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A Perfect Day in Angkor Wat

Today’s guest post is by Sara, who runs the blog The Bag Under the Bed.

Among all Asian countries I have visited, Cambodia is one of my favorites.

It’s true, it’s not as popular as Thailand, or posh as Japan but this country holds a special place in my heart.

In October 2015, I flew there for a short time before heading to Vietnam.

Even if my husband and I didn’t have much time to spend in Cambodia, we knew, for sure, that we couldn’t miss a stop at the famous Angkor Wat complex.

According to the Unesco website “Angkor is one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia. Stretching over some 400 km2, including forested area, Angkor Archaeological Park contains the magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century. They include the famous Temple of Angkor Wat and, at Angkor Thom, the Bayon Temple that with its countless sculptural decorations, one of the most widely recognized temples in Siem Reap because of the giant stone faces. UNESCO has set up a wide-ranging program to safeguard this symbolic site and its surroundings.”

angkor wat

Really impressive, isn’t?

Angkor Wat is more or less 330 km (205 miles) far from the capital city, Phnom Penh.

To cover this distance was the main problem to solve since we were traveling on a tight schedule.

By doing some online search, I found out that there are several domestic flights between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, the closest city to the temple area.

The problem was that, even if the flight was only 50 minutes, we were worried about the time we had to spend at the airport. We calculated that we were going to waste, at least, half a day for a very short flight. As if this was not enough, the cost was around 200$ return per person.

We felt discouraged since we had no clue about how to make it to Angkor Wat but we didn’t want to give up on our goal! I don’t know how much time I had spent on the Internet before I stumbled upon the Giant Ibis website. This Asian bus company connects Phnom Pehn and Angkor Wat, daily.

But…surprise, surprise, they also have night buses (departure times 10.30 pm – 11.00 pm – 11.30 pm) This turned out to be the perfect solution for us.

The night buses are modified vehicles (they feature single sleepers with their own recharge stations). A blanket and bottle of water are included in the price ticket. On the bus, there is also a toilet.

All of this for 15$ (plus 1$ for the credit card processing fee).

We spent in total 32$ return for a 6 hours ride. The bust departed from the Central Market in Phnom Penh (immediately outside the Giant Ibis office).

We slept comfortably during the entire ride.

Very early in the morning, we were in Siem Reap.

We had made prior agreements with our tuk-tuk driver to come and pick us up at the bus terminal.

angkor wat passHis name was Mr. Phally.

We had found his website on the Internet and decided to contact him while organizing our excursion to Angkor Wat. The several positive reviews about his services convinced us to hire him.

He offered to take us around the archeological site with his tuk-tuk and to provide also an English guide, for more or less 50$

After the meeting, we arrived at the Angkor Wat Ticket Center (it opens at 5.00 am and closes at 5.30 pm)

We paid the ticket to get a one day pass.

On the pass there was our picture too, that was taken directly at the counter. This because the passes are strictly personals.

Back then the ticket was 20$ per person (quite expensive if you consider that the monthly average salary in Cambodia is 80-100$).

UPDATE: The price has almost doubled, from February 2017.

The one day pass costs now 37$ (a quite substantial increase, I would say).

Passes are available for 1, 3, 7 days and both cash and credit cards (Visa, Mastercard, UnionPay, JCB, Discover and Diners Club) are accepted.

We knew very well that we were going to enter a religious place so we made sure to have our shoulders and knees covered.

Since when traveling, we feel like guests in a foreign country, we try our best in being respectful of the local religion, custom, and culture.

Our first stop was Angkor Thom, the grandest iconic temple, and then we continued to Bayon, one of the most widely recognized temples in Siem Reap because of its giant stone smiling faces. During the rest of the day we had the chance to visit the Victory Gate, Thommanon, Chau say Thevoda, Ta Keo temples, and the Elephant Terrace. Our English speaking guide was always with us, providing explanations about the architecture and the history of the Khmer Empire. After each stop, we were offered fresh water and towels from Mr. Phally that, in the meantime, was also guarding our backpacks.  We had lunch in a local restaurant inside the complex and we could rest and relax for a while. Our visit continued to Ta Prohm (the Tomb Raider Temple), Banteay Kdei and Srah Srang temples.

It was incredible to see how the vegetation and the majestic trees had been able to become part of the architecture style in itself. We couldn’t help but sit down on a rocky bench, admiring in awe, the fairy scenario in front of us.

