Thailand 2015




Our Itinerary
Tuesday 13/10/2015 Newcastle to Sydney
Wednesday 14/10/2015 Sydney 13.40pm to Singapore 19.05pm
Thursday 15/10/2015 Singapore 17.35pm to Bangkok 19.05pm
Friday 16/10/2015 Bangkok
Saturday 17/10/2015 Bangkok to Amphawa
Sunday 18/10/2015 Amphawa to Kanchanaburi
Monday 19/10/2015 Kanchanaburi
Tuesday 20/10/2015 Kanchanaburi to Bangkok
Wednesday 21/10/2015 Bangkok
Thursday 22/10/2015 Bangkok
Friday 23/10/2015 Bangkok 20.05pm to Singapore 23.30pm
Saturday 24/10/2015 Singapore 01.45am to Sydney 12.25pm


1 Australian Dollar = 26 BHT

                                                                      What It Cost


Sydney to Singapore return for 2                                           $904

Singapore to Bangkok return for 2                                        $431


Rucksack Inn – Singapore                                                        $43

O’Bangkok Hotel, Bangkok   2 nights@$26                           $52

Amphawa                                                                                    $60

Kanchanaburi raft hotel                                                          $24

Phon Peng Guesthouse – Kanchanaburi 2 nights @ $24   $48

Mango Lagoon Guesthouse – Bangkok 2 nights @ $28      $56


Damnoen Saduak Floating Market                                      $48

Tiger Temple                                                                            $48

Elephant Camp                                                                        $48

TOTAL                                                                                      $1,762                              


Tuesday 13th October, 2015

 Newcastle to Sydney

Today is Elkie’s second birthday – a two-year old dolly! Mark and Lauren are at work and darling Abi is at ‘pweeschool’ so I have the bubba all to myself. We have a bath together and, as I always do, I tell her that she’s ‘loving and happy and clever and pretty and kind and sharing’ – she loves it – dear little one. She ‘helps’ me mop and clean the bathroom then we visit Pa at work.

Back home she has a two-year-old temper tantrum – so cute – then Mummy comes home at one and puts her to bed.

Mark is extra busy at work, so we might not be able to get to Sydney tonight. Our flight doesn’t leave till 2.30pm tomorrow so we’ll still have plenty of time to catch a train in the morning. But we always prefer to stay in Sydney the night before we travel – takes three hours off the trip time plus it adds an extra day to our holiday.

About three-thirty he rings to say that he can do the rest of his work through his phone so it’s a mad rush to finish packing and for Lauren to drive us to Hamilton Station for the 4.30pm train. We don’t let the dollies get out of the car – they always cry when they see us leave which, of course, makes us cry as well. Darlings!!

We pull into Central Station at seven o’clock and nearly kill ourselves running across Hyde Park to reach Jillian’s by 7.30pm which is when the concierge knocks off. Jillian is in Perth but has left the key at the desk – she’s so good to us.

Dumping our gear in her apartment – beautiful night-time view of the city which always blows us away – and head off for the nearby East Sydney Hotel. The temperature has dropped and with a drizzling rain, the pub is warm and cosy inside. We have dinner and drinks but can’t stay too late as Mark still has a lot to finish on his laptop. While Mark works for hours, I have an early night – spoilt!

Wednesday 14th October, 2015

Sydney to Singapore

We wake at seven, snuggle and shower. Mark has more emails to get through, so I wash my hair and make breakfast. We always take our own food for the plane, so I walk up to the Woolloomooloo Woolworths – very upmarket and trendy compared to the Woolies at home that only cater to us Newie bogans. I buy salami, cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and crackers to eat on the flight plus a coffee for Mark.

At 10.30am we walk across Hyde Park in warm sunshine to catch the airport train. After checking in our bags and passing through immigration we eat at McDonalds then Facetime Lauren and the dollies at Jackie’s – all there for lunch as usual on a Wednesday.

We have turns on the massage chairs before boarding for a 2.30pm take-off. We’ve scored three seats each so with a Triazapam we both sleep for at least three hours! Besides sleeping we have our picnic that we’ve smuggled on board – apparently bringing our own food is a no-no because when one of the hostesses sees Mark eating a big bag of chips she says ‘sir, not allowed. Just don’t let me see you’ – nice.

We’re actually flying with Scoot for the first time. It’s Singapore Airlines’ budget carrier costing us only $980 return to Bangkok for the two of us. And because Scoot is owned by Singapore Airlines we need to have a stop-over in Singapore itself. With no more planes to Bangkok leaving today, we’ll be staying here overnight. We could book any flight tomorrow so we decided to book one leaving late afternoon which will give us plenty of time for Singapore sight-seeing.

So, arriving at Changi’s Terminal 2 (the crappy budget terminal) at 7pm, we’re outside in the heat and humidity in half an hour. I’d booked a hotel through Trip Advisor after experiencing Singapore’s expensive accommodation before. It’s called the Rucksack Inn in Little India – a backpacker place but we’ve booked a double room so it should be okay.

A taxi takes us from the airport across the Helix Bridge where we have a perfect view of the cityscape and the incredible Marina Bay Sands Hotel on our left – that’s where we’re heading tonight!

We like the look of the Rucksack Inn – a small, colourful foyer with lots of young travellers lying around on lounges and travel posters lining the walls. At the desk the lovely young girl seems to find it ‘cute’ that we ‘old’ people are staying in a backpackers! She also happily announces ‘many people – you hab to be sep-ar-ate’ – apparently, we’re in a dorm instead of the double room I’ve already booked and paid for – whatever – she’s very sweet and it’s no big deal anyway.

Someone shows us the dorm which isn’t too bad with eight double bunks – luckily, we both have a bottom bunk each. Pulling out the only ‘posh’ clothes we’ve brought with us, we’re outside in minutes waiting for a bus. To save time, we decide on a taxi which only costs $8 to our destination – the Marina Bay Sands.

This spectacular, futuristic hotel consists of three curved towers housing over two and a half thousand rooms but the piece-de-resistance is the three-acre SkyPark on top of the building with swimming pools, gardens, and jogging paths. It bridges all three towers with a segment cantilevered off the northern end. We’ve seen photos of the pool which is said to be the most famous and stunning infinity pool in the world but there’s no way we’ll be able to even look at it let alone swim in it – only accessible for hotel guests at a minimum of $500 per night.

No worries, our plan tonight is to have dinner and drinks at KuDeTa (now called C’est La Vie) on the top level but first we check out the bottom floor. A continuous lobby links the three towers and is itself spectacular – an atrium at least twenty floors high! We remember we’d watched a documentary on the hotel’s construction so it brings home how amazing this building really is. Inside are tall trees, giant Chinese lanterns and designer shops, restaurants, nightclubs, theatres and huge underground casinos.

We make our way to the lift to take us to the bar but Mark is wearing shorts (very dressy shorts) despite which is still a no-no after 5.30pm. Ok we’ll come back tomorrow.

So now we catch a taxi to Smith Street – ‘eat’ street in Chinatown – a favourite old haunt. Actually, the whole Chinatown enclave is a favourite with us – it has an energy that the rest of Singapore, as lovely as it is, seems to lack. It reminds us of the Asia we love most – temples, food stalls, markets, bars, karaoke lounges and buzzing with people. Sitting at an outside table we order a feast of mussels, prawn balls, Tom Yum soup and a beer each.

The temperature really doesn’t seem to have dropped that much and the humidity has sent my hair into a wet frizz.

Nearby is the Sri Mariamman Temple where a loud festival is underway – Hindu temples always seem to have some sort of festival happening! Outside its colourful, intricate façade, we take off our shoes then watch women singing and dancing in bright saris while men in white dhotis and more saried ladies making offerings and burning incense – love it here!

But now it’s time to head back ‘home’. Our taxi driver seems nice at first and we like that he’s decorated the entire dashboard with waving cats – a good luck Asian symbol. But when we reach the Rucksack Inn he wants $17 even though the metre reads $8 – ‘rush hour city charge’ he says – wtf?

Inside we head straight for our dorm to change in the dark. There are about eight other people but everyone is quiet and we both sleep well with earplugs anyway.

Thursday 15th October, 2015

 Singapore to Bangkok

I wake at 5.30am for a toilet visit then fall back asleep till eight o’clock. Mark is already up, showered and shaved so I quickly have a shower and make toast and tea while Mark works on his phone. Lahib, the same friendly girl on the desk from last night, explains the transport situation as we want to get back to the Marina Sands Hotel again this morning.

So, at 9am we’re heading towards the bay in one of Singapore’s very modern and very clean buses. The mixture of old and new architecture makes for an interesting ride – mosques, Hindu and Chinese temples, the old shophouses of Chinatown and the colonial Raffles Hotel, all with a backdrop of cutting-edge buildings and skyscrapers. It’s a mishmash that somehow works.

It’s also a thrill to be driving along Serangoon Road after recently watching the television series of the same name on the ABC starring the gorgeous Don Hany. The series is set in the mid-1960s which was a tumultuous time in Singapore’s history. The country was in a mess – about to break away from Malaysia and gain independence as the British colonial rulers were gradually pulling out. Must watch it again now that we’ve actually been here.

This is our fourth time in Singapore and we have a very different outlook to that first visit in 1999. Then we thought it too clean and sterile compared to the vibrancy of the rest of Asia but now we’ve learnt to appreciate that it’s much more than just shopping malls and tourist traps. Instead it has a fascinating cultural diversity which grew out of the country’s history.

And here it is straight from the internet – modern Singapore’s history is said to have started in 1819 when Englishman Sir Stamford Raffles was sent here to establish a British port to try and break the Dutch domination of shipping in the area. Raffles decided that it should be a free port and that no port duties should be collected.  As a result, migrants and merchants from China, India, Indonesia, the Malay Peninsula and the Middle East flocked to the island. Many Chinese and Indian immigrants came to work in the rubber plantations and tin mines, and their descendants later formed the bulk of the island’s population. Before Raffles arrived, there were around 1,000 people living in Singapore, mostly Malays – but by 1869, migration had swelled Singapore’s population to 100,000.

Each wave of immigrants brought their own culture, language, customs, religion and festivals. Intermarriage and integration created the very multi-cultural Singapore of today –  ethnic Chinese form 74.2%, Malays 13.3%, Indians 9.2%, plus many expatriates from all over the globe.

Raffles also didn’t want the island to develop higgledy piggledy, organising it into distinct ethnic neighbourhoods of Chinatown, Little India and Arab Street that still exist today.

Anyway, end of the history lesson and back to the present. We pass the beautiful colonial Raffles Hotel, named after you-know-who, but we won’t have time for a visit this trip. Our focus this morning is to explore the Gardens by the Bay which is adjacent to the Marina Bay Sands then hopefully have lunch at C’est La Vie.

The bus drops us opposite the hotel where we catch an elevator to the sixth floor to where we look down into the vast atrium and the spectacular lobby far below. From here the overhead Lions Bridge leads us from the hotel to Dragonfly Lake dotted with fountains and tiny palm islands. On the Dragonfly Bridge, the views are amazing especially looking back at the space-age hotel and the alien forms of the Supertree Grove ahead.

The Grove contains eighteen fifty-metre-high Supertrees that not only mimic the shape of trees with long trunks and fluted tops but also mimic the ecological function of trees. Solar cells inside the structures provide energy for lighting and the funnel-shaped top collects rainwater for irrigation throughout the entire Gardens. It’s environmental sustainability at its very best!

And besides all the science stuff this place is stunning!! And besides that, it’s also swelteringly hot! This means our first task is to buy gelatos and drinks before paying the $5 entry fee to the OCBC Skyway. Here a friendly man tells us, ‘very hot, but lucky, no humidity’. What??!!!

The OCBC Skyway is a long walkway that connects two of the biggest Supertrees. At twenty-two metres off the ground we have a panoramic view of the Gardens as well as the Marina Bay Sands and the Singapore Flyer (a giant ferris wheel like the one in London). Also, from the top we get to look directly into the ‘trees’. These vertical gardens are home to ferns, vines, orchids, bromeliads and lots more tropical plants –  lovely!

Now, after a steamy ten-minute walk towards the Bay, we come across the Conservatory complex – the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest. These are the largest climate-controlled glasshouses in the world and look like giant misshapen bubbles. At the Visitor Centre we pay $20 entry then gratefully enter the coolness of the air-conditioned Flower Dome. This vast three-acre interior replicates the mild, dry climates of the Mediterranean, Australia, South America and South Africa.

The adjacent Cloud Forest dome is even more spectacular this time replicating high altitude tropical plant life and is dominated by a cantilevered skywalk skirting a giant cascading waterfall. The entry opens directly onto these massive falls which spray cool water all over us – heaven! An elevator takes us to the top where we follow the spiralling Cloud Walk that encircles the mountain, densely planted with orchids, ferns, colourful Bromeliads and Begonias.

It’s time now to head back to the Marina Bay Sands to hopefully have lunch at C’est La Vie. I’m worried about the price but Mark says we’re going anyway. At the hotel, he changes into a silk shirt and covered shoes to make sure he’s dressed appropriately this time. We’re told we have a half hour wait to get up to the bar so we visit the Casino where we’ll have a drink. Bizarrely there isn’t anywhere to buy alcohol – an Asian thing?

Anyway, after a wander around the designer shops (boring!), we’re allowed to enter the lift. I must say here that last week I found a great tip on a traveller’s blog. Apparently C’est La Vie is right above the Sky Park Observation Deck where people pay $22SGD to see the view. On the other hand, entry to C’est La Vie is free so you can have the same view and enjoy a few drinks for the same price!

The lift stops on the 56th floor where a pretty waitress directs us to a table inside the restaurant. Ordering mineral water because we’re so hot, we then splurge on crispy, sticky squid, a prawn salad and a chocolate fondant cake – feel very blessed. There seems to be a lot of business people here having ‘very important’ meetings over lunch while the balcony outside is packed with western tourists and ex-pats. We find a table that gives us a panoramic view of the city’s skyline, the Gardens By the Bay and Singapore Strait itself.

To top off our posh meal, Mark orders an expensive beer while I order a cocktail that has a big green chili floating in it! In the end, the total bill only comes to $139 – cheap, really!

At two o’clock we catch a bus back to the Rucksack Inn where we grab our bags and find a taxi to take us to the airport – quick and only $15. After checking in our bags, we eat chicken quesadillas washed down with beer and soda water then take off on time at 5.30pm on our way to Bangkok.

Mark has an aisle seat while I have a window seat with that precious empty seat in between. No time to sleep on this short flight but it’s always nice to be able to spread out. Mark reads while I watch the laptop before landing in the dark at 6.50pm at the old Don Muang Airport where all the cheap carriers have been banished.

The bus area is in chaos so we decide to catch a taxi which is also chaos. Six long lines of people take ages and we finally share a cab with a young Dutch couple also heading for Khao San Road. They’re giants as most Dutch people are and only one pack fits in the boot so we’ve got the other three packs on our laps – a very squeezy trip! We chat the whole way and tell them about the nicer soi area to find somewhere to stay.

We all end up getting dropped off at the entrance to Soi Rambutri, then Mark and I find a room at O’Bangkok next to Baan Sabaii where we’ve stayed a few times before. It’s nice to book into a different place for a change. Our room is on the second floor with a wide window overlooking the lovely tree-shaded soi. For $26 we have a big bed, air-conditioning and our own bathroom.

We know the food at Wild Orchid is always good so we head there for dinner – chicken satay, chicken salad plus beers and diet coke to mix with my Bacardi. Ahhh!! Back in wonderful Thailand! And, of course, one of the first things we must do is have a one-hour foot massage in the laneway across from the temple. Great people watching and the massage ladies keep running off to bring us more beers and cokes while a young man plays beautiful tunes on a violin – heaven! By the way, my right foot is a ‘cankle’ and my right knee is so swollen that my knee cap has disappeared. Looks like I’ll be limping my way around Thailand.

Bed at 11pm after a wonderful day.

Friday 16th October, 2015


Roosters inside the temple wake us at 6am – our favourite alarm clocks. We quickly shower so we can walk around the sois in the peace of early morning. At this early hour, the alleyways are quiet with only a few locals starting their day. Near the temple entrance we sit on plastic chairs to eat fruit salad, muesli, yoghurt, coffee and freshly squeezed orange juice – only $6 – no wonder we love it here.

We’re staying in Bangkok again tonight but want to look for a different guesthouse so we wander over to the sois, about a fifteen-minute walk. We cross Phra Athit Road on the corner near the fort where old shophouses covered in flowering bougainvillea line the street then cross small klongs overhung with spreading trees. Love this residential area where people are cooking outside and with glimpses of the river between old teak houses. Over in Soi 3 most places seem to be full so we try an old villa in Soi 1 – a note stuck to the gate reads ‘manager gone to buy food’ – cute.

Anyway, my swollen knee is giving me a lot of grief so we’ll be better staying where we are in Soi Rambutri as I won’t need to do as much walking – everything is right on our doorstep. Now it’s time for another massage – a full body this time. At Pink near our hotel we follow a little massage girl up a steep set of rickety wooden stairs to an airy room overlooking the laneway and the temple trees. It’s the usual simple set-up around here – a mattress on the floor and that’s it. Mark has a traditional Thai massage (250Baht) while I have an oil one (300Baht) – both excellent.

From here we catch a tuktuk to the Amulet Market on the edge of the Chao Praya River near Wat Mahatat. We’ve been here many, many times before, lugging home great Buddhist and Hindu statues, ceramic urns and vases, and so much more I can’t even remember. Our house is full to bursting so we won’t be buying anything more today.

We mainly just want to hang out in this very traditional area. Even though we’ve bought lots of things here ourselves, this isn’t a place where tourists shop – it’s a true local neighbourhood where Thai people come to buy amulets and statues for their own homes.

Another reason for coming here today is to catch a ferry at the nearby Banglamphu Wharf but first we have another breakfast in one of the many simple waterside cafés that overlook floating beds of pretty purple-flowering water hyacinth and the river beyond. These are all family-run places with the cooking done in the back corner so I wander over to watch. Meanwhile a monk has turned up so I make Mark take photos of me with the monk in the background – I love monks!!

From our table on the water’s edge we watch the endless stream of river traffic then head for the wharf. On a flat-bottomed ferry we cross the Chao Praya for Thonburi on the opposite bank. This is where we plan to visit the Siriraj Medical Museum situated within the grounds of Siriraj Hospital, the oldest in Bangkok.

I’d found out about this place when I was searching for something different to do in Bangkok. Nicknamed the Museum of Death, this is supposed to be a bit freaky but we’ll give it a go.

Off the ferry, we ask directions to find the museum in an old building with a wide wooden staircase leading to the third floor. Even the landing has a creepy feel with lots of dark wood and old faded portraits. Entering the Anatomical Museum, the first thing we see is a disturbing row of jars containing co-joined twin babies pickled in formaldehyde. Even more disturbing is that on the bench in front of the babies are present day toys, like fluffy teddies and tiny cars, obviously left by visitors – oh God, I think it’s been a mistake coming here!

In another space we pose for photos with a row of skeletons then find pickled body parts in room after room. One entire area contains a person that we presume is the woman in the photo hanging on the wall – she’s been vertically sliced into thin slivers – like ham in a deli! Her whole body is displayed slice by slice in tall, glass cases!

In more glass cases are bodies stripped of their skin and another that has the entire nervous system and nothing else – interesting but feeling a bit grossed out and decide to give the rest of it a big miss!

Back in the ferry to Banglamphu, we catch a tuktuk to Soi Rambutri and at O’Bangkok we pay for an extra night then rest for an hour in the coolness of our room.

Later we walk through the temple to Thanon Rambutri to see if Mumma Massage is back but we’re disappointed that it’s still only a guesthouse. Once this was the best massage place in Bangkok so we don’t know why it closed down. I can see Sharlo sitting inside but not game to ask after her husband in case something bad has happened.

From here we wind our way through the tiniest of alleyways till we pop out on Khao San Road – we’ve been here so many times that we know all the shortcuts and back alleys in this whole area. Mark wants to have a suit made so we cross over to Aziz Clothing on the bottom floor of the D&D Guesthouse. Mark has had all his business clothes made here for the last fifteen years and Alex has always looked after us.

We ask the lady on the counter if we can see him. A guy turns up a few minutes later saying, ‘I remember you’. But Mark says he can’t, because it’s not even Alex! Do they think that any old Indian person will do – like we wouldn’t notice?  Whatever! Alex is probably visiting relatives in India as he often does. Never mind, Mark is measured for a dark grey suit with an extra pair of dress pants, blue casual pants, grey travel pants and two business shirts – not bad for $430AUD.

Now Mark decides to have a haircut, so I walk back through the temple grounds to Pink for a one hour $6 facial. We meet in the room and I love Mark’s hair – the best cut he’s ever had I think. We take the laptop down to Sawadee Smile to sit in the open-air restaurant and upload photos onto Facebook.

While Mark orders a green curry, I have a hair wash and blow dry at Pink for only $10 (being pampered today). Later we have drinks and snacks at Madam Masur which is a new place that’s sprung up on the corner since we were here five years ago. It’s one of the coolest places in Soi Rambutri with lots of cane and bamboo, a thatched roof, cobbled stone bathrooms, floor cushions and lots of ethnic pillows and wall hangings. Very laid-back Thailand without being too try-hard.

It’s still only early (about 7pm) so we wander up Soi Rambutri past the original Sawadee Guesthouse before settling into a sidewalk table at The Green Café. We buy beers and cocktails (but 2 get 1 free) – a margarita, a tequila sunrise and a caprinia. A Lisu tribal woman makes name bands for Abi and Elkie for only 100 Baht before Mark has a fitting for his suit at Aziz.

Home at 10pm – apparently being sensible for an early start.

Saturday 17th October, 2015

 Bangkok to Amphawa

Up at 6am to shower, ‘snuggle’, and pack. This morning we’re off to the canal-side village of Amphawa in the west of Bangkok which would only take an hour and a half by bus but we’re going the adventurous route which will take a lot longer. I read about this in an old Lonely Planet – a boxed section called The Long Way to Amphawa – and always planned to do it one day. That day is now!

By 6.30am we’re in the laneway waking up a guy sleeping in his taxi. He’s hilarious – never shuts up the whole way to Thonburi’s Wong Wian Yai Train Station. He cracks up every time he says something which sets us off as well. He points out statues and pictures of the King, ‘this one Rama 9’ and ‘this one Rama 5’. The taxi roof is covered with pictures of him and his family and he points out a photo of himself as a soldier fighting in Vietnam. We also have to look at his traffic fine for running a red light with an actual photo of his taxi on the fine – ‘traffic camera no good!’ – more hilarity!

After the best taxi ride ever, he drops us at the station where we buy tickets (50cents each) for the town of Samut Sakhon. We love this little station – very quiet with locals only and monks walking past. The train won’t arrive for thirty minutes so we have time for breakfast in one of the open-air cafes at the end of the platform.

The people are friendly as most Thais are and laugh as we try to order our food. No English here at all so we just point to someone else’s dish – Mark a noodle soup and I end up with chicken with rice plus a soup that I’m supposed to drink straight from the bowl. With green tea and coffee, the whole bill is only $3.60.

Boarding the train after breakfast, the carriages have open windows which we much prefer to air-conditioning. We get a better feel for the country when we can hear and smell what’s going on outside instead of looking through a glass pane. About half an hour after leaving Thonburi, the city buildings give way to small villages and towns where people live in small wooden houses built on the very edge of the tracks.

This rural area is especially green and lush with palm trees, rice paddies and ponds filled with pink water lilies. Stopping at tiny stations, there’s never a dull moment – always someone selling food, monks and the local people themselves. We’ve no idea how long this trip will take and just watch for the names on the platforms even though most of them are written in Thai. But after an hour and a half we’ve reached the busy port town of Samut Sakhon. It’s only a few kilometres from the Gulf of Thailand and that’s where we need to get to for the next part of our journey.

The train actually rolls right into the middle of a busy food market. The seafood is very fresh – eels, fish and frogs are still swimming around in buckets of water. For some reason one lady turns a frog inside out to show us how fresh it is – what??!! And beside fresh seafood, vendors are also selling dried fish so the air smells extra stinky.

From the market, we walk down to the main road in search of the pier where the Mahachai Canal meets the Tha Chin River. This is where the ferries cross to Ban Laem on the other side. Typically, the edge of the river is clogged with water hyacinth and old wooden fishing boats are tied up near the wharf. We board the flat-bottomed ferry taking a few motor-bikes with us as well as passengers carrying bags of fruit and vegetables from the market. The crossing takes a mere ten minutes – a lovely experience on this gorgeous calm sunny day with not another tourist in sight.

At Ban Laem we find a much quieter little town and hire a couple of samlors (bicycle rickshaws) waiting outside the ferry wharf. Firstly they take us to buy cold water on this hot and sweaty day then ride us out to Wat Chong Lom situated on the banks of the river. A sign outside warns of a serious dress code for women – no shorts, mini-skirts, bare bellies, tank tops, strapless tops or even tops with wide necks! Luckily, I always bring a sarong for such occasions to wrap around my shoulders.

Inside are beautiful wall murals and a statue of a monk wearing sunglasses for some reason. We light candles and burn incense for our precious Angie – yes, you’re with us here too my darling!

Across the road is Tha Chalong Station where we plan to catch a train to Samut Songkhram and the famous Mae Klong railway market (Train Market). But the station is deserted and a young girl at a market stall outside tells us ‘train finished, little people’ – meaning it doesn’t run anymore because of the lack of passengers. A shame but a couple of guys nearby offer to take us to the bus station on the back of their motor-bikes.

We’re dropped at a bus stop on a main road and are soon speeding towards Samut Songkhram in a packed mini-van. We arrive an hour later and head straight for the market. The Maeklong Railway Market is not just any old traditional Thai market, it’s located right on the train line and, a few times a day, the train runs directly through it. When the train arrives, vendors lower their umbrellas and move their produce off the tracks then as soon as the train passes, everything is moved back and selling goes on as usual.

So now we just wander around and I buy a blue and white polka dot dress for Elkie. A group of young school girls stop to talk to us and tell us that the train isn’t finished permanently, just closed for a few months for repairs. So maybe one day we’ll see the whole craziness really happen.

By now we’re feeling tired and ready to reach Amphawa, our final destination. Outside the market we meet a couple of guys with motor-bike taxis and off we fly for the one-hour trip – very exciting. Slowing down on the outskirts of the town we ask to be dropped at the canal so we inch our way through a busy market till we see the water.

Both sides of the canal are alive with cafés, restaurants and wooden shop-houses selling souvenirs, books and Thai sweets. A pedestrian bridge crosses the khlong (canal) to the opposite bank and the popular Amphawa Floating Market. Every weekend Thai people flock here from the surrounding region and especially from Bangkok. Vendor boats park along the two canal banks, ready to whip up a bowl of ‘boat noodles’, rice porridge, even grilled squid and river prawns, to order.

After our long hot bike ride, we stop for drinks at a table overlooking all the action then it’s time to find somewhere to stay. Apparently, this could be a problem because of all the Thai tourists but we really want to find a place right on the khlong and particularly in one of the lovely old teak guesthouses just behind us. The problem is we don’t even know for sure if they are guesthouses because there aren’t any English signs around here at all. I ask a man in a shophouse, ‘guesthouse?’ but he obviously doesn’t understand and calls over a teenage boy who nods ‘room?’.

I follow him up two flights of wooden stairs while Mark stays with the packs. The rooms are very Thai which is what we love but then they want $60 a night – way over our budget so I wander further along the canal looking for a cheaper option. I do find a room for $20 but it’s stinking hot so we decide to splurge on the expensive air-conditioned place – considering the heat and humidity we’ll really need it if we want to sleep tonight.

This guesthouse is also worth it for the wonderful traditional ambience – all walls and ceilings are polished teak while the floors are a cool dark slate. Old glass-fronted cabinets hold brass bowls, Chinese crochery and cooking utensils while potted plants hang from the ceiling. Verandahs on both floors overlook the canal and we even have our own side verandah that looks down onto the market on this side of the bridge. We’re very happy.

We seek refuge from the heat for a quick rest in the cool of our room then wander along the waterfront walkways towards the river. Here we come across a row of amazing massage places, all open to the khlong so we can lie back and watch Amphawa’s canal-side way of life at the same time.

Like our guesthouse, the massage place is completely lined with teak and has mattresses covered in colourful Thai prints spread out all over the floor as well as a few wooden massage chairs set up for foot rubs. This definitely has to be up there as one of the best massage settings we’ve ever experienced – and we’ve been to more than we can count!

So, for the next hour we both enjoy a full-body Thai massage each – a bit painful as they always are – while lovely Asian music plays in the background. My lady calls over her friend to look at my ‘cankle’ so they both have turns of working on it – it’s looking even more gross today!

Considering we haven’t eaten since breakfast at the station in Thonburi we’re starving by now. And it’s also time to head over to the floating market. This is the reason we’ve come to Amphawa and it doesn’t disappoint. Along the khlong is a long row of charming old wooden shops selling Amphawa souvenirs, and of course, lots of sweets, snacks and ice cream – Thai people have a very sweet tooth and seem to be nibbling all day long.
In front of the walkway are wooden benches built in tiers right down to the water’s edge. Here boat ladies congregate in their little canoes sheltered from the sun by faded old umbrellas. The boats are so close to each other, the umbrellas overlap.

Each lady has a sign explaining what she’s selling – all sorts of seafood (fish, prawns, shellfish and squid) as well as pork and chicken skewers. These are all grilled precariously in the bottom of their little boats. We perch on the top row of the narrow steps leading down to the water and order seafood noodles for Mark and pork skewers for me. We call out to one of the ladies who passes the food up to us.
Further down we find another spot to order chicken satay and king prawns to share – all eaten at tiny tables on the water-side stairs.

Also, along here, long-tail boats leave at regular intervals for scenic tours of the Mae Klong. Two tours are available – the temple tour and the island tour. Tour operators must number almost as many as tourists and we’re soon talked into a one-hour boat ride to visit the outlying temples – only 50Baht each (about $2)!

Typically, we can’t leave till the boat is full and, in the meantime, the skies have opened up and we’re in the middle of a tropical downpour. Our long-tail does have a roof but we’re still getting drenched while the boat ladies hang plastic sheets from beneath their umbrellas so they can keep cooking – this afternoon rain thing is very common here at this time of year. The funny thing is, we love it – the temperature is still high and we know the rain won’t last for long anyway.

Finally, we have enough passengers and pull away from the wharf heading back up the narrow khlong turning right as we reach the wide Mae Klong River.

Soon we veer off into one of the small canals that pass through a rural area dotted with stilt houses, fruit orchards and temples. We stop at a couple of lovely wats all surrounded by lush vegetation. My favourite temple is where I crawl on my hands and knees to be blessed by an old saffron-robed monk sitting cross-legged on a carved platform – my head can’t be above his for some reason. He rubs a white paste on my forehead then we tap brass temple bells with a wooden gong – I’m in Buddhist heaven!

Back in the boat, the rain has stopped and we float past Amphawa’s picturesque riverside scenery with its appealing laid-back ambience. The next temple is much bigger than the first ones and has the weirdest setup with statues of monks carrying alms bowls going around and around on a circular platform – Mark says ‘look, a monk-y-go-round’. Ha ha he’s made me laugh! This temple also has a few cows but the next temple (supposedly the highlight) has a zoo!!

Wat Bang Koong sits in the middle of nowhere and for some reason has a funny little zoo with a camel, crocodiles, an ostrich, a dozen deer, two goats, peacocks and ducks. It’s all a bit tragic but the Asian visitors are happily snapping away. We buy water and fruit at a little market just inside the gate then wait for ages on the pier watching catfish swarming in the river just off the bank. As expected, the tour has lasted much longer than the promised hour as we need to wait at every stop for everyone to get back on board so we’re all happy to dump the last temple and head back to Amphawa.

Just where the canal meets the river, we notice a lovely restaurant at the very end of the boardwalk and decide we’ll head there tonight. On dark we have a snack and a drink on our side of the khlong where we watch longtails chug past and people from a nearby restaurant washing their dishes in the canal.

Strings of coloured lights on both sides of the canal are prettily reflected in the still water. The stars are out and with no breeze at all it’s very lovely here at night although there’s still no escaping the heat and high humidity.

Crossing the pedestrian-bridge we wander through the floating market which is much nicer now that most of the day-trippers have headed back home. We chat with two friendly transvestites, one with a big white pompom on top of his head which he shows us is his actual hair.

At the end of the market we find the restaurant we’d seen from the boat this afternoon and settle in for an excellent seafood meal and lots of beers and bacardis. Longtail boats taking tourists on fire-fly spotting tours continually come and go from the canal. We’d thought of doing this but after our overly long temple tour we’ve had enough of boats for the day.

Bed at ten o’clock in our lovely air-conditioned room – an excellent day!

Sunday 18th October, 2015

Amphawa to Kanchanburi

Mark’s alarm wakes us at six o’clock as we want an early start – I have a lot planned today as always. After both showering, Mark packs while I put on my makeup sitting on our little verandah. Below I watch the market, busy already and see a monk loading up his alms bowl with goodies from different stalls – just helping himself to whatever he wants by the look of things as the stall-holders don’t bat an eye-lid.

Before we leave, Mark makes us hot chocolate and coffee on the canal-side verandah then we watch the boat ladies paddling towards the bridge and setting up their little floating kitchens for today’s market. From up here we also have a birds-eye view of the lamp-posts all topped with colourful figurines of a lady in a sampan filled with fruit and veggies – adorable. And fortunately, there isn’t a cloud in the sky and it seems that we have another hot sunny day ahead of us.

Setting off with our packs through the market, one of the stall ladies asks, ‘where you go – Bangkok?’ – ‘No, Damnoen Saduak Floating Market’. She beckons a man in the street who tells us that we can find transport on the next corner.

All too easy and next minute we’re crammed into the back of a small songthaew flying towards

Damnoen Saduak.  It’s a cheap (150 Baht) and fun thirty-minute trip through little villages and green countryside until we pull into a dirt carpark in front of the ticket office. A young man quickly takes our packs to squirrel then away into storage while we check out the prices. A very eager lady shows us the price list on a large poster – 300Baht each for an hour – bloody hell!  – $120 for the two of us – we don’t think so!

We decide to dump the market, which is supposed to be a tourist trap anyway, and drag our bags out of the storage room. The young ticket woman isn’t giving up, ‘okay 2,000Baht’ but we keep heading for the carpark. Now it’s ‘okay, 600Baht’ (only $24) and we’re happy! Storing our bags once again we climb down into one of the small longtails tied up on the edge of the little canal.

Actually, the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market is a maze of these narrow khlongs that were built during the middle of the nineteenth century. There were over two hundred of these tiny canals around here and they provided the main form of transport for villagers carrying their wares to lots of little floating markets in this area. The main floating market here today is still a true market selling produce that comes directly from local farms but also lots of Thai souvenirs with the tourist dollar in mind.

So anyway, even though this might be a tourist trap, we love chugging our way through this lush little canal with tall shade trees overhanging the water. The banks are lined with palms and banana trees and every now and again we pass a teak house where the resourceful owners sell cold drinks, Thai food or local weavings.

At one place we stop so I can buy two polished wooden bowls from a very old man sitting on his verandah surrounded by large pots of flowering bougainvillea. The banks now are lined with local homes, so close we can almost touch them, and all very appealing with hanging baskets of orchids and ferns and little temple houses perched on carved posts.

Soon we enter a larger canal and the market proper. Here, mostly female, traders, wearing wide-brimmed straw hats, sell their wares from tiny wooden sampans. Locally grown fruit and vegetables are sold to people from the surrounding districts while tourists bargain for souvenirs and food cooked in the canoes themselves. A funny man with only one tooth sells us tiny coconut pancakes then coconut ice-cream both presented in green coconut shells as we float up next to him.

We jump out at an open-sided pavilion crammed with market stalls – we try on silly hats and do NOT buy any of the tacky souvenirs for sale. Back in the boat we chug through more little canals seeing monks in orange robes paddling by and a man with a hideously huge python wrapped around his neck. An old lady with white paste all over her face cooks us deep fried bananas in the bottom of her sampan – love it!

There’s so much to see and despite the ‘touristy’ thing it’s still real if that makes sense. These are real village people trying to make a living and their happy faces make this whole thing a lovely experience.

Back at the ticket office we retrieve our packs then ask the same eager little woman about getting transport to Kanchanburi. She tells us to wait on the road and wait for ‘yellow car’ and writes down instructions in Thai in case we need to ask for help. Outside, we escape the burning sun under a bamboo shelter where a couple of local men are playing draughts with bottle caps.

After twenty-minutes we decide to start walking then soon see a yellow songthaew speeding towards us. We’re not sure if this is the ‘yellow car’ but we flag it down anyhow and it stops to pick us up. Songthaews are as common as tuktuks in Thailand especially for longer trips outside the bigger cities. They’re a sort of modified pick-up truck with a roof and two rows of seats at the back which we share with about five other passengers. We talk to a couple of ladies who are off to shop in the town of Bang Phae which they tell us is where the songthaew terminates.

The language communication thing isn’t perfect so we hand our Thai-written note to a nice lady dressed in all-white who passes it around to the other passengers. After much animated conversing and hand-waving, everyone agrees that from Bang Phae we’ll need to catch a bus to Kanchanburi. A grey-haired man next to Mark says that he’s heading for Kan as well so he’ll show us where to catch the bus – lovely people!

Fortunately for me, we stop on the way for petrol and I race for the toilets for a kabumbah – no paper so manage the Thai way with a hose up the bum – cooling but now have wet pants!

Arriving in Bang Phae forty minutes later, the lady in white asks our driver what bus we should catch then moves her fingers to imitate walking and points across the road but the grey-haired man has already beckoned us to follow him – everybody wants to help.

The bus stop is sweltering with no shade at all so we buy water from a nearby shop. Luckily, we only have to wait ten minutes till our bus arrives because we’re about to drop dead from the heat. The bus is big and airy with open windows and little whirring fans attached to the ceiling. Our driver has no teeth and beams a big gummy smile the whole way while the lady conductor is super-bossy, ‘you sit here’ then seeing our red faces, ‘you drink water’ which she grabs from the top of our big pack and shoves it into Mark’s hand – ha, ha, this is fantastic!

The trip only takes an hour or so and before we know it we’re on the outskirts of town. We haven’t been to Kanchanburi for eighteen years when we were here with an Intrepid group. It’s funny to think how much travelling we’ve done since then but we’ve never lost the excitement for travel that we had all those years ago.

At the bus station we catch a songthaew past the War Cemetery to the Sugar Cane I Guesthouse at the southern end of Mae Nam Khwae Road. This is the backpacker area with lots of cheap guesthouses clustered along the river and we’re happy to see plenty of cafés, restaurants, bars and little massage places. Yes, this will do us nicely for a couple of days.

We’re also happy with the Sugar Cane Guesthouse which consists of cute wooden bungalows as well as an open-sided thatched restaurant perched high above the river, which is, of course, the famous River Kwai – more about that later.

But the real reason we chose Sugar Cane is because they also have raft-houses! This is something we’ve always wanted to do and Kanchanburi has them in force! We book in for only $24/night which gives us our own bathroom and a large bedroom lined with woven bamboo. And besides this we have our own balcony looking upriver with other raft-houses further along the bank.

We have a quick lunch in the restaurant overlooking the river then head up to Mae Nam Khwae Road to check out our surroundings. Of course, our first priority is to have a massage – a foot one for Mark and a very oily full-body for me.

Now we need a siesta after being on the go all day then shower ready for a busy night out – lots of bar hopping is definitely on the agenda. The view of the river in this early part of the evening is especially lovely with mirror calm water and lights twinkling from nearby raft-houses and other guesthouses and restaurants in both directions along the riverbank.

It’s dark by the time we make it up to Mae Nam Khwae Road which is even busier at night. We decide to check out a few other guesthouses as we want to move tomorrow – had the raft-house experience and want to find somewhere with a pool. We like the look of Pong Phan Guesthouse which is right on the river, has a cute reception/dining area and a pretty swimming pool – and it’s cheap at only $20 a night.

Now it’s time to find a way of getting to the night market. This was the first real Thai night market we’d ever experienced all those years ago and couldn’t believe what was being cooked up – crickets, bugs, things that looked suspiciously like rats and other weird creatures that I can’t remember.

We hail down a motor-cycle tuktuk (they all seem to be lady drivers tonight) and soon pull up at the night market – this is unrecognizable to the original! Bloody awful, full of crappy Asian tourist shit so we leave. We jump on the back of a couple of motor bikes to head straight back to Mae Nam Khwae Road and are soon set up in a laid-back restaurant run by a French guy.

After a quick dinner we hang out for a while in a noisy bar nearby. This is packed with aging Pommie men and aging Thai women (prostitutes?) plastered in makeup and dressed to the nines trying to pick up.

Most of these men live here and a sign on the wall announces the next monthly meeting of The Old Farts of Kanchanburi who apparently raise money for local children. We hope so anyway!

The next place has a band and unfortunately I’m a bit pissed and get up to dance and sing to Country Roads. Mark (who is also pissed) says it’s time for me to go home now!

Monday 19th October, 2015


Wake at seven, miraculously without a hangover, but feeling down. I dreamt about Sharon – poor darling will die any day now. I can’t stop thinking about her and Gary and Loretta but mainly Sharon – too terrible to imagine what it must be like for her.

While Mark showers, I sit on our verandah and see two huge monitor lizards only a few feet away in the water – gives me the fright of my life – hideous things! I have a cold shower as well as it’s already hot and sticky.

Breakfast is healthy fruit, muesli and yoghurt for Mark and yummy bacon and eggs for me washed down with fresh orange and watermelon juice. The river looks lovely again this morning as longtails whizz by on the still waters.

In the alleyway leading up to the main road we stop at a tiny travel agent to ask the owner, Dai, if he knows about an orphanage called Moo Baan Dek as we have children’s clothes and money to donate there. I’d asked the mums at Elkie’s playgroup if they had any clothes to give away and have almost a whole pack full. The money is from our Maggie May Children’s Fund named after Mark’s Mum that we and our mates all put in.

Dai says, ‘yes, I know’ and can take us there this morning. We also ask about Erawan Falls so it’s decided that for $50, he’ll take us to the orphanage, Erawan Falls then elephant riding – sounds perfect!

Can’t wait to get going so we race back to pack and check out of the Sugar Cane before checking in to Pong Phan. We’re back to meet Dai in fifteen minutes and soon set off in a big black air-conditioned van headed for the Sai Yoke District. Dai talks for the whole hour to Moo Baan Dek.

He’s originally from Ko Phan Ang, a beautiful island off the southern coast where we spent a few days in 2008. When he was young he’d met a crazy Aussie guy there who taught him to speak English so now he can make a living working with tourists. He tells us that he came here to Kanchanburi ten years ago and is now married with a six-month-old baby girl.

Apparently there’s a problem with ‘grandmother’. He says, ‘she like her very much. She won’t give her back’. Dai and his wife have to drive to see her at grandma’s village an hour away very two days! I say, ‘can’t you just take your baby back?’ but he laughs and says, ‘You have to know her!’. Bloody hell!

Then he tells us that Thai people don’t wear seatbelts or bike helmets like we do in our country. He says ‘you want to be safe’ but ‘Thai people don’t give a shit’ – ha ha, he’s so funny.

So, while Dai is happily chatting away, we’ve left Kanchanburi far behind and passed through fertile countryside, lush and green as well as the odd small village. Eventually we turn off the main road onto a dirt track that winds for a few hundred metres through a thick forest area till we come across the first of Moo Baan Dek’s many wooden buildings.

We’re greeted by the lady principal who shows us inside. We give her the bags of clothes then a $200AUD donation. She tells us that Moo Baan Dek is also called the Children’s Village School because it’s not strictly an orphanage. Children from poor or broken families are also taken in to give them an education and a life they wouldn’t have otherwise.

The school’s philosophy is spot on – the belief is that ‘by setting a natural environment as well as love kindness, freedom and encouragement, the children’s emotional stress and behavioral problems can be cured’.

A sweet young woman called Briell shows us around the grounds. Besides the school buildings, there are the accommodation huts – large gabled wooden houses that look perfect in this rustic setting within the forest. Each house has ten children and one adult, plus ‘more than two dogs and three cats’, she laughs.

Everything here is ‘eco-friendly’ and all run by the children themselves – solar panels to run all their electricity (no shortage of sun in Thailand), a small plant that recycles plastic bottles into oil and another plant that recycles paper/cardboard into paper that they can sell. And with all this self-sufficiency, it’s not surprising that they have a farm as well – vegetables gardens, cows, chickens, ducks, pigs, fish and frogs – yes, frogs!

But there’s even more to this place. A lovely river runs through the property and on the banks we find guesthouses for visitors and a huge open-sided stadium – all paid for by a Chinese benefactor.

Back near the office, Briell shows us where the kids learn weaving, batik and woodwork, extra skills they may need after graduation. Lots of them are also helped to start up their own businesses. We think this place could teach a lot to our stupid school system at home.

Some of the kids are sitting in an open-air room so we wander over for a chat. Even though they’re not with their families, for one reason or another, they at least have this amazing place to call home – just a handful of the lucky ones, I suppose.

With a warm farewell from Briell and the principal, we set off for Erawan Falls. After a half hour drive through the natural beauty of the surrounding mountains and valleys, we pull into the carpark attached to the Falls. Because this is a popular tourist attraction, we find lots of shops and restaurants as well as toilets and changing rooms. We haven’t eaten since breakfast so we find a big, dark place to order chicken and rice.

Now, with the high temperature and humidity, we can’t wait to get into the water. We both change into our swimmers and head off for the long walk to the Falls. Besides having a gammy knee, I hate walking with a passion so I’m very happy to catch a ride with one of the little buggies that ferry lazy tourists from the carpark to Erawan’s bottom tier.

There are seven tiers in all, the last one a steep two kilometre walk uphill, so I know we won’t be climbing to the top. The first pond is pretty but it’s the second one that’s the most popular with its deep pool and waterfall. Limestone in the water gives it a pretty milky aqua colour.

We reach level three along a series of trails and footbridges but decide to head back to the second pool. Getting into the water is no easy feat as we scramble across rocks and tree branches. But the water is lovely, cooling us down on this hot, clammy day.

The only problem is that the water is teeming with flesh-eating fish. We’ve experienced the fish-spas in Bangkok and Bali where you dangle your feet into a tank filled with these little monsters who nibble away at your dead skin. It felt more like a tickle than anything else but I’m seriously being eaten here and because of the colour of the water we can’t see the size of the fish – creepy! Get me out of here!!

Mark isn’t bothered, although the fish probably can’t munch their way through his hairy legs. He swims over to the waterfall and climbs up onto the rock behind. Meanwhile I’m trying to drag myself up out of the water – even harder getting out than getting in. When Mark swims back he helps haul a very plump Thai lady up onto the rocks. God love her!

Back in the cart we zip through the park back to Dai waiting in our van. Now we’re off to the Elephant Camp. This is another enjoyable drive through lush greenery and limestone hills to the camp set on the banks of a river with jungle all around – this country is gorgeous!

We pay 600 Baht each before being introduced to Phiphi, the mahout, and Thu his elephant. We climb onto Thu’s back from a tall wooden platform then Phiphi leads us down to the river. Thu wades out to the deep section and dunks us right under a few times – lots of squealing (Mark) and laughing. Back in the shallows, we jump off while Thu lies on his side. We all give him a good scrub then Mark and I have a water fight with Phiphi. Back on the platform we reward him (Thu) with a bunch of bananas. Set off now for the one-hour drive back to Kanchanburi after a brilliant day.

I decide to look for a hairdresser to have my hair washed and blow-dried. Would never do this at home but it’s cheap as chips here so why not? The first one says, ‘already have customer’, the next one ‘no hab shampoo’ (what?!) and the next one is shut – hilarious! We wander up the street and back again to find the shut one is now open and I have a cold-water wash and blow dry for only $5AUD.

We decide to eat at ‘home’ (Pong Phan) tonight so I order a tuna salad while Mark has a spicy Thai salad all downed with soda water and beer – very cheap at only $10 for the lot. Back up in the street we both have a one-hour massage – full-body oil for Mark and foot for me.

Settling into Pong Phan again, we hang out at one of the outside tables to drink beer and Bacardi then order fish, chips and spring rolls. In bed at 9.30pm – me to read and Mark to watch an episode of Game of Thrones.

Tuesday 20th October, 2015


It’s already hot by the time we wake at seven and the sky is a clear, brilliant blue once again. Mark has another healthy muesli and yoghurt breakfast while I have another unhealthy bacon and eggs. We eat at a table under a shady tree surrounded by flowering orchids – this place is very pretty.

Up in the street we hire a motorbike for the day and drive straight to Kanchanburi’s most famous attraction – the bridge over the Kwai River.  The building of the bridge and the terrible story behind it became legendary all over the world in David Lean’s 1957 movie Bridge On The River Kwai which won seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor. I remember watching it for the first time with Mum and Dad when I was young and then, how many times since, I don’t know.

The original bridge was part of the Death Railway planned by the Japanese to run from Thailand, across into Burma and then on to India which they intended to attack as well. The Japanese forced over 180,000 Asian labourers and 60,000 prisoners of war to build the railway. It was the prisoners themselves (mainly British and Australian) who called it The Death Railway because of the thousands of men who died building it – 12,000 POW’s and many more thousands of Asians. It’s said that one life was lost for each sleeper laid in the track!

The only section that still remains is from Nam Tok to Kanchanburi and we actually did that trip in 1997. I remember finding it hard to imagine the horrors that had happened on that beautiful line of track.

After parking the bike, we set off to walk across the bridge. Side-platforms run next to the track to make it easier and we stop to take lots of photos of the river which is mirror calm this morning. On the opposite bank we find a lovely wat with a tall white standing buddha at the front with people chanting inside. Back to the city side of the bridge, we buy clothes for the dollies from a small market then check out the Train Museum.

Our next stop is the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery where over seven thousand POWs are buried – just some of the men who died building the railway. Another two thousand are buried at the Chungkai Cemetery where we plan to visit later. The cemetery is immaculate with manicured grass and small flowering shrubs planted between each plaque. We spend ages reading the names and ages of the young men who died here – I look for one who was twenty-eight when he died – the same age as when our darling Angie passed away. I find two next to each other, both died on the 9th July, 1943.

From here we drive south along the riverbank to the Jeath War Museum. We visited this place in 1997 and found it very moving but it doesn’t look the same and we leave disappointed. But happily, we find a busy wat right next door. People are praying, bringing baskets of goodies for the monks, more carrying bunches of lotus flowers and others burning oils. Monks are everywhere and I’m in heaven.

Across the street is a vast open-sided place where more monks are sitting in rows on a raised platform built all along one side while others sit on mats on the floor. Ladies dressed in all-white are also sitting in groups on the floor and everyone is eating from metal bowls. It looks like the ladies have supplied all the food.

And, as usual everywhere in Thailand, it has a friendly, welcoming feel with golden buddha statues, flowers and pictures of the Buddha’s life. We’d like to stay longer but we’ve more to see before lunch.

Taking off across the bridge, we ride out past the Chungkai Cemetery then through green countryside till we reach Wat Tham Khao Pun, better known as The Cave Temple. We pay 30baht each entry to a young monk then climb the rock-hewn stairs to the entrance. Now we descend into the cave which opens to a vast chamber. Here a fat sitting buddha is surrounded by golden buddhas in all shapes and sizes. I buy flowers from an old lady who also hands me three burning incense sticks. I present them to buddha as an offering for Angie – she’d probably laugh.

More caves deeper down and more buddha statues on the way. We reach a very narrow section and my knee is hurting so it’s a good excuse to head back to the top. Outside we buy ice blocks from a little cart then head back to the guesthouse.

First, we book a songthaew to visit the tiger sanctuary at 1.30pm then have lunch at Pong Phan – prawn curry for Mark and fish and chips for me. We still have time for a swim in the pool before getting ready for the tigers.

The songthaew picks us up directly on time. We’re sharing with a pretty Dutch girl and a freaky Aussie guy covered in tats, piercings, and wearing Doc Martens and a kilt made from camouflage material. Later we pick up a weird version of Mr. Bean before reaching the Tiger Temple in the Soi Yok District about an hour later.

I feel like a total loser writing about this place but at the time we weren’t to know that a year later in 2016, the Thailand Wildlife Conservation Office (WCO) would shut the whole place down! They relocated one hundred and thirty-seven tigers, and tragically, the frozen bodies of forty cubs. I’m not sure what the cubs’ story is all about but I think it had something to do with the Chinese and their traditional medicines. Those idiots will pay anything for their fucked-up ‘remedies’ – like poaching rhinos for their horns as we experienced in Zambia last year!

And the worst bit is that this place did start out with the right intentions. It was founded in 1994 as a forest temple and sanctuary for wild animals, mostly Indochinese tigers, but obviously something went horribly wrong in the meantime.

But, oblivious to all this, we pay 600Baht each to get in then I’m given a polo shirt to wear over my singlet top – it’s a temple after all, but very hypocritical when you know the truth about the place – which we didn’t – have I said that enough yet?

Our driver leads us into the grounds and down into a canyon where twelve beautiful tigers are lounging around. Other tourists are here as well so we need to wait our turn. Each person has two Thai handlers, one to hold our hand and the other to take photos as we pose with the tigers. Amazing to see them so close.

Later we pay an extra 1000Baht to watch them play. About twenty of us are herded into a cage down near the water while a couple of handlers dangle toys on the end of long poles so the tigers will jump from rocks into the water to try and grab them. They frolic like kittens, chasing each other and wrestling – cute if they weren’t so big.

After the tigers are fastened to leads, we have turns walking with one of the biggest ones up out of the canyon. Don’t feel nervous but probably should – this is Thailand after all and safety probably isn’t too high on the agenda. Mark is next and he looks very biblical with a long line following behind him – like he’s leading his people to a better world – ha ha.

Back in the songthaew with the Dutch girl and the weirdo, we’re soon back at Pong Phan for a rest in the coolness of our room. Mark reads then I head off for a back massage.

Dinner again in the garden at Pong Phan.

Wednesday 21st October, 2015

Kanchanburi  to Bangkok

With another hot day dawning, we have a quick swim before packing and catching a motorbike tuktuk to the bus station. We’re heading back to Bangkok this morning but miss the 7am bus by seconds. We buy tickets for the next one which leaves in twenty minutes anyway. This gives us time for breakfast at a street stall selling pork soup and pancakes – there’s always an up side.

At 7.20am on the dot we set off with two seats each on the shady side of the bus. We both dose for an hour before reaching Bangkok’s Southern Bus Station about ten o’clock. Too hot to work out which bus to catch to Banglamphu so we grab a taxi to take us straight to Soi Rambutri.

Even though we’ve stayed in this alleyway more times than we can count, we want to try a different guesthouse. We like the look of Mango Lagoon and for only 700Baht it’s a great deal. On the first floor, our window looks out onto a thick garden filled with banana trees and palms – a little oasis right in the middle of Bangkok! Our room is clean, with a sitting area next to the window, cable television, air-con and our own bathroom. Another plus is the open-air restaurant downstairs that faces the soi and close to the temple entrance.

After checking in we walk through the temple grounds where Mark buys a bag of fresh pineapple from a little man pushing a fruit cart. And we can’t pass by without visiting the wat to watch worshippers praying and burning the inevitable incense and oil. Other people are sitting in front of a long line of orange robed monks but not sure what that’s all about – beautiful as always though.

Back out the other side of the temple grounds, we cross over to Khao San Road where Mark tries on his clothes at Aziz Tailors. All fit perfectly so he orders four pairs of shorts for $120AUD. Now I shop while Mark relaxes with a coffee in an open-fronted café. I buy two fabric bags for Lauren then clothes for the dollies at the busy Banglamphu Market a couple of streets away.

Now it’s time for lunch at Mango Lagoon – tuna salad and soda water – then up to the room for a rest and a snuggle. At five o’clock we’re back down in the restaurant for a couple of lemon sodas. While Mark works on his computer I relax with a half-hour foot massage at Pink. This has to be one of the funniest experiences I’ve had for ages.

I’m sitting next to a young Pommie woman having her hair bleached. Her friend is a pretty Nigerian girl who’s currently out front spruiking for customers. ‘She’s bored waiting for me so she’s gone to work. Nigerians are the best sales people in the world’, laughs her English friend. And she’s right – people are pouring in for massages whether they want one or not – hilarious!

On dark we wander around the busy alleyways stopping for a pizza at the wonderful old Sawadee then margaritas and beers at Madam Masur. This place has stacks of atmosphere including a fat rat in the ladies loo.

From Soi Rambutri we head down towards the river and come across Good Story, a trendy Thai bar with a guy playing a guitar and singing with a deep gravelly voice. Wonderfully moody here with dark green walls and ceiling – Bangkok has got it all!

Back to the Soi, we set up in an open-air bar that’s been here since our first trip eighteen years ago. Set on a corner it’s perfect people-watching – can never get bored around here. Ready for bed about 9.30pm, we can’t get anyone to take our money so we do a runner!

Thursday 22nd October, 2015


Today we plan to visit Ko Kret, an island in the Chao Praya River, that we’ve read about in the Lonely Planet. Mark wakes at seven but I snore till 8.30am. Breakfast is at a stall opposite Baan Sabaii. We chat to an Italian man who’s lived in Thailand for the last seven years. His home is a shack in the jungle just outside of Kanchanburi – no electricity or water.

From here we walk out to the main road where a local man tells us we need to catch the number 33 bus. Once we’re on the bus a young couple explains to the conductress where we want to go so she’ll be able to tell us when to get off – everyone is helpful!

An hour later we’re dropped at a busy intersection and clueless on how to get to the river or even where it is. But we soon flag down a couple of motorbike riders who drive us a couple of kilometres to the water and we’re soon crossing to Ko Kret on a small river ferry.

Ko Kret is unique for its inhabitants of Mon people. The Mon tribes dominated central Thailand between the 6th and 10th centuries and retain their distinct identity through their version of Buddhism and, particularly at Ko Kret, their pottery. This is why Ko Kret is often referred to as the Pottery Village.

Also unique to Ko Kret is that there aren’t any roads, only a system of concrete paths and wooden walkways which connect the temples, pottery villages, riverside hamlets and restaurants. One path runs around the entire island, about a two-hour walk, but my knee won’t be up for that. Instead we wander through the temples then on to the pottery village where we buy a teapot, an elephant statue and tiny crochery animals for the dollies from a old smiling couple.

At another place Mark buys a beautiful traditional teacup for work from another sweet couple who have their little grandson translate for them, ‘you come back. Bring your family’.

Near the pier, we order pork noodle soup then cross back to the mainland on another little ferry. We find motorbike taxis to take us to the main road then catch a taxi back to Banglamphu – not much quicker than the bus as we’re caught up in the never-ending traffic jams.

It’s a relief to return to our quiet little haven and we head straight for Pink. I have a manicure, a pedicure and a leg massage while a horrible German woman complains about everything. She won’t even rest her head on the pillow – ‘not hygienic’ she whinges – until they give her a free leg massage. I can just imagine what the girls are saying about the old bag in Thai – ha ha.

Meanwhile Mark is having a lovely time on the verandah having a foot massage while drinking a ‘big one’ Chang. All this pampering is for our night out on the town. We’ve seen photos of Bangkok’s amazing rooftop bars and tonight we’re headed for The Vertigo Bar. We dress up for the experience but then can’t find a taxi driver to take us there. They all say it’s too far and the traffic is terrible but one guy says he can take us to the closer Baiyoke Tower which is the highest rooftop bar in Bangkok anyway.

So off we go to the Pratunam area where the eighty-four floored Baiyoke Tower is an unmissable towering landmark. The hotel was built in 1998 and is unfortunately showing signs of age. We pay $24 each to take the lift to the roof which apparently also get us one drink. Rip-off!! The bar area is fucking horrible with bogans walking around in shorts and thongs! So much for our posh night out!

But our hostess is lovely and the view is worth it! Floor length windows give us sweeping bird’s eye views of Bangkok alive with coloured lights and ribbons of headlights on the freeways snaking all over the city. After cocktails – a strawberry daiquiri for me and a margarita for Mark – we hightail it back in a tuktuk to Soi Rambutri.

Up to our room to change out of our posh clothes and back into t-shirts and thongs – heaven. We find a cute bar near the temple gate and love, love, love being back here.

Friday 23rd October, 2015

Bangkok to Singapore

Our last day. Up at seven for breakfast at the Green Café in Thanon Rambutrithen then wander around to Khao San Road but nothing is open yet. Back in our room we start to pack then head out later for a massage at a new place we hadn’t noticed earlier. It’s set in a lovely garden with massage beds curtained off from one another with long sheer drapes. The massages are the best we’ve had so far but are still the same cheap price as everywhere else. Sweet Thai music is playing and we’re given warm tea and water afterwards.

Later in Khao San Road we buy presents for home then I have a one-hour facial for $8 – making the most of being pampered while I can.

At 3.45pm we’re off in a taxi for the airport arriving about five o’clock. After checking in our bags, we pay $40AUD each to hang out in the CIP Lounge. Free food and drinks – it’s good value if you think how much we’d spend on dinner and drinks in the terminal anyway. Mark makes the most of it with five drinks and we both stuff ourselves. We also steal muffins, sandwiches and drinks to eat on the plane so we really must come out in front.

We take off on time on Scoot Airlines for the two-hour flight to Singapore. It’s now that we realise we should have booked our bags straight through to Sydney so I talk to the male air steward – who’s wearing foundation and lipstick, by the way – who says he’ll bring us up the front of the plane before we land so we can race to Transit Lounge E.

Off the plane we make a run for it but Transit E is miles away so we decide to leave the airport then come back in – this is crazy! Luckily immigration is quick and our bags come out early as well. From Baggage Pickup we race two floors up for check-in to find other people still lined up. No worries!

With a Temazapam each, the eight-hour flight is quick and comfy with a spare seat between us.


