How to escape the crowds at Angkor Wat at sunrise

We were just about ‘templed out’ by the time we got to Cambodia, having travelled through India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Laos, but felt we should go and see the ancient city of Angkor.

Tickets to the temple complex are reasonably priced, with a choice of tickets giving access for one day, three days (valid for a week) or seven days (valid for a month) for US$20, $40 and $60 respectively. All tickets have your photo printed on them so are not transferable. We got a one day ticket but bought it the day before around 5pm for no extra cost, which allowed us to see the temples at sunset.

2015-03-04 18.27.33We decided to visit a temple called Pre Rup for sunset. It was crowded on top of the temple and from there we couldn’t see the sun set behind the temple, so we climbed down and took some photos at ground level. We didn’t realise that the crowds on top of Pre Rup were ushered out of another gate after sunset and somehow we got left behind in the temple after everyone else had gone. It was pretty special having the whole temple to ourselves at twilight, but the security guards weren’t very happy with us!2015-03-05 09.05.56

The next day we were up at sparrow’s fart ready for our tuk tuk driver, Mr Solee, to pick us up at 5am. We’d hired him through our guest house to take us on a ten hour tour of the temples for a very reasonable US$28. It was early March and we knew the heat would be unbearable by noon, but our host had recommended that we include a visit to Banteay Srei, which adds a couple of hours to the tour.

2015-03-05 05.54.11When Mr Solee dropped us off near Angkor Wat it was still dark but there were hundreds of people milling around. We got a coffee and chocolate croissant from a stall doing a roaring trade then followed the masses to the pond in front of Angkor Wat. This is the spot where everyone waits to see the sun rise behind the temple. Some people were eagerly scanning the horizon for early signs of the sunrise, others were taking selfies or photos of the barely discernable outline of Angkor Wat, most were talking, but all were jostling to get into better position for when the magical moment arrived.

When the sky started to lighten at around 6am it didn’t look as though the sunrise was going to be too spectacular.

I nudged Ian and said, “Let’s go into Angkor Wat now, while it’s empty.”2015-03-05 07.14.52

He agreed and we escaped the crowd and skirted around the pond to the temple. It was still pretty dark but I’d brought a torch and it was getting lighter by the minute. When we got there we had the world’s largest religious building virtually to ourselves. We spent a couple of hours wandering around Angkor Wat looking at the carved friezes then returned to the tuk tuk.

Our next stop was Banteay Srei (Citadel of the Women), which is made of pink sandstone and said to have the best carvings of all the temples. However, we hadn’t realised how far away it was – it’s about 27km from the main temple complex and took about 45 minutes by tuk tuk. We stopped for lunch on the way at a 2015-03-05 10.07.42little café where we were the only guests. I expected such a remote site to be empty, but when we arrived at Banteay Srei at about 10.30am we discovered it was very commercial with stalls, toilets and a visitors’ centre. Also, a few coachloads of Chinese tourists had just arrived. As well as being crowded, it was hot and there was little shade so we didn’t stay long. In hindsight, it would have been better not to have included Banteay Srei in the itinerary so we had more time at the main temple complex and could have finished the tour earlier.2015-03-05 11.52.00

Although Angkor Wat is the iconic Angkor temple, my favourite was Ta Prohm where we went next. This is the temple featured in ‘Tomb Raider’, with the massive trees growing over and out of it. It’s a great illustration of the power of nature. Many of the walls have fallen down and you have to climb over rubble to get to some sections. I laughed when I saw a small area of man-made stone blocks cordoned off and labelled as ‘unsafe’. 2015-03-05 11.56.17Why someone thought that area 2015-03-05 11.56.34deserved a sign when the whole place was like a building site escapes me! I’m often amazed by the things you are allowed to do on public sites in third world countries. There is obviously no fear of litigation that has led to first world countries stifling their children and the closure of many activities, such as horse riding stables, parades, because of the exorbitant cost of public 2015-03-05 13.11.22liability insurance.