We appreciated very much not only the visit but also the time spent with our guide. He allowed us to ask several questions about life in Cambodia, about the challenges of living in a developing country and what do locals think of the hordes of tourists invading the Siem Reap area.

It was a truly enlighting excursion, very spiritual and carefree.

Yes, mere words can’t express how it feels to visit Angkor Wat.

We also met some of the “Angkor Wat children”. Every day, the kids living in the area, enter the complex and try to sell postcards or pens to tourists.

They are friendly, maybe a little bit pushy, but really sweet. You can’t help but be moved to compassion toward them. A little girl stopped us; she wanted to sell us something. We didn’t buy anything, instead, we gave her some small money and we asked her for a picture. Maybe, not everybody would agree with doing this but we felt that, at the end of the day, that money could just give a help to a struggling family.

Our day just flew away.

We left the complex after having enjoyed a magical sunset.

We spent the rest of the evening exploring Siem Reap and its vast local market. There were also stalls selling typical food: snakes, cockroaches, scorpions, and other various insects. They were all boiled or fried, ready to be eaten. Sorry to say but we couldn’t make it, we ended up having a burger at the Hard Rock Café.

At around 11.00 pm we took our night bus to come back to Phnom Penh.

We still cherish wonderful memories of this experience and we highly recommend it to everyone.

Just in case, if this post has made you want to visit Angkor Wat, here you find some practical tips:

-Plan your visit well in advance, according to the weather conditions (the wet season is from May to October).

-Rely on a local guide/driver to bring you around the complex: it is massively huge. It’s easy to get lost.

-Wear comfortable shoes. If you plan to visit during the dry season, especially, remember to have some water along with a hat and sunglasses.

-Check on the Tourism Cambodia website for updates about entrance fees, opening hours and other information.

-Even if at the Sales Ticket Counter they will take a picture of you, bring a couple of passport photos. (You never know)

-Unless you want to spend 7 days inside Angkor Wat, make some research to find out which are the places or temples you don’t want to miss.

-Don’t forget your camera.

Finally: relax and enjoy your unforgettable experience.

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How does altitude affect you when hiking to Everest Base Camp?

Have you ever set yourself a goal, only to realise that you have underestimated the difficulties that come with it?

We did this recently when trekking to Everest Base Camp.

Walking around the isolated areas of the Himalayas in Nepal was an amazing experience, but one of the hardest things we have ever done. Before we tell you about how altitude affected us, let us turn back the clock to when we embarked on the trip of a lifetime.

Touchdown.

It was October 2017 and we had just arrived at the worlds most dangerous airport  Lukla – only a short 45 minute flight from Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu. We counted our lucky stars that we landed safely as Lukla has been plagued by many air disasters over the years, but that wasn’t our fate today and our feet were firmly on the ground.

Our trek to Everest Base Camp looked OK on paper – only about 10-12 kilometers each day, with a few hills on the way. We were pretty fit, having run half marathons all over the world, this was going to be a piece of cake! Mmmmm cake.

Initially, the walking was great and the scenery was something out of a fairytale book. Majestic mountains towering overhead, massive waterfalls crashing to the ground, and the light breeze rustling through the trees. Not a speck of stress in sight, and my ‘nine to five’ back in Australia was a distant memory. As the trek progressed, the scenery didn’t change, but our perspective of it did. We were still passing mountains that would stretch to the heavens, and the sound of waterfalls weren’t getting any quieter, but day after day we were required to don our hiking shoes and head up the mountain. After four days of hiking exhaustion started to set in, and as we passed the 4000m above sea level we noticed that the tree line suddenly stopped and turned very baron – if trees didn’t want to live at these levels, then what are we doing here?

Plenty of people on other treks were starting to struggle with altitude, and in fact, some were given the ‘scenic route’ down the mountain by a helicopter – a very expensive one at that. We had a couple of mantras in our head which helped us on our way, one being ‘Relentless Forward Motion‘ which kept us putting one foot in front of the other, closer to our goal destination.

The higher up we climbed, the more it felt like our hearts were about to jump out of our chests. With our organs working overtime for the lack of oxygen in the air, we felt like we were running those half marathons while we slept! Needless to say, it took a lot of mental determination to keep on the straight and narrow.