Land on time in Sydney then train home to our three darling girls.


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Ethiopia and Dubai 2016

Thursday 13th October, 2016

Newcastle to Sydney

It’s Elkie’s 3rd birthday! ‘I a big girl. I fwee” she says. Little darling! Lauren is at work and Mark takes Abi to school so I’ve got our baby all to myself. She’s already had two different birthday parties and cakes and she’ll have another cake with Daddy tonight. I still have last minute packing to do and it’s raining anyway, so we’ll just have a nice morning at home.

Chris Mostyn brings Issy over for a play with a present from Kylie so Elkie’s birthday is still happening. Mark is home by 2.30pm and Lauren drives us to Hamilton Station for the 3.17pm train to Sydney. I sleep for an hour so it seems no time till we pull into Central. Another train to St James and a walk across Hyde Park to Jillian’s.

Michael is here but isn’t staying tonight as he has to drive to Newcastle early in the morning to take his mum to an appointment. He’ll come with us for dinner then drive home to Turramurra to save time tomorrow.

So now the four of us head down to the East Sydney for a pub meal in the little dining room then Michael drops us at the Gaelic Club in Surry Hills. Jillian’s friend, Gita, is singing tonight. She’s vivacious and tiny with a great stage presence and a great voice. A few other women sing as well – all talented!

A taxi home then Mark and Jillian have more wine – I’ve run out of Bacardi, thank God!

Friday 14th October, 2016

Sydney to Dubai

Our flight doesn’t leave till late this afternoon so we all sleep in. Mark works on his computer after breakfast while Jillian and I talk for hours. At eleven o’clock we all walk up to the Art Gallery for lunch. We sit outside in the courtyard to make the most of the gorgeous day.

At 12.30 Mark and I catch the airport train to the international terminal feeling super excited about this trip. Ethiopia will definitely be an adventure – our favourite way to travel!

Booking in our bags with Qantas is quick and the new Smart Gates at Immigration means we’re through in no time. The only problem is with Mark’s new insulin pump which the staff won’t touch in case it’s a bomb – Mark the suicide bomber!! Ha ha. He has to be scanned for explosives but we’ve both been through that process before.

Pass the time checking out watches and other things we can’t afford and don’t want anyway then seek out the massage chairs – our new favourite airport thing! Mark calls Lauren and the dollies while I Viber Jackie and Den in Thailand. Then after stocking up on magazines and junk food, we board on time for our 4.50pm take off.

As we’ve managed many times before, we have three seats for the long flight which will make a heap of difference. I try to sleep but not feeling tired for some reason. Mark watches five episodes of Game of Thrones so he’s very happy. He’ll finish the season on the flight back home in a few weeks time.

Saturday 15th October, 2016

Dubai to Addis Ababa to Dire Dawa to Harar

After fourteen hours we land at midnight at Dubai’s International Airport in the United Arab Emirates. For a long time now, Dubai has been a major airline hub but Mark and I have never been here before. Most people don’t seem to like it but we want to check it out so we’ve planned to have two nights here on our way home. Now, though, we only have a four-hour layover before flying out for Ethiopia at a quarter to five this morning.

The terminal is huuuge and very impressive – all shiny with glass and mirrors plus full sized palm trees amongst white fluted columns. It’s not surprising given Dubai’s over-the-top reputation. Arab women in black burqas and men in long white robes and ghutras make for exciting people watching – we are in the Persian Gulf after all!

Through immigration we catch the fast-train to baggage pickup then a shuttle bus to Terminal 1 which is the original old airport still used by the crappy airlines – what???!! Actually, Ethiopian Airlines has a good reputation. Really, truly, it does!

And yes, Terminal 1 is a far cry from the very glamorous Terminal 2 – but heaps more interesting! I think it has a lot to do with the passengers as well – no wealthy package tourists on their way to Europe here. Instead it’s packed with African people having a great time pushing trolleys towering with luggage as well as more burqas and ‘towel heads’ as Dad used to say – ha ha.

After booking in our packs we eat McDonalds then try to grab a quick nap on the floor in the boarding area. Again we have three seats on the plane and we both manage to sleep for an hour. I pass the rest of the time doing a sudoku while Mark reads the Lonely Planet then breakfast is served. Ethiopian Airlines is surprisingly good – a stylish new plane, gorgeous hostesses and nice food.

Even though it’s still dark outside it’s exciting to be flying over Oman and Yemen. The sun rises as we cross the waters of the Gulf of Aden before reaching the Horn of Africa made up of Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia and, of course, Ethiopia. Now we look down on the spectacular Great Rift Valley that stretches six thousand kilometres from Lebanon to Mozambique then later the wild terrain of Ethiopia’s Ahmar Mountains as we head towards the capital, Addis Ababa.

Now just a bit of interesting guide book info. Besides being the capital, Addis (see, a local already) is also the country’s biggest city of almost four million people and is the third highest capital city in the world. Addis’ other claim to fame is that it’s often called the ‘African Capital’ because of its historical and political significance for the whole continent.

Landing at Bole International Airport we pay $52 each for our visas then look out for a guy called Omara who should be holding up an ETT sign. I’d arranged this over the net through emails to a woman called Sunight at a local travel agency. The story is that because we’re on a tight schedule and because we plan to visit far flung places in different directions we really need to fly in between towns. Booking online the flights added up to around $1,600AUD although booking within Ethiopia itself is about half the price. The problem is that we don’t have days up our sleeves to wait around in case any of the flights are booked out.

But that was until I lucked on a traveller’s blog about booking domestic flights through ETT. The deal is that if our international flights in and out of Ethiopia are with Ethiopian Airlines, we can get the domestic flights for only $700AUD – saving $900AUD!! We’ll see if it actually happens.

A good start is that Omara is actually here waiting outside in the warm sunshine. We follow him to a car with an Asian man but we can’t leave until someone called Juan turns up. He doesn’t so Omara sends us off with another guy who is actually a tour guide which means we get the sight seeing rundown on the way into the city.

It appears that monuments are very popular here – in every public square or within the many large roundabouts. A lot of the bigger buildings were built by the Italians who invaded Ethiopia in 1936 but were then booted out by the British and the Ethiopian army in 1941. Actually, Ethiopia has the distinction of being the only country in Africa to defeat an invading European power and so escaping colonization. The best thing about this is that the culture remains strong.

We pass museums, Orthodox cathedrals and busy markets as well as featureless modern office blocks. There seems to be a lot of construction going on and our driver proudly tells us that the economy is booming!

In twenty minutes we pull up at a three storey building which houses the ETT office on the fifth floor according to emails from Sunight who also said that she’d meet us here at 9 o’clock. Well it’s now ten o’clock and the office is locked! But this is Africa and we don’t stress but call her mobile number – ‘Hello, you already there?’ (why is she surprised?). ‘I come in five minutes!’

I sit on the stairs to wait and a young woman walking past says ‘cold’ then asks one of the security guards to give me a piece of cardboard to sit on – kind. Soon a cheery lady called Maria turns up and lets us in. Sunight soon arrives and orders us small cups of cinnamon tea to drink while she sorts out the paperwork and Mark withdraws cash from an ATM downstairs. The local currency is the Ethiopian birr with an exchange rate of $1AUD to16.33 Birr.

Amazingly all is soon sorted and we leave with our super cheap air tickets. Downstairs we’re about to withdraw more money but decide to wait till we get to the airport – big mistake!

Out on the street we easily find a taxi. The driver is friendly but has serious road rage abusing anyone in his path so we reach Bole International in record time for our one o’clock flight to Dire Dawa.

Checking in we’re told that the flight has been put back an hour so we head back outside which looks much more appealing than sitting inside the terminal. Here in a grassy garden area are lots of small stalls and shops surrounded by tables and chairs shaded from the hot sun by bright yellow umbrellas. An eager young waiter rushes towards us to guide us to one of ‘his’ tables.

Mark orders his first Ethiopian coffee – super strong – while I order another cinnamon tea. We share an excellent egg roll then spend a lovely hour watching the locals especially the cutest of babies. Back inside we find there aren’t any ATMs in the whole airport – wtf??? We do have a bit of money left after paying the travel agent so we’ll just have to hope we can get some cash in Dire Dawa.

To pass the time, we lie around on lounges in the basic but appealing waiting area filled with souvenir stalls and a simple restaurant. Mark then says, ‘look down there’ – a ‘massage’ sign! I make a bee-line for it and we spend a pampered hour having neck massages and foot massages all for only $23!

By now the plane has been delayed for another two hours and won’t leave till 4.40pm! So more reading and dosing till four o’clock when we decide we’d better head for the gate. Oh shit, there’s no-one around and the staff say ‘you be fast’ as we race towards Gate 17 and across the tarmac. ‘Where you be?’ ask the frazzled stewardess as we make it to the plane just as they’re about to pull up the stairs. Ha ha – don’t you hate those arseholes who hold up your flight!!!

Of course, we think it’s hilarious – did we sleep through the announcements or could we just not understand what they were saying? Anyway, we’re on our way with only one hour flying time to reach Dire Dawa. From there we’ll make our way to the ancient, fortified, desert city of Harar which apparently is only an hour’s drive. We don’t know how we’ll there which is exciting and, because of the delays, it’ll be dark when we do arrive which is even more exciting.

Flying west, the area around Addis Ababa is cultivated and green until we cross over the deep arid canyons of the Great Rift Valley. For some reason, it’s a rocky ride and we scream to a halt on the tarmac! The airport is tiny so we have our bags in no time and drag them along a garden-lined path to an area outside the terminal busy with touts in waiting tuktuks and taxis. We agree to go with an old man to the bus station. His car is falling to bit with rust, broken seats and missing door handles – we couldn’t be happier!

Speeding into town we really like Dire Dawa. Past the now-closed railway station since the line from Addis to Djibouti ceased running a few years ago, our driver finds an ATM and we have money at last!! Horse-drawn carts, roadside stalls and tree-lined streets look pretty in the fading light.

We soon drive into the grandly named bus station which is just a few rundown vans milling around. Mark bargains one of the drivers down to a 400Birr fare at which time he drags everyone else out of the van and tells us to get in! Oh no, we don’t want to do this but no-one seems to mind and we’re shoved in anyway with other touts yelling at our driver for money.

One says he saw us first so he wants a share of the fare then someone else says he put our bags on the roof so he wants his share as well. They won’t give in so our driver finally chucks money at them then off we roar with a few hangers on squashed into the front seat. It’s all pretty funny and just part of the Africa experience.

By now it’s almost dark and we really enjoy the first half hour of the journey as we cross the mountainous roads in the soft evening light. In some spots the road is lined with mud brick homes while cows, camels, goats and donkeys wander past. But for the most part, the countryside is just empty space with long vistas of mountains and deep valleys.

Later we’re held up by trucks and more trucks that slow to a snail’s pace on the steep uphill climbs and we can see headlights far into the distance crawling up even steeper climbs. Small towns here and there are jam packed with people coming and going to busy markets especially the hectic chat market in the village of Adequay. Again, we’re slowed down as we inch our way through the chaos. This means that our one-hour trip becomes two hours – who’d have thought??!!

Finally, we reach the outskirts of Harar – the newer, uninteresting bit that sprung up at the beginning of the 19th century – so not so ‘new’ – and then through into the ancient walled city of Jugal. This UNESCO World Heritage site was once a prosperous, independent kingdom and now lives a strangely insular existence – why we’ve come all this way!

Six gates penetrate the thick stone wall that runs for almost four kilometers around the Old City. Five are16th-century originals with one car-friendly Harar Gate.

Through the crumbling city wall we stop in a dark, potholed yard surrounded by a few dimly lit stalls and tuktuks jammed in amongst old vans. Touts rush out of the darkness and our bags are spirited off the roof and onto the shoulders of the luckiest ones. We say ‘Zabedas’ and off they race with us scurrying to keep up.

Down dark, narrow alleyways we just hope they know where they’re taking us. The guy in the lead finally knocks at a tin gate and a young girl lets us into the guesthouse courtyard. There isn’t a sign outside so we’d have no chance of finding it on our own.

The young girl, whose name is Effor, takes us to an old crone dressed in a white sarong thing and veil – this is Zabeda, the grandma. ‘You have room?’ we ask – blank stares and no answer. She can’t understand a word of English but, wtf, can’t she guess what we mean?

She eyes us suspiciously then yells something to Effor who rushes out the gate. Effor soon returns with a young woman called Rashida who we find out later comes from a nearby guesthouse. She can speak English and Zabeda wants to use her as an interpreter. The whole issue is that Zabeda won’t let us stay unless we’re married!

Finally, Zabeda is grudgingly satisfied except to sternly warn us not to take photos of her – I deliberately do behind her back – ha ha. Now we follow her from the courtyard to two tall carved doors which are ceremoniously opened to reveal a sort of Aladdin’s Cave.

Leaving our shoes at the door, we enter the nedeba or living room. The niched walls are covered in colorful plates and baskets and multicolored glassware. I’ve read that the series of platforms are painted red in memory of those who died at some ancient battle and each level is covered in reclining pillows. Where you sit depends on who you are. The male head of the family sits on the highest platform, usually in one corner where he can see the entrance to the compound then the lesser beings, like us, sit on the lower platforms

The horrible Zabeda points to a tiny steep staircase which apparently leads up to our room. We’re to find out later that this is the honeymoon chamber – the newly weds would hold up here for a week, never leaving. Food would be passed in through a latticed sliding screen that is still here but then what about wee wees and poopedys?

But I don’t think we’ll have to worry about that tonight. We’ve been shown the outside toilet which looks okay but will still be a mission to descend the ladder-like stairs in the middle of the night. Anyway, we’re definitely not going to bed just yet – too much to explore and we want to find somewhere to eat and, of course, to have a drink.

Outside, we set off along what seems to be the main alleyway and where we soon see Shoa Gate sitting magical at the top of the hill. Passing people on the way, it’s nice to see that everyone is friendly but we do stick out like two western people in a remote Islamic town. The women are eye-catching in colourful head scarves worn over long patterned dresses or skirts while most of the men dress in red, purple, and black.

Through Shoa Gate we find the remnants of the daily market with a few locals still squatting on the ground hoping to sell the last of their vegetables. Looking back at the gate, a full moon sheds a soft pale light over the scene which now looks almost biblical – like something out of one of those old Easter movies. I can’t believe we’re in this dream-like place only two days after leaving home – this is another world, this bizarre, fairy-tale town.

Back down the hill through the winding alleyways we walk past the entrance to Zabedas and make sure we memorise where it is. From the Lonely Planet, we have the name of a bar and ask a couple of teenage boys for directions. We follow one through more alleyways then pop out on the main street but still within the old walls. A few prostitutes are pacing around – poor girls – then our new friend points to a doorway across the road. No sign again so we’re glad we’d asked. It looks dingy and very local – just what we’d hoped for!

Near the doorway a pretty young woman is actually cooking chips so we order a bag then head inside for a drink. The interior is almost pitch black until our eyes become accustomed to the dark. Now we can see that there is a bare cement floor with the cement walls painted a bright blue. Both men and women are in here drinking with a few couples hiding in corners or in the adjacent small room. We assume they’re having illicit affairs but I don’t know if that can happen in such a full-on Muslim town.

A friendly man points to a fridge and we nod for beers and cokes. Arabic music is playing to add to the wonderful atmosphere and we share our hot chips. And how nice is it to finally relax??

After forty hours traveling, we can finally sit down and not get on any sort of transport for another thirty-six hours – luxury! We only have a couple of drinks though – just too tired so we walk back home in the dark and collapse into bed.

During the night, I do have to descend the dreaded stairs to use the loo, we’re kept awake for hours by mosque music and the call to prayer blares at us from all directions. Love it here!

Sunday 16th October, 2016


Jolted awake at six o’clock by the muezzins once again calling the Muslim faithful to prayer. Oh well, time for an early morning ‘snuggle’ before showers then breakfast in the sun-filled courtyard.

The house looks even better in the daylight. As a traditional Harari home, Zabedas looks inward – the rooms surround the inner courtyard with the bathroom to one side and to the other the tall ornately carved wooden doors that lead into the main building. With thick stone walls and small windows, these traditional homes stay cool even in the scorching heat of the day.

While we wait for our food, little Effu is washing the ground with a bucket of water and a dirty rag while Zabeda is being her usual grumpy self. That’s until she and another old woman beckon me into a dark room opposite. All smiles and gushy, they have woven baskets for sale. I say okay I’ll buy one for 100Birrr. I don’t want it but say I do anyway just to make them happy.

The warm, sunny day is a nice surprise. We were expecting much cooler weather but without a cloud in the sky, we’ll hopefully miss out on the expected rain as well. Breakfast is a flat crispy pancake thing served on a metal plate and covered with a colourful woven lid plus cinnamon tea for me and thick black coffee for Mark – he’ll be bouncing off the walls!

Now we set off in search of Rewdas Guesthouse as we’ve had enough of Zabeda. Because we know there won’t be a sign, we ask directions and find Rewdas only a stones’ throw away. Our knock on the gate is answered by Rashida, the tall beauty who we met at Zabedas last night. Luckily, they have a room and when we ask about a guide for the day, she calls ‘Ayisha!!’.

Out comes a teenage girl still half asleep. She has a gorgeous smile and speaks English amazingly well. We plan to meet her back here in an hour after we check out the market at Shoa Gate.

The laneway outside is lined with colourful façades of turquoise, pink, mauve. We pass groups of pretty women sitting on the ground selling cabbages, potatoes and tiny tomatoes then we stop to watch a guy cooking scrambled eggs in an over-sized pan. Women walk past carrying all sorts of things on their heads and we see lots of cute babies.

Through Shoa Gate the market is just starting with all sorts of fruits and vegetables for sale – chillis, limes, red onions, carrots, beans, leeks and heaps more. Fresh bread rolls are piled high in cane baskets – hope to have one later. With all the women wearing bright head scarves, it’s a colourful scene. Apparently, it’s at its busiest after three o’clock so we’ll be back later.

Meeting Ayisha again at Rewdas, we all walk around to Zabedas to check out. ‘Grandma not happy’ Ayisha says – ha ha. Zabeda is so pissed off that she now is charging us 500 Birr for our room (100 Birr extra) and she wants 200 Birr for the basket that I promised to buy. Keep it – I wave it away. Ayisha keeps saying ‘she not happy’ and I say ‘that’s why we’re leaving. She’s never happy!’

Such a relief to move into Rewdas where Ayisha introduces us to a friendly middle-aged woman with a beautiful face. I wonder if she’s Rashida’s mother. The guesthouse is much the same set-up but this time our room is just off the nebeda which looks exactly like the exotic living room at Zabedas – the same split-level seating and the same plates and baskets on the wall.

Our room is much bigger here plus we have our own sunny bathroom. I open the window the let in the air as well as the sounds from the laneway just outside – nice.

Now we agree to pay Ayisha 500 Birr to show us around the old city. She seems very happy although it doesn’t seem much – $32 probably goes a long way here, though. Our first stop is a weaving shop to show us the traditional styles that are unique to Harar. I guess we’re supposed to buy something but, no, the family is squatting on the floor and all seem more interested in eating than making a sale.

As we follow Ayisha through the spaghetti-like maze of lanes and alleyways, she points to a small, simple building that looks like any other around here. ‘Mosque’ she says. Actually, Harar is said to be Islam’s fourth holiest city on account of its eighty-two mosques – it’s the largest concentration of mosques in the world! But only a few are very impressive with most of them like this little non-descript place.

Up into the main street, we come across Oromo women walking in from the surrounding rural areas leading donkeys laden with firewood and sugar-cane. These they’ll sell then spend their earnings in the Jugal markets on food and household goods to take back home.

Every shop or house is painted in the brightest colours and even the nearby Cathedral is a brilliant blue. Because she’s a Muslim, Ayisha can’t go inside. We’re very lucky to have come across a ceremony happening right at this moment. About a hundred young women wrapped in white robes are sitting on the ground shaded by spreading trees just outside the main chapel listening to prayers given by a line of men also dressed all in white.

In the centre of the square outside the cathedral is a weird looking monument called Feres Megala. It honours the seven hundred Harari Martyrs who were slaughtered here in the 1887 Battle of Chelenko when Moslem forces lost to the Christians led by Menelik II.  He later became Emperor of Ethiopia – more guide book info.

Close by we stop to watch groups of old men playing board games while cheeky little boys play up for the camera. In fact, all morning we’ve been the attraction for lots of excited kids calling out ‘faranjo! faranjo!’ (‘foreigner’) or sometimes just ‘you! you!’.

Now Ayisha leads us down another cobbled laneway to Mekina Girgir – a narrow, atmospheric street packed with tailors’ workshops where old men bend over sewing machines. Apparently only the males do the sewing in Ethiopia. From here we zigzag among more pastel-colored alleyways with me having to stop now and again to click my knee back into place – been having trouble with this for months now. Ayisha says ‘I bring old woman’ to fix it – I can’t wait for this!

But first she wants to take us to Ras Tafari’s House. Along more sun-filled alleyways we enter an arched gateway into a pretty garden in front of the lovely old home which is now a museum. We love the architecture which looks very Eastern. It was built by an Indian trader which explains the Ganesh carving above the door. But it’s actually closed just now so we’ll come back later.

Setting off along the main laneway we stop to talk to men who look very red-eyed and spaced out – a common sight here in Harar. They’re chewing chat! Chat is king here and an obvious social problem – like alcohol or ice at home. Young men and even some women are high on the natural stimulant that comes from the fresh foul-tasting leaves. Whole markets are dedicated to selling it!

So now we check out Arthur Rimbauld’s House which is also closed but will be open later this afternoon. Around here are more Oromo women and their donkeys looking like something straight out of a Charlton Heston movie. These people are seriously dirt poor!

At the camel-meat market Ayisha asks if we’d like to hand-feed the falcons which are a common sight in Ethiopia. For 10 birr (.50 cents), one of the camel-meat vendors will let us feed scraps to the hawks, who are patiently waiting for any opportunity. Some glare down from rooftops while others circle creepily above us. Their eyesight and accuracy is pretty amazing – just missing our heads by a few centimeters as they swoop down towards the small chunk of camel meat we hold in our hands. Ayisha goes first then Mark. I’m last and I don’t know if my meat is too fatty or I’m just too scary but they won’t take it – fun anyway!

From here Ayisha leads us to a church which is also closed but we hear music from a neighbouring building and find a group of children dancing and singing with an older girl playing a simple piano type of instrument.

Nearby is the Tomb of Sheikh Abadir, the patron saint of Harar.  Non-Muslims are usually refused entry but there’s no-one around so we step into this very important pilgrimage site. For something so special it’s very simple but then again most Muslim places of worship usually are. The actual tomb is a tall rounded blob painted a vivid blue and white and still attracts worshippers hoping for solutions to their daily struggles. If their prayers are answered they return with gifts of rugs, incense or even the very expensive sandalwood. Nice.

Next Ayisha wants to show us ‘the view. Very beautiful’. We’re not convinced but we cram into a bajaj (tuktuk) anyway and head off out of the old city and up a long steep road to a half-built mosque that’s bellowing out what sounds like a constant call-to-prayer. Our driver and his companion (there’s always at least one extra person squashed in the front) get out as well to admire the view. What?? It’s pathetic but Ayisha seems very proud so we try to look impressed for her sake and pretend to take lots of photos. On the way back into Jugal we stop to inspect two of the other ancient gates then jump out to take pictures of the busy Harar Gate. Here a topless old woman is sitting on the ground completely stoned on chat, poor lady.

We’re dropped just outside the gate at a restaurant from the Lonely Planet called Fresh – we have visions of ‘freshly’ squeezed fruit juices and salads. No such luck but the open-air terrace is a great people-watching spot and the menu looks good anyway. Mark orders goat (blah!) while I devour the best hamburger I’ve had for a long time.

But Ayisha’s meal is the most interesting – it’s Ethiopia’s national dish called wat – a hot spicy stew accompanied by injera. Haven’t heard of wat but I saw Joanna Lumley eating injera on her ‘Nile’ documentary (more about that later). It’s a large spongy pancake made of teff, flour and water. We’ll definitely try it but I must say it looks pretty disgusting. Joanna said ‘Mmmmmm…’ so for that reason alone I’ll give it a go.

But the best part of Fresh is seeing a guy dressed in a traditional red costume tear past on a very short white horse. Apparently he’s the groom who’s followed by the bride and the wedding party in speeding tuktuks. Close behind are the guests, also in speeding tuktuks, all blowing their horns and trailing bunches of balloons – it’s the funniest thing we’ve seen for ages!

Back now in another bajaj to Ras Tafari’s House. Haile Selassie, Ethiopia’s most famous emperor, spent his honeymoon here so the house bears his pre-coronation name. The garden now is filled with men and women busily dying leather for the covers of the Koran. A guide takes us through each room explaining all the weaponry, coins, jewellery, household tools, old manuscripts, cultural dress and finally portraits of Haile Selassie and his family – phew!

All very interesting but by this stage we’re feeling overly hot and tired – jet lag catching up, I think. We tell Ayisha that we’ll head back to Rewda’s for a rest then continue with the tour in a couple of hours. We crash out on the bed stripping down to our undies – I take photos of Mark – ha ha.

At 4.30pm we’re showered and changed. Ayisha returns after visiting a family of ‘man dead today. He very old so he dead’. A bit hard not to laugh. She’s still concerned about my knee so she brings ‘old woman’ who will apparently fix it. And she’s seriously old – 102 we’re told. Not too sure about this as the Ethiopian calendar is different to our Gregorian calendar and has thirteen months instead of twelve. This means that Ethiopian year is almost eight years behind ours – good in a way because it means that I’m only 56 and Mark is only 41! But then does that mean that the old woman is 110?

Anyway, she roughly inspects my leg from all angles then rubs oil behind my knee and gives me a gouging massage – fuuuck!! The finale is spitting saliva on either side of my knee cap then she sticks her head back through the curtain as she’s leaving to spit twice more onto my chest – wtf? I give her 50 Birr.

I ask Ayisha if she can take me to a beauty salon as I want to have my hair washed. I always do this in Asia – a wash and a blow-dry for next to nothing and saves me doing it myself. The hairdresser in the tiny rough-walled salon is brutal and with a cold water wash it’s not really a pleasant experience. Add to that the fastest blow-dry in history and I don’t come out looking too special.

But now we sit in Rewdas courtyard with a group of pretty little ones. One older girl teases Ayisha by trying to rip off her veil – can’t understand what they’re saying but we can tell it’s all in good fun.

By now it’s late afternoon so we want to revisit Shoa Gate market which should be in full swing. It’s teeming with women busily gossiping, bartering, buying grain, choosing colourful fabrics or stocking up on aromatic spices. They’re all dressed in extravagant colours, although the flowing styles differ according to each ethnic group – Oromo, Argobba, Somali or Adares. They squat beside neat piles of onions, tomatoes, green peppers and bananas, some cooking samosas on small stoves while the sweet smell of incense wafts about us adding to the mood.

Just on nightfall as we pass people chewing chat. Ayisha asks ‘you want to try?’ – yes, definitely! She takes us to her aunty’s place which is another old Harari house with the same setup as the guesthouses but not as dramatic – we like it better in a way because it’s the real thing. Ayisha’s sister is here and the old grandma who owns the house is sitting cheerfully stoned on the floor smoking chat in a sort of shesha thing. We both have turns before chewing the foul-tasting chat leaves as well – bitter! We love this experience and something we’d never have done if we hadn’t met Ayisha – of course, I want to give her more money.

But now it’s time to seek out the hyena-feeding man. We find a bajaj to take us outside the walls to experience Harar’s strangest custom. We bump our way along rutted tracks to pull into a very dark space where a few people are watching a lone man sitting beside two large baskets of meat scraps and bones. Apparently, the custom started when villagers began feeding oatmeal to the hyenas so they wouldn’t bother to attack their cattle.

This actual Hyena Man is the sixth generation of a Harari family to have done this every night. He calls them individually – yes they all have names – in a strange throaty sound. Soon we see a movement in the darkness and here is the first to materialise. Then two more of the creepy dog-like creatures slink out of the darkness. He holds out a piece of meat on the end of a stick for each one to inch forward and snatch it in their deadly jaws.

Ayisha is the first to have a turn then Mark and I are next – not scared at all – much too excited to think about it. Probably should be – they are wild animals after all!

On a real high now, we take the bajaj to the Hirut Restaurant on the other side of town. From what I’d read, I expected something a bit upmarket but instead we turn onto a dimly lit dirt street to find the Hirut also dimly lit and full of local character. We can sit in the little garden alcoves or in the cozy area inside. We choose the dark interior decorated with weathered wooden furniture and traditional woven baskets. This is our first real chance to try traditional Ethiopian food so we ask Ayisha to order for us.

On a large flat tray we’re given a selection of wat (a spicy vegetables stew), tibs (meat with vegetables) and kwanta firfir (dried strips of beef rubbed in chilli) all eaten with the spongy injera bread. The custom is to tear off a piece of injera with our fingers then mop up the rest of the food with it. Mark of course loves it all!

Bajaj home to bed at 9.30pm – an amazing day and all thanks to Ayisha.

Monday 17th October, 2016

Harar to Dire Dawa to Addis Ababa to Gondar

Up at 6.30am to shower and pack. We’re leaving Harar this morning – we’ll catch an early bus to Dire Dawa where we’ve booked a 10 o’clock flight back to Addis Ababa then an afternoon flight from Addis to Gondar. Again the day is warm and sunny – so lucky with the weather so far!

Rashida cooks us the same breakfast that we had at Zabeda’s yesterday. We want Ayisha to come with us to the bus station but she rushes out the door saying, ‘I be back soon’. We can’t wait for her, though, so Rashida leads us through the hectic alleyway up to Shoa Gate then across the busy road to the where the vans and buses are congregating in the usual chaotic mess.

I feel sad that we can’t say goodbye to Ayisha and can’t understand why she isn’t here to wave us off. But she suddenly appears, out of breath and with a ‘present’ for us. The dear little one had spent part of the money we’d promised her to buy us a woven basket – ‘I love you’ she says. She didn’t have to do this and I feel a bit teary-eyed. We give her 500 Birr plus another 100 Birr for Rashida.

Meanwhile time is marching on and we’re still not moving. It’s already eight o’clock and even if the trip is the promised one hour we’ll only arrive in Dire Dawa an hour before our ten o’clock takeoff – and then we’ll have to get to the airport from the bus station as well! Oh shit!

As usual the driver won’t leave till all the seats are full so Mark is trying to tell him that we’ll pay for the extra fares – let’s just get the fuck out of here! And finally we’re off!

Leaving this magical old town, the drive to Dire Dawa is much easier this morning with none of the dreaded trucks to slow us down – they must only travel at night. We pass through the chat market village and see lots of women walking along the roadside leading donkeys carrying all sorts of provisions. Through more villages we love the buzz of the local markets then we’re crossing the barren mountains before descending into Dire Dawa.

Even though the trip has been quick we’re still running seriously late. To make things worse, the bus station is a nightmare with crazy people throwing themselves onto the top of the van before we even stop. Mark almost ends up in a tug-of-war with our bags but manages to stuff them into a bajaj while we both jump in afterward.

But one tout won’t let our driver leave until he pays him for ‘helping’, then as we roar off two more lunatics leap onto the side and won’t get off till we give them something as well. They yell at our driver threatening him that they’ll follow us if we don’t pay them. He eventually stops and chucks them a few coins – these guys are either seriously poor or seriously arse-holes!

With all the drama, it’s 9.15 by the time we reach the airport but because it’s so small we can still check in our bags and we fly off into a clear, blue sky at ten o’clock. By 11am we’re back in the same departure area at Addis’s domestic, waiting for our flight to Gondar – very deja vous! The flight is supposed to leave at 2.20pm but this time we have no expectations – better that way.

To pass the time we have another head and neck massage from the same lovely girls from two days ago. I splurge on a hand and foot massage as well while Mark sets himself up with his Kindle at the café.

Later we both attempt to order lunch – I say ‘attempt’ because we can’t seem to get anyone to even hand us a menu because all the waitresses are standing around chatting and laughing. Then, when we finally do order, the food takes forever – again lots of ladies in the kitchen but weirdly no-one seems to be cooking! Our soup finally arrives but the vegetables are still raw – bloody hopeless!

All morning we’ve experienced constant blackouts and now as we’re ready to go through the x-ray machine for our surprisingly ‘on time’ plane, another blackout knocks out the whole system. Two flights are leaving at the same time so a big crowd is waiting at the doors. We meet four very short and very cute Columbian ladies who are also on their way to Gondar so we hope to see them there.

We also talk to three handsome diplomats from England who’ve obviously been in Ethiopia for a while. Shaking his head at all the locals trying to cram themselves into the doorway, one of them says ‘they see a nice orderly line and they just want to destroy it!’ – ha ha!

It’s amazing to watch people doing everything they can to sneak into the x-ray room – the machines aren’t working anyway, you idiots! One nutcase is especially manic and when the power does finally come back on he’s first through. Later, at the departure lounge we find him waiting to board like everyone else.

But back at the x-ray machine, we just wait till the end with the diplomats and the Columbian ladies. Now one of the diplomats is stopped taking a parcel through even though it has official stamps all over it. They want him to go back downstairs and sort it out with someone else – good luck with that mate!

More confusion once we board, an hour and a half late by now. A smelly, old man in long white robes is sitting in my seat. When I show him my boarding pass he gives me a disgusted look and shoos me away with his hand then waves to another seat – like, ‘you sit there!’ – what??

A young, local guy in front of us looks at the old fart’s boarding pass and points to a seat across the aisle where, not surprisingly, another old fart has already planted his fat arse. Soon the young guy sorts it out and we’re ready to go. The one-hour flight is smooth in a clear, blue sky and the scenery is very green compared to the barren west.

I must say that all this greenery and cultivation isn’t something we expected. I think we all still remember Ethiopia’s terrible famine of 1983-1985 when over four hundred thousand people died and imagine the whole country to be a dustbowl.

Gondar itself is nestled in the lush foothills of the Simien Mountains and was once Ethiopia’s rich and powerful capital during the reign of Emperor Fasilidas in the seventeenth century. It was Fasilida who built the first of five castle-like palaces which has given Gondar its nick-name of the ‘Camelot of Africa’. But we’ll learn more about that later because that’s why we’ve come here!

But back to the plane – as we all stand in the aisle waiting for the front doors to be opened, the first smelly old fart is just behind me. He now shoves me backwards where I bang my head on the overhead locker so he and his ugly wife can push past us all to get to the front of the plane – bizarre how these people are so desperate to get on and off anything that moves! Maybe it’s a cultural thing but this guy is a serious arse-wipe!

Outside the touts are here in force and we agree to go with a guy in a van until we see the arse-wipe and his wife already parked in the back seat – goodbye! We notice a bajaj driver and much prefer to ride in a tuktuk anyway. But, of course, the van driver goes nuts and is yelling at the bajaj driver for stealing his fare – let’s get out of here!

The airport is in a rural area with lots to see on the thirty minute drive into town especially children herding sheep, goats and cattle alongside the road. We putput through a few small villages where the only type of transport seems to be horses pulling carts – this is amazing! On the outskirts of Gondar we pass Fasilada’s Bath which is definitely on our to-do list.

We haven’t booked accommodation as usual but we’ve picked a cheap place out of the Lonely Planet. It’s on the busy main street but I hate it on sight. We ask our driver to take us to Lodge Fasil which is more expensive but totally worth it – in a quiet dirt laneway right behind the castle wall with a leafy entrance and an outdoor café. Market stalls, people leading donkeys and kids playing ball games are just outside the tall gates. We do notice a guy guarding the gate carrying a large gun (rifle?) – good security, we suppose.

Inside we find lovely gardens and spreading trees with lots of little sitting areas. The very helpful Daniel books us into our comfortable room with a wide verandah, our own bathroom and a view over the garden. At US$60 it’s a lot more than we wanted to pay so maybe we’ll look for a cheaper place tomorrow.

We ask him about wifi but he tells us that the government has shut down the internet over the whole country because of political unrest. This means no Facebook so we’ll just have to ring Lauren – heaps more expensive, though.

We knew there’d been some sort of unrest before we came. A few weeks ago it was reported that a stampede killed dozens of people at a religious festival after police threw tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd. The violence was triggered when some of them crossed their wrists above their heads, which is a symbol of the anti-government movement. But witnesses began posting the truth on social media that there were actually hundreds who died and that the police started the whole thing in the first place so the government decided to cut the internet altogether.

After that happened, on the 8th October a state of emergency was declared in Gondar as well, so schools and businesses were shut down but most were re-opened just this week. And Gondar has the added problem of territorial disputes that have been simmering for a long time between the elites here in the Amhara region and those in neighbouring Tigray.

This is from an internet article. Tigrayans have been accused by opponents of wielding undue influence over Ethiopia’s government and security agencies since 1991. In recent months, these and other grievances have led to protests, strikes, vandalism and killings in Gondar, causing a drastic reduction in foreign visitors to the tourism-dependent city and an exodus of fearful Tigrayans.

Gondar’s predicament is a microcosm of Ethiopia’s: a toxic brew of uneven development, polarized debate amid a virtual media vacuum, contested history, ethnic tensions, a fragmented opposition and an authoritarian government. Ethiopia’s rulers show few signs of being able to solve the morass of problems, which many believe the government itself caused.

Anyway, at least the problems are internal and not directed at westerners for a change. But now it’s time for a drink so we set up in Lodge Fasil’s thatched café. Mark orders Dashen beer which is brewed right here in Gondar and I order Ambo, Ethiopia’s equivalent of soda water.

On dark, we dress for our night out at Four Sisters Restaurant. This has received great reviews on Tripadvisor so, like last night in Harar, we’re surprised to be bumping along a rutted track in the pitch dark – are we lost? But no, here is Four Sisters, a little glowing oasis in the darkness.

As they do here every night, the staff and the four sisters – Tena, Helen and Senait and Eden Atenafu – greet us at the door wearing long white embroidered dresses – the traditional costume of Gondar. We can’t sit in the main restaurant building because it’s already full but we like the outdoor garden area better anyway. I wear one of the coloured ponchos that they provide for everyone to get in the mood.

No diet coke so I’ll have to go for the full-on sugary shit to drink with my smuggled-in Bacardi. If I have to drink this full strength coke for the whole trip I’ll go home a big fatty boomba! We also have to try Tej, a honey wine still made here by Mama Seraw – the family matriarch. The waiter shows us how to swig it backwards from a small glass flask. Mark goes first and gags! That’s it for me then!

The food, though, makes up for it – a spicy soup for Mark and a tuna salad for me. Meanwhile the dancing has been going off inside – women clap and jump up and down, Masaii-like, and make that funny high-pitched trilling sound called ululation. The style of dance in this Amhara region is called “Eskesta” which has weird jerky movements of the neck and shoulders. At one stage the dancers crowd around a scared looking European woman who’s celebrating her birthday.

Time for bed now after a busy day. Someone calls us a tuktuk and off we fly through the dark laneways back to Fasil Lodge where the guy with the gun lets us in.

We’re staying here in Gondar tomorrow with lots of things on our list including markets, churches and especially the magical castles. Loving this country!

Tuesday 18th October, 2016


Up for breakfast at seven in the hotel’s dining room. It looks out onto the garden and the food is good. Now we set off for the castles.

The laneway is busy already with locals going about their daily life – people leading donkeys, ladies toting babies on their backs, other ladies with colourful shopping bags, a few bajajs and a guy carrying a chicken. Small hole-in-the-wall shops sell buns and doughy things we don’t recognize as well as coffee cooked over coals with tables made of crates set up on the footpath.

We follow the tall stone walls of the Royal Enclosure which holds the so-called Ethiopian Camelot, Gondar Castle. But the ‘Castle’ isn’t just a single castle – it’s the name given to the entire complex of five castles and palaces built by a succession of kings beginning in the early 17th century.

Inside we pay a small entrance fee then pick up a guide so we’ll understand what we’re looking at. The grounds aren’t perfectly manicured but covered in tall grasses with beaten paths winding between the castles. Lots of tall trees create a ‘foresty’ atmosphere – I think I’m getting the ‘Camelot’ thing.

Our smiley guide is knowledgeable and explains the history – Gondar became Ethiopia’s capital during the reign of Emperor Fasilidas (1632-1667), who built the first of the palaces here. The next four kings did the same but none are as big or elaborate as the first.

Walking through the banqueting halls and looking down from the balconies, it’s easy to imagine what it was like during the time of emperors and warlords and courtiers and kings. We spend two peaceful hours visiting all the castles then decide to look for the market.

Outside we find a bajaj driver to take us to Kidame Market – the biggest and oldest in Gondar. The streets are alive with people, goats, sheep and donkeys and becoming more congested the closer we get.

But, what the hell, it looks like a rubbish dump with piles of rubble everywhere. Something serious has happened here and we later find out that a fire completely destroyed all four hundred and twenty stalls that made up the market about six weeks ago. People are convinced that the fire was caused by arson and the government is behind it all!

So now these poor people are trying to rebuild their stalls with rows of ugly concrete shops – at least they won’t burn down but it will never be the same. We leave this tragic place to hightail it back to our hotel.

Some very interesting sights on the way – the outskirts are remnants of the original marketplace with women selling piles of chilies and spices on the ground and men herd goats and sheep along side streets all heading towards the saleyards.

But now we just want to make our way back to our little laneway where we hope to find a cheaper place to stay for tonight. We ask our bajaj driver to stop at Lodge du Chateau     where the price will be a lot cheaper and the photos on Tripadvisor look very appealing. But it’s cramped and unkept so we decide to stay where we are at Lodge Fasil.

I’m very happy to be back at this lovely guesthouse for two reasons – it’s the best place in Gondar and I also need to kabumbah, fast!!

We tell Daniel that we’ll be staying again tonight which makes him very happy even though he’s not the owner. I ask him about the wall clock that reads 6pm because I’ve noticed this in a few other places – are they all broken? He tells us that, like the weird calendar, Ethiopia also has different time cycles. The 12-hour clock cycles don’t begin at midnight and noon, but are offset six hours. So Ethiopians refer to midnight (or noon) as 6 o’clock. Very confusing!

Now we set off in search of an ATM as we need money for today and for the next few days as well. We walk down the path to the main street where we easily find a bank. Mark manages to withdraw some cash while I wait outside on the main street.

Our plan now is to visit some of the other major sights of Gondar but we’re not sure where to go first. While checking out the Lonely Planet, a young local boy approaches us. He introduces himself as Yusf – we love him immediately!

He asks ‘where you want to go?’, then announces ‘I take you!’. Okay, we’ll just follow you, you little cutie! He hails a bajaj and the three of us manage to squeeze inside. Under Yusf’s instructions, we speed off to the church of Debre Birhan Selassie. On the northern side of town we climb up cobbled streets to find it set behind a tall stone wall with circular turrets at both ends. The church, also called the ‘Light of the Trinity’, is a rectangular structure set on raised ground.

Because Yusf is a Moslem he says he’ll wait for us in the tuktuk. Just inside the gate we run into the lovely Columbian ladies we met at Addis airport yesterday. Their hotel was booked by a travel agent and I don’t think they’re very happy with it – too far out of town and probably expensive – never trust a travel agent!

The church itself is relatively small and fairly plain except for a columned stone verandah on three sides. Here women dressed in all-white are praying while an old priest in a black kufi cap and wrapped in thick yellow robes reads from an ancient book. – another scripture moment!

If the outside of the church is simple, the interior makes up for it. Every inch of the walls and ceiling is covered with painted images. The beamed ceiling has the faces of over a hundred winged cherubs representing the omnipresence of God while the walls show biblical scenes and saints.

And besides the paintings, above the two doors are icons of the Holy Trinity and the Crucifixion. But, wait there’s more! At one end of the chapel, two curtain-covered doors lead to the Holy of Holies where the church’s copy of the Ark of the Covenant is locked away! Bloody hell!

All very impressive but being atheists we don’t hang around long especially after I’m chased by the priest for wearing my shoes inside – settle, mate!

Back out on the road we’re met by a beaming Yusf. ‘You like it?’, he asks, bursting with pride. ‘Now we go to Fasilada’s Bath’.

This is another of Gondar’s ancient attractions and, like the Castle, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But we’re the only ones here – this political unrest has really fucked up Gondar’s tourist industry. Yusf leads us through a grassy field to the huge two-storeyed deep pool with a battlemented palace sitting smack in the centre. For health reasons it’s empty most of the time, like now, but can be filled via a canal from the river.

This happens on January 19th every year when the pool is flooded for the re-enactment of Timket which celebrates the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. Yusf borrows a picture from the tuktuk driver to show us how it looks during the celebration. Amazing! If only we could have been here!

We all crawl around the walls that are continually being strangled by the roots of trees from the surrounding forest – just like Ta Phrom near Angkor Wat. We walk around the palace but can’t get inside for some reason.

No worries because we’re starving and Yusf wants to take us to ‘the best restaurant in Gondar’. We’re a bit dubious because when a local wants to take you to a restaurant it’s usually a boring modern place that they think is what westerners like – not this time! It sits in a laneway not far from our guesthouse with a hand-written sign – ‘Master Chef Kitchen’ – and made from bamboo and woven grass walls.

And considering the amount of people here, the food truly must be good. Mark orders a local dish while I have meat with spaghetti. Yusf orders injera with a fish dish and asks for the left-overs to be wrapped up so he can take them home to his Mum.

He asks if we’d visit his home this afternoon to meet his family. Oh yes, we’d love to! His house is nearby so he races off excitedly to tell his Mum and give her the food.

Apparently she’s very happy to have guests and we arrange to visit her at two o’clock. Now Yusf wants to take us to a village on the outskirts of Gondar. The village women weave and make pottery to sell to tourists and we can watch them at work.

All day we’ve seen soldiers carrying big guns around the town and as we leave the city we’re stopped by more soldiers who check us out while the driver has to hand over his papers. No problems and we’re soon at the pottery village.

On the roadside, a wonky hand painted sign reads, WELL COME TO FILASI SINAG VILLAGE and a couple of rough shacks sell gourds and hand-made shawls plus the woven baskets that we’d seen everywhere in Harar.

At first we’re greeted by a young woman and her son but in seconds we’re swarmed with little girls all holding up white pottery chickens decorated with coloured dots. We don’t want any of them but try to be nice. They won’t give up though and follow us up through the trees to the village. Yusf nicely tells them to leave us alone but they don’t listen to him. One very pretty girl about thirteen introduces herself as Hannah and is an expert saleswoman. Of course we end up with four of the bloody things. Yusf is very impressed with Hannah and I say ‘maybe she could be your girl friend’.

We visit a very old round hut with a thatched roof and the inside walls painted in crude designs. A village lady shows us ancient cooking pots and other kitchen implements while the crowd of girls selling the pottery animals wait patiently outside. Back down the track, we’re swarmed again – had enough and can’t wait to escape.

Across the road we visit a centre that’s been set up for local woman to learn pottery-making (something besides the chickens would be good) as well as weaving with wooden looms.

Back in the tuktuk we’re stopped again by soldiers as we reach Gondar. We’re not really worried but we hear later that a young English woman had been mistakedly shot and killed right here a few weeks ago. Then not far from Yusf’s house we pass the shell of a burnt-out coach torched during the unrest in August. So, maybe we shouldn’t be so blasé about this whole political thing?

Finally back in Gondar, we pull up at the side of a dirt road where we climb over a little fence made from tree branches to scramble down a short slope to land at the front door of Yusf’s house. ‘House’ is rather a grand name for this little shed made of bits and pieces of iron. Inside is very dark – no windows – with an earthen floor partly covered with off-cuts of lino and rattan mats.

But Yusf is as proud as punch especially when he introduces his Mum and his sister. They’re squatting on the floor wearing striped shawls that cover their heads and coloured dresses underneath. Yusf’s sister is picking out the bad bits from a tray of peanuts that they’ve just roasted. These ones are for us but this is how his Mum looks after her five kids. The dad ran off with another woman years ago so this poor little lady has to do it all on her own.

We find that Yusf is actually eighteen years old although he looks about twelve. He’s the youngest in the family with two sisters and two brothers. The second sister comes to the door to say hello and his brother, Adem, sits with us. The ‘house’ is just one room with a lounge and two chairs jammed together and the ‘kitchen’ at one end. Here a metal kettle is boiling over hot coals so the mum can make us coffee. This is more than humbling especially when Yusf proudly hands her all the money we gave him earlier – about $30. She’s thrilled!

I ask Yusf if his Mum would like the sarong I have with me – she’s thrilled again and wraps it around her head for everyone to admire. I have a similar one in my luggage so I’ll give it to Yusf later.

Hugs all round as we leave then I tell Yusf how lovely he is for giving his Mum all the money he’d made. ‘I don’t need money. Maybe she make me something nice to eat’, he says rubbing his tummy. What a darling!

We make plans to return to our guesthouse now for a rest then see him later for dinner. On the way one of his friends walks along with us. His name is Mickey and he and Mark chat about soccer – his passion. Mark asks him if he plays – ‘yes but our team have no ball. Three weeks. Ball broken.’ Now their training sessions are just running around to keep fit.

Of course, Mark asks where he can buy a ball for his team and in one of the little market stalls near our hotel we find one. Mickey is very excited and wants to take us to his coach’s house tonight so we can see the trophy they won last year. So now the plan is to meet Yusf and Mickey in the laneway at six o’clock.

For the next couple of hours we shower, sleep, read and pack ready for an early start tomorrow. We’d asked Daniel about buses to Gorgora which apparently leave around five o’clock in the morning.

At 6pm, we’re ready and meet the boys just outside the gate. The light is fading and it feels lovely walking around at this time of night – always with the smoke of wood fires hanging in the air as families cook their evening meals. At the coach’s house we follow Mickey and Yusf inside where a display cabinet holds crochery and the prized soccer trophies – under 16s and under 17s. We peer closely to show them how impressed we are.

After taking photos of the boys posing proudly in front of the trophies, I visit Mickey’s house. It’s a lot flasher than Yusf’s but still very basic with sagging wooden floors. He shows me photos of his four brothers, his grandmothers, his parents and his beloved sister. She was married in May this year which seems to be a big deal. Soon, Mickey’s Mum rushes in from the yard and wants us to stay for coffee – it’s the thing to do here.

Outside we watch one of the local ladies making injera on an open fire. A lot of neighbours are hanging around – not sure if it’s to watch her or because of us. They’re all friendly with gorgeous white smiles. That’s one thing we’ve noticed – everyone has beautiful teeth – no money for junk food I suppose.

We watch the injera making for a while then Mark asks if he can have a try. The lady gives him a demonstration – he’s not bad but the crowd thinks it’s hilarious!

Dark by now, we head off with the boys back to Master Chef for dinner. Yusf wants to sit inside this time where it’s a bit ‘posher’. Again, it’s packed with lots of families then after ordering we ask the boys about Facebook. They have a friend called Imeral who works in an internet place and thinks he might be able to help. They give him a call and he turns up in fifteen minutes. He tries all sorts of ways to hack into Facebook but apparently it can only be done with Samsung phones, not our iphones. Nice try anyway and we give him a tip. Imeral’s phone is working so we borrow it to put up a couple of photos onto my Facebook page.

The food is excellent – I have tuna salad, Mark an Ethiopian meal while Mickey and Yusf both order chicken curry with injera. Now we move next door to what they call a draught place which is a sort of very basic pub. We sit on benches in a dark room painted deep blue and chat with a few local men. They tell us that they come here every night – just like the locals at home. We show them pictures of Lauren and the dollies then have photos taken with all of us. One even gives me his email address. The boys don’t drink at all but Mark has draught beer while I drink my Bacardi and coke – love it here!!

On the way home, we talk to Mickey and Yusf about coming with us for a couple of days. We’ll all think about it overnight and meet them at 3.30am – love those early starts!

Wednesday 19th October, 2016

Gondar to Gorgora

The alarm on Mark’s phone wakes us at 3am so we shower and do the last minute packing before meeting Yusf and Mickey out front. The boys haven’t brought anything with them but without even saying anything, we all seem to have assumed that the four of us will be leaving for Gorgora today. What will happen after that we don’t know!

This very early morning walk through the dark laneways and streets is one of those travel experiences we always love. The moon is full and the air still and calm although Mark thinks he sees lightning on the horizon.

Outside the bus station is busy with people milling around the gate and a few makeshift stalls selling over-ripe bananas and thorny skinned oranges – looks awful but we do buy a bag of oranges for the bus. Later we’re to wish we’d bought the spotty bananas as well.

At 5.30am the gate is opened and, not surprisingly, the crowd charges through. If the passengers appear frantic the touts are much worse. We can’t find the Gorgora bus and we’re told by a very aggressive tout that it’s not running and we’ll have to buy tickets for his mini-van. He abuses Yusf who is trying to sort things out for us then comes back a few minutes later to abuse him again – poor little Yusf.

We hate the nasty prick but have to swallow our pride when we realise that the Gorgora bus really isn’t happening. So Mark buys tickets for the boys who sit in the front seat next to the driver while he buys four seats for us so we’re not jammed in like sardines which will definitely happen. The van naturally can’t leave until it’s full so we wait for half an hour while the driver bullies anyone he can find to take his van.

Meanwhile the man sitting behind us is wrapped in white robes with a white headscarf and blows his foul breath all over us. And, the poor little lady next to me stinks so it’s going to be an interesting drive.

Outside our driver is becoming more agitated trying to fill the van while other touts lie in wait for customers at the gate and a few fights break out – this isn’t a nice place to be. Finally we have enough passengers and pull out of the bus station just as the sun rises.

For some reason, we stop for fifteen minutes on the edge of town where we see people living in ‘houses’ seriously not much bigger than a dog’s kennel. At seven o’clock we’re on our way and it’s a relief to be out of the city.

As usual people walk along the edge of the road sheperding cows and sheep while donkeys are laden down with fire-wood. Men carry wooden staffs or crooks depending on the animals they’re herding. The countryside is a green patchwork of cultivated fields growing corn and tef which is the grain used to make the much loved injera. We pass through small villages where people live in houses made from rough tree branches with grass and mud shoved into the cracks.

As the temperature rises the smell inside the van is reaching rank proportions and Poo Breath is still on board. Somehow we’ve also been invaded by flies and pick up more at every stop. In one village, a lady with a baby strapped to her back squeezes in and the poor little thing has them all over his face.

At first the road had been optimistically good but has now deteriorated into a pot-holed dirt track – is this a road at all? After bouncing around for another hour we’re relieved to see the blue waters of Lake Tana in the distance. We’re excited to reach Gorgora where we’ll spend the night before catching the boat in the morning. That’s the plan anyway.

Sadly, while Gorgora looked a tropical haven from a distance it’s a shit-hole up close. Can this be the place I’d read about? We’re dumped in the main street which is actually the only street – a dusty stretch of road lined with shacks – no cafes, no shops, no nothing – maybe there’s another bit.

Anyway we ask a young man for directions, then the four of us set off down the road towards the water where we hope to find rooms at the Gorgora Port Hotel. This is described by Lonely Planet as ‘an old, rather than historic, hotel … tired and the epitome of government-hotel neglect’ – in other words, a dump!

But we feel hopeful that things might not be too bad when we reach the gates that lead into the Lake Tana Transport Authority compound which is where we’ll find the hotel. The gates are impressive stone structures flanked by tall trees and clipped hedges. A wide path winds through flowered gardens all shaded by spreading trees with glimpses of the lake close by.

But finally, here is the hotel – yes, a real dump! Inside is in a similar state of disrepair with grubby walls, filthy windows and cheap spindly furniture. The building itself still has some remnants of a more prosperous past and Mark and I sort of like its seediness but we feel a bit sorry for Mickey and Yusf.

Neither of them has ever been outside their own city of Gondar. Of course, this means that they’ve never stayed in a hotel but this place must be a disappointment – we’ll stay somewhere nice in Bahir Dah to make up for it.

Reception is an old-fashioned box-like structure with the female receptionist sitting importantly up high behind a glass screen with a hole in the bottom to stick your hand through. She takes her own sweet time taking our details – a taste of things to come – then orders an old man to show us the rooms – he grudgingly drags himself up out of a chair to lead us down a path near the lake for what is supposedly the ‘piece-de-resistance’ – the Family Suite!

It’s a dark bungalow that stinks of mould and is literally falling to pieces – no thanks! He unhappily trudges back up the path to show us rooms in a long building with cracked cement verandahs off musty double rooms. They do have attached bathrooms but, holy shit, it’s the stuff of nightmares – cold, smelly, dark, dank cement cells with cold-water showers and suss looking toilets. Welcome to hell!

But with no other options, we head back to reception to spend another eternity booking in – our room is $7 and the boys’ room is $5 – they should be free! Now we all walk down to the water which is a special experience for Mickey and Yusf as they’ve never seen a lake before! We take lots of photos of them posing on the water’s edge before heading for the port office.

While a young man ambles past with a couple of donkeys, we buy tickets for tomorrow’s boat – $12 each for me and Mark and only $5 each for the boys. We’ve noted that there are two sets of prices in Ethiopia – one for the locals and one for us faranji. But I don’t think anything is going to break the bank.

The plan is to catch the MV Tananich which is the weekly ferry that runs between Bahir Dar and Gorgora. It makes a few stops en route dropping off and picking up passengers, animals and goods with an overnight stay in the small village of Konzula. I’m super excited about this part of our trip – in fact, I’d organized our whole itinerary around the boat’s timetable. It’s definitely off the tourist trail – a real adventure!

But back on the wharf there’s more posing for photographs before we watch tankwa boats being hand-woven from papyrus the traditional way by three old men – nothing touristy here, mainly because there aren’t any tourists! We’re not even sure if anyone else is staying at the hotel.

It’s eleven o’clock by now so we head for the dining room for brunch. Again the staff members are very unhappy to have customers and the waitress shuffles over to take our order. With no menu, we’re told we can have eggs, injera and bread (stale, of course) – all hideous.

A television is playing in the room off reception and here is the same Turkish movie that we’ve seen in a few different places. Mickey tells us that Ethiopian people love this film so it’s played constantly. He wants to stay and watch it.

But I just want to have a read and a nap in our room because I’m really hating this place. Mark and the boys head up to the village to seek out food for the boat. I knew from travelers’ blogs that we needed to buy provisions before we left Gondar but stupidly I forgot. Hopefully they can find a shop but I don’t hold out much hope. I do have a packet of Scotch Finger biscuits that Graz gave me last week so at least we won’t starve.

Not surprisingly, Mark and the boys return empty handed – fucking nothing to buy! My fault!

On dark, we meet in the dining room to find four other guests here for dinner. This looks promising until we receive the same bored/slack treatment from our new waitress – it’s like we’re ruining her night! I order spag Bolognese (can’t stomach injera), Mark orders goat tibs (with injera) while the boys order fish curry with, guess what, fucking injera! All disgusting!

And what’s more disgusting is that I end up with food poisoning – hate people who claim to have food poisoning but I become violently ill so quickly that there can’t be any other explanation.

I spend the night spewing and shitting in our bathroom – the black-hole-of-Calcutta – where the toilet has decided not to work so I need to fill a bucket under the cold shower to pour down the loo to wash away the poopedys and vomit – not a good night!

Thursday 20th October, 2016

Gorgora to Konzula

The day begins with stomach cramps and nausea but the pooing and spewing have stopped for the moment – nothing left! I take an Imodeon anyway then Panadol to help a filthy headache – will be better soon.

Worse still, Mark then discovers that our precious biscuits are being devoured by a million ants so it looks like we’re going to starve as well.

But on the bright side, the boys are super-excited and Yusf has a smile from ear to ear. We all walk down through the gardens to the lake as the first light of day breaks across the water in front of us. Luckily, I’ve had no romantic notions of a luxury ferry because the MV Tananich is anything but. It’s obviously more about transporting cargo than passengers but despite its ugly exterior, it looks sturdy enough.

The lower deck is loaded up with sacks, mud bricks and reed boats while we find a small, enclosed cabin at the bow. No other passengers so far so Mark piles our packs on top of each other at the end of a bench seat to make me a sort of bed. He covers the hard, wooden bench with one of our blankets and with our bed pillows that we take on all our travels, I’m surprisingly cosy.

A few locals take up seats outside on tall raised platforms on either side of the deck and I hope to hang out there later. Meanwhile Mark and the boys play cards with the crew crouching on sacks on the bottom level. We seem to be the only farangis (foreigners) on board but there still seems to be something of a community feel on the boat. Everyone is friendly including the captain.

At seven o’clock we set off from Gorgora for our two-day trip across the lake to Bahir Dar. Lake Tana is super special as it’s the source of the Nile, the world’s longest river, and Bahir Dah is where the river begins on the lake’s southern shore. And yes, Joanna Lumley came here on her ‘Nile’ documentary so I’ll be trying to sniff out anywhere she went.

The first few hours pass pleasantly and I’m feeling a lot better although I couldn’t eat even if we did have any food. I share the cabin with a few local ladies who stare at me for a while then smile when I give them a wave from my ‘sick bed’.

Our first stop is Delghi, a small settlement rich in agriculture and fishing, where cattle are loaded on board before we set off again for a few more hours.

At Ereydbir, we disembark at a small, wooden wharf then follow some of the other passengers up to the village. It’s as basic as all the other towns we passed through yesterday with roughly made homes of coarse tree branches strapped together for walls and rusted corrugated iron roofs. The homes line either side of a hot, dusty street although there isn’t a vehicle in sight. Cows and goats are tied to posts with long ropes so they can chew on a few sad blades of grass while chickens scratch around between the buildings.

Ladies are doing chores outside their homes and some walk past with mountains of freshly cut grasses on their heads. Others balance big metal bowls filled with wet washing and all seem to have a child in tow. Most have their head covered in a veil or a wrap and all wear long colourful dresses or sarongs

As soon as we start taking photos we have a large audience of kids and women with babies strapped to their backs. They’re so lovely and don’t ask for anything except to have their photos taken. The girls are shy but the boys play up for the camera and I even get a few hugs from the ladies.