After wandering around Ta Prohm for a while, we went to Angkor Thom, the main complex. This was the site of an ancient city that had a population of up to 150,000 and serviced about a million people from the surrounding area. The main temple we saw here was Bayon, the one with the massive faces carved into the rock. By this time it was about 2pm and very hot. I’d had enough and so had my camera, which had run out of charge. Now we were definitely ‘templed out’!

TIPS

  • Make sure your camera has plenty of charge and take a spare battery if possible.
  • Take a torch with you if you’re going to be there for sunrise or sunset.
  • Unless you’re a temple junkie a one day ticket should be enough, but I wouldn’t recommend including Banteay Srei in a one day itinerary.
  • Get your day ticket the day before around 5pm so you can see the temples at sunset.
Advertisements

Time travelling through music – Why do singing stars keep performing past their use by date?

This week’s blog is not about travelling as such, it’s about time travel, or rather how music can transport us back to a specific period in our lives. Music is a powerful memory trigger; and often memories are most potent in our youth, when we are becoming independent and exploring new things. For me the early 80s, when I went away to university, is that period.

paul young 80sThe music played during that time included Michael Jackson, Queen, The Police, Spandau Ballet, Human League and Duran Duran. Whenever I hear their music it takes me back to my uni days. But my favourite singer at that time was Paul Young. His strong soulful voice and his boyish good looks won over many young women. He also seemed like a nice bloke. I read every magazine I could get my hands on about him (this is before the internet took off). I learnt that he’d had a stammer when he was younger and had overcome it through singing. I also have a stammer so I felt that we had a common bond.

Most people have a story about their brush with fame, mine involves Paul Young. In 1985, I was at a party in Bournemouth with some uni friends when someone mentioned that Paul Young was playing a concert in the city. I couldn’t settle, knowing that he was so close – I had to try to see him. So my friend Dani and I made our way to where he was playing.

By this time it was late and the concert had just finished. I told one of the security guards that we’d travelled from Cardiff for the concert but we’d missed it because the train had been late. I said we’d love to meet Paul after making the effort to get there, and asked him where he was staying. I must have been convincing because he gave us the name of the hotel. I hadn’t thought about what I would do if he’d asked to see our concert tickets … or our train tickets. Thankfully he didn’t!

I told the hotel receptionist the same story and she asked one of Paul’s road crew to talk to us. I repeated the story and asked if we could just have a quick chat to Paul. He went off to ask him. I was beside myself with excitement, but didn’t really think that the great Paul Young would make the effort to meet a couple of fans when he was probably exhausted after just finishing a concert.

But being the good person that he is, he did! Dani, who was usually very talkative, was star struck into silence. Whereas being in the presence of my favourite star had the opposite effect on me. I told Paul how much I liked him and his music and what a great voice he had. Then I went on about how I had a stammer and what a pain it was, but I was sure he could understand having had one himself … blah, blah, blah. The irony was that I never stammered once! What was that all about?

As soon as he could get a word in, Paul gave us both a peck on the cheek and a signed photograph (which I think I still have somewhere) and politely excused himself.

Fast forward thirty years – I hear that Paul Young is going to play at an 80s Mania concert in Perth, along with the Cutting Crew, Go West and Nik Kershaw. Despite being a massive fan of Paul Young and playing his records ad nauseum, I had never seen him play live so I felt I had to go to his Perth concert.

There was one small problem, the concert had sold out. I put the word out on Facebook and looked for resale tickets on Gumtree, but two days before the concert I was still ticketless. This was ridiculous, surely if I could wangle to meet him at his hotel when he was a mega star I could get hold of a couple of tickets for a small show 30 years later. I put a wanted ad on Gumtree and immediately got two offers. I was finally going to see him live … I was pretty excited.

Just before the concert a friend of a friend told me that she’d seen Paul Young in concert about ten years ago and he’d been terrible, so terrible that he’d been booed by the audience. I had no idea about this. Maybe I should have done some research before I’d got the tickets? But that was a decade ago, maybe he’d be better now?

