to Ko Tao sorted. Down at the train station we got the sleeper train, connecting bus and ferry booked smoothly with the help of the English speaking assistants – welcome back to easy travelling! The next port of call was to get down to the river so we could see the city from the water. A very friendly man from Chang Mai (North of Thailand) stopped us on the street and helped us to get a cheap government tuk tuk rather than the expensive private tuk tuks that try to take you to shops and tourist traps.

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After finding the ferry pier we went downstream a few stops. Its definitely an experience on the water ferry, these drivers pull the ferry up to the piers like a Formula 1 driver pulling into the pits. Passengers are on and offloaded with almost surgical precision and then it’s on to the next one. And some of the longboats that cruise past have got engines on them that look like they are lifted out of a drag racer with big air intakes, intercoolers, turbos, the works!

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We had a surprisingly good meal at a ramshackle restaurant by one of the piers before braving the heat and humidity at the Wat Arun temple on the other side of the river.

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After seeing more temples than we could deal with in China, we were quite relieved to see that the Thai temples have a very unique design with lots of bright mosaic exteriors and pointed roof eves. Tanya had to rent some of the shawls from the temple as she was bearing too much skin.

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We climbed the incredibly steep steps to the top of the temple trying as much as possible to stay in the shade from the intense sun. From the top there were good views over the river to the royal palace.

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We walked through the rest of the grounds getting our fix of Buddha images for the day before embarking on a longwinded search for a bar to enjoy a cold beer. Even if it was served with ice, the beer was still worth the back street search.

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After a much needed shower back at the hostel we headed out for the skybar at one of the local high rise hotels. The cocktails were extortionately priced for Thailand but that just means they are the same price as we would be paying back in UK, and we have a great night view over the city to go with it. We stayed for one drink before finding another great restaurant for dinner.

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The next day we were prepared to get our Buddha on and tackle the various famous ones around town. Sitting, standing, reclining, made of gold or jade they just can’t get enough. The first port of call was the Jade Buddha in the Royal Palace. Walking to the palace, there are announcements over the speaker system saying that the palace is open every day between the designated times. This is to counteract the many touts who operate outside of the palace and tell tourists that the palace is closed today but they can take you to another temple.

Unfortunately the Jade Buddha was actually closed today (the ticket office was saying this) as the princess was having a private prayer today in the temple. The rest of the royal grounds were still open as usual though so we made do with admiring the incredible gold, green, red and brightly coloured mosaic buildings that the longest reigning current monarch in the world calls home.

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Play the game – Where’s Jeffro

An air-conditioned restaurant was in order for a break from the heat, and it ended up being the pick of the bunch for our time in Bangkok.

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The last stop was the Giant Reclining Buddha. As the name suggests, he was indeed giant and reclining and worth the entrance fee to see it. The grounds of the reclining Buddha were also nice with the afternoon sun reflecting nicely off the buildings.

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We left Bangkok on the night train headed for Koh Tao which we passed the early hours with a few beers from the on board sellers. The trains here are a little different from what we had in China. An attendant comes along and makes up your bed from converting the seats to a bed. And they were pretty damn comfy too, or maybe it was the few beers rather than the bed...

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FINAL THOUGHTS
Daniel – The heat and humidity is a shock to the system, just gives us more of a reason to find somewhere with air-conditioning and beers. Pretty impressive temples around the city!

Tanya – It was soo bloody muggy, I could hardly bear it. But once I accepted that its going to be like this for the next few months I just go on with enjoying travelling. Once we got our bearings, we found Bangkok easy to get around on the skytrain, metro and boats so exploring the city was easy done.

Jeffro – It’s damn warm here. Good to see things finally getting hot and steamy on my fourth appearance in Dan & Tan’s travel adventure slash honeymoon. Two nights probably not enough to see all the sights in the city, but it was good to tick the major Buddhas off the list and satisfy my craving for good Thai food, and I was pretty keen to hit the islands after the sweltering city temperatures.

Posted by dbgomes 02:29 Archived in Thailand Tagged thailand round_the_world Comments (0)

China – China Travel Tips

Some things we noticed

Whilst travelling in South America was challenging at times, it was a walk in the park compared to China. So we thought it might be useful for any future travellers if we jotted down things that we came across. Even as experienced travellers now, it hit us pretty hard

• Obviously the language barrier is the first obstacle. Its not just the verbal language, but the fact that you have no idea of the Chinese characters. Even things that we took for granted such as at least being able to identify a sign for a town or something so you know where you are going. You wont see ‘Pingyao’ written anywhere, its always the Chinese characters for the city – that makes it very hard to find your way around. Also it is very hard to get the pronunciation right so you will be asking where something is and you just get blank looks back