Meanwhile Mark, Yusf and Mickey have found a ‘restaurant’ which is a miniscule green painted room with an earthen floor and wooden benches. They’re all wolfing down injera – I can’t even stand the smell of it so I take a chair outside to sit in the sun and talk to the ladies. Actually, even saying the word ‘injera’ makes me want to throw up!

Back on the boat, the cabin is almost full but Mark still manages to make me up a bed. I dose for the next few hours because everyone in unashamedly staring at me. One young girl in the seat directly in front has turned fully around so she can check me out for the rest of the trip!

All afternoon Mark and the boys play cards again with the crew until we arrive at Konzola about three o’clock. This is where we’re to spend the night and apparently the hotel isn’t the best. Surely it can’t be as horrible as last night.

Anyway, we trudge up a long stony path past herds of cows to the village which looks almost identical to Ereydbir except that there are a few trucks and rusty cars around. We pass women sifting grains in wide flat cane baskets then laying them out to dry in the sun as well as the usual wandering cows, goats and chickens.

Here too, are ladies with babies on their backs peeping out of brightly patterned pappose-style wraps while others balance baskets of heavy washing on their heads. Woodsmoke from evening fires hangs in the air as we walk past the tatty row of dwellings – very harsh living conditions here.

We have no idea where the hotel is supposed to be so we ask more staring locals. With no signage we find it behind a mud hut that has a sports game blaring from an old tv in the room off the street. And, yes, it’s much worse than Gorgora but it’s not a huge surprise and we’re only here for the night anyway. Our room is a cell with a corrugated-metal door, filthy walls and a filthy tiled floor – at least it isn’t dirt – and furnishings consisting of a bed and a grimy plastic chair. Oh, and there’s a cow at the door.

I head straight for the bed not caring if it’s filthy as well while Mark and the boys hang out outside. Even though they don’t sell water, Mark is actually able to buy a few beers so he’s happy. We’ve decided to dump the last day on the boat and get a bus directly to Bahir Dah – I just want to get there as fast as we can in case I still feel sick tomorrow.

Mark makes arrangements with the ‘hotel’ owner who tells us that the bus driver will meet us here at 5.45 in the morning. Mark has also found the toilet which is a hole in the ground inside a shack that looks like it’s about to fall over – and it stinks like all hell! Of course, there aren’t any bathrooms at all, just a tap in the yard.

Amazingly we both sleep ok.

Friday 21st October, 2016

Konzula to Bahir Dah

Up at 5.15 am and no need to dress as we both went to bed in our clothes. Mark uses the toilet first then I’m next – I miss the hole and poop on the dirt next to it – oh God, I’m sorry.

Mark wakes Mickey and Yusf who also don’t need to get dressed because they only have one set of clothes. Yusf then wakes the owner so Mark can pay for last night’s drinks. It’s lucky he did because the bus driver doesn’t turn up so the owner walks us to the bus in the dark.

This is sitting in the middle of an empty field and, predictably, is an old rust bucket but we love it. Crawling inside it’s just about full but the four of us manage to get the long back seat. It’s surprisingly a bit chilly so everyone is wrapped up in shawls and head wraps.

Before long, the bus splutters to life and we’re soon heading out of town. As the sun rises over Lake Tanna, we bounce our way along rutted roads stopping to pick up passengers until soon there’s standing room only. We’ve also acquired crates of chickens to make things even better.

Driving through small villages, we see the same, same dung and wood houses while kids run outside to wave frantically at us. Donkey carts plod on the edge of the road while women struggle past balancing massive bundles of sticks on their heads. At one point we cross a wide brown river then rumble through fields of corn, sunflower and tef.

Despite passing no other traffic at all, it’s still a slow trip as we inch past deep potholes and dodge cows, goats and donkeys. I love watching women drawing water from wells but feel sorry for others working in the fields.

For some reason, maybe the dust, all the windows are kept closed so the body odour is starting to take hold but we must be getting closer to Bahir Dah as the road has turned to tar and we start passing trucks. No point in getting too excited, though, as we now have a flat tyre. Most of the men get out including Mark and the boys while I stay inside to be stared at by the rest of the passengers who don’t smile back this time.

About ten o’clock we reach the outskirts of Bahir Dah. It’s described as a pleasant lake-side town on the edge of Lake Tanna and where we would have arrived later this afternoon if we’d stayed on the boat.

Already it appears to be very different to Harar and Gondar – a laid-back place of wide avenues lined with palm trees and a popular holiday destination for Ethiopian tourists. It’s main attractions are some outlying monasteries and the Blue Nile Falls. Since we’d need to take a boat excursion out onto Lake Tana to reach the monasteries we might give it a miss because we’ve experienced the lake already – been there, done that. But we’ll definitely visit the Blue Nile Falls because, guess what, dear Joanna went there!

Anyway, before we get to enjoy all this loveliness, we experience another mental bus station with more mental touts. After tug of wars with our bags, Mark and the boys shove them into a bajajj with the four of us squeezing in as well. Mark agreed on a fare with the driver but some of the touts are hanging onto the outside and won’t get off even when we take off up the street. They want money for ‘helping’ get our bags off the roof which they didn’t do anyway. It seems that even if they just touch someone’s bag they think they can lay claim to it. The argument gets even nastier until our poor driver finally throws them some money and we’re free at last. Not a great first impression of a place.

From the bus-station we ask to be driven to BB The Annex, a guesthouse I’d seen on Tripadvisor. It seems to be away from the main shopping area and the lake but we have a look anyway. It’s behind a tall vine covered fence in a dusty side street of a residential area. So we’re not too disappointed when we can’t find anyone inside who can speak English and we’re not even sure if it’s still a guesthouse at all.

Back in the bajajj we head for the next choice – the Summerland Hotel out of Lonely Planet. It turns out to be a modernish high rise which we don’t usually like but it’s in the middle of town near the water. Besides that, we think the boys really like it.

Booking in, we’re happy with our rooms – clean with hot water, a television and big windows. It’s a far cry from our accommodation of the last two nights. Mickey and Yusf are very excited – they’ve never stayed in anything like this before.

We all meet in the dining room for a late breakfast/early lunch. The menu is great and we can’t wait to get stuck into decent food for a change. But – why are we surprised? – the clueless waiter tells us that there is no steak, cheese, milk or any fruit! Well, go outside and get some, you idiots!!! Don’t say it but, seriously, what the fuck?

So once again the boys order a fish curry with injera (please don’t let me throw up) while Mark has an omelette with toast and I have a chicken salad with two slices of bread an inch thick. I can’t eat any of it!

Now while Mickey and Yusf go off to find a friend who lives here, Mark and I head back to the room to clean up. After showers, Mark washes our clothes while I search for the tv remote which is nowhere to be found. Down at reception, I ask the guy on the desk who says, ‘I will look for them’. What???

The boys still haven’t come back so Mark and I walk up to the 12th century St. George Church on the next corner. It’s an interesting place busy with Ethiopian Orthodox pilgrims, who all wear white. It’s one of the monolithic churches in this Amhara region, this one carved from a volcanic tuff. We’ll see many more even spectacular monolithic churches when we get to Lalibela in a few days time.

From the church, we wander past market stalls lining the track down to the water. Here we find bench seats built in tiers under spreading trees, all facing the lake. Apparently, this is a popular spot for local families, teenagers and courting couples who come to sit on the shore of Lake Tanna. The benches are all taken as well as the rickety old chairs lined up behind them.

Following the water’s edge, we pass more market stalls and even see the MV Tananich ferry docked and already emptied of its cargo. Further on we find a few interesting restaurants built in a sort of elevated circle. Mark orders a beer while I make friends with a tiny girl and her mum sitting next to us.

While we’re here a guy approaches us about trips to the Blue Nile Falls where we plan to go tomorrow. We may as well book now and get it organized while we can – easy! We’ll be leaving at two o’clock from a pick-up point nearby.

From here, we set off in search of the Kuriftu Resort & Spa which we’d noticed on the way in on the bus. It looks very ‘tropical island’ with lots of stone, thatched rooftops and palm trees. Inside we have lunch in the big dining room overlooking the lake then ask the price of rooms – too expensive but we decide to bring Mickey and Yusf back here for dinner tonight.

Now we head back to our room as Mark is feeling a bit off and wants to lie down for a while. We now have our remote and the television is reporting the latest ISAL atrocities as well as the upcoming US election – both fucked!.

Mickey and Yusf are here by now so, while Mark sleeps, the rest of us catch a bajaj outside to visit the beginning of the Blue Nile as it leaves Lake Tanna. From here it will hook up with the White Nile, which itself started its journey in the mountains of Rwanda, near Khartoum in Sudan.

So only a few kilometres through town, we come to the spot where the famous river flows out of the lake. This is predictably called the Blue Nile Bridge, and is underwhelming to say the least. No photos are allowed from the bridge for security reasons – don’t know what that could be about.

On dusk we all walk to the Kuriftu Resort where we have dinner in the posh dining room. It’s an atmospheric space with rough stone walls and a soaring ceiling lined with bamboo. The tables are covered in white cloths and we have linen serviettes and lots of cutlery which I don’t know what to do with let alone Mickey and Yusf.

The boys order injera and curries because that’s all they know really. We thought they might want to try something different but they’re happy and that’s all that matters.

From here we walk back towards our hotel then find a traditional bar/nightclub in the backstreet behind. Here we sit in the dark while local dancers and singers perform. It’s the second time we’ve experienced this strange long-established way of singing called Ululation since the Three Sisters in Gondar. This is a long, wavering, high-pitched vocal sound resembling a howl with a trilling quality commonly used by women to give praises at weddings and other celebrations.

Meanwhile, the dancers specialise in energetic shoulder and neck movements and I’m pulled up for a go. Why does this always happen to me? I’m hopeless and it’s not just a ‘whitey’ thing because the western guy next to us is doing okay.

Race back to the hotel in the rain!

Saturday 22nd October, 2016

Bahir Dah

The skies are clear and blue this morning so we’re blessed again with great weather. We don’t bother with the hotel restaurant for breakfast because they won’t have anything we want anyway.

Yusf and Mickey want to visit the market to buy presents for their Mums so we give them spending money. Meanwhile Mark and I wander up to the Church of St George. It’s busy as usual. Inside the domed gateway, the yard is crowded with women and men segregated to separate sides. The women cover their heads and shoulders with thin white scarves while the men are all wrapped in long white robes. Even the kids are draped in white and look especially cute. On the ground outside, people sit cross-legged in rows – not sure if they’re begging or it’s a religious thing.

Later at the hotel we say goodbye to the boys as they’re going to the Blue Nile Falls before catching a bus back home to Gondar. We hope they’ve enjoyed their little trip with us.

Now Mark and I check out of the Summerland and into a cheaper place just up the street. It’s weirdly elaborate inside with red velvet seating and carved furniture and the most unusual ceiling we’ve ever seen – paneled in polished wood with inserts of painted faces like you’d see in a church – love it. Our room is small but sunny so we like it better.

We’d seen a Massage sign at the front entrance so we ask at the desk if we can book in. But first we want to have something to eat so we wander up to the main street where it seems that the main thing to do is have a shoe-shine.

One thing we’ve noticed since we arrived in Ethiopia is that males hold hands or walk with arms around each other’s shoulders. This is common in lots of Asian countries as well – wouldn’t happen in macho Australia. It’s nice and so is the way men greet each other by shaking hands then touching opposite shoulders.

Back towards our hotel we stop for pineapple shakes at a small shop that also sells Ethiopian coffee. Like everywhere that sells traditional coffee, it has freshly cut grass spread all over the floor – haven’t got to the bottom of this yet.

Now it’s time for our massage. At the hotel’s front desk we’re introduced to a man who takes us out the back to a sort of carpark with cheaper rooms on the opposite side. A lady soon turns up and tells us to undress and lie on the raised massage beds which are covered in what were once white sheets but are now a sort of yellowy-grey and almost dripping in oil. They’ve obviously never been washed – a bit grossed out but what the hell and the massages are pretty good!

About one o’clock we decide to do a bit more sightseeing but as soon as we walk out of the hotel, the guy we’d booked the Blue Nile tour with yesterday rushes up to us in relief. Apparently, they’ve decided to leave an hour early so we would have missed out – what?

So off we go with four friendly American guys for the thirty-five kilometre trip south. The road deteriorates even before we leave Bahir Dah. For the next hour, we bounce from one pot-hole to the other over a bumpy rock-covered road. But there’s never a dull moment as we pass a continuous line of people walking past – men herding cows, young girls slapping the rumps of donkeys with long sticks to shoo them along and people farming in fields of sorghum and teff.

Our destination is Tis Abay town, a market settlement of the Amhara people, and the closest village to the Falls. By the way, I’m still tragically walking in the footsteps of Joanna Lumley who visited here as part of her search for the origin of the Blue Nile. She’s fucking heaps older than me but she was once a model in the 1960’s and is still stunning with fabulous blonde hair and a great jawline! Smart, intelligent and charismatic – every woman’s fantasy!!

So okay, enough about Joanna! At Tis Abay, will quickly find ourselves surrounded by a retinue of enthusiastic young guides who, for a small fee, will lead us to the Falls. We follow them along a slippery, muddy path between village houses then across open fields till we reach a pretty river bank. A small open-sided boat with a faded canvas canopy is tied up on the shore with a crowd of locals hanging around. We all crawl on board and chug downstream to be soon deposited on the opposite bank.

From here another long, hot walk leads us to the famous Blue Nile Falls which is also called Tis Abay (means Smoke of the Nile). We’re quite impressed although, apparently, it’s not a patch on what it was before the installation of a hydro-electric plant. Most of the water is now being diverted, and appears again a little further downstream, from a massive pipe system.

Anyway, Mark makes his way down to the bottom of the Falls which throw up a continuous spray of water. And, by the way, there aren’t blue at all but a very dark brown! So, why…..?

Meanwhile I sit on a rock in the shade at the top and fend off local kids trying to sell me the usual souvenirs. I buy a couple but can’t please everyone. On the way back to the river, we pass tiny children herding goats with long sticks then wait in the shade of a tree for the others to turn up to fill the boat before heading back to the village.

Another long, bumpy ride back to Bahir Dah, we’re happy to rest in our room before heading out for the night. We find a strange place with the usual grasses spread all over the stairs to find a table in a sort of semi-upmarket restaurant. It’s very dark inside with candles on each table. I don’t want to drink again tonight but we still have fun bagging out the whole Ethiopian scene – God love them! Mark has a few beers before an early night.

Sunday 23rd October, 2016

Bahir Dah to Lalibela

Today we leave for Lalibela which we expect to be the highlight of the trip although we’ve loved so many places already. The guy where we bought our tickets said that it’s only about three hours to a place called Ganesha and then another hour to Lalibela – sounds good.

At six o’clock we’re awake for a snuggle, showers and last-minute packing. Downstairs to the dining room for breakfast, we find that it’s just as elaborate as the bar but we also find that the food and the service is just as bad as everywhere else – a shuffling waitress, no menu, no eggs and no tea or coffee – ‘barista not here’! We buy bottles of water instead.

From the verandah we watch an endless stream of people wrapped in white shawls heading for the church while the early morning sun is rising through the date palms opposite. Another clear sunny day seems to be on its way.

On the bus at 7am I find a window seat and Mark manages to nab the whole back seat. The bus isn’t too decrepit and only about half of the twenty-five seats are taken by the time we leave Bahir Dah. The inside is decorated with Jesus pictures and a large wooden cross hangs from the rear mirror. The Christian theme will continue for the rest of the trip.

Another nice surprise is that the road is flat and well maintained so we have a much smoother ride than we’ve had in the last few days. After passing Lake Tana we speed past green fields, then notice the unusual sight of cows, donkeys, goats and sheep all grazing together in the same paddock.

Farmers holding long staffs tend their animals and we feel sad for donkeys carrying loads that are obviously much too heavy for them. We cross wide muddy rivers and ponds covered in flowering water lilies.

After a police checkpoint, we stop on the edge of the road in a small village for everyone to pile out to buy red onions – seems to be a big deal here. Back on the bus people talk on their phones at the top of their lungs and music is blaring but luckily we find a way to kill off the speaker next to us.

In the small town of Wereta, an argument breaks out between the driver and a guy who wants commission for getting people on the bus – he’s going off so the driver throws him out the door.

Turning right off the Gondar road, we stop just past the junction to let on two young girls dressed in traditional white costumes who collect money from the locals for their church. After giving a donation, each passenger takes some corn from a bowl and eats it.

This road is very scenic with mountains on our left and the opposite side a patchwork of dark ploughed fields, bright green vegetable fields and bright yellow fields of flowers. The road is windier here and one poor lady has her head out the window throwing up. The body odour is also increasing as the temperature rises.

After a non-existent breakfast we’re feeling extra hungry but have to do with the cheese and bickies we always bring with us. We’re also not game to drink too much water as there isn’t a toilet on board. By this stage, our bus is travelling unspectacularly up the mountains and slowed down even more by animals wandering all over the road.

A pretty lady gets on with a baby strapped to her back and Mark has to share his seat with some stinky men who stare at us. We smile and say hello but they just stare.

At another police checkpoint, all the male passengers are told to get off while the police search the bus – under seats and bags in the overhead racks. The men are allowed back on board after being frisked and off we go again with them still staring at us.

We’re trying to work out how long we have to go and decide we must arrive in Ganesha soon where we need to get another bus to Lalibela. We’re not happy when we pull into Debre Tabor at 9.15am because we realise that we still must have another three hours till we reach Ganesha! Those arsewipes in Bahir Dah told us it was only three to four hours to Lalibela itself let alone half a day to reach the turnoff.

But nothing we can do and it’s not a huge problem anyway – love the adventure. In Debre Tabor town we notice a lot of police armed with machine guns so we’re happy when we keep sailing through. From here the landscape is dominated by circular thatched huts built up on mounds of rocks, grains laid out to dry in the sun, people carrying bundles on their heads as tall as they are plus long views as we climb higher and higher.

Later we pass forests of eucalyptus trees introduced from Australia in the 1890’s due to massive deforestation around Addis Ababa caused by a growing appetite for fire wood. The great advantage of the eucalypts is that they’re fast growing and are now used all over the country for building houses.

Further on we overtake a man galloping along the road at top speed. He’s completely dressed in white and riding a white, stocky horse decorated with red tassles and pompoms. He’s also brandishing a long spear. We soon find out where he’s going because up ahead is an amazing sight. Spread out in the countryside, we come across hundreds of people – also wearing white – congregated in groups around white teepee looking tents with a big red cross on each one.

At eleven o’clock we arrive in another town which we again expect to be Ganesha but, no, this is Nefas Meewcha where we’re stopping for something to eat. We pull off the road into a grubby, muddy area where we all get out. Here are more people in white just standing around in groups. A friendly man from the bus tells us to follow him up a narrow laneway to a ‘restaurant’ but it’s filthy and we only manage a few mouthfuls of scrambled eggs each. Naturally everyone else is tucking into injera – bluhhhhh!

I need to use the toilet, a horrific experience that will probably scar me for life – ha ha – so we’re glad to get back on the bus and get the hell out of this dump. Now we’re driving downwards through deep valleys cut through with brown rivers. Scary steep drops appear on either side of the road – Mark’s nightmare and I’m not too happy either. Funnily we see Donkey Crossing signs, something you don’t see too often at home.

Later, three men wave us down. They’re straight off the fields wearing rags for clothes and carrying long sticks and sacks of something on their backs. One of them turns around to stare at us for the next hour.

Another town ahead and another disappointment when Mark see the town’s name – Flikat, not Ganesha! Still a long way to go. Oh, and now it’s starting to rain.

Finally, at 1pm we arrive in Ganesha – six hours instead of the promised three. The place is a shithole, busy with trucks and cars and we’re not sure how to get to Lalibela. The friendly man from breakfast is headed there as well so we follow him to a row of little shops. A bus is parked nearby and we ask if it’s heading for Lalibela.

Apparently not, but just then a mini-van roars up the street and screams to a halt right in front of us. Very cool guys are hanging out the windows and the driver is too cool for school as well. This is supposed be our transport but I say ‘no, you drive crazy’. ‘I drive slow’ he laughs, ‘bus not go’. Bloody hell, we’ll just have to go with this weirdo. We drive around town looking for more passengers then end up back where we started. Now he gets out and starts a loud argument with another guy who turns out to be the driver of the bus which really is going to Lalibela. A debacle, as Jack would say.

We jump out and Mark pulls our packs off the roof. We wait in a tiny open-sided café with grass all over the floor and talk to a lady breast-feeding her little boy – he must be about five years old! Anyway, we’re told that the bus will leave in ten minutes which is great news as we just want to get out of here.

We manage to grab the whole back seat again mainly because, for some unknown reason, everyone else sits as close as possible to the front. The bus does stink of urine but it has to be a better option than going with the crazy mini-van driver. But we haven’t seen the last of him yet. Now he’s pissed off that the bus driver ‘stole’ his passengers – us – and they’re at it again in the middle of the street.

It takes an hour to get everyone on board, fill up with petrol and load a mountain of sacks onto the roof. At last we’re ready to go but then one of the sacks falls off and bursts open on the road spilling the precious grain that they try to scoop up by hand.

Finally, after two horrible hours in Ganesha we’re on our way. At first the road is horrendous but then becomes even more horrendous. This is going to be a long rough ride. We bounce through large corrugations and crawl at a lumbering pace around endless road works. It seems that the road between Ganesha and Lalibela will be much better in the future.

But right now we jolt from one crater to the next. But it’s not all bad. We’re surrounded by lovely families and cute kids. One little boy comes to stand in front of us babbling away and his little sister is adorable with little pompom pigtails all over her head. Opposite is a grandmother and grandfather with four older kids – all very bedraggled (my new favourite word that describes most things in Ethiopia). We give toy koalas to all the little ones. A very weird looking person in the seat right in front of us stares and asks questions for two hours. We give him/her a koala to shut him/her up.

Meanwhile we’re still limping along at 20kph, going even slower as we crawl up the mountains. We pass through occasional sleepy villages and even see tree-climbing goats!

Inevitably we now have a flat tyre – everybody out! It doesn’t take too long to change and we pass the time talking to a man who lives in Lalibela. Back on the road, late afternoon shadows create an other-worldly sight in this dry, bare landscape.

We’re now in the Lasta Mountains in the eastern highlands so we wind up and up with terrifying drops on either side – Mark hates me! – especially when darkness falls and we’re still rumbling upwards. After eleven hours on the road, we finally pull into the little isolated town of Lalibela.

The township sits on a mountain ridge at 2,600 metres and with a population of only fifteen thousand it’s very appealing. What’s also appealing is that we have three whole days here to soak up the culture and the history of this UNESCO World Heritage site – the eighth wonder of the world according to some.

The reason for all this are the eleven rock-hewn churches built over nine hundred years ago. But lots more about that tomorrow. Right now we want to find somewhere to stay and then somewhere to eat. We’re dumped on the side of the road where we’re typically swarmed by touts but quickly jump in a bajaj to take us to the Asheton Hotel. One of the American guys we met on the Blue Nile Falls trip yesterday said he’d stayed here a few days ago and it’s okay.

The hotel is just off the main square in a quiet, wide street so we’re happy with the location. Mark stays with the bags while I go inside to see if they have anything available. The owner shows me a nice white-washed room and gushes – ‘all other guests pay 450 but for you, only 400” – bullshit, but we take it anyway.

Mark is happy with the room as well – clean with local art on the walls, hot water in our own bathroom – but not so happy with single beds. We can change tomorrow. In the dining room, Mark downs two Dashen beers while we wait an hour for my macaroni with meat sauce and his vegetable soup – it’s all horrible!

We decide to wander around outside and find the wonderful Unique Café just across the road – if only we’d come here first! It’s a basic little place down off the street with rough mud walls and a cement floor. The faded sign out front reads ‘Recommended by Farangi’ and it’s even in the Lonely Planet. The warm-hearted owner is Sisco who welcomes everyone into her house which is what it looks like – a series of little rooms with bench seats and low tables all covered with cloths of different patterns. Colourful ethnic weavings hang on the walls as well as a few animal hides.

And the food is great even though we’ve only ordered salad and chips. Mark has two more beers while I stick with water – my liver and kidneys must be virginial by now.

Bed at nine o’clock – Mark sleeps while I watch an episode of Scott and Bailey on our ipad. Another great day!

Monday 24th October, 2016


Not surprisingly, we both sleep soundly and don’t wake till seven o’clock. We text back and forth to Lauren. While Abi is at kindy she took Elkie to Revolution – ‘me go there’. Good news is that she had drinks with Jordan last night – a huge relief she’s gotten rid of that fuckwit Gino.

We plan to visit the churches this morning so I shower and get our day pack ready while Mark showers then rings Steve at JSA sitting in the garden just outside our room (Mark not Steve). Then in the sunny dining room, he checks his work emails and orders pancakes and coffee. I don’t feel like anything and have a toothache. I wish I’d seen the dentist about it again before we left home but it comes and goes so hopefully it won’t last long. Apparently there’s nothing wrong with the tooth itself – so why does it ache?

We tell the sleazy owner that we’re going to the churches so he rings a guide for us. Soon a nice man called Joseph turns up and will charge us 700Bir for the whole day. Sounds good!

Last night we were happy with the area around our hotel but seeing it in the daylight is even better than we expected. Under a perfect blue sky, red-flowering poinsettias and pink bougainvillea hang over fences all along the cobbled road and ladies walk past in groups, all carrying sacks on their backs. Further up the hill we pass teenage boys playing hand-soccer on those old machines you used to see in pinball places.

We notice that in this area of town there aren’t any cars at all, just a few bajajs – quiet and easy to walk around. From the square we follow Joseph downhill past market stalls and local shops to a church near the bottom where hundreds of people have congregated under trees. Apparently, this is a funeral so everyone is once again dressed in white. Most are carrying wooden staffs with metal curly bits on the end – amazing stuff.

Nearby is the ticket office for the ancient churches where we pay $50US each plus 300 Bir for the video camera. There are eleven rock-cut churches here, the complex being made up of the Northern Division and the Eastern Division plus Bet Giorgis also called the Church of St George. The plan is to visit the Northern Division and St George this morning then come back this afternoon to see the rest.

Joseph leads us to the first church, Bete Medhane Alem, and while we’re looking around he explains the amazing history of Lalibela. During the 12th century, King Lalibela wanted to create a new Jerusalem for people who couldn’t make the pilgrimage to the Holy Land so he began the construction of the rock-hewn churches. Local legend has it that while he and hundreds of labourers worked during the day the angels worked at night helping him complete the project. After laboring for twenty years, he abdicated his throne to become a hermit, living in a cave and eating only roots and vegetables. Even now, Ethiopian Christians regard King Lalibela as one of their greatest saints.

From Beta Medhane Alem we walk through an underground tunnel to Beta Maryam (St. Mary’s). This is the oldest of the churches and contains a stone pillar on which King Lalibela wrote the secrets of the buildings’ construction.

To be accurate the churches weren’t constructed but actually excavated from pink volcanic rock. Each church was created by first carving out a wide trench on all four sides of the rock, then painstakingly gouging out the interior. All the work was done with only hammers and chisels!

Because the churches have been built from the top down rather than from the ground up, the roofs of all the churches are level with the ground and are reached by stairs descending into narrow trenches. The inside of the churches is equally impressively carved out of the rock with fragile-looking windows, moldings, crosses, swastikas and columns.

What’s different here compared to other religious places like Angkor Wat and Petra, is that the churches of Lalibela are alive – they’re used by the local people and pilgrims all day every day. They’ve been in continuous use since they were built in the 12th century.

We see people kissing the stone steps or just sitting quietly in prayer. Each church has its own resident monk who appears in the doorway in colorful brocade robes usually holding a silver cross and a prayer staff. Some are reading ancient books giving the place a timeless, almost biblical atmosphere.

Next to Beta Maryam is Beta Golgotha which houses the tomb of King Lalibela and life-sized carvings of saints on the walls. The next church is much the same but just as impressive.

But it’s the last church in this Northern Group that we experience a true Ethiopian Orthodox ceremony. We can hear chanting and music coming from deep inside and find a group of about twenty priests wrapped in white from head to toe. Some are beating big drums that hang from their necks while other are playing traditional stringed instruments. The rest read song books and three young handsome men sing in unison. We sit amongst them on the floor on a Persian rug as sunlight spills in through a stone doorway and candles burn in every nook and crevice. Wow!!!

Now we head for the most well-known of Lalibela’s churches – that’s to say if anyone else we know has even heard of any of them – and the photo you see in any tourist advertisement – the Church of St George.

On the way we see older homes built in the style peculiar to Lalibela, neat round two-storey dwellings built out of stone with conical, thatched roofs. I buy a long leather religious painting from a local man then see hundreds of people coming over the hill towards us. This is the funeral procession and they’re all heading for St George’s as well. Joseph tells us that this whole hillside is the cemetery – no ordered plots like at home, you just bury people higgledy-piggledy wherever you want.

And finally, we’re here at the spectacular St. George’s Church. Cut forty feet down into the rock, its roof forms the shape of a Greek cross. We’ve seen lots of photos but it’s more astounding to see it for real especially with a backdrop of the funeral mourners spread out behind it.

The church stands alone in a 25m by 25m wide pit that’s been carved out of solid volcanic rock. Like all the other churches here, its construction involved excavating a free-standing block of stone out of the bed-rock and then removing all the waste material from around it. The stone masons then carefully chiseled away the church outline, shaping both the exterior and interior of the building as they went.

Access to the church is via a descending trench and tunnel, which lead to a sunken courtyard surrounding the building. This contains a small baptismal pool, while its vertical walls have small caves used as basic housing for priests and as burial tombs. We can actually see a body inside one!

St George’s was built after Lalibela’s death (c.1220) by his widow as a memorial to the saint-king – a shrine to love like the Taj Mahal in India – very romantic.

Now it’s time for a break so we walk back to the top of the hill to find a bajaj – very hot and steep and my knee is killing. Will have it seen to when we get home – that and the tooth!

Back at the guesthouse we have a rest while we recharge our camera then catch a bajaj to Ben Abeba. I’d seen photos of this very weird-looking restaurant on Tripadvisor and we really need to go there. It’s only one kilometer from the main square along a very bumpy dirt track and perched on the edge of a ridge.

We ask our driver if he can come back at two o’clock because there’s nothing else around here and I don’t fancy walking all the way back in the heat and with my gammy knee. There’ll be enough of that later when we visit the rest of the churches.

Ben Abeba really lives up to the photos but looks a bit worse for wear which sort of adds to its appeal. Someone said it looks like something from the Flintstones but at the same time it’s sort of space-agey. A wide ramp leads to the entrance then we follow a Dalí-esque jumble of walkways, platforms and fire pits to big open dining areas on five different levels and all facing different directions.

Because it sits on the end of a high promontory, we have 360 degree views of the surrounding valleys and far into the distance. A Scottish lady, who turns out to be the owner, sets us up on a table right on the edge for an even better view. She sits down for a chat.

Her name is Susan Aitchison and she built this place with the help of a young Ethiopian guy. The story is that she came to Ethiopia for three years to help a friend set up a school which was thirty-five kilometres from town. But because it had no electricity or running water she actually lived here in Lalibela and had a driver take her out to the school every day. The driver told her of his dream to open a restaurant just around the time she was due to return to Scotland and live the rest of life ‘as an old aged pensioner watching day-time television’.

So together they found this magical location and had two young Ethiopian architects design it. We can’t really work out if it’s brilliant or hideous but it’s definitely unique. And the food is good as well – shepherd’s pie and chips for Mark, a tuna salad for me plus a fruit salad each all for just $12. Susan has trained her staff well. In fact, they employ and train forty young locals so she’s really helping with the economy in this very remote area of Ethiopia.

At two o’clock we’re picked up and driven back to our guesthouse where we meet Joseph once again. From here we take another tuktuk (bajaj) to the Eastern Division. The Eastern Group consists of Biete Amanuel (former royal chapel), Biete Qeddus Mercoreus (a former prison), Biete Abba Libanos, Biete Gabriel-Rufael (a former royal palace, linked to a holy bakery) and Biete Lehem (House of Holy Bread).

The five churches in this group are much the same as this morning’s Northern Division except that there are more tunnels as well as walkways that stretch across sheer drops. In one spot Joseph takes us down into ‘hell’. This is a pitch-black thirty metre cave-tunnel where we have to keep one hand on a side wall and another above us to we won’t hit our heads on the roof. I’m the biggest wuss – sure that I’m going to slam into something and knock myself out. Very relieved to eventually see a chink of daylight ahead then the steep climb back up to ‘heaven’. A very effective analogy!

In one of the churches we find elaborate paintings and tapestries with the usual resident priest residing over them all. In a nearby cave we find a stack of musical instruments and have turns banging on the big ceremonial drums that we hang from our neck.

One thing that has been different this afternoon is the western tourists. We seem to be following a big group of elderly Europeans with all sorts of mobility problems. It slows us down a bit but it’s brilliant that they’re here in the first place.

The walk back down the hill to our waiting bajaj is lovely – really, really enjoyed today. Before we leave Joseph we organize for a mule ride for me tomorrow morning.

Back in our room we chill out watching The English Apprentice on our laptop then up at seven o’clock. Funnily, the Turkish movie is playing on the television in the dining room as we leave. We walk in the dark to Seven Olives Restaurant on the other side of the square. It’s part of the Seven Olives Hotel which is proudly the oldest hotel in town. The old garden is said to be ‘an ideal place for bird watchers and nature lovers’ but even in the dark it looks pretty ordinary.

With no signage at all and no lighting to guide the way, the restaurant is hard to find and it’s a wonder anyone comes here at all. In fact, there are only four other people and, as usual, more staff that diners – bloody hopeless, as most places are when run by locals. We really enjoy every minute though especially the wonderful local atmosphere and décor. The restaurant is circular with a tall pointed roof lined with a traditional striped fabric.

But the food is bad! Mark has pepper steak and I have a cheeseburger that makes me want to vomit – won’t be back for a meal but we think we’ll move to the hotel here in the morning if they have a spare room.

A lovely walk home in the warm night air under a brilliant starry sky while people stroll past saying ‘welcome to Lalibela’.

At Asheton, we jump into my single bed to watch another episode of the Apprentice. My knee is killing so Mark finds me two Nurofen – feels better so I can at least get to sleep.

Tuesday 25th October, 2016


Our last day in Lalibela so we’re up bright and early. Happy until we get a message from Lauren to call her. Fucking Josh has been whinging about how much money he gives her – he earns $165,000 a year for God sake! She’s a bit better after we talk for a while and she’ll talk to Leia as well.

Our room is becoming depressing with no clean clothes and shit everywhere – must get organized today. Mark is happy though when he finds a Cappuccino packet in our pack so he rushes off to the dining room for hot water. We sit next to a sun-filled window for tea and coffee while we organize photos and write up our diary.

About nine o’clock, Joseph turns up to pick us up. The three of us walk downhill from the guesthouse in the opposite direction to the square where we meet the mule man at the bottom. He introduces us to Happy, the little mule – so cute! Mark helps me climb on and off we go further down the hill.

The street is unpaved with houses on the high side all overhung with shady trees while the opposite side slopes away with dramatic long mountain views. On the slope down below the road, very basic farm homes are built in the traditional round shape with a thatched roof. Cows and goats graze amongst bales of hay and women spread grains to dry in the sun. Other women are washing clothes in tin bowls then hanging them on lines strung between houses. Men walk past us carrying mountains of hay on their shoulders and other men leading mules laden down with rocks for house building. Is that what poor little Happy usually does? – probably.

Lots of little kids call out ‘hello’ and some are game enough to come up for a photo. Unbelievably, they all have flies sitting along their eyelashes drinking the liquid in their eyes – I kid you not!

After an hour, we head back to our guesthouse where we pay the mule guy the promised 300Bir. I ask Joseph if there is anywhere for me to have my hair washed so he takes me to a tiny ‘beauty salon’ where they can ‘only wash, no dry’ – whatever!

But now Joseph has his hand out for 400 Bir for getting us the mule and for showing me the hairdresser – okay, now fuck off!! After my hair wash we walk over to the Seven Olives and meet Gresh, the lovely owner. He shows us a room which is about as good as the Asheton but we like it better here and we get the price down to 600Bir anyway. And he even gives us a lift to pick up our bags and bring us back here.

At the Asheton, we throw everything into our packs but then when we try to check out the sleazy owner says ‘it too late. You must check out by 9.30am’. It’s only half past ten so we just chuck him what we owe and get out of there!

Back at the Seven Olives, Mark hand washes our clothes which he hangs out in the sunny garden. Meanwhile Gresh has brought us a vase of fresh flowers for our room. He also organises transport for us to get to the airport tomorrow for 100Bir each. All organized, now we’re ready for lunch and, of course, we want to go back to Ben Abeba.

Outside on the street we grab a bajaj to take us there and to come back in an hour. Today is a bit windy out on the cliff so we sit inside but still get the same spectacular views. We both have cheese-burgers washed down with Ambo.

At Seven Olives, I ask Gresh about massages so he makes a phone call and sends me off in a speeding bajaj to the Jerusalem Hotel. We hurtle down past the churches then through a small market area and I’m beginning to wonder if I’m actually being kidnapped. But finally I see a sign for the hotel and a small building just outside in a sort of carpark littered with rubble and weeds. A young girl is waiting near the entrance and leads me into a tiny room that is super clean and lovely in a basic way. White painted walls with a soft white fabric hanging from the ceiling and fresh flowers on the massage bed. A far cry from the horrible oily beds in Gondar.

After a good one-hour massage, the bajaj driver returns and off we fly back to Seven Olives. I shower and wash the oil out of my hair then jump into bed with Mark.

At seven o’clock we dress up for dinner and I buy two scarves from a market stall outside the hotel for $6 each. From here we catch another bajaj to the Mountain View Hotel which Lonely Planet claims is the best hotel/restaurant in Ethiopia. It’s dark by the time we get there and even from a distance we can tell that this review must be very out-of-date. Basically, it’s a shit-hole trying to look posh.

Inside the vast interior, we’re shown to a table next to tall windows that would have great views in the daylight but we can’t see much at all except for far mountains in the moonlight. On the verandah behind me is a discarded bed sized air-conditioning duct propped up against the railing – classy!

Stained chairs and a dying blowfly buzzing on the tablecloth add to the atmosphere as well as the lights which keep going out! The nice young waiter hasn’t a clue and pours Marks beer with a six-inch head – ha ha. We’re having a ball – much better than the posh place we expected. The food is just okay but for the meals, two beers and a soda water we only pay $12.

We hightail it back to Seven Olives where I dig out my Bacardi – my first drink for a week – my liver and kidneys are virginal! Mark wants a snack but there aren’t any so he pays the waiter to go out into the street to buy him some peanuts.

Oh, and the Turkish movie is on the television.

Wednesday 26th October, 2016

Lalibela to Addis Ababa

Snuggle then up at six to another perfect day. After showers and packing we meet Gresh near the office. He’s starting to get a bit too friendly and now wants to swap email addresses. I’m glad to be leaving in a way because he’d probably become a pest.

At 7.30am we cram into a van with a few others and head off for the airport. Lots of kids wearing immaculate bright-blue uniforms are walking to school while market stalls are being set up.

Obviously, we need to make our way back down the mountain to the valley below where the airport must be. The half hour drive is enjoyable as we probably have our last glimpses of rural Ethiopia for this trip. At the tiny terminal in the middle of nowhere,we find that our 9am flight has been moved to midday but then we’re told that we can get on a plane at 10.30am. To pass the time I buy two silver necklaces, a silver orthodox cross, bone earrings and a fridge magnet for Jackie.

Upstairs in a bare little restaurant Mark has a coffee with pancakes and jam while I settle for a chocolate. We try to ring Lauren but have to text instead and the internet isn’t working either. We really need to research places to stay in Dubai as the Lonely Planet I’d ordered at home hadn’t arrived before we left so we’re totally clueless on where to stay or what to do. No worries we’ll have time in Addis to work it out.

By the time we walk out onto the tarmac at ten o’clock, the temperature has climbed but it’s great to take off into a cloudless, bright blue sky. The flight is a quick one hour and, in no time, we seem to be leaving Bole Airport in a taxi headed for the Itegue Taitu Hotel. Uncharacteristically, I’d booked a room here a week ago as I didn’t want us to miss out.

The Itegue Taitu was Addis Ababa’s first hotel and is situated in a quiet hilly area in the middle of the city (Piazza). It was built in 1851 by the Empress who wanted to provide her visiting guests a place to stay and eat. We’re dropped near the side verandah where the office is located in a pleasant cluttered room. After booking in ($40 US) we enter the hotel itself through tall, old revolving doors and fall in love at first sight. The wide entrance opens up onto a dining area where the daily lunch buffet has been set up. A ghost of bygone days, everything is shabbily appealing with timber floors, painted cement walls and extremely high ceilings.

A wide wooden staircase winds up to the next floor which has a open area the size of a ballroom where all the rooms lead off. And our room is huge as well. We have two double beds, a seating area, a big bathroom and our own balcony looking over the garden. It’s all very simple but oozing with old-world character.

After chucking our bags we head straight downstairs for the buffet. They call this a ‘fasting’ buffet which really just means vegetarian. We’d love some meat but the salads look amazing – what we’ve been hanging out for ever since we got to Ethiopia. Obviously, injera is the star but I don’t even look at it.

The dining rooms is packed with locals, mainly men, so it’s no package-tourist hotel. While we eat I soak up the atmosphere and can imagine that nothing has changed much here in the last one hundred and fifty years. I’m super-excited and would be perfectly happy to just stay here till we leave and not do any sightseeing at all.

But, of course, we have a list of things to see as we only have today to check out the capital. A taxi outside takes us first to the Ethnographic Museum in the lovely grounds of the University of Addis Ababa. The museum was formerly the Emperor’s (Haile Selassie) palace which he donated to the university which he’d actually set up himself a few years earlier in the 1960’s as Ethiopia’s first university. He sounds like a pretty cool guy.

Speaking of which, he’s responsible for that super-cool religion/movement that started out in Jamaica in the 1930s – Rastafarianism! Rastafarians, like the gorgeous Bob Marley, are without question the coolest people on earth. The movement developed among the poor people of Jamaica who saw Haile Selassie as the second coming of Christ. The name Rastafarian itself comes from Ras, which is like the title Prince, and Tafari, Haille Selassie’s name at birth.

A funny story is that when he visited Jamaica in 1966, a hundred thousand Rastafarians descended on the airport in Kingston having heard that the man they considered to be their messiah was coming to visit them. And because Rastas believe that cannibas is part of their culture, there was so much pot smoking that it caused “a haze of ganja smoke” so thick you could barely see – hilarious!

But back to the museum and his palace. We love his and the Empress’s bedrooms and bathrooms that still remain intact and would like to read all exhibits about his life but we don’t have time

Outside, we find a strange monument of a set steps curling skyward. It was built during the Italian occupation of 1936-41, with each step representing a year of fascist rule in Italy. Once home rule was restored, the Ethiopians didn’t bother to tear down the stairs, but gave the finger to the Italians by topping the stairs with the Ethiopian Lion of Judah. A nice touch and fitting end to the Ethnological Museum experience.

Next stop is The National Museum where we’ve come to visit Lucy, the skeleton of a young woman who lived 3.2 million years ago. Ethiopia is called “the cradle of mankind,” because some of the oldest human fossils have been found here, including Lucy, who is the oldest human specimen ever to be found. She actually got her name because the Beatles song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds was playing on the camp radio the day she was discovered in 1974.

We find her in a darkened basement room with lots of other prehistoric bones and artefacts – very atmospheric. She’s only about the same size as Elkie even though she was a fully grown adult. I have my photo taken next to the little darling.

Now we want to check out the Mercato Market, the biggest market in Africa. It’s a huge expanse of alleyways and narrow streets crowded with donkeys, handcarts and people carrying all sorts of shit on their heads. We have to stop to let one guy run past us with fourteen foam mattresses on his head – we counted them!

But this place is giving us a headache and decide to bail. We ask to be taken somewhere where we can buy souvenirs and end up in a quiet area with a row of small shops. We buy earrings, scarves (you can’t have too many) plus pens and beer holders for everyone at Jacks’ trivia.

By early afternoon we’ve had enough and end up back at Tatu for a read and a siesta. At six o’clock we wander up our street in the dark but not too keen on any of the restaurants so we decide to eat again at the hotel. Pizzas and chocolate crepes are a bit ordinary but we love the feel of this place with lots of families here tonight. After Mark has a few beers we head off to bed at 7.30pm

Thursday 27th October, 2016

Addis Ababa to Dubai

Up at 7am to shower, pack and have breakfast of omelets, fried eggs, corn flakes, tea and coffee. A quick taxi ride to the airport where, for some reason, our plane leaves an hour early at 9.30am. Lucky to share three seats for this four-hour flight with one a window seat. Amazing views as we leave the coastline of the Horn of Africa and cross the Gulf of Aden then the barren deserts of the Arabian Peninsula. Miles and miles of nothingness and then the city of Dubai suddenly appears on the very edge of the desert. From the air, a lot of cities don’t look their best but this place looks less than appealing. Flat and featureless with barely a tree to give it some colour at least. We can’t see the coastline from here, though, so it’s probably nicer near the water.

Land about 3pm then after passing through immigration and grabbing our bags, we order coffee and tea in a restaurant so we can log onto the net to work out where we can stay. Luckily, I had done a bit of research on Dubai a few months ago so even though we don’t have the Lonely Planet, I do know that the cheaper and more interesting area to stay is around Dubai Creek. So, from Tripadvisor we choose the Al Buraq Hotel and just hope they’re not booked out. Can’t be bothered ringing so we decide to just turn up and hope for the best. We’re sure there’ll be lots of other hotels around there anyway.

Out into the blindingly bright sun, we grab a cab to take us to the opposite side of the city. This is a pleasant surprise with lots of palm trees, wide streets and modern buildings mixed with the old – and it’s super clean! After ten minutes or so we’re driving along the northern side of the Creek which is more like a river with lots of interesting water craft going past in both directions. The wharves are lined with ancient dhows loading and unloading goods for travel between Kuwait, Iran, Oman, India, and back down to Africa’s horn where we just came from. On the opposite bank, minarets from the many mosques remind us that we’re in the Middle East and we’re liking it a lot.

Soon we turn off the busy Sheikh Zayed Road into the maze of narrow, winding streets of Deira. This area is home to old souks and fish markets and exactly what we’d hoped for. In fact, the Al Buraq Hotel is right next to the famous Gold Souk. We’ll definitely be visiting there later today.

I run inside while Mark waits in the taxi. We’re in luck and soon set up in a nice modern room with all the conveniences of a three-star hotel – something we’re not used to. We change quickly then set out to explore the souk. Dubai is a melting pot of different nationalities and it’s very evident here.

First, we wander around Deira’s Spice Souk which sells every spice imaginable, with stalls overflowing with bags of frankincense, cumin, paprika, saffron, sumac, and thyme, as well as the fragrant oud wood, rose water, and incense.

Nearby is the Gold Souk, renowned as the largest gold bazaar in the world but neither of us like gold and we couldn’t afford anything even if we did. It’s eye-popping to see it anyway.

Later we walk down to Dubai Creek which looks lovely at night with lights twinkling from boats and from the buildings of Bur Dubai on the opposite southern bank. It’s here at the Creek that the first settlers arrived four thousand years ago attracted by fishing and pearl diving. And look at it now!

Have a quick dinner at a nearby café then have an early night

Friday 28th October, 2016


A full day in Dubai then fly home tomorrow so this is really the last real day of our trip. We’ve got a few things to tick off today after doing some online research last night before we went to sleep.

First is breakfast in the hotel dining room then take a taxi outside to the Dubai Metro – the city’s rapid transit rail network. All these very efficient driverless trains run underground in the city centre and on elevated viaducts everywhere else. As expected it’s very clean, orderly and, best of all, air-conditioned.

Our first stop to the Mall of the Emirates is a hour trip with excellent people watching – an interesting mix of tourists and locals. The Mall of the Emirates is famous for its spectacular Ski Dubai facility – the indoor ski-slope complete with chairlifts and a penguin enclosure, all kept at -4 degrees C. We want to get in just for a look but the lineup is too long so we check out the rest of this massive mall. It also has a cinema complex and a family entertainment center plus shops, shops, shops. We actually spend about six hundred dollars on clothes for Mark!

I’m especially impressed with the store fronts and shop fit-outs like Dior, Prada and Hollister. In the centre of one wing is a giant fountain surrounded by trees and flowers and trees – all class.

More interesting are the Arab couples buying up big in the designer shops – him in long white robes and gutras with the woman in the full black burqa. What really surprises me is that while these women are very traditionally covered from head to toe, their makeup is absolutely trowelled on! The eye-makeup is immaculate with thick eyebrows painted on with sharp squared-off ends. These people ooze money!!

Back on the Metro we see in the distance that famous Dubai landmark, the Burj Al-Arab. It’s the world’s tallest hotel with the most luxurious suites costing more than $15,000 for one night. It sits on its own artificial island just off the coastline and was designed to resemble a billowing dhow sail – beautiful.

A lot of people (me) think that the Burj Al-Arab is the tallest building in the world but it’s actually the Burj Khalifa which also happens to be here in Dubai. In fact, we can see it as we approach our next stop. It’s a whopping 829.8 meters and looks like a shard of glass – spectacular!

Our last stop is at the Dubai Mall which has an ice-skating rink, cinemas, a casino and hundreds of shops. One area called The Souk is an upmarket replica of the souk next to our hotel – complete with camels.

From here we catch a taxi back to our hotel for an afternoon nap then dress up for a night out. We wander down to the Creek where we take another taxi to an upmarket bar further down. We sit right on the water’s edge at a candle-lit table. We seem to be the only tourists with everyone else wealthy locals. It’s a calm starry warm night with the water mirror-flat. In the distance, we can see the Burj Khalifa all lit up with coloured lasers running up and down its length and boats sail past decorated with strings of coloured lights. We decide to splurge on cocktails and a seafood platter to celebrate the last night of our holiday.

Saturday 29th October, 2016

Dubai to Sydney

Going home to our girls at last! We fly out at 9.15am for the fourteen-hour flight but with the time difference we won’t land in Sydney till six o’clock tomorrow morning.

To sum up the trip – a fabulous ‘big abenture’!


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Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, South Africa and Zanzibar 2014


                                                                             Our Itinerary

Wed 24/09/2014 Sydney 9.50am to Joburg 4.15pm
Thurs 25/09/2014 Joburg 10.40am to Bulawayo 12.05  Overnight train to Victoria Falls
Fri 26/09/2014 Victoria Falls
Sat 27/09/2014 Livingston
Sun 28/09/2014 Livingston
Mon 29/09/2014 Livingston to Lusaka
Tues 30/09/2014 Lusaka to Kapiri Mposhi 16.00 Tanzara train
Wed 1/10/2014 Tanzara train through Zambia
Thurs 2/10/2014 Tanzara train through Tanzania
Fri 3/10/2014 Tanzara train Dar Es Salaam to Zanzibar
Sat 4/10/2014 Zanzibar
Sun 5/10/2014 Zanzibar
Mon 6/10/2014 Zanzibar
Tues 7/10/2014 Zanzibar
Wed 8/10/2014 Zanzibar
Thurs 9/10/2014 Zanzibar 5.35am to Joburg 11.50am
Fri 10/10/2014 Joburg 6.15pm
Sat 11/10/2014 Sydney 3.05pm

Tuesday 23rd September, 2014        Newcastle to Sydney

At the dollies’ house at 5.30am then bring them home about seven o’clock. Mark goes into work – has a lot to get through before we leave on the train to Sydney this afternoon. It’s school holidays so Abi isn’t at preschool. I take them to Gregson Park for an hour then to Woolworths to pick up some food for the train and the plane – potato chips and mandarins. Abi wants to see Pa so we drive into JSA but he’s out meeting someone.

Back home Elkie wants to climb the stairs as usual and Abi has the ipad up in Angie’s room with the door shut. I hear a big bang and she yells out – ‘ebwryfing’s fine up here Ma’. I ask her what the noise was and she says it was Elkie’s high chair. I ask her if she’s been climbing on it – ‘No Ma. It just felled over’ – so cute.

Lauren picks them up about 1.30pm and I get stuck into the housework ready for Al who’s minding the house and our cats while we’re away. Mark comes home about three o’clock and helps with the final packing. We drive both cars to Lauren’s to park in their driveway. We have last minute kisses and cuddles before they drive us to Broadmeadow Station at 4pm. So hard to leave our three beautiful girls. Just hope Lauren is okay.

Arrive at Central Station about seven o’clock then catch another train to St James. From here we cross Hyde Park to Jillian’s then the three of us walk up to the Fitzroy for too many drinks – a good night. Mark and I sleep on the lounge because Tam and Isaac are still living here after their time in Laos. Woken by a cat walking on us and the other one going ballistic on the carpet – pretty funny.

Wednesday 24th September, 2014         Sydney to Johannesburg

Wake at 5.30am – say goodbye to Isaac who’s going for his usual early morning bike ride but Jillian and Tam are still in bed by the time we leave at 6.15am. Walking across Hyde Park this early is really lovely then we catch the airport train to the international terminal. It’s quick checking in our bags but immigration takes a while – lots of passengers going through.

I line up at the Tourist Refund Scheme to get money back for our camera and video camera that we bought a few weeks ago after both of them died while we were in Bali in May. At McDonalds we have breakfast while watching heaps of planes landing and taking off – always busy at this time of day. While Mark minds the bags I wander off to buy two bottles of duty free Bacardi and look at watches for ages but decide I like mine more than any of them and I don’t need one anyway. A nice way to pass the time, though.

We ring Lauren – Abi tells us that she had ‘the most tewible dweam in the whole world’ – all her preschool girlfriends had Elsa capes on but she didn’t have one – a nightmare for a three year old dolly. Lauren is taking them to Westfield today for a Frozen concert so Abi is really excited – Pelkie is too little to know yet. I ring Jackie, my darling sister – she doesn’t like us going away since Mum and Dad aren’t here anymore – I know how she feels. I miss ringing them like I always did at the last minute and at every stop along the way. No matter how happy I am, there’s always a sadness here deep in my heart – my little one and my beautiful mum and dad.

We board at 9.30am and take off a bit late at ten thirty. Because we’re with Qantas for a change we’ve got a bit more leg room than on the budget planes we’ve been travelling on for the last few years. But then Mark’s headrest keeps falling off and the same thing happens to the guy sitting in front of him. Maybe the budget panes aren’t that bad after all. The air steward is really funny but can’t fix them as they don’t have a Phillips-head screw-driver on board – ha ha.

Mark is in an aisle seat while I’m in the middle with a nice young black guy next to the window. I don’t get to talk to him as he has music earphones in the whole trip. We do share chocolates and mandarins though. Lunch is really nice with a champagne for Mark and a Bacardi for me – both pop a Temazapam to get some sleep. No luck probably because it’s a daytime flight and we’re not tired anyway. We do get the odd snooze but that’s it for the whole trip. But because it’s Qantas we have individual television screens so we both watch movies and tv shows to pass the time.

After eight hours we can see thick white ice floating down below us – very spectacular as we’re flying close to Antarctica. A lot of other people are up the back of the plane to look out the windows near the toilets and I chat for ages to a young South African boy called Frankie.

After fourteen hours we land at Johannesburg’s Tambo Airport at 4pm South Africa time. The landing is very rocky which makes both of us sick on the stomach and I’ve got a headache. First time I’ve ever felt air sick but it disappears within minutes. The terminal is a new one since we were here in 2007 – built in a sort of spiral around a central three storey hole. Mark gets money from an ATM (10 ZAR – Rand – to 1AUD) while I confirm tickets for our Bulawayo flight tomorrow.

Now we hang out near the Information Desk as I received an email from Mbizi Backpackers yesterday to say that someone will meet us here at 5 o’clock. We decided to book a cheap place (Mbizi Backpackers) near the airport as we’re leaving tomorrow morning on another flight. Lots of people are standing around holding up boards with passengers’ names on them so I do a continual circuit seeing if anyone has our names written down. Considering the groovy website and the Mbizi name, I’m looking for a trendy black guy with long dreds

But after half an hour I ask the lady on the desk if anyone is here from Mbizi. A young white guy standing right next to me pipes up, ‘thet’s me’ – wtf? How was he ever going to find us and vice versa. He tells us to follow him to the carpark where a pock-faced man called Patrick is waiting in an old car. Apparently the boy is Kevin, his son, who Patrick is training up to look after the backpackers so he and his girlfriend can go on a holiday. Kevin looks unimpressed to say the least – looks like a spoilt preppie type who probably lives with Mummy. So much for getting picked up by a Bob Marley look-alike.

And the drive from the airport reminds us of how much we hated Johannesburg last time. Even here on the outskirts, it’s an ugly, boring, dry city with a shanty town of poor black people just near the airport. Along the way we also see black locals selling badly-made wooden tables and chairs and old tyres fashioned into animal shapes.

Patrick talks the whole way telling us how much he hates the Nigerians – ‘all bastards’ – because he’s been caught with them booking rooms at the backpackers then never turning up. What happens is they pay the 10% deposit so they get a printout to show immigration that they’ve got somewhere to stay but then piss off as soon as they land. Even so, it’s a bit hard to feel sorry for Patrick. ‘I can’t like him’ as Abi used to say.

The backpackers is in the suburb of Boxsburg (even hate the name) and really just a house with a tall electrified fence and on a wide, empty main road. Inside, though, we like it a lot better – painted in the brightest colours – every room different. Our orange bedroom is comfy and the toilet and bathroom is just across the hallway. Patrick shows us where we can make breakfast in the morning and takes us out to the bar/chill-out area in the back. But first we’re starving and, predictably, they don’t serve food here – a crappy place – so we have to walk a mile away to a daggy complex of rundown shops to buy Chinese. The woman serving us is a cranky slllll…ut (as Lauren would say) and the Pinball place across the road has a sign that says ‘No Dangerous Weapons, No Firearms, No Drugs’. Seriously, who’d live in this shithole of a country?

Back at Mbizi we eat out near the bar – food is ok but doesn’t taste like Chinese what the hell is that all about? Mark stays up to have a few beers with Patrick and a few other backpackers but I’m too tired to drink and go to bed. After a good sleep I wake thinking it’s morning but it’s still only 11.30pm – jet lag! Both wake again at 1am – bonk – then again (not the bonk bit) at 5am to the noise of other people leaving.

Thursday 25th September, 2014       Johannesburg to Bulawayo to Victoria Falls

Today is the first real day of our holiday and the adventure starts with a morning flight to Bulawayo in Zimbabwe – formerly called Rhodesia. At six o’clock we have showers and Mark makes breakfast of tea, coffee and toast. The weather is beautiful without a cloud in the sky so we sit in the sun outside. Here we get a text from Lauren showing us a video of Abi singing ‘Let It Go’ on the stage at Westfield. We’re sooooo proud and both cry. Our dear little one. She looked nervous but she sang it right through.


Last night Mark had arranged with Patrick for someone to pick us up at 8.15am to take us to the airport. It’s nice waiting in the sun in the front garden but we finally realise our lift isn’t coming and ring Patrick on his mobile. He stumbles out the door still half asleep – not a good look – and rings his driver. ‘They’re all bloody hopeless’, he says.

In fifteen minutes a taxi pulls up at the gate and we’re soon speeding towards the airport with Matthew, a lovely black man, who tells us that he’s taking over from his friend who couldn’t make it for some reason. He tells us that his twenty-three year old brother was car-jacked and murdered two weeks ago. The police haven’t caught the guys who did it. Very typical of Johannesburg which has the honour of being called the ‘murder capital’ of the world.

At nine o’clock Matthew drops us at Tambo’s departures drop-off area. After checking in our bags and passing through immigration, we wander around the shops then have an orange juice and a coffee. As we noticed last time we were here, it’s black people doing the selling and waiting on tables while the white people are on the cash registers – I don’t think we’re imagining this.

A minibus takes us to our South African Airways plane which is sitting out on the hot tarmac – a friendly group of people. Most of the black men are wearing cheap, daggy suits and the ladies are wearing nylon wigs – must be very hot and a possible reason for the body odour – NOT being racist, just a fact. At 10.50am we take off for the short one hour flight. Lovely hostesses serve us chicken and pasta salad and drinks. There are spare seats so we both grab a window seat to watch the scenery below. Not that there’s much to see, just an endless expanse of dry brown land with a few green farms just out of Johannesburg.

We land at Bulawayo’s tiny airport at noon where we pay US $30 each for visas. We don’t need to get any cash as Zimbabwe uses US dollars which we’ve brought with us. I ask some airport staff about getting into town as we can’t see any taxis outside. They give us blank looks like they’ve never been asked that question in their lives – ha ha. Apparently there aren’t any buses either but Patricia, who works at the airport, says she’ll drive us. Just love it! Definitely in Africa!


Patricia is a plump, pretty Zimbabwean lady who never shuts up and tells us her whole life story on the thirty minute drive into town. She’s divorced and lives with her sister who minds her children. The road is flat and straight with barely another car and we like the look of Bulawayo from the start. The wide streets are lined with Jacarandas luckily blooming their purple flowers right now. There are some nice houses on the outskirts and lots of large stone British buildings in the centre. Even here the main streets are shaded by Jacarandas and we pass pretty parks and markets. There are lots of people around so it has a good vibe.

We’re catching the overnight train to Victoria Falls tonight so we need to get to the station to buy our tickets before we can do any sight seeing. Patricia drives us straight there and insists on coming in with us. We’re glad she does because the guys at the desk can’t speak much English and there seems to be a problem. After much talking between them, Patricia tells us that there isn’t a first class tonight, which we don’t care about, but that we can’t buy tickets yet because the train has just come in from Victoria Falls. Not sure why we can’t just get our tickets now but they keep promising her, ‘very soon’.


