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Planning your next trip to Cambodia? Here is what you shouldn’t miss…

I planned my trip to Cambodia sitting in an hammock overlooking the Mekong river in the Four Thousand Islands in Laos and the planning – which by itself is an amazing part of any travel – was utterly special. Even though I had a month to spend in Cambodia, throughout the planning I got a bit overwhelmed by the feeling of not being able to see everything that I wanted to see but at the end of the day, as in any other trip, the key is to make absolutely the most of every location you choose to stop, keeping in mind that a couple of places might need a bit more pre-planning.

All I have seen in Cambodia was unforgettable but here are my absolute highlights – in no particular order – that could even fit a well organized 2 weeks trip.

TEMPLES OF ANGKOR

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Angkor Wat

The site is simply superb and in my view it fully justifies the fact that it’s always on top of the list of things to visit in Cambodia. It’s the largest religious monument in the world and since it covers 162.6 hectares, it needs pretty good planning before tackling it, if you want to get the most of it without going back to your guesthouse absolutely knackered to do anything else. How long to spend visiting Angkor is down to you; we took a 3-day pass and, even though a lot more could have been seen, 3 days for us worked just perfect: start early to beat both the crowds and the heat, rest and have a quick lunch somewhere during the hottest hours and leave the site after sunset. Before starting visiting Angkor, we planned the temples we wanted to see on each day, we found a friendly tuk tuk driver with a bit of English and we agreed with him both the price and the daily route to save time each day.

PHNOM PENH

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Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

As a part of any trip to Cambodia, a visit to its capital should be paid, particularly since it is there where you will mostly confront yourself with Cambodia’s past: Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. I have dedicated a full post to my visit to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, located right downtown. My strongest advice is – before visiting – to document yourself as much as you can (I’ve given a few suggestions of interesting readings in my post). It is true that Phnom Penh is not only Tuol Sleng and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields (located about 17 km from Phnom Penh) but it is definitely a fundamental part of the city. Take your time and be prepared for one of the toughest visit you could possibly do. There is plenty more to visit in Phnom Penh, including the beautiful Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda (go just before closing time at lunch time and you will have it almost by yourself) and the National Museum. I would say that you will need a few days to do the most interesting sites and get a feel for the city. Many people we met during our travels disliked Phnom Pehn; I liked it, busy, noisy and thriving at anytime of the day (particularly early morning, as any city/town in Asia) and found it extremely interesting to walk around and discover the different areas.

KRATIE

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Dolphin-watching in Kampi, near Kratie

I have always appreciated how beautiful it is when a city sits on a river. If the river is the Mekong then it’s an absolute delight. Kratie is a thriving town right on the Mekong, a few hours south from the Laos-Cambodia border; plenty of guesthouses and small restaurants make it a good place to stop. The town itself is not the main reason why you should visit but it’s a great base to explore the surrounding area, knowing that once back from your day exploring you can grab a beer and sit with the locals on the Mekong banks enjoying the sunset (don’t look down though, cause that’s where Cambodians throw all their garbage, unfortunately :-(. Hire a moped, leave the town and be prepared to be gobsmacked: lush green vegetation, almost abandoned temples with freely roaming cows, friendly and enthusiast kids keen to play and talk in English and one of the most stunning activities you can possibly enjoy in the gloaming sunset light: dolphin-watching in Kampi, around 16 km from Kratie town. The Irrawaddy dolphin is an endangered species throughout Asia and seeing it swimming in the Mekong is magical. We absolutely loved it.

SEN MONOROM

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Elephants at the Elephant Valley project in Sen Monorom

The town itself (exceptionally dusty, at least when we visited in February) is not particularly attractive and it is definitely quite a detour from any other part in Cambodia (we got there from Kratie) and you will need a couple of days on your side if you want to visit this part of the country but it is totally worth it. What really made the difference was our experience at the Elephant Valley Project. We spent a full day there and we learnt so much from the guys that manage and run that we came back to Europe wanting to learn a lot more about Cambodia and about some of the specific issues in the region of Mondulkiri (land expropriation, rubber plantations etc), all topics addressed in depth by the staff at the EVP. It’s not cheap and you will need to plan and book in advance but it’s one of those things totally worth it.

KEP

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Kep restaurants overlooking the sea

Personally, I would only need one reason to go to Kep: amazing crab. That to me would be enough reason to visit. On top of that, Kep area offers some of the most amazing natural scenery and wildlife, just a moped ride from town. The fact that we chose to stay at The Boat House made the difference. The French owner was extremely helpful and keen to show us the best spots around town by handing us out a hand-drawn map with the most interesting things not to miss: buffalo herds, hidden beaches, salt mines, temples etc all via countryside unpaved roads that made the moped ride far more exciting. And the best thing of all? During your exploration you will rarely cross your path with any other tourist. I can’t recommend it enough but make sure to leave a full day in Kep, enough to explore the outdoor. If you can pay a visit to the daily market, do it. If not, in the evening head to the restaurants at the Crab Market to get some of the most delicious crab fried with Kampot pepper. We tried a few and Kimly was by far our favourite (in terms of portions and taste!).