We had reasonably good seats, about a third of the way back from the stage at the side. The Cutting Crew were on first for half an hour. I couldn’t remember them from the 80s but recognised a couple of songs. They were very good.2015-09-09 20.35.12

Paul Young was next. He looked good; he was trim and his hair, although grey, was still cut in his trademark spikey style. A

three piece suit made him look very dapper. I was hopeful, yet apprehensive.

He started with an old hit, ‘Love of the Common People’ … and mangled it so badly it was hard to tell which song it was for a while. It wasn’t just that he wasn’t hitting the notes, his timing seemed out as well. What was going on? Couldn’t he hear himself? Surely he couldn’t have lost all his talent? He seemed ill at ease on the stage too, lacking confidence – which I guess you would if you knew you were putting on a poor show.

I think everybody was relieved when his half hour set ended. Certainly nobody asked for an encore. During the break, the theatre was buzzing with people talking about him. Most of the audience were there to see Paul Young and they were disappointed. I know Paul had problems with his throat in the late 80s and maybe that’s an ongoing issue, but surely he’d retire if that was the case?

When I got home I played YouTube videos of Paul Young in the 80s. He DID have an amazing voice, I hadn’t been delusional. One of the videos showed him singing at the Live Aid concert in 1985 to a sea of thousands of people. That concert had been watched by billions more people all over the world. He’d been the opening singer on the Live Aid song ‘Do they know it’s Christmas’, which was the biggest selling single of the decade. He was phenomenal.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7YiEPGUx4ag

Then I played clips from his recent shows. Some, filmed for TV, sounded suspiciously like his old voice. I watched a couple of home videos of live concerts. In one, taken at a show in a shopping mall in Munich in 2013, his voice was terrible and he was pulling some very unflattering faces trying to get the notes.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s2hzLpZftLQ

Here’s another video of him singing badly at an outdoor concert at Blackpool earlier this year.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sE9w3N3xkkQ

This is not the first time I’ve seen previously great singers put on terrible shows. At the Queen’s Golden Jubilee a host of old stars were invited to perform. Most of them, including Cliff Richard and Paul McCartney, put on cringe-worthy performances.

Seeing Paul Young make such a hash of his Perth gig made me wonder, why do singing stars keep performing past their use by date? In Paul’s case, he lost a lot of money on a property deal. That may have forced him back on tour, but surely there are other ways he could have used his name to make money? He’s appeared on a couple of reality TV shows. One was called Splash which, from what I can gather, involved filming him learning to dive. I can’t see the entertainment value in that, but then again I’ve never seen it. He was also on Celebrity Master Chef and seems to have a flair for cooking. Maybe he could bring out a range of sauces like Paul Newman? Or advertise food products?

In a way, I wish I hadn’t been able to get tickets for the show. For a start I’d have saved some money but, more importantly, I could have remembered him as he was – one of the best soul singers of his era.

Feeling like a movie star in Madurai

2015-01-07 14.25.26The massive Meenakshi Amman Temple covers six hectares in the heart of the ancient city of Madurai in Tamil Nadu. Although the present structure was built in the 17th century, its origins go back 2,000 years. The temple has 14 gateway towers (gopurams), which are about 50 metres high and flamboyantly decorated with thousands of elaborate sculptures. The towers can be seen from all over the city, which was very useful as our hotel was located near the temple.

2015-01-07 14.44.52The temple is unusual because it is dedicated primarily to a female deity, Meenakshi. According to legend, she was born with three breasts and it was prophesized that her extra breast would disappear when she met her husband. That happened when she met Shiva (AKA Sundareswarar) and became his consort.

We visited the temple in the evening so we could see the nightly ceremony of putting the god and goddess to bed to consummate their union. Before closing the temple, a ritual procession, led by drummers and a brass ensemble, carries the image of Sundareswarar to Meenakshi’s bedroom. He is returned to his own shrine the next morning at dawn, having supposedly done the deed.