In the meantime we put our big packs in storage then wait another half an hour before they give her the nod. She also explains to them that we want to buy the whole carriage as second class holds four bunks and we’d rather be on our own. It takes a while for them to understand what we mean but soon we hand over the super-cheap sum of $30US. Not bad for a twelve hour trip with our own bunks. Patricia gives us big cuddles as a celebration and we give her toy koalas for her little boys.

Now she drops us in town before she heads back to the airport. We’re starving so we eat pizza in a sort of open-sided food hall packed with locals. All the women are wearing the awful nylon wigs and most of them have huge bums that stick right out – just an observation. In the streets men are selling spotty bananas – yes, Jule and Steve – from rough carts. It’s very busy but a nice sized city reminding us of big country towns at home with their wide streets and colonial buildings.


At the market I buy a pair of wooden ear-rings then we wander around a craft shop. Outside we catch a taxi to a restaurant we’ve read about in the Lonely Planet called 26 On Park. Oh, this is lovely. A long shaded driveway leads to a lovely old home with a wide green lawn surrounded by flowering gardens. There is a deep verandah with tables and chairs but we choose a table under the trees – cooler here.

The owner is Greg Friend who comes out to chat with us. He’s a white guy – haven’t seen any others since we flew in – and he gives us a history of the house which was built by Cecil Rhodes. He also talks about the history of Bulawayo and how screwed up the country is thanks to Robert Mugabe. He became president 1980 as the Zimbabwe’s first black leader. This might sound a good thing but he took over all white-owned commercial farms handing them over to the landless black Zimbabweans. But they had no idea about farming and just sold everything off so that there’s only one white farmer left around Bulawayo where before 1980 there were hundreds. It’s why the formerly agriculture-based economy collapsed and hasn’t recovered.

We spend the rest of the afternoon drinking lime sodas for me and about a hundred Hansa beers for Mark. He actually drinks them out of Hansa and has to swap to Mozambique Beer. For a while I hang out reading on a lounge inside and we use the wifi to get onto Facebook. Two obese ladies turn up in a taxi and order huge desserts and laugh their heads off.


Later we have dinner on the verandah as the sun starts to set through the trees. The food is excellent and we pay a lot (US $46) – fish, chips and salad for me and t-bone steak and vegetables for Mark. Bob Marley is playing somewhere inside and ‘No Woman No Cry’ makes me cry for my little one. I think it’s why I always like to be on the move. If I stop to think I get sad – can’t go there.

At six o’clock we get a taxi back to the station. It’s dark driving through town and I feel better and very excited to be catching the train.

At the station Mark gets our bags out of storage then we find our cabin. Very basic but we love it. Local people are walking along the platform carrying bags on their heads to the other end of the train and I chat with a guy who seems to be in the next carriage.


I’m feeling really tired so Mark makes up the bunks and we pull out our blankets and pillows that we always bring with us. Leaving Bulawayo is excellent with the open window keeping us cool and watching the town slip behind us. The train is definitely worse for wear though and is so noisy we can barely hear each other talk.

Despite the racket, we fall asleep pretty quickly but then we’re woken at 8.30pm by someone banging on the door – ‘tickets please’. The ticket guy is also accompanied by a funny guy hiring extra pillows, sheets and blankets so we pay for one set – only US$4.

We also ask about buying water as we’ve only got about a third of a small bottle left between us. Again we get a bewildered look and ‘water? No’. wtf? Hasn’t anyone ever wanted to buy water on this twelve hour trip? A definite opportunity here for someone to make a bit of money. And anyway, holy shit, we’re going to be dying of thirst by morning.


I take the top bunk because the lower one is wider for Mark. The temperature drops in the night but we’re cosy with all our blankets. I get up a couple of times to use the horrid loo. No water in the taps and I’m a bit scared that someone will grab me and throw me out the open doorway. I should wake Mark but he’s taken a sleeping pill and wearing ear plugs.

Later I wake up and can’t get back to sleep so I read by torchlight. We do have little lights above each bunk but predictably they don’t work.

Friday 26th September, 2014        Victoria Falls

We’re both awake at 5.30am so I squeeze in with Mark – more bonking – not easy on a rattley train.  The sun is just coming up and we’re pulling into the small station at Dete. We’re due to arrive in Victoria Falls in about an hour so we start getting our stuff organized. After half an hour we pull out of Dete only to return ten minutes later. The word goes out that we’ll be here till 9am as there’s a derailment just ahead.


No worries – we chat with a lovely black lady called Sylvia who is carrying her nine month old baby Cassandra on her back and a French guy called Floyd in the next cabin. Our water is gone but there isn’t anything to buy at the station. We ask if there’s a shop in town but they say ‘no’ – anyway we’re not game to walk over to the houses in case the train leaves.


Soon we leave Dete again, returning half an hour later. Apparently we’re just being shunted from one track to another so other trains can pass going in the opposite direction. The word now is that we won’t be getting to Victoria Falls till three o’clock this afternoon – eight hours late! Oh well, we’ve got plenty of time up our sleeves so there’s no great hurry to get there.


We sleep, read and talk to Floyd until we leave Dete for the last time. The scenery is constant – dry brown grass and spindly trees, round grass huts with pointy thatched roofs, cows pulling carts, antelopes and Mark even sees a group of people dancing in feathers and skins in the middle of nowhere. We see signs for elephants but only see some poo on the side of the track. Without any water my mouth is definitely tasting like elephant dung.

Later we stop at a station where we’re told to close the windows because the baboons will jump in and steal whatever they can get their little hands on.


Here we also say goodbye to Sylvia and where we see a tiny kiosk up on the embankment. They don’t sell water and the only liquids Mark can buy are two bottles of coke. No use to him with his diabetes though. I wander over to some village houses for a look where I see a local lady rushing towards me calling out ‘you want mineral water?’ – very happy to see that she’s carrying bottles of cold water in a bucket. We grab a couple each and I give the cokes to two young girls from the train.


At 2.45pm we pull into Victoria Falls, almost eight hours behind schedule. The station is cute with the grand colonial Victoria Falls Hotel just across the road. Seeing warthogs grazing around the grounds reminds us of Swaziland. We’d love to stay here but it’s way out of our budget. Anyway we know there are a few good backpacker places here with Shoestrings at the top of our list. Floyd from the train is planning to stay there tonight as well.

An old man is waiting on the platform and asks if we want a taxi. The main township isn’t far but our packs are too heavy so we jump in. We like the look of a couple of big hotels – very ‘African’ with soaring thatched roofs – but the shopping area is pretty ugly and the rest just souvenir shops. Every second place is a tourist agency advertising safaris, walking with the lions, helicopter rides, sunset cruises, rafting … You could spend a fortune in this place because nothing here is cheap.

Anyway, we jump out at Shoestrings only to be told that they only have dorm rooms left. We decide to try somewhere else first so we stop at the Victoria Falls Rest Camp where Julie and Steve stayed with Intrepid. Apparently this is popular with tour groups and they’re booked out as well.

Now our driver says he knows a better place – very clean and cheap. We drive way out of town to pull into a messy driveway with religious scenes and slogans painted all over the walls of the guesthouse. We don’t like the look of the white owner but say we’ll look at a room until he tells us it will be US $80 – no way!! ‘I can come down’ he whines – fuck off!!

It looks like a dorm at Shoestrings will have to do unless we can get a room at the Victoria Falls Backpackers. It’s a bit out of town but then town looks like a shit-hole anyway so we don’t need to be in walking distance. And joy of joys, they have a room and this place is lovely – very compact with cute cabins, an open-air kitchen, a chill out area and a pool. We’re soooo hot and can’t wait to get into the water.


A guy called John greets us and I ask about sunset cruises for today. He says we’ll need to be ready to get picked up at four o’clock so we’ll have to hurry. He now shows us the Zebra Room – very cute with a few even cuter outside bathrooms to choose from. Someone has gone to lots of effort to decorate the whole place and we feel very ‘on safari’. The reception is in a round hut with a tall pointed roof and just outside our room is a low stone wall surrounding a fire pit. And our room has two fans with mosquito nets – no air-con so we need to get in the pool fast. Yes I’m very happy. The water is perfect but we don’t stay in long as I want to wash my hair before we leave.

Right on four we meet a small van outside with only one other passenger – a strange little Australian guy wearing a hat and a scarf in this sweltering heat.  He’s a sort of Aussie version of Mr Bean and we feel sorry for him. We drive for about fifteen minutes further out of town to the edge of the Zambezi River where a small group of dancers are waiting to greet us. They’re all garbed out in grass skirts and playing traditional instruments. We get dragged in for a dance and photos – fun!


On the wooden wharf we have to pay US$10 each entry fee to the national park to add to the US $40 each for the cruise. But then we get any drinks we want and food as well – pretty cheap especially if we see some animals. The boat is wide and flat bottomed with plenty of cane tables and chairs. Mark and I grab a table right at the front next to the water where we’re presented with ‘welcome drinks’ – a lovely red and yellow colour and tastes good. Eventually the rest of the guests arrive – about thirty people in all – a table of French idiots, a big group of elderly Japanese (all little) and a lovely Canadian lady called Cheryl. She sits with us and is heaps of fun.


Besides the tourists, there’s a staff of eight including the captain who gives us a welcome talk before we set off. A few other boats are out on the water already – a couple of bigger two storey ones and some very little ones. Mark soon spots a white water bird and we imagine that this will be the extent of the wildlife.


But then suddenly we’re speeding towards the south bank where we can see an elephant down by the water. Now we’re speeding off in the other direction – hippos this time. A family of four with a couple of bubbas.


Then we head towards the falls where more hippos are bobbing around. But the highlight is an elephant who comes down from the Zambian side and swims right across the river in front of us – great excitement!


Meanwhile we’ve been having free drinks and served lovely finger food. As the sun sets in a golden sky we have cups of tea and hot scones. I feel very Agatha Christie!


Before we disembark we have a ‘thank you’ talk from the captain who hints that we might like to give a donation for the crew – another $10. We talk to the funny Aussie guy on the way back then get dropped off at the Rest Camp in the dark. We want to have dinner at In Da Belly Restaurant which is inside the Camp and recommended by Lonely Planet. It’s a nice open-sided place with the usual thatched roof but horrible orange plastic chairs inside – a definite design flaw, ha ha.

The whole place is filled with tour groups which makes us glad to be on our own. For $18 we have a horrible crocodile curry (Mark) and tomato soup (me) with two beers and a coke. While we wait for our food we use their wifi and see photos of our girls at Oakdale Farm.

At the main gate we ask about getting a taxi so one of the guys takes off on a pushbike into town to find one for us. Both exhausted, we’re in bed by 8 o’clock. We wake at 2.30am so I ring Lauren – 10.30am at home.

Saturday 27th September, 2014         Victoria Falls to Livingstone

I can’t get back to sleep after talking to Lauren so I read till 5.30am then wide wake again an hour later. Mark has been up already – showered and shaved and looks especially handsome.

Before breakfast we ask John at the desk about booking a helicopter ride later today and about getting to the Falls this morning. He organizes a flight for 2 o’clock costing US$130 each. This is very extravagant for us but we’ve never been in a helicopter and this is probably one of the best places in the world to do it. And it’s on our ‘bucket list’ as well.

Now for breakfast around the fire pit. There aren’t many people around as most have already left for safaris etc. We order tea, coffee, toast, tomatoes and eggs and talk to Dennis the white owner. He’s an engineer and was born here in Zimbabwe. He’s rightfully worried about the economy and the political situation.


To put it mildly, the country is fucked. There’s rampant inflation, critical food and fuel shortages as well as terrible poverty and unemployment. And with dickheads like Mugabe running it there won’t be any relief from more political troubles. Makes our politicians look okay – jokes, but okay.

Later Dennis introduces us to Dufus, a strange long necked figure carved out of wood and supposed to be Dennis himself. He takes photos of us with our camera and asks us to put it up on you tube or something – not!

Now, because we’ll be leaving for Zambia this afternoon, we have to check out of our room and leave our packs near reception. John calls us a taxi and now we’re off for Victoria Falls!

At the entrance we pull into a car park lined with market stalls selling the same, same wooden giraffes, elephants etc. A group of men in animal skins and carrying spears are doing a native dance and baboons are going mental bonking each other in the trees opposite.

Mark pays the US$30 entry fee each then we read some of the info and maps on the walls inside. Now we set off through the trees where we can hear the roar of the Falls. Our first glimpse is amazing with even better views as we walk to all sixteen viewpoints along a network of paths that allows us to see them from every angle. The Falls are an incredible 1708 metres wide – the world’s largest curtain of falling water.


The paths are through a true rainforest with the heat and humidity intense. We’re both wet caused by the ‘rain’ sprayed from the Falls twenty four hours a day even in the dry season. It’s almost the dry season now so it must be extra amazing during the wet months from February to May. But apparently because there’s so much water crashing over the edge, the spray is so thick you can’t even see the Falls.


On opposite bank of the Zambezi are the Zambian viewpoints but we’ve read that we can see most of the Falls from the Zimbabwean side so we probably won’t bother. In some sections the sunlight passing through the spray creates beautiful rainbows and we can see people way, way down below doing the very popular white water rafting trips. It’s supposed to be very dangerous here so we’re glad to have the excuse of leaving this afternoon.


Back near the entrance we find a tall statue – Mark says ‘Dr. Livingstone, I presume.’  This is what Henry Stanley said to David Livingstone after he’d been searching for him for four years. Info is that Livingstone disappeared while looking for the source of the Nile – he didn’t find it, by the way. But what he did find was Victoria Falls which is why his statue is here – get it?

Near the main gate we sit in the open-sided Rainforest Café for cold soda waters then find a taxi in the car park opposite to take us back into town. We want to check out the main township but we don’t think we’ll be there too long – looks small and very touristy.

As it happens, we’re right. Just shop after shop selling souvenirs and tours but nice enough anyway. We find Mama Africa in a little dusty side street which is a restaurant we’ve seen recommended somewhere. It’s a colourful, laid back place and very ‘African’. We sit on a side verandah overlooking the little outdoor area. The temperature outside is stinking hot but it’s nice and cool in here. And the food is great – a spicy African hotpot for Mark and a club sandwich and salad for me.


Now we catch another taxi back to the backpackers where we set ourselves up in hammocks under the trees. We read, doze and have cold drinks for a couple of hours while we wait for our helicopter guy to pick us up. At two o’clock he’s on time and we meet another passenger called Greg, a very serious, macho looking guy in safari clothes who looks like he wrestles wild animals for a living.

We drive for about twenty minutes out of town through the dry savanna that we’ve become used to seeing by now. We bump our way along rough dirt tracks to the heliport which we’re hoping isn’t an old shack in the bush run by a couple of black guys. No offence but Mark said if it’s a black pilot he’s not going. We’re both worried about the flight no matter who’s flying it and we mouth ‘I’m scared’ to each other.

Very relieved to see that the heliport is new and impressive which should probably mean that the helicopter is also new and well maintained.  We’re also relieved that the guys running the show are white and so is the pilot – British actually. Again no offence to black people but safety doesn’t seem to be a high priority in most third world countries and we don’t want to die just yet.

Inside we’re greeted by a sweet girl who gives us forms to fill in – you know, scary things like ‘next of kin’ – wtf? We also meet Sally and Elizabeth who’ll be our flying companions. Glad to hear that they’re helicopter virgins as well and look suitably as nervous as we are. One guy comes to whisper that we’ve all been up-graded to a twenty two minute flight but not to tell the people waiting for the next one. I’m not sure if getting an extended time is a good thing or not.

We‘re given safety instructions and told to run in a sort of squatting position to the chopper that’s revving up on the helipad. We all put on headphones so we can hear our driver who introduces himself as Ben. Funny to find out that macho Greg is also a helicopter virgin and looks shit scared – ha ha.


The lift-off is surprisingly smooth and we’re soon flying over the town and the Falls. It’s the only way to really understand the amazing river system.

Looking downstream we can see the zigzag of the gorges and upstream the wide Zambezi River as it meanders towards the huge drop. The river itself is dotted with hundreds of islands and we can see elephants in the national park.


The flight takes us over the Falls several times in both directions. The pilot banks the helicopter as we circle so we can see right into the chasm. It’s all very interesting but I start to get bored and still a bit worried about crashing so I’m glad when it’s time to head back.

Sally and Elizabeth return to town with us and we drop them off first. Next we drive way out of town in the opposite direction to take Greg to his lodge – a very creepy safari looking place perched on a hill sitting in the middle of nowhere.

Back in town we ask our friendly driver to stop at an ATM then on to the Victoria Falls Hotel where we plan to have high tea – one of the must-do things here.

The hotel is a grand Edwardian place built in the early 1900’s when Cecil Rhodes famously attempted to link Cape Town to Cairo by rail. The entrance is surrounded by tropical gardens, lily ponds and century-old shade trees. And there are warthogs grazing around just outside the main door. Here we’re greeted by a tall, black doorman wearing badges all over his jacket. He’s a natural comedian and promises to store our bags and arrange transport to take us to Livingstone in an hour.

Now we follow him to the Stanley Terrace overlooking a wide lawn with a panoramic view of the Victoria Falls Bridge. And the high tea is perfect – only $30 for the two of us. We have bite-sized sandwiches, an assortment of little cakes and tarts and, of course, scones with jam and cream. I cock my little pinky finger to drink my tea – another Agatha Christie moment.


Afterwards we walk around the gardens then check out the hotel itself. In the lounge area a local man wearing a white suit is playing a grand piano to add to the posh atmosphere. The décor is very traditionally English with brocade lounges, fringed lamps, potted palms and animal heads on the walls.

Outside we’re met by a sweet man called Oliver who will drive us to the border. Passing through the outskirts of town we now come to the famous Victoria Falls Bridge which crosses the Zambezi River just below the Falls. As the river itself is the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia, the bridge links the two countries and has border posts on the approaches at both ends.

First we go through immigration at the Zimbabwe post where we’re tested for the Ebola virus that’s currently sweeping through West Africa. It’s already killed thousands of people so all African countries are on high alert. One of the symptoms is a temperature so we all get zapped by a sort of laser on our foreheads to see if we’ve got a fever. All clear so we jump back in the van with Oliver to cross the bridge.

On the Zambia side we have to go through their immigration which also means paying $50 US each for visas. Here Oliver hands us over to Nyambe who says ‘You can call me God’. We move our packs into our new van as a warthog wanders across the border.

God is another funny guy and keeps us laughing all the way to Livingstone which is only about a fifteen minute drive. On the way he stops so we can walk down to the Zambezi which is looking lovely as the sun drops towards the horizon.

Arriving in Livingstone we can see that’s it’s a much nicer town than Victoria Falls. The main street is extra wide with a few attractive Edwardian buildings lining the road. We head straight for the Jolly Boys Backpackers where I’d booked a room this morning. It’s a ‘jolly’ looking place behind a tall, bright yellow brick fence. Guards on the gate let us through into a pretty leafy area. This leads to the pool which has sun lounges and wooden picnic tables under shady trees. This is amazing! There’s also a bar where we can buy food and a couple of chill-out areas where young backpackers are lounging around on floor cushions. Everyone is on their ipads which means wifi! The reception is colourful with two young girls booking people in – very glad that we booked ahead.

Our room – the Rhino Room – is excellent – very African with our own bathroom and a verandah outside – perfect except for the single beds and no way can we push them together.

Now Mark wanders downtown to find an ATM while I transfer photos from the camera to the laptop. We can’t be bothered going anywhere tonight so we order food from the bar and, of course, lots of drinks. All very nice except for the never-ending Jesus music and sermons that are blaring all over town – shut the fuck up!!

Hang out getting pissed in the chill-out pit then bed at 8 – a great day!!

Sunday 28th September, 2014      Livingstone

Wake at 2.30am – still out of whack with sleeping times – then fall asleep till eight o’clock. Mark has been up since 6.30am – showered and reading in bed. We eat breakfast – baked beans and cheese on toast, tea and coffee – sitting at one of the long picnic tables then hang out on cushions on the verandah. We manage to upload lots more photos onto Facebook and see pictures of Lauren and our bubbas – they make us soooo happy.

The girls at the desk tell us how to get to the bus station as we want to book tickets for Lusaka tomorrow. We also book a safari for 2.30pm since we’ve decided to stay here again tonight.

Now we head off past the church – still singing and broadcasting sermons at full blast – while lots of people in their Sunday best are milling around outside. And, because it’s Sunday, the streets are quiet and all the shops and businesses closed. It’s more lively near the bus station with lots of stalls selling drinks and food for the passengers. Mark lines up to book two Business Class tickets for Lusaka at eight in the morning. The Business Class tickets are $25 for the two of us for the six and a half hour trip.

From here we walk past the market selling fruit and vegetables, dried fish, blankets, horrible clothes as well as the awful nylon wigs all the ladies wear. We notice that every second shop is an auto repair place – not surprised considering the state of the cars.

At a supermarket across from the backpackers we buy drinks, chips and a Magnum that’s so melted I literally have to drink it from the pack.

Back at Jolly Boys we spy Floyd from the Bulawayo train and give him a wide berth. He’s holding fort with some other poor backpackers – will talk their ears off. We rest in the cool of our room after the long hot walk then lie around on the verandah cushions to order lunch – chicken wraps. We’re still hot so we have a swim in the lovely pool then get ready for our safari.

At 2.30pm we’re met by a smiling man called Oliver who takes us to our open-sided ‘safari’ truck. Luckily we’re the only passengers so we pick good seats which will give us the best views of all the ‘wild amiyals’, as Abi would say. We fly out of town getting almost blown out of the truck then turn off after five kilometers. We stop first at a lovely resort right on the Zambezi River where we follow Oliver upstairs to pay for the safari. Now we’re on our way to the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, itself running alongside the river. Because it’s only sixty six square kilometers there aren’t any predators – big cats, that is – because they’d eat all the other animals.


Oliver tells us all this at the entrance gate and promises he’ll do his best to find us lots of animals. Firstly we see a family of warthogs then antelope, impala, bush bucks, baboons, zebra, giraffe and elephants. Oliver tells us that a few years ago in Zimbabwe, someone poisoned a waterhole and four hundred elephants died. Their tusks were hacked off and loaded onto trucks before anyone knew about it.


He also tells us that because there aren’t any predators in the park, the animals are really relaxed so we can get very close to them – manage to get some great photos. Later he stops at the river where we walk down to the edge to see a hippo just disappearing under the water. It’s a lovely time of day to be here.

We also stop at a little cemetery which was the original site of Livingstone. People were dying in droves from what they called ‘black river fever’ which we now know was malaria. It’s why they moved the town away from the river in 1905 to where it is today. In those days the country was called Northern Rhodesia eventually becoming the Republic of Zambia on 24 October 1964 – just a bit of interesting info for me to remember.


Now Oliver tells us that he can take us to see some rhinos. He’s not really supposed to but because there’s only two of us he can sneak us in. We’ll have to give the guards a tip but this is too good to pass up. We drive for a few kilometers to a sort of checkpoint where rangers wearing full camouflage are lounging around a hut where they obviously have turns of sleeping. There are three guards watching over the rhinos 24/7 while the others ‘live’ here. Oliver tells us that the Chinese send poachers in to kill the rhino to get their horns that they think gives them super sexual powers – fuckers!

We pick up one of the rangers who’s carrying a rifle and drive for about twenty minutes to a remote place to meet three other guards. They’re also wearing the full camouflage and carrying rifles. On sunset we follow them in single file through the long grass till we get to the rhinos. There are three here grazing, oh so close. We can’t believe we’re seeing this!


One of the guards whispers that the big one is a mum called Louise and the two babies are her daughters, Light and Hope – so cute! Apparently the park was given four rhinos a few years back but the poachers killed them within weeks so now they have this super tight security. Now there are nine in all so it’s obviously working.

Back at the truck we line up for photos with the guards – so funny making us all laugh. We give them a $20 tip to share and they’re stoked. Heading back Oliver stops on the side of the main road where we can see lots of broken glass. He and the ranger get out to check for blood in case it’s been caused by a vehicle hitting an animal.


As we drive through the park the sun is almost set – very surreal. We feel super high after our unexpectedly amazing time here.

Back in Livingstone at dusk we see lots of locals coming back from church – is this all these people ever do? – and it’s dark by the time we pull into Jolly Boys. We give Oliver an extra $10 for being such a lovely guide – he’s very happy.

Dinner again by the pool – a barbeque happening tonight.  Steak, chips and salad – is all good but the guy on the barbeque has cremated the steak and we can barely swallow it. We upload more photos and see Floyd in the same spot and still chewing the ears off the same people. Two German girls next to us are freaking out about a huge spider that they saw over near the kitchen. I go over for a look and can barely see it – don’t think they’d handle Australia’s creepy crawlies.

Oh, and the church music is blaring again – bed at 9.30am.

Monday 29th September, 2014        Livingstone to Lusaka

No need for alarms when we’re on holidays – awake at 5.30am. More bonking, showers and packing then breakfast at seven o’clock outside near the pool. Mark has a healthy yoghurt, muesli and banana while I have scrambled eggs and bacon. I get a call from Lauren – Josh has been a prick and she’s a mess. Fucking great! I talk to her for ages and she seems a bit better but I feel helpless. I’m so worried and wish we could go home earlier but I know we won’t. She can talk to Doug and hopefully he can help her sort it out – won’t hold my breath – another fucking useless prick.

We catch a taxi to the bus station which is typically chaotic with lots of buses lined up and ready to go.  Some have their itinerary printed on a piece of cardboard taped to the side so we grab seats on our Lusaka bound bus before wandering round the market. We’re travelling with Shalom Bus Service and it looks in pretty good condition. Apparently the trains to Lusaka are unreliable and the rail line is dodgy so buses are the recommended way to go.


We’re supposed to leave at eight o’clock so we jump into our front row seats. We’ll have good views the whole way. The bus is full so it’s a bit smelly (body odour) but should improve once the air-con starts up – or will that just blow it around? For the thirty minutes before leaving we have to put up with a psycho preacher who’s screaming out verses from the bible as he marches up and down the aisle – wtf? After he finishes each of his rants all the God-fearing passengers pronounce with great enthusiasm, ‘amen’ – fucking brilliant! We hope he doesn’t do this for the whole trip and fortunately he gets out as we start to move and jumps onto another bus.

Driving through town we see how much busier it is today – lots of people with everything starting to open for business. Like in Zimbabwe, we haven’t seen any white people except the odd traveler so I don’t know if any live here at all.

The rest of the trip – 482 kilometres – is mainly through open countryside – the same brown dry landscape we’ve seen the whole trip. Now and again we see thatched roofed mud brick homes and people sitting on the side of the road selling vegetables or firewood.

The bus stops to pick up and drop off passengers in the small towns of Zimba, Kalomo, Choma and Batoka – mainly women with babies strapped to their backs. Other women carry things on their heads and at one stop our driver buys a live chicken through the bus window.


And while all this is happening we have very loud gospel music and videos playing on the screen right above our heads. It never lets up for seven whole hours! And every town is full of churches and Christian signs of some sort – St Mary’s Hospital, St Christopher’s School etc. Hate Christianity!!

The best thing is that the road is surprisingly good and our driver is very safe but the air-con isn’t working properly and it’s stinking hot. Of course, this means that the body odour is rife and is getting worse as the day wears on. It seems that deodorant isn’t a part of life here in Africa.


We pass lots of people just sitting in groups under trees, herds of tiny goats, cows crossing the road and trucks packed with people standing up in the back. With the beautiful weather, we really enjoy the whole trip.

At 3.30pm we finally reach Lusaka and the craziest bus station we’ve experienced for a long time. Men are swarming all over the passengers as we  get off – some are taxi drivers after a fare and others try to grab our bags from under the bus to put them on their trolleys. Mark fights them off and we run the gauntlet with a taxi driver we’ve agreed to go with.

Outside is still the busiest place we’ve seen on the trip so far. Apparently, Lusaka has become something of a boom town with new buildings going up everywhere with many chain stores and shopping mall springing up all over the sprawling suburbs. The capital was moved to Lusaka from Livingstone in 1935 because of its more central location and its position on the main rail and road links. It really does have an optimistic air of a town on the rise, the perfect example of what economic liberalisation has done for Zambia compared to the mess in Zimbabwe.

And in the eyes of rural Zambians, Lusaka is the glittering capital which still persuades many village people to migrate to the city in search of jobs and dreams. Tragically over sixty per cent of the country’s two million population are unemployed, but with surprisingly few beggars or major theft and most people try to make an honest living selling their wares or services.

But back to the diary. The place we’ve chosen to stay is the very unoriginally named Lusaka Backpackers and is close by. Once we get away from the main streets, we find ourselves in a leafy, quiet area with tree-lined laneways. And the backpackers is nice with a pool and a simple bar under a bamboo shelter. It’s nowhere near as appealing as Jolly Boys but we’re only here for one night.

The guy on the desk is helpful and we ask him about using their computer. Just as we came into Lusaka, Mark had noticed a billboard advertising cheap flights to Dar Es Salaam. He’s not overly fussed on the train trip so we spend an hour looking up different airlines but with no luck. We’d needed to have booked weeks ago to get the cheap deals. Anyway, I want to do the train thing and we’re both happy that we looked into it anyway. It might have been nice to have extra days in Zanzibar but I think we’d kick ourselves later for bailing out on the overland journey.


And talking of the train, the guy on the desk tells us that we have to book at Tanzara House tomorrow morning as it’s too late today. If we can’t get train tickets we’ll end up having to fly anyway – very confusing but exciting. Love travelling like this.

Our room is a little log cabin in the back yard – simple to say the least with two tiny windows and a slate floor. We have single beds again – this time with black mosquito nets hanging from bamboo contraptions attached to the ceiling. The showers and toilets are just a stone’s throw across the grass with outdoor basins to clean our teeth. Not too bad for $40 a night

It’s getting dark by now and we plan to have drinks/dinner at the posh Taj Pamodzi Hotel in the heart of Lusaka’s business and government district. So all poshed up ourselves, we find a taxi driver outside in the laneway. His name is Patrick and he’s a real sweetie – very happy and chatty. He’s impressed that we’re going to the Taj so our expectations are pretty high.

And, of course, whenever that happens you’re sure to be disappointed. Even though it is part of the famous Taj chain of hotels it isn’t one of the magnificent historic buildings like the Taj in Bombay where we had cocktails in 2005. This Taj was probably built in the eighties with typical eighties décor – now just daggy but in a way we like it. Set amongst tropical gardens, the entrance has the usual circular driveway and we pull up like royalty. Inside we wander around checking out the two restaurants then head straight for the Marula Bar.

There doesn’t seem to be a ‘happy hour’ but two white wines each only cost $20. The lounges are all taken with middle class Zambians – mostly business people – and a few European couples. For dinner we choose the fanciest restaurant with white linen tablecloths and the waiters in white uniforms. It has a soaring thatched ceiling and open on one side to the pool and gardens. And we even have a band all decked out in red uniforms. I form a crush on the singer who is a dignified, older man wearing a sort of Canadian Rockies hat. He also has a wooden arm with the wooden hand sticking out the end of his sleeve. He’s strangely appealing with a very high voice and he smiles through every song. They make me think of my beautiful Mum and Dad – ‘Irene Good Night’, ‘The Cucaracha’ and everyone’s favourite African song, ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’. I love it and sing along – the two wines have gone to my head already. Poor Mark.

The food is very good – we have calamari for an entree then Mark orders a huge rump steak with olive mash for a main while I have spinach and cheese cannelloni. Dessert is a chocolate pudding with ice cream presented perfectly as a posh restaurant should. And now we’re totally stuffed!

While Mark is trying to pay the bill with his credit card – machine doesn’t work – I chat with the singer and the drummer who are outside having a fag. They’re soooo nice and tell me how religious most Zambians are – you reckon??!!

We finally pay at another counter, the grand sum of $58 – so cheap! Outside we try to ring Patrick but we can’t get through so we walk out onto the main road. Doesn’t take long to get another taxi and we’re back in our little hut by ten o’clock.

Our plan for tomorrow is to get a bus from here in Lusaka to Kapiri Mposhi about three hours away where we’ll hopefully board the three day train to Dar Es Salaam. It will all depend on whether we can get tickets in the morning.

Tuesday 30th September, 2014       Lusaka to Kapiri Mposhi to Tanzara train

My darling crawls into bed with me at six o’clock – bonking then shower together – a good start to the day. I wash and dry my hair then we order breakfast from a tiny lady in the funny little kitchen. She’s wearing a white coat and a tall chef’s hat – hilarious. We have to pay her but she doesn’t have any money to give us change.

We wait by the pool till she brings out rubbery eggs for me with a side of chili sauce – ‘sorry, no tomato’. Mark’s breakfast of muesli, fruit and yoghurt is better but our tea and coffee come out much later – cold and in chipped cups – cute.

The weather is perfect again with clear blue skies and already getting hot. We find Patrick outside in the laneway and ask him to drive us to Tanzara House to buy our train tickets. He stops first at the very modern Levy Shopping Centre so Mark can find an ATM. Tickets have to be bought in cash.

Now we drive past the mad bus station through clogged streets and the endless road works. At Tanzara House, Patrick waits in his car while we try to find someone, anyone. We knock on all the doors but no answer. We go back downstairs to ask the man on the desk. ‘Lady not here, come soon. You wait’.

Finally two men arrive and tell us that the lady who books the tickets isn’t here because her kids are sick. Apparently no-one else can sell us tickets – wtf? One of them finally rings her and she says that she’ll come in. We wait for an hour, sitting on a ripped lounge in the shabby hallway till she turns up at ten o’clock. A bit of a shemozzle but no worries!

And the good news is that we can get sleeper tickets – first class at $60 each – super cheap for three days and two nights. She’s actually quite impressed with us because Zambia’s vice President is a white man called Guy Scott – she wonders if we’re possibly related? (By the way, by the time I’ve typed up this diary, Guy Scott is now the acting President after the sudden death of Michael Sata, on 28 October 2014 just weeks after we were there). She also tells us that we should get a bus to Kapiri as soon as we can as they usually take a lot longer than the supposed three hours.

So now Patrick races us back to the guesthouse where we quickly pack. Off again, we stop at the shopping centre to stock up on food. In a sort of Woolworths, we buy fresh sandwiches and salads for the bus as well as drinks and chips for the train. The people here are lovely and I keep bumping into a nice man who lets me get in front of him at the check-out.

The bus station is even more chaotic than yesterday if that’s possible. Touts rush us to buy tickets for their particular bus but luckily we’re used to this and don’t get frazzled. We try a couple of different companies but finally get a bus that they assure us is ‘leaving now’ – a fib for sure. Anyway, we make a dash for the bus that, naturally, doesn’t leave for half an hour.

Most of the seats are already taken so Mark is sitting up the front while I’m down the back next to a shy young girl. I’m lucky to have a young woman with a fat baby boy on her lap sitting just across the aisle and there are lots of other little ones who are all sneaking looks at me.

And like yesterday we’ve got a religious nut with us – a woman this time – standing in the middle of the aisle preaching more Jesus stuff. It’s made even more chaotic as hawkers squeeze past her yelling out whatever they’re selling – drinks, food, mobile phones, school books and shaving machines.

Off at last, it takes us over an hour to get out of Lusaka because of all the road works. Gospel music is playing again but not as loud today. With no air-conditioning it’s very hot even with the windows open.

Being in an aisle seat I keep myself occupied with checking everyone out around me. The ladies are either wearing the dreaded nylon wigs or have plaited their hair in corn rows. The men usually have shaved heads but some just keep it cropped really short. The lady opposite breast feeds her little boy a few times and just leaves her boob hanging out afterwards. I ask how old he is – ‘one year’, she says. I give him one of the toy koalas we’ve brought with us and he soon comes over to play with the strap on my bag – dear little one.

All the way we need to stop at a series of police check points – we can’t work out why. We see people burning off the grass alongside the road as well as the usual mud brick and thatched homes, people selling wares under trees and little dusty villages. An accident between two old vans slows us down but no-one seems to be badly hurt.


After a couple of hours the bus stops in a small town so we can use the toilets and buy something to eat. We’re starting to get worried about reaching Kapiri Mposhi in time to catch the train. If we miss it today there isn’t another one till Friday – oh shit!

A Polish man who’s been on the bus with his wife and two male friends asks me if I know how far we have to go because they’re also booked on the train. I find the conductor who tells us that we’ll be there in forty five minutes.


We finally arrive at 3.30pm – almost five hours since we boarded the bus. Never trust timetables in these places. The Kapiri bus station is much smaller than Lusaka but we still get swarmed as we get off the bus. We’re in a desperate hurry as the train is supposed to leave at 4pm and we’re not sure how long it will take to get to the station. No worries – we’re there in five minutes and the train hasn’t left. The taxi driver and his mate insist on carrying our bags even though Mark tries to wrestle them away.

The train is very long. Apparently, it consists of three first class sleepers, three second class sleepers, three third class seats cars, a second class seats car, a restaurant car, a bar car, a first class lounge car and a couple of baggage vans – yes, very long.

It’s optimistically named the Mukuba Express – not sure how ‘express’ it is because I’ve read that it’s always running at least half a day late. We’ll see what happens with our trip. And The Man In Seat 61 website gives more info – ‘the Tanzara line is 1,860km long and was only opened in 1976, built with Chinese funding and assistance.’

On the platform, Mark finds the carriage marked on our tickets. Standing next to the doorway we’re met by Marjorie, our first class hostess dressed in a pale blue railway uniform. She’s a strange looking young woman, very made up and looks a bit like a tranny. I love her immediately.


Marjorie shows us to our first class sleeper cabin. It’s shabby and basic with two double bunks on either side compared to three on either side in second class. The only problem with first class is that men and women have to be segregated. This isn’t in the plan.

Now we meet a young couple called Maggie and Terry who also don’t want to be separated. We’ve decided that the four of us will bunk in together which shouldn’t be a problem. Marjorie is okay with it but then says we can have a cabin each as some people haven’t turned up.

By now it’s four o’clock when we’re supposed to leave and guess what? – we do! Watching the scenery as we pull out of Kapiri we feel that we’re on a true adventure. Till 6.30pm we read and snooze then Marjorie shows us that we can lock the door to our cabin which means we can ‘go out’ for dinner.


The train jumps sideways and up and down so it’s a very wobbly walk through two other sleeper carriages, the bar car, then three more seats-only carriages to get to the dining car. It’s as basic as our cabin, with about ten small tables on either side of the aisle and open windows letting in the night air cooling us down after the hot day. The food is super cheap and tasty – a beef stewy thing for me and a chicken stew for Mark both with white rice, tomato and a spinach mash.

Maggie and Terry turn up so we plan to meet in the bar afterwards. I stagger back to our cabin to dig out my duty free Bacardi then stagger back to the bar. The guy behind the grungy bar is busy talking to a couple of other guys leaning on the counter while playing very loud music.


We spend the next couple of hours getting to know Terry and Maggie. She’s from New York and Terry comes from London – really good company especially Maggie who has the gift of the gab but not annoying like a lot of Americans. They’ve been travelling for a month through South Africa and Zambia so they have a lot of stories already.

I absolutely love this night and I love this train. Sitting in the bar next to the open window trundling through Zambia makes me sooo happy. We head back to our cabin at 9.30pm and check out the toilets. I don’t want to imagine what the third class toilets are like because first class has a lot to be desired. No running water anywhere but just a huge plastic drum of water next to the pan (so big we have to squeeze in through the door). A plastic bottle with the top chopped off is used as a scoop to wash the wee wees and poopedys down onto the tracks.

Into our cosy bunks at 10pm after taking a Triazapam each – we might need it with all the noise the train is making. Another brilliant day!

Wednesday 1st October, 2014               Tanzara train through Zambia

I wake at six o’clock, put on makeup and use the horrid toilet. Mark sleeps till seven then has a ‘shower’ which translates to finding a tap with water. I can’t find my favourite red glasses and think I must have left them in the bar last night – will probably never see them again. No worries because I’ve brought along a spare.

After cleaning our teeth with bottled water we head for the dining car for breakfast. In the next carriage we stop to say hi to the four Polish people who’d been on our bus yesterday from Lusaka. They seem to have brought along all their own food and are having breakfast in their cabin.

In the dining car we both order a ‘Full Breakfast’ for 15 Kwacha ($3) each. Two overly cooked eggs, two slices of toast, beans with tomato and a sausage (I’m so hungry I could eat a sausage on a Zambian train) plus tea and coffee.


The waitress has zero people skills – slams down the menu, salt etc – no smiles and reminds us of Helga the waitress who hated us in China when were on an overnight train with Jillian and Eddie in 2006. But this little waitress gives everyone the same treatment – needs to go to hospitality school or maybe her life is just shit.


Back to our cabin we lounge around all morning watching the world go by. We stop for hours at a small station where the local ladies walk beside the track selling drinks, peanuts and bananas all carried on their heads. Ragged little ones play on the tracks and we think how lucky our little bubbas are at home. Some little girls only about six years old have a baby strapped to their back – must be a baby brother or sister.


At another station a lot of women are walking past the train carrying bundles of sticks on their heads and others balancing plastic dishes filled with rice or grain of some kind. One lady is selling live chickens and someone near us buys two from their window.


At one stage we hear a commotion and everyone has their head out the train watching two women have a punch-up. One seems to be very drunk and the other looks like she’s trying to drag her home. A crowd soon surrounds them and a couple of men try to carry the drunk one but she gives them a left hook as well – funny at first but tragic really, poor lady.


Later Marjorie comes in for a chat then we go to sit in her empty cabin. She shows me photos of her eight year old daughter, Marie. Marjorie had married a man from the Congo but when he wanted to take a second wife, she left him. We swap Facebook addresses and Mark comes in to take photos of us all.


Now we read, sleep and I take heaps of photos and videos – so many amazing things to see especially at each station. At 11.30am, Marjorie comes in to say goodbye as we’re about to arrive at the border at Nakonde. We have to leave the Mukaba Express and get on the Kilamanjaro which will take us through Tanzania to Dar Es Salaam on the coast. This supposedly will be another day and night – thinking positive. We’re already three hours late getting here so it doesn’t look good for a 3.25pm arrival tomorrow in Dar according to the timetable – love how precise they are.

We’ve already packed our gear – I found my red glasses – and ready to get out at Nakonde to jump straight onto the Kilamanjaro – just kidding because, surprise surprise, it isn’t here yet! We’re hanging out on the platform with Maggie and Terry and the Polish crew not knowing where to go.


A man wearing jeans and a red shirt keeps telling us to follow him but he’s not wearing a railway uniform so we don’t trust him. He becomes angry with me – ‘you go over there with those people’ he says in disgust as he points to the big cement station where the local people have to wait.

‘You don’t remember me from the train?’ – he scowls in disbelief but sorry I don’t because we met so many people. Finally we realise that he does work for the railway and let him take us to a separate building with a few bench seats. This is apparently where we ‘white people’ are to wait for the train. Soon two local ladies arrive from immigration to stamp our passports out of Zambia.

Meanwhile Maggie and I are both tending to matching wounds on our left forearm where a piece of tin sticking out of the gate ripped into us. Maggie has medicated wipes and I remind myself to add them to our travel list.

Now Mark and I mind all the bags while Maggie and Terry go for a walk. The train won’t be arriving any time soon so we’ve got plenty of time to explore. An hour later we swap and Mark and I set off past the station. A row of very basic tiny businesses with hand painted signs lead down to the dirt track behind the main building. A hairdresser, a bottle shop, a grocer and a restaurant are primitive to say the least but probably very modern here.

We pass mud-brick family homes along red dirt paths before coming across a sprawling market. It’s nothing like the markets of Asia – very dry, dusty and hot without any shade at all and not a blade of grass to be seen. Most of the ladies are shading themselves with hand held umbrellas and I wish I had one too.

One woman is stirring a big pot of boiling entrails but quickly covers it with a lid when I ask to take a photo. In face no-one here wants their photo taken so I just click away with my camera down near my hip.


More ladies are selling peanuts, dries fish, tomatoes, cabbages, red onions, eggs, potatoes and horrible clothes that have to be wrapped in plastic because of all the dust. We don’t buy anything.

Back at the station waiting room, Marjorie comes over for a chat. She has her friend, Eunice, with her who I’ve already met in our carriage. Marjorie has been cleaning our old train ready for the return journey to Kapiri once the Tanzania train gets here. She tells us that she’s heard that it will arrive about 3 or 4 or 5 – very helpful!

Mark lies down on the cement floor to try to cool down and have a sleep. Meanwhile I write in the diary then wander outside. I meet a young mother with a cute toddler so I go back to get my bag so I can give him a toy koala. Later two men turn up with Ebola testing lasers. This time we have to open our mouths very wide so they can point the laser at the back of our throats. A sign on the wall describes the symptoms of Ebola in pictures – fever, headache, red eyes, stomach cramps, vomiting, farting, etc

The Kilamanjaro finally pulls in at 4.30pm and the guy in the red shirt comes to get us. When he thinks I can’t hear, he asks Mark, ‘Is she your wife? I think maybe she is hard woman’ – ha ha. But even though we board at 4.30pm we don’t leave till 5.30pm – lots of shunting and loading on water and supplies. By the way, we’re now nine hours behind schedule.

Like our last train, it seems that we’ll have our own cabin and so will Maggie and Terry. A few minutes after pulling out of Nakombe, we stop at Tunduma Station which is on the Tanzanian side of the border. Here we have to fill in forms, hand in our passports and pay $50 each for visas.

It’s dark by the time we leave but there’s been lots to see at the station. Soon one of the train guys comes along to tell us that we’ll have to share with Maggie and Terry as more people have arrived. No problem really and we’re soon settled in.

We all have dinner together in the dining car which is much the same as the Mukabar. The new waitress isn’t much better and just leans on the table and stares at us like we already know what’s on the menu. She brings a dish and a jug of soapy water for everyone to wash their hands – I like this idea. Food is good – chicken, chips and a coleslaw looking thing. Drinks with our mates till 10.30pm then bed with a Triazapam each – sleep really well.

Thursday 2nd October, 2014        Tanzara train through Tanzania

I wake at six to use the toilet then jump back into bed till eight o’clock. Mark and I clean our teeth then wander down to the dining car with Maggie and Terry. Today breakfast consists of toast, an omelet and two tiny cold frankfurts with tea and coffee as usual.

We decide to have turns of using our compartment so Mark and I go first. We have a sort of wash with baby wipes but then Mark finds a tap with water coming out of it – luxury! We change into clean clothes then swap with Maggie and Terry.

Again today we love looking out the window as the train trundles along. Sometimes we don’t appear to be going any faster than walking pace as we slowly creep and crawl over the Southern Highlands but at other times we really hurtle along. There seems to be a lot of damaged railway wagons alongside the track, presumably the result of previous derailments and crashes.


Later we hang out in the first class car – sounds very grand but it’s just as seedy as the rest of the train including a few threadbare lounges with broken springs and stinking of body odour. This might be bearable but it’s full of men watching a very loud, very violent video so we head back to our bunks to read.

Maggie and Terry read books from their ipads while Mark and I have our usual paperbacks – a generation thing. We’ve brought our favourite page-turner murder mysteries – all good ones this trip – then dump each book when we’re finished for someone else to read.

One that I won’t dump, because I want to keep it, is Swahili For The Broken Hearted by Peter Moore – specially bought for this trip as it covers his journey from Cape Town to Cairo – he even catches this exact train! Also very appropriate as we’re heading for Zanzibar – very Swahili!!

The countryside has changed today from the brown barren landscape of last week to green hills and trees. We even pass through a number of tunnels but still stop at every station for an eternity. Here we enjoy hawkers selling their usual wares and Mark buys bananas and peanuts from a lady with a baby on her back.

Despite the change in vegetation, we still see the same mud huts, vegetable gardens and herds of pigs and goats. Children wield sticks to herd the family cows and always give a big wave – not much other excitement for them I imagine.

Lunch for Mark is beef and rice while I have chicken and rice – 4,000 TZS (Tanzanian Shillings). Sounds a lot but the exchange rate is !AUD to 1,500 TZS so it actually costs around $2.50. After lunch we upload photos onto our laptop in the bar – more blaring music and stinking hot. Miraculously on the way back to our compartment we pass a door where we can hear what sounds to be someone having a shower. We check it out later and can’t wait to get in. This is heaven after sweltering like pigs for the last two days.

Afterwards I chat to Eunice (Marjorie’s friend) who tells me that she’s heard that there’s been an accident near Dar and we might have to get off and go the rest of the way on buses. Oh God, what a nightmare! By this time the train, which was already very long, has almost doubled in length as we’ve picked up lots more carriages along the way. There are now hundreds of people and getting everyone on to buses would be chaos.

Okay, so now it’s mid-afternoon and according to the schedule we should be just about be pulling into Dar. We know we’re waaaay late but are still hoping that the derailment rumour is wrong and we’ll get there sometime tonight.

Maggie and Terry spend the rest of the afternoon in the bar so Mark and I have the compartment to ourselves. Buy more peanuts and bananas out the window and read and doze. Outside is very green with date palms, banana trees and even bamboo. Surely we must be getting close.

At six o’clock we still haven’t heard anything so we head for the bar which is now over-flowing with drunks and loud music. What a scream but could be a bit scary if someone got out of control so we move to the dining car with Maggie and Terry.

Maggie has a satellite phone which she needs to stick out the window and point to the stars. She sends a text to her Dad in New York to track where we are. Unbelievably he replies that we’re only half way from the border to the coast! We ask the waitress and she says ‘tomorrow morning’ but another guy says ‘no, tweleb o’clock’.

The only thing is to get pissed then have a good night’s sleep.

Friday 3rd October, 2014     Tanzara train through Tanzania to Dar Es Salaam then Ferry to Zanzibar

At 6am we’re all woken by a lady who wants our pillows and bedding. This is a good sign. No way to find out the update on the derailment so we all decide to just get dressed and pack ready to go. Mark and I clean our teeth then have another cold shower – heaven again.

At the next station one of the train staff tells us that we’ll have to change trains and pay an extra 18,000TZS each – ah, we don’t think so! Maggie then gets other news that the train swapping thing is an hour away and then it’s only another hour to Dar – whatever!

Anyway we don’t even leave this station till 8.30am but finally stop half an hour later where we can see the collapsed bridge ahead of us. This is not a good place to disembark. A narrow rocky path runs next to the rails with bushy banks running steeply downhill.

Because the land falls away so quickly, it’s a long drop from the train steps to the ground so we all help each other. The nice thing is that everyone is smiling despite struggling to carry all the shit we’ve all got with us – backpacks for us tourists and for the locals, sacks, chickens, bunches of bananas and bags of vegetables. Most ladies also seem to be carrying a baby on their back as well as balancing a sack of something on their head.

In single file we scramble down the hill where we come across the burnt-out derailed carriages at the foot of the ravine. Apparently they’d been carrying sulphur which caught alight as the train hit the bottom. Far into the distance we can see people, who’ve already passed the derailment, walking along the track towards what we hope is the waiting train. It’s an amazing sight!

We only walk about a hundred metres along the ravine before climbing back up the embankment. Going up takes much longer as everyone struggles with their load.

At last up on the tracks again we follow the rails towards the not-waiting train. From here we can see that a lot of people have set up camp trying to make some sort of shade out of anything they can find.

Of course, it’s about a hundred degrees by now with the sun at full blast. Mark thinks that a couple of low straggly bushes near us might make a good place to shelter if he spreads my sarong over the top but the land slopes away very steeply so it doesn’t work. Other people, though, like his idea and some are sitting under jackets in the long grass.

Mark finally breaks off a couple of long thin branches and strips them of leaves to use as props for the sarong. It works perfectly giving us both enough shade to hide from the sun while we squat on the rails. The Polish people now set up something similar but Maggie and Terry decide to walk back to sit under the bridge.

Later some of the male passengers are handing out cold drinks to people without water. Apparently they’ve been looting the train and a few of the train staff members are after them and a couple of minor fights break out. Luckily we have plenty of water with us for a change.

We sit here for two sweltering hours till we happily hear a ‘toot toot’ – the rescue train! It doesn’t give us much time to scramble off the tracks as we try to throw all our gear as well as Maggie and Terry’s stuff out of the way. I seriously almost get hit by the stairs that are jutting out from all the carriages. Mark drags me backwards but then I lose my balance on the embankment and start to slide down the hill on my belly. Mark grabs my hands and pulls me back up – only a few scratches but scary for a second.

Meanwhile one of Maggie’s bags had been dragged along under the train splitting it open to deposit all her undies along the track – how’s that for bad luck! We grab it all and stuff it back in so she doesn’t get embarrassed.

By now we think that she and Terry should be coming back from the bridge but we can’t see them at all. Everyone is madly throwing their gear onto the new train which could leave any minute for all we know. Mark climbs up into one of the carriages while I pass the bags up to him through an open window.

All along the tracks people are loading big bunches of bananas, live chickens and whatever else they’d been carrying on the earlier train. We still can’t see Maggie and Terry so we’ll just have to take their gear with us even if they get left behind. We can always wait for them at the station in Dar.

Finally Mark sees Terry in the distance with Maggie rushing right behind him. We wave madly out the window so they can find us. All good in the end because they’d actually walked all the way back to the old train to pinch cold water and soft drinks for the four of us.

In no time we’re all aboard and with a sudden jerk we’re off and on our way. The whole train is ‘third class only’ which we prefer for a short trip – hard-backed benches with open windows and a wide aisle. I love watching the locals, most of who are dozing after the tiring train-swapping experience.

The one hour trip is fun as we pass through Selous Game Reserve then the outskirts of the city. These outer areas look very tropical and we feel excited to be heading for the coast and Dar Es Salaam. This is Tanzania’s largest city and the country’s financial centre although it’s no longer the capital. For some reason, it lost its status as the official capital to Dodomo in 1973.

At Tanzara Station we fight our way onto the platform amongst the hundreds of other passengers disembarking. We lose Maggie and Terry but find them again outside. They plan to head straight to Zanzibar today but we’ve decided to stay here for a night and head over in the morning.

Strangely, there aren’t any taxis or tuktuks anywhere so we all walk out onto the busy road outside the station. This is chaos so we say goodbye to Maggie and Terry – we figure we’ll catch up with them in Zanzibar. Right now all we care about is escaping the heat to a hotel in the city centre. We eventually find a tuktuk to stop but the driver has never heard of Libya Street where we plan to stay and he speeds off.

Walking down to the corner where the traffic is even more hectic, we wave down another tuktuk guy to pull over and he nods that he knows where it is. Of course he doesn’t and stops three times to ask directions. Mark has already worked out where we need to go from our map and tries to tell him but our clueless driver just keeps going around in circles.

But finally we arrive in the Arab quarter and it looks amazing! This old area has been influenced by both sultans and Europeans which means a great atmosphere of chaotic markets and historic buildings.

The streets are narrow with local life being played out on the footpaths and open shop doorways. The hotel we’ve chosen from the Lonely Planet has been recently pulled down so we ask directions to the Safari Hotel. This is along a winding alleyway with a daggy, but interesting, Arabic foyer. The guys behind the desk are eager to please and $35 for a double room isn’t bad.

While Mark books in, I check out the lounge area behind the foyer. A very hairy-faced man in white robes is watching the Haj on the television – looks super-boring but he’s definitely engrossed. Dragging our bags up two flights, our room looks okay so I unpack while Mark strips off for a shower. It’s been four days since we’ve been really clean so he can’t wait.

At the same time I try to set up the camera charger and realise that we don’t have power. I race back downstairs to tell the manager. ‘Sorry, no power’, he smiles. Okay, so can we change rooms? ‘Sorry all rooms no power”. What the fuck?!

Back upstairs to pack and check out. The manager looks quite hurt that we’re leaving – does he really expect us to stay? – ha ha. We’ve decided that we might just have time to catch the last ferry to Zanzibar and tell our taxi driver to ‘step on it!’. The ferries leave from the old port area on Sokoine Drive just across the road from St Joseph’s Cathedral.

Not surprisingly, the ferry area is chaos and plagued with touts who bang on our taxi roof and swarm around us so we can barely push our way out the doors. By now we still haven’t had a shower and feel extra hot and sweaty and we’ve both got headaches. We shoo the touts away because we’ve read that we should only buy tickets directly from the ferry companies in the tall building with shiny blue windows.

Inside we find our Polish friends who are also trying to get to Zanzibar today – no sign of Maggie and Terry though. Apparently all the tickets have been sold but we can put our names on a stand-by list. If we miss this ferry we’ll have to wait until 7am tomorrow morning. This means finding another hotel here in Dar Es Salaam and we’re just not up for it.

Soon a young woman approaches handing us our tickets ($40 each) but our Polish mates have missed out. We feel a bit guilty because they were here before us but only two spare tickets are available and they need four. They’re disappointed but are sweet about it – we like them a lot.

But now we need to make a dash for the boat. Down by the water there is more chaos as we join a mass of desperate people funneling into a narrow doorway leading to the immigration area. No politeness here as everyone pushes and shoves while young men scramble a barrier to get to the front. Not sure what all the madness is all about because we doubt the boat will leave without half its passengers.

Can’t see Maggie and Terry at all and, in fact, we seem to be the only westerners here. At last inside, our bags are scanned and we board the Azam Marine Ferry.

We’ve bought First Class tickets which means that we sit in a large air-conditioned cabin at the top of the boat with big comfy seats and a television. A guy in uniform stands at the door to tell the inevitable gate-crashers to bugger off. At first we’re separated but then the kind man next to me says he’ll swap so Mark and I can sit together.

For entertainment, a Charlie Chaplin movie is playing on the tv at the front. Neither of us has ever seen a silent movie let alone a Charlie Chaplin one. It’s surprisingly good and really funny.

The side walls of the cabin are full length glass so we watch Dar Es Salaam slip by as we make our way up the coast before crossing the waters of the Indian Ocean to the Zanzibar Archipelago. The Archipelago is actually made up of three main islands (Unguja, Pemba and Mafia), plus a few smaller ones. Unguja is the biggest and is what most people talk about when they refer to Zanzibar. The capital of Unguja is Zanzibar City and the most well-known section of Zanzibar City is called Stone Town. So now we all know.

About 5.30pm we approach Unguja and here is Stone Town picturesquely spread out along the shoreline – no surprise that it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And it’s looking all gorgeous and mystical in the soft golden glow of late afternoon – exactly how we’d hoped! It’s an exotic mix of Arabic, Portuguese and British architecture and, in front, traditional dhows sailing lazily past with their iconic lateen-shaped sails.

But now at Malindi Port it’s time to disembark. I’m swept along with the crowds to be deposited on the wharf while Mark has to fight his way through a crazy mob to retrieve our backpacks under the mountain of luggage.

We know that shortly after independence in 1964, Tanganika and Zanzibar merged to form the nation of Tanzania. So it doesn’t seem to make sense that on our arrival in Zanzibar we foreigners need to show our passports and complete immigration cards, even though we did the whole border crossing thing when we entered Tanzania on the train from Zambia. No-one seems to know the reason why but at least there aren’t any fees and no need for a new visa.

Next a temperature laser is beamed on our foreheads to test for Ebola then we try to pass through customs with the usual pushers-in – not just men, everyone – seems to be the thing to do here.

Outside is more commotion so we make our way out onto the narrow road in front of the beautiful Old Dispensary. We quickly find a taxi and ask our driver to take us somewhere cheap but in the centre of Stone Town. He drives along the water’s edge and past the impressive Old Fort. Through the Portuguese Arch we veer away from the harbour to pull up at Mazsons Hotel, apparently once the home of Sheik Abdallah and one of the oldest buildings in Stone Town. In front is a peaceful garden complete with a fountain, an ornamental pond and date palms. Even better is the backdrop of a two storey Portuguese house complete with faded wooden shutters – oh, yes!

Inside we find an elaborate polished wood paneled foyer and think ‘we can’t afford this”. But Mark manages to bargain the guy down to $85 which is a lot more than we usually pay but we’re happy to have a bit of luxury after three nights on the train.

Our room is on the top (third) floor and we’re very impressed. Our window looks out onto a small square and we have a huge bed, air-con, a television, a day bed and our own bathroom.

Of course, having a hot shower is at the top of our list then we quickly change and head back outside to explore. There seems to be lots of places to eat and drink and we know we’re going to love this town.

Our first stop is Fodorhani Gardens just across from the Fort and right on the waterfront. Each evening street vendors set up their stalls, selling seafood and meat kebabs, samosas, fruit, grilled maize, Zanzibar pizzas and sugar cane juice.

Apparently it’s always packed with tourists and locals and tonight is no different. It’s an interesting place but seems a bit of a tourist trap – the seafood is overly expensive and the vendors are sleazy to say the least – ‘you will be supporting the children’ – liars!

We really can’t be bothered with this bullshit so we set off to find Mercury’s Bar named after Freddy Mercury of Queen fame. And besides that, we really, really want a drink!

Mercury’s is only a five minute walk along from the Old Fort, past the Sultan’s Palace and just after the Big Tree, on the ocean side of the road. The night is beautiful – warm and calm and we couldn’t be happier.

Inside Mercury’s, Queen music is playing and the bar walls are decorated with posters of Freddy. The menu tells us that Freddy Mercury was born here in Stone Town as Farookh Bulsara in 1946. Although he spent most of his childhood in boarding schools in India, Zanzibar is definitely claiming him all for herself.

Neither of us have ever been a huge Queen fan but Mark does occasionally like to launch into the operatic part of Bohemian Rhapsody. We sit on decking above the beach to catch the cool sea-breeze and to watch the dhows sail past – a great setting. We share a seafood pizza and a calamari salad and get stuck into beers and Bacardi.

An early night after a tiring but wonderful day. Can’t believe that this morning we were still on the train – so much has happened!

Saturday 4th October, 2014      Zanzibar

It’s 5.30am in Zanzibar. We’re woken to the sound of the call-to-prayer from the nearby mosque then fall back asleep till six to the patter of rain on the roof. Normally this would worry us but after being on the move for the last week, it’s a good excuse to lie in.