BATTAMBANG

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Phnom Banan Temple

A town with a thriving market (that is worth a visit itself) set in an amazing natural setting with plenty of history to soak into. We spent 2 nights in Battambang and it was enough to explore the town and spend one full day exploring the area. In all our stops we usually rented a moped and explore the countryside but on this occasion we decided to get an English speaking tuk tuk driver to make sure we were not missing anything out since there are plenty of things to see and quite away from one another: beautiful hill-top temples with gorgeous views (Phnom Sampeau and Phnom Banan), amazing caves with thousands of bats flying out every evening creating one of the most stunning natural “show” I have ever seen (you will not be the only one enjoying the phenomenon), trees completely covered in giant fruit bats etc. A day spent in the countryside outside Battambang is the best way to get to know this corner of Cambodia.

If you still have a couple of days on your side and fancy a bit of seaside, you may want to check out Koh Rong Samloem, a small island off Sihanoukville and definitely my favourite island/beach so far! Plenty of info in my post, how to get there and where to sleep!

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Not a bad spot to spend a few days…
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Escape to Sri Lanka, a paradise for the senses.

I had got to the end of January thinking that I had been missing Asia for far too long and I decided to book a trip to Sri Lanka with my travel buddy Roger. Mad decision taking into account the moment we were in (just about to relocate) but definitely one of the best decision EVER. Now that I have been back in Europe for a couple of weeks I can say it was one of the best short trips (only 15 days) that I have ever organized in such a short time (less than 2 weeks). We came back at the beginning of March, after 15 days of rice and curry, with memories full of bright colours, the head inebriated of freshly cut flowers and incense fragrances and with a bit of suntan too 😉

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I have not been to India yet (on my to do list!) but my travel buddy, that went there not too long ago partaking in a rickshaw challenge, said that Sri Lanka is not too different in smells, flavours and colours, with the big advantage that being such a small country makes it quite easy to move around – a lot easier than the vastness of India. Unfortunately, in 15 days I haven’t been able to reach some of the areas that have been recently developing tourism, recovering from the destruction of the civil war and that would have surely deserved a visit. Still, what I saw was beautiful and the 15 days in Sri Lanka were an absolute delight for all our senses (smell in particular).

A few things to take into account when it comes to planning your journey:

Transport

Sri Lanka is a pretty small country and some of the destinations that you will probably visit are reachable using their railway system. The best source of information for train journeys, how to book tickets, which seat to choose etc is, as always, The Man in Seat 61. Booking Sri Lankan trains can be a bit tricky and on some trains (Kandy-Badulla, for example) it needs to be done in advance if you want to get a good seat (that to me meant only a window seat with the option to open the window itself for the fabulous views). I have used Visit Sri Lanka Tours (English/Sri Lankan agency) on 2 train journeys and I was absolutely happy with them. I booked my tickets while in the UK (paying with Paypal) and I collected them as soon as I arrived at Colombo airport. Easy! You pay a small commission (of course) but it saves you the hassle of not knowing whether you will get a good seat and it allows you to plan your onward travels.

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Train from Colombo Fort to Anuradhapura

For all the other locations not covered by railway, you have a few options: 1) local buses without AC 2) local buses with AC  3) private or shared car 4) tuk tuk.

Do take into account that local bus drivers are nuts; though they don’t drive as bad as Laotian bus drivers (just as an example), they do drive extremely fast and it seems that the bigger the bus, the faster it goes, whizzing through villages packed with school kids, markets, traders etc making the whole experience a bit nerve-racking. Whatever transport you choose will depend on 2 main factors: price and distance. In our travels, we have always preferred local transport (less comfortable but much more fun!) but this time having only 15 days we realized that on some occasions it was vital to be able to cut short our travel time, having more time to visit whatever our next destination offered. For this reason, we opted for a private car on 2 occasions (Ella/Kataragama and Mirissa/Colombo Airport) and it was the best choice; more expensive than the local transport (and without that local feeling) but definitely worth it to save time. Also, take into account that having your own private transport allows you to stop and visit something else whilst en route, and that’s a big plus when it comes to discovering a country. Whatever means of transport you will choose…barter, barter, barter is the general rule for every transport (except local buses and trains). It’s not impossible to obtain a fair price that makes everyone happy.

Plenty of tourists choose to hire a car with driver for their whole time in Sri Lanka and that is not as expensive as some may think but you will need to shop around before choosing your driver (or use one agency that will dramatically inflate the price); though it can be a good option (particularly if you have got kids and if you are travelling in a group) and offer you more flexibility, although you will surely miss out on some fun experiences!

Accommodation

Sri Lanka has accommodation for all budgets. It’s not as cheap as South East Asia but in the end with a bit of research we were able to find decent accommodation at a decent price (pre-booked, to save time). We found that home-stays offered the best value accommodation with a true Sri Lankan experience (around $15-20/night with breakfast).