We entrusted our shoes to a shoe keeper outside the temple and joined the queue to enter the complex through one of the massive temple gates. When we got to the ticket box a guide called Johnny offered to take us around the main sights for 500RP (about £5). We were feeling a bit overwhelmed by the size of the temple complex – although many of the shrines are closed to non-Hindus, there’s still a lot to see – so we agreed to his offer.2015-01-07 20.45.53

2015-01-07 20.48.52The temple is adorned with colourful ceiling and wall paintings and there are some amazing sculptures that have been carved from a single block of granite (as Johnny kept proudly telling us). We finished our tour at about 8pm and sat in the meditation hall for a while as the bedtime ceremony wasn’t until 9pm. Then we found a possie outside Sundareswarar’s shrine where we would get a good view of the proceedings.

2015-01-07 21.15.20 While we were waiting, a big group of women came out of the inner sanctum and walked towards us. I didn’t take much notice of them at first, but as they passed they all held their hands out to shake mine. And then they wanted to have their photo taken with me. More people poured out of the temple, men also, and they all stopped to shake my hand and have a photo taken with me too. I felt like a movie star!

Eventually, the adoring crowd dispersed and my hand shaking duties finished. Although it was a flattering experience, it was also a little eerie. There were other Westerners there – why did they choose me to target?!

But I didn’t have time to contemplate this for long as just then, in a cloud of incense smoke and accompanied by loud, discordant music, the image of Sundareswarar emerged from his shrine in a hand held carriage. You can see a clip of the start of the journey here: https://youtu.be/e3HP-YB4tUQ2015-01-07 21.32.43

He was carried around the temple to Meenakshi’s bedroom where there was more ceremonial cacophony … but we left them there. I feel that deities – and movie stars, for that matter – should be allowed privacy in the bedroom.

Nostalgia in Northampton

Northampton is a little town 52km north of Geraldton in Western Australia. The area was first settled in 1848 and some of the historic buildings remain.

2015-06-08 12.27.122015-06-08 13.50.56

On a recent visit, I was pleased to see that there was still a general store in the old building that used to be occupied by J. M. Williams & Co. Drapery. The last time I’d visited the shop in 2001 I’d been fascinated by its rich history and entertained by the Williams’ family’s many stories.

2015-06-08 12.27.38Built in the early 1900s, the store was originally three shops – a general store, a saddler and a tobacconist, barber and billiard room. Eventually, it became one big shop and was known as Stokes’ until 1949 when the Williams family took it over as a drapery.

Max Williams, who was the oldest of four children and born and bred in Northampton, bought the shop when he was 21. The shop was a family affair as his wife (Helen), two sisters (Maureen and Dawn) and sister-in-law (Cecily) also worked in the shop. When I visited they sold clothing, work clothes, bedding, shoes, sewing materials and jewellery, but in the past they’d also stocked hats, toys, crockery, brill cream and groceries.

The customers were so familiar with the staff at the drapery that they assumed they knew every little detail about their family lives. Once, Max got a phone call from a woman who wanted to buy a pair of pyjamas for her husband to match the carpet.

“Why? Do you put him under the bed?” asked Max.

The irony was that none of the staff had ever been into the woman’s house.

Often people would drop in to the shop and say, “I want a pair of slippers for Tom.” Sometimes they’d bring a piece of string which they’d measured the person’s feet with, but usually they would just expect the staff to know the size of Tom’s feet.

An Aboriginal man used to use the shop as a bank. “He’d come into the shop and borrow money off Max to last him till the next pension day,” said Dawn. One day Max’s son was working in the shop and refused to lend him the money.

“But your dad’s the only man in Northampton I can trust to borrow off,” the man said indignantly.

“You only come in when you want to borrow money, you never buy anything,” said Max’s son.

“Alright,” said the man, “I’ll have a hat.” He chose a $100 Akubra and then asked if he could have it on credit!

Then there was the woman who asked for 40 Modess (a brand of sanitary pad). “I thought she wanted forty packets and must have been running a harem,” said Max, “but all she wanted was two packs of twenty pads.”

Cecily remembered how there used to be a big ball every week at Kings Hall (which is now a park). “Just after the war we could only get one type of fabric, so all the women at the ball were dressed in the same material,” she laughed.

Few changes were made to the shop during the Williams’ family’s custodianship, attracting people from all over the world looking for nostalgia. There was even a handle-operated till (handy in power cuts!) which was converted from pounds, shillings and pence in 1963 and would only register up to $99. It was so delicate that the staff couldn’t get anyone to service it and had to ink it up themselves.

