Author: Angela (page 1 of 3)

LAZY DAYS ON KAMPOT RIVER

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Kampot, on the south coast of Cambodia, was the breath of fresh air and relaxation we needed after the stinking hot encounters with Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam followed by Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital.

It is slightly up river from the coast and the beach town called Kep. On arrival in Kampot we tuk tukked our way out of town and up the other side of the river bank to accommodation called Naga, where we found a chilled out backpacker vibe and Blair, our Canadian friend, who we first met in Laos. Unfortunately Blair was leaving that afternoon so we just had enough time to catch up and for Blair to inform us about the various creatures living in our bamboo hut – the same one he had just checked out of.

We never got to meet the friendly frog that lived in the window frame but did become very well acquainted with the family of rats living in the wall cavity. On day one they chewed through our small backpack to finish off a pack of Oreos. The rest of the time we could hear and see them scuttling through the walls. The lack of hut-frog was more than compensated for by the variety of frogs that lived in the shared bathroom and had a particular penchant for the toilet seat and bowl.

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The toilet frog.

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The view from our guesthouse.

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Friendly neighbours.

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The start of one of the most amazing sunsets we’ve ever seen.

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We call this one ‘Maura at Sunset’

The main appeal for me was relaxing in our riverside bar and jumping into the water to cool off whenever the heat got too much. Another highlight was the amazing crab lunch at Kep market. We sat next to the shore watching people haul in crab pots while we got our hands dirty breaking into the sweetness covered in the famous Kampot pepper sauce.

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Kep Beach. Notice the Cambodian guy in the background going for a swim fully clothed.

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Catching our crab lunch.

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The famous Kampot pepper.

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Crab fingers.

The furthest we ventured was up a nearby hill on scooters to see an abandoned monstrosity of a French built casino and the even eerier newly built casino by the Cambodians, namely due to its enormous proportions and complete lack of guests. The hour long drive up the hill was along a winding road with sweeping curves and hairpin bends and as per normal the ride was the most exhilarating part, closely followed by being immersed in clouds that rolled in out of nowhere.

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Accurate road sign.

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One of the many abandoned buildings from the French colonial era.

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They had all that space and they built…..this….

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Once abandoned now hosting Easter mass.

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Before the clouds…

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…and after.

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Inside the old casino.

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In the clouds.

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The lone monk.

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On the road back down.

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SEAFOOD & SUNBURN

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After the cool hills of Dalat we hot-footed it down to the ocean-side resort of Mui Ne for some extra chill time.

We stayed in a beautiful backpackers hostel, called Backpackers Village, which had a lush pool and pretty bar and restaurant. Naturally the first thing we did was order a beer then jump into the pool, followed by a bit more beer and hanging out by the pool.

Of the 4 days there 3 were spent doing pretty much nothing – which Maura has observed, is probably my favourite thing to do and I have to concur; the more horizontal I am the happier I seem to be.

However, on one of our days we hired a moped – me in the driver seat and M Bricks clinging on for dear life in the pillion position –  to explore the nearby fishing village and find the best bit of beach. We kind of failed on both counts: although we could see all the moored boats from a high part of the road we couldn’t actually find a way in to the village. Every time we got near the water side we were sent packing by villagers – I guess they’re not too keen on tourists oogling them with romantic notions of fishing life whilst they slog their guts out. Weirdly the beach was equally as difficult to access as every inch is ‘owned’ by a resort, hence all the pool time.

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One thing that Mui Ne has in abundance, which is very easy to get your hands on, is seafood; probably more seafood than I have ever seen in one place and in more shapes and varieties than I had ever imagined. Amongst the strangest options for dinner were snake, terrapin and alligator. We opted for the safer bets of lobster, mussels, clams, oysters, calamari and a few snails for good measure, all for a ridiculously cheap price, much to our delight. Our new found friend – Liam from Leeds – was not a seafood fan, but he was game for a bit of lobster and even managed to keep down an oyster, but looked on in awe/disbelief/disgust as we greedily ate a tables-worth of sea critters.

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Thankfully we left without dodgy stomachs but a tad sunburnt from blazing a trail on the moped.

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TREKKING TO TRIBES (PART ONE)

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We headed out from Luang Prabang and hit the road to explore a bit of northern Laos. We were joined by our new travelling buddy, Chris, with shared plans to see the sights, do a bit of light trekking and kayaking and generally chill out – what could possibly go wrong?

The 3 hour minibus journey on the back seat felt more like 15 hours due to the horrible bumpy roads and lack of air circulation, but we were handsomely rewarded in all respects upon arrival in Nong Khiaw – a tiny town straddling a crystal clear river with huge shear rock faces towering in the background. We found cheap rooms with big balconies and (slightly obscured) views of the river.