At 7.30am we’re up showering and Mark is washing our clothes, absolutely filthy after the train trip. Later on the roof we find the dining room where breakfast is part of the cost of our room. With only one other person eating, there’s more staff that guests – maybe we’re early.

Four beaming staff members wearing crisp white uniforms all stand to attention behind a long buffet table. We feel obliged to put things on our plates even though we don’t really want them. The guy on egg duty is thrilled when we ask for a Spanish omelet each. We also manage toast, cereal, watermelon, tea and coffee – we leave the pastries behind. It’s all very innocently cute.

And funnily, a television in the corner is showing an endless line of bearded, robed Arabs lining up to kiss the hand of a very old, bearded, robed Arab – don’t think we’ll be watching that in our room.

The good news is that from the balcony we can see that the clouds are breaking up with patches of blue peeping through. From here we look out over the rooftops and church spires to the sea. It looks wonderful and we can’t wait to get out there.

Our plan is to wander around to get our bearings and decide what to do depending on the weather. Back to our room, we ring Lauren at Bluey’s – she hates it as usual – then upload our recent photos onto Facebook and find gorgeous pictures of our dollies that Lauren has put up. Oh, how we miss our three girls!

But now we do what everyone else does in Stone Town – get completely lost in the maze of narrow alleyways.

Zanzibar is often described as a cultural melting pot because of all the different peoples who’ve settled here over the centuries. In one way or another they’ve all left their mark on the island – architecture, customs, food, beliefs, religion and on the people themselves. And Stone Town is where it all comes together. We wander through dark winding alleys, some lined with souvenir shops, cafes, coffee shops and other smelling of the spices the island is famous for.

Because Zanzibar is predominately Muslim, we women need to keep our knees and shoulders covered – no problem for me because I always wear long skirts or trousers anyway. Showing my legs is something I thought was a good idea to leave behind years ago.

Everywhere we walk, people call out ‘jambo’ (hello) and ‘karibu Zanzibar’. Most men wear long white robes and kufi caps – round brimless hats with a flat crown. A few wear western t-shirts and long pants but the most interesting are the Rastas with their long dreadlocks wrapped up in knitted caps in the typical Rastafarian colours of red, green and gold.

The women all wear full length, colourful kangas, Zanzibar’s traditional garment. It’s basically a long piece of material looped over the head and wrapped around their waist. Some wear the hijab, a black veil that covers the head and chest, and some even wear a niqab which is an extra bit that covers the face as well.

Of course, this all makes for brilliant photo opportunities and we take heaps of video footage as well. Down by the water we buy ice-creams and mingle with the locals in Fodorhani Gardens.

With a local map, Mark now works out how to find the Emerson Spice Hotel. I accidentally came across a photo of this place when I was searching through travellers’ blogs about Zanzibar and it looks amazing. Famous people have stayed here, like Matt Damon and Juliet Binoche, and it’s described as ‘a feast of the senses’ for people who don’t care about useless shit like minibars and televisions. I doubt we’ll be able to afford it but I just want to have a look anyway.

Zigzagging through the passageways behind the Fort, we eventually find it tucked away in a small square and looking like something out of The Arabian Nights.

The hotel was originally an old merchant’s house and once home to the last Swahili ruler of Zanzibar. But now it’s been beautifully restored by an American man called Emerson Skeens who’s lived here in Zanzibar for over twenty years.

It literally takes my breath away – built in the Swahili Arab style, it has soft, washed-out mauve/blue walls, ornately carved wooden balconies, hanging lanterns, arched windows with louvred shutters, studded Zanzibar doors, potted palms and even a handsome robed doorman standing on the steps.

In the courtyard in front, two men in kufi caps are selling vegetables on the ground and a veiled woman walks past. It’s like a film set for an old Arabian movie!

I can’t wait to see inside to check out the foyer. No disappointment here – I feel like we’ve been transported back in time to the days when Sultans ruled the island.

An English man at the desk introduces himself as Russell and is happy to show us around. We follow him up bare wooden staircases from room to room all built around a central atrium with a mosaic tile fountain at the bottom.

Russell tells us that Emerson, who sadly died in June this year, had been a film and camera fanatic, so the building and the rooms are like stage sets. Each one is completely individual, inspired by movies, books and operas but all have the same fantasy feel of exotic Africa.

No two rooms have the same interior design, either, unlike the generic five star hotels that all look exactly the fucking same no matter what country you’re in. The Kate Room has a bathroom with two huge stone baths while the Aida Suite has a lounge area, bathroom, bedroom and another room upstairs.

What all the rooms do have in common are lush fabrics, intricate latticework, vine covered balconies with open-air showers and stone baths, richly painted walls and gorgeous four-poster Swahili beds. I take lots of photos so I can drool over them later.

Back downstairs we ask Russell about the best place to go for a beach break. He recommends Pongwe on the east coast or Nungwi on the northern tip. He also tells us that while the rooms cost between $200 and $250 a night, if we turn up on Tuesday when we get back to Stone Town we can have one for only $150. Mark says we can’t pass this up – a lot more than we’ve ever paid but this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Really excited now and even happier when Russell takes us up to the open-sided roof-top restaurant.

Moe latticework up here around the roof which is lined with silk hangings and furnished with rattan chairs and wooden tables. And here is Stone Town spread out below us. We have three sixty degree views of this mystical old city and the blue waters of the Indian Ocean beyond. It’s still only eleven o’clock so we easily find a table for lunch.

Our waiter is a jolly, very black-skinned man wearing the usual white robes and kufi cap. The menu is amazing – mostly seafood and all of it looks good. Drinks first because we’re so hot – lemon sodas, iced tea and chilled hibiscus tea – then lunch of lobster salad for Mark and salt and pepper squid for me. It’s all cooked in the tiny open-air kitchen in one corner.

The food is perfect and colourfully presented on bright blue plates – very ‘tropical island’. Not like me to rave about food and I even take photos. This place has absolutely nailed it all!

On a real high now, we decide to check out some of the historic buildings and head straight for Beit El-Ajaib opposite the Fodorhani Gardens. You can’t miss it – it’s the biggest building in Stone Town.

Like most of the old buildings here it was once a sultan’s palace. Incredibly, the sultan kept wild animals chained up for display on the front lawn and had the main door made wide enough so that he could ride an elephant through it!

Not quite so outrageous today after being converted to a museum but, with a dhow in the central courtyard, it’s still very impressive. Beit El-Ajaib is also locally known as the House of Wonders for an unusual reason – Zanzibar actually had electric lighting before London and was also the first building in East Africa to have an elevator!

Outside sit a couple of old Portuguese canons used during the Anglo-Zanzibar War in 1896. And, did you know that this was the shortest war in history – only lasted two days! It was actually a question we had at trivia a few months ago – Mark was naturally the only one who knew the answer.

Nearby we visit the Sultan’s Palace, Beit El-Sahel, which today is another museum, this one dedicated to the Zanzibar royal family. The furnishings are all still here – like a time capsule. We see the biggest crystal chandeliers in the world (maybe), stained glass, Persian rugs, Zanzibar beds and antique furniture. The rooms are huge but still seem very homey. The wide verandah on the top floor looks out over the water – like a painting. We like this place.

From here we keep walking towards the port where the ferries come in. We pass the ‘Big Tree’, a massive, old landmark fig right next to the Old Dispensary. It’s a popular meeting place for locals and where tour guides wait to pounce on tourists getting off the boats. We ‘promise’ one nice man that he can take us out to an island tomorrow but I think we’re going to head for the beach instead so I hope he doesn’t wait for us.

But right now we want to visit the Old Dispensary – a grand, four storey building with decorative balconies painted white and a soft pale green. This is the first building you see as you leave the ferry and it couldn’t be more perfect – it just screams ‘Zanzibar’! It’s said to be one of the most finely decorated buildings in Stone Town, with large carved wooden balconies, stained glass windows, and neo-classical stucco adornments (guide book info meaning ‘really fancy’).

Originally intended to be a hospital for the poor, the owner died while it was still being built and his widow didn’t have the money to finish it. Later in colonial time it was sold off and the new owner decided to use the ground floor as a dispensary with the upper floors turned into apartments. It fell into disrepair in the 1970’s but thankfully restored about twenty years ago.

Inside we climb the carved, walnut staircase to the middle floor then sit on the balcony overlooking the waterfront. Two musicians wearing white robes and red kufi caps are playing traditional instruments and try to teach us a few words in Swahili. They tell that when we enter a house or shop, someone will say ‘karibu’ (welcome) and we should answer ‘ahsante’ (thank you). We give them a good tip.

Meanwhile we order lime sodas and capirinhas and watch all the action in the street below and across at the port – touts, hawkers, cars blowing horns and lots of containers being unloaded. This is the perfect end to our cultural activities for the day.

Now we return to the labyrinth of the old city looking for Mrembo, a traditional spa that I’ve read about on the net somewhere. With his good map reading skills, Mark finds it easily and I’m in love again. It looks very unpretentious, tucked in amongst tiny souvenir shops, cafes and local businesses.

Very old thick stone walls washed in a pale green with a gold coloured stone floor keep it cool as well as creating a very Arabic atmosphere. Mrembo is apparently big on natural ingredients so that only locally grown flowers, herbs and spice make up all the ingredients used in their treatments.

Inside we’re greeted by a pretty Swahili lady wearing all-white except for a baby pink wrap on the head. She asks us to sit in one of the adjacent rooms decorated with antiques, old lamps and a wooden screen. Mark decides to head back to the hotel but I book in for a half hour back massage – $25.

I’m shown to a very dark cubby-hole sized section divided off with a white carved screen. A fat lady wearing dark glasses (what’s that all about?) gives me a wonderful oil massage while traditional music is playing with the mysterious smell of Udi incense wafting around me.

I’m soooo happy but now I have to find my way back to the hotel. I set off in the right general direction and just when I think I’m lost, I actually pop out from an alleyway directly opposite Mazsons. Now we have time for showers and for me to give myself a manicure and a pedicure while we watch Sex and The City on television.

Just on sunset we set out to experience the town at night which translates to ‘finding a bar’. Leaving the hotel, we turn right for a change and come across the water on the opposite side of the promontory. It’s so nice here – very quiet and a lot cooler in the calm evening air. We wander through the foyers restaurants of gorgeous Arabic-style hotels occupying once derelict Portuguese buildings. Some are over $350 a night so we won’t be booking in. Through a pointed Islamic doorway we see a dhow out on the water with a backdrop of a pink twilight. If it sounds idyllic, well it is!

There are so many fantastic hotels around here, big and small and all with stacks of atmosphere. Darkness creates a secretive feel as we meander through the tiny streets, although we never feel nervous – maybe being a bit naïve. In no time we end up back around near Fodorhani Gardens but we head for Livingstone’s instead.

This is housed in the old British Consulate building and still has the original, wide sweeping staircase in the bar. Outside we kick off our shoes to sit at a table and chairs on the sand while we order ‘happy hour’ cocktails. This finishes in ten minutes so we order two each – margaritas for me and caipirinhas for Mark. This laid back atmosphere is what we love about travel in these exotic countries – just picture candlelit tables under trees decorated with coloured string lights, feet in the sand, good music and a stone’s throw from the water

But we can’t stay long as we’re hoping to catch a dance show at The Fort. Luckily this is only a five minute walk and next to the House of Wonders. The Fort was originally built by the Omani people to defend against the Portuguese but now it just contains a few sad little curio shops, a basic restaurant and a small amphitheatre used for performances and festivals. At the entrance we pay the small price of $10 for the show and a drink each.

We’re happy to find that the whole thing is very amateurish and doesn’t seem to be an over-priced tourist trap at all which we thought might be the case. We’re the only people here except for a few local families and a couple of German girls who we chat with before dinner. One of them has been teaching in Zanzibar for a year so she knows her way around. We ask them about the best beach place we should head for tomorrow.

The food is good. We share a seafood salad and Food de Mare pizza and order more drinks from the waitress who reeks of body odour – feel sorry for the poor little thing. The show begins with one guy playing hand-made drums while another guy sits on the ground hitting a long tin instrument. Then two ladies and two men dance while another man plays a strange, long trumpet thing. One pretty woman pulls me up to dance – fun except that I must look an idiot next to the very rhythmic Swahili ladies.

Later we walk back to Stone Town Café near our hotel. The waitress is wearing a veil so we should have realized that this is a ‘no alcohol’ place but we just order a couple of diet cokes that we sneakily top up with my Bacardi. Another hotel nearby looks amazing with an indoor swimming pool in the foyer but they don’t sell alcohol either – ‘goodbye!’

But we’re in luck with our next choice. This is the very popular Africa House Hotel in a lovely one hundred and fifty year old building. We stroll around the entry and some of the lounge areas set up with floor cushions and shishas – very Arabic! A wide deck looks out over the sea which is just a black blob at this time of night but we’ll definitely be back to watch one of Zanzibar’s glorious sunsets. Reggae music is playing and Mark dances with the bar staff. I think it’s time for him ‘to go home now!’

Sunday 5th October, 2014      Zanzibar

As usual we’re woken by the pre-dawn call of meuzzins echoing from loudspeakers in every direction. There are over fifty mosques in this small area of the island so there’s no way we could sleep through the call-to-prayer. Breakfast upstairs is the same ritual as yesterday then we pack our bags in preparation for heading to the opposite side of the island.

A taxi driver called Georgie is washing his car outside the hotel entrance and says he can take us to Pongwe for $45 – expensive but he says that the roads are very rough so it takes a long time. There isn’t any type of government-owned public transport on Zanzibar so, besides taxis, the only other option is one of the privately owned daladalas. These ramshackle trucks are a bit like the songthaews in Thailand so there’s no real timetable – when they’re full, you go!

But then we find out that today is a special holiday in Zanzibar and that everyone will be moving around the island or heading for Stone   Town. This means that getting a daladala will be almost impossible so we decide to take a taxi to Nungwi at the top of the island which will be a bit cheaper at just $30.

But typically this isn’t just a matter of jumping in and off we go. The Zanzibar police require that our taxi driver must pay a permit that has to be shown at various checkpoints along the way. We can’t seem to find out why and Mark thinks that the drivers don’t even know themselves. Probably just another corrupt money-making scheme dreamed up by the police that we’ve seen in lots of other third world countries.

So from Mazsons we bump along rutted backstreets to Georgie’s office. This is a tiny, grubby place with two old chairs and chickens scratching around the door. It looks like it might be a good day to head off to the beach because most businesses will be closed anyway because of the public holiday.

Georgie explains that this is called Eid-al-Adha which, after the famous Haj (the pilgrimage to Mecca), is the second most important celebration for Muslims. He says that it will be four joyful days when everybody is out and about celebrating. In Stone Town partying will take place in lots of open area with all the villages turning into festival venues.

While we wait for the permit, we watch as women and children move from house to house visiting friends and relatives. Everyone is wearing their best clothes – girls in bright veils and boys in long white or cream robes and kufi caps. The little ones look so cute!

After an hour we’re ready to go and we have a new van and a new driver called Bashiri. Past the Darajani Market on the edge of Stone Town, we drive through Zanzibar Town and out into the green countryside.

The road hugs the coastline so we pass through lots of small fishing villages and the island’s largest fish market. Ducks, chickens, goats and cows – it’s a nice drive except that the rain has started and the wind has picked up as well. Everyone seems to be heading to a village festival or waiting for daladalas on the side of the road.

After an hour and several police checkpoints we pull into the very uninspiring Nungwi. This was traditionally the centre of Zanzibar’s dhow-building industry, but now it’s just a ramshackle fishing village that’s been sidelined by guesthouses, bars, shops, restaurants and backpackers.

Unlike villages on most tropical islands, this is dry and barren with rocks everywhere – looks like a building site except that nothing seems to have been repaired here for years. I take an instant dislike to the whole place except that the weather has improved – sunny and no wind on this northern tip of the island.

Bashiri drops us off at the end of a laneway near the beach where we hope to find some cheap accommodation. We decide to have lunch first on the wide verandah at Mumma Mia – carbonara and penne tomato – overlooking the sand.

While Mark mind our packs I wander off in search of a room. Right next door I like the look of Barrack Bungalows so we check in. Fifty dollars is pretty good for our own air-conditioned bedroom with Zanzibar beds and a hot-water bathroom. Our bungalow has a tall thatched roof and sits in a pretty garden overhung with coconut palms.

After settling in we wander up the beach where I buy necklaces and woven cups from Marie, a friendly young woman with a cute, four year old daughter – oh Abi, we want you little baby!

So okay, the sun is shining, the sand is white, the water is turquoise, thatched restaurants and bars line the water’s edge and I’m still not getting it – the vibe just isn’t happening for me – a nutcase, for sure!

Later we sleep and read then walk along the sand to the Copacabana for sunset drinks. The wifi isn’t working so we move back up to Barrack Restaurant where we sit at a table on the sand. But just after ordering prawns and tuna, I feel terrible on the stomach and deadly tired. I can’t eat a thing and rush back to our room to be sick while Mark has to eat it all.

Monday 6th October, 2014      Zanzibar

It’s raining! I want to get out of here today but Mark wants to stay. At Mumma Mia for breakfast we have toast with scrambled eggs, fruit, juice, tea and coffee – very ordinary! The only really good thing about Mummas is the fast wifi so we upload photos and talk to Lauren.

Then because I don’t want to be here, I take refuge in our bungalow and sleep till noon while Mark goes exploring. Coming back, he tells me to stop sulking and drags me out of bed. The rain has gone and I know he’s right anyway so we set off towards the point to have lunch at an interesting café built out over the water. It’s busy with good people-watching and good food – a seafood pizza and a Zanzibar dish to share.

Further on we meet Michael, a very tall thin young man who wants to show us his shop. We need to start buying a few gifts for home anyway so we follow him up a short, sandy laneway. He’s very happy when we spend $105 on necklaces, masks, wooden animals for the dollies, an elephant for Jack’s collection and earrings.

On the way back, Mark has a massage supposedly for $20 an hour but it’s all over in forty minutes. Meanwhile I’m back in the room reading – very lazy.

On sunset we head off for dinner and drinks. I like the look of Mang’s Bar and Restaurant – a basic place with a low thatched roof just near Michael’s shop. We really like the atmosphere with lots of interesting westerners and good music playing. The slow, steady rhythm of reggae seems to beat continuously around here and of course Bob Marley is king.

Across the wall behind the bar is a hand-painted sign reading the ubiquitous ‘Hakuna Matata’ whish we hear everywhere on the island. It literally means ‘don’t worry, be happy’ – a good philosophy that I promise to take on board just as soon as we get back to Stone Town – ha ha.

The food here is excellent as well – chicken, chips and salad for me and beef with rice for Mark. A group of Masai walk past all dressed in traditional colourful sheets and carrying long sticks – very impressive.

After waaaay to many drinks we head back towards our place but stop at another beach bar and chat with the barman – no-one else here. A trapeze thing is attached to the vaulted roof and he swings as we talk. Later two Masai men stop for a chat then it’s off to bed – a much better night.

Tuesday 7th October, 2014     Zanzibar

Up at 7.30am for a shower together then a walk along the beach before we leave. Outriggers and dhows are bobbing in the shallows and a few are being repaired on the sand. Three ladies wearing colourful kangas with scarves wrapped around their heads are each carrying a bucket and a spear. They wade out up to their thighs looking into the water for fish. I try to be friendly and take photos but they give me filthy looks and shoo me away. Yes, I hate it here.

Further along past a herd of cows on the sand we meet our Polish friends sunbaking right on the water’s edge. They’re going home tomorrow and if I were them I’d be spending it in Stone Town and not in this shit hole. But I suppose if you come from Poland you’d probably think this place is paradise. Go to Thailand!!

Back at Barraka we have breakfast – pineapple juice, watermelon, banana and pineapple with tea and coffee – on the sand because the kitchen has been demolished since yesterday. We arrange for transport back to Stone Town and we’re on our way by 9.15am.

The van’s windows are tinted so I ‘can’t see a fucking thing’ as Mum used to say when her eyesight was failing – ha, ha, she was so naughty! Okay so now I’m getting pissed off even more because I can’t take photos or video. Mark tells me to chill out – o-kaaaaay!!

On the outskirts of Zanzibar town we stop at a bank to withdraw more Tanzanian Shillings then ask to be dropped off at the Darajani Market. Like most central markets, its bustling with people selling everything you’d expect from an East Africa market – food (bread, meat, fish, spice, fruit and vegetables), clothing (kufi hats, shoes and kangas) plus the inevitable spices.

I’m soooo happy to be back here especially when we once again thread our way into the exotic labyrinth of the old city. We’re heading straight for the Emerson Spice and here it is, right in the heart of Stone Town, surrounded by the hubbub of local life and the comings and goings of the neighbouring mosque.

Russell is at a meeting but we tell the man on the desk about Russell’s offer. Luckily he’s okay with it so we follow him up four flights of stairs to the lavish Turandot Room. This is decorated in red and gold with a dark polished floor and a stone bath in the corner. A modern toilet is hidden in a small curved room with a carved wooden door. Moroccan stained glass and brass lights hang from the high ceiling and a Swahili four-poster bed is draped in a white mosquito net trimmed with gold satin. Everything reflects the opulence of what this place once was and the luxury of the lives the people led here. We’ll just pretend for a day.

And, by the way, this isn’t a reproduction, all the furniture and lights are antiques collected by Emerson from the island itself. Another great thing about the hotel is that while everything looks other-worldly, all the room are equipped with an air-conditioner, fan, great wifi and hot water – all you get in a five-star hotel except for a television which we don’t want anyway.

But what we love most about our room is the balcony. Palms and climbing plants keep it totally private as well as having a sort of carved wooden pergola complete with swing. In the corner is an outdoor shower and cement tub hand painted with flowers – we jump straight in to cool down and just to get it there anyway.

And because our room is on the third floor we have a good view of Stone Town rooftops as well as the verandahs of surrounding buildings. We’re so close that we can hear children plying and watch women squatting on the floor either cooking or washing.

Back outside we set off to look for lunch. On the way we buy a few more gifts then come across the Emerson on Hurumzi, the second and more recent hotel restored by Emerson Skeens. This is just as exotic as the Emerson Spice but more of an understated elegance – white stuccoed walls, dark polished wooden ceilings and beams, chandeliers, a black and white chequered marble floor and antique lounges covered in maroon velvet.

The friendly man at the desk takes us up a wide polished wooden staircase to the restaurant on the roof. Each level is more intriguing than the last with the top level opening into a watermelon-pink foyer sparsely decorated with antique side-tables and potted palms – I can’t believe we’re seeing this!

From here we climb a steep ladder-like staircase to the roof. I’ve read that this Tower Top Restaurant is supposed to be one of the most romantic restaurants in the world! Not sure about that but it does look brilliant!

And because Emerson on Hurumzi is the second tallest building in Stone Town, the restaurant has even better views than the Emerson Spice. From up here we can see not only the minarets of the many mosques but also Hindu temples, Christian cathedrals and churches all sitting side by side. It shows the eclectic mix of faiths that have blossomed In Stone Town because of the tolerant Swahili attitude.

With only a couple of tables and chairs, most of the area is covered in Persian rugs with floor cushions and low carved tables. The roof has the same silk tent ceiling and the kitchen is behind a low screen – can’t believe they manage to cook in this tiniest of spaces.

We sit on the floor near a funny English family – the mother has the best giggle – I love Pommies! I want to laugh at everything she says. The waiter demonstrates how to fold the napkins into funny shapes and we all have a go.

Soon our Arab host dressed in a cream robe kneels in front of us to explain the menu – all very upmarket but cheap. After lime sodas, I have a calamari salad while Mark has a tuna and beetroot salad followed by two traditional Zanzibar desserts – very sweet with honey and cardamon.

While we’re eating our desserts, our host comes over again for a chat. He explains the history of the building which was built by the British. They built it this high so they could keep an eye out for baddies on the harbour then, after freeing the slaves, the Arabs moved in – the reason why we sit on the floor.

Later we weave our way through the narrow alleyways packed with street vendors and buildings, grey and weathered, all huddled together. Different areas reveal different cultures – Shanghai’s fancy mansions, Kiponda’s old gold markets, Vuga’s European villas and the palatial towers of the sultans. The residents of historical Stone Town must have lived a life of luxury that we can only dream about.

Every building is part of Zanzibar’s colourful history – slavery, colonial rule, royalty and the spice trade. Even the famous Zanzibar doors tell the history of the house inside. When a house was built here, the door was traditionally the first part to be erected. The greater the wealth and social position of the owner, the larger and more elaborately carved his front door. I take photos of Arab and Indian doors to post in a blog on my Spice website when I get home.

Back to the Emerson Spice for another outdoor shower, a ‘snuggle’ and a read under the ceiling fan. We actually sleep till five o’clock then head for the water.

Because the Eid-al-Adha celebration is still happening, there are literally thousands of people at the Forodhani Gardens. Women and children are sitting in family groups on blankets and the playground is packed – so cute seeing tiny veiled girls lining up for rides. Kerosene lamps light up the food stalls and we say ‘sorry, already eaten’ about a hundred times. On the harbour wall, young boys do acrobatic dives into the water with crowds cheering them on.

Later we wander up to the old Post Office which has been converted into a series of trendy restaurants. A wide verandah runs the length of the top floor so we choose a table overlooking the cobbled laneway to watch all the action while we eat. We’ve chosen a tapas bar with fabulous food once again – meatballs, octopus, meat skewers, fried cheese and bread with balsamic vinegar. Drinking beer and Bacardi, we love this place.

We walk home along the water where there are even more people than before. Back at the Emerson Spice, I head for bed while Mark has a few more beers on the roof.

Stone Town is awesome!!

Wednesday 8th October, 2014     Zanzibar

Our last full day in Zanzibar. We want to make the most of it so we’re up at seven to shower (outside, of course) and pack, ready to change hotels. We want to find somewhere cheaper for our last night.

Breakfast is on the roof at eight o’clock with blue skies all around us. An interesting bunch of guests make for good people-watching and the food is predictably top quality once again – a fresh fruit platter each, mango and pineapple juices then eggs, tomato, eggplant and onion with toast and tea. The temperature is warming up already so we’re prepared for another hot day.

Downstairs we ask the man on the desk if he could recommend a cheap hotel nearby. A Swedish lady wearing a long kaftan seems to work here as well and offers us a room at Emerson on Hurumzi for $100!! Of course we’re ecstatic and jump at the chance. (More about the Swedish lady later because I already have a girl crush).

We head straight there so we don’t miss out. Here is the same guy on the desk that we met this morning. He calls to a handsome man in a white robe to show us a few rooms. Again, each one is distinct and the furnishings are all antiques. Add to this large stone baths and open air verandahs with views across the city, old Zanzibar beds, glass chandeliers and hand-painted window panes – you get the picture.

They’re all amazing but we choose the Rose Room for its gorgeous rose pink colour and the sun flowing in through the open windows which overlook the lively Peace of Love Square. Hyped up again, we set off towards the market to look for the Anglican Church.

Because the laneways are so narrow we can’t see past the overhanging rooftops. So at times we see the church spire through a crack in the buildings but then when we seem to reach where we just came from – it’s the weirdest thing.

Also strangely, the skies have suddenly opened up and we’re caught in a terrific downpour. We’re both drenched in seconds and the cobbled alleyways are already flooding. We visit a couple of gold and silver shops mainly to escape the rain but I’d also like to buy some silver jewellery. Bad luck, there isn’t anything I like but I’m not bothered in the least.

This area of Stone Town is just as amazing as the rest with endless photo opportunities, as they say – weathered but beautiful buildings with flowering vines trailing down from upper floor balconies, coconut palms surrounding an old well still in use and a man carrying long lengths of sugarcane on his shoulder.

Eventually we stumble across St Monica’s Convent and the Anglican Church next door. The convert is a colonial beauty, painted a brilliant white with Arabic archways along the balconies on both floors. The tropical gardens in front are shaded with date palms and coconut trees and the path from the stone fence is lined with clipped hedges – love that colonial/tropical mix.

Next door at the entrance to the church we shelter from the rain, which is still coming down in buckets, with other tourists on a verandah near the ticket office. Beneath here is where the slaves were kept before being shipped off to other parts of the world.

Zanzibar was at the forefront of the slave trade during its peak in the 19th century when men, women and children were captured on the mainland, then brought here to be auctioned at the slave market outside. We pay $5 each then an old man takes us down stone stairwells to the dungeons below. These are incredibly small considering how many poor people they jammed in here. There’s only a small opening at one end for fresh air so that lots of them died before they were even sold.

Upstairs our guide shows us a painting of Reverend Spears, a British man who was responsible for freeing the slaves here in Zanzibar. He also built St Monica’s and the church on top of the slave chambers. Inside the church we have a quick tour then visit the slave memorial outside – a sad place.

Weaving our way back through the laneways, now ankle deep in water, we check out of the Emerson Spice and check in to the Emerson on Hurumzi. The sun is out again and pours in through our three arched windows. The room is huge with a four-poster bed draped in sheer white curtains, antique bedside tables, a lounge and chairs upholstered in green velvet, a black and white marble floor and a mirrored wash stand. But this is just one of our rooms – we also have another bedroom and a bathroom! And as finishing touches, our bed is sprinkled with red rose petals and there’s a bunch of fresh flowers on a table in front of the lounge.

The room also opens up onto a private courtyard packed with tropical plants and vines growing up a latticed trellis. The hotel seems to have lots of these secret little nooks and crannies everywhere. Unbelievable that we’re only paying $100 for all this gorgeousness!

After a quick unpack, we check out the nearby Hindu temple then spend ages buying gifts for home from a nice Indian couple. From here we wander down towards the water and settle in for lunch at the interesting Tempo Hotel. This is just another of the many fabulous hotels right on the beachfront. We have yet another perfect seafood meal – lobster bisque, calamari salad, shrimp salad, hot chips and lime sodas. Meanwhile we watch kids playing down near the water and dhows sailing slowly past.

Back to our hotel where we pay for our room, confirm our Kenya Airways flight for tomorrow, order a taxi to pick us up in the morning and ask for a 3am wake-up call. We spend the rest of the afternoon reading on the bed then about 5pm we spend ages in an antique shop that Mark came across earlier. It’s an Aladdin’s cave, jammed with great stuff but too expensive.

As the sun starts to set we climb up to the roof for sundowners. Mark orders a beer while I’m happy with my Bacardi and coke. As we watch the sun disappear into the ocean, the Islamic call-to-prayer adds to the Eastern ambience of Arab-style pillows, small tables and hanging lanterns.

Great people-watching too as the Swedish lady from the Emerson Spice has turned up and is greeting a group of friends. She’s about my age but very classy – not in a ‘wearing expensive label clothes’ way but confident in who she is. With her long hair, ethnic jewellery and black kaftan she has the bohemian look I love – it’s says culture and travel, being yourself and not giving a flying fuck about the latest fashion or fad – going to chuck out all my dopey ‘corporate’ clothes when I get home.

After the sun sets across the water, a full moon rises over the rooftops of Stone Town – nice. In the dark, we set off for Fodorhani Gardens. Like last night there are thousands of people eating from the food stalls but mainly they just seem to be hanging out. Everyone is dressed in their most colourful finery especially the ladies and little girls. The local boys are again running and launching themselves off the harbour wall into the sea much to the delight of the crowds.

Livingstone’s is just a short walk along the sand which is also packed with people. While we order more drinks we watch everyone having a riotous time with the usual dhows sailing close to the shore. Dinner is spaghetti bolognese for me and lobster for Mark. A lovely end to our amazing time here in Zanzibar.

Bed at 10pm for our early start.

Thursday 9th October, 2014     Zanzibar to Nairobi to Johannesburg

The alarm wakes us at 2.30am and we’re ready and packed by the time the guy from the desk knocks on our door. We follow him on foot through the dark lane ways as the taxi has to park way over near the mosque at the waterfront. It’s always exciting getting up this early with no-one around and the temperature a lot cooler.

The airport is about half an hour away and very small and deserted at this early hour. It’s pretty dingy too and the staff hasn’t a clue. One guy checking in his bags ends up going behind the desk and getting on the computer to sort out whatever problem is they’re having. The rest of the staff is standing around chatting and laughing. No-one is in a hurry but we’re finally pointed to a bus that takes us to the plane revving up on the tarmac.

After all the slowness, we actually take off twenty five minutes early – pretty funny. The plane is nice and we end up with two seats each. Breakfast is served with tea and coffee. We’re flying AIR Kenya so instead of heading straight for Johannesburg we have to fly two hours north to Nairobi first – love that we’re going to another country even if we’ll only see the airport. And no real problem especially as we get to fly past Mount Kilimanjaro – Africa’s highest mountain, in case you didn’t know.

At Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport we hang out in transit for an hour and a half having something to eat and getting onto Facebook. I give Lebo’s Backpackers in Soweto a call as we’re hoping to stay there tonight. They do have a room and she tells us to give them a call when we land and they’ll have someone pick us up for $40.

The five hours to Johannesburg goes quickly with individual screens to watch a movie. While we’re waiting for our bags to turn up on the carousel, I ring Lebo’s Backpackers. No-one is available to come and pick us up so we’ll just have to get a taxi. The drive is forty minutes past the horrible city and towards the south west. Ugliness is everywhere – shrivelled, dry, dust and windy – with a backdrop of huge hills of dirt – hideous scars left over from the gold mining.

And reaching Soweto is no improvement although it’s the last thing you’d expect anyway. This is where the poor blacks were dumped when they were brought here to work in the mines. Now there’s supposed to be a sort of middle class here with some nicer areas but it all looks horrible. Our driver keeps ringing people on his mobile as he obviously doesn’t know where we mean although he keeps saying ‘Yes. I know’. If it was the Amazing Race we’d be eliminated! And it’s already showing $70 on the meter – fuck that!

Finally we pull up at Lebo’s, a colourful place with a green park opposite. This is the most attractive place we’ve seen anywhere around here. Across the road are a few guys hanging out under the tress and bicycles are lined up for the daily bike tours they arrange here. I can tell right now that I won’t be doing that – too fucking lazy.

Inside we meet the lovely Mary who shows us our room – $40 for a small, basic bedroom with a shared bathroom next door. The eating area is right outside our door and all the girls who work here are having something to eat and having a riotous time.

We check out the rest of the place which is really tiny but very cutely African. We get talking to an Aussie couple who are having a wine and a beer in the courtyard. Rob and Helen are in their late fifties and we get on like a house on fire from the start. They’ve been in Ethiopia for a month and on a truck safari for six weeks. It was a bit of a disaster with a lazy guide and really old people in the group and they say they’ll never do one again. We plan to meet up again for dinner and drinks later.

We’re stuffed after our early start and decide to have an afternoon nap. On dark we have dinner with Rob and Helen as well as Elody, a young German girl, and Dan, a young Swiss guy. Elody is working in a women’s centre helping victims of domestic violence and she’s been here for six weeks already. Dan has been to Namibia and so we’ve all got lots of travel stories to swap. Besides the great company, the food is excellent. The lovely cook reminds us of our hostess at Legends Backpackers in Swaziland – very second word is ‘Ayaya’ with a huge smile.

We have a lovely salad, coleslaw and baked fish with ice cream and cake as dessert. More drinks afterwards by the fire with very loud music. I go to bed later leaving Mark and Rob drinking the bar dry.

Friday 10th October, 2014       Johannesburg

Breakfast is with all our mates from last night – Rob, Helen, Elody and Dan. While Elody goes off to work and Rob and Helen plan a bike ride around Soweto, Mark and I pack for our afternoon flight home. We book a car to take us to the airport then set off to walk to Nelson Mandela’s house. We visited it in 2007 but really it’s the only thing to see in walking distance of Lebo’s, so we’re told by Mary on the desk.

The’ easy walk’ ends up being over an hour through an ugly, barren suburb with a hot wind blowing in our faces. Fucking hell!! The only greenery is weeds growing in the gutters and most houses look like building sites with piles of dirt and rubbish filling the front yards.

At first there aren’t any footpaths at all but the closer we get to Mandela’s the better the road, the sidewalks are paved and there are even a few trees. This is along the tourist bus route so things have been spruced up.

We know when we’re almost there by all the cars and buses but we’re still surprised at the change in the area. Since we were here seven years ago, Nelson Mandela’s house has been ‘fixed up’ – this translates to ‘fucked up’! A wide concreted area has replaced the dirt footpath and a tall fence surrounds the old house that you now enter through a sort of ticket office. The authentic atmosphere is gone with the little house now sitting forlorn amongst modern cafes, restaurants, souvenir shops and market stalls.

Very thirsty, we find an outdoor table under a tree for drinks to order lunch as Lebo’s doesn’t provide it. From here we watch the locals dressed in skins and feathers milling around waiting for their next street performance – a bloody circus!

We decide to escape back to the backpackers but, guess what, no taxis. All the tourists seem to turn up in bug tour buses – huge, air-conditioned things that drive rich people around the sad streets so they can gawp at the poverty.

I hate the thought of the long walk back in the heat and the wind and I keep looking behind hoping to see a taxi or a bus heading our way. Actually only a couple of cars pass us the whole time and the only person we see is a little boy trying to get money out of us. This place is like something after the apocalypse – a slight exaggeration but I hate it anyway.

Very glad to arrive back at Lebo’s and start getting ready to leave. Rob and Helen still haven’t returned from their bike tour so we can’t say goodbye. While we wait for the car we sit outside with Rob and cool down with a soft drink each. He’s an interesting young guy who’s spent the last month in Windhoek in Namibia so we enjoy our last hour here at Lebo’s.

Not sorry to be leaving Soweto, though, and definitely not sorry to be leaving Johannesburg or the whole bloody country for that matter. Past the slag heaps, the boring suburbs, the ugly city, we’re happy to escape to the airport terminal.

A late afternoon takeoff means a night flight and after a Temazapam each we sleep away at least some of the fourteen hour trip back to Sydney

Saturday 11th October, 2014


Home to our beautiful family

Final thoughts – the most adventurous and probably best holiday we’ve ever had. Loved it all!!!










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Laos and Thailand 2001

Saturday   27th January, 2001               Sydney to Bangkok

After kissing goodbye to our precious cats, Benny and Layla, we leave home with Angie and Lauren to say goodbye to Mum and Dad and then on to Pelican Airport to catch the plane to Sydney. I break my heart sitting on the plane as I see my two beautiful girls waiting at the fence to wave us off. A month is a long time to be away from them and I can barely stand to think about it. It takes me nearly the whole forty minutes to Sydney to stop crying but feel better once we arrive.

At the Domestic Terminal we grab the airport bus to the International Terminal and by now we’re both feeling very excited. I love the feeling we have when we get here. Everything is done and we can relax usually for the first time in months.

At the baggage check-in we’re second in line as we’re here three hours early. This means that we get great window seats at the back of the plane. To pass the time, we eat pizza, buy a travel book called ‘The Wrong Way Home’ by Peter Moore, eat McDonalds and then find an outdoor beer garden and bar. Sitting in the sun and drinking beer must be the most relaxing thing in the world. Two beers later we pass through immigration and buy duty free bottles of Bacardi and Jim Beam, a carton of cigarettes for presents (or bribery) and a disposable underwater camera.

Our Thai Airways plane takes off at 5.15pm and we quickly move to the centre aisle next to us which has three empty seats. This is such a bonus as we can lie down for almost the whole trip. We make the most of it all by me drinking strong Bacardi with orange juice and Mark drinking a couple of wines. Dinner is good and so are two movies. Neither of us sleep but we manage to pass an enjoyable nine hours.

As we land, it’s 10pm in Bangkok and 2am in Sydney. Airport formalities are quick and we pick up a few maps and brochures from the information booth. We decide to get the airport bus into the city even though it’ll take longer than a taxi. This is our first backpacking trip on our own so we’re going to start it in the right vein.

We arrive at Khao San Road after forty minutes and, although it’s now midnight, it’s absolutely pumping. We’d expected to find deserted, dark streets but everything is open and the street is full of raging backpackers. This is incredibly exciting and any traces of tiredness have now gone.

Our first priority is to get accommodation even though we’re dying for alcohol. The last time we were here we’d eaten at a fabulous café around the corner so we head towards there to get a room. This is the Sawasdee Guesthouse and it looks fantastic. The whole lower floor consists of the café, bar and foyer which all open onto the street. People are lounging around drinking and eating and listening to music. We want to stay here so much but they’re full so off we trudge to the guesthouse next door.

Everywhere is booked out and we start to have visions of sleeping on the street. Along Thanon Rambutri we try the Viengtai Hotel where we stayed with Intrepid tours but they have only one deluxe room left and want $70AUS even though it’s already one o’clock in the morning.

Further along we ask at a little café that had become our favourite last time. So relieved when they tell us they have spare rooms. Not so relieved when we drag our gear up a winding cement staircase and see what’s on offer. Besides looking like a firetrap, it’s dirty and the shared bathrooms are hideous. The rooms are partitioned off from each other with the top foot or so made of mesh. This means we can hear people talking in the other rooms and they sound like a bunch of drug addicts. The place itself reminds us of where Richard stayed in The Beach so we’re very polite but say we’ll keep looking.

The lady who owns it is so sweet and runs after us down the street to tell us of another guesthouse down a nearby alleyway. Luck must be on our side as we just beat a young French couple to the door and take the only room left.

This is the 7Holder Guesthouse run by a smiling Thai lady called Mumma. Our room is on the bottom floor, it’s clean and we even have a bathroom. All this for 150 baht or $6 AUS. Besides this we’re only ten metres through a winding alleyway to Khao San Road where we head after chucking our gear on the bed. As usual there’s loud music, tuk tuks and backpackers everywhere.

We have beer and food at a table in the street and then on to another café for more beer. At 2am we decide we’d better get some sleep even though we feel great. After quick cold showers to cool us down we finally get to sleep.

Sunday  28th January, 2001.                  Bangkok

At 7:30 we’re up for more cold showers and have hysterics at the towel that comes with the room. We’d been worried that we wouldn’t get one but this thing is almost the size of a bedspread – you had to be there. After throwing on our clothes we’re out into the street as quickly as we can.

Today we have a heap of things planned to do. Outside it’s blue skies and hot already and just how we remember Bangkok. Our alleyway zigzags between Thanon Rambutri and Khao San Road and has double storey wooden Thai houses running along one side and mainly guesthouses on the other. It’s a nice atmosphere. One strange thing though are the Dog’s Toilet signs painted every few metres on the wall of the alley – what the?

Breakfast is in Khao San Road at a big, busy open-air café with fans buzzing overhead and loud music coming from somewhere in the back. The sun is pouring in and this is absolute heaven. Unbelievably, there are still some of the same people we saw last night still sitting in the same seats and looking definitely worse for wear. We only have 120 baht until the moneychangers open so this means we eat like the other backpackers. We share two slices of toast, one mushroom omelet and a small bottle of water.

After breakfast we ask Mumma if we can book the room for another half-day as we want to have cold showers before we get on the train tonight. She’s a sweetie and lets us have the room for 120 baht till 6pm. We talk with her and her daughter, Dang, while admiring the buddha shrine in the foyer. This has the usual offerings of incense, fruit and flowers and surprisingly a bowl of Tiny Teddy biscuits – what the?

Out into Khao San Road we change $100US into baht and ring home from a little place down an interesting alleyway off the main drag. It’s cool and dark and very basic with cheap cafes and tables and chairs set up down the middle. The phone connection is bad but great to hear Mum and Dad and it only cost us 100 baht ($4AUS).

Before we start our planned itinerary, we’ve got one more thing to do and that’s to get over to the Royal Hotel to pick up our train tickets. Following a map, we get out onto a busy road and pass open-air pavilions where people are playing some sort of gambling game with cards maybe like lotto or scratchies.

Across an intersection choked with traffic we come to the Royal. The foyer is big and impressive with lots of activity and, amazingly, here are our tickets. We’d booked them through Intrepid Tours in Australia as this weekend is the Chinese New Year celebration long weekend and most trains would have been booked out ages ago. I don’t know how else we could get to Laos except to fly to Vientienne. We’d decided to go overland, though, as we want to cross the Friendship Bridge on the Mekong.

Outside the Royal Hotel, we walk for a while next to a small canal (called a klong in Thai) but soon hail down a tuktuk to take us to Jim Thomson’s House. It’s an exhilarating twenty-minute drive through the streets and a great way to cool down. Being Sunday the traffic is thin so we avoid being choked to death by exhaust fumes as we have on some previous rides especially in India. We eventually turn off the main road and into a rutted side lane to reach Jim Thomson’s House situated on the edge of a klong.

Jim Thomson was an American who was based in Thailand during the war and then stayed on to revitalise the Thai silk industry. He disappeared when on a walk whilst holidaying in Malaysia and his house is now a major tourist attraction. The setting is magic and the gardens are a jungle of tropical plants and flowers. The house is actually two very old teak houses that he had transferred here from Ayutthaya in 1959 and joined together to house his vast collection of antiques and treasures. I can say that this is my ultimate dream home.

The entire house is teak with overhead fans in every room and all with shutters opening onto the garden or the klong below. A tiny slow-walking Thai girl leads us from room to room describing the treasures each one holds. Crystal chandeliers from Belgium, Chinese vases from the Ming dynasty, 18th century paintings and rugs and every piece of furniture unique. It’s sparsely furnished so that each piece looks like a piece of art and yet there is an overall feeling of comfort and homeliness. I just love it.

Before we leave we have lunch at a café next to a pond near the house. While chatting to some European tourists we have a Thai chilli fish dish and a large cold Heineken. One traveller tells us where to get the BTS (Bangkok Transport System), or the monorail, which has been newly built since we were here in 1997.

It’s only a short walk down the laneway and up to the platform where we’re on the train before we know it. This is extremely clean and almost empty, being Sunday I guess, and we have good views of the city from up here. We want to get to the Oriental Hotel which apparently is at the end of the line so this has worked out perfectly.

After a fifteen-minute ride we’re back down in the streets looking for the Oriental. We ask the way but we always seem to get someone who is trying to send us off somewhere else, for a commission presumably. Bangkok must be full of men combing the streets for lost looking foreigners they can pounce on. Despite being caught twice last visit, we still manage to be conned and end up in a tuktuk at a pier on the Chao Praya River where some guy is trying to sell us klong tours.

We end up stumbling upon the Oriental ourselves only to be turned away at the gate for looking like filthy backpackers – great. No real problem as the up-river water-taxi pier is nearby. It’s a creaky old wooden building which is what we love about Asia. With longtail boats and ferries of all shapes and sizes, the river is almost as busy as the streets. Our ferry is already jammed with people and we have to jump onto the back deck as the boat washes up against the pier. The sun is scorching but the breeze from the river cools us down and it’s an enjoyable ten minute ride upriver.

We’re part of the crowd that jumps off at the busy pier near Wat Po and we’re soon heading for the temple. Here, two different tuktuk drivers tell us that it’s closed till three o’clock but they can take us to another temple in the meantime. This is weird as the Lonely Planet doesn’t mention anything about it being closed in the middle of the day. We walk around to the main entrance and, of course, it’s not closed and never is – just another scam to make money – nice try anyway.

Inside the grounds of Wat Po are tourists, tourists and more tourists. It’s about two hundred degrees in the shade so the first thing we do is buy drinks and ice creams near the souvenir stalls. The main reason we’re here is to have a massage at the Wat Po Massage school so we set out to find it amongst the labyrinth of temples, stupas and pagodas. The school is situated in two open-air buildings with overhead fans and rows of raised beds. People are lined up at the entrance showing how popular it’s become. We book in and told we’ll only have to wait about half an hour.

To pass the time we wander around the complex and spend most of our time in the temple of the huge reclining buddha. Many Thai people are in here making offerings of flowers and burning handfuls of incense at small shrines at the base of the buddha. There are rows of tiny candles, brass vases of flowers and smoke from burning oil and incense – so beautiful. Along the walls of the temple are rows of monks’ bowls and Mark drops coin donations in these before we go back out into the sun.

At the massage school we still have a ten minute wait so we sit in the shade in the doorway and watch some young Thai girls having foot massages. Our turn now and we’re lucky to be on adjoining beds. I’m given a pair of baggy pyjama pants to put on as I’m wearing a long skirt and then we’re ready to start. The massage is great at times but so painful at other times. It consists of half an hour of pulling, pushing, stretching and cracking. Despite the pain the atmosphere in here is wonderful with the massage people all dressed in bright yellow pants and tops and the ceiling fans keeping us cool.

Outside in the street I buy a bag of cold watermelon from a street cart and then we hail down a tuktuk. I tell the driver we want to go to Wat Mahatat but he can’t understand what I’m saying and then cracks up laughing when he realises what I said and how I said it. He starts telling his mates and it’s a great joke on me – ha, ha.

At Wat Mahatat there are no tourists but us and it’s so much more peaceful, like a temple should be. The large temple in the centre is surrounded on all four sides by long open-air pavilions lined with rows of about fifty larger-than-life golden buddhas. Local Thai people are lying around on the cool cement floors, some asleep, some talking and some eating. It’s like a family day out.

A man takes us into the back of the main temple where about a hundred people are doing a slow-walking meditation led by a monk sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of them.  At the rear of the temple are huge gold-leafed sitting buddhas where the man who’d shown us in, hands us lotus flowers to give as offerings. He shows us how to make the offerings with palms together and heads bent. A bit pointless since we aren’t Buddhists but it’s a nice experience and he gets paid for the flowers. We have another quick look around the grounds before finding another tuktuk to take us back to Khao San Road.

At a tiny upstairs internet place, we send E-mails off home and I’m in tears again. I just hope everything is okay – a month is so long. Back down in the street we buy cushion covers for $4AUS each and a hemp water bottle carrier. We try a different café now for rice and a Thai salad that’s so hot I can’t eat more than a mouthful but Mark eats the lot. We change more money and then race back to the room for cold showers. I have three in a row as I just can’t cool down then I end up passing out on the bed while Mark packs. He’s my darling.

At 6pm we say goodbye to Mumma and head around to a massage parlour in another laneway between Khao San Road and Thanon Rambutri. This is so popular probably as it’s got a good write-up in Lonely Planet. We have to leave our packs just inside the door and I worry the whole time that they’ll be gone when we come out.

Firstly we’re taken to a room at the back where we have our feet washed and dried, then since we’ve already had a body massage today, we ask for foot massage. There’s obviously a communication breakdown, though, as we’re led upstairs to a dark room where the floor is covered in mattresses and where tourists are all getting the torture treatment. Our foot massages never happen and we end up with the torture treatment too. It’s funny but we’re glad when it’s over and can retrieve our bags again.

In Khao San Road we order food from a table set up in the street, as this will be our last chance to eat before we get on the train. Mark orders chips and gets fried rice instead but no problem and we both have a beer. It’s dark by now and still hot and steamy.

With our packs on, we set off through the crowds to the end of the road to get a tuktuk to the station. Hualomphong Station is packed and very exciting. After buying water for the train, we board at 7.30pm. I keep nodding off in my seat as soon as we sit down so Mark makes up the top bunk for me and I’m dead to the world before the train pulls out at eight o’clock. Mark stays up for another half an hour but has an early night as well.

Monday     29th January, 2001               Vientienne, Laos

The night is comfortable but freezing in our overly air-conditioned carriage. Although I wake a couple of times to put on more clothes, I have plenty of sleep. Mark also sleeps exceptionally well considering he’s too big for the bed.

At five thirty in the morning, I’m awake in my bunk, writing up the diary and eating chocolates – extremely pleasant. At seven o’clock I wake Mark and we do the going to the toilet/cleaning our teeth ablutions before our American breakfast arrives.

This is provided by a young girl who’s been sleeping in her seat with the breakfast food in a plastic bag at her feet. We have eggs, a tiny sausage, bacon, toast, jam and tea then watch the passing countryside as we speed towards the border at Nong Khai. The scenery is rather uninspiring and the day looks slightly overcast but we are on a fantastic adventure so stop complaining, Virginia.

Finally we pull into Nong Khai station where we’re met, not surprisingly, by a crowd of tuktuk drivers. The tuktuks here are really a little trailer pulled by a motorbike so they’re probably called something else. We share with a well-travelled European guy who says we’ve paid too much as the border is only about a kilometre away.

Here we quickly pass through customs and immigration on the Thai side of the border then cram into a tiny bus with other travellers to take us to Laos. The Laos border is situated on the other side of the Mekong River and we cross the Australian-built Friendship Bridge to reach it. Again, formalities are quick as we already have our visas and in no time we’re racing off in a taxi with the friendliest little man ever.

The difference from Thailand is immediately apparent. Previously a part of France’s Indochina along with Cambodia and Vietnam, Laos has only allowed foreign travellers in since the nineteen nineties. Being effectually cut off from the rest of the world for almost twenty years it’s remained a rare treasure of what South East Asia once was.  It’s obviously a much poorer country than its neighbouring Thailand but quieter, much less westernised and also what we’d hoped for – we love it already.

We’ll be staying in Vientienne tonight but we want to see Buddha Park, called Xieng Khuan, on the way. The park is actually a small distance in the opposite direction but it’ll save us coming back thirty kilometres later. We drive for about fifteen minutes through villages along the Mekong and see that most of the houses are grass shacks and the road is rutted and unpaved.

Buddha Park is, as the name suggests, a park full of buddha statues of all shapes and sizes. There’s a massive reclining buddha, hundreds of smaller ones, stupas and flowering bougainvillea everywhere. Situated on the banks of the Mekong, it’s a peaceful setting and there are only a few people around so we enjoy the serenity. I give flower offerings (no idea what I’m doing) while Mark climbs the steep stairs of a temple.

Back in the car, we set off for the capital of Laos, Vientienne. This is supposedly the quietest capital city in the world and it appears to be just that. Most buildings are only two floors high and the streets are wide with very little traffic. Despite this, it doesn’t really impress me too much but this is probably due to the weather which is still a bit cool and overcast.

We’ve decided on a guesthouse near Chinatown called Vannasinh which turns out to be a good choice. It’s in a side alley, atmospheric, small and cheap at $20AUS a night. It’s a bit smelly but appears to be clean and we have our own bathroom with the ‘throne’ really looking like a throne on it’s raised dais.

Since we’re starving we quickly dump our gear and head out for food. We eat at the closest café which is run by an aging French hippie making it a mix of Asian and Western. After a quick snack we grab a tuktuk outside to take us to the Talaat Sao or the Morning Market. This is the local shopping centre and most of the things for sale are hideous western clothes and basically a lot of junk. We don’t stay long and then spend ages trying to find another tuktuk to take us to the middle of town where there’s supposed to be some interesting cafes along the river.

Our driver obviously has no idea what we mean and very happily drives us straight to a huge golden stupa. We have no idea where we are but think we may as well get out for a look as it’s probably somewhere we’ll eventually want to see. No-one speaks English and our driver has disappeared so we hit the Lonely Planet only to find we are at Laos’ most sacred/important religious monument. This is Pha That Luang which translates to World-Precious Sacred Stupa.

It may be precious but it’s less than exciting and we wander across the road to the monks’ quarters which are set in beautiful flowering gardens with colored shrines and temples. This is incredibly interesting and we watch the monks going about their daily chores in their saffron robes and have fun with some local kids who want to see themselves on the video.

Back out on the street we luckily find a tuktuk driver who does understand us and we head off for the river cafes. At a leafy café on a quiet corner we eat chicken, fried noodles and vegetables then drink Lao Beer while talking to some friendly English backpackers. It’s more touristy here than where we’re staying and we prefer our quiet little area.

The river is definitely not beautiful here and is disappointingly just big and muddy but then it is the famous Mekong. Since we stayed in a guesthouse on the Ganges last year, our goal is to stay on famous rivers all over the world but we’ll wait till we get to Luang Prabang where the Mekong will hopefully be more picturesque.

Our next plan is to get out to Wat Sok Pa Luang which is a temple a few kilometres out of town. Instead of a tuktuk we have our first ride in a jumbo. These are slightly larger vehicles but just as colourful and noisy. Our driver is a sweetie and takes us straight to the village next to the temple which is our real destination.

Here in a stilted wooden hut we have a wonderful time. The hut is open on three sides and surrounded by palms, banana trees and bougainvillea. On wooden benches at the top of the stairs, a few backpackers in sarongs are lounging around drinking tea after their massages and herbal saunas. Can’t stop laughing getting into our sarongs and then enter the sauna which is my first ever. There’s six of us crammed in here but it’s barely possible to see the person next to you. Sweat is pouring out of us which I suppose is good but it’s so hot and claustrophobic that I can’t stand it. I feel like running out the door like a mad woman but everyone else is looking very ‘cool’ so I have to behave. I keep thinking ‘I’ll stay till I count to fifty’, or something like that, and so I stay a respectable fifteen minutes before making my escape. Mark is much more impressive and braves it for about half an hour.

The thing to do now is to not shower for three hours to let the herbs get into our pores. I’m very proud of my first sauna and we cool down while talking to two young English guys who teach school in China. We all drink green tea and then it’s our turn for massages.

For forty minutes we lay on raised beds getting our first Lao massage which is at least as painful as the Thai massages we’d hoped to have left behind us. It’s still a magical experience, though, as we lay here watching the other travellers and the monks and villagers below us.

Back into the sauna again – five minutes for me and ten minutes for Mark. More cooling down and then we dress before walking up the dirt track to the temple which is uninteresting except for a few monks wandering around. We have no idea how we’ll get back to town until we see our driver who’s waited for us all this time. It really goes to show how few fares there are if he’s prepared to wait hours for us. We’re so grateful anyway. On the way into town we pick up a Dutch girl who’d been at the sauna and is walking all the way back. She’s also grateful as it’s getting cool by now.

Despite looking forward to hot showers, we only manage a lukewarm bottom wash and have to jump into bed to warm up. Of course, we both fall asleep and have to force ourselves to get up at seven o’clock. So tempting to stay here but we don’t want to miss out on our first night in Laos.

Besides this, we have to work out how we’re going to get to Vang Vieng tomorrow. We try to book a tuktuk for the morning from the guy behind the desk in the foyer but he tells us to just go out onto the road and one will come along. This sounds a bit dodgey but it’ll have to do. Outside it’s dark but a bit warmer so it’s nice walking around the streets. Our guesthouse is only a street away from a busy area of local cafes and shops. This whole area seems to be just for locals and there isn’t a backpacker to be seen.

We choose a café where lots of Lao people seem to be having a great time. The décor is basic to say the least but this is the real thing and what we prefer. The floor is littered with lettuce leaves and other green vegetables and we soon find out why. Our meal consists of a table full of dishes and an electric bowl in the middle with steam rising off the hot water inside.

Copying the locals, we put onions, garlic, noodles and slithers of meat into the boiling water to cook. These are then fished out with a pair of chopsticks (not easy), place inside a lettuce leaf, add rice paper, sprouts and ginger, wrap it like a parcel and then dip it into a chili, satay or soy dipping sauce also on the table. It’s great fun and by the end of the meal we’re also ankle deep in lettuce leaves. Mark loves this food and is having the best time eating and drinking Beer Lao. I admire the white tiled walls, plastic tables and chairs and plastic flowers then wander outside to watch two women preparing the dishes for the next lot of customers.

Walking home we pass a nightclub and decide to have a look as we’re wide awake by now. Inside we can’t see anything except the stage and a spinning disco ball on the ceiling. As our eyes adjust we can see that there’s a few locals spread around and a lot of young girls. In the ladies loo I can barely get in as it’s packed with them all ploughing on heaps of makeup in the mirror.

We can’t really work out what happening on stage as each song is sung by a different person who disappears immediately afterwards. Don’t know if it’s a talent quest or this is normal. Anyway, they’re all good and we get slightly drunk and even have a romantic dance. The drinks are incredibly expensive and two beers each cost more than our room. Being less than sober, we find this hysterical. It’s worth it anyway to see another side of Lao life. Home, then, to pack and straight to sleep.

Tuesday    30th January, 2001     Vientienne to Vang Vieng

The alarm wakes us at six o’clock and we’re dressed and out on the street in fifteen minutes. The main road is deserted but a tuktuk appears from nowhere and we’re soon off to the bus station. We’ve only got a vague idea about when buses leave for Vang Vieng but we can get a songthaew if it doesn’t work out. No problem as a bus is leaving at seven o’clock and we manage to get seats.

The bus station is a hive of activity so we’re kept amused while we wait. The best thing about our wait is that we buy fresh French bread sticks filled with salad from one of the many young girls wandering around with baskets full of them. The weather is warm and sunny already so everything is wonderful.

We leave on time with half the bus filled with travellers and there’s standing room only for lots of people. The aisles are stacked with sacks of grain and vegetables which is usual on Asian buses and no-one seems to mind.

It’s an interesting three-hour drive and through open windows we see how primitive most people live. Villages consist of grass huts and we even pass a line of working elephants walking along the road through Kasi. I swear, I nearly jump out the window with excitement. After an hour of driving through flat cultivated areas, the last two hours are quite mountainous and reminds us of Northern Thailand. Plastic spew bags are handed out and thrown out the window as people fill them up. Mark is feeling sick as well and we’re so glad to reach Vang Vieng at eleven o’clock.

This is really just a village that’s become popular with travellers for its limestone caves as well as being a stopover between Vientienne and Luang Prabang which is still seven hours north. We love it immediately.

Our bus takes us right into the dusty village square which is surrounded by cafes, guesthouses and the local market. On the way in we see a guesthouse we like so we race back to book a room. This is two floors high although the metal reinforcing rods sticking out of the roof indicate the hope of an optimistic future. Our room is clean and sunny although we do have a leaking toilet and only warm water.  At $8AUS a night I don’t think we’ll complain.

A quick unpack and we head down to the river. This is the Nam Song and it’s picture-postcard material. It gently bends towards the village with limestone karsts as its western backdrop. The mountains are spectacular and rise up one behind the other as far as we can see to the north.

The village is situated on only one bank of the river but two bamboo pedestrian bridges lead to another smaller village not far from the opposite side. Water buffalo are wading in the shallows and three naked little boys are playing in the deeper water.