The shop was an institution in the town and a way of life for the family. But in 2003, after 54 years, they sold the business and finally retired. The catalyst for their decision was the introduction of the GST.

The shop is now called the Northampton Family Store and sells clothing, manchester, footwear, hats, haberdashery, wool, toys, and gifts. The store has been kept in its original style with wooden counters and floor boards, tin ceilings and … yes, the handle-operated till is still there!

Nyepi – the Day of Silence

We are currently in Bali and have just visited Ubud. The last time we were in Ubud (in 2013) coincided with the Balinese New Year, known as Nyepi. This celebration occurs on the first new moon after mid-March.

Before Nyepi, Balinese villagers are busy making ogoh-ogoh. These are demonic statues that symbolise malevolent spirits. Made from bamboo and papier mache, many sport bulging eyes, wild hair and claw-like finger nails.P1050110

On the day before Nyepi (called Tawur Agung Kesanga) the ogoh-ogoh are taken to the village square or sports ground for a ceremony. Here’s a short video of ogoh-ogoh arriving at the Ubud soccer field: http://youtu.be/kIzlk_8IV2w

P1050103The ogoh-ogoh were indeed fearsome. Our favourite was an effigy of an old hag who dripped bodily fluids from her fangs and (disturbingly, given that children are involved in the creation of ogoh-ogoh) from her wild pubic hair.

In the evening the ogoh-ogoh are paraded around the village on bamboo poles in a raucous ‘ngrupuk’ P1050091procession. This parade involves gamelan orchestras and much singing and shouting to frighten away evil spirits. Afterwards, following prayers and speeches the ogoh-ogoh are burnt, symbolising freeing the island of evil spirits.

P1050115Nyepi is observed for 24 hours from 6am the next morning with a day of silence and self-reflection. Everyone stays in their homes, there are no fires, lights are out or dimmed, and no working, travelling, entertainment or pleasurable activities are allowed. Bali’s streets are empty, everything is closed – even the airport, there is no noise and few signs of activity. Pecalang (village security men) patrol the streets to make sure that no one is out.

Although Nyepi is primarily a Hindu celebration, non-Hindu residents and visitors also have to comply. Visitors are free to do what they want in their hotel or guest house but are not allowed to leave it. Only emergency services are exempt from the restrictions. The idea of having a day of inactivity following Tawur Agung Kesanga is that the evil spirits will decide that Bali is uninhabited and leave the island alone for another year.

The day after Nyepi, known as Ngembak Geni, is celebrated as New Year’s Day. It is a social day where families and friends get together to ask forgiveness from one another, and perform religious rituals.

P1040998We were staying at a small guest house in a traditional compound. There were only four guest rooms and no pool. We initially thought that visitors were allowed to go out and had planned to take advantage of the empty streets and explore on our pushbikes. By the time we discovered that visitors were confined to their guest house it was too late to move to a bigger place with a pool.

We spent Nyepi in our room. Although this was very comfortable with air con, TV and DVD player and ensuite, the time dragged interminably. We had bought a few DVDs so watched those, we chatted, read, slept and lazed around. Every couple of hours we checked the time. We like P1050131chilling out on holidays, but not for 24 hours at a time. The guest house provided us with lunch and dinner as well as breakfast as there was no other option, and dinner was served by candlelight.

Afterwards we discovered that other travellers who stayed in larger compounds with pools had spent Nyepi in and around the pool, chatting to other guests and having a great time. My advice, unless you really want to spend a whole day on your own in self-reflection, is to avoid Nyepi or stay in a bigger place with a pool. Also, make sure you don’t need to travel on that day.

A picture’s worth a thousand words

I’ve not written a travel blog this week, instead I want to share a great site with you.

We all know about a picture being worth a thousand words, but what about a thousand words making a picture! This image is called a wordle and it’s composed of the words I used to write about my first day’s hike on the Kungsleden Trail.

Cool or what?!