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Nong Khiaw has a slow pace that eases away the guilt of spending a couple of days of sitting on a balcony in between finding the best places to eat and drink. On night two we hooked up with Amy, a mutual travelling buddy and part of the Luang Prabang crew, who inevitably had found all the cool people to hang out with, namely a trio of super cute and talented Canadians who played guitar and sang their souls out for our entertainment, two equally cute English girls, Jess and Maisie, and a very rich and hilarious Laos-born American dude. We ended the evening on a bridge, under the stars, drinking beers and generally feeling like 20 year olds again.

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After the laziness we planned to go on a 2 day trek that would end with us staying 2 nights in the next riverside destination, called Mong Noi, and then returning downstream in kayaks to Nong Khiaw.

Day one of the trek took us through minority villages, countryside and jungle. It was hot and hard work, but with no other tourists in sight and stumbling across tiny dwellings with just one family and their livestock hidden amongst the trees, it was well worth it. We spent the night in a remote village and were hosted by the chief and his wife. Dinner was served on the floor of their hut and was delicious – with the minor exception of the chicken head I accidentally popped into my mouth; only realising my mistake when the eyeball burst out of its socket. The highlight of this village was undoubtedly the hordes of children wanting to play with us and bestow us with gifts of flower bracelets and hand picked herbs.

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Can you spot the lady?

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The amazing grass lady’s home.

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Our guide, Put, relaxing amongst the bamboo.

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After a long day of trekking, Chris really enjoyed having these small children hanging off him.

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The boys played running around hitting each other & the girls played with a skipping rope. Just like home.

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We bought a beautiful scarf from this tiny lady. Angela sized person for scale.

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Learning about the solar system.

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Dinner with the chief’s wife.

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River weed, morning glory, fish laap, chicken and sticky rice. Delicious.

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The time Angela ate a chicken’s head.

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The huts are raised on stilts to provide shade from the hot sun and extra storage space. Oh and to avoid snakes.

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Our hosts: the village chief, Bounlit, and his wife.

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Read more about day 2 of the trek and our ‘amazing’ kayaking skills in part 2.

TREKKING TO TRIBES (PART DEUX)

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Day two of the trek took us out of the hills, through watermelon fields, to a village school where we dropped off some children’s books we had brought with us and to a “weaving village” in the most insanely beautiful location. We also had some much needed boat time before being dropped at Mong Noi, our final destination, which did not disappoint in the visuals.

Over the next day we regained our energy by lazing in hammocks at our waterside huts, ready for the 4 hour kayak back to our starting point. We were joined by a new guide with minimal English, but we managed to relay to him that Maura and I had no kayaking experience. He insisted that all 3 of us wear our life jackets but had no other advice to impart.

The first hour on the water was placid and peaceful….and then we hit rapids!! Chris had a little dunking, but kept his cool despite losing his Go-Pro camera. Then it was our turn in our double kayak. The waves quickly filled the kayak and then we fell in. We miraculously managed to keep hold of our hats, glasses and paddles whilst rushing down the rapid and clinging to the upturned kayak. We used all our strength to swim ashore and drag the kayak with us whilst our guide nonchalantly watched on from a distance. We rested on the rocky riverbank to catch our breath and try and regain some strength until our guide came over to encourage us to get back in the saddle. His advice for the next rapid was to power through it.

The next rapid was bigger and scarier than the last. Once again the kayak quickly filled with water and Maura fell in, whilst I managed to stay in the useless piece of plastic. As I saw my panic stricken fiancé being dragged off to certain death I shoved my paddle out for her to hold on to whilst trying to bail out with my spare hand and not tip over.

I screamed out for help and our guide came over to take Maura to safety. I frantically paddled to the side. Once everyone was out of the water Chris and I shouted at the guide to get a boat to come and collect us, which it promptly did. In hindsight I realise, because of our life jackets, we weren’t in much danger, but at the time I thought we were in Hollywood movie where someone had to die. Thankfully no one else was around to see the melodramatics.

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Aforementioned Hollywood movie.

Back in Nong Khiaw we celebrated being alive then spent a couple more days taking a well deserved break, exploring the surrounding hills on mopeds.

Despite being convinced that we were headed for a watery grave, I now realise we were actually in paradise.

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Morning mist.

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Maura the Explorer.