We walk along a path that runs along the water’s edge and come across the La Pavot Café set up high in the trees. A bamboo staircase leads up from the river and we sit on the verandah amongst hanging plants and caged birds. While we wait for our drinks a young boy sits near us with his pet monkey. We really could sit here all day but we’ve got so much to see.

Back along the river we find a path that leads to the morning market which is situated in a large open-sided building. The fruit and vegetables look wonderful as well as the French bread rolls and baguettes. At a tiny stall set up with plastic chairs we order a noodle dish and watch the girls preparing the herbs and vegetables in a mortar and pestle. It looks like a thick vegetable soup and comes with a plate of lettuce leaves. After eating I bargain for place mats and a table runner all woven locally. The girls serving are so sweet and one looks too young to have a tiny baby.

Now it’s time to find out where we can hire rubber tubes to float down the river. We know about this from reading other travellers’ stories and it sounds wonderful. A guy in a stall on the edge of the square hires us two tubes for the afternoon so we hurry back to the room to get into our swimmers.

Our guesthouse has a very unique safety protocol. Each time we go out we have to leave our keys on a table in the courtyard. This is ‘guarded’ by someone who’s either swinging in a hammock or lying on a nearby mattress. The only problem is that the ‘guard’ is always asleep and you just grab your key each time you come back. Love to have such a laid-back approach to life.

Back in the square we find a tuktuk driver who’ll take us up river. On the way out of town we stop to pick up an ancient Hmong couple who are heading back to their village. They’re both wearing the traditional Hmong dress of indigo clothes with coloured trim – wonderful. The four of us do lots of smiling and nodding and then wave goodbye as we’re suddenly dropped off on the main road. We find the river a few hundred metres down a dusty laneway and push off into the cool river.

At first this is relaxing and just what we need but the river is running so slowly and we don’t seem to be getting anywhere fast. We decide to put our thongs on our hands and use them as paddles. We pass groups of young people smoking dope and drinking beer they’ve brought with them. We pass fishermen and buffalo but there’s really not much else to look at. We see other people desperately trying to push themselves along by using sticks and all of them are jealously eyeing off our rubber paddles. No way baby, I want to get the hell out of here.

Two hours later we’re overjoyed to see the village. We’re dripping wet as we walk through the market but I just want to get to a shower. Thankfully, the water is hot and Mark also does some washing and we hang it out to dry on the front balcony.

Another thing we’d read about was that we must watch the sunset across the river at the aptly called Sunset Café. Firstly we have a drink on the verandah of the French-owned Nam Son Hotel also situated on the banks of the river. This is very French-colonial with white wicker furniture and potted plants. Instead of buying alcohol, we’ve brought along our duty free Bacardi and Jim Beam disguised in water bottles.

After a couple of drinks we move over to the Sunset Café where lots of other travellers are eating and drinking and all waiting for the sun to set. The café is next to one of the bamboo pedestrian bridges and we watch people crossing over to reach the small village on the other side.

Travellers are also being transported across the river in trailers dragged by noisy engines, women are washing themselves and their clothes and children are playing in the water. Surrounded by flowering bougainvillea and with the limestone peaks opposite it’s just too beautiful.

The sun finally sets in a cloudless sky and is definitely worth the wait. We order noodles and a Lao dish for dinner and talk to two French-Canadian girls. After more drinks we walk back to the guesthouse and then a wander around town in the dark. We stop for a drink at the only bar in town but soon head back for an early night at eight o’clock. A great day.

Wednesday        31st January, 2001               Vang Vieng

Because we have so much sleep we’re awake and up by 6.30am. We decide to check out the village on the other side of the town centre. The morning is fresh and a lovely time of day to be out walking. The village is slowly coming to life and we watch people cooking and sweeping. The houses are all raised off the ground and are mostly grass and bamboo huts with a couple of wooden and cement buildings owned by the wealthy few.

Within the village we come across Wat That where local women are putting food onto bamboo trays set up under the trees. After preparing the food they fill about six metal bowls on each tray. Nearby, monks in saffron robes are sitting around outside the monks’ quarters and village men are squatting in another area opposite. Other village women put handfuls of rice into alms bowls set in rows on a long table in the centre of the compound. Other people walk along the table giving offerings of money and sweets into each bowl. Soon the monks collect a bamboo tray each and their own alms bowl and carry them to an open-sided building where music is being played.

Our video camera battery runs out so we race back to our room for a new one while the sun is rising now in a pale pink sky. By the time we get back to the temple, all the village people have taken places on the floor inside the building while the monks sit together at the front. The chanting begins and we watch this fabulous spectacle for an hour amazed at how lucky we are to be here.

We’re starving by now so we leave in search of breakfast. Down a dusty street back in town, we eat in a clean little café where a television is belting loud karaoke music. Strange hearing the Eagles and Credence Clearwater sung with an Asian accent – just doesn’t make it somehow.

In a nearby shack we hire little-girl type pushbikes from a happy lady and set off through the village. Bicycle riding is not my talent but Vang Vieng is perfect for amateurs – no traffic and wide dirt roads. We ride through the other side of the village and down to the Vang Vieng Resort which is really just a few sad looking huts down on the river. I think they make most of their money from tourists who have to pay a toll to get through here to reach Tham Jang cave on the other side of the river.

Riding across the wooden bridge is a bit of a worry but soon we arrive at the steps to the cave. More money here before starting the climb of a hundred or so steps to the mouth of the cave. Besides being totally exhausted by the time I reach the top, we’ve also forgotten to bring water with us. The cave is impressive but has been touristified with walkways and bridges inside and all lit up with coloured lights. So hideous really and we don’t stay.

Back down the stairs we walk around the other side of the cliff to find a few smaller caves which all contain buddha shrines and offerings of incense and fruit. A grotto at the base of the cliff is filled with clear running water and some Japanese tourists are there have a hilarious time. We decide to go back to get our swimmers as the heat is stifling by now and the water looks so good.

After changing at the guesthouse, we cycle first to the market and then down to the river. Across another bamboo bridge with a makeshift tollgate in the centre, we come to an interesting tourist attraction. A hand painted sign on a stick reads ‘The Vang Vieng Tan Centre – Sunbathe Centre’ and consists of a few straw mats on a piece of grass about two metres square down on the riverbank. We guess you pay to sunbake on the mats which is not a bad initiative if it wasn’t for a pile of rubbish sitting several feet away.

From here we try to get to Luci Cave indicated by a sign pointing across a dry rice paddy. We stupidly try to cycle across it but have to turn back. Then we have to climb over a bamboo fence where Mark nearly breaks his leg when the fence collapses under him. We continue our pathetic bike riding adventure by trying to follow some other lost riders along the riverbank. This is no easy task as the bank consists mainly of rocks and we end up getting off and pushing.

At last we come to a sign pointing to a cave five kilometres along a dirt road. This leads to a small village of grass huts but the thought of riding five kilometres there and back in this heat is too much. We head back along the river, across the bamboo bridge and up through the market to finally have lunch in a lovely leafy café. It appears to be owned by a French guy who’s probably an artist. Lunch is wonderful – fresh baguettes with chicken salad and banana milkshakes. From here, Mark decides to go to the bank while I E-mail home before we get back down to the grotto near Tham Jang cave for a swim.

We never do get there. An E-mail from Angie tells us that our precious cat Benny is sick and he’s at the vet now. When I read that he can’t move his back legs I know this is it. Angie wants us to ring home as soon as we can and I’m frantic by the time Mark gets back. No-one knows where we can ring although some say the post office but it’s closed now until two o’clock.

We race back to our guesthouse and they tell us to go to some other place where there’s a phonebox to make international calls. I ring Mum and Dad and Angie is there. The vet will do what he can but my darling boy may have to be put to sleep. I’m inconsolable and spend hours lying on the bed crying. Mark is so sad and we feel helpless. I don’t know what to do with myself and just want this pain to go away. I want to be home with my poor girls – they’ll be heartbroken. I can’t apologise for feeling like this over a little cat but he’s been my baby for fourteen years and I can’t imagine what it will be like without him.

I have to think that there may be a chance and make myself get up. We go for a walk down to the school and watch the tiny little ones come out all immaculate in their white blouses and navy sarongs called phaa nungs.

We have a massage in a small family hut along the road above the river which would normally be a great experience but I can’t stop seeing Benny’s little face. We have dinner in a little café next to the guesthouse and drink a few Bourbons and Bacardis to numb our brains. I take a sleeping pill and I dream that Benny is better. I keep waking and the dream is wrong and our precious boy is still sick.

Thursday   1st February,2001       Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang

We’re up at seven o’clock to shower and pack. Still crying but have to keep going as we have to get to Luang Prabang today as we’ve arranged to meet Julie and Steve there. Since we arrived two days ago, the bus stop has been moved out onto the main road instead of the near the market. This means a ten minute walk across an old airstrip that was built by the Americans during the Indochina War.

After getting our tickets and me securing our seats, Mark races back into town to buy some food. He comes back with bottled water and four beautiful french rolls filled with hot chicken salad. We leave about eight o’clock with the bus virtually full of travellers. They’re an interesting crew and the scenery is lovely but all I can do is cry and cry for Benny.

After an hour along Route 13, the road begins to wind up and down spectacular mountains and we can see it snaking its way over other mountains ahead of us. Villages appear periodically along the side of the road which falls away on either side. The ground is so steep that the back of the huts are built up on stilts and we wonder why these villages would be here at all. After two hours we all pile out to go to the toilet in the long grass and then stop again two and a half hours later for lunch in a small village.

This is a strange place as we soon have an audience of young children but who seem very shy and stand back from us. No-one is trying to sell us anything and the little ones even seem a bit afraid. I give them a bottle of Pepsi that they all politely share with each other. About five little girls no more than six years old themselves have babies strapped to their backs and some are carrying umbrellas for shade. We show them what they look like in the video camera and they all look on very seriously – not the giggles we got from the school kids in Vang Vieng. It highlights how remote these villages are and how relatively few westerners travel this route.

Route 13 was the scene of many Hmong guerilla attacks even up until five years ago and the road is still considered to be potentially dangerous. For me, I’m more afraid of plummeting over the side than of being attacked by guerillas. I must say, though, that our driver seems to be very safety conscious unlike lots of other drivers we’ve experienced in Asia. Back on the bus we have to share seats with a Lao man and Mark is also feeling bus sick. The only thing is to watch the road as much as we can or take our minds off our stomachs by listening to the driver’s music tape that we’ve heard several times today already. Our favourite is ‘My Itsy Bitsy Tenny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini’.

At last after six hours on the road we can see the Mekong down below us and at four o’clock we finally arrive at the Luang Prabang bus stop a few kilometres out of town. Here we’re met by jumbos and six of us pile into one including a Lao man with his sack of grain. The jumbo driver takes us on a detour to the man’s village where we drop him off and then we continue into town to find guesthouses for the rest of us. The other passengers are a friendly American guy and a young French couple.

At the first guesthouse Mark and the French guy look at a room but say it’s too dark. The American guy jumps out and says he doesn’t care and he’ll take it. Our next stop is the Mekong Guesthouse where the French couple grab the only room. We decide to leave our backpacks here and set off on foot to look for somewhere to stay. Maybe that dark room wasn’t so bad after all.

Luang Prabang is lovely and deserves its reputation as the ‘best preserved city in South East Asia’. Since 1995 it’s been World Heritage listed by UNESCO to preserve its historical, cultural and architectural beauty. It’s everything we’ve read about – quiet streets, a mixture of Lao and French buildings, temples, monks, chickens, guesthouses and cafes.

The streets are clean and there are potted flowering plants outside most houses. It’s situated on a peninsular where the Mekong and the Khan rivers meet and surrounded by green mountains – beautiful. It’s relatively flat except for a temple-topped steep hill in the middle of town called Phu Si. Only 16,000 people live here and there’s very little western influence at all.

We walk along the bank of the Mekong which runs wide and muddy below us down a steep embankment. All along this street are cafes and guesthouses but no empty rooms anywhere. Along a side street we can hear a loud temple drum and expect to turn the corner and witness another special religious moment. Instead we find a group of young monks having a jam session with drums and tambourines. Great to see that teenagers are the same everywhere.

After numerous turndowns we finally find a room on the bank of the Nam Khan. It’s upstairs in a quaint little guesthouse with a nice verandah set up with tables and chairs. Our room is clean and has hot, or nearly hot, water and we have our own toilet all for AUS$14.

While Mark goes back to get the bags I find an internet shop to E-mail home. I spend the next half an hour sobbing as I read the messages from Angie and Lauren about out poor, sick baby boy. I’m heartbroken that I can’t be there with him. I’m so proud of the girls. It must be so hard for them to see him this sick. They told him that they love him and Lauren whispered ‘Benny Ball Kibble’ in his ear and she thinks he heard. I told them to give him a kiss on the cheek from his Mummy and I think it will be today that he’ll be put to sleep. Can’t bear to think of it or what the girls will do. I should be with them.

Mark finds me and takes me down to a café on the river to have a beer. Just as it is on the Mekong side of town, there are cafes all along the banks of the Nam Khan on this side of town. They all have tables set up under trees and so, with the beer and this soothing atmosphere, I calm down.

The bank on other side of the river is cultivated in terraced vegetable gardens and we can see the rows of plants being painstakingly watered with watering cans. Although we’ve only been here a matter of a few hours, and it’s probably my state of mind, but I already know that Luang Prabang is where you could find peace and heal the soul.

We don’t know if it’s today or tomorrow that we’re to meet Julie and Steve as we’ve lost contact over the last few days. They’ll arrive from the opposite direction to us as they’re on a boat coming down the Mekong. We notice a few travellers wandering around so we think that the boat must have already come in. I ask them if an Australian couple had been on today’s boat. The girl says yes and that the woman looks like me. That’s them!

Suddenly we hear Steve call us and there they are in the back of a jumbo. So happy to see them but not good timing with me being so sad. I can’t wreck their holiday so I’ll have to be okay. I have a cry when I tell Julie and they both really understand as they’re just as crazy about their dog, Nelson.

To get a room they have to go out of town a bit but they can move in the morning. We meet them again at seven o’clock and it’s great to hear of their Thailand and Mekong River adventures. We all get on so well and love all the same things. Dinner is on the main street where tables and chairs have been set up on the footpath. We’re all tired and go back to bed about ten thirty. After taking another sleeping pill I cry myself to sleep.

Friday        2nd February, 2001               Luang Prabang

We wake early and I’m still crying for Benny. I’ve dreamt about him and see his dear little face all the time. We meet Julie and Steve in the main street at eight o’clock. They have a new guesthouse right here in town so we all set off for the Post Office so I can ring home. It’s shut for some reason but I manage to buy a phone-card and ring from a telephone box in the street.

Lauren is there and tells us that our baby boy has died during the night. We’re so, so sad but glad that he went by himself. He was always such a good little man and it’s just like him. Lauren is so sad but so sensible. It was his time to go and she knows it. She and Angie brought him home from the vets this morning and Doug buried him in the back garden where he always loved to be. They put him under the trees near the fountain and put the angel statue on top of his grave. Can’t bear to think that he’s gone but I can’t bear to think of him suffering. He just couldn’t get better and his little body had just had enough. Home will never be the same again.

It’s good that Julie and Steve are with us, otherwise I think I’d just go back to the room all day. We all have breakfast at a sunny café near the market and then Mark and I hire a sidecar rickshaw to go in search of the airline offices. It takes a while to find them but the weather is beautiful and we have a fun and unexpected tour of this part of town. They’re both situated along a rutted road running parallel to the main street and amidst temples and coconut trees.

Inside Lao Aviation we’re held up while a moronic French couple ask hundreds of stupid questions. We book a flight back to Vientiane for Monday afternoon and then cross the street to the Vietnam Airlines office to confirm our flight to Hanoi on Tuesday. While we’re waiting the French morons turn up and quite happily push in before us. What is it with people?

Another rickshaw back to meet Julie and Steve then we all hire a jumbo to take us out to Kuang Si Falls thirty two kilometres out of town. It’s an interesting, if dusty and bumpy, one-hour drive. The villages we pass through are basic grass huts and the people are friendly. We see green rice terraces and water buffalo down in the stream below and finally arrive at a picturesque village near Kuang Si. Our jumbo driver drops us at the bottom of the hill where it’s a five-minute walk up to the falls. A couple of grass shacks along the track are selling fruit and we buy bananas to put on the bread rolls that we’ve brought with us.

I’m not particularly a waterfall person but these falls are truly pretty. The water cascades down over limestone formations which spread the water out into fanned shapes which pour into milky turquoise pools below. The main pool empties into a series of lower pools and bamboo bridges allow people to get close to the main falls.

We decide to have lunch before going for a swim but the bananas have big black seeds in them, ‘like eyeballs’ Julie says. Hideous! Mark and Julie climb to the top of the falls while Steve and I sit around in the sun. The top pool has a sign that tells us to ‘DO Not Swimming Here’ so we walk down to the lower pool and get changed in a tiny wooden shed. Steve’s noticed a guy who’s been hanging around and watching us so we have turns of swimming while the others mind the bags. The water is wonderful and such a beautiful colour but it feels strange on our skin – caused by the limestone from the rocks apparently.

After our swim we all walk back down the hill and tell our jumbo driver that we’ll meet him down further as we want to walk around the village. Small grass shacks sell weavings and Julie buys a lovely purple scarf. Off the road the village people are busy chopping bamboo and making things out of dried grass. One lady is making spoons out of bamboo and I buy a set even though they’ll be impossible to take with us. Seeds are lying out to dry in the sun and naked children are playing in the stream. It’s so lovely here and there are even wooden water wheels on the opposite bank. A lady is washing herself in the water and healthy looking turkeys, ducks and chickens are wandering around in between the huts.

Back in the jumbo and it’s another dust-swallowing hour back to town. We’re all starving by now and have lunch in an outdoor cafe on the main street. I have a beautiful salad with egg, chicken, ham, lettuce, tomato, onion and hot potato while Mark has chicken noodle soup. For me, the combined influence of French, English and Laos on the food here is really the ultimate.

We plan to meet Julie and Steve later this afternoon and go to read our latest E-mails from the girls. We both cry as we read how Benny died and how they buried him. They’d given him cuddles and kisses and told him they loved him and told him that we love him too. It just breaks my heart that we couldn’t say goodbye.

To say our own good-byes to Benny we climb the many steps to the temple on top of Phu Si. As the sun goes down over the Mekong, we say goodbye to our little man. Goodbye our precious baby boy, our little mate, our clever handsome little man. You brought such happiness to our lives – you’ll live in our hearts forever. Thank you, Benny.

Julie and Steve are with us so we all decide to eat at the night market. There’s an array of meats, cooked and uncooked, like whole pig’s heads and Mark orders chicken on a stick. This includes its head and feet and he eats it all. I have watermelon. From here we all walk to the Kaem Karn Food Garden on the Nam Khan for traditional music. Unfortunately, three of the band are ‘absent’ so the music is off. Mark now eats buffalo sausage and black sticky rice – disgusting!

An early night.

Saturday   3rd February,2001                Luang Prabang

Still crying when I wake and my eyes are so puffed up by now I look like I’ve been in a fight. We get up at seven o’clock to get out of the room. We also hope to see monks on their early morning alms rounds so we head off towards the temples. As we turn the first corner here they are coming towards us in a long line.

This is a magical sight as the air is slightly misty this early and the streets are empty. The monks are barefoot and wearing saffron robes and each carrying their wooden alms bowl. Village people are kneeling along the footpath and place handfuls of cooked rice into each monk’s bowl from their own silver donation bowls.

We spend the next hour wandering around the pretty temple area. Monks are sweeping and doing other morning chores while the local people are also beginning their day. In the backstreets around the temples are wooden houses, chickens, cafes and guesthouses and many French colonial buildings. Some of these have been converted into guesthouses and we decide to move into one of the very atmospheric ones this morning. The Bounthieng Guesthouse is white with blue louvred shutters and overlooks the Mekong which is another bonus. There are palm trees across the road and lots of small cafes nearby.

After meeting Julie and Steve in town for a noodle breakfast at eight o’clock, we move to our new guesthouse, change money and meet them again at Talaat Dala. This is the central market that sells just about everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to toiletries and plastic homeware. We wander around in here buying incense and Steve and Julie buy a metal cooker. Huge bags of tobacco are interesting but we don’t stay long as we’ve got a walking tour planned for this part of town.

From the market we follow the Lonely Planet’s directions which takes us past the hospital – please God, don’t let us get sick – and then watch a group of men playing a game like boche. We visit Wat Wisunalat and the Watermelon Stupa, walk along the Nam Khan and see two men making a buddha statue. It’s a pleasant, peaceful walk in the morning sunshine.

Back in town we all have cakes at the Scandinavian Bakery and then book massages for tomorrow at the Red Cross. I ring Mum and Dad and talk to Angie but she doesn’t sound good. We continue with the second part of our walking tour that involves revisiting most of the area we saw this morning. The main wat is Xieng Thong which was built in 1560. The low sweeping rooflines of its buildings are typical of Luang Prabang architecture. Situated on the Mekong and dotted with flowering trees, it’s extremely appealing.

Back in the main part of town, we buy silk wall hangings from a small market near the Post Office and Julie buys more cushion covers. Afterwards, we return to the temple area for afternoon tea.

This is at the Auberge Calao mansion which also overlooks the Mekong. We’re the only guests but enjoy our bacon salad roll and beers on the verandah. We all decide to have a sleep for an hour and then meet again at the internet café. Mark and I get more sad messages from the girls and feel so helpless that I can’t be with them.

Dinner is at our favourite street café on the main road. Mark has pork with ginger and I have a chicken salad covered in nuts. Then, because we’re feeling lazy, we all catch a jumbo to the Kaem Karn Food Garden.

The night is warm and it’s pleasant sitting out here in the open next to the river and listening to the traditional music. The ‘band’ has turned up tonight. We eat hot chili beef salad with lemongrass and lots of bacardis and bourbons. We leave Julie and Steve now to go back to their own guesthouse.

Before heading back across to the Mekong, Mark and I buy pancakes covered in condensed milk, bananas and chocolate from a street cart then stop to talk to some young local people playing guitars and singing. Near our guesthouse we have a beer at a corner café that looks too inviting. It’s dimly lit and open on two sides. The television is on and showing ‘Charlie’s Angels’ in Lao – very interesting. Bed at eleven o’clock and a good sleep despite the hard bed.

Sunday      4th February, 2001               Luang Prabang

Julie and Steve move into our hotel at eight o’clock and we all have breakfast at an outdoor café overlooking the Mekong. Actually, it’s a bit of a stretch to call these cafes ‘cafes’ as they’re really just some tables and chairs set up on the bare ground under the trees next to the river. It’s perfect especially in this weather and with this setting. The street is quiet except for the ubiquitous crowing roosters, who really only add to the wonderful laid-back atmosphere.

A jumbo now to the Red Cross on the other side of town. This is set in an old wooden Lao-French house, which makes most of its money giving massages and herbal saunas. Julie and Steve are taken upstairs while Mark and I are shown to a room at the back. For 25,000 kip ($6 AUS) we have an hour-long Lao-Swedish massage. From here we all walk up to Talaat Dalat and find a jumbo decorated in colourful plastic flowers to take us out to Ban Phanom.

This ugly, dusty little village is only fifteen minutes out of town and is known as the silk-weaving village. It’s become a recent tourist attraction and definitely spoiled because of it. There’s only a few other people here besides us this morning but, by the size of the shop, it obviously gets package tourists coming out from town by the busload. The shop is a newly built cement monstrosity filled with local women sitting with their weavings and waiting for customers. It’s the same stuff we’ve seen everywhere in Luang Prabang and we’ve already bought one each at the market yesterday. As we walk in they all hold up their silks and look at us hopefully. It’s so overwhelming and it seems too awful to walk out but we do anyway.

Across the road we watch a young girl giving weaving and spinning demonstrations and another lady making paper. It’s a bit touristy but interesting anyway and Julie and I both buy silk-covered books that we’ll probably never use.

We rest in the afternoon and plan to meet again at four o’clock outside the guesthouse. While Mark and I are waiting on the steps, we’re approached by a man called Mr. Somboun who offers to take us upriver to Pak Ou Caves. We ask him if he has a ‘fast boat’ or a ‘slow boat’ as we have to be back by one o’clock tomorrow to get ready to fly out in the afternoon. He tells us that he has a ‘slow boat’ but that it can go fast. Can’t ask for more than that. We agree to go tomorrow at 8.30 am for $20 AUS for the two of us.

Now we all wander around till we come across a lovely leafy café, which, for some reason, has shrubs, covered in eggshells – what the…? Must be eggplants (ha, ha). After pineapple shakes we head down to the internet café. There’s a message from Lauren and she’s so lonely and sad, as no-one understands why she’s so upset about losing Benny – after all ‘he’s only a cat’. After fourteen years it’s hard to imagine him not with us anymore.

Dinner is in an upmarket café in a side street but my heart isn’t in it. Afterwards, we walk along the Mekong and stop at yet another open-air café surrounded by lanterns and coloured lights. We all get slightly drunk after having our first taste of ‘lao-lao’. This is rice whiskey, distilled locally which obviously means it’s extremely strong and we only need a couple of shots each to make us all very ‘happy’. An older American couple are also drinking lao-lao and they tell us they’re on their way up north to spend a few weeks smoking dope – amazing. Another stop for a beer near our guesthouse and we finally fall into bed about eleven o’clock.

Monday     5th February, 2001      Luang Prabang to Vientiane

Mark and I are both feeling surprisingly good after our night on the lao-lao although poor Julie as been up spewing all night. She and Steve are leaving this morning to catch the seven o’clock bus to Vang Vieng. It’s been great to be with them and a shame it’s over so quickly but we’ll see them again at home in three weeks time. While we say goodbye outside in the street we’re lucky to see monks on their alms rounds coming towards us. We’re the only tourists here – always better when it’s the real thing and not some staged tourist attraction.

After waving goodbye, Mark and I hang around watching the monks and then head back to our room to shower and pack. For breakfast we decide to splurge and walk around to Villa Santi. This one hundred and twenty year old French colonial building was once the home of King Sisavong Vong and is still decorated with antiques and Lao art. The villa is beautiful with its two floors overlooking an inner garden. We’re shown to a table on the balcony and have a wonderful buffet breakfast for $20 AUS.

Now it’s time for our boat trip up the Mekong to Pak Ou Caves. We meet our boatman as arranged at 8.30 am and follow him down the steep embankment to his boat. We’re thrilled that we’re the only passengers and also with our boat which is extremely picturesque. It’s an old wooden longtail, painted green and white and set up with tiny polished wooden kindergarten-sized seats. It’s open on all sides but we have a roof for shade and even some tied-back curtains.

The two hours to the caves are rather uneventful but I’m a bit better today and feel almost carefree out here on the river. We’ve brought our pillows with us and Mark makes up a bed in the bottom of the boat for a snooze. I watch the activity along the river although there’s not much to see. A few people working in vegetable gardens, some hanging washing out on bamboo poles and some men making a boat down near the water.

The Mekong is quite dangerous in parts as the water swirls around the rocks jutting out from its muddy depths. We pass another ‘slow boat’ and almost get deafened by a couple of speed boats that roar past us. These look so out of place and I have no idea why you’d want to experience this remote beautiful country by hurtling down the Mekong at top speed encased in life-jackets and crash helmets – each to his own, I guess.

After a couple of hours we pull in at Ban Xang Hai also called the Jar Maker Village. Here hundreds of pottery jars are filled with the sticky rice that ferments into lao-lao. On the river bank we’re met by two women and a little girl from a Hmong tribe. The Hmong people live all around this area and still wear their traditional dress of black loose pants and kimino style jacket with bright pink and blue silk trim. All three have different styled hats but all in the same black, pink and blue colours. The women are extremely beautiful with soft delicate features and great smiles. They’re selling their embroidery and we promise to buy some after we’ve been to the village.

This is clean and quaint and so many wonderful things for sale. There’s the usual silk hangings as well as countless buddha images and opium pipes. I fall in love with a very antique looking brown and gold pipe and naturally buy it – what a treasure. There seems to be lao-lao jars everywhere but we don’t have time to see anything being done. On the way back to the boat we buy two wristbands and an awful embroidered bag from the Hmong ladies. All only $4 AUS so it’s no problem.

Back in the boat and it’s only another fifteen minutes to the caves. This is on the other side of the river and we can see one cave overlooking the river high up in the side of a limestone rock face. The boat pulls in to a tiny wooden jetty and we climb the cement stairs to the lower cave called Tham Ting.

An old man shows us how to make offerings to Buddha with incense, candles and flowers. This is so wonderful. We love doing this. The cave is crowded with thousands of buddha statues particularly the Luang Prabang standing buddha and the whole cave looking out onto the blue cloudless sky and the huge brown Mekong below us.

From here we climb up to Than Phum or the upper cave. Oh no, here’s more Hmong women on the stairs selling more of their horrible embroidery – I definitely cannot buy anymore. At the upper cave Mark goes through the ‘offerings-to-Buddha’ thing – know what we’re doing now.  Look at more statues and then time to get back to town. The trip back only takes an hour as we’re travelling with the fast flowing current this time. There’s almost a drama when we nearly get swamped by one of the dickhead speedboats and our camera and video camera both get wet but there’s no real damage done.

Back in Luang Prabang, we still have a few hours before we have to be at the airport. We walk back downtown to the internet shop, buy a phonecard, try unsuccessfully to ring home, revisit the market, buy a silver urn, a temple gong and a red opium pipe and then have lunch. This is in a café but feels more like being in someone’s loungeroom – very appealing and there’s no menu. You just get whatever your given which is noodles and cost us only $1 AUS. Just love it.

Another unsuccessful attempt to ring home and then we have bacon and cheese salad breadrolls with pineapple and yoghurt shakes from our favourite café. From here we grab a tuktuk to pick up our bags from the guesthouse then through the now-familiar streets of Luang Prabang and out to the airport.

The terminal is a low modern building lacking any adornments or character. I finally get through to Lauren and she’s so sad. She’s bought a kitten but thinks she might take him back – too soon yet, I think. Angie has just gone out so I’ll ring her from Hanoi.

The waiting area is full of flies and uncomfortably hot and humid. We’re pleased, then, to discover that the restaurant is air-conditioned and we spend a pleasant hour cooling off in here drinking and diary writing. We’re looking at a very small plane outside the window and hoping like hell that it isn’t ours. It is. It definitely doesn’t instill us with confidence. Lao Aviation doesn’t have the best reputation but we can’t face ten hours backtracking across the mountains to Vientiane. We’ll take the risk.

Besides us, there are another eight passengers, which just about fills the plane. We take off at five o’clock and the next forty minutes are probably the longest of my life. Despite spectacular scenery as we put-put our way over endless mountain peaks, our ears are popping and we can see the sky through gaps in the emergency door parts of which have been covered with sticky tape. Lao Aviation – never again!

Sighs of relief as we land at Wattay airport. Everyone else has noticed the gaps around the door as well as the black engine soot on the wings. Anyway, we’re here and we share a taxi with a New Zealand guy called David. He works and lives in Hong Kong and travels all over Asia in his spare time. He knows Vientiane well and takes us to the Haysoke Hotel where we can get a good deal.

The hotel consists of a three floored newish building with a picturesque wooden French house next door. We like the house and our room is big with cane furniture but a bit grubby. We share a bathroom so for $20 AUS it’s not such a good deal. But we do have a television and it’s an experience to watch Lao TV. After quick showers we meet David outside and we all walk around to a bar he knows about.

‘Casper’ is set in the garden of a lovely old French villa. Most of the tables are filled with westerners but there’s also a lot of young heavily made-up local girls wandering around – prostitutes, I suppose. At first we sit at the outside bar and order jugs of bia sot which is the local draft beer. For 10,000 kip or $2.50 AUS we get two drinks each.

I can’t believe how much food we now manage to get through. We all share hot chips, vegetable/rice rolls wrapped in rice paper, chicken salad, tuna salad, fried pork rice and a Korean barbeque. This involves putting hot coals in a hole in the centre of the table then sitting the Korean barbeque on top. This is a stainless steel dish raised in the centre and a moat around the edge. The moat is filled with a watery broth which you use to cook noodles, cabbage and lettuce. Two eggs are also broken into the broth and stirred while strips of meat are cooked on the top. Interesting but painstaking and not that great.

We’re so tired now after an eventful day and definitely sick of drinking. We can’t believe that all this food and two jugs of bia sot only cost us $16 AUS. Glad to be rid of David’s incessant talking, Mark and I can’t wait to get back to our room and be alone. We watch our video on the television and then to sleep at last.

Tuesday    6th February, 2001               Vientiane to Hanoi

After early showers we’re out in the street for breakfast. Next door is a grotty local café with the usual flies, plastic chairs, fans, buddha shrines and dead chickens hanging from ceiling hooks. We sit at an outside table as it’s hot already. No-one can speak English so we just point to some bamboo steamers stacked on top of one another on a cart in the street.

We’re given five small steamers – spicy ducks feet, chicken wings and feet, birds eggs, dumpling and pork mince wrapped in Mekong seaweed and all washed down with warm Lao tea. What a great last breakfast in Laos. It’s a bit weird but the real thing and the reason we’re here after all. The bill comes to ‘ten five sousand’ meaning fifteen thousand kip.

From here we wander around the area stopping at a few wats and watching women sell live fish on the footpath. The streets around here are smelly and dirty but it’s an interesting town with more street life than Luang Prabang.

We make our way down to the river that’s lined with a string of ‘malaria’ cafes as Mark calls them. They look exactly that – a ramshackle mess sitting along the marshy banks of the Mekong. Thailand is easily visible on the other side of the river which is quite low at this dry time of year with sandbanks protruding from its shallows.

The humidity has got to us already and we head back to the room for a rest. Mark packs while I go in search of salad rolls. I find the rolls and I find the salad but there doesn’t seem to be any way that I’m going to get the two to come together. I compromise with a cold pork and cheese roll from a street cart – tastes good but will probably kill us.

We leave our bags in reception after checking out of our room and then catch a jumbo to the post office. From here we set off down the wide avenue of Thanon Lan Xang where we can see Laos’ version of the Arc de Triomphe called Patuxai. On the way we watch people sitting under trees on the footpaths having their fortunes told. No-one can speak English so we miss out.

At Patuxai, we pay 1000 kip to climb the six flights of stairs to the top for great views of the city. So hot now so I buy cold watermelon from a street cart then catch a jumbo to Fountain Circle. Of course, the fountain is dry so we keep going back to the hotel to pick up our packs.

Our last jumbo ride in Laos and we’re off to Wattay International Airport. As usual when we leave a country, we wonder if we’ll ever be back and what it’ll be like if we do. Despite being so sad over the last few days, we’ve loved this country and its happy people. I’ve felt at peace here and hope that western influences don’t manage to destroy its beautiful culture.

The airport terminal is modern and impressive and a cool relief from the heat outside. In an upstairs restaurant, we order satay beef and rice (Mark, of course) and a tuna club sandwich (me, of course) from a sign with coloured pictures of the meals on offer.

Mark has a diet coke which is the first he’s been able to get since Bangkok and he’s thinking of blowing the budget and ordering another. I ask for a chocolate milkshake and get a glass filled with chocolate ice water and two small jugs, one with milk and the other with liquid sugar. The little waiter is so worried that I’m not drinking it but when I explain what a chocolate milkshake is, he’s really interested – may have started something new in Laos.

Meanwhile we’re very happy to see that our Vietnam Airlines plane is the sleek and modern craft outside the window. Back outside, the heat on the tarmac is scorching but at 3.40 pm we’re up, up and away, finally heading for Hanoi and a new three week adventure in Vietnam.






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Nepal 1999


Wednesday 15th December, 1999.        Varanasi to Kathmandu

Leaving India behind us, we’re off on a new adventure to the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal. The flight on Indian Airways is only fifty minutes and it’s all spectacular. The snow covered peaks of the Annapurna Mountains rise above the clouds and we circle our way down between rugged mountains surrounding the green Kathmandu Valley that stretches out below us. As we land at Tribhuvan International Airport, we’re 1200 feet above sea level and the day is warm with a brilliant blue sky.

The formalities are quick and soon we’re speeding away in a rusty old car which we’ve been told is the airport taxi. The driver and his friend are both street-wise young men who seem to be taking us on a wild goose chase. When I ask ‘are we going the right way’ the driver assumes we’ve been here before and we say ‘yes, many times’.

Now we’re back on what looks like a main road and are soon driving through the narrow crowded streets of Kathmandu. It’s different to India but similar, too. Like India, the buildings are all in need of a coat of paint and washing is hanging out from upper balconies. The streets are crowded but, because only a few women here wear saris, there’s less colour and there’s not a cow to be seen anywhere.

An inner area called Thamel is the backpacker district and where we have a booking at the Kathmandu Guesthouse. Thamel is like an oasis for people who’ve been in India for too long. Here are cafes, bakeries, pubs, souvenir shops and tourist agencies.

Despite this, Thamel still retains its Asian flavour with its dusty, narrow streets and cycle-rickshaws. Before long, our ‘taxi’ pulls in at the Kathmandu Guesthouse. After reading the Lonely Planet this was the only place we wanted to stay. As well as being in the centre of all the action, it’s the original hotel around here and the most famous especially if you want to meet other travellers.

There’s a large paved courtyard in front where tables and chairs have been set up under the trees. A bar is at one side and trekking shops and a bicycle rental place are along the alleyway to the street. Inside, the foyer looks like a postcard of a chalet. The walls and low ceiling are lined with dark panelled wood, there’s a copper and brass open fireplace with comfy lounges pulled up in front, Indian carpets, red velvet curtains and huge windows looking out onto an inner garden.

We carry our packs inside and then we’re shown to our room along a wooden panelled corridor. Small offices, an internet room, a beauty parlour, a massage room and information rooms lead off here. The whole place appears to be extremely organised.

Our room is on the first floor and entered through arched double wooden doors. Down two steps and we’re in a huge room with the bed at one end then lounge chairs, a dressing table, a television, wardrobes and the biggest bathroom we’ve ever seen. We have a long vanity, a toilet and a bath and a shower with the first shower curtain we’ve seen in Asia. To top it off, the toilet works and we have water  – hot water – luxury!

Leaving the unpacking till later, we go out to check out the area. In front of an old Newari house, we sit in the sun near a buddhist monk wearing the maroon robes like those in Sarnath. Incredibly, the streets are empty of rubbish and there’s no smell – more luxury. Later in the courtyard of our guesthouse we order Carlsberg beers and then, after dark, we wander around to the Rum Doodle Bar, also famous as a traveller’s haunt.

The temperature has dropped and the atmosphere in here is cosy with an open fire and trekking paraphernalia on the walls. Although we’d only planned to stay for a beer, the fire is too nice to leave so we order dinner as well. It’s also hard to pass up the menu. Mark orders steak and vegetables while I order soup and garlic bread. More beers and then back to bed.

Thursday   16th December, 1999.          Kathmandu

Mornings are foggy at this time of year in Kathmandu so it gives us a good excuse to sleep in. We don’t leave the room until 9.30am and have breakfast at Alice’s Restaurant. This is an atmospheric rooftop café and another well-known hippie eating place.

Across the narrow street are other sunny rooftop cafes packed with travellers and below us the street is buzzing. We decide to hang around Kathmandu today and start out by doing a walking tour of the old area.

Rickshaws are easy to come by and we’re soon being cycled through the crowded streets. The air looks hazy from dust or fog or both – very otherworldly. Our driver drops us off at Thahiti Tole which is a busy little square with lots of tiny temples around the outside and a large 15th century stupa in the middle.

Rickshaw drivers in colourful hand-embroidered skullcaps are lounging around in the sun and in no obvious hurry to find any customers. From here we keep walking through narrow streets to visit more temples and an old monastery and later to the tiny Ugratara Temple which you visit if you have sore eyes.

Next to this is a lump of wood onto which you nail coins to get rid of a toothache – seriously. If this doesn’t work a whole street nearby is dedicated to dentists. We can’t read the signs but it doesn’t matter as over each doorway hangs a hand-painted pair of smiling dentures. My Buddha, don’t let us get a toothache.

Further on, we climb a wooden ladder to reach a tiny shop not much bigger than a closet. Here we buy an embroidered wall hanging from two men who are sewing other hangings just like it on old treadle machines. Sewing is the done thing here in Nepal and we’ve seen people using these old machines all through the streets.

This area is incredible as the shops are either down one step through a baby-sized doorway or up one step to a cupboard-sized room. I can’t see why this is. I mean, the Nepalese are a small people but they’re not pygmies. These shops definitely aren’t made for tall Westerners especially like Mark and we both have to bend our heads to get through the doorways.

As we keep walking, Mark buys a pair of red zip-off pants with embroidered edges and I buy a navy woolen coat with maroon trim – very Nepalese. It’s actually cold enough here at night to wear a coat and I just have to get the ‘look’ even though we’re not going anywhere near mountains or snow.

I swear we must be the only people in Kathmandu who aren’t trekking – already been or about to go. We just haven’t got the time and besides that we’re so stuffed from our India stint we can barely walk down the street. That’s my excuse, anyway.

We soon find our way back to Thamel, pick up our photos and have lunch in one of the sunny rooftop cafes we saw this morning from Alice’s Restaurant. The cafe is above a bakery that makes fresh bead rolls and cakes all day and, consequently, is always packed.

Now we decide to ask if we can get a cheaper room at the Kathmandu Guesthouse. We don’t need our huge room that’s costing us too much money. We’re in luck and not only can we get a cheaper room but we like this one even more. It’s on the next floor and we have a window at the back that looks out over trees and an old Newari house and a balcony at the front from where we can see snow-capped mountains. The sun is streaming into the bedroom and the bathroom and our verandah overlooks an inner garden and pond.

By now, it’s three o’clock and just enough time to cycle to the hilltop temple of Swayambhunath. We hire mountain bikes near the guesthouse and set off through the busy streets. Mark’s a good rider but I haven’t been on a bike in years so I’m hopeless – and scared.

There’s so much traffic but I go screaming (literally) through the first few streets being totally amazed that I’m still on the bike. At a chaotic intersection we both get off and push our bikes across and then jump back on them again as the traffic thins. After crossing a wide bridge we start the climb to the temple. This area is only a few kilometres from the centre of Kathmandu but already it’s taking on a more rural atmosphere. We can see terraces and green fields and always the snow-capped mountains (love saying that) in the distance. The road is unpaved now and full of potholes, which are really hard to miss. Near the top we pass a school and then at last the temple steps are in sight.

Here are the usual stalls and shops all trying to tempt the hundreds of tourists that visit the temple every day. Although it’s a popular tourist destination, there’s no tourist buses or hordes of people like we’ve seen in some places in India. I guess that late afternoon is a good time to miss the crowds. The majority of people here are Nepalese either making their way up the stairs or just hanging around. It’s quite peaceful which is just as it should be.

Tall trees shade the whole area and are growing beside the steps all the way to the top. Two huge buddha statues painted orange and yellow sit on either side of the base of the steps and coloured prayer flags are strung high up in the trees across the path. A man passes us carrying two huge bundles of dried twigs from a pole across his shoulders and two girls are grooming each other’s hair looking for bugs, I suppose.

At the bottom of the stairs is a huge prayer wheel inside a small doorway and outside is a row of smaller prayer wheels. Mark walks along the row spinning each one to send off prayers to Buddha ‘heaven’ – lovely.

After chaining up our bikes we start our climb of the three hundred and sixty steps to the temple. Not having one iota of fitness it’s a hard climb. I take it slow and Mark doesn’t mind waiting. There’s so much to occupy us on the way up anyway.

The Nepalese women are so colourful in their traditional clothes and on every landing are stalls selling jewelry and trinkets. Swayambhunath is also called the Monkey Temple and there’s a tribe of them here playing in the trees and on the handrailings. We’re nearly there but going up the last group of steps I’m almost on my hands and knees – pathetic.

At the top at last to find the whole area crammed with temples, a monastery, carved pillars, bronze statues and stalls selling prayer wheels and other religious curios. Of course, dominating it all is the huge central stupa where the eyes of the Buddha look out from the four sides of the base of its golden spire.

Best of all are the fabulous views of the green Kathmandu Valley with snow-capped mountains (sorry) in the distance.  On the hillside behind the top platform are other stupas and shrines and monkeys everywhere. These ones are small and incredibly cute to watch.

Before heading back down the stairs, it’s my turn to spin the prayer wheels. One of the reasons I wanted to come to Nepal was to do just this. Half way down the stairs we stop to buy silver bangles and rings from a smiling local lady and have fun bartering. At the bottom we pay the little man who watched over our bikes even though we’d chained them up.

Apparently if someone doesn’t keep an eye on them, kids let down the tyres and then you have to pay them to pump them back up – ingenious really.  Riding back into Kathmandu, I’m feeling more confident and only manage to sideswipe one little boy. It’s starting to get dark by now so we’re glad to get back into Thamel and the guesthouse.

Hot showers and a change into our ‘good’ clothes. I wear a beautiful black shawl I’d bought in India and we have a posh dinner in the courtyard sitting next to a wood fire. A few beers and then we find the dingiest little bar down the street. It’s down a tiny alley and up a ladder-like set of wooden steps, very dark inside, posters of Bob Marley on the wall, candles on the low tables and sixties music coming from behind the bar.

We sit on the floor on cushions and order cocktails with strange Kathmanduish names – very hippie. Of course, we love it and should have stayed instead of going on to the Irish Pub further down the street. No atmosphere here and feeling drunk anyway so we spend the rest of the night watching a crappy movie on the AXN station in our room.

Friday 17th December, 1999Kathmandu to Patan to Bhaktapur

Another sleep-in and again we don’t leave the room till 9.30am. Along a side street we find an interesting café where we sit on cushions in a cosy corner for a good breakfast of omelets and toast. Today we’ve planned to visit some of the other towns in the valley so we barter for a taxi to take us to Patan and Bhaktapur.

Patan is the closest and only takes us half an hour to get there. All three towns of Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Patan have a Durbar Square which is situated in front of the palace. They’re all surrounded by temples and great places to buy Nepalese souvenirs. In Patan’s Durbar Square, we buy a prayer wheel, buddha masks and a silver ganesh.

Bhaktapur is another half-hour away and situated amongst greenery, cultivated terraces and with snow-capped mountains (sorry again) close by. The town dates back to the 14th century and looks it. We’re dropped off in a square surrounded by ancient looking shops and houses then walk down the hill to where women are busy working in vast vegetable gardens.

Mark is buying mandarins but the stall owner is ripping us off so he tells her to shove them. Back up in the main part of town we watch people washing clothes in the street, tying together bundles of straw and, everywhere, women sewing or knitting. We wander through tiny winding alleyways and in every doorway people are sitting in the sun talking or playing with children.

We take photos of two little boys whose eyes have been rimmed with black kohl. It’s a relaxed town but there’s no-one being terribly friendly. I think they see tourists here all the time and although it’s incredibly interesting, we decide to head back to Kathmandu. By now, I’m also feeling sick again and can’t wait to get back to the room.

The trip back is horrific. As we come into the outskirts of Kathmandu it’s bumper to bumper traffic and every vehicle is spewing out buckets of black shit. We thought India was polluted and we’ve been looking forward to the fresh air of Nepal. What a joke. Back to the room for a sleep then salad rolls for a picnic dinner on the bed.

Saturday   18th December, 1999.          Kathmandu

We’re both feeling slightly better today but so very tired. We stay in bed till ten o’clock – our longest sleep-in yet. Breakfast is in a leafy courtyard café near our guesthouse. Neither of us eat much and we have constant dashes back to the room for emergency toilet visits.

Christmas is only a week away and the foyer of our guesthouse has been decorated in red and green and Christmas carols are being played outside – getting homesick now. Ring the girls from a small place near the guesthouse and this makes me even more homesick. Had enough of travelling, sightseeing, guidebooks, changing money, taking photographs….

Nevertheless, we can’t help ourselves and take a cycle-rickshaw to Kathmandu’s Durbar Square. More stupas, shrines and temples – ‘same, same’. It is pleasant here, though, and we buy more souvenirs, climb the steps of the temple of Maju Deval and have some laughs with a couple of sadhus.

Sadhus are Hindu wanderers usually on pilgrimages from one spiritual centre to the next. The sadhus here follow different gods. One is wearing bright yellow robes and has three vertical lines (tilakas) on his forehead indicating that he is a follower of Vishnu. The other very jovial sadhu wearing red robes follows Shiva since his tilaka is three horizontal lines and he’s carrying the symbol Shiva on a long staff. I sit with the jovial sadhu on the steps of Jagannath Temple and for a small donation for his journeys I’m given yellow marigolds to wear around my neck.

Durbar Square is also the place where locals like to be seen or just to hang out reading or playing musical instruments. I should say it’s where men hang out as there are no women sitting around doing nothing.

Around the outskirts of the square are flower sellers, women selling fruit from big cane baskets, and hundreds of spices being sold from big canvas bags.

Another rickshaw ride takes us back to Thamel. Lunch is the beautiful crusty bread rolls with salad at our favourite sunny rooftop café. The afternoon is spent shopping for presents for home – had a gut full of shopping, too. We are very happy, though, with some ethnic looking cushion covers and a brass and silver urn.

By late afternoon we’re doing all the last minute things like picking up the last rolls of photos and final gift buying and Mark buys a huge bag to carry all this extra stuff home. After a few beers in the courtyard, Mark goes back to the room to pack while I go out to buy more rolls for tea – can’t stop eating them. An early night.

Sunday  19th December, 1999       Kathmandu to Singapore

We’re ready to go in plenty of time, so we just have to buy salad rolls for breakfast/lunch. Mark packs all our gear into the back of a taxi and off we go to the airport. At Departures there’s stacks of people so there must be a few planes all leaving at about the same time as ours at 1pm.

As we line up for baggage check-in, an airport ‘official’ hints that he can get all bags through without having to pay an excess. There’s lots of winking going on suggesting that we’re somehow special and he’ll look after us. We go along with the charade but the joke’s on him. If he thinks he’s going to get money out of us he’s out of luck because we haven’t got any left.

No money also means we can’t buy anything to eat in the Departure lounge. We’ve got a few coins so Mark tries to get the guy serving to let us buy a drink with only half the money but he looks at him like he’s an idiot.

To occupy ourselves we look at everything in the duty free shops but then just have to be bored and both sit there staring into space. In a moment of mindless delerium I have a sudden flash, ‘can you imagine India hosting the Olympics?’ This somehow sends us into hysterics and keeps us amused for the rest of the day.

We leave an hour late but the take off is great as we have our last glimpse of Kathmandu and the snow-capped Annapurnas. We make up some time but at Singapore’s Changi Airport we literally have to run to catch our connecting flight to Sydney. Of course this means that there wasn’t enough time for our bags to be transferred over but we don’t realise this till we get to Sydney.

Definitely not happy but we’re reassured that they will come on the same flight tomorrow and will be delivered to our home. Also not happy that we fly through a storm on the horrid little shit-box Aeropelican plane on the way back to Newcastle.

Please God, if I’m going to die in a plane let it be somewhere madly exotic and not, please God, in a mangrove swamp fifty kilometres from home. No problem, and I’m incredibly happy when I see my darling Dad, Angie, Lauren, Jacky, Emily and Alex waiting at the terminal at Pelican. Home, then, to see my beautiful Mum and all is well.


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Bali 2003


 Monday     26th May, 2003            Sydney to Denpasar, Bali

We leave home at 5.15 am on a cold, rainy morning. Drive to Sydney without any holdups and leave the car in the longterm carpark. Very miserable weather still and we wait ages for the courtesy bus to take us to the International Airport. We check in and for once we’re sorry to see that there’s not many passengers.

Bali has suffered so much since the bombing of Paddy’s Bar and the Sari Club on October 12th last year and it looks like the tourists are still keeping away. The trial of the terrorists is starting this week in Denpasar so I guess this is scaring people away even more. Mark and I don’t understand this mentality but everyone does what they have to do.

I can’t believe we’re at the airport again so soon. It’s less than three months ago that we were taking off for Egypt so I feel exceptionally lucky. Mark is my dream, my love, my hero. He knows what going back to Bali means to me and what it will mean to the both of us to buy our wedding rings there. No gold or diamonds could replace or mean more than the plain silver rings we want to buy.

My heart is full when I think of this beautiful little island. I don’t know why but it feels so right. My heart breaks for the Balinese people and maybe going will help a tiny bit. I think we’ll have to prepare ourselves for big changes, though. Will we find Barney and will Ketut be at Aneka?  Has the bombing destroyed this perfect little paradise?

Through to immigration in Sydney, we buy perfume, bacardi, bourbon, Bailey’s and a book for Mark – Richard Branson’s autobiography. Ring Mum and Dad then board on time. We leave at 10.50am and move seats since the plane is only a third full. Mark has three middle seats and I have two seats next to the window.

Outside is still dark and raining but within minutes we’ve broken through the clouds and brilliant golden sunshine pours into the cabin. God, I feel like we’re there already! We’re flying Garuda so the hostesses are gorgeous Indonesian girls in traditional dress. Mark gets a couple of hours sleep but I’m too excited and read up on the guidebook. We want to cram in as much as we can.

As we leave Australia, the coastline looks amazing but the best sight is the islands of Indonesia a few hours later. We fly past a few on our right, one with a volcano peeking up through the mist that surrounds it. The captain soon announces that the weather in Denpasar is clear skies and thirty degrees – awesome!

At last we see our beloved Bali. It even looks wonderful from the runway. Palm trees grow right up to the airstrip and part of it juts out into the ocean. The terminal is so Balinese with fountains and ponds and traditional architecture. Nowhere else looks like this! We pass quickly through immigration as only about seventy of us disembark while the others go on to Jakarta. Sadly, of the seventy that get off in Bali, only a handful are tourists and the rest are locals.

We can feel the heat even inside the terminal and get a blast of it as we walk outside. It’s only 2.30pm so we’re still copping the midday heat. It’s what we love and adds to the excitement. The usual airport chaos is missing and only about ten tour-guides are here holding up their little name placards.

We’re met by a sweet girl who leads us to a van across the carpark. Even this is gorgeous and surrounded by flowering shrubs and tropical gardens. As we drive into Kuta, she tells us how different things are since the bombing. Even so, the streets are much busier than we’d expected and it all looks so fantastic. It’s still the Bali we love and I’m so excited.

Down Jalan Pantai Kuta towards the beach and then along the beach road which is still busy – bemos and motorbikes everywhere and even some tourists walking around. It doesn’t seem five years since we’ve been here at all and much, much better than we’d expected.

We’re booked into the same hotel that we’ve stayed in twice before as it feels like home to us. We turn into the long driveway to Aneka Beach and see that it’s as beautiful as ever. The foyer is open on two sides and as we check in all the wonderful smells of Bali over-power us. I feel that I could burst with happiness. We ask for a room with a sunny balcony and unpack a few things before going down to the bar.

Wayan is still working here and Ketut will be on tomorrow. Wayan has tomorrow off so he agrees to take us up to Ubud for the day. Now we order Bintangs and a cocktail and can’t get the huge smiles off our faces. Mark is as happy as I am. I can’t remember feeling this way since we were here last. My heart is full and I feel totally me. It’s so good to be in singlet tops and thongs – total freedom.

The pool is right next to the bar and there are a few people sunbaking and swimming. Can’t wait to get in the water ourselves and it feels wonderful. The gardens around the pool are so lush and flowering bougainvillea is everywhere. This is the loveliest hotel – not too big and so clean and friendly. It’s also only a few metres to the beach and opens straight out onto Poppies I.

After swims we decide to check out the laneway and walk down towards the beach. The same stalls are here and so is our favourite café right on the corner across from the beach. We’re the only customers and lap up the sunshine and the excitement of this area. Young motorbike and bemo drivers are hanging around waiting to pick up fares but not having much luck. Barney isn’t here today so we’ll just have to keep looking for him.

For lunch we have satay, noodles, shrimp salad and beers – so cheap – and then walk over to the beach. It’s lined with palms and other tropical shade trees and the massage ladies are still here in force. We pay 40,000RP ($8AUD) each for an hour-long massage but then I end up with a foot scrub for $2AUD which I don’t ask for, one fingernail done for free and a piece of leather tied around my wrist ‘because I like you, Jenny’ – what a scream!

I promise to buy sarongs, bracelets, etc and come back for the full fingernail and toenail treatment. Not relaxing but I love the ladies and it’s all part of the Bali experience that you have to do. We talk to the ladies about the bombing and they all say ‘fuckin’ arsehole, Amrosi – we like to kill him!’.

The sun is setting now and the beach is packed with Balinese. This happens every day and we watch the families and young people walking around and playing games on the beach. From here we wander back up Poppies to change money and then back to the room to use the internet. Mark has had to bring his laptop with him as he’s not even supposed to be on this holiday and he’ll have to try and run the lab from here. There’s no luck with the internet so we find an internet café along the laneway. This is a change from five years ago when there wasn’t one internet cafe in the whole of Bali.

Now we walk up to Jalan Legion which is the main thouroughfare and the street where the bomb went off. Before October last year, this street was choked with traffic day and night, but now it’s almost empty. This really brings home the effect it’s had on Bali – no tourists, so no jobs and no money.

It’s depressing so we walk back down Poppies where things seem much more ‘normal’. There’s even a few more cafes opened since we were here in ’98 and we want to try them all. Firstly I just have to spend some money and buy six black cane placemats ($2AUD each), a shirt for Mark ($6AUD) and a scarf ($3AUD). Now we stop at a new café for dinner and soda waters then Mark has another swim at Aneka before going back to our room for bacardis on the balcony. A beautiful night but still hot and humid – sleep with the air-conditioning on.

Tuesday              27th May, 2003            Kuta to Ubud to Kuta

Wake at seven after a good sleep then walk north along the beach towards Legian – a gorgeous morning. We cross to Poppies II and have breakfast at Bali Corner Café. The stalls are just opening up and we really love this time of day here. We eat noodles, omelets and pineapple juice while Mark makes a few work and options trading phonecalls home.

After getting changed in our room, we meet Wayan out in front of the Hard Rock Hotel on the beach. The road is busy again this morning but mainly with Balinese going about their lives rather than the much-needed tourists. We head up Jalan Melasti and out of Kuta towards Sanur.

From here we keep driving to Batubulan where we stop to look at stone carvers at work. Wayan also takes us to a batik making centre and then on to Celuk. This is the silver-makers village and where we hope to buy our rings. I tell Wayan that we want to visit a small family business instead of the touristy ones on the main road. He drives us along narrow laneways overgrown with greenery and finally pulls into a grassy yard surrounded by trees and Hindu shrines.

There’s about six young guys here making silver jewelery on the open verandah and one of them shows us how it’s made. Inside is a small showroom where we find plain, wide rings that we love. Mark’s ring is too small so we go outside to watch them fix it. We also want to buy a very Balinese looking ring but no luck with sizes here. We’ve decided on two wedding rings each – one modern and one ‘alternate’. We look at two more silver shops but still nothing – have plenty of time so no problem.

Now we head towards Ubud which is about another half-hour away. A few minutes after leaving Celuk we’re hailed down by police who take Wayan to the back of the van and demand a 50,000 RP bribe. Other vans carrying travellers are also being pulled over and Wayan says it happens all the time. He knows it’s corrupt but still laughs about it – great attitude because there’s nothing he can do.

The scenery is tropical to say the least – rice paddies, coconut trees and everything a brilliant green. We pass through lots of small villages which all look the same with each family living in compounds behind decorated stone walls – very beautiful and very typical of Balinese architecture and design.

At last at Ubud. This village/town is the artistic centre of Bali and it’s more elevated position makes it cooler and less humid than the coast. It’s still so hot today, though, and Wayan takes us straight to the open-air Padi Prada Restaurant on Monkey Forest Road for lunch. This is amazingly beautiful and typical of so many Balinese eating-places. It’s hard to find anything here that isn’t tropical, tropical, tropical.  It’s open on all sides and we choose to sit upstairs where the tables look directly onto waterlogged rice paddies.

We can even see farmers in the distance ploughing the fields with ancient wooden ploughs pulled by water buffalo. Beyond the rice paddies are coconut palms and grass and bamboo houses. We’re the only ones here and have a lovely lunch of fried chicken and club sandwiches then beers and a cocktail called Rice Paddy. We can see a couple of beautiful bungalows down below and built level with the rice fields. We ask the cost and, because of the lack of tourists, they’ve been reduced to US$80 from US$160. After looking through one which also has its own pool, we book it for Saturday night.

Wayan turns up and we walk down to the monkey forest where he’s parked the car. I ask about seeing a village and he says he can take us to see a family home. This is back in Batubulan and on the main road. Most Balinese families live in family compounds which consist of about eight separate buildings set within high stone walls. Inside the ornate gate Wayan introduces us to an old man and his wife. She’s sitting in the shade on one of the verandahs and slicing up a huge cylinder of cooked rice. She lays each slice onto bamboo screens that her husband puts out to dry in the sun. These are homemade rice cakes and she gives us one to try.

We see the tiny primitive kitchen and an open-air room with a raised floor and a four-poster style bed on it. This is apparently for weddings but we can’t really get the drift of it all. There’s four small spirit houses on stilts, chickens, roosters for cock fighting, a shed for storing rice and to keep it dry during the rainy season, lots of skinny kittens and two young girls making ceremonial baskets from bamboo. It’s a nice atmosphere.

We stop again in Batubulan village to buy three carved wooden hangers. The old lady’s shop is just a shack and everything is caked with dust. She obviously hasn’t been doing much business lately so we’re glad we stopped here. Now we drive around the back laneways just off the main road to see a different world. It’s so lush and peaceful and I know I could live here.