As people started to feel defeated by the thin air, we tested our oxygen levels at one of our teahouse stops. The amount of oxygen at this level, was only 53% of that at sea level, meaning that the oxygen in our blood stream would surely be way too low for normal bodily functions. This was not wrong; I had an oxygen saturation of 87%, with a resting heart rate of 90 beats per minute (normal oxygen levels are between 95-98%, and my resting hear rate normally 50-60 beats per minute).

I mentioned bodily functions. Normally you would feel famished with the amount of walking we had been doing – 10-12 kilometers each day, gaining altitude with each step. I remember logging down the food I had eaten throughout the day in my diary – 2 eggs, some soup and a little bit of stew for dinner. That was all that was required to make me feel like I had just had a good birthday feed at a buffet restaurant. If anyone was looking for a ‘lose weight fast plan*’ this was the place to do it.

*It is not recommended to lose weight without a sustainable diet and exercise balance.

Summit Street

The day had finally come – we were about to reach Everest Base Camp! We had trekked for the past eight days towards the foot of the World’s highest mountain. Walking towards the pile of rocks we would eventually take photos of at 5364m above sea level, we couldn’t help but think that this was the hardest thing we have ever done – give us a half marathon any day!

Everest Base Camp, as well as a bunch of rocks, was fairly underwhelming. It was a good season to hike, but the colour of the tents from climbers who try to summit the mountain are only there in April/May. By now, the effects of altitude had fully hit us and we were not able to take much in. In total, we spent about 30 minutes at Base Camp, putting on a smile for the camera, then hunched over to catch our breath after even the smallest movement.

The way down from Everest Base Camp was even harder – you would think that once you reached your destination, that was your job over.

Wrong.

Jo started to stumble, like a drunkard late on a Friday night. I was losing concentration and couldn’t shake my nagging headache. That night, we slept at 5100m but needed to stay sitting upright which decreased the forces on our lungs to make breathing easier.

Walking down the mountain took three days, but was just as hard physically as it was mentally. They were long days with over 16 kilometers clocked on each day, it was all about getting to the finish line, back in Lukla. Finally we finally made it and were able to hang up the boots, before enjoying a much needed shower that we had sacrificed for the last 11 days.

Everest Base Camp was the destination, but the journey is really what made the trip great. We had a magical time in the Himalayas and can now safely say that we have achieved a bloody tough goal (which we underestimated before setting out). Tick it off the bucket list.

For a more detailed, day-by-day itinerary and a video of our trip, check out this link!

About the authors: Jeremy and Joanna run Coming Home Strong (www.cominghomestrong.com) where they love to have epic adventures all over the world. To date, they have been to over 68 countries, and have no signs of slowing down.

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Hohhot and the Grasslands of Inner Mongolia

Today’s guest post is by Only Once Today. Lobke and Inge want to share their experiences and insights with the world. They write about LGBT, budget travel and different destinations.
http://onlyonce.today

 

 

When we embarked on our trip to China, we were a little concerned about language barriers. That’s why we decided to join a tour for a part of our trip. We only had a month and we wanted to make the most of it. If you have time on your side, traveling on your own is always more fun. It forces you to learn how things work. Tour guides take away that experience when they take care of all your business.

A night train to Hohhot

Our train to Hohhot left the Beijing Railway Station at 10PM. Getting to the station was daunting and being there wasn’t any more relaxing. The place looks like an airport and the waiting halls are perfectly fit to host a mega dance festival. We already took care of our ticket, so we could rest while the Chinese were fighting to be first in line. We suppose they had a ticket too, but Chinese seem to have an urge to be first. While sitting with the other foreigners, we watched the craziness unfold when the gates opened and the real competition could begin. At last, we boarded the train and found our shared cabin. The sleeper hut sleeps 4 people and it’s a perfect solution for a first night train. We shared our cabin with a lovely couple and a baby.

Blue Sky City

Arriving at 7 in the morning in a dusty, unwelcoming city isn’t my favorite thing to do. We barely opened our eyes and hundreds of people just stared at us as if we were from another planet. A hostel shuttle took us to our hostel. Heavy with our morning mood, we weren’t impressed with the cleanness of the hostel. But there was no way back. We booked the dirty hostel for a week and we’d be there during the entire week. After the morning haze, things started to get better when we discovered the Food Street and the Grasslands Tours. There wasn’t much to be seen in the streets surrounding the hostel, but the city has a shopping area, an old school horse track and parts of the ancient Great Wall close by.