• English is virtually nonexistent, even in the major cities. Don´t expect menus, shops, transport and signs to have English translations or the staff to be working in these places to be able to speak English

• A lot of people use guides to help them travel around China. This is fine and certainly makes it a hell of a lot easier. However travelling without a guide is certainly manageable, you just rely massively on the help of the people at the hostels for booking trains and directing you around. The Hostel staff are most helpful if you can get them to write things down for you in Chinese script. From ‘I am allergic to peanuts’ for Tanya to getting them to write down train destinations/times/requirements. Every time we booked a train ticket, we walked up to the window with everything written down and we were fine, but you couldn’t expect to walk up to the same window and just ask for the ticket without being very good with speaking Chinese

• Make sure you book early for trains. A couple of days in advance is pretty much necessary. China does have a pretty extensive train network, but with 1.3 billion people in the country, there aren’t enough train spaces for the number of people wanting to travel. There aren’t any spots kept back for tourists or late demand, so you need to have a bit of an idea where you are going, or have a couple of days time flexibility. We generally booked our onward train as soon as we arrived in a new place.

• People who can speak a little bit of English will generally be really helpful and really enjoy practicing their English. Even if you are not looking for help, just walking the streets, someone will stop you with ‘Hello, where you from’ then try a few sentences before saying bye.

• The most common time to have someone start speaking to you will be at the tourist destinations as people from the bigger cities like Shanghai will enjoy a bit of English practice

• As we said in the blog posts, people love to get photos taken with you as a westerner. Especially getting their young children to have a photo with you. We did always wonder what happens with these photos, do they print them out and put them on top of their mantle piece and show other people when they come round their place?

• Don’t forget how huge the distances are in China. It’s easy to take this for granted, but travelling between most places will take you at least say 15 plus hours. This makes night trains and busses better for travelling and also saves a nights accommodation!

• Smoking is still common for Chinese. Occasionally, there will be non smoking places in train stations, however these seem to have more smokers in them than not. Trains and busses don’t necessarily have smoking prohibited and spending a full 20 hour night train ride in a confined cabin as a non smoker can be hard going.

• Chinese men and women spit all the time. You notice this pretty quickly walking around the streets hearing people bring up some big ones. At first it is slightly offensive until you realise that it’s just what they do on the street, in busses, on trains, in stations... I never put my bag on the floor again!

• It’s strange but we found that the more dodgy a restaurant looked, the better the food was. Ferdi and Lisa put it best when they said, that if the place has a glass front, don’t eat there. And the best places we found were always Chinese Muslim restaurants!

• Learning a few Chinese words is helpful as the people will really like it when you say something in Chinese to them. The only downside is that then they assume you are fluent in the language and will talk to you for the remainder of the time assuming you are understanding everything they are saying.

• I never ever saw another man wearing shorts, and copped stares from everyone when I was wearing them. We assume its a cultural thing that men never show off their legs, but it was pretty hot at times and everyone would still be walking around in jeans or suit trousers. Oh and open shoes such as thongs/flip flops... they have feet phobia, so this freaks people out, expect plenty of staring if you are wearing them.

• Its easy to see why China is becoming a world power, there is so much building going on, unlike in the western countries in economic troubles. No matter where we went, cranes, scaffolding, bridges, road works were ever present.

• Chinese people are not familiar with maps, even taxi drivers who you would assume are familiar with the layout of their cities... nope! On multiple occasions we showed someone a map to get directions or taken somewhere and had them completely bamboozled as to what they were looking at. The magnifying glasses came out and maps rotated like a spinning wheel.

But all the above made the travelling what it was, challenging but so rewarding! It’s not wrong, it’s just different.

Oh and one last thing, we had a good chuckle at some of the English signs that we managed to find around the place. Here is an assortment to show what we mean.

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Its not so much the sign on this one, more the state of the said toilets in the background of the photo

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That juice was so lame!!

Posted by dbgomes 08:24 Archived in China Tagged china round_the_world Comments (0)

China – Beijing

Confucius Say – In age of tourist, forbidden is no longer.

semi-overcast 25 °C

The modern day capital of China has access to many Chinese icons, the Forbidden City, Great Wall and modern stadiums (thanks to the 2008 Olympics).

We started off having to show the taxi driver a map of where our hostel was when we arrived on the early morning train. The problem is that we don’t think Chinese have ever seen maps of their own cities before. On many occasions we have had dumbstruck taxi drivers with their magnifying glasses looking at maps upside down for 10 minutes before trying to drive in the wrong direction. We eventually got someone to write down the closest metro station so the taxi driver could just take us there.

The first site we visited after checking in, was the Temple of Heaven. More a parkland than just a temple, it had some nice quiet areas around the heaving temples.