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We gave this school some books and pens. An alarmingly high number of children in Laos have never seen a book or, if they have, it is an old textbook. This pioneering publishing company is working to rectify this and get kids excited about reading. You can read the story about how Big Brother Mouse has begun to have a big impact on literacy rates here.

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Drinking with the locals from a petrol can.

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Watermelon farm

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River weed drying in the sun.

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These two were brilliant – they asked to have their picture taken and cried with laughter when they saw it.

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She wanted to try some of Maura’s Sprite. The fizz went up her nose and made her eyes water.

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The weaving village.

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Mung Noi

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Due to the tragic and sad loss of Chris’s GoPro camera we have no images from that dramatic day, but this is a pretty accurate representation.

Our last meal with the lovely Chris. Or Adam Levine, depends who you ask.

Our last meal with the lovely Chris. Or Adam Levine, depends who you ask.

Some photographs from our mopeding through the villages:

BAGAN: TEMPLE TOWN

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Bagan is a mind-bending town in the middle of Myanmar with over 4,000 Buddhist temples in a few square miles of land.

The classic beautiful shot taken of Bagan is across the green fields with the red temple tops piercing through. Having seen this image a squillion times I was a bit anxious that the reality would not live up to the photo. I needn’t have worried though as being there surpassed any feelings conjured up by a picture.

Our first foray into the temples was on bikes with a fold out map. We got up ridiculously early and set off in the dark, looking cool with our head torches on, to capture the sunrise. We found a decent sized temple and clambered up bare foot to join some other early birds; one of whom was a middle-aged American, only too pleased to narrate his thoughts and feelings on the world to a captive audience.

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The sun came up and lit up the foreground to reveal the pointy tops of a never-ending array of temples. Shortly afterwards dozens of hot air balloons launched off and drifted all around us. The balloons were so close that we were able to shout hello to the passengers and hear their reply.

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We spent the rest of the day following our noses to explore the back paths between temples and running across small villages. We felt very privileged to have such easy access to a wonderful world and without hordes of people around us. The equivalent in Europe would be roped off and guarded with a hefty entrance fee.

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The second time we ventured out we treated our bums and legs to E-Bikes, which are basically electric powered mopeds. The bikes were easy to ride and hilarious fun. Again, the freedom to roam and get lost felt whilst “speeding” along at 30mph was great.

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We also did a little exploration on foot to find a small village community tucked between the town and river. There was not a single tourist in sight and the locals were a little bemused to see us, however the kids playing on the riverbanks were too engrossed in throwing mud at each other to notice us.

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To top things off we were wise enough to try out a restaurant called Wetherspoons as our wisdom was rewarded with amazing BLTs, salads and whisky sours. Needless to say almost our entire food and drink budget was spent here.

For me this place matched the awe felt at Machu Picchu and its surrounding villages; it has a powerful vibe and immense beauty accompanied by low-key locals just getting on with daily life.

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YANGON: FROM THE STREETS TO THE STRAND

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We travelled into Myanmar (aka Burma) from Thailand using one of the land border crossings that recently re-opened. We walked over “Friendship Bridge” and into the town of Myawaddy. The town, like I suspect many other border towns, has a wild and dangerous feel to it. There’s a tense buzz in the air and an unfriendliness that exudes from the men milling about and making onward arrangements.

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The next morning we took a minibus from Myawaddy to Yangon. The entire 13 hour journey wound through the hills and countryside and we got to experience for the first time the views of vast plains with small hills plonked here and there. We also saw the serene old-fashioned way of life lived by most people: teak huts; bulls pulling ploughs; and chickens and children running amok.

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After our scenic journey from the border our first impression of Yangon was that it’s a traffic choked city with a dilapidated feel and all the usual grime. We decided to try and lift our spirits by visiting the city’s most revered sight: a giant gold Buddhist pagoda called Shwedagon. However, on arrival we discovered that the top part of the building was covered for renovation. It didn’t help that we had also stepped back into a world where we were the main focal point and source of amusement to many locals (my delicate ego struggles with too much pointing and laughing).

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We spent the rest of our time wandering the city on foot. We saw markets with dodgy-acting  gem traders, oodles of street food stalls, people mingling in the park, a pavement lined with makeshift homes and protest banners, young men playing football in the wide backstreets between grand decaying colonial buildings and night-time beer guzzling outside restaurants.

One evening we rewarded ourselves with a few cocktails in the imposing Strand Hotel and its sophisticated bar. Our initial concerns about being kicked out for our dusty shoes and the “we’ve-been-travelling-in-these-clothes-for-8-months” look seemed to melt away by the time we had finished our second drink.