Back in Kuta, Mark spends an hour emailing from his laptop in our room. Meanwhile I email home from a little place in Poppies I and change some money. Then it’s time for a beer and cocktails at Aneka and we’re so happy to see Ketut here today. We know him from the last two times we stayed at Aneka and we had a funny day with him in 1998 when he took us on a trip to Nusa Dua. He’d borrowed a car and had no idea how to use the gears so we kangarooed our way out of Kuta not even stopping for a red light then ended up with a flat tyre at Benoa Beach. Of course the spare was also flat so we had to get a taxi back. He’d also brought along his little three-year-old son who he told us was ‘very naughty, not like Daddy’. He’s still laughing and smiling even when he tells us about ‘the bomb’.

All life seems to have been either before or after ‘the bomb’ – it’s been a definite turning point in the lives of all the Balinese people. Ketut was to be at the Sari Club that night but he’d taken a group of tourists up to Lovina for the day and was too tired to go out.

After he makes me a milk cocktail we walk up Poppies to a massage place I’d seen an hour ago. This is Maria Massage and it’s in a tiny shed divided into two rooms. Maria’s husband, Wayan, also does massage so Mark and I get done at the same time. The room is so cute with frangipanis in a bowl under the table and the atmosphere only spoilt by loud Eminem music coming from across the alleyway. All part of the Kuta experience. We pay 50,000RP (AUD$10) for one hour – more expensive than before but heaps cheaper than home. It’s a good strong massage as well so it’s well worth it.

On the walk back home we stop at the open-air AP Bar for drinks. We sit on tall cane stools at the bar and watch all the action in the laneway. Lots of people around tonight and the café behind is almost full. This is a great atmosphere and we love to be hot and wearing our daggiest clothes and no-one cares. Mark drinks too many beers and I have banana daiquiris while we talk to a young English couple called Eve and Martin. Back to bed by 9.30pm.

Wednesday        28th May, 2003                      Kuta

Wake early again and we’re out in the streets by seven o’clock. We’ve decided to hang around Kuta today and check out the alleyways between Poppies I and Poppies II. What a discovery! All the times we’ve been here and only now do we find a fabulous world in these little laneways. It’s wonderful in here – interesting houses and girls in ceremonial dress putting out offerings of flowers, rice, fruit and incense from woven baskets.

There’s small rundown shacks selling local food cooked while you watch. These are called warangs and you sit on old, wooden benches and order real Balinese food. The only problem is that none of these people can speak English and it’s all too difficult. We decide to eat in a tourist café a bit later but first we want to visit the bombsite – been putting it off but we must see it before we go home – like a pilgrimage, I guess.

We follow Poppies II to the Bounty Hotel which almost backs onto the Sari Club and where we stayed for a few nights last time. It’s so quiet around in Jalan Legian where the two clubs once stood. Paddy’s Bar and the Sari Club are totally gone and are now vacant blocks behind tall metal fences. All the buildings around here are being rebuilt or repaired and the whole area looks like a demolition site.

At the corner of the Sari Club is a shrine to the people who lost their lives here. Some personal messages from parents and one from a daughter to her mother make us so sad. We’d been at the club with the kids in 1998 so we remember what it was like – not a fancy nightclub, just a little beach bar with people in thongs and T-shirts – just a place to have fun.

I remember the morning we found out what had happened. It was a Sunday and I put the television on while I was eating breakfast. I saw news footage of a fire and bomb explosion in an Asian nightclub and then heard them say The Sari Club. I thought it must be a club of the same name in a major city but then they said Bali. I called out to Mark and we watched it in disbelief.

The rest of the day brought worse news of the number of casualties and the next week we heard nothing else. I couldn’t handle it at all. I was so sad for the people who were killed and injured but we knew from that first second what it would do to Bali and the Balinese people. The tourists just left and, now seven months later, very few have come back.

Now we head back down into the little alleyways and meet a friendly lady called Agung. She’s been buying vegetables and she shows us her home. She tells us that she does massage so we promise to come back later. Her house is so ‘Balinese’ and it’ll be an exciting change from the beach massages.

In another alleyway we see ceremonial Balinese umbrellas and decorated spirit houses behind a tall stone fence. Inside the garden women are weaving flowers and we ask them what’s happening. They tell us that there’ll be a big, religious celebration here tonight and to come back about eight o’clock. Unreal!! This is what we want to see – real Bali culture.

We finally stop for breakfast at the Secret Garden which is an interesting café tucked away behind some market stalls. Even though it’s still early it’s hot already and the verandah is the coolest place to be.

Mark has to make more phonecalls to work – so hard for him, trying to give me a holiday but copping it from the Amdel bosses. Jo Navaro had told him a few days ago ‘Mark, I do not give you permission to go to Bali’ – well, here we are and I’m so proud of my baby. He’s ready to chuck it and Joe’s attitude just confirms that he’s right to resign. He’s so calm about it all but I know he wouldn’t let me know even if he really was worried. He walks back to the hotel for more emailing while I buy five tops and a skirt from a very happy lady.

At Aneka pool we hang around swimming and sunbaking but not for long – too much to do. Swimming in this pool is my idea of heaven. The gardens and trees are so lovely and the pool has three dragonhead fountains at one end and the open bar all along one side. After cooling down we wander back down the laneway to Agung’s house. I love it inside more than the outside. It’s not as primitive as the family compound that Wayan took us to yesterday but it’s still the same setup. There’s spirit houses in the tiny yard and separate buildings for the kitchen and bedrooms but all opening onto a long verandah.

Agung meets us in her bra and introduces us to her daughter, also called Agung, who massages as well. Mark goes with old Agung and I go off with young Agung to a little house in one corner of the yard. A mattress is on the floor in a type of loungeroom and I have a great but very strange massage for the next hour. Her ten-year-old son comes back from school with two of his friends and then her husband turns up. Meanwhile I’m on my back, naked to the waist. No-one seems to take any notice so I don’t stress either. Afterwards we have photos taken together – a lovely experience.

Not far from Agung’s house, we find a very bambooey café for lunch. It’s opposite the cockfighting ring and a very green area with tall trees and shrubs. We like it here so much. A young hawker comes into the café and we buy nine CD’s from him for AUD $3 each. He’s very excited at his big sale and we’re very happy to have added to our Café Del Mar collection.

I decide to have a manicure and pedicure and find a little place in the next laneway. Mark gets his nails clipped then goes back to the room for a rest. Meanwhile, I spend an agonising hour with a lady called Maria who hasn’t got the faintest idea what she’s doing. She laughs the whole time and I don’t have the heart to tell her to stop. By the time I leave, I’ve been scraped under every fingernail and there’s a hole in the middle of one where the scissors slipped. A pretty young German girl is waiting to get her hair permed and I feel like telling her to run and don’t look back!

At 4.30pm we walk down to the beach to look for Barney. I even ask some of the other bemo drivers but they don’t seem to know him. Instead we find a nice little man called Made who drives us out to Jimbaran Bay for 70,000RP (AUD $14) – much more than we’d have paid before but the Balinese need the money more than we do so we don’t barter much at all. The drive out there is nice in the late afternoon sunshine and only takes about twenty minutes.

We came here last time so we know what to expect. Very basic cafes are set up all along the beach and we go to Maima Café where Made takes us. All the cafés are the same with plastic tables and chairs set up on the sand in front of thatched areas where you pick your fresh seafood and have it cooked over hot coals.

Before sitting down we walk right up to the southern end of the beach and watch kids playing in the sand and fisherman hanging out around their boats. This area is so alive with local people. The sun is almost setting and the sky has turned to gold. A few surfers are out in the water and it’s a perfect night – warm and still – just like every night here in Bali. Back at Maima we order beers and our seafood. It’s so expensive here now and we spend AUD $50 for twenty king prawns and calamari.

We choose a table out on the sand and have a wonderful meal of salad with our garlic seafood. Some roving musicians are entertaining other people further down and they’re even playing Bob Marley – what could be more perfect? Now Made drives us back to Kuta. We decide to walk along the beach and stop at another café for an Arak Attack. This is the very alcoholic local rice wine with lemon juice. Before heading back to Aneka we want to check out the religious festival that’s supposed to be happening in one of the back laneways tonight.

We find it easily and watch from the gate for ages. At first we’re not sure if it’s the right thing to do but one of the men beckons us to move closer. About a hundred people are crammed inside with the women wearing the traditional Balinese sarongs and lace tops with coloured bands wrapped around their waist. The men are all in white pyjama-like outfits with coloured sashes. One woman is chanting and singing while other women give offerings at the spirit houses. This is magic and we didn’t realise all these wonderful things happen just near our hotel.

Duty free drinks of bacardi and Jim Beam on our lovely verandah before bed.

Thursday   29th May, 2003            Kuta to Nusa Dua to Kuta

Sleep in till eight o’clock this morning then get a phone call to tell us that we’ve won a holiday. I’d filled in a survey at the Maima Café last night and miraculously we’ve won ‘a major prize’. They’ll tell us all about it if we go out to Nusa Dua for ninety minutes. They’ll send a car to pick us up and bring us back and we get a free breakfast at one of the resorts. Mark is suspicious straight away but they deny it’s anything like time-share. We think, why not? We’ve got nothing planned this morning so why not go for the drive.

The weather is perfect again with blue skies and the temperature in the low thirties. It’s a thirty-minute drive to Nusa Dua and we enjoy every minute. The resort is nice and we wait on big cane lounges in the huge open-air lobby. At last we’re met by Toni, a sleazy Irishman who we hate on sight. With him is a young Malaysian guy who’s learning the trade. His name is Oz and is too nice to be with this creep.

Firstly we have breakfast but we have to eat with them obviously so Tony can size us up. Then he takes us downstairs to give us the con job. Mark doesn’t let him get away with anything and we can see him getting more and more hostile by the minute. He finally says ‘you’re not going to sign anything today, are you?’ – like we’re the scum of the earth. So happy that he hates us as much as we hate him and that he still has to give us the ‘free’ holiday. Up in the foyer a nice Balinese lady gives us our voucher and we take off back to Kuta laughing all the way – suck eggs, Tony!

The driver drops us at Bemo Corner as we want to walk around here for a while. There’s more traffic in Jalan Legian today and we’re so happy to be back in Kuta. In Poppies II, I’m abducted by a young girl who takes me down an alley to have my fingernails and toenails painted pink with white and red flowers.

From here we walk down to the cock-fighting laneway and find a Thai café for lunch. We sit on cushions on the floor and are served by a smiling man and his wife. Leaning against the wall with overhead fans cooling us down, it’s wonderful to watch the world go by outside. We love it here. Told that the cockfight starts ‘at one or maybe two’ (Balinese time) so we walk back to Aneka for a swim. This is the hottest day we’ve had so far and there’s a lot more people around the pool today.

At 2.30pm we go back to watch the cockfight. It’s in full swing and there’s about a hundred men all yelling at the top of their lungs as they make their bets. It’s amazing to see and there’s lots of blood. It’s a cultural thing so we don’t judge but glad to see that they don’t fight to the death.

The men who own the cocks really seem to love them so it’s hard to work out. Apparently it started as a religious thing with the spilling of blood for the gods. I like the area around the ring the best. Underneath the trees are warangs selling all sorts of interesting foods and other types of betting games going on as well. We’re the only westerners here and I’m the only woman watching but no-one seems to mind.

Mark needs to do some emailing from the room so I go back with him to wash my hair. Now down to the bar and we meet Tom, an eighty year old Australian, who’s come to Bali twice a year for the last fourteen years. He was here when the bomb went off and told us that two girls from the hotel never came home. Another two sisters from Germany survived but then one of them was eaten by a crocodile when they went to Australia a few weeks later – true!

Happily, Ketut is here and he always makes us happy. He laughs after every sentence and has a permanently beaming face. We make arrangements with him to get a driver to take us out along the east coast tomorrow. He also arranges with two lady friends of his to come to our room to give us massages. Can’t believe that we’ve had a massage every day since we came and they’ve all been in different places.

Afterwards, we walk down to the beach then find a taxi to drive us to the Kuta Night Market. It’s only about a five-minute drive but we probably wouldn’t have found it on our own. It’s down a side-street in an open-sided shed with lots of stalls and warangs inside. Only Balinese people here and a lot of them seem to be getting take-away food. It’s all freshly cooked so it’s a lot healthier than our fast-food at home. We wander around looking at all the food then choose a popular warang.

We order fish and prawns in garlic and chili and watch it all being cooked in big woks. The people are nice and like getting in the video. We eat at one of the long tables in front and have the best meal here so far. So much cheaper than Jimbaran Bay which has become so over-priced in the last few years. No-one ever comes here to the Night Market so it’s still the price that the Balinese pay.

Meanwhile my scraped fingernails from Maria, ‘The Manicurist From Hell’, are giving me hell especially when I eat. The slightest bit of salt just about has me going through the roof and the fingernail with the hole is now bruised as well. I’d hate to see the poor girl who was waiting to have a perm – she’s probably bald by now.

Walking back to Aneka we stop at a Chinese temple which we also hadn’t known existed till now. Learning so much more on this trip – have become better travellers after lots of trips since 1998. The temple is like all those we saw in Vietnam – so ornate and so much atmosphere. A few people are praying and burning incense but it’s quiet at this time of night.

Next to the temple we see another Balinese ceremony and we watch at the gate. Again we’re invited in and this ceremony is even more interesting than the one we saw last night. This is a water purifying ritual and the men are stripped to the waist and walk up to a small doorway in a raised temple and have water poured over their heads. Women wear simple saris and do the same. Other older women are sitting around in ceremonial dress and some are burning fires. This is amazing and something I never thought went on in such a touristy area as Kuta.

From here we walk back to the hotel through the very huge Hard Rock Hotel. It’s impressive but leaves us cold and we much prefer our homey little Aneka. Drinks on the verandah again before going to bed. This is our last night as we’re off to the east coast early in the morning.

Friday        30th May, 2003            Kuta to Tirtagangga

Wake at 7.30am to another beautiful day. After packing, Mark emails and I wash my hair. In the foyer we pay our phone bill, confirm flights and check out of Aneka. Ketut’s friend, Nyoman, is waiting for us and stores our packs in the back of his van.

We plan to have breakfast on the road somewhere so we set off about eight o’clock. It’s hot and humid already but luckily the van is air-conditioned. We pass through Sanur and then along the coast road which we’ve never been on before. Later we turn inland to the small town of Gianyar which we really like. Further on we stop for breakfast at a small café on the outskirts of Klungkung.

This is in a lovely setting near a bridge and with a rocky cliff-face behind. It’s very green here and we sit in a raised pavilion with a thatched roof. While we wait for breakfast we wander down to some covered verandahs and find an artist painting unusual and lovely pictures. He introduces himself and shows us his studio and gallery and his huge sculptures made from dead trees. They’re all of the human face or body and are simply amazing. He’s so gentle and makes no attempt to sell us anything. These people are incredible.

Now onto Klunkung which is a surprisingly large town. If we had more time I’d love to check out all these places – will definitely come back again next trip. Not far from here, we turn off the main road and onto a winding narrow road overhung with thick vegetation. It’s so beautiful here. We’re on our way to the coastal town of Padangbai to hopefully do some snorkelling.

Padangbai is a terminal for boats to Lombok and other outer islands and a long jetty stretches out into the ocean. Nyoman drives us to a string of shacks near the water that rent out boats and diving gear. I think we’re the only customers they’ve had here for a long time but still there’s no hassling.

We hire an outrigger, a driver and snorkelling gear for AUD $40 then change into our swimmers in the van. The young guys at the hire shop take us down to the beach. This is so lovely. There’s no waves here so the water is calm, crystal clear and aqua blue with a narrow strip of white sand all along the curved bay. There’s a very laid-back, holiday atmosphere here with a few cafés and guesthouses across the road from the beach – would definitely love to be staying here. Another smaller wooden jetty is nearby and there’s some sort of colourful, religious ceremony happening at its far end.

Meanwhile our boat is ready. It’s a small, white outrigger and our driver is Ketut who’s brought along his young friend, Made. We push off from shore and head out of the bay. It’s so nice to be on the water to cool down but definitely getting sunburnt already. We sail around a couple of small headlands for about twenty minutes till we reach Blue Lagoon.

Ketut makes anchor then he and Made fish while Mark and I put on our snorkelling gear and flippers. The water is warm in Bali so no need for wet-suits like we had to wear in the Egypt a few months ago. The reef here can’t compare to the Red Sea but it’s still lovely and we see heaps of coloured fish. We hold hands again and I’m in love with this undersea world. Mark has been snorkelling and diving lots of times before but snorkelling is the last thing I thought I’d love – a great surprise. There’s always something wonderful and new to learn no matter how old you are.

Back on shore, we leave Padangbai and head inland to the very unusual village of Tenganan. It’s unlike any other Balinese village although it’s actually the home of the descendents of the original Bali Aga people who lived here before the beginning of the Majapahit dynasty in the fourteenth century. The village is a few kilometres off the main road and at the end of a leafy track that winds its way through other small villages.

Tenganan had become a big tourist attraction but hardly anyone comes out this way since the bombing. At the entrance to the village a few shops are selling souvenirs and, in particular, the very special kamben gringsing weavings. These are made by the time-consuming double ikat method which means that the threads are dyed to make the patterns before the weaving is done. They’re very expensive and I don’t even like them that much.

We pay a fee to get in through the stone wall that surrounds the village and find even more weavings here for sale. The setout of the village is amazing with two very long stone houses facing each other with lots of small doorways along each one signifying the many different houses within them. So many of these houses use the front room to display even more weavings – there’s literally thousands, but who will ever buy them?

The longhouses are built up a hill for several hundred metres and with a few communal buildings in the centre. We sit in the shade for a while and laugh at a chicken picking food out of the mouth of a cow that’s lounging around on the grass. Now we follow Nyoman up the hill where most of the village people seem to be hanging out.

We’ve picked a great time to visit the village as there’s to be a big festival tomorrow and today is when all the food is prepared. Most of the young people are hanging out together while the adults are congregated in groups doing different stages of the food preparation. The men are chopping all sorts of vegetables in enormous amounts while the women are cooking in big black pots over open fires. They talk the whole time and I can tell that it’s the local gossip by the rapt looks on their faces. This is so primitive here and it’s been a great chance to see more of real Balinese life.

Leaving Tenganan, we drive back to the main road and on to Candi Dasa. This is a coastal town but there doesn’t seem to be a main centre and it all seems to be strung out along the water’s edge. It’s more green and overgrown here than I’d imagined and it’ll be another nice place to stay next time. We stop now at the up-market Lotus Café right on the water and have a posh lunch of chicken stuffed with ham and cheese and a few beers.

From Candi Dasa, we turn inland again for about half an hour then turn off the main road and start climbing upwards to the picturesque area of Tirtagangga. This is our destination for today and we hope to get a room at the guesthouse inside the grounds of Tirtagangga’s Water Palace. This was built by the local rajah early last century and consists of a series of ponds, pools and fountains.

Nyoman pulls up at a small market outside the entrance and helps us carry our bags inside. Here we meet Made who leads us around the Royal Pools to the Tirta Ayu Homestay. This is so wonderful and atmospheric with Chinese-style roofs on three different levels. It’s old and elaborate and yet totally unpretentious. It overlooks the pools and sits at the base of a cliff thick with tropical greenery.

The bungalows are built up the hill behind the main building and reached by tiny winding paths through a jungle of flowering trees and palms. For only AUD$30 a night we have our own bungalow with a verandah and a bathroom open to the sky with a sunken tiled bath that’s filled by a fountain head high up on the wall.

The rest of the afternoon we spend lounging around in the big cane chairs on the verandah drinking our duty free grog and reading. Mark then has a one-hour massage with Made in the room while I sit outside catching up with the diary and getting rid of my flowered finger and toenail polish.

Dinner is in the open-air restaurant that overlooks the ponds. This afternoon we’d booked the pick of the tables which sits on it’s own in an alcove that juts out from the rest and has the best views. We have satay chicken, pork, soup and lots to drink. It’s been a long day so we have an early night with our mozzy ring burning and listening to the sounds of frogs and geckos.

Saturday   31st May, 2003             Tirtagangga to Ubud

This morning we wake to the sound of the ever-present geckos. We love it because we know we’re in Asia even before we open our eyes. The weather is perfect again and so hot that Mark has an early swim in the big, upper pool before breakfast. It looks especially gorgeous here this morning and we wish we could stay for a few days.

We walk across stepping stones through the pools and out into the market. Across the road is a bamboo and thatched café that looks out over rice paddies so that’s where we head for breakfast. The young waiter, who is also the cook, is so happy to see us. While we wait for our food, we watch the village kids walking to school and I feed carrots and bananas to a tiny monkey. The poor little thing is tied to a pole and holding a broken piece of tile that he can see his reflection in. Our breakfast is proudly delivered but it’s the worst food imaginable. Mark had ordered a cheese omelet so he gets a dry vegetable omelet with two slices of cheese on another plate. My watermelon juice is good although my toast is hard as a rock and there’s no butter. No problem, the setting and the lovely waiter make up for it.

Very hot now, so we go back to the room so I can change into my swimmers. We swim in one of the lower pools where a few Balinese kids are having a great time. Fountains pour water into both sides of the pool and, looking back at the guesthouse and the jungle growing up the hill behind, I can’t imagine anything more beautiful. We can’t stay here for long, though, as Made has arranged for his Uncle Ketut to drive us to Ubud. Ketut helps us take our packs to his van and we leave about ten o’clock with Made waving us off.

Today we drive along the inland road over the mountains instead of yesterday’s coast road. From Tirtagangga we drive up and up and around and around. The road winds its way through luxuriant tropical growth and lots of small villages. At the village of Budakeling, Ketut tells us that this is where many silversmiths live. We’re so excited that we may be able to find our Balinese-style wedding rings here. Ketut pulls up and we follow him down a laneway overhung with vines and bougainvillea. At the end next to a rice paddy is a lovely Balinese house and here at last we find the exact rings we’ve been looking for. We love that we’ve bought them here because it will always be a special memory.

The road continues to climb upwards after Budakeling until we have panoramic views of green fields and rice paddies stepped into the overlapping hills. At a lovely bend in the road, we stop to walk down a hill that’s layered with rice fields and watch groups of people cutting and thrashing harvested rice. We take lots of photos but no-one speaks English so there’s a bit of a communication problem – a lovely, friendly atmosphere, nevertheless.

Further on we stop at a tiny village to look at cloves that have been laid out on the road to dry in the sun and I talk to one of the village ladies. One day we’ll come back to this lovely area.

The village of Sideman is further on and here we stop again to watch women weaving the very beautiful songket material. The fabric is interwoven with gold or silver thread and we buy two beautiful hangings after visiting the weaving shed. It’s feels so ancient in here. It’s not a tourist attraction but the real thing and we feel a bit intrusive. Now we continue along Sideman Road which is so fantastic – small villages, Mount Batur behind us and endless views of emerald green rice paddies.

We finally arrive in Ubud around lunchtime and book into our luxury suite at Padi Prada. Our bungalow is set in a flowering garden and has a big bedroom, a kitchenette, a bathroom, a separate shower room and a large verandah with a raised platform in the middle for relaxing and eating. We’re directly on the rice paddies where farmers are ploughing the fields with water buffalo. We even have our own pool. It’s hard not to feel self-indulgent in the face of their hardship and poverty.

After a swim we walk down the main street and eat lunch in a nice café. The power is off so it has to be salad – no problem. Mark buys a shirt and I buy a shawl for Mum. Another swim and then we both have a massage at the hotel’s spa. This is in a small stone room near our bungalow and half is open to the sky. The atmosphere is so magical I could cry. We have a one-hour oil massage each with two sweet young girls – so relaxing it’s hard not to fall asleep.

On dusk we watch the sun setting over the rice paddies – another magical moment. Now we get dressed up in our new Balinese clothes and catch a bemo around to the Ubud Palace for the nightly performance of the Legong Dance. Last time we were here with the girls we saw the dance in another palace but this time the setting is even better.

We walk through lily ponds to sit in front of the stone façade which is lit up from below making a surreal spectacle. I love the dance and the traditional instruments and sitting outside on this warm, still night. Bali truly is paradise on earth.

We move to the restaurant towards the end of the dance and watch the rest of it from here. I don’t like the menu – too fancy and a rip-off – so we just have a drink and walk around the next street to a lovely open-air café. This is much more fun and more ‘us’ as well. The young waitress is a sweetie and we have a lovely night.

Sunday      1st June, 2003              Ubud to Kuta

A great sleep in our huge four-poster bed. Breakfast is fresh tropical fruits and juices. It’s served on the verandah on the platform and we dress in sarongs to feel the part. After a quick walk around town, we decide to have our own private Balinese wedding ceremony. We change into new sarongs and set the video camera up near the pool with the rice paddies behind us. We tell each other how we feel and put on our wedding rings. This is so romantic and to us it will always be the real ceremony.

The heat is melting us so we have a skinny-dip in the pool and then change to go to the monkey forest. This is only a few metres down the road which is shaded by thick overhanging vines. We love the monkey forest even though we’ve been here twice before. At the entrance we buy peanuts then walk up the wide path to the main area. I swear, I could watch them all day. There’s lots of babies hanging on to their mummies and lots of naughty little ones running around on their own. One big monkey steals the whole bag from Mark’s pocket and sits there stuffing himself while all the others try to run in and snatch them off him.

We meet one of the caretakers who shows us around and takes us to a temple on a hill which we never knew about. He shows us three miniature paintings that he’s done himself. Ubud is well known for its miniature art so we buy all three. Then he takes us down to the beautiful old temple at the bottom of the gully where a small stream runs through the forest.

This place is my utopia – peace itself. It’s so serene and incredibly beautiful. The temple is overgrown with bright green moss and the sunlight streaks through the vines in long yellow rays. Monkeys are jumping all over the place and most are climbing up the cliff face on their way to the rice paddies. Apparently there’s a leader monkey and when he says go, they go.

Back at Padi Prada we pack up and organise a bemo to take us back to Kuta. It’s a hot one-hour drive but there’s always something to see on the way. We get dropped off in Poppies I and decide to stay in a cheap guesthouse as we’ll be leaving tonight at nine o’clock to go to the airport.

Halfway up the laneway we find a nice place with a small pretty pool for AUD$14. The room is dark and dingy and very basic but it’s perfect for today. In the laneway we have lunch and buy a few last minute presents for the girls. We spend the rest of the afternoon having a few drinks and on dusk we walk back down to the beach. There’s a huge crowd here tonight all cheering on tug of war teams.

We watch for a while then have a last drink at Aneka with Ketut. So happy that we met him again but sad that we never found Barney. Maybe next time. Now we go back to the room to pack then arrange for transport to the airport. Our last dinner is at a busy café in the laneway and, like always, we really, really wished we were staying longer.

On the drive out to the airport I feel so happy and grateful that Mark thought of bringing me here. It’s been a full and wonderful week and not at all the sad experience I thought it might be. The Balinese people are incredible and have an attitude to life that we can only envy. We’ll always come back to Bali and buying our wedding rings here is more precious to us than anyone will ever know.

I love you Mark. I love you Bali.









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Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand 2004

Tuesday    30th December, 2003                     Sydney to Bangkok

A gorgeous warm day to set off on this long-awaited holiday. We decide to start our adventure right from the front door so with backpacks on, we walk down to Hamilton Station. From here it’s an easy two and a half hour train ride to Sydney’s Central Station and then ten minutes to the International Airport. We’re over three hours early but already people are lined up to book in. At the British Airlines desk we’re asked to move over to the next counter where the check-in lady gives us the unbelievable, incredible, mind-blowing news that ‘we’re upgrading you to Business Class’ !!!!!!!!!!!  This is our dream come true and the best bit is that we can now spend the next three hours lounging around in the Qantas Club rooms. Everything is free – food, newspapers, magazines and every type of alcohol imaginable. This really is ‘us’, we decide, so we act like total snobs drinking wine and turning our noses up at the riffraff down below.

On the plane we find that Business Class is even better than we expected as this is not just ‘ordinary’ business class but the old first class. This means we get individual little cocoon-like seats that totally flatten out to a real bed. We’re so excited but pretend we’re cool and ignore all the losers heading for the back of the plane. We agree that there really should be a separate entrance for ‘cattle class’ – such undesirables, darling!

Of course, we must have champagne and Kir Royales and dinner is a la carte with three courses. This is such luxury and a shame to waste it sleeping but the bed is so comfortable and I manage about four hours straight. Never arrived anywhere feeling so great. Bangkok is hot and humid as usual even though it’s ten thirty at night. The airport bus has just left so we ask another couple if they want to share a taxi into town which means that we’re at Khao San Road in half an hour. We head straight for Mamas Guesthouse where luckily they have one room left. It’s basic and windowless but we’ll move to better spot in the morning. Right now we just want to eat and have a drink. There’s a shabby looking Japanese Restaurant next door so that’ll do. Don’t stay up long as we’ve got a lot planned for tomorrow. Sleep in our clothes.

Wednesday        31st December, 2003           Bangkok, Thailand

New Years Eve – very excited about spending it here in exotic Thailand. We wake early and set off from Mamas towards Soi 1 to look for a guesthouse in this much quieter area. It’s only a ten minute walk from all the action in Khao San Road but it’s in a lovely residential area with stacks of atmosphere. On the way, we visit a Chinese temple overlooking a wide klong. This is our first taste of Buddhism for the trip and I feel ecstatic. Turning left into Soi 1 we head for the Bamboo Guesthouse which we found last March on our way home from Egypt. It’s just perfect and today they have one double room left – so many things going right for us already this trip. We have breakfast on the street then grab our gear from Mamas and check into the Bamboo.

Our second floor room is big and airy with wood panelled floors and walls. Windows along one wall look out onto the verandahs of old teak houses, so close we can almost touch them. There’s a narrow klong below but it’s so filthy it’s more like a drain and we get a foul whiff every now and again – it’s Asia after all. The shared bathrooms are clean, though, and the lounging around area is fantastic – all this for only 220 baht a night. There’s the same poor little dog with a bucket on his head to stop him scratching a skin disease on his back. He’s blind as well and keeps bouncing off the chair legs – must be very loved. The only thing wrong with it here is the grouchy old owner. His wife is sweet but he and the grandmother walk around like someone just died. Too bad for them, we say.

We don’t unpack much gear as we hope to be leaving tomorrow. Cold showers cool us down as the humidity is high even this early. We’ve forgotten to bring towels with us so we dry ourselves with a sarong. Now we wander around the market stalls in Khao San Road and then look for a travel agent in Thanon Rambutri. We’d decided to wait till we get to Bangkok to arrange our flights to Myanmar as they’ll be cheaper here than if we’d booked from home. The only risk is that we might not be able to get there when we want. Hopefully we’ll be able to fly out tomorrow, the first of January, but this will only give us today to book. If we do have to hang around Bangkok for a few days longer, well so be it. Bangkok is one of our favourite places and this is our fifth time here but there’s still so much to see. We also want to get clothes made so we’ll need a few days either at the beginning or at the end of the trip to get measured and fitted.

Luck is on our side again and we book cheap flights to Yangon with Myanmar Airways International (MAI) for tomorrow morning. We have to be back between five and six o’clock tonight to pick up the tickets. Now we cross over to Mamas for our usual massages. Sharlo and her husband are here and baby Puchai has grown so much. Love the massage like always and feel so at home in their little room. Mark says ‘Mr Mama’ is the best masseur in the world. Afterwards we eat shrimp and chicken on the street and drink Beer Chang to celebrate our first day back in Asia. The smells and the sight of all the food stalls along this street make me happier than I can say. It’s so familiar and we feel very grateful to be here.

Our plan now is to walk to Wat Saket. It’s on the map I’m trying to decipher but it takes Mark to actually find it. We spend a hot half hour walking in the sun before finding some shade along a busy klong. The temple is on a hill but almost hidden by trees and the area around the base is wonderfully green and cool. By the time we get to the temple, though, we’re dripping with sweat. At the top are orange-robed monks, lots of Thai tourists and great views of Bangkok. We ring temple bells and spin prayer wheels on the way down before jumping in a tuktuk to take us to Wang Suan Phakkat. This is a traffic-jammed half hour ride from Wat Saket and we hope it’ll be worth the headache of getting there.

Wang Suan Pakkat is also known as the Lettuce Farm Palace and consists of five traditional Thai houses all made of warm, dark wood. It sits amongst pretty green gardens set out with ponds and little bridges. It’s not exactly peaceful here, though, as the palace is next to a main road and the traffic noise is inescapable. We enjoy ourselves anyway eating ice-creams under a tree and wandering around the beautiful buildings. Each house is elevated off the ground and joined to each other with wooden walkways and the whole place looks over a large pond. We cool ourselves with coloured cane fans that come as part of the ticket price and enjoy the elegant Lacquer Pavilion at the rear of the palace.

Enough sightseeing for today, so we suffer another traffic-choked tuktuk ride back to Khao San Road. We’re both feeling tired but don’t want to give in just yet. In Thanon Phra Sumen, we like the look of the Pavarati Bar and drink a jug of Carlsberg beer sitting on stools at the bar. The atmosphere is quite upmarket but still casual enough for backpackers. It’s good to sit down but we become so relaxed that we decide to go back to the room to rest. The Bamboo Guesthouse is close by – across a small bridge over the klong and then through a couple of alleyways lined with small shops and lots of people sitting outside their homes.

With the overhead fan going, we both fall asleep. Just on dark Mark asks me the time. We can’t believe that we’ve forgotten to pick up our plane tickets! Mark races off to see if he can do anything while I tell myself not to stress. Is this payback for all the things that have gone our way in the last two days? Mark is away for an age but finally arrives back with two towels and the tickets. The travel agent had still been open, thank Buddha – now we can go out and celebrate.

After another cold shower we walk to the big park on the river but nothing seems to be happening here yet. Across the road is a string of trendy Thai restaurants which we head for to get something to eat. We pick the Dog Days Cafe because it’s small and atmospheric – and it’s air-conditioned. We have salad and pork noodles and break out our duty free Bacardi and bourbon. After a few drinks we decide to take on Khao San Road before it gets too busy. A big bulb-flashing archway has been erected at the entrance just for tonight and the street is even crazier than ever. Hundreds of backpackers and young Thai people are having a great time already. It’s only nine thirty but we won’t stay here for long. We don’t think it’s a great idea to be here at midnight for two reasons really. Firstly it’ll be jam packed with pissed idiots (backpackers) and secondly because if there was to be a terrorist attack against westerners, Khao San Road would be a likely  spot on New Years Eve. We’re not paranoid about it but no need to take obvious chances.

This street is so electrifying tonight and we’re shoulder to shoulder. We peel off from the crowd moving along the street and somehow manage to find a table at the open-air Cyber Cafe. Music is coming from all directions and the excitement is catching. A couple of drinks later we head for nearby Soi Rambutri where most of the backpacker bars and cafes are situated across from the temple. Every night the cafe owners set up tables and chairs along the temple wall so we find a good people-watching spot opposite Sawasdee Guesthouse. We love sitting here in the warm night air and feel very at home.

Apparently the main fireworks will be happening down on the Chao Praya River so our next stop is a huge open-air restaurant that overlooks the water. Ferries and boats strung with party lights are slowly making their way towards the bridge so we know we’re in the right spot. Mark orders a mushroom soup which literally smells like the klong outside our room so we share my battered fish. At last it’s midnight and the fireworks display is surprisingly spectacular. What a thrill to be here!

Now it’s time to get some sleep, though, before our early start tomorrow and the beginning of our Myanmar adventure.

Thursday  1st January, 2004          Bangkok to Yangon, Myanmar

New Years Day. The alarm wakes us at six and we’re speeding off to Don Muang Airport by seven o’clock. Bangkok drivers are notoriously mad and our elderly sweet-looking driver is no exception. Like our ride-from-hell experience out to the airport last March, we do hair-raising overtaking maneuvers on the left shoulder and get up to terrifying speeds on the freeway. So glad to get here!

Inside we’re told to check into Thai Airways although we’ve paid for the cheaper MAI flight. Upstairs we find a restaurant we’ve never seen before and have a relaxing breakfast before going through immigration. The plane is late so I spend an hour lying on the floor in the morning sunshine while Mark takes pictures of Gate 12 and our missing plane. The flight is only an hour across the Gulf of Mottama in the Andaman Sea and at last we land in hot, sunny Myanmar.

It’s hard to say Myanmar and not Burma and to say Yangon and not Rangoon – a remnant of old Social Studies classes in primary school. The Irrawaddy River is now disappointingly called the Ayeyarwady – not so romantic, I think. Apparently it was always called Myanmar and it was the British who made all the name changes. After the 1988 Uprising everything reverted back to its original name. Anyway no matter what the name, we’re here and let the journey begin!

There’s a one hour time difference so we put our watches back to 11.30am. Outside the airport we’re greeted with the usual taxi-driver crush and we’re soon whisked away by a beaming Mr. Zaw. Our packs are thrown in the back of his van while Mr. Zaw gives us a quick language lesson in Burmese. Say ‘mingalaba’ for ‘hello’ and ‘cezu tinbadeh’ for ‘thank-you’. The weather is perfect and the half-hour drive into Yangon shows how very green it is here. We pass numerous golden chedi and closer to town, the massive Shwedagon Paya which is at the top of everyone’s must-see list. As we enter central Yangon the traffic becomes heavier but for a city of four million people it’s surprisingly laid-back. Mr. Zaw points out the zeigyo which is the Burmese name for main market and in Yangon is called the Bogyoke Aung San Market. It looks huge and jammed with locals and is also on our list for tomorrow.

Mr. Zaw is trying so hard to suck up. He keeps up his free guided tour as well as telling Mark that he looks like a movie-star. He asks us our plans which are apparently all wrong and says that he can show us all of his beautiful country in his private car. We make no promises but agree to let him show us the sights of Yangon tomorrow. He starts with some exorbitant price and is shattered when we bargain him  down. I guess it works sometimes so there’s no harm trying. After dropping us at the Three Seasons Hotel we arrange to meet him outside at eight o’clock in the morning.

The Three Seasons is a Lonely Planet recommendation in the mid-range section so we pay US$18 a night. It’s expensive for Myanmar but a bargain for its position and its mixed colonial/Asian atmosphere. There’s a small courtyard behind the tall front fence and the foyer is lined in dark paneled wood and furnished with elaborate lounge chairs. It’s very welcoming and so are the owners. Our room is on the next floor and is also lined with wood with bright pink curtains decorating the window. There’s no air-conditioning but we have a fan and our own bathroom so we’re happy.

Downstairs, we ask the lady who runs the guesthouse how to get to the train station as we want to book tickets to Mandalay for next Monday. It’s a thirteen hour overnight trip so we hope to get a sleeper car and we’ve read that you have to book at least four days ahead. She tells us it’s not far along the main road and back towards the market so we decide to walk. The temperature is in the high thirties but we don’t mind the heat. Walking also gives us the chance to get amongst the street life. Like all Asian cities so much goes on out of doors. On the footpaths people are cooking noodles, rice, chicken, vegetables and pancakes over hot coals. Others are sitting on baby-sized plastic stools eating bowls of food with wooden chopsticks. Teashops are common in Burma and we see lots of locals (men only) whiling about the day drinking tea and eating all sorts of tea snacks.

We’re walking along Bogyoke Aung San Road which is remarkably quiet for being one of the main streets in a capital city. There’s still the overcrowded buses and cars and a few motorbikes but the road is so wide the pace seems less hectic. Trees have been planted along both sides of the street which give us some much needed shade. There’s a pervasive English influence in the once-beautiful buildings which are now seriously rundown. Despite the neglect, they have a decaying elegance that makes this city so special.

We finally find our way to the Dagon Mann booking office which isn’t at the railway station but in what seems to be a disused siding. This is an amazing place where lots of poor people are hanging out and a few decrepit teashops have been set up. We have no idea where to go and no-one seems to speak English. Soon though we’re being guided to the right counter by a helpful lady and our sleeper train tickets are booked and paid for. It’s not cheap at A$50 each because the government makes sure that foreigners pay for everything through the nose.

By now we’re starving so we set out for the Sakhantha Hotel which is part of the old Yangon Train Station. The station is on the other side of the tracks across a busy bridge. It’s a striking building that seems to be part colonial, part Chinese. We’re so hot by the time we get here and can’t wait for a beer. We sit in a kind of bar/restaurant with a lot of locals and order fried chicken and a tomato salad which comes covered in a sate sauce. It’s all good and I even manage to eat mine with chopsticks. The beer is on tap and not bad  so Mark drinks a bucketful.

Our next job is to find somewhere to send emails and we’re sent on a wild goose chase from the Sakhantha Hotel to the Yoma Hotel to the Queens Park Hotel. Here we have to pretend that we’re thinking of staying the night so we waste precious time looking at their rooms. We finally realize that they only have local email so it really is a waste of time. The girls are so sweet though so we try to look impressed and promise to come back later. After all this, we find an internet cafe just around the corner from our hotel only to find that we can’t use Hotmail in Myanmar. There’s some sort of government block on Yahoo and Hotmail but the young guy in charge helps us to sign up with Paok and we finally get to send a message off home

Our quick walk to the railway booking office has turned into a five hour trek and we’re both exhausted. We collapse in the foyer of the Three Seasons and order lime sodas. After a shower and a quick lie down we’re out in the street again. There’s a few Lonely Planet recommended restaurants around here so we set off to find them. The 50th Street Bar and Grill is first on the list. It’s dark by now but still warm and so nice walking around the streets. This area is like a ghetto with high rise apartment blocks that look like they should be condemned. It’s weird, but we like it. Kids are still running around outside and we can see inside the doorways of the flats. Most of them have no electricity and people are out on their balconies. Candle-lit food stalls and cafes are set up along the edge of the street that leads down to the Bar. The road is unpaved and potholed and it’s pitch black. Even though we’re walking around in the dark in a slum area we feel totally safe. We always feel like this in Asia.

The 50th Street Bar and Grill is a huge contrast to the world outside. The bar would be impressive in the middle of Sydney let alone in this poorest of places. A couple of westerners are sitting in an alcove but other than that, we’re the only ones here. We have a beer each sitting up at the bar and talk to the barman. One look at the prices on the menu, though, and we decide to eat somewhere else.

This turns out to be a good move. Back down in the main street, we sit at a rickety old table set up on the footpath and order chicken and chili noodles. It’s cooked in a wok over hot coals and has to be the best meal we’ve had for ages. Much better sitting here anyway. There’s so much street life and even the traffic is amazing. Buses are taking people home from central Yangon and bursting at the seams. We could stay here and order more food but we decide to try the nearby Shan restaurant. It’s open to the street and down a couple of steps. The food is displayed at the counter and looks totally unappealing. I stick with the free soup but Mark piles up on chili squid and a vegetable dish. Really starting to lose our momentum by now so we head for the Three Seasons and our comfy beds.

Friday        2nd January, 2004                                  Yangon

Our beds may be comfortable but we’re kept awake half the night by mosquitoes. We’re up at five o’clock and have breakfast in the dining room overlooking the street. Breakfast is included in the room price and it’s a feast – pawpaw, grapefruit, sticky rice, pancake, toast, scrambled eggs, tea, coffee and juice. After getting our day packs ready, we wait downstairs for Mr. Zaw who doesn’t turn up. I guess he’s found someone who’ll pay more but we don’t mind and prefer to do our own thing anyway.

The first thing we see outside the guesthouse is a line of monks on their alms rounds. They each carry a wooden alms bowl that the local people fill with rice. This is a fabulous sight and one we’re sure to see many times on this trip. Eighty seven percent of Burmese are Theravada Buddhists and almost half a million monks live within the fifty thousand monasteries throughout the country. All males are expected to become novice monks for at least a short time between the ages of ten and twenty and then become fully ordained later in life if they choose. As a novice they mustn’t steal, lie, drink alcohol, have sex, eat after noon, listen to music and do any of the other fun things we westerners like to do.

Heading out onto the main road, we cross to a monastery on the other side. We’re met by the sweetest of men called Wimyam. He’s a layman at the monastery as well as owning a tiny shop next door. He takes us upstairs to the monks’ quarters and explains how it all works. The monks sleep in bare rooms around a central area used for praying and hanging out. It’s a peaceful, homey atmosphere and I pat one of the live-in cats. A group of young male students are eating around a low table and have the greatest fun when Mark videos them and plays it back. They’re so excited and incredibly innocent – brings it home how much we take the things we have for granted. Downstairs we talk to the head monk who brings out kittens for us to play with. Mark reckons I love monasteries as much for the cats as for the monks.

Now Wimyam shows us his cupboard-sized shop set up under a tree outside and we watch him making betel nut packages for the locals. He paints a lime leaf with a white paste and sprinkles on tobacco and betel nut and then wraps it up in a little parcel. He sells us some tiny wrapped lollies and then proudly has his photo taken in front of his shop. This has been an unexpectedly great start to the day.

Across the street is an interesting teahouse so we find a table inside and order sweet milk tea and tea snacks. Our waiter is a young guy who wants to be in the video and his mates in the kitchen are giggling in the doorway. We’ve found the people here to be the most sweet-tempered and well-meaning that we’ve met anywhere. Despite being deeply oppressed and kept poor by the military government, the Burmese people have such dignity and a gentleness of spirit that we find admirable and enviable.

And because of the fact that Myanmar is ruled by a military government, we had to decide if coming here was the right thing to do. The military regime has had the democratic leader, Aung San Suu Khi, under house arrest twice since her victory in 1990. Our decision had to be balanced against seeming to support the government and coming here to support the Burmese people.  By ensuring that we only travel on non-government transport and only stay in non-government accommodation, we feel we may still be helping the local people. We hope so anyway. Aung San Suu Khi is a hero of human rights beyond words and we want to experience the country and the people she loves so much.

From the teahouse, we send off some emails from the internet place around the corner and then grab a taxi to take us to the Bogyoke Aung San Market in central Yangon. The market has been running for seventy years and sells anything and everything. Apparently the British called it the Scott Market so we feel much at home. Mark buys a longyi which is the traditional dress worn by all the Burmese men and women. One long piece of material is sewn together and then wrapped around the waist like a sarong – totally practical in the hot weather and looks great. All sorts of strange animal entrails are being sold in the food market as well as the usual fruit and vegetables. At a makeshift cafe we choose chicken on skewers for lunch while ear-shattering music is played on a CD player. The young girls here are so pretty and keep smiling at us to make sure we’re enjoying the music. I buy a purple silk longyi and a white cotton blouse to wear in the temples and then we’re back outside and in another taxi heading for the Shwedagon Paya on the outskirts of town.

The Shwedagon Paya is Myanmar’s most sacred Buddhist sight and attracts thousands of locals every day. It consists of a massive golden stupa surrounded by countless prayer halls, smaller stupas, bell pavilions, temples, shrines and four bodhi trees at each corner. As we approach the paya we can see the ninety eight metre golden dome rising from its hilltop position then a tree-lined sweeping drive takes us to the foreigner’s entrance. We take off our shoes and pay a US$5 admission fee to enter the lift which takes us up to the level of the paya. The sight before us is dazzlingly beautiful. All the temples and smaller stupas are elaborately carved and covered with tiny mirrors and gold leaf so that the whole scene is a glowing spectacle. The main central stupa is topped with a seventy six carat diamond sitting on a golden sphere studded with thousands of precious stones and over four thousand smaller diamonds. Considering the poverty of the people it seems ironic to see so much wealth in these payas but it just shows that our western way of thinking just doesn’t mean the same here.

We spend ages wandering around all the pavilions and watching the locals praying and giving offerings. The whole area is paved with white marble so even though it’s swelteringly hot, the ground is cool enough to walk on with bare feet. We leave by the main entrance which is almost as magnificent as the stupa itself. An enormous enclosed staircase lined with dark carved wood leads down the hundred or so steps to the sunshine outside.

According to our map, Lake Kandawgyi isn’t far and we think it might be cooler down there. It takes ages, though, walking in the hot sun before we find it. At the Kandawgyi Palace Hotel we stop for a drink. This is so luxurious with a tropical garden right on the lake with swimming pools set into grottos and a thatched bar. Sitting on bamboo chairs at the bar we order beers and lime sodas and wish we were staying here. Too late now as we’re off to Bago in the morning. Another long, hot walk around the lake then we taxi it back to the Three Seasons for a rest.

After dark we find a trishaw down in the street to take us to the Strand Hotel. Trishaws are the Burmese version of a rickshaw except that there are two tiny seats next to the driver with each person facing opposite directions. I sit facing backwards and get to ‘mingalaba’ with the locals going past in other trishaws. Tonight is warm and still and we feel very blessed to be here. At the Strand we pay off our driver and enter the lovely old foyer. The Strand was built in 1896 by the same guys who built the Raffles Hotel in Singapore and has that same colonial elegance. It was a hangout for the British colonialists and still has that old world feel. We sit on stools at the bar and order a Manhattan and a beer then move to a comfortable corner for a lime Margarita and a white wine.

Outside again, we find another trishaw to take us into the main part of town to look for one of the rooftop restaurants we’ve read about in the Lonely Planet. We pass Sule Paya glowing gold in the night and through a maze of dark streets. There doesn’t seem to be any street lights probably because of the electricity restrictions which means different parts of the city experience regular brownouts. We spend ages driving around while our poor driver tries to find the restaurants. He can’t read our map and no-one he stops seems to know anything about them. We decide to get out and walk and take an hour of wandering around and backtracking before finally finding them. This is a horrid, sleazy area and the restaurants don’t look much better. We share an elevator with a group of pretty young girls all carrying a hard plastic carry bag each. Apparently there’s a fashion show on later and these are the models.

Inside the restaurant we’re shown to a table surrounded by a few scrawny plants and it’s so dark we can barely read the menu. Our young waiter stands to attention beside our table but then sits down for a chat. The beers are served in cold plastic mugs and we’re entertained with a karaoke competition while we eat. Next is the fashion parade which is so bad it’s almost funny. About twenty girls model one outfit each and for some reason videoing is strictly forbidden. Another cultural thing, I suppose. We don’t stay long and need to get back to the room anyway to pack for our early start tomorrow.

Saturday             3rd January, 2004                Yangon to Bago

Mark has a head cold this morning but still manages to eat some of our huge breakfast. At eight o’clock we order a taxi to drive us to the Highway Bus Station. After forty minutes driving we begin to think our driver must be either lost or he thinks he’s taking us the whole way to Bago. The scenery is great anyway with people setting off for work and for school and we like the look of this more rural area.

Soon we see the bus station which is spread out over a wide area and it’s still a mystery as to why it’s so far out of Yangon. Our driver stops a few people to ask where the Bago bus departs and drops us at one of the ticket offices nearby. These are set up in a row of old sheds and we’re told that the Bago bus will leave in an hour. We buy our A$2 tickets from a man sitting at a small table and then we’re told to sit on little wooden stools to wait. A young boy makes room for us and Mark reads while I wander outside to look at the food stalls. A small market sells fruit and cooked noodles to passengers waiting to board buses to all parts of the country. Everyone here is Burmese except for us so I get lots of smiles and ‘mingalabas’.

When the bus arrives Mark throws our packs on the roof while I find that we have excellent seats right behind the driver. I buy a bag of chopped watermelon through the bus window before we leave on time at ten thirty. All the seats are full and a dozen people have to stand. Instead of spreading themselves out along the aisle they all crowd together as far to the front as they possibly can. I don’t know why, but we’ve seen this happen in most Asian countries including India. It’s a bit claustrophobic with three people just about sitting on Mark’s shoulder, but it’s good people watching.

Bago is only eighty kilometres from Yangon but the bus isn’t capable of getting up to any sort of speed so it takes three hours to get there. Along the way we stop at a roadside cafe for lunch. At least that’s what we think is happening. No-one speaks English so we just keep our eye on the driver in case we’re only here for a toilet stop. We’re not game to order anything that could take too long so we buy a bag of hot potato snacks cooked on the street and soda waters from the cafe.

Back on the bus, we crawl towards Bago and finally arrive at one thirty. The main street is busy and unappealing with three and four storey buildings looking very rundown and totally lacking in character. A group of young guys are touting for the local guesthouses and they surround us as we get off the bus. The hotels are near the bus stop and all look as bad as each other so we go with the guy we like the most. His name is Peace and he walks us across the street to the very glamorously named Emperor Hotel. Our room is on the second floor at the back and overlooks a roof covered in rubbish that’s been thrown from upper storey windows. A minaret from the local mosque is right behind us as well so it’ll be interesting to see if the call-to-prayer is as noisy here as it was in Cairo last year. The bed takes up most of the room but we do have a bathroom and surprisingly, a television. Peace proudly shows us the luxury suite across the hallway which is bigger and even has a plastic table and chairs and a vase of plastic flowers. It’s sad to think that this awful little room is ‘luxury’ to these people who have nothing.

Peace also tells us that we won’t have to go back to Yangon to get on the Mandalay train as it definitely stops in Bago. This will save us so much time and hassle backtracking to Yangon – we just hope he’s right. He even promises take us to the station to get us into the right carriage as the train only stops for two minutes.

By now Mark’s head cold has become worse and I’ve got sinusitis as well so we decide to sleep for a while. Besides this we’re both covered with mosquito bites from our nights at the Three Seasons. At five o’clock, Peace walks us across the bridge to the ‘chemist’ to get some tablets. It’s a tiny hole-in-the-wall place but they have something to dry up Mark’s nose and my sinuses. Peace tells us that we can watch the sunset from the roof of the hotel so we grab our duty free grog from the room while Peace rounds up some coke. Six flights of steep stairs leads to the rooftop where we find another traveller who’s staying here as well. He’s Mark from Holland and we make plans to have dinner together. Meanwhile the sun is setting behind a distant haze created by the thousands of wood fires used in homes all through this area. Peace points out all the local temples and we can see how very small the town is. Also it’s good to see that the yucky part of Bago is confined to the main street while directly behind is thatched villages and pretty temples. Looking forward to seeing it all tomorrow.

At six thirty Mark and I walk around to the Shwe Li Restaurant recommended by Peace as the cleanest place in town to eat. Because the electricity is out, it’s very dark in the street. Most hotels and restaurants have their own generators so the Shwe Li is a dim glow in a rutted dirt laneway near the Emperor. It overlooks the Bago River and seems to be popular with locals. When ‘Holland Mark’ turns up he tells us we should steer away from eating meat in these rural areas because the constant power cuts mean that the refrigeration is pretty dodgy. It’s a good tip and we all order vegetarian dishes which are all good anyway. Mark tells us about his life and his travels in Burma and gives us a few tips for when we head up north.

We get to bed about ten o’clock but it’s not long before I start the first of my many toilet visits for the night – great tip about the vegetarian food! Hope ‘Holland Mark’ is having an even shittier time than me.

Sunday      4th January, 2004                                   Bago

Peace told us last night that hundreds of monks do their alms rounds past the hotel at 5am so even though I’m exhausted after a sleepless night, I make myself get up. The electricity is off and the corridor outside our room is in darkness. I can see that it’s still dark outside as well and anyway I can’t get past all the sleeping bodies at the top of the stairs. Peace and the other people who work here have to sleep on the tiled floor and someone is lying on the counter.

Now we sleep till ten thirty before dragging ourselves down to the 555 Cafe next door for breakfast. It looks like it’ll be a wasted day with me still running to the toilet and Mark feeling even sicker with his cold. The mosque hadn’t been too noisy but we could hear chanting all night so Mark didn’t get much sleep as well. As we sit down to order, he has to make a dash for our room so now we’ve both got ‘Bago Belly’. The menu of ‘fried air bladder’, ‘gort fighting ball’, ‘fried crisp duck webs’ and ‘pork balls’ isn’t very inviting on a sick stomach so we settle for fruit salad and an omelet.

The rest of the day is spent sleeping, toileting, sleeping, toileting …. – never thought we could sleep so much in one day. The electricity is on sporadically so we pass some of the time watching television. The trouble is that we’ll be halfway through watching something when the power goes off and by the time it comes back on the show is over. Our room is getting more horrid by the minute. The toilet and the shower are in the same tiny dark cell which means that we’re forever walking water through the bedroom. The floor is vinyl so it’s continually wet and the toilet/bathroom has a bare cement floor that looks like it could breed almost anything.

By nightfall we can’t stand being here anymore so we decide to try and eat dinner. No way will we be heading back to the Shew Li tonight. Across the street near the bridge is the Panda Restaurant which is about the only other place in town to eat. It’s a featureless bare room that steps down off the street and we’re the only customers. One look at the menu (more ‘air bladders’ and ‘gort balls’) is enough to make us almost throw up on the table and we order the closest thing we can find to a salad. Mark has to get some sort of food into him because of his diabetes but neither of us manages to eat much before crawling back to bed.

Monday     5th January, 2004      Bago to Mandalay by overnight train

After a better night, we wake at seven ready to spend the whole day taking in the highlights of Bago. Both still feeling a bit precious so breakfast is watermelon and an omelet at the 555. We’ve missed the monks’ alms rounds the last two mornings but now here is a group of Buddhist nuns walking towards the cafe. They’re all shaven headed and dressed in soft baby pink robes that look wonderful against the golden brown of their skin. They’re happy to have their photos taken  while they collect cooked rice from the people in the cafe.

Yesterday we’d met a young trishaw driver called Zawtun who is now waiting outside to take us around town to some of the temples and monasteries. His beautiful smile reflects his beautiful nature and he tells us that he’s the best guide in town. The morning is clear and warm and we’re optimistic of having a wonderful day. Zawtun has an extra cushion on the front of the trishaw because he says that Mark ‘is fat’. And because Mark ‘is fat’, he also has to sit in the front seat so I have to sit behind facing backwards again. Off we go about eight o’clock cycling south out of town. As we reach the bridge over the railway line, Mark quietly announces that we have to go back to the hotel – fast! My poor darling has lost what was left of his insides in a brown watery mess all over the trishaw. Poor Zawtun quickly turns around and we speed back to the Emperor. Mark races embarrassingly up to the room while Zawtun cleans the seat. He thinks it’s a great joke and soon half the town knows about it. I go to see how Mark is going and he greets me at the door in the longyi he’d bought in Yangon and never thought he’d wear. It’s the only clean thing he’s got left but he looks great anyway.

Downstairs we set off for the second time after Mark has swallowed half a packet of Imodium. He’s determined we’re going to make up for yesterday – thank you, baby! Back across the bridge we turn right into a village area that is so lovely. Tropical gardens, flowering bougainvillea and lots of palm and coconut trees line the red dirt streets and surround the wooden and thatched houses. We pass children on their way to school wearing white shirts and dark green longyis and carrying multi-coloured shoulder bags. Burmese music is blaring from a parked truck while someone encased in a huge papier mache head is collecting money from people walking past. Zawtun says that they’re raising funds for one of the many small monasteries spread out around the town.

Because Zawtun knows what happens where and when, we’re happy to just go where he takes us. Our first stop is the Kha Khat Wain Kyaung Buddhist monastery on the Bago River. A dirt track runs alongside the water’s edge and we can hear music coming from the thatched village on the opposite bank. Before going inside we take off our shoes then walk along the cool tiles of the long shaded walkway to the central area where gardens and trees are planted between all the buildings and pavilions. Zawtun shows us the kitchen and the giant-sized, black metal pots used for cooking rice and vegetables. All this is done over wooden fires and adds to the constant haze that rests over the town. In a large open pavilion hundreds of novice monks are sitting cross-legged in front of tiny wooden desks on the bare floor. They’re doing a Pali exam but apparently we’re welcome to watch. The silence is beautiful and only broken by birds singing in the gardens outside.

While the exam is still going on we visit one of the monks’ quarters which is just as bare as those we saw in the monastery in Yangon. Maroon robes are hanging on two ropes strung across the room and thin mattresses cover most of the floor. A couple of monks are reciting Buddhist scriptures and give us shy smiles. From here we follow Zawtun into the eating hall where low round wooden tables are set ready for the monks to have their ten-thirty meal. They dine once in the early morning and again before noon after which they can’t eat at all. Young monks carry in trays from the kitchen. Each tray is about three feet across and holds a dozen metal bowls containing some sort of vegetable soup. One is placed on each of the round tables along with large silver teapots.

While we wait outside the hall, two young girls try to sell us postcards and paintings. “I’ve already bought some, yesterday” I say to which one replies “Yes, but they were bamboo, these are different”. Incredibly the word has got around town even about something as insignificant as this. Mark’s hairy legs have them in fits of laughter and even more when he shows them his stomach. Now, very daintily, they paint my face with thanakha. This is a white paste from the thanakha tree and used as a cosmetic by all Burmese women. They paint great blobs of the stuff on their cheeks, forehead, chin and down the nose. Some say it’s used as a sun screen but mainly it’s their form of makeup. At first I like the cool feel of it on my face but then it dries into a sort of stiff mud mask. It’s good to be one of the girls anyway and I buy a jar of it to take home.

By now the monks are ready and a head monk hits a bell with the butt end of a thick piece of wood then uses it again to hit a bronze gong. This is the Burmese version of the dinner bell and here they come! This is a magical sight and one I’ve always dreamed of seeing. One thousand monks walking in straight lines come from two opposite directions towards the eating hall. They each carry a wooden alms bowl and all walk in total silence. As they reach the entrance they’re given a scoop of rice each and then they move inside to take their place at one of the round tables. We follow them in and sit on the floor to one side near the eighty year old head monk. He’s being helped by two very young novices and looks like he hasn’t a clue what’s going on – asleep even? Mark leans backwards and cuts his hand on a piece of glass propped up against the wall. He really is having the worst luck today.

When all the monks are seated three of them stand at the front and recite a loud musical chant with the palms of their hands together in front of their third eye. When they finish everyone else has a turn and one thousand monks say grace – beautiful. From now on, though, there’s absolute silence as they spoon some of the soup into their rice bowl and use their fingers to scoop it into their mouth. The sun slanting in through the windows turns their maroon robes into a vibrant red – a marvellous sight! We’ll never forget this special morning.