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So this is what heaven feels like

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We saw some interesting street food on the way back to the hostel, im going to have to psych myself up for some of these

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Our plan for visiting the Great Wall was to avoid the tourist heavy area at Badaling, and instead go a bit further afield to Mutianyu as our initial plan of walking between two points was scuppered by the closure of the wall at Simatai. We looked at the ways of getting out to Mutianyu, but the busses didn’t seem completely straight forward. We didn’t want to end up with another episode like the Jingdi tomb in Xi’an, so we went with booking the hostel’s tour out there. We only booked it because they said that we would have 3 hours on the wall and there were no ‘shopping trips’ on this tour and with breakfast and lunch included, it practically paid for itself.

Out of the hostel at 7:30am we picked up some more people from another couple of sister hostels and then drove the 1.5 hours out to the wall. Emperor Quin, of terracotta fame, was also the one to build the first wall by linking up the established kingdoms defences. Since then it was rebuilt a number of times. The original sections of wall at Mutianyu date back to 1569 but the sections open to the public have been reconstructed over the last 50 years

There is a chairlift that takes you from the carpark to the actual wall, which saves 40 minutes of uphill walking and means spending more time actually walking on the wall. We first headed off to the closest end of the wall where it has the older sections. After some near vertical stairs we got to the over grown sections of the wall with signs for ‘Not for Tourists’. Ignoring the sign like everyone else, we walked along through the trees growing out of the bricks to a destroyed turret house. Definitely a cool feature of this section being able to see the wall in its true state! We were also incredibly lucky that the smog was non-existent today, we could see for miles as the wall snakes its way along the mountains and ridge lines!

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The wilder side of the wall

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Stretching into the distance

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There weren’t too many other people out at this section of the Wall, certainly less than we were expecting. With a couple of hours left to explore, we headed back to the restored wall to walk as far as we could taking in the great clear skies and views of the wall. It really is an imposing sight as it sits so clear on the landscape. It was hot work, and some steep sections to contend with, but all worthwhile.

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A cool little ride back down to the parking lot on the toboggan and then we had some lunch which was included with the tour and turned out to be much better than we were expecting. There were free dumplings (which we also made ourselves) for dinner at the hostel which we shared with our 3 Dutch roommates.

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On the final day in Beijing we started off seeing the massive expanse of space that is Tiananmen Square. One of the biggest squares in the world, it certainly felt like it, considering that we have also stood in Moscow’s famous Red Square. Then we headed over the road into the Forbidden City. This vast array of palaces, temples and halls was the domain of the Emperors from the Ming to Qing dynasties and only they and the necessary workers were allowed in its walls. Whilst it may have been forbidden to enter for the common man back then, now a days it is one of the big drawcards with thousands of people crammed through the gates on a daily basis.

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The Chinese tour group, always with a particular colour hat

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The entrance gates to the city

Whilst we enjoyed walking through the city, and it certainly is impressive when you consider the history to the place, we got a bit of temple overkill after jostling with the crowds to get a look into the various buildings. The gardens towards the back of the city gave us a slight break from the intensity and we were happy enough to exit the north gates and call it a day for the forbidden city.

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A scrum developing to look inside a temple

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We climbed up the hill that is immediately north of the Forbidden City which gives a great view over the grounds, it’s from here that you can really appreciate the scale of the city! We enjoyed a few moments peace and quiet before heading over to the Lama Temple which is one of the largest and most important Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in the world where lots of people were offering their 3 incense sticks with each prayer.

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The final stop in Beijing was a walk around the Olympic park. Having seen the Birds Nest Stadium and swimming cube so many times during the 2008 Olympics, it was good to see it in person! There was also a rehearsal going on for some sort of TV add with drummers which was good to watch for a little while. The Olympic park was really chilled and I enjoyed walking around there more than the forbidden city to be honest.

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We got back to the hostel and had a great Peking Duck at a local restaurant as well as a peculiar sounding dish of sweet potato with toffee, but it was much better than it sounds as you dip the potato covered in hot toffee into some cold water and that solidifies the toffee into a crunchy coating! Dog meat was also on the menu, but we stayed clear of that dish. I had finally psyched myself up to have a scorpion skewer but was so full from the dinner, that i couldn’t bring myself to get it by then!

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FINAL THOUGHTS
Daniel – We were so lucky to get such clear conditions out at the Great Wall, I think that completed our China experience pretty nicely! Its been a challenge to travel around China, but that has probably made it even more memorable!

Tanya – There is sooo much to do in Beijing, its impossible to fit much into just a few days. But we managed to make it to the main attractions which were all amazing. Great wall has to be the highlight!

Posted by dbgomes 05:14 Archived in China Tagged china round_the_world Comments (0)

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