The Grasslands

Together with a dozen other travelers, we were shoveled into the back of a minivan on our way to the grasslands. Everything was (not so) carefully planned and we had to change buses 3 times before we were actually on our way to the grasslands of Inner Mongolia. On our way, we drove by massive tourist camps, protected by brick walls, their entrances guarded by huge, stone dragons. We’re so glad weren’t on those “grasslands”. Our dream is to be in the open field surrounded by nothing but plain fields and wild horses. And that is exactly what we got. Although the locals were sleeping inside a brick house, equipped with a television, shower and bathroom, we slept in a traditional yurt and peed in the open field. It was perfect.

A night under the stars

Our grassland trip was a homestay with a local family. We were not in a crowded tent camp. Actually there were only 8 people and it felt so good to be away from the city crowds and attention. We enjoyed the marvelous sunset and helped picking up horseshit for the fire that night. To see a lot of stars, you need to step away from the fire. The sky showed us it’s entire scale of stars that aren’t visible in the city. Waking up at 5.30 in the morning is rewarding because of the breathtaking sunrise. Uncluttered by skyscrapers or other obstacles, you can watch this red ball emerge from the ground and rise to it’s full glory.

Things to do on the grasslands

Staying on the grasslands gives you time to practice archery or ride a horse over the plains. Both are great ac
tivities, though we enjoyed the archery more. Shooting arrows into a bag of straw is pretty much what you expect when you read about it. It’s fun to do and people tend to get competitive, so you’re in for some good laughs. The horseback riding, on the other hand, was not what we expected. And I don’t mean that in a good way. I’m 1m75 tall. If you’re as tall as me or maybe even taller, expect to be mocked. My horse was the tiniest of all the horses and supposedly it had the strongest legs. Whatever the reason, I looked like a giant on a mule.

Worth the visit?

So, is Hohhot worth the visit? I believe it is. We enjoyed our grassland time a lot. Hohhot was just a hub in getting there. There’s a few things to do and visit in the Hohhot area. You can visit an ancient Qin section of the Great wall, visit a buddhist monastery or watch horse races. When visiting this city it’s worth the effort to secure a good bed in a clean hostel or hotel. The grassland tours can be tricky too. It’s best to research the tour before you book it, unless you don’t mind being in a yurt in a confined area, together with 2000 Chinese tourists.

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The Miao and Their Buffalo Fights by David Leffman

The Miao (Hmong) ethnic group of Qiandongnan – southeastern Guizhou province – are hill-dwelling farmers, best known in China for their embroidered jackets and complicated silver assemblages that women wear during the many festivals dotting the Miao calendar.

Buffaloes – aside from their obvious agricultural uses – crop up everywhere in Miao life (not to mention the fifty or more places in Qiandongnan called Niuchang, “Buffalo Market”). They appear in mythological poems and as decoarative motifs on men’s jackets, they get sacrificed as ancestral offerings at various times of the year, and are paired up to fight each other at most – perhaps all – Miao festivals.

These buffalo fights aren’t as cruel as they might sound. Like many farming peoples in China, the Miao look on their buffaloes as workmates in the fields and often treat them with real affection, taking care to groom and look after them and even decorating them in red ribbons for public events. True, injuries do happen at fights, but bulls are usually separated if things get too serious; animals rarely kill each other.

In fact there’s usually more danger for the spectators than the buffaloes at these events. The first two I went to – one at a traditional funeral in the highlands of Sulawesi, Indonesia, the other at the annual Sisters Meal festival at Taijiang, in Guizhou – were held out in the open, with no protective barriers for the audience to hide behind if things got rough.

As a guest of honour I was pushed to the front on both occasions. The two animals launched themselves at each other, collided with a titanic crash, locked horns and began wrestling head-to-head, foaming, snorting and scrabbling for footholds in the dirt. After a few moments the weaker bull turned tail and ran, chased by the victor, scattering spectators like confetti. I was lucky that they always seemed to run away from me.

About the Author: David Leffman is a travel writer and photographer. He was one of the original writers for the Rough Guide series, and has been visiting China since the 1980s, writing and photgraphing, including accompanying George Michael on his historic visit. His latest project has been researching Victorian era adventurer William Mesny and his excellent book, The Mercenary Mandarin, is available on Amazon. More information about him can be found on his website: www.davidleffman.com