Back out in the sunshine, Zawtun rides us back through the village and over the bridge along the Yangon-Mandalay Road to the southern side of town. Along the way we pass another truck with a man on the back yelling into a loud-speaker. Accompanied by deafening Burmese music, he’s advertising the latest film playing at the Bago cinema. We pass a school and then turn into a rutted side street. To our right is the very pretty Leikpya Reservoir and small food stalls are built along both sides of the street. Finally we stop in front of a roughly built wooden shack where a man and woman are cutting the ends off home-made cigars. The family who live here are all cigar makers and Zawtun takes us through to another shack at the back. Sitting on a bare wooden floor in the oldest of buildings are the women of the family – a couple of younger women with a little girl each and an older woman swinging a sleeping baby in a small hammock by pulling a string attached to it. Two tiny withered old women are obviously the grandmothers and they all welcome us and want their photos taken. They work automatically like they’ve done this forever. It’s a happy family atmosphere.

From here we ride down a long wide avenue where the golden Shwemawdaw Paya stands impressively at one end. At one hundred and fourteen metres high and one thousand years old it’s the main tourist attraction in Bago. The entrance fee goes straight to the government so Zawtun sneaks us into a side entrance where we don’t have to pay. A long covered stairwell leads to the main paya where an old man takes pity on Mark’s attempt to tie his longyi and redoes it for him. For a while we sit in the shade near the stupa then find the massive original pinnacle which fell to the ground during the 1917 earthquake.

We don’t stay long as Zawtun is waiting for us at the back entrance. We follow him along a narrow covered walkway to the Hintha Gon Paya. This is a lively temple where lots of local people are selling flowers and incense at the bottom of the stairs. Like all Buddhist temples a long staircase leads to the stupa where we can hear loud clanking music. Three men are playing traditional gongs, drums and xylophones while a fat lady ‘sings’ into a microphone. The band sounds like a preschool percussion class gone wrong and the singer sounds like a wounded cat but apparently it’s the real thing. Two very odd looking people with heavily made up faces are dancing in long black dresses and hats and carrying a bunch of leaves in their left hand and a long sword in their right hand. Zawtun tells us that this is a nat ceremony so we’ve come at just the right time. Nats are spirits and Burmese Buddhism actually incorporates many aspects of nat worship. Offerings to Buddha ensure happiness in a future life while offerings to the nats ensure happiness in this life. A small group of local people are sitting on the floor watching the performance and every now and again the ladies pin money to the dancer’s clothes. The dancers are spirit mediums called nat-gadaw and are usually transvestites which accounts for their bizarre appearance. The next dance involves five more dancers wearing even more elaborate costumes. It’s their job to lure the nats into possessing them until they go into a trance. The whole thing feels a bit skin crawly, really.

Now it’s time to eat but Zawtun wants us to see one more paya on this side of town. We bounce along a pot-holed track on the edge of the village to an ancient, rather ugly looking temple. Mark is over-heating so he sits in the shade while I go inside with Zawtun. The walls are lined with hundreds of golden buddhas and glass showcases hold precious Buddha images. Too hungry to see any more so we decide to head back to town. My white painted face brings lots of smiles along the way especially from the ladies who all give me nods of approval.

At the 555 Cafe we order noodles and soda waters while I catch up on the diary – so much has happened today already. Burmese cafes have a certain atmosphere that makes them somehow different to other places in South East Asia. I think one reason is that all the cooking is done over hot coals so there’s always a smoky cloud hanging in the air. As well as this they all have dark interiors probably because the electricity is usually off but this creates a wonderful mystical mood and we feel like we’re in some sort of Burmese time warp. The only thing that brings us back to reality is that all these cafes have posters of David Beckham decorating the walls. He’s the only western face we’ve seen in any sort of advertising and they seem to be obsessed with him here – and what good taste, I say.

We ask Zawtun about getting a massage so he says he’ll take us to his village. This is just behind the main road and it’s a lovely contrast. In between grass and wooden huts overhung with trees we ride along rough dirt tracks till we pull up in front of Zawtun’s hut. Like all the others around here it’s built on stilts with an area at ground level beside it where all the cooking is done. There’s no running water so outside each hut is a large ceramic pot filled with water that the villagers have to buy. It’s unimaginably basic but wonderfully appealing. Planks of wood lead up to the two rooms inside where we sit on woven cane mats on the floor. Zawtun’s wife was originally from the Karen tribe in northern Myanmar and she brings us a pot of hot green tea. Their eldest son is at school but we get to meet the baby of the family who’s wearing thanakha on his face like the rest of the children in the village.

Soon a man who appears to be drunk arrives in a trishaw and he’s introduced as Mark’s masseur. My tiny massage lady arrives a few minutes later and we can’t believe how old and frail she is. Looks are deceiving though and she gives me the usual painful business. Mosquito coils are burning on the floor next to us and we can see through the slats of the hut to the life going on outside. Zawtun’s parents live next door and we can see them sitting on the verandah. His mother is making cheroots and after our massages she gives me a funny but unsuccessful lesson. We have an audience who also follow us to look at the river. The babies are so adorable and there seems to be a lot of them around here. Zawtun shows us the local shop which consists of a few sad looking things in plastic bags hanging outside an old hut. We watch a man making kindling for the cooking fires and take lots of photos of our fan club before they wave us off.

It’s getting late but Zawtun insists on taking us to see the huge reclining Shwethalyaung Buddha. To get there we ride though another pretty part of town but stop on the way to visit a small park full of Buddha statues and again at a giant erection of four buddhas standing back to back. The reclining Buddha is surrounded by a large shed where we’re supposed to pay an entrance fee. Zawtun goes ahead ‘to check on the military’, as he says, but apparently they’ve gone and we can get in for free. Inside we find that the resting white Buddha is fifty five metres long and dressed in saffron robes but, although longer, is not as beautiful as Bangkok’s Wat Po, we think.

From here we ride a little farther north to a Mon village. The Mon people are one of Myanmar’s many ethnic groups and make up two percent of the population. Their traditional weaving techniques are still practiced in this village so we hope to see some of it today. The track to the village is so rough and sandy that we have to leave the trishaw and walk some of the way. Beneath one of the stilted houses we find women weavers and spinners at work using ancient looking wooden machines. It’s all done by hand and looks incredibly complicated. I really can’t leave without buying something so I get fitted for a green and black longyi which a young woman makes up on the spot. Back along the track we have to move aside for a pair of oxen pulling a cart. There’s no machinery in Myanmar so all the farm work is still done using animals and hand ploughs. This is by far the most primitive of all the Asian countries we’ve visited yet.

Now it’s time to head back to the hotel. Mark pays Zawtun before getting back on the trishaw so that the hotel owners don’t know how much we give him and won’t be able to get as much commission. He’s given us a wonderful time and it’s up there with one of our favourite travel days ever.

At the Emperor we find that Peace has had to go to Yangon and won’t be back in time to take us to the station. The Indian owner says he’ll fix it so we pack and grab something to eat downstairs. At six thirty we set off on foot in the dark with a smiling young man called Ko carrying my big back pack. We follow him through the candle-lit village which is now full of life and very exciting. The station is just as exciting with lots of locals waiting for trains. There’s only a few bench seats so the rest of us have to sit on the ground. A large family looks like they’ve set up for the night and eat a picnic spread out on a blanket then curl up together to go to sleep.

The train is an hour late then as it makes its slow approach we all cross to the platform on the other side of the tracks. Ko tells us to stay with him as he knows which carriage we’ll be in. When it had been relatively calm before, now there’s a sense of urgency and as the train stops everyone is running in all directions. I follow close on Ko’s heels and Mark is right behind us. Our carriage must be at the far end of the train but finally Ko finds it and we jump on. Ko and I jump on, that is, but where’s my baby? I can’t see him anywhere and I start to panic. If he was on the platform he’d be head and shoulders above the Burmese people so he’s just disappeared. I stick my head out the window and scream at two Indian guards standing on the platform. “Where’s my husband?”. One points in one direction, “he get on up there” while the other guard points in the opposite direction, “he get on down there”. “Where’s my husband?” I keep screaming like a woman possessed. Now the train is starting to move and I don’t know whether to get off or stay put. Ko is frantically trying to climb out the nearest window but he can’t fit so by the time he leaps through the door the train is well under way. Poor Ko – he didn’t even get a tip let alone having to throw himself from a speeding train. I can’t believe this is happening and it’s awful and hilarious at the same time. Suddenly Mark appears from the other end of the corridor and looks as stressed as I am. That we’re happy to see each other is an understatement. In the chaos on the platform, he’d missed seeing Ko and I get on the train and had run right past us. As the train was pulling out, he’d just jumped on hoping I was already here somewhere. We really should have plans for times like these.

By now we’re thundering our way towards Mandalay. I say thundering because the train is just about jumping off the tracks and the noise is deafening. Our private cabin is as decrepit as could be with hard, double decked bunks and a fan that doesn’t work and a window that doesn’t open. The door won’t close properly so Mark has to jam it shut so hard I doubt we’ll ever get out. At least we won’t have any unwelcome visitors during the night. After popping a sleeping pill each and putting in earplugs, Mark gets out our pillows and we try to make ourselves comfortable. Despite the bumping and bouncing and the dodgy cabin we love this train trip.

Tuesday    6th January, 2004                Mandalay

It’s still early when we wake so we watch the scenery from the corridor window till the train finally pulls into Mandalay at nine o’clock. The day is warm with clear blue skies so it’s a good start. Outside the station we grab a taxi to take us to a guesthouse. Taxis in Mandalay are tiny blue trucks so we’re squeezed into the back with all our gear. The Natural Inn Guesthouse appears to be closed so we backtrack across town to the Silver Swan Hotel. It’s a ten storey block and too upmarket for us, both in price and atmosphere.  But going on what we’ve seen of Mandalay so far, it’ll be too much trouble trying to find something else, so we check in.

Our room has all the trappings of a four star hotel including a bath and hot water. Since we’re both still feeling a bit off, it’s probably a good idea to stay somewhere like this for a couple of days anyway. The foyer has a friendly atmosphere and is very elaborately Asian – dark carved furniture and vinyl lounges covered in white crocheted doilies. There seems to be too many staff for the amount of guests and no-one seems to care that most of them are lounging around watching television. Before going out we book boat tickets for Bagan on Thursday morning and ask about boats to Mingun for tomorrow.

Apparently Mandalay’s only internet place is back over in the town centre. A taxi near the guesthouse takes us to the ultra-modern Cyberspace Cafe on the third floor of a partly finished building. The stairs lead from a busy market on the bottom level, up two flights where there aren’t even any walls and the floors are covered in sand, to the third level expensively fitted out with a bank and computer shops. It’s the most stylish internet cafe we’ve ever seen and we even get served coffee while we type.  Back outside, though, we can’t find a taxi anywhere and we’re getting majorly frustrated. I don’t know if I like this town yet. The temperature is in the thirties and there’s no transport till we get within a few blocks of the hotel.

Finally we’re saved by a trishaw driver called Mohammed. He’s an Islamic Burmese with nine children and an intelligent, happy face. His English is good so he’ll be a great guide for the rest of the day. The historical area lays to the north-east of the town just below Mandalay Hill so we, or rather Mohammed, has a long ride to get there. The whole town is basically flat but the roads are so pitted and uneven that it’s a slow trip. Besides this, Mandalay Fort is a two kilometre square compound smack in the centre of the city. An attractive, seventy metre wide moat surrounds it as well so wherever we go it means going around the whole bloody thing.

We haven’t eaten all day and still can’t stomach Burmese food so Mohammed cycles us to the European BBB Restaurant. The room is dim and cool and the food expensive because of the English menu. Unfortunately everything still tastes Burmese and we don’t eat much.  But now we’re ready to take on the temples with our lovely Mohammed. Another long ride takes us through the shabby outskirts of town and past a few imposing buildings behind tall fences. When I ask Mohammed what they’re used for, he looks straight ahead and says ‘Government. The fucking government!’

The first of the temples is called Shwekyimint Paya which is very special for some reason but looks same, same. The nearby Atumashi Kyaung is better because of it’s intricate wooden structure but the nicest thing about both of them is the setting. This area is tropically green and shaded by tall trees which look like they’ve been here as long as the monastery and temple themselves.

A short ride and we come to Kuthodaw Paya which houses what’s called ‘the world’s biggest book’. The ‘book’ is actually a series of seven hundred and twenty nine marble slabs inscribed with the entire Tripikata which is sort of the Buddhist bible. Each slab sits in its own stupa all of which surround the central golden stupa. Beneath this main stupa is a monk sitting on a sort of raised throne reciting Buddhist scriptures to a small crowd of female worshippers. They’re all sitting on the ground under a spreading tree and we stop to listen.

Nearby we visit another amazing paya which is surrounded by hundreds of blindingly white stupas each containing more Buddhist writings but we’ve definitely had enough by now and decide to head back to the hotel. Here we rest and lay around in the bath before we meet Mohammed outside again. We’ve arranged for him to take us to a few of Mandalay’s ‘hot’ night spots.

The first is the night market. This is far from hot or even interesting and mainly sells out-dated clothes and cheap household stuff. The lighting is so bad we can’t see much anyway and after looking at a few food stalls we head east to the other side of town. Again poor Mohammed has to do a half lap of the Mandalay Fort till we come to the Little Mandalay Restaurant. Mohammed has chosen it for us and we love the setting. We sit outside in a garden lit by fairy lights and candles with an extremely posh group of diners. Almost everyone is French except for a very black woman wearing a turban and speaking with an  upper class English accent – we try to eavesdrop. Despite the wonderful atmosphere, the food is only mediocre and the beer is either headless or has a six inch layer of froth. Mark spoons some of his froth into my glass and we enjoy ourselves immensely.

Now we’re off to the famous Mandalay Marionettes. This is set in a quiet side street in a funny little wooden theatre. It only holds about fifty people and we find excellent seats in the second row. The band is directly in front of us and consists of five old men playing traditional instruments and wearing ancestral dress. The narration is in English and spoken with a sweet Burmese accent. Each scene ends with the curtain being raised above the little stage so that we can see the puppeteers doing their thing. The marionettes are so beautiful and we’ll definitely be buying one to take home. During the last fifteen minutes the old master shows off why he is the master and then comes around to shake everyone’s hand. It’s such a lovely ending to a lovely art form which is unfortunately dying out probably because of the introduction of television and the cinema.

The ride back is long and cool. I’d forgotten that Mandalay is so much farther north and gets cold at night at this time of year. Nothing to do but enjoy the ride. Tomorrow we’re off to Mingun so we get a good night’s sleep.

Wednesday   7th January, 2004     Mandalay to Mingun to Mandalay 

Breakfast this morning is on the eighth floor of the Silver Swan. It comes with the cost of the room but is so awful we can barely eat it. We count eight waiters and four customers so the service is good but the toast is like cardboard and the tea is cold. No problem because we do have a view and the day is clear and sunny once again.

At 8.15 we meet Mohammed outside and set off on his trishaw to take on the bumpy streets of Mandalay. We’re off to catch a ferry to the village of Mingun. This is one of the ‘ancient cities’ that surround Mandalay and sits on the Irrawaddy River eleven kilometers upstream. To get to the jetty we ride through lively backstreets among temples, old shops and houses. Giant trees provide shade along unpaved streets, so rutted we’re nearly knocked out of our seats.

At the jetty Mohammed takes us to the ticket office which is a rickety shack set on stilts overhanging the bank. We follow a small crowd of people to the ferry which is tied up on the riverbank amid a tangle of boats. Plastic chairs are set up in two rows inside the boat which has a roof and open sides and only big enough to hold the twelve of us. The trip is a pleasant hour passing small clusters of thatched shacks along the shoreline and boys fishing from tiny canoe sized boats. The banks are green and flat and the surrounding hills are dotted with golden stupas sparkling in the morning sunshine. At last we see the huge Mingun Paya perched majestically on the opposite bank and we head for the shore.

Today Mingun is a small village but at the end of the eighteenth century, King Bodawpaya had grand plans to build the world’s biggest paya right here. Instead Mingun Paya is now described by Lonely Planet as the world’s biggest pile of bricks. It was never finished because an earthquake destroyed it’s base beyond repair in 1838. Even so, the base is over fifty metres high and over seventy metres square so it’s still a magnificent site. It dominates the whole area and we pull in just below it at a grassy shore.

A handful of hawkers wearing conical hats are waiting to pounce on us as soon as we reach the bank. As well as the ladies, there’s a couple of oxen-drawn carts driven by wrinkled old men who want to show us the village. Then a young man called Lu nominates himself as our guide so we head off first to see the paya. From the riverbank a narrow track leads us through a grove of trees growing around two giant stone lions called chinthe. They look out over the river and were built to act as guards to the temple.

And now through the trees, here is the magical Mingun Paya. It’s so much more impressive up close and we can see the two huge cracks caused by the earthquake that cut down both sides of the central portico. We follow Lu up wide stone stairs to the entrance then take off our shoes as we enter the inner chamber. Before a statue of Buddha is an old monk sitting on the floor and ringing a tiny bell. He shows us how to make an offering and gives me candles and incense to burn. The atmosphere is lovely with sunshine pouring in through the entrance and all so quiet and peaceful. The monk hands us a mandarin each as we leave and we give him a donation for his monastery.

Outside we sit on the steps for a while to enjoy this lovely area. It really is so calming. A few people wander along the dirt track in front and a few ox-carts go by but that’s about as fast as the pace gets around here. We talk to one of the ladies selling souvenirs from a bag slung over her shoulder and I buy three beaded purses which makes her very happy. She gives me a little plastic ruler as a ‘present’.

From the paya it’s an easy walk to anywhere else in the village but we jump in the back of an ox-cart just for the ride. An old man in a conical hat is driving two pale coloured oxen which pull our little thatched covered wagon. The track is dusty and bumpy and it’s all so much fun. We ask Lu about seeing the monastery so we jump out at the gate. Lu spent three years here as a monk when he was a teenager so he knows everything about it. He takes us to meet the head monk who Lu obviously idolizes. He’s an intelligent man in his thirties and is the youngest head monk in Burma. We chat with him sitting on wooden benches under a shady tree while we wait for the monks to start their morning meal. Earlier they’d gone to another temple and we soon find that they won’t be back for an hour so we can only see two tiny novices eating in the small dining hall. Only about twenty monks live here so it’s nothing like the size of the eating hall in the monastery in Bago. In the kitchen, a skinny monk, bare to the waist, is cooking over a wood fire and he giggles when we take his photo. Lu walks us around the grounds and we sit on a bench overlooking the river while he tells us of his years here as a monk. I think he misses it in a way. Now he goes to school in Mandalay and proudly teaches a group of kids here in Mingun for free.

Once more in the ox-cart, our next stop is the Buddhist Infirmary which is a sanitarium for the aged. It’s a muddle of old buildings set out in a leafy yard with chickens running around and people going about household chores. One building is divided into double rooms for couples but most people stay in dormitories. The ladies’ dormitory is big, airy and sunny with a mosquito net hanging from bamboo poles over each bed. We’re welcomed with huge toothless smiles and have our photos taken with a group of ladies sitting around a wooden communal table in the middle of the room. Mark thinks it might be a nice place for my Mum and Dad to retire and decides to tell them that he’s booked a spot for them. They’ll love the joke. Seriously though, I’d rather end up here than in a sterile old people’s home in Australia. Outside in the grounds again Lu introduces us to the head nurse after she bounds out of her open-air office to greet us. She’s a roly-poly sweetie dressed in a snow white uniform complete with a big white, starched head-piece. Her name is Than Than Sue and we’re happy to give her a donation for the hospital.

Across from the sanitarium, we now visit Mingun Bell. It’s the biggest, hugest, f……ing ‘uncracked hung bell’ in the whole universe – a claim to fame if ever we heard one. Mark gives the bottom rim a gong with a wooden pole and I guess it’s quite impressive but we’re out of there in two minutes. It’s better outside with the local people selling jewellery and hundreds of beautiful marionettes. We’ve already decided to get one and here will be a fabulous place to remember buying it. I take ages to choose and finally decide on a big antique looking one with a rust coloured costume. The lady who sells it to us gives a demonstration after spending ages untangling the strings.

By now it’s almost midday and we’re starving. Lu walks us back through this part of the village and past Mingun Paya to his auntie’s café. It’s a bamboo shack open to the street with one wooden table and two bench seats. No-one else is here and we get the royal treatment because Lu has brought us. We’re both still a bit seedy on the stomach so I order a salad and soda water and Mark asks for chips. He gets a packet of stale potato chips and I get raw cabbage and chopped tomato. It’s actually not too bad. Mark buys a black, very Rudyard Kipling style shirt from auntie who then wants her photo taken with him. Meanwhile, we’ve been watching two men climbing up and down gigantic palm trees opposite. They shimmy up the trunk like monkeys and hack off the big palm leaves at the top which apparently they use for thatching for their houses. This really is a lovely place and we feel extremely relaxed sitting here in the sunshine.

The boat sets off for Mandalay at one o’clock so we say goodbye to Lu and auntie and walk back towards the Paya. Along the way we stop to look at a small art gallery surrounded by thick tropical plants. There seems to be lots of paintings for sale in Mingun so it must be the local past-time. Some of them are really very good. Before getting back on the boat we take a walk along the river where vegetable gardens have been planted right up to the water’s edge.

The ferry ride back to Mandalay seems to be over in no time and Mohammed is there to meet us with his trishaw. Back at the hotel we decide to just hang around in our room for the rest of the afternoon so we make arrangements with Mohammed to pick us up in the morning. By nightfall we’re hungry so we head out in the dark to find somewhere to eat. This is easier said than done in Mandalay and we literally walk miles before we end up in the busy main street. We buy mandarins from a street cart and biscuits, chocolates and chips for the long boat trip to Bagan in the morning. At last we find a café but it has no atmosphere and the worst food ever. Chicken in black bean is too horrible to eat so we go hungry.

Walking back to the Silver Swan I give some clothes that I don’t need to a poor lady begging on the street. Before bed we repack our backpacks to be ready for our very early start tomorrow.

Thursday   8th January, 2004                           Mandalay to Bagan

Our alarm wakes us at five and by five thirty we’re outside cramming our gear into the tiny truck Mohammed has borrowed to take us to the boat wharf. This is a lot further than the Mingun pier and Mark and I spend a chilly twenty minutes in the open, back cabin as we fly through the dark streets of Mandalay. It’s always exciting to be on the move again and we love these early starts.

It’s still dark when we arrive at the river but there’s lots of activity even at this hour. After saying goodbye to Mohammed we cross a gangplank onto a flat bottomed ferry where local people are sleeping on the deck. Most of them are wrapped in blankets from head to toe so at first glance it just looks like piles of material spread out all over the floor and we’re lucky we don’t step on anyone. We soon realize that this isn’t our boat at all and we’re only using it as a stepping stone to get to our ferry parked on the other side.

Our boat is the new Mandalay-Bagan Express tourist ferry which is very slick and modern and totally lacking the appeal of the local boat next door. We could still use the local ferry but it takes two days to get to Bagan and we just haven’t got the time. Inside our ferry, there must be about a hundred seats, all very big and comfortable. Mark and I have seats two rows from the front next to the window which is a real bonus. As we pull out of Mandalay at 6am, we get an even bigger bonus. All the seats are taken except the one next to ours and the two seats in front. I jump in front while Mark spreads out over three seats and we spend the rest of the day lying down reading and sleeping. With our great seats and our chocolates, chips, biscuits, mandarins and drinks we feel especially spoilt – but are we going to share our seats with anyone else? No way.

Throughout the day the boat pulls in at small villages along the river. Crowds come to meet the boat to unload supplies brought all the way from Mandalay. We wander around the deck a few times and drink tea in the tearoom on the middle deck but spend most of the time lying around. We thought the trip was only about six hours but it’s three o’clock and we’re still heading south. By four thirty we can see pagodas all along the river bank so we know we’re here at last.

Bagan is probably the main reason that most tourists visit Myanmar. Flanking the Ayeyarwady River, it’s a vast plain of forty square kilometres covered in hundreds of temples. From the eleventh century to the thirteenth century, up to twelve thousand stupas and temples were said to have been built but now after several earthquakes only two thousand two hundred are now still identifiable. We plan to spend the next three nights here so we can see at least a few of the temples as well as hang out in this peaceful laid-back area.

Again the ferry wharf is just a plank of wood between the bank and the boat and we’re the first to jump ship. We know that we’ll have to line up to pay a government entrance fee of US$10 before we can enter this archaeological zone. A small crowd of touts and travel agents are waiting at the top of the path next to the ticket sellers. After paying our fee we walk straight past the little woman holding up a sign with our names on it. Apparently the guy at the desk of the Silver Swan in Mandalay has arranged a guesthouse for us but we want to find our own. I don’t feel too sorry for the little lady because the sigh reads ‘Mister Mark Scott and one Australian’. I guess that’s me.

We jump in one of the waiting taxis and leave behind the offending sign as we bounce along a bumpy rock-covered road towards Old Bagan. This is a small village with a lively market but we drive straight through on our way to Nyaung U. This is only five kilometers from Old Bagan and is another sleepy village with unpaved roads, palm tress and thatched huts.  We’ve chosen the New Heaven Hotel out of the Lonely Planet and it looks a good choice. It’s set in a dirt laneway with trees and a sad little garden in front. The owner is enthusiastically helpful and we’re given a comfortable small room with our own bathroom and a balcony. After doing a bit of unpacking we sit on the balcony to make plans for the evening. Just around the corner is a street lined with cafes and art galleries so we head for here to have a drink and dinner. We don’t make it past the first café as the owners are almost begging us to come inside. It has a nice atmosphere and we stay for pizza and a vegetable salad and cups of hot tea which I spill all over my leg. Very painful but no real harm done.

We decide to go back to the room to get our duty free grog and end up at the Pwi Wa Restaurant for drinks. This is an open sided place with a thatched roof and tables inside and out. The tables outside are set up beside the ancient temple next door which tonight is covered with twinkling fairy lights – very beautiful under a starry sky. A small theatre is set up outside and we spend an hour watching the nightly marionette show. A great end to a relaxing day.

Friday        9th January, 2004                           Bagan

We both sleep well in our very quiet room and then eat breakfast in the sunny dining room set up in a pretty building near the laneway. It comes with the price of the room and the banana pancakes are a nice change.

There’s a couple of guys in the laneway with horse and carts so we arrange with a young driver to take us around the temples. His name is Ow Ow and he can speak English. Mark sits up front while I hop in the cart with our day packs. Our carriage is very handsome with a black leather roof and red leather seats and a pooh catcher for the horse. This is the only way to get around as the tracks into each temple are deep in sand and so no good for cars. It adds to the atmosphere anyway and keeps the area peaceful, as it should be.

We head out of Nyaung U (pronounced Nyow Oo) and soon ride into our first temple called Gubyaukgyi Paya. It’s behind an ancient brick wall and we climb the stone internal stairs to the top. The stairs are steep and so narrow that         Mark’s shoulders are too wide and he has to go up almost sideways. We have wonderful views of the whole area and marvel at the amount of temples we can see. It’s much greener and lush than we’d imagined and we can see the Ayeyarwady River on one side and a range of mountains behind it in the distance. In the courtyard outside the temple are souvenir sellers with chickens running around amongst their gear. It’s a warm sunny morning and so good to feel at peace.

From here we visit two more temples that seem much the same and all with spectacular views from the top. At the third one we buy four temple paintings from two lovely men who are the artists themselves. The paintings are colourful reproductions of those found on the temple walls and will be great keepsakes of Myanmar. From here we visit the biggest and best-preserved temple of Bagan called Ananda Pahto. It’s still used by worshippers and the surrounding area is alive with markets and music. Ow Ow drives us around to the back gate and we walk barefoot along an open corridor to the entrance of the temple. Inside are a group of monks sitting around an elaborate coloured shrine and village people are having picnics on the floor. One of the monks is chanting while the rest are sitting around low, round wooden tables eating from scores of metal bowls. They seem very happy and friendly and it’s a cheery atmosphere.

In the middle of the temple are four standing buddhas facing outwards from the central cube. Each are 9.5 metres high and made of teak but are entirely covered with gold. We buy patches of gold leaf to stick to the statues but only Mark is allowed to apply it to one of the big buddhas. Because I’m a woman I can only apply it to the little Buddha sitting beneath – male supremacy reigns worldwide, it seems. Back outside we head off to another busy temple where I buy a cotton blouse from one of the ladies outside. She also shows me how the women make thanakha to paint on their faces. She takes a thin branch from the thanakha tree and rubs it on a whetstone with a few drops of water. The milky white sap forms a paste which she rubs on my face so I leave it on for the rest of the day. Mark buys a bag of peanuts before we set off for the village of Old Bagan.

We’d passed through here yesterday after we’d left the boat and it’s just as busy and colourful this morning. Music is coming from shacks all along both sides of the road as we clip clop our way through the village. Ow Ow shows us the Tharaba Gateway which is all that’s left of the wall that once surrounded the town and in the shade of trees close by are women selling watermelon and sugar cane. Nearby is an open-air café where we order a Bamar banquet for lunch. This sounds very exotic but we end up with a table full of very unappealing dishes. The fried chicken consists of a bowl of bones and the fish is a plateful of tiny whitebait, both cold and God only knows when it was cooked. We’re given an electric fan which we think is to keep us cool but it’s actually to keep the flies off the food. All the food is cold but apparently this is the traditional way. It’s cooked in the morning and then eaten later in the day. Don’t know if we get someone else’s leftovers but I suspect it’s the case. I eat virtually nothing while Mark eats up a storm. I swear he’d eat anything. I amuse myself by feeding a starving cat under the table. He likes the fish and I hope I’m not giving him food poisoning.

Now we head across the road to the huge outdoor market. There’s a kind of carnival atmosphere and we spend an hour wandering around. Untold stalls of dried fish and huge mounds of anchovette make it very smelly in some parts and we don’t fancy the flies crawling all over the cakes and sweets. The rest of it is fun and I buy a watermelon from one of the ladies sitting near the Tharaba Gateway.

We’re ready for a break so Ow Ow now takes us back to the New Heaven. We have drinks on our little terrace then walk down to the village. At the Pwi Wa Restaurant we order chips and chicken salad for a late lunch and book traditional Burmese massages at a shack near the hotel. Rest and read in our room till the late afternoon then down the street to have our massages. Two young ladies are waiting and Mark and I lie on thin mattresses on the wooden floor. It’s so basically wonderful in here. The walls are woven bamboo and we can smell the combination of burning incense and mosquito coils.

It’s almost dark by the time we leave so we head back to our room for a quick shower. Back again to the village, we now turn right for a change and find an Italian restaurant playing Santana and some very atmospheric Italian music. There’s a full moon so we sit outside and eat pizza and tomato salad and drink Bacardi rum with fresh pineapple juice. Very romantic and we get a bit silly before an early night.

Saturday   10th January, 2004               Bagan

Breakfast is banana pancakes again and this morning we chat with a young German girl.  She’s an expert on everything and a bit of a pain. We’ve just found out the bad news that we can’t use credit cards or traveller’s cheques in Myanmar so Mark does a few quick calculations and realises we won’t have enough American dollars to get us to the end of our holiday. The hotel owner is incredibly helpful and we get him to ring MAI to get us on an earlier flight back to Bangkok. The only flight we can get is one day before our scheduled one but it’ll have to do. We’ll just have to do everything on the cheap. We start to make plans to change our itinerary when I redo the calcs and we’ve got heaps more than we thought. For once my baby was wrong and we’re both happy that he was. Now we can fly from Lake Inle back to Yangon to save us the apparently hellish twenty hour bus ride. We book the flight now and also arrange to have a van drive us to Kalaw tomorrow.

Feeling very relieved, we hire bikes from the hotel and set off for a day around Bagan. Mark is a good rider but I’m scared and hopeless. Still determined, though, we head for the Post Office. This is out on the main road but there’s virtually no traffic so it should be a breeze. I don’t appear to have any control over the bike and always seem to be screaming at near misses with the gutter. The Post Office is hard to find because it’s not what we expect it to look like. It’s set behind a high wall in a very tropical area and the building is very grand and beautiful. I just miss a few stray dogs lounging around the door and then make an easy phone call home.

Back near the hotel we stop at a café for drinks then head off to the Shwezigon Paya. Across a wide dirt patch of ground I unceremoniously fall off my bike but no damage done. Leaving the bikes outside we look at the souvenir stalls along the long walkway to the paya and buy a copy of George Orwell’s classic, ’’Burmese Days”. Inside is the usual small payas and ceremonial halls all built around the central golden chedi. A young girl wearing a faceful of thanakha latches onto us and becomes our guide. She walks us around the compound and I buy gold leaf to put on a tiny Buddha statue inside a sort of low cave. She takes us to see the nats and we give her a donation as we leave.

Outside, souvenir sellers are waiting for us and as I’d promised to buy something on the way out we barter for a bronze elephant. They want too much and we don’t really care if we get it anyway so we leave. They chase us out to the bikes and we settle for a price that we’re happy with. Across from the paya on the main road is a string of cafes so we stop at the Nation Cafe for fresh pineapple juice and noodles. From here we ride out to a monastery where we’re hoping to arrange a meditation for tonight. It’s a barren dusty place with lots of scrawny dogs hanging around. I’m scared they’ll chase the bikes so we get off and walk. In an open pavilion a group of monks are chanting but no-one comes near us so we think we’ve got the wrong place.

On the bikes again we ride towards Shwezigon Paya and finally find the right monastery. It’s called Aung Myi Bodhi Dhamma Yeiktha or the Meditation Monastery and it’s beautiful. Past another pavilion of chanting monks we meet the actual meditation monk himself. He’s a tall thin man of about thirty and has the usual calm countenance of all Buddhist monks. He’s obviously totally relaxed as he cheerfully farts the whole time. He’s happy to show us around and takes us to a couple of prayer halls and then to visit his mother.

Her name is Dhamma Nandi and she’s a nun at the monastery. She lives in a bamboo shack behind the monks’ quarters and shares with a group of young people who are here to study for a few months. We climb up onto the bamboo platform raised a few feet off the dirt floor and our meditation monk makes us green tea and offers us biscuits and cigarettes. Surprisingly he smokes a packet a day. He wants us to take photos of the students and his mother but Dhamma Nandi is far from happy. She obviously doesn’t want her picture taken and is muttering under her breath. Apparently she wants to put on her nun’s robes so we wait while she takes out a pale pink shawl thing and wraps it around her and over her shoulder. Now she’s happy and is all smiles. She can’t stop laughing as she lights up a pipe and which has us all laughing too. We take fabulous photos and make arrangements to come back tonight.

At the New Heaven we get out our duty free booze again and relax on the verandah reading and writing. At five o’clock we get back on the bikes and ride out to Gubyaukgyi Paya near the village of Myinkaba. It seems that the tourist thing to do is to watch sunset from the top of one of the ancient temples. We’d visited this temple yesterday with Ow Ow and really liked it so here we are again. According to Lonely Planet, the best viewpoints are from a couple of temples in Old Bagan, but no way could I ride all the way there and back. The bonus is that we’re the only ones here and we can’t see how it could be better anywhere else. From the top we watch farmers herding bullocks across and field and see the sun gradually set in a cloudless, golden sky.

Now there’s still an hour to kill before we meet the meditation monk at the monastery at seven o’clock. We’ve brought our Bacardi with us so we head to a café not far away. It’s the Aye Yeik Thar Yar Restaurant and I drink too much alcohol while having dinner. It’s not a good idea to be drunk when you go to a monastery but then our monk smokes and farts so Mark reckons it’s even.

It’s a hairy, dark ride from the café and I almost flatten a lone monk as I wobble into the grounds. Mark is giving me ‘the look’ so I try to act sober. Inside the meditation monk’s room we sit on the floor while he makes us green tea and talks about Buddhism and his life. It’s all incredibly interesting and I get a bit enthusiastic and spill my tea all over the floor – wish I was sober.

Next we sit cross-legged on the hard floor behind him while we all face the shrine to Buddha. This is our forty-five minute sitting meditation and it’s agonising to sit like this for so long. Afterwards he shows us the walking meditation which we do for fifteen minutes while he sits smoking in his chair. Before we leave he gets one of the lay people to take photos of us all so he can send them to the head monk who’s living in Yangon for a year. A great night and a great experience with this lovely man.

At the hotel we take back the bikes and pack for our four-thirty start in the morning. We’re leaving Bagan for Kalaw and it’s sure to be a long day.

Sunday      11th January, 2004                        Bagan to Mount Popa to Kalaw

A knock on our door wakes us at four fifteen and we’re soon taken to the breakfast room where the kitchen staff are sleeping on the tables and one poor man is woken to fix us something to eat. We’d rather let him sleep but they insist on giving us breakfast. Within fifteen minutes we’re in the van and being waved off in the dark by the owner and a couple of the staff. The van is an alternative to the local bus which we don’t fancy at all as it takes twelve long hours to get Kalaw. For US$70 we figure it’s worth it. We have a driver and another man who’s coming along for the ride.

Because it’s dark we both lie down across the seats and try to get some sleep. We wanted to leave this early so we could catch sunrise at the top of Mount Popa. It always amazes me that whenever we’re in a foreign country we just about walk over hot coals to watch a sunset or a sunrise and yet at home we wouldn’t bother to walk out the back door to see one. Just a part of travelling that we feel we have to do – like ticking it off a list, I suppose.

Mount Popa is just over an hour away and it’s almost light by the time we get there. Popa a seven hundred metre peak rising from the Myingyan Plain and the temple at the summit is a popular Burmese pilgrimage site. In the village at the base of the mountain we’re dropped at the stairs that lead to the temple. No shoes are allowed but there’s no-one else here this early so I keep mine on. It’s too cold to go barefoot but I soon decide I should do the right thing but then drop one of my shoes down inside one of the steep ladders – serves me right. The climb is a grueling half hour of walkways, steep stairs and ladders with monkeys running around all over the place. The ground is littered with monkey pooh that’s impossible to dodge. At last at the summit we sit on a ledge out of the wind and watch the monkeys chasing each other while we eat mandarins. The sunrise is lovely with a spectacular view of the plains below and definitely worth the climb.

Now we wander around the temple and stupas where nat figures are set amongst coloured lights and burning incense. Outside the wind is cold and too strong to hang around so we make the long walk back to the bottom. On the way Mark manages to rescue my shoe and by now groups of pilgrims are climbing their way to the top. Most of them are carrying bunches of long leaves which must be some sort of offering to the nat spirits.

In the village we sit in a cosy café and have breakfast while we talk to a young English backpacker who’s spent a cold night in the local monastery. The young woman owner of the café is hitching a ride with us to the next village where a market is being held today. As we drive out of town we pass lines of monks on their alms rounds and  temples dotted around the surrounding hills.

The drive for the next few hours is through flat areas where farmers are driving bullock carts and through a few small raggedy villages. At eleven thirty we pull in to the town of Meiktila and stop at a café overlooking the lake. We’re not sure how far we’ve come or how long we have to go but we’ve heard that it’s not the custom to ask so we just go with the flow – much better that way anyway. From Meiktila we start to climb the hills towards Thazi. The road is steep and winding and we have panoramic views of the valleys below as we crawl our way around hairpin bends. A petrol stop on the way is a welcome toilet stop. The ‘petrol station’ is a roadside café with a couple of plastic containers of petrol sitting under a thatched stand next to the road. A few hours later we stop for petrol again in the dusty village of Thazi. It’s a tatty row of houses built on the side of a hill with a few primitive shops and the ‘petrol station’. We wander around for a while and wave to the village people who’ve some out to look. Later we have a longer stop as a bus has crashed into a car on a narrow bridge. No-one is hurt but the vehicles can’t be moved until the police arrive.

On our way again, the road seems to keep on going up and up and remains rutted and narrow the whole way. It’s a long tedious drive and we can only imagine how much worse it would have been in the bus. At last we’re greatly relieved to arrive at Kalaw at four o’clock in the afternoon.

Kalaw has a British heritage as it was used as a hill station during the British occupation. It’s high elevation created a cool respite from the heat of Mandalay but God only knows how long it took them to get here in the late nineteenth century. Now it’s a small community home to Shan, Bamar, Nepalese and Indian Muslims which makes it vastly different to the other towns we’ve already seen.

The Golden Lily Guesthouse is run by a friendly Indian family and we manage to get a nice airy room with a wide verandah in front. We have our own bathroom, colourful curtains and bedspreads and the bedroom walls are lined with wood creating a nice homey feel. Our verandah looks out over the town and the market is just at the bottom of our street. We decide to check it out and find something to eat. At a Chinese café I have a fantastic egg salad but Mark is feeling sick so we head back to the room. By five o’clock we’re both asleep and don’t move till morning.

Monday     12th January, 2003                        Kalaw

It’s seven thirty when we wake after fourteen hours sleep. Mark is feeling better so we’re ready for a busy day. Breakfast is in the sunny dining room downstairs where a few frozen backpackers are trying to warm up after a bitter night on the bus from Yangon. The Indian mother serves us breakfast then we arrange for massages in our room this afternoon and book bus tickets to get us to Lake Inle tomorrow. She also tells us that we’re lucky that the five-day market is happening in town today. This means that the people living in the surrounding hills come to Kalaw to sell and buy from each other every five days.

We head straight down to the market which is a huge area in the open air at the end of town. The Palaung, Black Karen, Intha, Shan and Kayah tribes people have their own dress so it’s a colourful sight. The vegetables and fish are the freshest imaginable and we spend ages wandering around. The women wear colored headgear wrapped liked turbans and all wear multi-coloured longyi and shoulder bags. Most are smoking cheroots while they squat in the sun next to their goods spread out on the ground.

From here we walk over to the main street which is alive with hill tribe people and locals. We stop at an interesting tea house and sit in the open window while we order tea and sweet tea snacks. A young man is making pancake-like sweets on a flat round metal plate and three turbaned men behind us are smoking cheroots. Nearby is the local market set up in a rambling warren of alleyways all lined with shops selling vegetables, flowers, household goods and clothes. We decide to make guacamole to have with our drinks at the guesthouse so we buy avocados, limes, garlic and onion.

Back at the Golden Lily we find that the avocados aren’t yet ripe enough so we make do with our duty free on its own. Soon the tiny old massage lady arrives and I have a one-hour traditional massage on the bed. She’ll come back later this afternoon for Mark’s turn.

Now we walk back down into town and visit a few temples before finding the Everest Restaurant for lunch. This is run by a well-spoken Nepalese lady and we have a huge thali meal in the very atmospheric surroundings. It’s situated in a quiet side street and highly recommended by Lonely Planet. We buy a guacamole dish and have it ‘take-away’ in a plastic bag to take back to our room. At the guesthouse we meet a young German guy from the room next door. He’s sitting on the sunny verandah so we spend ages with him drinking, eating and chatting. His wife is off trekking in the hills for the day but he says he wasn’t well enough to go – we suspect he’s probably just as slack as we are.

Now Mark has his massage then Frank’s wife Claudia returns from her day trekking in the hills. She’s on a total high and has lots of stories. We all decide to have dinner together and plan to meet downstairs after hot showers. We need to rug up tonight against the cool night air – nice for a different experience. Downstairs the frozen backpackers from this morning are all sitting around drinking and we stop to get introduced. They’re from all over the world and swapping fabulous travel tales. Sonia from Denmark is smoking a cheroot and she gives me one to try. Frank and Claudia turn up so we wander back into town to a Bamar restaurant they’d discovered last night. Good food, good atmosphere, good company and then back to the room for our early start to Lake Inle in the morning.

Tuesday    13th January, 2003               Kalaw to Lake Inle

We’re up at six o’clock and ready to leave within minutes.  Outside the air is crisp and clean and the town is draped in a soft mist.  The streets are empty and silent as we walk down to the bus stop near the market. The bus is waiting but won’t leave for a while so we order hot, green tea in the café opposite. Another backpacker is in the café waiting for the same bus and introduces himself as Mark from England. He’s been to Inle before and tells us we have to get off the bus at Shwenyaung junction and then get a taxi to the village of Nyaung Shwe near the lake.

At seven o’clock we leave Kalaw behind. As we look back, the town is beautiful in the pale light of dawn. The smoke of wood fires wafting from home chimneys melts with the morning mist to form a gentle haze that envelops the whole area. The next hour and a half sees us careering down the other side of the mountain range that we’d climbed two days ago. The scenery varies from rugged mountain ridges to the sunshine glaringly reflected from the mists lying in the valleys below. The bus is an adventure in itself. Except for us and Mark from England, all the passengers are locals rugged up to the eyeballs to keep out the cold. None of the windows shut properly and a cold draft pours in from unseen cracks. Everything is rattling and shuddering so it’s impossible to talk with all the noise. At last on the plains we drive through the small town of Heho and then pull up at Shwenyaung junction about nine o’clock.

Taxi touts are here to meet the bus so we make a deal with England Mark and share a car to Lake Inle. A straight flat road cuts through green cultivated fields and alongside Nan Chaung and Mong Li which are the canals that run into Nyaung Shwe. The Mong Li Canal broadens into the pretty Thazi Pond on the edge of town where ducks are paddling and women are washing clothes from small wooden jetties. We cross a rundown timber bridge then drive past the Mingala Market to the other side of town to look for a guesthouse.

After driving around for a while, we all settle on the Remember Inn in a quiet unpaved sidestreet just a few blocks from the market. The owners welcome us all with beaming smiles and show us a room facing the street. They think it might be a bit noisy but we haven’t seen a single thing pass since we got here. The room has that tropical, Asian feel that I always fall in love with. The walls are woven bamboo, the floor is wooden boards and the two big windows are draped with emerald green curtains. After unpacking we head to the big sunny dining room for breakfast.

Other travellers are here already and most of them look like they’re straight out of George Orwell’s ‘Burmese Days’ that I’m presently hooked on. One elderly man is even wearing khaki with a Rudyard Kipling style hat. Actually a lot of the travelers we’ve met in Myanmar are elderly and most are British or European. Not the package tour types either but intrepid adventurers who‘ve all got that ‘I’m off to shoot a tiger’ look – seems that the raj is still alive and well in the hearts of some.

Besides people-watching, our breakfast is the best we’ve had so far – thick banana pancakes and fresh strawberry juice. Now we book a boat to visit Lake Inle tomorrow then find that we’ve arrived again on time for the five-day market in Nyaung Shwe. This is near the canal and is already packed with villagers and Intha tribe people who live around Lake Inle. The Intha women wear turbans or even just towels wrapped around their heads and all carry the colourful shoulder bags. Like in Kalaw, they squat on the ground in long rows and weigh out their vegetables on primitive metal hand scales. I buy mandarins from a lady in an orange headwrap and then a bagful of weavings from a chubby, laughing lady at the Mingala Market. She jokes with Mark and is obviously proud of her sales. Mark has found an excellent pale beige shirt with a Nehru collar and embroidered buttons and I have two scarves and a tablecloth for home. Further down the street we stop to buy a Chinese food carrier then have another nap in our room. Why are we sleeping so much – lazy or just completely relaxed?

At 4pm we wander around to the Unique Cafe in the adjoining laneway for a late lunch of steamed fish, a tomato and egg salad and our favourite strawberry juice. The food is so healthy here and all these fresh fruit juices must be doing us wonders even if most of them are topped up with Bacardi. It’s a lovely time of day to be sitting here. Monks are ambling past and we think there must be a monastery down the street from our guesthouse. We’ll investigate tomorrow.

From the café we walk to the other side of town along some of the smaller canals. Groups of monks are down near the water and we stop to have our photos taken with three very young nuns in their pale pink robes. The sun is setting behind the palm trees and we can hear loud chanting from a nearby monastery. We follow the sound to a busy hall where local people are sitting in long lines but we can’t find the source of the chanting. It seems to be coming over loud speakers and is deafening enough to be heard all over town.

Wandering back towards the guesthouse we find the Golden Kite Café recommended by Lonely Planet. It doesn’t seem to have the wonderful rustic qualities the book talks about and we suspect it’s been ‘done up’ and lost its original atmosphere. We sit on the verandah anyway and have a drink before having another early night.

Wednesday        14th January, 2003       Nyaung Shwe to Lake Inle to Nyaung Shwe

Today is the day for the long boat trip to the villages around Lake Inle. It’s a cool misty morning but the clear skies promise another warm day ahead. We wake at 6.30 for a quick breakfast then follow our young boat driver called Owie through the quiet streets to the canal. England Mark and a suntanned Mauritian woman called Mylene are coming to the lake with us. The boat is tied up near the bridge and looks like a kind of wooden dug-out canoe. It’s very narrow with just enough seats for the four of us while Owie sits up the back next to the motor.

Before leaving Nyaung Shwe we stop to pay the fee to get into the lake – the government never misses a chance to cash in on the tourists. Now we speed along the canal for a chilly half-hour before entering the huge lake. Just at the entrance we’re lucky to get our first glimpse of Burma’s famous leg-rowing fishermen. They stand at one end of the boat and row with one leg wrapped around a long oar. This allows them to use their hands to pull in the conical shaped nets that they use to catch their fish.

Now we fly across the lake at top speed to the opposite shore when we slow down to make our way through the floating gardens. These really are floating and are made by the Intha people who form masses of soil, marsh and water hyacinth which they anchor to the bottom of the lake with long bamboo poles. Here they grow tomatoes, melons, papayas and all sorts of vegetables and we pick some tiny tomatoes as we float past. Soon we stop at a place where dozens of other boats are crowded together. Owie points to a dirt track and tells us to walk to the five-day Intha market which is about forty minutes away. The track runs past a canal where a group of women on the opposite bank are squatting on the ground next to piles of chopped wood which they must be selling. On the way we come across two water buffalo wading up to their necks near a wood bridge and, because it’s heating up by now, we start to peel off our jackets and long sleeved shirts. I can’t wait to go to the loo so I sneak into a field behind some bushes. Later we pass a village where local people are coming and going to the market further down the track. Oxen are pulling wooden wagons and it’s all amazingly primitive.

Soon we see the market on the opposite side of a bridge. Down river we can see that women are washing clothes and kids are playing in the shallows. Part of the market is set up under wooden shelters but most people have spread out their produce in the open. We stop to buy sweet cakes and Mark buys the biggest rice chip we’ve ever seen. There’s cock fighting and gambling games and lots of open-air eating sheds. We buy a potato dish and a salad for lunch and sit at rough wooden tables with the Intha people all wearing their traditional clothes and colourful headwear. We’re the only foreigners here so it’s a special experience.

Time to go and we meet up with England Mark and Mylene to walk back through the village and on to the boat. On the way we buy a Burmese book, a brass tin and two jade bracelets from some of the village people. Now we travel back through the houses built over the water and then once again enter the open lake. Soon we turn into yet another village built entirely on the water and pull up at a small jetty attached to a silversmith’s house. In fact all the people in this village are silversmiths. That’s the unique thing about Lake Inle – each village has its own cottage industry. There’s the silversmith village, the umbrella village, the blacksmith village, the cheroot making village, the silk weaving village and the boat making village.

At the silversmith’s home we watch two men making jewellery and ornaments then buy a pair of antique looking earrings for US$10 – very beautiful. From here we make our way to the umbrella makers’ village. As we turn into one of the canals, women in long canoes paddle furiously to block our way. They’re selling souvenirs from their tiny floating shops and hang onto the side of our boat desperate to make a sale. Inside one of the umbrella makers’ houses we watch as an elderly man makes the wooden tops with a foot-pedalled lathe while women sit on the floor decorating the paper umbrellas with real flower petals. The whole process is done here even from making the umbrella paper itself. We’ve seen paper-making many times before but it’s still fascinating to see it again.

The next village is where blacksmiths make knives and tools using the crudest of methods. Coal fires are kept hot by men pumping bellows above them while others take the knives from the red hot coals and pound them into shape on a flat block. Three of them rhythmically pound the knife until the metal cools hard. It’s then put back into the coals and the whole process is started again. The boat builders’ village is next. A group of men are making the wooden canoes by the same traditional method that’s been used forever. There must be a never-ending demand as boats are the only means of getting anywhere around here. Nearby is the silk weavers’ village and we can hear the clanking of wooden looms coming from all the homes. In one house we move from room to room watching wrinkled old women spinning thread while younger women sit at the huge looms weaving the beautiful silk fabrics we’ve seen all over Myanmar. One old lady is even stripping the stalks from lotus flowers and pulling out long silken threads to be used for weaving.

Back in the boat we head for a big temple built out on the water. We wander around inside and then buy weavings from a market underneath. Lunch is next and only a short boat ride away. The four of us have an excellent seafood meal before setting off for the cheroot-makers’ village. In a sunny, timber-lined room, where one wall is totally open to the water, a group of teenage girls are rolling cheroots the same way that Zawtun’s mother made them in Bago. Mark sits on the floor with the girls for a lesson while the rest of us drink hot green tea. After his lesson Mark plays a game of cannonball with a few of the local boys. It’s a type of soccer boardgame where you use your fingers to flick small discs into corner goals. Meanwhile I’ve been buying a lacquered bowl from one of the lovely ladies – just one more souvenir, please.

Our last stop is where I’ve been waiting to go all day – the Jumping Cat Monastery. The monastery is an elaborate but weathered wooden building built over the lake with polished floor boards and old Buddha images sitting on ornate carved pedestals inside. But the best thing about it all is the cats. They’re fat and healthy are laying around all over the vast expanse of floor space. In one corner I sit amongst them and even get to cuddle a few. A group of monks are hanging around and Mark talks soccer with them while we watch the cats doing their thing. One of the older monks holds a small hoop in front of each of the cats and they all have a turn of jumping through it. Afterwards they all get a cat biscuit as a reward.

Before going back to Nyaung Shwe we stop on the edge of the lake and turn the engine off to watch the sun set. It’s so peaceful and nearby are the leg-rowing fishermen pulling up their nets with a golden backdrop as the sun dips behind the surrounding mountains. The temperature has dropped by now so we’re all looking forward to getting back to town. It’s a cool half-hour ride to Nyaung Shwe where we pay Owie for a wonderful day.

It’s six o’clock by the time we walk back to Remember Inn and make arrangements to have dinner with England Mark. After showers and a change of clothes, we meet him at the Unique Café for the lovely atmosphere and a great meal. Now it’s bed by eight o’clock.

Thursday   15th January, 2003                                                     Nyaung Shwe

Today is a free day – nothing planned and no traveling which is nice for a change. We don’t breakfast till eight o’clock then stroll around town to look for the Three Sisters Café near the main canal. One of the sisters tells us that they only open at six o’clock so we’ll look for somewhere else to eat for lunch. Next to the Nan Chaung Canal, we stop at an empty restaurant for cold lime sodas. Our window opens onto the water so we can watch the noisy boats going past. From here we find a cute café in a quiet laneway and have salads for lunch. The friendly lady serving us asks if we’d like to visit a family from the ‘long-neck’ tribe. We’d heard that a few of them live on the outskirts of Nyaung Shwe and we’re keen to see them.

We follow our little lady through the unpaved streets and over a canal to the edge of town. Ending up in a backstreet, she stops to talk to two young men. They’re both wearing longyis and look no different to the rest of the men here in Burma. They are, however, from the Padaung hill tribe and the husbands of the ‘longneck’ women. After we pay them a small sum, they take across a tiny bridge and into an open yard behind a two-storey timber house. And here are the Padaung women – a young girl of about ten, a teenage girl and the two wives who look much older than their husbands (nothing wrong with that, I say). They all have straight, cropped black hair with a short fringe and wear knee length black skirts and long white tops all trimmed in pink. The lower parts of their legs are wrapped in a dark blue material and they wear red and green head pieces with coloured ribbons that come down on either side of their face. But the most amazing part of their dress is, of course, the brass rings around their knees, wrists and neck. The rings are worn throughout their life and are gradually added as the girl grows. The older women have about thirty thick rings around their necks which must be so heavy. The rings actually depress the collar bone rather than stretching the neck which creates an incredibly deformed look – surely it must be painful. The younger girls give us little smiles but the older women never smile at all – just like the whole experience, really – quite sad and sobering.

The teenage girl is sitting beneath a small structure on stilts. She’s weaving the traditional way with a simple wooden hand loom. This is how the women make their money and the wives show us the weavings they sell in the market. We buy a blanket, a bag and a scarf that will be treasured mementos of this amazing meeting.

Now one of the husbands points to the back of the house and here we find an old lady having a wash. She’s sitting on a wooden platform and pouring water on herself from a tall metal container. She’s wearing a simple grey sarong so we can see how strange the neck rings have made her body look. At first we’re afraid that we must be intruding on her privacy but she’s all smiles and tells us to come closer. She has a wonderful gentleness and tranquility so maybe we’re just being paranoid about the women being unhappy. And maybe it’s just another lesson in remembering not to judge other cultures according to our western values.

Before leaving we take a few photos then Mark quietly gives the two ladies some extra money which they won’t have to share with their husbands. It’s been a special experience – moving and shocking at the same time. And are we helping by giving them money or are we just being voyeurs – hard to know.

Now walking back through the Mingala Market we stop to buy incense and cheroots by the bundle which work out to be about half a cent each. Back at the Remember Inn we order beers and take them on to the roof to sit in the shade and relax in front of the mountains overlooking the town. More beers in the dining room downstairs and then back to our room for a sleep.

On dusk we walk down the road past the Shan Museum to watch young monks playing soccer. Afterwards we walk to the street behind the guesthouse to have a traditional massage. This has to be the best one yet. In a family home, we lie on raised mattresses for a one and three quarter hour massage. Mark and I are next to each other while another traveler sounds like he’s having massage orgasms behind a curtain a few feet away – what a weirdo! We laugh with the man and lady who are doing our massages. The incredible thing about this massage is not only the time for the small price, but we’re actually walked on just about the entire time. They hold onto beams in the low roof above us and walk up and down our legs and backs – agonizing at times but generally great. Afterwards we drink tea with the family who all want to be introduced. A definite language problem but we’re still able to communicate somehow.

Now it’s only a short walk to the Unique Café where we have another wonderful meal under the stars. We celebrate our last dinner in Myanmar with bacardis and strawberry juice – a fitting end to a lovely holiday.

Friday        16th January, 2004               Nyaung Shwe to Heho to Yangon to Bangkok

An early start to pack and have breakfast before our car arrives at seven o’clock to drive us to Heho. The girls from the guesthouse wave goodbye reminding us again of just how lovely the Burmese people are. The one-hour drive to Heho is the essence of Myanmar and the time we’ve spent here. We pass farmers, ethnic women, green fields, monks, mountains, small villages and the ever present bullock carts. At Shwenyaung junction we turn onto the main road to arrive at Heho fifteen minutes later.

Here we turn into a long dirt track that leads to the tiny airport. After booking in our packs we find a sunny corner next to an open window and I lay across three seats for a sleep. Soon we’re told that the plane will be very late and that we’re all being given a free lunch. This means a ten-minute walk down the track to a café just off the road. About thirty of us sit at tables in the sun for our free drinks and noodles then Mark and I make our way back to the airport. Outside ladies are selling baskets of fresh strawberries so we spend an hour outside in the sun and eat a whole basketful. At last the plane arrives and in half an hour we’re back in Yangon with plenty of time to make our connection to Bangkok. We take off at four thirty and catch our last glimpse of this lovely country as we turn towards Thailand – ‘cezu tinbadeh’, Myanmar!

It’s been a trip we’ll never forget from the wonderful sights we’ve seen to the gentleness and kindness of the Burmese people and the experiences we’ve had with them. But now we’re back in Bangkok and ready for four glorious days in this city that we love so much. It’s incomparably different to Myanmar with high-rise buildings, elevated freeways and traffic clogged roads but its excitement blows me away every time. The airport bus is filled to the brim till someone decides we need an extra bus so we soon stop to unload half the people. This means an hour and a half of stuffing around but only makes us extra happy to finally arrive at Khao San Road.

There’s often a problem getting accommodation this late in the day but fortunately the Bamboo Guesthouse has one double room left. The window faces the sun and our room is like a sauna so we head straight back out into the streets. We spend the rest of the night in Soi Rambutri drinking and eating fresh seafood cooked fresh on the street.

Saturday   17th January, 2004                                  Bangkok

Today is hot and humid from the moment we wake up. After breakfast downstairs and cold showers we catch a ferry to the Wat Po pier and wander around the so-called up-market area in search of a tailor shop to get suits and shirts made for Mark. Everywhere seems to be the same price as the tailors in Khao San Road and so no advantage in having them made anywhere else. We walk for ages and stop at an Irish Bar for drinks but decide we hate the whole scene around here and make a beeline back to Khao San Road in the fastest tuktuk we can find. Back to our favourite at Aviv Clothes Making we meet up with our old friend, Alex. We’ve had clothes made with him before and Mark now orders three suits, three pairs of pants, six shirts and seven silk ties. Alex has taken a definite liking to Mark and wants us to come back tonight for a fitting and then to take us out to dinner.

The rest of the day is spent having a massage at Mammas and lots of drinking and eating. At six o’clock we meet Alex and cross Khao San Road to an Indian restaurant on the first floor of a building opposite Aviv. He tells us about his life here and in India while we have a wonderful Indian meal.

Sunday      18th January, 2004                                  Bangkok

This morning we catch a taxi to the nearest monorail station to catch the Bangkok Skyway to the Chatuchak Weekend Market. It takes about twenty minutes before we jump out with hundreds of local people. The market is a short walk from the skyway station and we spend three hours wandering around the thousands of stalls. It’s divided into different areas according to what’s for sale. The animal market is the most interesting selling chickens and lots of fluffy dogs. We buy a ceramic teaset decorated with gold but too hot and bothered to buy anything else.

Monday and Tuesday           19th and 20th January, 2004                   Bangkok

The next two days are ‘same, same’, as they say here in Asia – wonderfully lazy and carefree. We have oil massages, Thai massages, manicures, pedicures, visit the temple, buy untold CD’s and a magnificent praying lady in Khao San Road. We visit the Mahatat Amulet Market and spend the nights in Thanon Rhambutri eating seafood and drinking at the tables next to the temple.

At two o’clock on Tuesday afternoon we catch a taxi to the airport for our five thirty flight to Sydney.

Yet another wonderful Asian holiday! We’ll be back in June on our way home from Italy. And can’t wait!!

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