Despite the slow start, we fell in love with Yangon; it has a personality unlike any other city we have visited  – with its occupants’ simple lifestyle at odds with the majestic colonial buildings and a feeling of safety and friendliness despite its chaotic roads and footpaths – all of which means I have been hankering to go back ever since we left. 

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BANGKOK BANQUET

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What a brilliant surprise Bangkok has been!! I was expecting a seedy, dirty, chaotic city full of travellers seeking out all the worst aspects. Instead I found a modern, vibrant city with so much more to offer than ping pong shows.

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By far the greatest treat has been the variety of food on offer and how amazing it tastes. There are food stalls on most streets serving up all kinds of fast food and lots of little cafes and restaurants frequented by locals and tourists alike. I’ve never seen such an array of food, at least half of which I did not know existed until this week.

We had seafood Tom Yum at a street stall and it was fresh, zingy and filled with lots of little sea critters. There are dozens of papaya salads to choose from; those we have tried have been spicy and delicious. Then there’s the roasted or grilled or BBQ meat which is better than I have ever tasted. I could go on but I’m sure you get the picture.

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All this for £2.20.

The second biggest delight has been seeing the diverse society and apparent acceptance amongst Thais. I’ve seen more lesbians in the past week than you can shake a stick at. For once I felt like part of the crowd and not someone that stands out. There are also lots of transsexual people holding down generic jobs and not working in the sex industry as tired cliches would have us believe.

Of course there is still the underbelly of sex shows and prostitution but it is in its own area of the city for those who want to experience it and seemingly absent from most other parts. We passed through this area on our way to the neighbouring gay village where we had a few gins with a friend of Maura’s, Tim.

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As is part of the traveller experience we bumped into friends we made somewhere else in the world – Danny and Teresa from Spain who we met in India. Together we headed to one of Bangkok’s night markets called Talad Rot Fai (the Train Market). The place was HUGE!! It was about the size of Spitalfields + Camden + Borough Market x 2 and covered the same range of goodies i.e. food, clothes, furniture and curiosities.

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Finally I just need to mention the giant lizards we saw today loafing by the river. I have no idea what they were but the biggest was over one metre long and a foot wide and was terrifying.

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A VERY GOAN CHRISTMAS

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The North and South of India are very different. The North is crowded and chaotic, with cities overrun with monkeys and historic forts and palaces everywhere. The south is calmer, cleaner and has more natural beauty than historic buildings. Goa is in the south but is different again from the surrounding southern states.

We got the impression that there is a lot of disdain amongst Indians for this tiny southern state. It is known for being full of westerners who like to party hard and have different morals from most Indians. I think Goa also has a bit of a bad rep with some westerners too, for similar reasons to many Indians.

We spent almost 3 weeks in a beach town called Palolem and exploring the surrounding area. The Portugese ran Goa until the sixties and they have left behind big villas and a Christian following. As it was Christmas there were stars hanging outside houses and nativity scenes that had been lovingly created. Still, in the 30 plus degree heat it didn’t feel quite like Christmas for two Brits. The locals wear western style clothes and are not bothered by tourists flashing the flesh in bikinis and skimpy clothes. There are also more restaurants and bars catering to western tastes.

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Although the place felt less indian the differences were enjoyable: being able to walk around in shorts and a vest in the heat was a welcome relief; after having curry every meal for 50 days straight I was ready for a full English with Heinz beans and HP sauce and the decorations hung outside our beach hut helped us with missing home at Christmas.

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Christmas Day started well…

Goa has been in a state of flux recently due to the state clamping down on noise and beach parties. Now the de rigueur is for headphone parties / silent discos. Although there were a fair amount of young people there to party there were also families and older folk. The most outrageous pissed up behaviour we saw was from the hordes of young indian men on New Year’s Eve who were taking full advantage of the occasion to run up to western women to give them full body hugs. Other than that Palolem was quite tame and not somewhere to head if you’re solely looking to rave it up.

Albeit somewhat western due to the booze, beans and boobies you still know you are in India when a couple of cows slowly shuffle past you on the sand looking for some shade behind a fishing boat, or someone sets off a firework a few metres from a restaurant which inevitably goes wrong and explodes on the floor showering everyone in pretty little flames and when the fresh seafood options include fish tikka, tandoori whole fish and Goan prawn curry.

cows on the beach

Photograph courtesy of Anthony Foster

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Photograph courtesy of Anthony Foster


I should also mention that the beaches are stunning with golden sand, gentle waves and palm trees. Also we were extremely lucky to have a small gang of new friends with us – Zowie, Anthony, Russell and Tiffany – and the family from whom we rented the beach hut from were very generous and friendly e.g. cooking us dinner and taking us to a wedding. Needless to say we had an amazing time flip flopping about, chilling on the beach and eating some amazing seafood. Goa is now number one on our honeymoon destination shortlist!