Most guest houses and home-stays offer meals, eating in is a good option for at least 2 reasons: 1) food is always fresh and made from scratch and 2) you get to know your hosts better.

Taking into account Sri Lanka’s lush nature and wildlife, it’s worth trying to go off-the-beaten track for a couple of days, sleeping in the jungle or remote settings being surrounded only by nature and its noises… and its residents :-). These experiences will need a bit more investment (both in time and money), nothing astronomical but absolutely worth every single penny.

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Back to the jungle at Polwaththa Eco-lodges, 1 hour outside Kandy.

We visited Sri Lanka in the second half of February and we had AC only in a couple of rooms. If you are on a budget it’s not a must but if you struggle with heat and humidity (especially coming from cold winter), maybe it’s something to factor in. All the rooms we stayed in except 2 (that my boyfriend chose) were generally pretty basic (standard bed, small table and chair), very clean and all came with mosquito net.

Food

I was a bit unsure whether I would enjoy the local cuisine as much as I did in SE Asia, but I turned out that I loved their curries so much that I had it for breakfast (including deep fried fish curry at 7 AM), lunch and dinner. They can be very spicy but (hopefully!) they will tell you if the dish you have ordered is mind-blowing and you’d better opt for a milder one.

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Breakfast rice and curry, Sacred City Resort in Anuradhapura.

In the most touristy locations (Kandy, Ella) you can easily find Western food but personally I stuck to Sri Lankan food during our entire trip and only had one cappuccino over 15 days and the effects where…let’s say…catastrophic, so I quickly went back to my Ceylon tea and fresh fruit juices. My body was no longer used to milk and diaries (apparently I had no problems at all in eating tons of curd…!!) at the point that, once back in the UK, it took me over a week to get back to normality, eating and drinking the usual huge quantities of cheese and milk. Panic over.

Sri Lankan food is reasonably priced and with $10/12 a day you will eat well (sometimes a lot less). It’s worth having breakfast in your home-stay for a couple of dollars since – in most cases – you will eat so much that you will skip lunch. Also take into account that sometimes a rice and curry portion could be enough for a couple of people if not more (portions are huge) so unless you are particularly ravenous you could easily share one.

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Good size breakfast to keep you going at Camellia home-stay in Sigiriya!

Fresh fruit is plentiful and absolutely delicious; the most common you will find will be papaya, mango, pineapple, guava and watermelon, usually squeezed in refreshing juices.

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Watermelon juice with a view, Tangalla.

Throughout our 2 weeks in Sri Lanka we didn’t have any problem with food and we tried as much as we could; one thing that we avoided was the buffet food (you don’t know how long food has been sitting there) and the so called short-eats, a sort of Sri Lankan snacks. Restaurants and bakeries arrange trays of these baked and deep fried goods and when you order they leave the tray on the table; you choose what you want and then the tray goes back half empty to be restocked. I am sure they are delicious but they go through several hands before going straight to your mouth so, unless your body is ready, if you want to try what short-eats are, just go to a proper bakery and choose a bit of everything. Safer and equally yummy.

To get to know more about Sri Lankan cuisine, have a look www.seriouseats.com, plenty of information on what to expect from Sri Lankan food and mouthwatering pictures.

Hospitality

Sri Lankan people are absolutely lovely. Particularly in the destinations off-the-beaten track, they will need your smile first to feel comfortable to approach you and talk – which it seems they can’t wait to do. Once they overcome their initial shyness, that’s done: their English might be broken but they love to practice, kids and elderly with no difference and they will try their best to communicate. Thinking what their country has gone through in the last decades, it is still quite striking that smile is what you see more often on their faces (both Sinhalese and Tamil). Smile, in the end, keeps the world moving.

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Schoolgirls in Sigiriya
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Tamil woman during a festival in Ella
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Preparing the flowers offer at the Temple of Tooth, Kandy.

Nature and wildlife

Apart from the amazing pagodas, cave temples, pilgrimage and spiritual sites, religious celebrations etc, Sri Lanka is possibly one of the most striking destinations I have been so far with such a stunning nature (including some amazing unspoilt beaches) and wildlife.

As soon as you leave the big cities (e.g. Colombo and Kandy) and just take a stroll or a bike ride on any side road, you will find yourself surrounded by amazingly colourful birds, beautiful bright butterflies, lushly green vegetation and any time is the right occasion for an unexpected encounter. We have been to Yala Natural Park but some of the most amazing animal encounters happened outside the park: an elephant crossing right in the middle of the road while en route from Ella to Kataragama, shining bee-eaters whizzing through our path, a crocodile chilling out in the lake just outside our nature resort, dozens of bright peacocks just a few meter from us, giant fruit bats in a city park, hungry monkeys on our way to the cave temples….everywhere you turn, there is something amazing to watch.

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And above all, her majesty….the blue whale, a few hours off Mirissa coast and undoubtedly the most shivering animal encounter I ever experienced.

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What else? Get a good guide, surf the travel forums and you are ready to go!

Get ready to be gobsmacked! 🙂