You can create your own wordle at: http://www.wordle.net/create

30. Kungsleden day 1 wordle

Walking the Kungsleden – Part III

This is the third and last blog about my hike on the Kungsleden Trail in Swedish Lappland last August. I posted a blog about ‘Planning a hike on the Kungsleden’ on 3 March 2015, so if you’re after practical information that’s the one to read.

DAY 5: Singi to Kebnekaise – 8 miles

We set off about 9.45am to walk 8 miles to Kebnekaise Mountain Station. Ian had marked this as an easy day on the itinerary so I expected we’d be there in time for lunch … I later discovered he had marked the wrong day!

2014-08-19 14.05.17We walked across familiar terrain, through another valley with a river running through it and tall mountains either side, but for the first time we had to climb hills and cross rivers. The weather was cold, wet and windy and we could hardly see the mountains for mist. On top of that, I was feeling tired and hiking just seemed like hard work.2014-08-19 14.37.01

The weather cleared about three quarters of an hour before we arrived at Kebnakaise at 2.45pm. Kebnakaise is a massive place but gets very busy. As well as accommodating hikers on the 2014-08-19 17.26.37Kungsleden, nearby Mt Kebnakaise attracts climbers who often helicopter in. By the time we arrived all the smaller rooms were booked so we ended up in a 22 bed dormitory, which cost 460SEK (£40) a bed. We also booked dinner and breakfast, which altogether cost 986SEK (about £85) for two. This is definitely not a budget hike!

We had our first shower for five days then went down for dinner, which was a posh affair. The menu was almost entirely fish –rollmops, salmon and smoked salmon for starters and mackerel and potatoes for main course. We sat next to two Swedish guys who had come to climb Mt Kebnakaise but hadn’t managed it because of the weather. They told us that the Sami (the indigenous inhabitants of Sweden) own most of the land in the north and run the helicopter and boat businesses.

Later in the bar, we caught up with some of the UK hiking group. They had climbed Mt Kebnakaise today, but the visibility was very poor and only a couple of people had made it to the top. We saw photos, taken in the few minutes the weather had cleared, and it looked amazing.

 

DAY 6: Kebnakaise to Nikkaluokta – 12 miles

We got up at 7am for a massive buffet breakfast in readiness for our final day of hiking. Just before we set off at 8.30am we ran into George (the Scot). He was about to catch a helicopter to Nikkaluokta because of blisters … so maybe putting talc on your feet and wearing ‘1,000 mile’ socks is not a good recommendation!

We had 12 miles to walk to Nikkaluokta where we were catching the 4.20pm bus to Kiruna. The hiking on this section was not very scenic, mainly through scrubby bushland and along boardwalks, and the only wild life we saw was a lemming and a few small birds.2014-08-20 12.36.07

There is a boat service some of the way, but it drops passengers 5.6km from Nikkaluokta. A French couple we met at a Sami café near the boat terminal were very disappointed when they realised they still had to walk that distance. The café sold reindeer burgers but we had a salmon open sandwich instead.

2014-08-20 11.28.46As we neared Nikkaluokta we met Lee and Jonathon, the two British guys, walking in the other direction. They had reached the end of the trail, dropped off their packs and were hiking back to the Sami restaurant for a reindeer burger. Jonathon was still wearing his trusty moccasins and work socks and hadn’t developed any blisters.

We arrived at Nikkaluokta at 2pm so spent a couple of hours devouring tea and cake and looking at the art in a small Sami-run café / art gallery near the bus stop. Lee and Jonathon easily made it back in time for the bus despite walking an extra 11.2 km.

2014-08-20 13.57.45The bus dropped us off in Kiruna and we followed the big British group to the youth hostel. By the time they had checked in, all the hostel beds were taken, but it worked in our favour because we got ‘hotel beds’ which turned out to be much better value. A double room with our own ensuite and breakfast included cost 850SEK (£63), while the others were paying 300SEK (£22) each for a dorm and shared bathroom with no breakfast.

That night we went out for dinner at an Italian restaurant. A massive pizza and a big glass of wine seemed like a fitting way to celebrate the end of our hike on the Kungsleden.