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Our little gang. Tiffany & Russell on the left and Anthony & Zowie on the right.

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Our home for almost 3 weeks.

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Sofia, Anthony, Swagger (with bread roll in mouth) & Samuel (with the big eyes)

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They get married so young in India….

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Only kidding…here are the real size Bride and Groom, Belina & Melvin.

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The buffet with at least 8 different types of curry.

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Day trip to Kola Beach – sea is red because of the sand (we hope).

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Freshwater lagoon at Kola Beach.

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Our favourite beach, Patnem.

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The Christmas crew: (L-R) Anthony; Zowie; Russell; Maura; and me.

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Sunset at Palolem. This on repeat for 3 weeks. Not bad, eh?

MAGICAL MISTY MUNNAR

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Munnar, famed for its tea plantations, has a surprising lack of tea tasting opportunities, but they put on a pretty good trek. We spent a day rambling up through the tea fields and down through spice farms with an eclectic mix of travellers, including the lovely Rosie from our girl gang in Hampi.

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The trekking crew.

We started in the early morning when mist was still hugging the ground. It soon cleared up and revealed beautiful views of pristine plantations. At mid morning we reached the peak of the journey and stopped for boiled eggs and bread. Yum! By the time we’d finished our grub we were engulfed in dense clouds, which made for some cool pics.

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Those tiny white dots in the middle are tea pickers.

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Before.

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After.

The way down was a bit treacherous as it was slippy and difficult to see the ground, consequently there were a few trips but none more spectacular than the young French women doing a sliding tackle on an older British guy and taking him out. He didn’t see the funny side.

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The beginning of the end.

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Magical floating poisonous caterpillar.

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SPIDER

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Taken shortly before the infamous British/French collision of 2014.

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The new Twinnings advert.

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Snacks and a rest at 1pm, still another 2.5 hours to go…

The trek ended back at our lovely cottage wedged into the side of a hill, where we were all rewarded with some more food and time to discuss our scrapes and swollen knees.

Also staying at the cottage was a French women (not the faller-overer) with her Rajasthani boyfriend. The guy was a serious dope smoker and had lots of cool stories which were pumped full of hilarious exaggeration and drama. The French women, who was much more low key had to rein him in on occasion.

Overall Munnar was a really cool place to chill out, catch up with new friends and make even newer ones. Its definitely worth sticking on the list.

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The view from our balcony.

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The view from our balcony.

RAJASTHAN & THE MONKEY MAFIA

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Rajasthan is the state that packs the biggest punch in terms of history, maharajas, palaces, forts and other regal bling. We just dipped our toe into the state by visiting Jaipur and Bundi, but feel like we got a pretty good taster.

HIGHLIGHTS FOR THE EYES

Amber Fort

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The Amber Fort in Jaipur is huge, majestic and beautiful. The view of the Fort from the outside is matched in awe by the inside decoration, such as the mirrored walls and ceilings.

 

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Jal Mahal (Water Palace)

Also in Jaipur this palace sits in the middle of a lake. The surreal positioning makes it look like a mirage.

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Bundi Palace

Propped up high on the outskirts of town the palace has a particular charm due to being neglected and in a state of decay. The colourful painted murals of the Raj and British Army are offset by crumbling surrounds and the smell of bat poo.

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HIGHLIGHTS FOR THE HEART

Our guide at the Amber Fort was selected by us on the basis of his magnificent moustache. It turned out we couldn’t understand most of what he told us. However he had oodles of charisma and gravitas and was keen on taking photos of us in ridiculous positions whilst anywhere from 50 to 100 bemused tourists looked on.

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Jaipur has a temple high up on a hill, known as the Monkey Temple. Upon arrival a gang of boys tried harassing us into buying protection for the walk up the hill like some sort of monkey Mafia Racket. We resisted and braved the troupe of aggressive monkeys by ourselves. To counter balance the aggressive monkeys with huge cahoonas was a smaller one dressing itself up in a sari and a baby monkey riding a pig.

 

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At Jaipur’s City Palace the most notable part of our visit was seeing TV’s Clare Balding and her wife, also on a tour. We spent most of our time watching her and debating whether to speak to her or leave her alone. Given that we couldn’t think of anything original to say we opted for just taking a sly photo.

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SUMMARY

Our eyes and hearts were filled with lots of memories in our short time there. I reckon we will be back one day to top them up with more.

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